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Lighting the Lamp: Panthers playoff push

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Florida Panthers practice jersey circa 2014 worn by Willie Mitchell
Rick Ackerman

Lighting the Lamp With Rick Ackerman

As I said last season, have a little pity for tonight’s visiting Florida Panthers and their relatively small contingent of loyal fans. In 22 seasons of NHL play, Florida has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs only five times and remains at or near the bottom of league attendance figures despite playing in a beautiful, fan-friendly, well-staffed arena. This season the Panthers are ranked 27th in NHL attendance with an average of 14,533 in 27 home games (85% of capacity), ahead of only Arizona (13,104), the Islanders (12,919) and Carolina (12,002).

At this writing, Florida is seven games over .500 with 64 points, good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division and just good enough to qualify for postseason play if the playoffs started tomorrow. However, the Panthers are tied in points with the Boston Bruins, only one point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs and two ahead of the surging Buffalo Sabres. Nonetheless, there is plenty of hope at the BB&T Center (seating capacity 20,737) that the home club will qualify for postseason play for the sixth time in franchise history.

Of the 16 teams that would qualify for the playoffs if they started tomorrow, only three have allowed more goals against than for. Two of them are St. Louis (minus-2) and Florida (minus-14). The Blues’ offense is ranked ninth in the NHL with 2.85 goals per game, while the Panthers are ranked 22nd with 2.53 goals per game. Defensively, St. Louis is 22nd, allowing 2.88 goals against per game, and Florida is ranked 15th, allowing 2.74 goals against per game.

Special teams favor the Blues, who have a good power play that is ranked seventh overall (21.6%) and an excellent penalty kill ranked fourth in the NHL. The Panthers also excel at killing penalties, slightly ahead of the Note by percentage points, third best in the league. However, the Florida power play is one of the worst in the league, listed 27th in the league at 15%.

Make no mistake, Florida has a pretty good team this season. Center Vince Trocheck has emerged as the new scoring leader for the Panthers with 20 goals and 40 points in 56 games. Another center, Jonathan Marchessault, has also broken out as a scoring leader with 16 goals and 34 points in 50 games. In addition, oft-injured Nick Bjugstad has contributed four goals and seven points in 29 games. Add Finnish center Aleksander Barkov’s 13 goals and 33 points in 41 games, and Florida can boast of being able to run four strong lines on any given night. The return of wingers Jonathan Huberdeau, the amazing Jaromir Jagr, whose resilience defies his age, and ex-Bruin Reilly Smith adds depth to the offense. A decent defense features Aaron Edblad, Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, goaltenders Roberto Luongo and ex-Leaf James Reimer (whose statistics better those of All-Star Luongo).

So, with a good team fighting to make the playoffs, why are the Panthers unable to attract more fans to the BB&T Arena, falling some 6,200 short of capacity? The answer can be found in the old adage about the three basic factors that determine the value of real estate: location, location, location. The city of Sunrise is located some 40 miles northwest of downtown Miami, at least a 45-minute drive when there is little traffic, which is never. To make matters worse, the main highway, I-95, is a toll road, which can add $15 to $20 to the cost of a round trip from the Miami metro area. Throw in the cost of gas and parking and it can be quite pricey to attend Panthers’ games before one even buys tickets, all in all making it difficult to attract new fans and keep old ones.

St. Louis and Florida have made only five trades since the Panthers entered the NHL in 1993, none of which really amounted to much with the exception of the February 2001 transaction in which Scott Mellanby joined the Blues in exchange for prospect Dave Morisset and a fifth-round draft pick in 2002. Mellanby went on to play four seasons in St. Louis, amassing 62 goals and 137 points in 235 games. He signed a free-agent contract with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2004 and played two seasons before hanging up his skates. Mellanby then worked three seasons in Vancouver in the hockey operations department and then spent two seasons in St. Louis as an assistant coach. Mellanby is currently an assistant general manager with GM Marc Bergevin in Montreal.

After a super-hot road trip, the Blues are settling back down to reality, winning a game they deserved to lose (at home against the Canucks) and losing a game they deserved to win (at Buffalo). Nevertheless, it is good to see a much more competitive team now, playing a looser game without sacrificing defensive superiority. The defense has allowed only 14 goals against in the last nine games, with both Carter Hutton and Jake Allen posting shutouts in three contests and giving up only one goal against in two other matches. At the same time, the offense has picked up, scoring 28 goals this month, with four or more goals in four of those nine games.

After tonight’s tilt with Florida, the Blues have only 22 games left in the regular season, only nine more of which are in St. Louis. The good news is that 16 of those 22 contests are against opponents who are below the Blues in the standings. And in 13 of those contests, the opponents would not qualify for the playoffs if they started tomorrow. Thank you, NHL schedule-makers.