By Bill Whitehead
Riding a streak of four wins in five games with each contest being decided by one goal, the Florida Panthers need to address this question: What exactly is the team playing for as this shortened season winds down? After tonight’s game with Winnipeg, the last between the two clubs as divisional and even conference rivals, the Panthers (13-20-6) will have just eight games remaining — three at home, with the first being this Saturday against the Atlantic Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
So what’s Florida’s goal at this point? To get out of the Southeast Division cellar, where it has been buried for the majority of the season? That’s possible, especially when considering that three of the bottom five teams in the entire NHL called the Southeast Division home this week. Three of five.
Tampa Bay won five of its first six this season and seemed to be the hot team on the rise when the year started, but it’s old nemesis — defense, particularly goaltending — reared its ugly head. It cost Lightning head coach Guy Boucher his job, plus sent Calder candidate Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick packing and heading northbound for, you guessed it, another goalie.
Carolina sat atop the division at 15-9-1 on March 12 to begin a home-and-home series with Washington. But following that game, the Hurricanes (16-21-2) have been outscored 56-21 since its contest against Washington two night later in the nation’s capital. Against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Carolina lost its franchise-record eighth straight home game, and let’s face it, real playoff teams don’t lose a snowman of games consecutively in their own barn.
At Winnipeg tonight, Florida will be facing a team that is truly schizophrenic, like Sally Field in the movie Sybil if you can remember that far back, but it was in color. The Jets (20-19-2, 42 pts.) have the ability to handle teams with ease or lose to inferior ones, such as the Panthers, who are 2-0-2 against Winnipeg this year. While the Jets may be as tough to figure out as a math equation with a lot of numbers and letters, their playoff hopes aren’t as confusing. The Jets are two points out of sixth place with fewer games remaining than the three clubs ahead of them with 44 points. Simply put, Winnipeg needs wins, and it wouldn’t hurt a bit if the suddenly surging Caps laid an egg or two. Like four of the five other teams in the Southeast, Winnipeg has had its time at the top, but Washington has come alive, led by Alex Ovechkin, who seemingly has emerged from hibernation. A desperate team counting on putting two points into the postseason bank at MTS Centre tonight, Winnipeg will likely give the Panthers its best effort.
Florida has nine games left, but hard reality is that it would probably be in the team’s best interest not to play better than 3-6-0 to close the season. Any more winning than that would pile on to the absurdity of this season and be self-defeating, but who draws up Xs and Os on performing poorly? Every team outlines a plan to win, and when executed properly it’s a beautiful thing. Coaches and players respond with, “Good hard work is rewarding, and this was our goal.” But no one sets in motion a plan for failure and achieving losses. It just happens.
When Al Davis owned the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, his famous rallying cry was, “Just win, baby” The Panthers, though, don’t need to adopt that mantra. It would’ve played well last year, though in reality that one was, “Just tie, baby, and take it to overtime” And it would’ve worked well when this season started after Florida’s 5-1 season-opening win over Carolina on Jan. 19.
However, Florida’s cry now should be, “Just play, baby.”
And whatever happens, happens.