Last night, your forgotten Florida Panthers did something they've been doing a lot lately: They went on the road and beat the hell out of someone. In this case, the Buffalo Sabres, 6-2. It was the team's fourth victory in the past five road games.
Suddenly, a team that started the season by winning just two of its first ten games, which lost its best defenseman (Jay Bouwmeester) in the offseason, then lost its best scorer (David Booth) to a concussion, on October 26, has put together one of the league's most improbable hot streaks. Since October 30, the Panthers have won six of nine.
But here's the thing: The team does not have a home ice advantage -- probably because it hardly has any fans attend its games at the BankAtlantic.
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The Panthers have won just three of nine games at the BankAtlantic Center, where they rank fifth from the bottom in attendance. That, plus the atrocious start to the season, are the reason the team is currently four points away from qualifying for the eighth and final playoff spot.
But there's lots of hockey left to be played, and if the Panthers can keep winning on the road, if they get Booth back, then improve their home record, that four-point gap can vanish quickly.
Over on thehockeywriters.com, Karl Selvig staged a point-counterpoint contest to determine the likelihood of the Panthers making the playoffs. As he points out, the team has a habit of starting the season poorly. But traditionally, the Panthers catch fire when it's already too late -- like last year, when the team's terrific 2009 record wasn't enough to make up for the miserable record it posted in the 2008 portion of the season. The Panthers-in-the-playoffs argument, then, is that this squad has already learned how to be a good NHL team early enough in the season to inch its way back into the playoff hunt by season's end.
Of course, considering the Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000, the franchise may have just figured out a more cruel way to punish the few fans it has in South Florida.