Standings Watch: Can Panthers be out of league basement by Christmas?

With fifteen games played, the Panthers are almost through the first twenty percent of their season. As widely expected, the team does not have a stellar record so far, but there have been some encouraging signs. Although their record doesn't show it, they have only played two or three bad games in the first fifteen. One wouldn't know from the final, but take away the middle of the second period in last night's 5-2 loss to the Flyers where a tired Panthers team took two bad penalties to give the home team an extended two-man advantage and you're looking at a 3-2 game.

Other losses, including those on controversial game winning goals in Toronto and Edmonton, were not a result of the Panthers collapsing or being outplayed. A 4-3 home loss to Atlanta was more a result of the Thrashers being able to capitalize on every Panthers mistake than anything else.

That brings us to the first standings watch of the season. Last night's loss to Philadelphia combined with Buffalo's win against Washington has put Florida in twelfth place in the Eastern Conference, twenty-fifth overall and dead last in the division. That's the bad news. The good news is that except for first place, held by the league leading Washington Capitals, the division is wide open. Florida is two points behind Carolina, three behind Atlanta and four behind Tampa Bay and has played fewer games than every team in the conference save Boston.

The question, as always, is can the Panthers make the playoffs? Most observers at the beginning of the season said no. However, most of those same observers would have expected the Panthers, not the cap-strapped New Jersey Devils, to be in the league cellar with the Oilers and Islanders. For the Panthers to make the playoffs, they'll need to improve their record and move up into the top half before the All-Star Break. This is not a team that puts together winning streaks, so they'll need to take that spot and then defend it down the stretch.

Game Breakdown

The Panthers have eighteen games before the Christmas break, and then sixteen more before the All-Star Break at the end of January. It's the first group I will look at now. Only six of the next eighteen are at home. This week, after practicing at home Monday and Tuesday, the Panthers will be on a three-game east coast road trip, playing against Atlanta, Boston and the New York Islanders. A four-game Florida stand follows, with the customary Thanksgiving week home games against the Penguins, Bruins and Rangers and a Saturday game at Tampa Bay. A short southwestern road trip follows, with back to back games against Anaheim and Los Angeles followed by a game against Phoenix. The remainder of the games see the Panthers bouncing between one or two home games and two to three road games until they wrap up December 23 in Buffalo.

The good news is that most of these are winnable games for the Panthers. They should be able to take two of the next three. A slightly more disciplined game should mean a victory over Atlanta and the entire conference is beating up on the Islanders right now. The Panthers have had trouble on the second of back-to-back games (0-4), but the Bruins haven't been very good at home (2-4-1). Additionally, the Penguins are slumping and the Panthers should be able to take advantage when they visit. Finally, the Panthers have been good against Tampa Bay the last few years and may see their first win in those back-to-back games against the Lightning Thanksgiving week. The Lightning will be playing in Washington on Black Friday while the Panthers are playing the Rangers at home, possibly giving the Panthers an advantage.

Home games are key in December, as there are only three before Christmas: Colorado, Carolina and Buffalo. The Panthers are only 2-6-0 in away games this season, so they will need to improve there. None of those teams have been very good this year. The Avalanche are without starting goaltender Craig Anderson and the Hurricanes have been pummeled in the last week by Montreal and Philadelphia, 7-2 and 8-1 respectively. The Sabres saw a rare win last night when goaltender Ryan Miller returned from injury. Except for a game against Tomas Vokoun's former team, the Nashville Predators, the rest of the month is devoted to road games against Eastern Conference teams including Washington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

In the Division

In the division, Tampa Bay probably has the most difficult schedule in this period, with a western Canada road trip and four back-to-back games, against Philadelphia, Florida, Vancouver and the New York Rangers. The Lightning and Panthers have the fewest divisional games in this stretch, with four each. Washington has seven, Atlanta six and Carolina five. If they are able to pick up wins against their Eastern Conference opponents, this could benefit the Panthers before their seven divisional games in January.

There are a lot of ifs here. If the Islanders, Devils, Leafs, Sabres and Hurricanes continue to play poorly, if the Panthers continue to play well defensively and stay out of the penalty box, if the team can improve its weak power play, if the team can win games on the road and if Michael Frolik, Shawn Matthias and Chris Higgins can continue to score goals, it is conceivable that the Panthers could be in, or at least near, the top eight in the Eastern Conference at Christmas. At the very least, they should be out of the league basement at that time.

Opponent breakdown

Southeast Division

Atlanta Thrashers

11/17: FLA@ATL
Season series: 0-1-0
Home record: 3-4-1

Carolina Hurricanes

12/15: CAR@FLA
Season series: 1-1-0
Away record: 4-6-0

Tampa Bay Lightning

11/27 FLA@TBL
Season series: 1-0-0
Home record: 4-1-1

Washington Capitals

12/9: FLA@WAS
2009-2010 season series: 0-5-1
Home record: 8-1-0

Eastern Conference

Boston Bruins

11/18: FLA@BOS
11/24: BOS@FLA
2009-2010 season series: 2-1-1 FLA
Home record: 2-4-1
Away record: 6-1-0

Buffalo Sabres

12/17: BUF@FLA
12/23: FLA@BUF
2009-2010 season series: 1-3-0
Home record: 1-6-1
Away record: 5-3-2

New York Islanders

11/20: FLA@NYI
Season series: 1-0-0
Home record: 2-2-1

New York Rangers

11/26: NYR@FLA
2009-2010 season series: 1-2-1
Away record: 5-2-0

Philadelphia Flyers

12/20 FLA@PHI
Season series: 0-1-0
Home record: 7-3-0

Pittsburgh Penguins

11/22: PIT@FLA
12/22: FLA@PIT
2009-2010 season series: 1-0-3
Home record: 3-5-0
Away record: 6-3-1

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks

12/1: FLA@ANA
2009-2010 Result: 3-0 ANA
Home record: 7-1-1

Colorado Avalanche

12/7: COL@FLA
2009-2010 season series: 1-1-0
Away record: 5-3-1

Los Angeles Kings

12/2: FLA@LAK
2009-2010 Result: 4-3 LAK (OT)
Home record: 8-0-0

Nashville Predators

12/11: FLA@NSH
2009-2010 season series: 0-1-1
Home record: 3-1-3

Phoenix Coyotes

12/4: FLA@PHX
2009-2010 Result: 4-3 PHX
Home record: 4-2-3