With the abbreviated season already past the quarter pole, the Panthers may need a late kick to snatch their second straight playoff berth at the finish line.

They're off to a mediocre 4-6-3 start that has the reigning Southeast Division champions tied for last in their division and (before Friday's games) in a five-way logjam on the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

On the sunny side, they're 3-1-3 since starting the season 1-5, and are just four points out of a playoff berth with 35 games remaining.

It's far too early to panic, but unless the defensive zone breakdowns stop, the goaltending improves and the once formidable top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann click again, the Panthers may return to the land of irrelevance in the South Florida sports scene.

The Panthers were bit by the injury bug before the delayed season even began. The Panthers who played in Europe either came home nicked up such as Sean Bergenheim (suspended list) and Marcel Goc or were slow to adjust from the larger rinks like defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Filip Kuba.

It's no secret that the Panthers' quick start last season catapulted them to the playoffs, but they were only two games better at this point (6-4-3) before zooming to 12-6-3, mostly by riding the potent sticks of their top line.

Versteeg, who had a career-high 54 points last season, was nearly healed from offseason hip surgery when he injured his groin on the final day of training camp. He's now sidelined by a chest injury and has played only seven games.