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5 To Watch: The Home Stretch

by "Hockey Pat" McGrath / Florida Panthers

Believe it or not, there are only five games remaining in the Florida Panthers regular season. With the final homestand about to get underway, here are five things to watch for:

1. The Scoring Race

As the season winds down, the battle for the Panthers scoring title is coming down to the wire. There is currently a three way tie atop the leaderboard as Scottie Upshall, Nick Bjugstad and Brian Campbell are all tied with 35 points apiece. Brad Boyes is just one point off that pace and at this juncture it is anyone’s ballgame.

Boyes looks to have the goal title locked down with a comfortable cushion between his 20 goals and the trio of potential usurpers in Bergenheim (15), Bjugstad (14) and Upshall (14). One of these guys could catch fire the rest of the way so we will hold off on awarding the Iron Throne to Boyes for now.

Here is the latest from the Panthers scoring race:

2. Nick Bjugstad

One of the biggest questions with young players is, how will they handle the workload that comes with a full NHL season? This question is amplified when talking about players coming from the college ranks where the seasons rarely extend past the forty game mark.

In his first full season with the Panthers, Bjugstad has quelled any fears about how he will handle the NHL grind. Bjugstad has been one of the Panthers most consistent players this season and with 71 games already under his belt, he has shown no signs of slowing down.

Besides being tied for the team lead, Bjugstad’s 35 points (14-21-35) ranks in the top ten among NHL rookies in goals, assists and points. Not only has Bjugstad handled the increased workload with ease, but he has done so while playing big minutes and drawing the toughest defensive assignments on a nightly basis.

And there is this as well:

3. Home Cookin’

The Panthers close out the season with one of their longest homestands of the season. The Cats have been better at home than on the road this season. They have a 14-17-5 record so far at BB&T Center, compared to their 13-25-3 record away from South Florida. An added perk during this home stretch is that three of the Panthers five opponents will be playing the Cats on the second half of a back-to-back.

The Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets will all be taking on the Panthers after having faced the Tampa Bay Lightning the previous night. Hopefully the Panthers sunshine state brethren will do the Cats a solid and run these teams ragged.

4. Playing Spoiler

Four of the Panthers five games will come against teams that are in the thick of their respective wild card races. The Cats will face the Stars, Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets and each of these teams have playoff fates that are very much undecided.

In the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Red Wings and Blue Jackets occupy the two wild card spots with 86 and 85 points respectively. The Philadelphia Flyers, with 87 points, are constantly looking over their shoulder while the Maples Leafs, with 84 points, are just one point out of the big dance.

Out West, the Stars hold the last wild card spot with 85 points but the Phoenix Coyotes have 85 as well and you can bet that the race for the last playoff spot will come down to the wire.

This homestand will be a great measuring stick for the Cats. These remaining games will be against playoff caliber teams leaving it all on the line. With a couple of big wins during the homestand, the Panthers have to opportunity to burst a few bubbles, dash a few playoff dreams and turn a few heads in the process.

5. Career High Watch

With so many young players on the roster, there were a lot of Panthers that set new career highs. Bjugstad (14-21-35), Jimmy Hayes (10-5-15), Quinton Howden (4-1-5), Brandon Pirri (11-9-20), Vincent Trocheck (3-2-5) and Dylan Olsen (3-9-12) all have the opportunity to add to career highs in goals, assists and points over the final five games. Here are the other career milestones reached this season and some others that are still within reach:

Sean Bergenheim: 15 goals, 11 assists and 26 points this season. He’s nearing career marks in goals (17), assists (15) and points (29).

Scottie Upshall: Already achieved career highs in assists (21) and points (35) and with 14 goals is within range of his career goal mark (18).

Jesse Winchester: Set career high in goals (9). With 17 points this season he has a very good chance of breaking previous career high in points (18).

Dmitry Kulikov: With eight goals this season, Kuli topped his previous career high of six goals.

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