Fresh off a long western road trip, the Florida Panthers are about to enter one of the most critical stretches of their season.
Starting on Thursday night, the Panthers are set to face four teams on the Eastern Conference playoff bubble over the course of the next nine games with games against the scorching-hot New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins mixed in.
It is a stretch that could show the true colors of a Panthers team that currently sits three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the final spot in the Eastern Conference.
Are they the team that excels in the statistical realm as they are in the Top 5 in scoring chances and shots per game?
Or are they the team that has yet to string together more than two wins in a row and has struggled to convert on many of those chances?
Playing against teams with playoff hopes much like themselves is where the truth will come out.
As it stands, the Panthers are currently playing sub-.500 hockey against teams currently in a playoff spot with a record of 5-6-3.
Florida has excelled against possible playoff-bound competition in the East, however, going 4-1-1.
The jury is still out on these Panthers.
Florida gets a tough go right off the road as the vastly-improved Detroit Red Wings visit Sunrise sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division.
The good news is it appears captain Sasha Barkov will be back in the lineup on Thursday after missing the past six games with pneumonia.
The Panthers then visit the Lightning on Saturday in what sets up a critical set of games that could help them springboard themselves back into the playoff picture.
Back-to-back wins would suddenly give the Panthers poll position on the third seed in the division what with Boston and Toronto running away with the top two spots.
The road for the Panthers does not get much easier after that.
Florida will play its third game in four nights — coming off a long trip, mind you — as it plays host to the Seattle Kraken on Sunday.
Although the Columbus Blue Jackets are the lone team not in a playoff spot during this stretch, they are a team which beat them last month.
After the Jackets, the Panthers will face five more consecutive games against high-end teams from the Eastern Conference in each of their five games heading into Christmas break.
By the time the Panthers take a five-day sabbatical for the holidays, they will have played 35 games and will be closing in on the halfway point of the season.
Winning those tough, playoff-style matchups could be the difference between sitting comfortably in a playoff spot or chasing the field for the rest of the season.
A lot can happen after that point — the St. Louis Blues certainly proved as much in 2019 when they went on to win the Stanley Cup after sitting in dead last in January — but those occasions come few and far in between.
The Panthers are about to enter one of the biggest grinds of the season.
We are about to find out if they are up to the task.
PANTHERS ON DECK
DETROIT RED WINGS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Streaming ONLY: ESPN+/Hulu
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 4-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 33-19-6, 5 ties