Seven of the Panthers’ next eight games are on the road, a stretch that could bury the team’s playoff hopes … or not.
Of the eight teams ahead of the Panthers in the Eastern Conference standings, all have better road records.
The Panthers, who lost to the visiting Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on Saturday afternoon, have won nine of their past 11 home games. But they are 13-16-4 on the road this season.
However, a closer look shows that the Panthers have played much better lately away from the BB&T Center, sporting a 3-2-1 record since Feb. 12. And two of the games the Panthers failed to win during that stretch were decided by just one goal.
Among the upcoming stretch of road games, none figures to be bigger than the March 23 trip to Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets are one of the three teams the Panthers are chasing for a wild-card playoff berth, along with the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.
During this upcoming stretch, the Panthers also visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 28 and the Boston Bruins on March 31.
On a positive note for the Panthers, five of their next nine opponents have losing records. And, once they get home from the March 31 Boston game, the Panthers will close the regular season with five contests, including four of them at home.
Given that as a backdrop, here are five questions regarding the Panthers:
1. Will the Panthers make the playoffs? Hockey Reference.com projects the Panthers out of the playoffs, but barely, and this can and almost assuredly will change day by day until Florida closes its regular season at the Bruins on April 8.
The Flyers and Blue Jackets were projected to end up with 93.3 points, the Devils exactly at 93.0 points and the Panthers at 92.7. And that was before the Panthers lost on Saturday.
However, the Panthers have a games-in-hand advantage on all the teams they’re chasing, and that’s giving them hope. But the aforementioned road trip looms.
2. What the heck happened on Saturday against the Oilers? The Panthers went 0-for-6 on the power play and also allowed a shorthanded goal in an uncharacteristically poor performance on special teams. Even with Saturday’sfailures, they have 17 power-play goals in their past 17 games.
In addition, Oilers superstar Connor McDavid produced three third-period points, scoring the game-tying goal through the legs of Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad. McDavid also had assists on Edmonton’s final two goals and has 89 points, ranking third in the NHL pending more results on Saturday night.
“I don’t think we’re pleased with how we played,” Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said. “I think we should’ve beat that team if we played our game.”
3. How good is Panthers center Sasha Barkov? The only acceptable answers are “very, very good” or “great.” Barkov has 25 goals and leads the Panthers with 70 points.
McDavid, Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov are the NHL superstars on that top echelon. Barkov likely belongs with some amazing players on that next level.
One of Barkov’s strengths is his defense, lauded often as his “90-foot game.” On Saturday, he hounded and frustrated McDavid for two periods before the Oilers superstar broke free.
4. Is help on the way for the Panthers? The short answer is “yes,” but when is the question.
Forward Henrik Borgstrom, a sophomore at the University of Denver, could become available at the end of his college season, depending on how long a run his team makes in the playoffs.
Panthers executive Dale Tallon told Fox Sports Florida’s Steve Goldstein earlier this week that he believes Borgstrom is ready to play in the NHL this year.
“This kid (Borgstrom) is a blue-chipper,” Tallon said. “We love him, and he is really going to make a difference on our team.”
At the very least, Borgstrom and fellow forward Owen Tippett — the Panthers’ two most recent first-round picks — are expected to make an impact for the franchise next season.
The Panthers may also be active in free agency this summer. Larry Brooks of the New York Post mentioned that the Panthers as one of the teams expected to bid for Russian free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk. Other scorers such as Rick Nash and Michael Grabner will be available in free agency this summer.
5. Who can be a surprise for the Panthers down the stretch? Frank Vatrano, who scored for the Panthers on Saturday, is one candidate. After being acquired from the Boston Bruins for a third-round draft pick last month, Vatrano has two goals in four games.
Vatrano, who turned 24 on Wednesday, had a reputation as a scorer in the AHL. Perhaps the Panthers stole something when they made that deal with Boston.