The Florida Panthers hold a comfortable four-point lead over Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division entering play on Tuesday. Each team has just three games left in their schedules, so it is starting to look like Florida will win the division after what has been a lengthy battle against one another. The Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens were the pre-season favorites, so if the Panthers can wrap things up, it will represent a significant upset for the divisional title.
Florida first entered the radar as a potential divisional champion around Christmas time. It was between December 15th and January 10th that the Panthers went undefeated, posting a 12-0 record over that time frame. There has been some rough patches since then but now, in order to clinch, Florida need just three points in their next three games. With a schedule that goes through three non-playoff teams in Montreal, Ottawa, and Carolina, the Panthers should be able to get those points.
However, making things easier is the fact that the Panthers would also clinch if the Lightning failed to get at least four points in their remaining three games. Should the two teams go to tiebreakers, it’s the Lightning that would get the nod thanks to more non-shoot-out victories.
There are scenarios where Florida clinch the division as early as Tuesday night. Both Florida and Tampa Bay are on the road with TB having the more difficult game as they face the Rangers. If Florida gain a point in the standings relative to Tampa Bay, then the Panthers would be impossible to catch. That would send both teams pretty much into coast mode although the Lightning do have to worry about getting caught by the Detroit Red Wings still for the second seed in the Atlantic.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, it has to be stated that the Panthers will have a cushy draw should they clinch the Atlantic. The beasts of the east at this point look like the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. But in the largely division-based playoffs, those two teams are in one another’s way to make the conference finals. Accordingly, Florida would avoid both of those teams until that point in the Stanley Cup draw. With home-ice advantage against maybe the New York Islanders and then home-ice against maybe Tampa Bay or the Detroit Red Wings, the Panthers definitely have to like the situation that they are in.
The Stanley Cup playoffs will begin in roughly one week’s time. Florida can improve their outlook by clinching top spot in the Atlantic early so that Gerard Gallant can start looking at curbing the minutes of his starters.