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Are the Florida Panthers finally showing some weaknesses?
@CraigCustance: The New York Rangers bounced back from an ugly loss with a convincing 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Monday. The Rangers dominated the first two periods against the Predators, who have now dropped consecutive games and could slip out of first place in the Atlantic Division if the Tampa Bay Lightning win Tuesday night. Florida has been a fantastic story this season, but they don't match up all that well with the experienced Boston Bruins, their potential first-round opponent if they finish second in the Atlantic. The Panthers have five wins this month, but all five have come against teams outside a playoff spot. You have to go back to Feb. 4 to find a regulation win over a team currently in a playoff spot. What's our level of concern with the Panthers? Do they have to win the division to have a fighting chance of getting out of the first round?
@Real_ESPNLeBrun: I do feel good about the Panthers' new third line, which I wrote about yesterday. Having Nick Bjugstad with trade-deadline acquisitions Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell gives Florida a little more top-nine depth, which I think was a serious question mark before GM Dale Tallon made those moves. Still, I've waited all season for Tampa Bay to surge ahead and win the Atlantic, and I think that's going to happen. I think a Florida-Boston playoff series would be intriguing on many levels, with both teams having their question marks. Florida is inexperienced, but the Bruins have their blue-line issues. We'd call that series the Shawn Thornton Bowl. But yes, I still think the Panthers will have a fighting chance to get out of the first round.
@ESPNJoeyMac: Panthers coach Gerard Gallant was not happy with his team's performance against the Rangers. "It was a bad night," he said. "We can't show up and play 15 minutes, and that's all we played tonight. The Rangers dominated the first two periods and there is no excuse for that." The only line that played well for the Panthers was the trio of Jussi Jokinen, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith. It also doesn't bode well that the Panthers now travel to Boston to face the Bruins, a team Florida hasn't played well against this season. A win against the Bruins would give the Panthers some much-needed confidence before they take on the Lightning on Saturday. Florida is no doubt a talented team, but it needs a strong finish to the regular season if the Panthers want to enjoy any type of success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
@ESPN_Burnside: It was an interesting night throughout the Eastern Conference. Not only did the Rangers respond to a challenge from head coach Alain Vigneault, but they also managed to jump back ahead of Pittsburgh in what now looks to be a battle between the two for home ice in the first round. That's because the New York Islanders continue to sink like a stone after losing 4-1 to the resurgent Philadelphia Flyers, creating a three-way race between the Isles, Flyers and Detroit Red Wings for the two Eastern wild-card spots. The urgency is there for the Isles -- who curiously did nothing of import at the trade deadline -- and the Red Wings and Flyers, who were also silent at the deadline but for different reasons. One of those three teams will be on the sidelines three weeks from today. You have to think missing the playoffs would signal significant changes within the Isles' organization. As for Florida, they might be suffering from a mini-letdown, having already established themselves as a playoff team. The good thing for them is that no one in the Atlantic is playing at a consistently high level, so the Cats still have a strong possibility of finishing with home-ice advantage and a chance to start the playoffs off with a nice bump from their resurgent fan base.
Around the league
The Predators and Kings previewed an entertaining possible first-round matchup when they squared off Monday in Nashville.