The Florida Panthers are Southeast Division champions, and while that status actually makes them the butt of jokes around the NHL -- seriously, in terms of respect, they probably would've been better off finishing seventh or eighth -- these are the Stanley Cup Playoffs and there's no reason that the Cats can't advance deep in the postseason.
Could Florida be this year's Cinderella? We asked Ryan Meier of Panthers blog Litter Box Cats to answer five questions about the club as they enter postseason play for the first time since 2000.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Florida Panthers heading into the postseason?
There's not a whole lot of big expectations this postseason for the Panthers considering how they clinched a playoff spot. The team really underperformed down the stretch and players like Stephen Weiss attributed part of that to nerves and the looming expectations of breaking a ten-year run of postseason futility.
Florida basically slid Indiana Jones-style under the playoff door, but they came through that door knowing they were in and nothing could take that away from them. There's now a quiet confidence with the team knowing that now the clinching is done, it's time to prove the naysayers wrong and show that they do indeed belong with the rest of the clubs in the playoffs. Underdog? Try Undercat.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding Florida heading into the playoffs?
Ironically, the biggest question mark is something that was never much of a concern for the entire regular season: goaltending. The tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen (with a little bit of Jacob Markstrom sprinkled in) was fantastic and easily filled the shoes of the departed Tomas Vokoun. Theodore was the true workhorse of the two and earned the starting job majority of the season with his great play and ability to keep the Panthers in some games they had no business winning.
However, in the last week or two of the regular season, Theodore started to look a bit tired and his performances actually cost the Panthers some possible points. Keep in mind his age, as the full season's workload may have caught up to him. Regardless, head coach Kevin Dineen is continuing to roll with Theodore, though with Clemmensen's sterling play in relief, don't be surprised to see Theodore on a shorter leash than usual.
3) If there's one player on the Panthers that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
Stephen Weiss. He's waited ten years to reach the big dance, and he's wearing his finest tux. There's no question Weiss will be pumped up and eager to show why he and the Panthers belong in the discussion as Cup contenders. Expect him to be his normal effective self, but look for that extra gear, as he's almost certainly going to ramp up his performance now that he's finally playing a meaningful game in April.
4) When all's said and done, the Panthers' playoff chances hinge on...
Scoring. With the 26th ranked offense in the NHL, it doesn't matter how well their goalies are playing. The Panthers need to start scoring more than two goals a game if they expect to get anywhere in the postseason. The Cats are healthier than they've been most of the season, and so Dineen has the option of scratching guys and moving players around to create chemistry, but there's only so much experimenting you can do as a coach. The players have to step up to the plate and make it happen.
5) Give a prediction. How far will Florida go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Not many are expecting Florida to make it past the first round, however, they play a pretty tight defensive game and manage to stay in majority of their games until the very end, regardless of the outcome. With no shootout, which has been Florida's Achilles Heel all season, the Panthers are actually more dangerous if the game reaches extra time. I'd say the Cats surprise their first round opponent and win in six, but fall in the second round.
Follow the Panthers throughout the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Litter Box Cats.