Sean Bergenheim hopes to continue playoff momentum and help Panthers break their slump

The Florida Panthers made a lot of gambles through trades and free agent signings during the off-season, with Sean Bergenheim’s four-year, $11 million deal ranking among their leaps of faith. While it wasn’t their riskiest investment (that award goes to the 35+ contract they handed to Ed Jovanovski), the hope rests squarely on a small sample of playoff games representing a “breakthrough” rather than a series of lucky breaks.

When it comes to out-of-nowhere goal scorers, one of the best ways to tell if someone’s production is a fluke is to look at his shooting percentage. It’s not a fool-proof mode of assessment, but sometimes players get an unsustainable amount of “puck luck” that should leave general managers weary.

One can blame at least some of Bergenheim’s great run with the Tampa Bay Lightning on luck. As opposed to his career 7.7 shooting percentage (which was his exact rate during the 2010-11 regular season), Bergenheim connected on 19.6 percent of his attempts in the 2011 playoffs. After scoring just 14 goals in 80 regular season games at his typical rate, Bergenheim scored nine goals in 16 playoff games – a run that included the only tally in Tampa Bay’s decisive Game 7 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If you look at his larger body of work, his typical expected scoring rate is 10-15 goals. Yet while he has serious one-hit wonder potential (or as I like to call it, “Pisani potential”), there is the outside chance that Bergenheim could build on that breakthrough and become a consistent goal-scoring threat for his new team, the Florida Panthers. That’s certainly what he hopes to achieve starting next season.

“We obviously had a great run there last year, and I was very happy with the way I played in the playoffs,’’ Bergenheim said after Saturday’s opening practice of training camp. “I want to bring that here. I learned a lot last year, and my goal is to play at that level the whole season. In the playoffs, I really found my game — I had it there before — and that’s the challenge this year. I have to play that way all year.’’

Considering all the changes that have taken place in Florida, he should have a great chance to earn a prominent role with the team and receive opportunities to make good on his postseason run. It’ll be interesting to see if he can prove that his playoff output wasn’t a fluke.

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In other Panthers news, the team hasn’t decided which player should serve as their new captain next season. It makes sense that the franchise might want to drag their feet a bit with that choice considering the changing identity of the roster.

Coach Kevin Dineen said no decision has been made on who will be the Panthers’ new captain. “We’re still a ways away on that one,’’ he said. Center Stephen Weiss and defenseman Ed Jovanovski are considered the favorites.

“You look at [Weiss] as always having a leadership role for his tenure here and the way he plays the game,’’ Dineen said, talking about Weiss working out with rookie Jonathan Huberdeau on Saturday. “Matching him up with one of our future star players is a good mix.’’

Jovanovski might be a hit with fans who fondly remember his first run with the team, but I’d recommend going with Weiss, who’s been with the club through thin and really thin. Ultimately, the most important leader might be new head coach Dineen, who must find a way to take a roster that seems like an unshaped mass of clay and sculpt them into a playoff contender.

Getting Bergenheim to match his playoff pace certainly wouldn’t hurt the cause.

Ryan Getzlaf notches 600th career assist

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Milestones are often most useful toward the end of a player’s career, cementing legacies and maybe providing Hall of Fame voters with helpful signposts. That said, they can also stand as reminders that a player is special, even when there are still more chapters to be written.

At 32, Ryan Getzlaf has plenty of time to continue piling up assists after collecting his 600th helper in the Anaheim Ducks’ 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

Now, for a guy who sets the table as beautifully as Getzlaf does, the assist in question wasn’t necessarily typical.

Either way, hitting this milestone gives us a chance to ponder where Getzlaf ranks among the NHL’s best, whether it comes to pure playmaking or point producing overall. With 240 goals to go with those 600 points (and considering his often-scary shot), goalies and defenses have to respect that aspect of his game, too.

Let’s ponder where he ranks among the best in a few ways.

Since Getzlaf debuted in 2005-06, he’s generated those 240 goals and 600 assists for 840 points in just 883 regular-season games. That’s the ninth-highest total in the NHL during that span, trailing Henrik Zetterberg by eight points (his 848 came in 904 games). Getzlaf’s been almost exactly a point-per-game player since he really blossomed in 2007-08, generating 743 points in 744 games, the eighth-best mark. That’s 20 more points that Anze Kopitar in fewer games, and way ahead of his buddy/occasional sparring partner Corey Perry.

Getzlaf is among four players who’ve generated at least 600 assists since 2005-06: Joe Thornton (767), Henrik Sedin (711), and Sidney Crosby (677).

According to Hockey Reference, he’s been in the top 10 in assists on seven occasions and the top 10 in points three times during his career.

The Ducks get knocked for Game 7 failings and other disappointments, yet it’s difficult to pin much of that on Getzlaf.

He has 118 points in 121 career playoff games, the fourth-highest point total since he came into the NHL (once again, right in range of Zetterberg, who’s at 115 in 121 games). You could argue that he’s actually a bit more consistent than Patrick Kane, who’s ahead of him with 123 points but in 127 contests.

Of course, it’s not just about goals and assists, and maybe that’s part of why Getzlaf doesn’t get as much recognition. He can be nasty on the ice, even if Perry tends to draw a greater share of opponents’ ire. Getzlaf didn’t necessarily impress his critics at every turn with how he handled a recent controversy, either.

Also, if you’re the type to mock the follicularly challenged, this flash from the past might be amusing and/or useful:

So, Getzlaf has his critics for both on and off the ice behavior. He’s also had his setbacks, especially if you don’t give him much credit for the Stanley Cup he won as a young player (collecting 17 points in 21 games while averaging 21:43 TOI, by the way).

Love him or hate him, it’s probably fair to call him underrated, at least when you consider how rarely his name comes up in discussions about the league’s most dominant scorers. This latest milestone is a reminder that he’s among the best, particularly when it comes to making plays.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How going back to junior helped Mathew Barzal become a dominant player

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Every hockey player wants to get to the NHL as fast as possible, but sometimes spending an extra year in junior or in the minors can make a huge difference.

Mathew Barzal played two games with the New York Islanders at the beginning of last season before being sent back to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. There’s no doubt that Barzal would’ve wanted to spend the year in the NHL like fellow rookie Anthony Beauvillier did, but it didn’t end up happening.

Barzal went back to Seattle with the right attitude. He ended up working on his game and having a huge year for the Thunderbirds, his country and himself. He finished his junior campaign with 10 goals and 79 points in only 41 games. Barzal was an influential part of his team’s first ever WHL Championship, as he accumulated seven goals and 25 points in 16 playoff games. He also added two assists in three games at the 2017 Memorial Cup (Seattle went 0-3 in the tournament).

The Isles forward also served as an assistant captain for Team Canada at last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. It was his second straight season on Canada’s roster. In his first year, he had three points in five games. Last year, he had an impressive eight points in seven tournament games. Unfortunately for Canada, they lost in the gold medal game to Team USA.

“I think (going back to junior) helped,” Barzal told PHT earlier this week. “I think it just let me play my game. I got to play lots of minutes, make a deep playoff run and win a championship. I had a good coach there in Seattle (Steve Konowalchuk) that kept me honest as a 19-year-old. I went to the World Juniors, I got a lot of good experience playing in big games. I think it was just a good development year.”

Through 46 games this season, the rookie has already amassed 16 goals and an impressive 47 points. We’ll never know if he would’ve been able to accomplish that had he not gone back to the WHL last season, but it certainly didn’t hinder his development.

“(Barzal’s) game has skyrocketed since late in October last year when he went back to junior,” head coach Doug Weight said. “He worked on the things he needed to work on. It’s refreshing to see when you have that tough meeting and you challenge him in those things and the things you’re supposed to say as a coach and a friend. He went back and he worked on it and it showed in his game in Seattle.

“He’s had a lot thrown at him and he’s just been terrific.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Isles have Beauvillier, who was developed in a different way. Barzal (15th overall) and Beauvillier (28th overall) were both selected in the first round of the 2015 Draft. Instead of going back to junior, Beauvillier stuck around in the NHL. He finished last season with a modest nine goals and 24 points in 66 games. This year, he seems to have hit a wall while Barzal has been flat-out dominant.

During the Islanders’ bye week earlier this month, they assigned Beauvillier to the minors where he played three games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (he scored two goals). The 20-year-old has eight goals and four assists in 35 games this season.

Unlike Barzal, Beauvillier just seems to be holding on for dear life in the NHL right now. That doesn’t mean he won’t develop into a solid player, but going back to junior and dominating for a year might have been better for his development (yes, hindsight is 20/20).

Most of the talk around the Islanders organization has been about John Tavares potentially becoming an unrestricted free agent in July. Losing their captain would be devastating, but the fact that they’ve helped develop Barzal into a dominant player would lessen the blow if Tavares decides to leave.

Of course if he sticks around, the Islanders would have a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a double header on Thursday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

These two teams will be going head-to-head for the first time since they met in the 2018 Winter Classic which the Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.

The Sabres are back in action after a six-day break. They went into their bye week with a 3-1 win over Columbus, but they had dropped their previous five games.

The first half of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Buffalo. Only the Arizona Coyotes have accumulated less points (28) than the Sabres’ 31.

Even though their playoff dreams are all but crushed, they’ll still have to find motivation to play out the rest of the season. The wins and losses might not matter at this point, but showing professional pride always does.

“I don’t think you ever lose your motivation,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, per The Buffalo News. “I do what I love. I can’t speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it’s always exciting to play hockey. I’m always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you’re just that much more hungry and excited about it.”

As for the Rangers, they were able to put their three-game losing streak to bed with a big 5-1 win over the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. New York gave up the first goal in that game, but they managed to score five unanswered goals. Forward Rick Nash busted out of his 12-game goalless slump with a two-goal performance.

“It was obviously a huge difference to play in goal,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist told The New York Post after the win. “It’s funny how it works. We play our best defensive game in a very long time and we score five goals. I don’t remember the last time we scored five goals.”

As strange as this season has been for the Rangers, they still find themselves in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s still a lot of games that need to be played, but they’re right in the thick of things in the East.

You’d have to think that a win over Buffalo is a must for a team currently in New York’s position.

In the late game, the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Pens saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in last night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring in the first period, but Pittsburgh watched as Anaheim scored four consecutive goals in the middle frame.

“We did some good things, we just made some big mistakes in the second period,” Sidney Crosby said, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Give up that many goals and that many breakaways in a short period of time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Even though the Penguins have four wins in their last five games, they can’t afford to get complacent. They only have a one point lead on the New York Islanders (the Isles have a game in hand) for the last Wild Card spot.

Things won’t get any easier for them, as the team announced that they’ll be without Matt Murray for an indefinite period of time after the passing of his father. They’ll be relying on Tristan Jarry until Murray is able to return.

For the Kings, getting out of their recent funk is a priority. They dropped the two games prior to their bye week and they’ve lost two more decisions since coming back. To make matters worse, three of those four losses have come against Pacific Division rivals (Flames, Ducks, Sharks).

They’re still sitting a playoff spot, but it’s probably not the one they want to be in. The Kings are in the final Wild Card spot in the West. They have the same number of points as Minnesota (53) who is behind them, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. On a positive note, they’re only one point behind the Sharks and Flames for second and third in the division.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Weather forces AHL’s Charlotte Checkers to play game in empty arena (Video)

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The Director of Finance/Controller filled in as the public address announcer. The Chief Operating Officer acted as the arena DJ. Ticket sales staff? They worked as the ice crew. A corporate salesperson ran the video board. The camerawoman regularly handles merchandise. Even the mascot, Chubby, was played by a corporate servicing specialist.

Wednesday night wasn’t your typical American Hockey League game at Bojangles’ Coliseum for the Charlotte Checkers. Inclement weather in the area forced the team to close the game to the public. But since the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and referees were already in town, and it would have been difficult to get Bridgeport back to Charlotte for a makeup, it was game on.

So in front of a crowd of, well, Checkers employees doubling as game operations staff, the teams played and the home side came out on top 4-3, thanks to a three-goal third period.

Here’s what a goal by the home team sounded like:

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The lack of a crowd didn’t stop the Checkers from acting like it was a normal game day. The mascot kept working and even “Cotton-Eyed Joe” was played to rev up the…players, I guess? It also wouldn’t have been a game night without the “Kiss Cam.”

Tonight was fun. Thanks for following along and staying safe. #BehindClosedDoors2

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This wasn’t the first time the team has played a game that was closed to the public. Back in 2016 Winter Storm Jonas caused a number of sporting events to be postponed, but not for the Checkers, who had their staff run the game.

The Checkers are off the next two days as they prepare to face the Rochester Americans in a two-game set this weekend. The weather in Charlotte will be much better over the next couple of days, which means the Checkers’ staff will be able to get back to their regular jobs.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.