Peter Budaj

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers circles the net with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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Barkov’s beautiful goal pushes Panthers into playoff position

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The Florida Panthers just won’t be denied as they end the night in the East’s top eight.

It’s fitting, then, that Aleksander Barkov wouldn’t be denied on his game-winner against Los Angeles on Saturday.

Barkov bursts beyond multiple Kings, fights off what would have been an obstruction penalty and then beats Peter Budaj by the narrowest of margins to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead 15 seconds into the third period. They would never relinquish that edge to Los Angeles, winning their fourth game in a row.

In the process, the Panthers – a team that seemed to be fledgling when it fired Gerard Gallant – now find themselves in the East’s top eight. Heck, they’re actually above the wild card fray by a hair.

Before we get to that … just bask in the glow of this Barkov goal:

Again, it was such a small window to beat Budaj, too:

(If the Panthers’ place in the standings doesn’t sway you into taking them seriously, maybe note plays like that and the fact that Barkov has 20 points in his last 17 games.)

OK, so with this win, the Panthers did some serious leapfrogging. They now rank third in the Atlantic Division (thanks to a game in hand on Boston) and have more points than Toronto as far as wild card concerns go, anyway.

Atlantic Division rankings

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 games
2. Senators – 68 points in 56 games
3. Panthers – 64 points in 57 games

Bruins – 64 in 58
Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Sabres – 62 in 59
Lightning – 58 in 57
Red Wings – 56 in 58

From a wild card perspective

Third in Atlantic – Panthers – 64 points in 57 games
Second wild card – Bruins – 64 in 58

Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Islanders – 62 in 57
Sabres – 62 in 59
Flyers – 61 in 58
Devils – 60 in 58
Lightning – 58 in 57
Hurricanes – 56 in 54
Red Wings – 56 in 58

Everything’s so close that the Panthers can’t pop champagne bottles, but they’re also very much in control over their hopes. While it never hurts to see your competitors stumble, the Panthers can take care of business. They “control their own destiny,” to use silly sports parlance.

And considering how they’ve been playing lately, they might be as tough to handle in the playoffs as Barkov was to stop on that outstanding 3-2 goal.

Goalie Nods: Cam Talbot makes 53rd start for Oilers

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 05:  Cam Talbot #33 of the Edmonton Oilers looks on during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on February 5, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Edmonton Oilers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in a shootout.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Edmonton Oilers are on their way to the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season and there are quite a few players responsible for the turnaround, including two young forwards — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — residing in the top-16 in scoring. McDavid, currently pacing the league at 64 points entering Saturday and giving Sidney Crosby a run for his money when it comes to the best player in the league, is perhaps the biggest factor.

But one of the more underrated parts of their turnaround remains the play of starting goaltender Cam Talbot.

Not only because he has a .920 save percentage on the season (7th in the league among the 32 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games), but also because of how often he has been able to play.

When he takes his spot between the pipes on Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks he will be matching his career high (set a year ago in his first season with the Oilers) by making his 53rd start of the season. No other goalie in the league has started more than 49 games.

His backups, Jonas Gustavsson and Laurent Brossoit, have started just six games this season and combined for only an .890 save percentage.

A lot of the Oilers’ improvement this season defensively (and in the standings) has come from the fact they have a starting goaltender that has been able to play in almost every game this season and also give them a top-10 performance.

The Blackhawks will go with Corey Crawford.

Elsewhere on Saturday…

— St. Louis’ Jake Allen went against Robin Lehner in Buffalo, while Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck matched up against Carey Price in Montreal. It was Braden Holtby vs. Petr Mrazek in Detroit.

Thomas Greiss, winner in three of his past five starts, gets the call for the New York Islanders as they look to keep pace in the Eastern Conference wild card race. He goes against New Jersey’s Cory Schneider.

Craig Anderson returns to the Senators’ net on Saturday when he takes on Frederik Andersen in the battle of Ontario. This could be a potential first-round matchup in the Atlantic Division.

Aaron Dell, who has played extremely well this season as a backup to Martin Jones, gets a rare start for the San Jose Sharks when he gets the call against Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

— It will be Andrei Vasilevskiy against Kari Lehtonen in Dallas on Saturday in a game that might have been looked at as a potential Stanley Cup Final matchup before the start of the season. Now, it is just two disappointing teams desperately trying to stay in the playoff race.

Devan Dubnyk looks to continue his Vezina Trophy worthy campaign on Saturday night when he gets back in the net against Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators. The Predators are returning from their bye week.

— After Jacob Markstrom had a tough night on Thursday, taking the blame for the defeat, Ryan Miller draws back in for the Vancouver Canucks when they host the Calgary Flames. The Flames will counter with Brian Elliott.

Peter Budaj is the likely starter for the Los Angeles Kings when they take on a Florida Panthers team that is starting to find its stride. The Panthers have yet to announce their starter.

Sutter pins loss to Coyotes on Budaj

Arizona Coyotes left wing Brendan Perlini, o Britain, center, scores on Los Angeles Kings goalie Peter Budaj, right, of Slovakia, as defenseman Drew Doughty tries to defend during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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Peter Budaj has been a great story for the Los Angeles Kings. The 34-year-old goalie wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL this season, until an injury to Jonathan Quick forced him into action. Budaj has 26 victories, tied for seventh most in the league with Henrik Lundqvist.

All that being said, Budaj has struggled in his last four outings, surrendering 16 goals in all. Last night, his coach called a spade a spade after a 5-3 loss to Arizona in which the Kings outshot the Coyotes 44-22.

“I don’t think our goaltending was very good tonight,” said Darryl Sutter, per LA Kings Insider. “Big saves and bad goals are the difference in most hockey games now.”

Sutter added, “I’m sure [Budaj] would like to have three of the four goals back.”

The fifth Coyotes goal was scored into an empty net, sealing the loss for the Kings, who remained one point back of Calgary for the second wild-card spot.

Quick, meanwhile, is not expected to return until early March, so it’ll be up to Budaj to carry the mail until then.

L.A.’s other goalie, Jeff Zatkoff, is 2-7-1 with an .879 save percentage and hasn’t made a start in almost a month.

The Kings’ next game is Saturday at home to Florida.

Coyotes ‘capitalize early,’ hold on to upset Kings

Arizona Coyotes left wing Brendan Perlini, of Great Britain, celebrates his goal with center Christian Dvorak during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Coyotes won 5-3. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) The Arizona Coyotes haven’t had many chances to protect a lead this season. They’re starting to learn what it takes.

Against the desperate Los Angeles Kings, battling to make the playoffs, Coyotes youngsters Brendan Perlini and Jordan Martinook got prime chances to put those lessons into practice.

Perlini scored twice and Martinook added short-handed and empty-net goals in the third period as Arizona held off the Kings’ late attempt at a comeback for a 5-3 win Thursday night.

“If you have a lead more, then you learn more about it,” said Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, who made 41 saves. “We’ve been doing that a little bit more. Sooner or later, we’ll figure it out.”

After Tanner Pearson scored midway through the third period to cut the Coyotes’ lead to 2-1, Perlini responded with a clever wrist shot. Dustin Brown‘s goal was answered by Martinook’s short-handed goal.

Both goals were the kind of gut checks that the Coyotes couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have made earlier in the season, Perlini said, but are finally coming as they picked up their fourth win in their last six games.

“It shows how our group has kind of come together,” Martinook said. “They score and we score right back. Obviously it kind of kept going that way.”

Tobias Rieder chipped in with his 13th goal of the season and Oliver Ekman-Larsson picked up a point for the fifth consecutive game with his sixth assist in that span.

Pearson scored twice, Brown had a goal and an assist and Peter Budaj had 17 saves for the Kings, who trail Calgary by one point for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

While the Kings were coming off a four-game road trip and their bye week as Staples Center hosted the Grammy Awards, the Coyotes mustered more energy early on. Perlini scored a power-play goal 4:51 into the first period, and Rieder followed up 16 seconds later.

Perlini initially missed completely on his first shot attempt after Radim Vrbata‘s pass deflected off Drew Doughty, but was able to recover with a shot over Budaj’s left shoulder into the top corner. It was Perlini’s ninth goal of the season and second on the power play.

“We did that against Calgary the other night,” Perlini said. “We knew it’s tough coming off a break, obviously. You don’t have your legs or whatever, so we tried to capitalize early and did.”

Before the Kings could regroup, Alex Goligoski poked the puck from Brown in the neutral zone to start a wild sequence. Rieder scored over Budaj’s right stick side, but the referee initially waived off a clear goal. Josh Jooris then scored as play continued with Budaj buried on his back by a Kings player and a Coyotes player, but it was superseded by Rieder’s initial shot following a video review.

“You fell behind a couple early and you are chasing the game,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said. “Like I said, we’ve just got to play better. When you are down two, you are just trying to push the envelope as much as you can.”

Pearson finally got the Kings on the board with 11:22 remaining in the third period, only for Perlini to notch his second career multigoal game. Brown followed up his own miss to cut the Kings’ deficit to 3-2 with 8:53 to play, but Martinook delivered on the penalty kill after Smith hit Brown in the face with his stick in a typically chippy divisional rivalry.

Martinook scored into an empty net with 1:25 left, but Pearson made it a two-goal deficit again with 23 seconds remaining.

 

Goalie nods: Philly sticks with Neuvirth in second of back-to-back

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers looks on during the second  period of a game against Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on October 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Desperate for points as they fight for a playoff spot, the Flyers will once again roll with Michal Neuvirth when they take on the Oilers in Edmonton tonight.

Last night, Neuvirth was in for 3-1 loss in Calgary. Though he wasn’t overly busy — just 22 shots faced — he’s still a bit of a surprise starter, given Steve Mason hasn’t played in a week and has a .918 save percentage over his last five appearances.

Neuvirth, though, is clearly the more in-form ‘tender. He’s 3-2-1 in his last six outings, boasting a 1.34 GAA and .940 save percentage.

For the Oilers, no questions over who starts in goal. Cam Talbot gets his NHL-leading 52nd nod of the year.

Elsewhere…

Mike Condon returns to the Ottawa net after Craig Anderson started the last two. The host Devils will counter with Cory Schneider, who’s coming off a 28-save win over the Avalanche on Tuesday.

— After Antti Raanta started on Monday, Henrik Lundqvist returns to the Rangers net for a rivalry game against the Isles. Lundqvist will face Thomas Greiss, who has host three of his last five.

Ondrej Pavelec‘s still out injured, so Connor Hellebuyck makes another start for the Jets. He’ll be up against Marc-Andre Fleury, who last played on Saturday in a loss to the Coyotes.

— Jeremy Smith made his NHL debut for the Avs on Tuesday, so Calvin Pickard draws back in tonight in Buffalo. Robin Lehner, coming off a banner 39-save win over his former Ottawa team earlier this week, gets another start.

— It’s Jacob Markstrom versus Jake Allen as the Canucks take on the Blues in St. Louis.

— Minnesota will give Darcy Kuemper his second start in five games when it hosts Dallas. The Stars will counter with Kari Lehtonen, after Antti Niemi lost to the Jets on Tuesday.

Mike Smith, fresh off a 36-save shutout of the Flames on Monday, gets right back in for the Coyotes, who are in L.A. The Kings are going with Peter Budaj.