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Panthers may face familiar conundrum: Now or later?

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Modern coach-speak being what it is, hearing an NHL coach even allude to the notion of his team's season being over by the All-Star break -- and out loud no less -- is out of the ordinary.

Of course, Pete DeBoer wasn't actually saying that about his Florida Panthers. He did suggest as much during a media session last week, although ironically it was during an attempt to put a positive spin on things.

Bryan McCabe, Scott Clemmensen, Tomas Vokoun and the Panthers are in a familiar spot: Just outside the playoffs. (US Presswire)  
Bryan McCabe, Scott Clemmensen, Tomas Vokoun and the Panthers are in a familiar spot: Just outside the playoffs. (US Presswire)  
The job handbook says that's what is expected of coaches in grim situations. And the Panthers were 11 points out of the playoffs at the time, the halfway point of the schedule. But Florida was coming off its gutsiest win of the season against the Washington Capitals that kicked off a six-game homestand, and the message DeBoer was trying to get across was that his team needed to take advantage of it.

"You don't want to tell them that the season potentially ends in January if you don't do well here," DeBoer said, "but at the same time everyone knows the situation we're in."

It's a situation that has become familiar in Florida the last few seasons, mostly because the Panthers have developed a habit of trying to overcome slow starts with desperate, though ultimately futile, second-half runs. This season has started to fit that pattern with the Panthers getting rewarded for the work ethic they have displayed much of the season by winning on a more regular basis in the last month and at least setting up a possible path to a playoff spot.

But if the Panthers showed some signs of promise just a few days ago, they may have been dealt a mortal wound by losing 3-2 in a shootout to the Atlanta Thrashers on Monday.

"It's disappointing because we had them right where we wanted them," Panthers defenseman Dennis Wideman.

Well almost. Had Florida prevailed in regulation for the win, the Panthers would have moved within five points of eighth-place Atlanta for the final East playoff spot with four games in hand on the Thrashers. Instead, the Panthers were scored on twice within the final two minutes to force overtime before losing in a shootout.

More troubling was that the demoralizing result came after Florida followed its big win against Washington by ending Nashville's six-game winning streak with two late third-period goals and then beating the Devils in overtime two days later. That gave Florida a chance to face a slumping Atlanta team and to get serious about ending the league's longest playoff drought. But the Panthers, who have been unable to stretch a winning streak to four games since 2008, collapsed late and endured a critical setback to their playoff hopes.

This time though, DeBoer did a better job of accentuating the positive.

"I thought we played a hell of a game," DeBoer said. "As a coach, there's not much I would have changed in the first 58 minutes. Then they pull the goalie, we made a few mistakes in the last few minutes and the puck ends up in the net. But we've got a lot of hockey left and we're playing well."

And therein lies the dilemma. The Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000, and the organization desperately needs a postseason berth to create some excitement for the dwindling local fan base. And the Panthers have actually played well of late, picking up just enough points to stay within sight of the postseason.

Thing is, Florida's game plan since hiring Dale Tallon as GM last spring has been geared toward building a foundation for the future. The architect of Chicago's Stanley Cup roster began the process with a very strong draft, and he might be able to accelerate it with some judicious moves leading up to the Feb. 28 trade deadline. But if even only a slight chance remains for a playoff spot, Tallon will be forced into a delicate balancing of priorities over the next few weeks.

Florida has 13 players set to become free agents after the season -- more than half of them unrestricted -- and for some playoff bound teams, a few like goaltender Tomas Vokoun and veteran forward Cory Stillman may have great appeal as rentals if the Panthers decide they don't want them back.

But in the meantime, the Panthers have shown just enough life to keep their faint playoff hopes alive in a generally non-descript Eastern Conference, and for Tallon to debate whether to bite the bullet or go all in for this season.

The Panthers tried that a couple of years back when they resisted moving Jay Bouwmeester because the team was heating up approaching the deadline. Even though that decision was made before Tallon arrived, he is well aware of how it ultimately backfired in every way possible.

"We've got to look at the big picture," Tallon said. "We have a plan in place and we're sticking to it."

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