As the 2011-2012 NHL season begins to wind down, the Florida Panthers are up against what just may be their toughest week of the season.
The Cats are finally beginning to come healthy, and it could not come at a better time as they travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers Thursday night, followed by a Fright night matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sitting 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 74 points, the Panthers are poised to snap a horrid streak of 10-straight seasons without post season play. They are currently just two points ahead of the 8th place Winnipeg Jets for the SouthEast division lead with 2-games in hand, but things could quickly change after this week if the Panthers are unable to keep up their hot play.
The Flyers sit 5th overall in the East, 7 points ahead of Florida and are currently on a 3-game winning streak. It has been a season of great surprise in Philadelphia, showing that this club really knows how to dig deep, stick together and get the win. After moving franchise players Jeff Carter and Mike Richards during the offseason, many wondered just how well this club could perform. But, the club has posted a 37-21-7 record so far this season, silencing any doubters. Also, the Flyers currently have 9 key guys on the injury list, most notably Jaromir Jagr, Chris Pronger, James van Riemsdyk, Kimmo Timonen and Andrej Meszaros.
Florida has dropped four straight contests against the Flyers dating back to last season (4-2, 3-2, 3-2, 3-2 SO) and have a lifetime record of 30-39-7-5 against Philly.
The Penguins currently reside 4th in the Eastern Conference, 9 points up on the Panthers and are riding a 6-game winning streak. Once again with superstar Sidney Crosby out of the lineup for most of the season, the Pens are relying on Evgeni Malkin to carry the bulk of the load and he has done just that. Malkin is currently tied with Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Art Ross Trophy lead with 81 points (38-41) and has really become a leader on this team. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury has been nothing but lights out once again this season with a record of 35-14-3 so far.
Luckily, for the Panthers they are facing the Penguins at just the right time as it was announced Tuesday that Pens captain Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact practises and could be soon returning to the lineup after more concussion-like symptoms and a soft tissue injury in his neck had limited him to just 8 games this season.
The Panthers are 1-2 against Pittsburgh so far this season with the only victory coming in Sunrise. Unfortunately, the last time the Panthers defeated the Penguins at home was January 3rd 2009 in a 6-1 victory.
Evidentially, the Panthers have the work cut out for them, facing what could arguably be the toughest teams in the NHL right now, not to mention to have to do it back-to-back nights on the road. The Cats really have their work cut out for them, but they realize just how much these two games mean to them right now, and know they will have to find that extra push if they want to win, and finally make it into the post season.