Why the Florida Panthers will make the playoffs this year

And if they don't, why this season is still a success

(Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – With fewer than a dozen games left in the regular season, the Florida Panthers are once again fighting for a playoff spot.

After a series of games on Tuesday night, the Panthers moved within 1 point of the New Jersey Devils for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, and within 5 of the Philadelphia Flyers, who currently hold the number 1 Wild Card spot.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the league, posting a record of 18-5-1 and surging right when they need to be.

Even in the few games where they’ve struggled and given up a loss, they’ve shown an ability to shake it off and bounce back one game later - something teams need to be able to do come playoff time.

With a little bit of help, the Panthers are setting themselves up for a very good opportunity to still be playing in April; they just need to keep winning, and I think they will.

Goaltending by Roberto Luongo and James Reimer has, for the most part, been more than solid this season - certainly good enough to give the team a chance every night they hit the ice.

But what if they don’t make the playoffs? Is this season a loss? Just another mediocre, “almost there” season?

The answer is a pretty simple one: Nope.

In an interview about a week ago, Panthers’ General Manager Dale Tallon showed serious confidence in the future - and I’m buying in.

“Whether we make it or not, I like the progression, I like the process, that’s what we’re telling our players,” Tallon told Fox Sports. 

And he’s right. On offense, Aleksander Barkov is emerging as the elite-level, dominant 2-way center we always knew he could be, and the entire league is noticing. Evegnii Dadonov may be the biggest “win” of the season, with 23 goals and 33 assists, the chemistry between him and Barkov has been nothing short of impressive. Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau continue to be solid, gritty players that on a dozen other teams, could be 1st-line guys; and we’re even seeing the re-emergence of Nick Bjugstad, who many fans had all but given up on after injuries seemed to have slowed down the player who once led the team in scoring. 

Those big names with others like Jared McCann (who is tied with Barkov to lead the team in +/-), Colton Sceviour (a speedster who is a mainstay on the penalty kill) and Denis Malgin (another under-sized player with incredible promise), stabilize an offense that continues to find ways to score at important times.

On the back end, Aaron Ekblad leads a core of young defensemen that have a lot of potential. Mike Matheson, a first round pick from 2012, has shown significant growth and even some scoring prowess this season (we saw glimpses of it halfway through the 2016-2017 season as well); Alexander Petrovic, an early second-rounder from 2010, is a big, physical force. With the leadership, dependability and scoring ability of veteran and Ironman Keith Yandle helping guide them, this is a group that won’t need much tweaking over the next few years.

What we’re seeing is a bunch of guys who the Panthers drafted and sculpted in their system, finally becoming the strong, consistent players team staff hoped they could be. The pipeline is overflowing with talent, and there’s more where that came from.

“Believe in the process, sooner or later, things will come our way,” said Tallon during that Fox Sports interview.

Those “things” he’s referring to, may be a few of the best up-and-coming prospects in the entire NHL.

Henrik Borgstrom, currently a sophomore at the University of Denver, helped lead the school to a 2017 Frozen Four championship, and is gearing up for another tournament appearance in just a few days. Borgstrom looks like a man amongst boys in the NCAA, toying with defenders on his way to 22 goals and 28 assists this season; good enough to put him at 5th on the NCAA scoring leaders list for 2017-2018. If the Panthers do make the playoffs, there’s a good chance you see him pulling a Panthers jersey on to help make a push for the cup.

At the same time, Owen Tippett, the Panthers’ Fire Engine red-haired 2017 1st round pick, has posted 36 goals and 39 assists in 51 games in the OHL, ranking him tied for 20th in the league in points (even though he’s played significantly fewer games than most of the players ranked above him, due to playing with the Cats for several weeks this season).

Meanwhile, 2017 second round pick Aleksi Heponiemi is absolutely lighting up the WHL. His 28 goals and 90 assists (no, that isn’t a typo) in 57 games put him at 3rd in the league in points. He’s small, needs to put on some weight, and the talent in the WHL is definitely lower than some of the other leagues, but his potential is enormous. 

There are other names too, Adam Mascherin, Jace Hawryluk, Sam Montembeault (and so many more), all with big NHL potential, all in the Panthers’ pipeline, all almost ready to contribute at the highest level.

It’s a good time to be a Florida Panthers fan, our patience may finally be paying off.

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