With every victory, whether it is coming back from a three-goal deficit as was the case Thursday or not, the Florida Panthers are showing they are for real.
After their unconventional 5-4 victory in overtime Thursday in Columbus, the Panthers had the third-best point percentage (.731) of any team in the league.
Yet they sit in third place in their own division.
Tough times, these.
Tampa Bay, Carolina and the Panthers are all rolling to the midway point of the season as three of the best teams in the entire league.
We figured the Central Division was going to be competitive at the top although when the season started, not many would have put the Panthers in that upper echelon with the Lightning and Hurricanes.
Yet here we are.
Florida opened its season with consecutive wins against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team which has been a nice surprise in its own right.
Chicago, which despite appearing to be a rebuilding team when the season started, is also holding a playoff spot as it sits fourth in the Central.
The Panthers hold a five point lead on the Blackhawks and, with another good showing against Chicago in a two-game series which starts Saturday night in Sunrise, Florida can create even more separation.
The Panthers have gone 5-2-2 against the top four teams in the Central this season.
For Florida, just making the playoffs this season should be the goal, no doubt.
But as we get deeper into this season, the team is obviously looking for more.
Is it time to start believing in these Panthers?
“We have tested ourselves against the best in the league and we’re right there with them,” said Frank Vatrano, who scored the game-winner Thursday in overtime in what was his 300th NHL game. It was the second OT-winner for Vatrano this season.
“We are getting the wins we’re supposed to and competing with the best teams night in and night out. Even the games we have lost, we were right there until the end.
“We’re competing every night. You can’t ask more than that. We just have to keep it going.”
The Panthers will hold a pregame ceremony to honor Keith Yandle for playing in his 1,000th NHL game last Sunday in Carolina.
Yandle is the 12th player to play his 1,000th NHL game with the Panthers and the 352nd NHL player to accomplish the feat.
The owner of the third-longest Ironman streak in NHL history (892 consecutive games), Yandle will be presented his silver stick — as well as other gifts — by his teammates.
The Panthers will distribute commemorative posters to all in attendance.
DUCLAIR, STRALMAN RETURN
Joel Quenneville said Anthony Duclair will return Saturday night and he was on the fourth line during the morning skate.
Duclair replaces Ryan Lomberg who scored his first NHL goal Thursday night to get the Florida comeback rolling.
Defenseman Anton Stralman is also back in the lineup after missing the past few games. He was working with Yandle in place of Markus Nutivaara.
With two players coming back to the active roster, someone has to slide down to the taxi squad. We will assume it is Riley Stillman.
Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise
- Tickets: AVAILABLE HERE
- TV/Radio: FSF/560-AM
- Records (standings): Florida 17-5-4, 38 points (3rd in Central); Chicago 14-9-5, 33 points (4th)
- All-time series: Chicago leads 25-13-3 (2 ties)
- Season series: Florida leads 2-0
- Last season: Tied 1-1
- Up next: Chicago at Florida, Monday, 7
- Panthers This Week — Tuesday: Florida 4, Columbus 2; Thursday: Florida 5, Columbus 4 (OT); Saturday: Chicago at Florida, 7.
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINES
19 Mason Marchment — 16 Sasha Barkov — 23 Carter Verhaeghe
11 Jonathan Huberdeau — 21 Alex Wennberg — 70 Patric Hornqvist
77 Frank Vatrano — 27 Eetu Luostarinen — 74 Owen Tippett
91 Anthony Duclair — 83 Juho Lammikko — 55 Noel Acciari
52 MacKenzie Weegar — 5 Aaron Ekblad
42 Gustav Forsling — 7 Radko Gudas
3 Keith Yandle — 6 Anton Stralman
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
60 Chris Driedger
Scratches: F Vinnie Hinostroza, F Ryan Lomberg, D Markus Nutivaara
Injured: D Noah Juulsen (upper body)
Taxi squad: D Kevin Connauton, D Riley Stillman, F Grigori Denisenko, F Brett Connolly, G Philippe Desrosiers
Florida power play (21/80 26.2% — 8th in NHL)
Florida penalty kill (59/76 77.6% — 19th in NHL)
PP1: Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Patric Hornqvist, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle
PP2: Alex Wennberg, Frank Vatrano, Mason Marchment, Carter Verhaeghe, Gustav Forsling
PROJECTED CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS LINES
12 Alex DeBrincat — 24 Pius Suter — 88 Patrick Kane
8 Dominic Kubalik — 64 David Kampf — 38 Brandon Hagel
13 Mattias Janmark — 34 Carl Soderberg — 23 Philipp Kurashev
36 Matthew Highmore — 71 Lucas Wallmark — 22 Ryan Carpenter
2 Duncan Keith — 27 Adam Boqvist
44 Calvin De Haan — 5 Connor Murphy
16 Nikita Zadorov — 74 Bicolas Beaudin
32 Kevin Lankinen
30 Malcolm Subban
Chicago power play (26/84 31% — 3rd in NHL)
Chicago penalty kill (65/88 73.9% — 24th in NHL)
PP1: Ryan Carpenter, Carl Soderberg, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Adam Boqvist
PP2: Mattias Janmark, Pius Sutter, Philipp Kurashev, Duncan Keith, Dominik Kubalik