The Florida Panthers open up the 2012 year with a light schedule in terms of the quantity of games. There are only nine games scheduled on the calendar but boy who they have as opponents is the key. January could be the month that makes or breaks the Panthers season and set them up for the playoffs.
If the season ended today all the teams that the Panthers will play in January would be in the playoffs. This month will be a great measuring stick for the Cats to see not only how they are in their own conference but how they would stack up against Western Conference opposition when they face the Colorado Avalanch. Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks.
The test starts this Thursday against the league leading New York Rangers who are fresh from a win over the Flyers in the Winter Classic. The path doesn’t get any easier as they will also face the Devils, Bruins, Penguins, Jets and Flyers.
What games do I see is the true test? I want to see how the Panthers play against both league leaders the Rangers and the Blackhawks but for different reasons. The Rangers are solid defensively so this will be a great test for the Panthers offense and the Blackhawks are as fast a team as you’ll find with a high flying offense which will test the Cats defense. Both games should be a good look see at how the Panthers play and respond.
Then of course there is the defending Stanley Cup Champs Boston Bruins who leading the league on overall team defense and play a physical bruising style of hockey. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers can keep up with all the hits the Bruins deliver.
If the Panthers can come away with at least two wins against these three teams, then the league better take notice of the Southeast Division which I think right now is being overlooked. I don’t think there is any question the Panthers will win the division if they stay the course but they have to be mindful of the Winnepeg Jets. Don’t discount them. They will be playing more games than Florida in January and have a shot to overtake them.
The Panthers have got to get healthy. Losing Goalie Jose Theodore will be a tough hurdle and we will find out soon enough if Clemmensen can step in and fill the void. Hopefully Theodore will not be out for long.
Overall as a team the Panthers have given up more goals than they have scored which is not a recipe for sustained success. The Panthers must find ways to generate more offense and score more goals. We will see how potent or lack of potency this offense is when they face both the Bruins and Rangers.
The Panthers also need to improve their penalty kill which is ranked 24th in the league. They will never be able to stay with the Penguins or Flyers if they don’t.
They are coming into the new year with a record of 20-12-7 and 47 points with is only 5 points behind the league leaders. The Panthers have done well despite all their injuries and setbacks this presents to line-ups and line combinations. If they can get healthy they can make a serious play-off run.
The tough January schedule could be a blessing so the team can identify and adjust their weaknesses against the best teams in the NHL if need be. It is better to find out now rather than later of any deficiencies.
The team should be commended for all they have accomplished to this point and positioning themselves for a playoff run. The new year will find this team hopefully completing what has been started and get to the playoffs for the first time since 1996. If they can achieve that it will be a very Happy New Year.