As it stands, the Florida Panthers have an 8 point lead in the Atlantic division. The Panthers have been playing great hockey and have been scoring a ton (4th most in the east, and only 2 goals back of being in second behind the Caps!). Shocking for anyone, let alone a Panthers fan. On top of that, they have the second lowest goals against thanks to a stellar season thus far from Luongo and great fill-ins from Montoya (Again, only behind the Capitals, and still just by 5 goals). So, why is it in the back of my mind that when April comes, I will be watching baseball, and not Panthers playoff hockey?
This site is filled with fans of teams who are doing great, or are perennial playoff teams who are in it for the cup each year. Its a culture thing. Unfortunately for us Panthers fans, our culture is "Lets sneak into the playoffs, that would be a great season!". It's not our fault, we haven't had a solid team to cheer for in decades. Not since Bure did we think "Hey, we can win this game tonight, even if we are down 3!". Let's not bring up the 2012 division title. We all know that was a perfect storm. Solid season, and to take NJ to game 7 OT was thrilling, but that was a season where I could honestly say "We won't make it back next year".
Now, things are changing. This time, it is not a series of veteran fill-ins that are over-performing, but rather a strong young core, who will be around for a while, backed by a few strong vets. The likes of Barkov, Bjugstad and Huberdeau are playing great (Well, Bjugstad is starting to, hopefully he gets some trade deadline wing help), and the veterans, especially Jagr, are chipping in and helping a ton. Everything is working out great so far this season. The team has lost just 4 regulation games in the past, what, 25? That's phenomenal!
So, why do I still fear that, not only will we fall from the division lead, but out of the playoffs altogether? I know, I know, 25-27 games to go, 9 point lead over 5 teams to hold onto a playoff spot. That is hard to fall out from. Even if the Panthers slip into a 4 game losing streak, it takes all 5 teams below them to win 4 or 5 in a row. I honestly don't think I can relax with the standings until we are in the final 2-3 weeks and we still have a lead. I expect we can maintain, we have proven no reason not to, but I still fear it.
Maybe it is my other sports teams that have conditioned me as such (I mistakenly became a Jets and Mets fan at a young age, so you should be impressed that I haven't had sever cardiac problems by now). Maybe it is the culture of the rest of the league not taking the Panthers seriously since 1996. Maybe it is the shortcomings of the past decades. Whatever it is, it is time for it to change. It is time for a change in culture, and it is coming. Once this team finishes off this season with a division crown, I can finally go into a season with the expectation that (If we don't make the playoffs, this is a colossal failure of a season). Something I have never said of my beloved Panthers. Something no one in hockey has ever said of this team.
So, get ready NHL, a culture is changing. It may not fully arrive this season, and I hope to God it doesn't depart too soon, but there is a change in South Florida, and like it or love it, you are stuck with a Miami team that is going to enjoy a level of success for now and the near future. So, lets all sit back and see how this thing unravels. Until then, I'll keep my vodka on standby.