SUNRISE — Making the playoffs has not been a concern for the Florida Panthers this season.
After starting the 2021-22 campaign with the best start in franchise history, the Panthers have been safe as a kitten two months into the season.
Going by the old Thanksgiving equation which has traditionally predicted a team’s postseason likelihood, the Panthers were in first place in the entire NHL and really have not slowed down.
A playoff spot can officially be locked down this weekend when the Panthers visit New Jersey and Buffalo — regardless of what happens anywhere else.
And by anywhere else, we’re talking about Long Island.
Technically, the New York Islanders could catch the Panthers if Florida only picked up two points in its final 15 games and the Isles did not lose in their final 15.
The Panthers, in that scenario, would have bigger problems than worrying about the Islanders.
With the Islanders beating the Rangers on Friday night, the Panthers will clinch with wins this afternoon in Newark against the Devils and on Sunday in Buffalo regardless of what the Isles do from here on out.
For the Panthers, just getting into the playoffs is not their biggest concern right now.
Seeing that ‘X’ next to their name in the standings with a month to go is still kind of a big deal.
Or, maybe not.
“I don’t think it means anything. It means a lot, but I don’t think it changes anything,” Radko Gudas said after Friday’s light workout at FLA Live Arena.
“Since Day 1, we have just been looking at the game ahead of us. That’s the mentality in this locker room. One game at a time and we want to get better in every game we play. That’s what is unique about this group; we have short memories and we just go out there and work. We’ll see in a couple of weeks where that takes us.”
Added Andrew Brunette: “I don’t know that we’re taking much stock in that. We just want to get our game in shape, get into that cadence as a group. We have a few new pieces and while we’ve played well, we want to stay on top of things and play our best moving forward.’’
The Panthers, as Brunette said Thursday night, have high expectations among themselves and they are looking forward and not back at things they have accomplished.
Florida has set numerous franchise records already this season — with more to come — but the real season starts in May when the Panthers open up in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Thursday, they won their 28th home game of the season which is best in franchise history; they are five points away from tying the 2015-16 team.
With one more win, these Panthers also tie the mark set by the 2016 Atlantic Division champs.
“There’s still a lot of hockey left,” Brunette said after Thursday’s 4-0 win against the Blackhawks.
“We’re not content just breaking these little records. We have our eyes on a bigger prize. We still have a ways to get there.”
Going into Saturday, the Panthers are tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and hold a six-point lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Atlantic Division.
Winning the conference title assures Florida home-ice advantage throughout the conference playoffs; winning the Atlantic gives them that through at least the first two rounds.
The Panthers have 15 games left with only a handful of those games — Toronto (twice), Tampa Bay, Boston, Nashville and Winnipeg — coming against teams either fighting for a playoff spot or just trying to improve their seeding.
If recent games are any indication, however, even contests against the likes of New Jersey and Buffalo come with some challenges.
“We’re playing teams, again, with nothing to lose,” Brunette said Friday. “They are going to play hard and it’ll be a challenge to get up for those games. They’ll be hard games.”
UP NEXT FOR THE FLORIDA PANTHERS
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT NEW JERSEY DEVILS
- When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
- Where: Prudential Center, Newark
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/NHL Network
- Radio: WQAM 560/SiriusXM
- Last season: Did not play
- Season series — Tied 1-1: @New Jersey 7, Florida 3 (Nov. 9); @Florida 4, New Jersey 1(Nov. 18)
- All-time regular season series: Devils lead 56-33-6, 7 ties