It’s a game that’s been circled on the calendar for quite a while now. Ever since the Florida Panthers surged into playoff contention with the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets, fans have looked forward to this game seeing it as the season on the line. Tonight, the Panthers take on the Blue Jackets, who have recently caught fire going on a nine-game win streak to catch and overtake the suddenly ice-cold Philadelphia Flyers. Going into tonight’s game there are four teams vying for three playoff spots, with three of those teams each trying to get the 3rd place spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The standings as of Thursday morning have Columbus in the final Metro spot with 86 points and eight games remaining, the Flyers hold the WC1 with 85 points and eight games remaining, the Devils have the WC2 spot with 82 points and nine games remaining, and finally the Panthers on the outside looking in with 81 points but 11 games remaining. Of the four teams listed the Devils are the only team not in action, with Philadelphia taking on the New York Rangers at home. Every game that each of these teams plays in for the remainder of the season has major playoff implications with scenarios changing with every result.
Frankly, the Panthers had an opportunity this past week to make this game mean more for playoff positioning rather than fighting for your playoff life. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Panthers must take care of business against bad teams, and while they mostly did just that, they lost two bad home games against the struggling Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers.
(Quick note on the Senators, I would like to send my deepest condolences and love to Erik Karlsson and his family for having to go through something no one should ever have to go through). Four points against these teams would have given the Panthers 85 points and the WC1 with three games in hand over the Flyers.
Tonight, the Panthers will battle the Blue Jackets. Due to the NHL schedule this is maybe the most important game left on the calendar, because tonight is the last game any of the four listed teams will play each other for remained of the season. Although every game at this point in the season feels like a must-win, when it’s your last chance to control your own destiny in picking up playoff ground, it feels like a loss would kill the season. Especially for the Panthers, who with a win would have a point and a game in hand over the Devils or with an overtime loss be in a deadlock for the last playoff spot.
The goalie matchup for tonight’s game should be a great battle. In net for the Panthers is be Roberto Luongo who has been lights out since the all-star break. Luongo is currently boasting the 5th best save percentage in the league at .928, the same has when he came in 3rd for the Vezina trophy in 2011.
His counterpart is two-time Vezina winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, winner of six straight decisions himself and also boasting a save percentage of a .921 and a goals against average of 2.42.
A huge factor in tonight’s game will be special teams play. The Cats are sneaking into the top 10 in penalty killing percentage after spending most of the first half of the season near the cellar. The Panther power play has cooled down considerably over the last few games but that was to be expected as it is near impossible to maintain a 30% conversion rate over a long period of time.
With that being said, the power play unit is still very dangerous for opposing teams, especially with the recently acquired Frank Vatrano emerging as the shoot first player the Panthers have been lacking in having all season.
The match-up I am looking forward to most tonight is Aleksander Barkov vs. Artemi Panarin. These two players are budding stars in the NHL. This season Barkov is enjoying a career year with 73 points and is looking like he will have his first point per game season of his career.
Panarin on the other hand has found his scoring touch in a major way during the Blue Jacket’s winning streak, scoring 15 points (7-8-15) in the last nine games, including a hat trick just in the most recent game against the Rangers. Expect to see a lot of Barkov, and his superb defensive instincts, attempting to shut down the high octane Panarin tonight.
This should be a phenomenal game as both teams have hit their peak at the same time and at the most important time of the season. Regardless of the result of tonight’s game, you can be sure the fans from around the league will be tuning into the game as each remaining game gets increasingly more high stakes. I don’t know about you, but I know I am strapped in for what could be a wild ride down the last couple weeks of the season. Be sure to tune in tonight at 7:30 PM on Fox Sports Florida, Fox Sports Ohio, or on NHLTV for what may be the biggest and best game of the Florida Panther season.