Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 1/29/12
By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. -- I can't speak for all of the media that straggled in to BankAtlantic Center on July 8 for the press conference welcoming the club's new acquisitions, but I felt a tad excited about the talent GM Dale Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos had brought to the Florida Panthers. I soon found out I was in the minority, however.

Not surprisingly considering all the new faces, expectations for Florida's 2011-2012 campaign ran the gamut, but most speculation wasn't encouraging. The media, particularly in Canada, felt the club's assembly was Tallon's Frankenstein experiment, a hodge-podge of skilled players who all carried some baggage that made them either expendable or not so desirable. Before the first skate was laced in camp, Tallon's efforts were deemed a failure.

Many surmised that Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall, while good players, never really fit in on clubs. Flashy Tomas Fleischmann couldn't stay healthy. Brian Campbell, a productive defenseman, had a terrifying contract. Jose Theodore was a backup goalie and past his prime, as was Ed Jovanovski. Sean Bergenheim only had that one good stretch for Tampa Bay in the playoffs, while Marcel Goc was unproven. Most pundits picked the Panthers to land in the bottom of the Eastern Conference, maybe 13th at best but likely 15th again.

The doubters in the media were simply wrong. Florida claimed first place in the Southeast Division for an extended period of time on Nov. 19 after beating Pittsburgh, holding it for the remainder of the first half until swapping it with Washington near the break. The Capitals' win over Boston coupled with Florida's shootout loss to Philadelphia -- a league-leading 11th overtime/shootout loss for the Cats -- left the two division rivals tied at 55 points.

That all leaves Florida where it stands right now at the All-Star Break: Tied with the Washington in points but trailing on a tiebreaker. With plenty of hockey left, the Panthers (22-15-11) hold on to seventh place and would face Boston if the playoffs started now. The standings will likely move a bunch, possibly for a team like Ottawa, who is five points ahead of Florida and in sixth but has played four more games than the Cats.
For Florida, the key is this: Score at least three goals and the club has a good chance of winning. Six teams average over three per game, but Florida is 21st at 2.48 and has struggled scoring most of the time.

The Panthers are 17-1-5 when scoring at least three goals in regulation. The lone regulation loss was at Ottawa on Oct. 27 when Versteeg's one-timer with 48 seconds left tied it at 3-3, but Nick Foligno scored with 2.5 seconds to go in a heartbreaking loss for Florida. The Panthers' third tally usually results in a close win or an OT loss, but it's points either way.

A major problem in getting that third goal has been special teams. Florida started out the season performing superbly on those two -- strong on the power play with Campbell quarterbacking it and Jason Garrison blasting away, exceptional on the penalty kill anchored by Tomas Kopecky. Currently eighth on the PP (19.0%) and 24th on the PK (80.7%), the Cats have spent too much time in the penalty box lately, negating scoring time and putting them on the defensive. The club went from one of the least penalized teams to now 12th, averaging 10.8 PIMs per game.

And when Florida doesn't get that third goal? Try a record of 5-14-6. A third goal might not help teams like Ottawa, Carolina, Columbus and Tampa Bay because they all give up more than that per game and have to outgun teams. For Florida, it's make or break, win or lose.

In fact, three -- a prime number -- will be the prime reason for the Cats getting in to or being left out of the playoffs.

By Bill Whitehead
Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com
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