Panthers gain a point, but drop another big game on road

Can you imagine the kick in the proverbial groin to South Florida hockey fans if the Florida Panthers blow this?

It was less than a week ago that the Panthers took a five-point lead in the division on the Washington Capitals. That was with Washington having just five games remaining and the Panthers making visits to Minnesota and Columbus next. Their lead was being described as insurmountable.

Apparently people forgot we're dealing with the Panthers here. If they do make the playoffs -- and to be rational, Sunday's loss 2-1 shootout loss in Detroit to the Red Wings wasn't crippling, they're still in prime position and they did still gain a point in the standings -- they might go down as the worst playoff team the NHL has seen in a long time.

After Sunday's shootout loss the Panthers magic number to clinch a playoff spot is now down to two, with a remaining schedule that includes games against Washington, Winnipeg and Carolina. But, you know, they're still the Panthers. Losing to bad teams, as they've done over the past couple of weeks (Sunday's opponent excluded) is in their DNA.

Now they have given the Capitals an opening, even if it's a slim one, to take the Southeast Division title, something the Panthers have been in the lead for almost all season long. The Panthers still control their own destiny as a date looms in the season's penultimate game in Washington between the two. Considering the Panthers have been outscored 7-0 in two losses in D.C. this season, you can understand the concern.

If there is any franchise that needs a playoff berth, it's Florida. It's been such a long time, the market could use just a taste of the postseason. At this point beggars won't be choosers, they'll take a spot in any shape or form.

But you come to be a little guarded when your team loses so much. The optimism is waning. Harvey Fialkov of the Sun-Sentinel is already saying the Panthers' focus might need to shift to the eighth seed ... and this team is still tops in its division.

However I'd be lying if I said I don't halfway expect them to blow a playoff berth altogether. Everybody knows they are more of fool's gold on this April Fool's Day than anything else. If they do get in the playoffs, I can't imagine one pundit outside of Florida will pick them to win a series.

It's just that all season long the fans in Florida have been told they are going to see the playoffs. The hopes have been raised. Imagine how crushing it will be if they choke this away? Their diminishing lead just doesn't feel safe right now even if it is.

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