Cats Slapshot: Can Florida Panthers Make a Deep Run in Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Following Saturday's win at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Panthers now have a record of 18-5-4 and - with 40 points so far - are tied for the best record in the Central Division

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Pop quiz, South Florida sports fans: how many times in their nearly 30 season history have the Florida Panthers advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Give up? The answer might shock you: once.

Other than the 1995-96 season that saw the Panthers make it to the Stanley Cup Final, Florida has been knocked out in the first round for all of the other five postseason appearances in franchise history.

Can this season be the second time? If you're doubting the men from Sunrise, now might be the time to stop.

Following Saturday's win at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Panthers now have a record of 18-5-4 and (with 40 points so far) are tied with the defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay for the best record in the Central Division.

After losing just three of their first 11 games of a season full of a shortened schedule and new division, the Panthers have won five of their last six games and appear to be getting hot at the right time.

"It's a process that's been going on from Game 1," goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky told FloridaPanthers.com after stopping 30 shots in the 4-2 victory Saturday. "You're building. You go out and your mind becomes more and more relaxed. You see the game better, more clearly, and you feel comfortable more and more. 

On the ice, the team has seen improvement from names like Bobrovsky and captain Aleksander Barkov - whose three points on Saturday, including two goals, give him 31 points so far this season and plenty of early consideration for the league's Most Valuable Player award.

"He's elite," forward Anthony Duclair said of Barkov. "He's one of the best centermen in the league, probably one of the best two-way forwards I've ever played with. He's just so skilled, so talented."

Off the ice, the team is showing the promise from having head coach Joel Quenneville behind the boards. Florida hopes to see at least a duplicate of what his second season looked like at his first coaching stop (a conference semifinal appearance in St. Louis) while hoping for a repeat of his second season with Chicago, where he won the first of three Stanley Cups.

One thing the Panthers might need to start cut back on: having to come back just to get the win. In 11 of Florida's wins this season, including Saturday, the Cats gave up the first goal of the game - a number leading the NHL.

“I think when you get behind, you’re a little more risk-taking and there’s a little bit of that that can enhance it with some skill, but just keep doing what we’ve been doing, get it to the net," Quenneville told the Miami Herald last week.

Florida will have a chance to both win the games they should and pull off a few upsets to finish the month of March. Four of their final nine games in the month comes against teams in the top four of the division (Tampa Bay and Chicago) with five games against slumping Nashville, Dallas and Detroit.

“We’ve tested ourselves against the best in the league and we’re right there with them. We’re getting the wins we’re supposed to,” center Frank Vatrano said. “Even some of the games that we’re losing, we’re right in there until the end, so we’re competing every single night and you can’t ask more of us. We’ve just got to keep this thing going.”

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