Dale Tallon is in a tough spot, one most around hockey knew he would eventually find himself in this season.
On one hand, the Panthers general manager likes the way his team plays. With few exceptions this season, the Panthers have come out and given a strong effort and are in games until the end almost every night.
Yet with the midway point of the season approaching, Tallon is aware that on some nights, even the best of efforts isn't going to cut it. On nights like Saturday, when the Panthers are playing a team with a lot more talent, no matter how good they play, they aren't going to come away with a win. To get more talent, Tallon might have to start breaking things up.
“We're not getting rewarded for our play and that's the one thing that is frustrating, whether it's a call go against us or our power play has been the difference,'' Tallon said.
“The majority of our games, we've been up to snuff. We just have to believe in each other and get some confidence. They have stayed true to form. I can't complain, we're just not getting results. I'm looking at this as the glass is half-full. They're buying in and giving us what we want, giving their all.''
Florida plays its 41st game of the season on Tuesday against the same Washington Capitals that beat the Panthers 3-2 on Saturday night. The Panthers couldn't have played much better against the Caps, only Washington's star-studded lineup came through in the end. All-Star defenseman Mike Green gave Washington its first lead of the night in the third period before All-World winger Alex Ovechkin won it with an acrobatic goal.
The Panthers have shown in the first half of the season that they are a good team, a sum of their parts. They don't have the stars other teams do, and if not for the unwritten rule that the league wants at least one representative from each team, Florida would not have a single player in the upcoming All-Star Game.
Tallon knows the Panthers have to get more talent. Playing hard every night isn't going to cut it week in and week out. Tallon has a pocket full of expiring contracts at his disposal, chips he can use at the trading deadline to bolster the Panthers immediate bottom line as well as hopefully reap future rewards.
“We have a good month ahead of us,'' Tallon said, referencing the trade deadline. “We have lots of time to see where we're at. There is no need to panic. We're going to keep getting better every day. We have a plan in place and we're sticking to it.''
Said coach Pete DeBoer: “It's a good pressure because those decisions haven't been made. We're still in the hunt.''
The Panthers go into Tuesday's midway point riding a three-game losing streak. All three of those losses came to divisional rivals, two of which coming to teams the Panthers are realistically fighting for a playoff spot with. Coming into Sunday's games, the Panthers sit tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The teams in front of the Panthers look at the playoffs as an opportunity to be in the chase for the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. For Florida, just making the postseason would be a start. Florida has not been to the playoffs since 2000, and another year out of the dance – which seems very realistic – gives them an NHL record the franchise wants no part of.
No NHL franchise has ever missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for 10 straight seasons. Florida is already the only franchise to miss for nine while staying in the same market.
Yet with a handful of home games coming up in the coming days – Florida kicks off a six-game Sunrise stand on Tuesday – Tallon and coach Pete DeBoer are optimistic that their team can get some wins. And get back into the race.
“We're in the pack and when you think where everyone told us we would be, guys have taken some pride in proving people wrong,'' DeBoer said. “We're not one of the two worst teams in the league. We have our warts as a team and that's obvious. Some we could fix as coaches, some are personnel issues. No one is happy where we're at, from Dale Tallon on down. We're all trying to fix it on a daily basis. It may not look pretty each night, but that's the kind of team we are.''
WHAT'S GONE RIGHT
-- The Panthers have found some gems in Mike Santorelli (discarded from Tennessee), rookie Evgeny Dadonov (10 points in 14 games) and defensive pest Mike Weaver. Florida has also gotten good seasons from newcomers Dennis Wideman, Marty Reasoner and Chris Higgins.
-- Florida has been pretty good away from home, winning in tough climates like Montreal, Washington and Carolina. Good goaltending from Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen – as well as a penalty kill ranked in the top 10 most of the season – has been a big help.
-- Overtime hasn't been Florida's strong suit in past years, but the Panthers have won four of their six overtime games and are 2-1 in the shootout.
WHAT'S GONE WRONG
-- The Panthers power play is not only bad statistically, but it could be bad historically. Florida comes into Tuesday's game with a league-low 12 power play goals. The franchise record for fewest such goals came in 1994-95 when Florida scored 29 in a strike-shortened, 44 game season. This team is on pace to score 25 -- in 82 games.
-- Florida doesn't have much front-end talent, so it relies heavily on what it does. Stephen Weiss, David Booth and Michael Frolik struggled early in the season, but all three have shown signs of life lately. Weiss leads the team in goals, with Booth and Frolik (who leads the team with 26 points) are the team's top three scorers.
-- The Panthers haven't played as well on home ice as they would have hoped, getting zero points out of a three game stand during Thanksgiving week and most recently won just one of five.