The Winnipeg Jets can thank their own St. Patrik for their success this season and potentially for years to come.
Patrik Laine was the consolation prize in the 2016 NHL draft behind generational talent Auston Matthews. But he has been a cause for celebration in Winnipeg as a franchise-changing superstar at age 19.
Mathieu Perreault saw the power Alex Ovechkin had to alter the direction of the Washington Capitals and turn them into a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender. When Laine arrived from Finland, the winger started doing the same things in Winnipeg.
“The organization wasn’t having a whole lot of success, and then they get Ovi as a young kid and he starts scoring goals, and all of a sudden the team starts winning,” Perreault said.
“They became a very dominant team for many years. So you kind of sense that here, where the team’s been struggling for many years, not making the playoffs. And then you get this young kid coming in and scoring goals for your team and helps your team win games. I think coming up in Winnipeg we’ll have a dominant team for many years.”
That’s because Laine is already a dominant player. With 16 goals and eight assists in his past 14 games, Laine has the longest point streak by a teenager and already passed Wayne Gretzky for the most goals by a player before turning 20.
The best part for the Jets? Laine is just getting started.
“It’s really impressive when you factor in he’s still learning the game,” coach Paul Maurice said. “His scoring has taken off of late, but so has his game, his all-around game. … He’s an impressive young man at 19. At any age, those numbers would be elite. But at 19, that’s pretty exciting because there’s lot of room as he physically matures, for his game to change and become a power forward and a big, strong man who can score off the rush. Take pucks to the net. There are lots of places Patty is going to improve over the years.”
Laine is drawing comparisons to Ovechkin for his shot, which teammates and opposing goaltenders say is even more deceptive than the Russian 600-goal scorer ‘s blast. Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has taken Ovechkin shots in practice for years, said Laine’s long stick changes the angle of where the puck is going.
“He shoots it, he pulls it in a little bit weird – long stick – and makes it really hard for us to read,” Grubauer said.
As much as Laine looked up to Ovechkin as a kid, the respect is now mutual. When Ovechkin scored twice Monday to reach 600 and get to 42 this season, Laine answered with his 41st and showed he has what it takes to go goal-for-goal with hockey’s best.
“He’s a great talent and still young and still can produce lots of dangerous (chances),” Ovechkin said.
Laine said it has always been a goal to win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer, and he’s in the race to do that. Entering Saturday, he’s one behind Ovechkin and one ahead of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
“It’s always been one of my dreams to win it,” Laine said. “It’s good motivation for me.”
Laine is also motivated by trying to help set the Jets up for the playoffs and make a long run this spring. Winnipeg has been banged up and secondary scoring has been hot and cold, but Laine’s scoring pace has his teammates believing anything is possible.
“You give him one opportunity and it’s in the back of the net,” Perreault said. “Right now every shot it seems goes in. It helps us win games when he scores like that. It’s been fun to see.”
Maurice doesn’t know what he sees as Laine’s ceiling, but doesn’t think it matters. As Laine’s game rounds out, he’ll face different kinds of defensive challenges, and then it’ll be up to him to prove he can sustain scoring the way Ovechkin has over the past decade-plus.
“The overall game Patty will play will become far more important than whether it’s 40, 50 or whatever that number (of goals) ends up being,” Maurice said.
“At some point, Patty is going to play 20 minutes a night. Maybe not at 19, but when that happens, he’ll be playing against the `A’ group. It’s not as easy to keep scoring like Ovechkin has when you move up the lineup and you play more minutes and you play against the other teams’ best.”
The Florida Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NHL and desperately trying to make an improbable run for one of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Great goaltending will go a long way toward getting them there, and Roberto Luongo is still one of the best in the business even in his age 38 season.
On Saturday afternoon against the Edmonton Oilers he made one of the saves of the year when he did this to help the Panthers hold on to a 2-1 lead in the second period.
That looked like it was going to be a sure goal for Anton Slepyshev.
Luongo has been limited to just 26 games this season but has been absolutely spectacular when he has played, carrying a .926 save percentage into Saturday’s game.
Unfortunately for the Panthers that save by Luongo was not enough on Saturday as they ended up giving up three consecutive goals to fall, 4-2.
The Panthers entered the day three points out of a playoff spot with games in hand on the teams they are chasing. They are still 16-5-1 win since Jan. 30, but if the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets pick up wins on Saturday their playoff chances are going to take a pretty significant hit, even with the games still in hand.
It has been nearly one month since the NHL trade deadline came and went, so let’s check in with how some of the key acquisitions are doing for their new teams.
Obviously this is a pretty ridiculously small sampling of games, and a lot can still happen over the next few weeks and months (and over the next several years!) but we can still get an idea as to which moves have made an immediate impact and which ones have not.
First, a bunch of numbers involving all of the key players traded between Feb. 20 and the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
So … how about Ryan Spooner?
Included as part of the trade that sent Rick Nash to Boston, Spooner has taken full advantage of his increased role with the rebuilding Rangers and made a pretty significant impact with his new team and has already recorded five multiple point games. He only had four with the Bruins before the trade.
It is going to create an interesting dilemma for the Rangers heading into the offseason as Spooner will be a restricted free agent and eligible for a new contract. Do they re-sign him for what will probably be at least $3 million per season (keep in mind he already makes $2.85 million this season) or try to capitalize on what is a pretty obvious hot streak and see if they can flip him for more assets around the draft?
The biggest concern at this point is that his possession numbers have plummeted with the Rangers (some of that has to be the result of going from Boston, one of the best teams in the league, to whatever is left of the Rangers) and there is no way he is going to maintain that sort of assist pace. But he has a track record of at least being a 40-50 point player the past few years without getting huge minutes, so there might be something there the Rangers can work with if they choose to.
Just below him is one of the players the Rangers shipped out of town as part of their roster purge, forward J.T. Miller.
With injury limiting defenseman Ryan McDonagh to just two games with the Lightning, the other player acquired in that trade has already made quite an impact recording at least one point in five of his first seven games with the team, including his first career hat trick.
Meanwhile, in San Jose, Evander Kane has been a shots on goal machine for the Sharks and finally had a breakout game on Friday night when he scored four goals in a huge 7-4 win over the Calgary Flames. It is doubtful that he will be anymore more than a rental for the Sharks, but he has made a pretty significant impact so far and is probably going to get them into the playoffs, and they really didn’t give up all that much in terms of future assets to acquire him.
Probably the biggest surprise trade of the season came when the St. Louis Blues, still very much in the playoff race, traded Paul Stastny to Winnipeg to help make an already powerful Jets offense even better. That trade has not disappointed for the Jets. Stastny has recorded at least one point in all but one game he has played with his new team while the Jets are 5-2-1 with him in the lineup.
At the other end of the spectrum the Devils have not really received much production from Michael Grabner. He went eight games without a point before recording a goal and an assist in their big win over Vegas. Still, he brings an element of speed to a lineup that is suddenly one of the faster ones in the league. He can still be a dangerous, impactful player even if he is not scoring goals.
Vegas gave up a lot of draft assets to get Tomas Tatar and he has not really produced a ton yet, but he has proven to be a pretty consistent 25-goal winger in the NHL and is signed through next season, something that could be important if the Golden Knights are not able to re-sign James Neal or David Perron after this season.
Tomas Plekanec, going from Montreal to Toronto, is the only key player moved during deadline week that is still pointless with his new team. He has played less than 10 minutes in each of the Maple Leafs’ past three games.
Friday turned out to be a big night in the NHL playoff race with Dallas and Calgary dropping key games, the Sharks and Ducks getting huge wins and the Nashville Predators becoming the first team to clinch a spot in the postseason.
The Flames loss might prove to be a devastating loss as it drops them four points back of the competition, while the Stars are clinging to that second wild card spot by the slimmest of margins.
Saturday is going to be another pivotal day in the race, and not just for teams that are on the playoff bubble, but also for teams that are playing for seeding.
The Eastern Conference playoff race has some huge games on Saturday. The Panthers, entering the day three points back of the New Jersey Devils for the second spot and coming off of a huge win against Boston, are hosting Edmonton for an afternoon game while the Devils are in Los Angeles. The Panthers still have the games in hand edge working in their favor against both Columbus and New Jersey but we are at a point here where if they drop a game or two, and the others pick up an additional win, it is going to make that gap really difficult to overcome. The Devils have slowed down in recent weeks (5-5-0 in their past 10) while the Blue Jackets and Panthers keep stacking wins.
The Blue Jackets are at home against Ottawa today looking to run their winning streak to seven games and potentially jump back into the top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division depending on what happens with the Philadelphia Flyers game against Carolina. The Flyers are trending in the wrong direction lately with losses in seven of their past eight.
The most intriguing game of the day though is probably in Tampa Bay where the top two teams in the East meet in a crucial game in the Atlantic Division race. The Lightning enter the day four points ahead of the Bruins and a win (especially one in regulation) could go a long way toward securing the division title and the top spot in the Eastern Conference. A regulation win moves them six points up with 11 games to play (12 for Boston). A Boston win, however, would close the gap to two points while the Bruins would still have a game in hand and two head-to-head games remaining after Saturday.
[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]
The schedule in the Western Conference for Saturday is not quite as intriguing as a lot of the key players in the playoff race have the day off.
The Blues are still trying to cling to a playoff spot but have five points to make up on a bunch of teams ahead of them. They are playing the New York Rangers on Saturday night. This is pretty much a must-win for the Blues.
Meanwhile, the Sharks, coming off of a huge win against Calgary on Friday, are in Vancouver to play a Canucks team that has lost six in a row, nine out of 10, and have not scored a goal in more than three games. They have only scored three goals in their past five games. A Sharks win on Saturday would go a long way toward deciding their playoff fate and would put them five points clear of the teams on the outside of the playoff picture. The Kings also need to pick up some points against the Devils.
If The Playoffs Started Today
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Saturday’s Key Games
Edmonton Oilers vs. Florida Panthers
New Jersey Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings
Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Ottawa Senators vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
New York Rangers vs. St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks vs. Vancouver Canucks