Watch Out for the Florida Panthers
Last night the Cats earned a 2-0 win over the Boston Bruins, the East's best team and arguably the best in the NHL. That is, if you look at the standings. The Panthers, currently tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference and caught up in a tight playoff race, are quietly emerging as a counterpart of the league's best teams.
The win last night improved the Panthers' record to 14-5-3 in 2009. That's the third most wins in the NHL since New Year's, second only to New Jersey (17) and Detroit (15), who have each played two extra games. They opened the season a mediocre 16-16-5, good enough for 10th in the conference. Things have changed quickly, as this week alone they took two of three from the East's best -- defeating Boston and New Jersey after falling to Washington last Sunday.
So what the heck happened? How did a perennial Eastern Conference doormat turn what appeared to be another subpar season into an unbelievable turnaround?
The answer is simple and old school -- teamwork and getting contributions from the entire roster. The young Panthers are jelling at just the right time and the entire roster has been a part of it. Take the goaltending situation. Craig Anderson and Tomas Vokoun split time during the first half of the season, but Anderson has made only four appearances since January 1. Part of that is due to Anderson's poor play. He had three shutouts through mid-December but stumbled at the end of the month, handing the starting job over to Vokoun. Vokoun has been stellar in the New Year, including three shutouts in February alone. The most recent being the 41-save shutout of the Bruins last night.
Also making waves are the draft picks earned by years of futility who are finally coming into their own. Stephen Weiss -- the 25-year-old fourth-overall pick in 2001 -- has 20 points in 22 games during 2009. The third overall selection in 2003, Nathan Horton, has the same numbers. He started with 14 points in his first 28 games of the year, nearly doubling his half point per game pace during this run.
The list goes on and on. 12 players on the team have 20+ points and ten have a double-digit goal total.
If the Panthers can get in the door to the post-season, they're really going to make some noise. The Panthers aren't only in a good position right now, they're poised to make a serious run.