Have the Panthers weathered the schedule storm?

In preparation for the season opener, the general consensus for the Florida Panthers deemed by me and several others was if the team could form chemistry and keep their heads above water by the Christmas break, the team had a shot at the playoffs. By now, pretty much everyone can agree this team not only has a shot at the playoffs, but even a top 3 seed and home ice advantage could be in the works. The Panthers have already exceeded my expectations only halfway through the season. Lately though, with a rash of injuries and other factors the Cats haven't been playing up to the bar they set earlier in the season. The blame can be pointed in several different directions, but I've yet to hear anyone mention the difficulty of the schedule as a possible reason.

In analyzing the Panthers schedule, it's helpful to break it down into three distinct sections; from the season opener to Christmas break, from Christmas break to the trade deadline, and from the deadline to the end of the regular season. These sections essentially demarcate the early starts, the midseason slumps and playoff pushes that each team goes through over the course of the regular season.The following tables show the raw numbers for several important components of the schedule over the three sections. Home and away games are obvious in their basic importance, but a few others have even more impact (at least in my opinion, feel free to dispute my claims); the number of 'playoff' teams a team faces, the number of times you face said playoff teams on the road, and the number of Western Conference teams(historically difficult to beat) you face over each chunk of games.

Total GP Home Away Playoff Playoff-Road Western Conf
Opener-Christmas 36 16 20 22 12 7
Christmas-Deadline 26 15 11 15 4 6
Deadline-Final game 20 10 10 9 6 5

This table shows the percentage of games from each category out of the total number of games, except the Playoff-Road% which is out of the total number of Playoff team games.

Total GP Home % Away % Playoff% Playoff-Road% Western Conf%
Opener-Christmas 36 44% 56% 61% 55% 19%
Christmas-Deadline 26 58% 42% 58% 27% 23%
Deadline-Final game 20 50% 50% 45% 45% 25%

Note: Playoff teams are those who played in the postseason last year not those who are in playoff spots this year (ie; Tampa is a playoff team). Yes, not every team who was in the playoffs last season is in that position this year, but I thing it gives a good measure of the difficulty of the schedule regardless.

The thing to take away from these tables is that the Panthers play nearly half of the total games against playoff teams in their first 36 games, and the majority of those games are on the road, making the first part of the schedule significantly more difficult than the games between Christmas break and the trade deadline, when the Panthers face most of the playoff teams at the BankAtlantic Center. Another advantage is after the deadline when the Cats are hopefully making their playoff push, they play fewer playoff teams than during the other stretches, and they split home and away games 50-50 avoiding a long roadtrip before the postseason.

The point is, the Panthers have played pretty well considering the schedule to this point has been the most difficult stretch of the year. The good thing is that after break the Panthers will enjoy a greater percentage of home games against easier opponents until the deadline, then afterwards have a mild schedule to contend with until the end of the regular season. To put it simply, Florida has made hay in a downpour to this point, but sunny skies are ahead. With the prospect of players like Upshall, Goc and Skille returning from injuries soon, the Panthers may have already gained the upper hand on both the schedule and the season.

Edit: Our good buddy Dirk Hoag from On the Forecheck posted a super spreadsheet with some other important considerations (like travel mileage, back-to-back games) for all 30 teams. Certainly worth a look.