Miami Herald

Panthers lift playoff hopes through grueling January — but was it enough?

- BY DAVID WILSON dbwilson@miamiheral­

The Panthers, Paul Maurice said, finally felt the effects of their most grueling month of the season Monday in their

6-2 loss the New York Rangers.

Their long-awaited turnaround this month, the coach said Monday, can be credited to “learning how to compete at a whole new level” because it’s what his grinding, possession-heavy style of play requires and it’s fair to say there has been a change:

The Panthers entered Tuesday averaging 3.67 goals per game in January — the eighth most in the league — after they averaged just 3.24 before the start of the new year.

Of course, they won’t flirt with four goals every night. Even last year, when the Panthers led the NHL in scoring, there were some nights with just one or two goals.

The recent surge ran out of steam against the Rangers, with neither goal coming in 5-on-5 play and one coming in garbage time with their goaltender already pulled for an extra skater. Maurice expected his team to come out with more energy Tuesday against the Penguins at Pittsburgh, but the Panthers can still feel OK about the way they handled their toughest month of the season.

“[Tuesday’s] the light at the end of the tunnel,” Maurice said. “We’ll get two days off. That hasn’t happened since the start of the month and then after [Tuesday] we’ve got 20 home games.”

After closing out the two-game trip at Pittsburgh, Florida will return home to Sunrise for a two-day break before finishing out the first half with a back-to-back set at FLA Live Arena on Friday and Saturday. This twoday break marks the first time the Panthers had consecutiv­e days off since Jan. 4 and 5, and one of those days was a travel day at the start of a fourgame road trip.

After Tuesday, Florida will have played 11 games in 19 days with nine of those on the road and six against teams currently in postseason position, and the Panthers won six of the first 10 with an overtime loss and rode a season-best five-game points streak into New York before losing in regulation.

On paper, it was a more than acceptable result for Florida, but was it enough for the Panthers to save this massively disappoint­ing season?

It certainly put them in position to. On Tuesday, The Athletic gave them a 59 percent chance to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, gave them a 47 percent chance and FiveThirty­Eight gave them a 34 percent chance.

The big takeaway from these sites, all of which

obviously calculate the odds differentl­y and emphasize different statistica­l components of a team’s play, is Florida has a chance and the past month is the reason why.

Last month, The Athletic, whose model has been most bullish on the Panthers, had Florida’s playoff chances at worse than 40 percent. On Jan. 5, MoneyPuck had those chances at just 19 percent and FiveThirty­Eight had the Panthers’ chances all the way down at 16 percent on Jan. 2.

“There’s hope there,” Maurice said Monday. “You look at this block of games and we got into tonight in great shape with great play.”

Florida entered its 50th game of the season Tuesday sitting three points behind the Penguins for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference,

making its trip to PPG Paints Arena perhaps its most important game of the season so far.

On Sunday, the Panthers will start a seven-day break for the All-Star Game, which will be held in South Florida next month, and then will play 18 of their 30 games after the break at home.

“Obviously, tomorrow’s important,” defenseman Brandon Montour said Monday. “Every game’s important from here on out.”


Sam Bennett tried to gut out a first-period lowerbody injury Monday by coming back in the second period, but ultimately sat out the entire third period.

Now, the forward could be out until after the AllStar break.

“It just started to tighten again and we just can’t have this turn into something longer,” Maurice said. “If he’s got to miss the next three, so be it, but then we’ve got a seven-day block where we can really capture some healing on it.”

Bennett appeared to injure his right foot or ankle in the last minute of the opening period, when he got his skate tied up with a Ranger’s and jammed his foot into the boards. Play stopped for Bennett to be helped off the ice, only for the 26year-old Canadian to briefly return in the second period after trainers told him and Maurice he couldn’t do any further damage to the injury by playing.

 ?? FRANK FRANKLIN II AP ?? Alexsander Barkov and the Panthers saw their resurgence run out of steam in a 6-2 loss to the Rangers on Monday.
FRANK FRANKLIN II AP Alexsander Barkov and the Panthers saw their resurgence run out of steam in a 6-2 loss to the Rangers on Monday.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States