Jason Brough

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The Panthers need to ignore the noise and just start winning

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Whatever’s happening behind the scenes of the Florida Panthers — and there are varying accounts, to be sure — the only real solution for this team is to start winning some hockey games.

Keep losing and the criticism will continue, whether it’s fair or not. The Panthers do things their own way, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But when a team that hasn’t won a playoff series in a couple of decades starts talking about winning “multiple Stanley Cups,” there are bound to be people who hope that team fails.

This is also what happens when a team that used to be ignored starts getting more league-wide attention. The Panthers are doing some interesting things. They are going out on a limb with analytics, and more and more people are watching to see how they fare. Some want them to succeed. But again, others want them to fall flat on their faces.

When the Panthers fired Gerard Gallant, it became “a PR nightmare” after photos emerged showing the ex-coach taking a taxi in Carolina. A few days later, Gallant said things were “getting blown out of proportion,” but by then, the damage had been done. That the team has continued to lose under interim coach Tom Rowe has only brightened the spotlight.

Read more: A ‘philosophical divide’ led to Gallant firing

Then came yesterday’s report that Dale Tallon was back in charge of hockey ops. The Panthers fired back, saying he’s never not been in charge.

That, in turn, led to Bob McKenzie’s radio rant today, during which the widely respected TSN/NBC insider said, “Technically, nothing has changed in Florida. Everybody’s got the same title. They’re going out of their way now to say nothing has happened. I will tell you what happened. After the game the other night, where they lost, and lost badly, and Roberto Luongo smashed his stick on the boards and threw a tantrum as he went off the ice, and Tom Rowe threw a tantrum on the bench, and that put them to 2-3-3, seven points out of a possible 16 since they fired head coach Gerard Gallant, we do know that the owner, Vinnie Viola, met with Dale Tallon the next morning and immediately following that, there was certainly word out in the NHL community that, whatever role Dale had before, that there may have been some added responsibility.”

For the players, it’s all a bunch of unwelcome noise. They’ve got enough on their plates, what with being five points back of a playoff spot. The way the top five teams in the Metropolitan are rolling, it looks like only three Atlantic teams are going to make the postseason. Montreal’s already got a nice cushion, which could leave only two spots for Ottawa, Boston, Tampa Bay, Florida, Detroit, Toronto, and Buffalo to grab. So whatever happens, there are going to be some very noteworthy teams that miss the playoffs this year.

Looking ahead, the Panthers play tonight in Winnipeg against a Jets team that should be rested and ready to go. Tomorrow they’re in Colorado, where the Avalanche continue to flounder. After that, Florida returns home for five huge divisional games with Buffalo, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal.

When all’s said and done, these next seven games could very well determine whether the Panthers make or miss the playoffs. And we can only imagine the fallout if they miss.

Letang out a ‘couple of weeks’ with lower-body injury

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Kris Letang is hurt again. The Penguins’ best defenseman will miss “a couple of weeks” with a lower-body injury, according to head coach Mike Sullivan.

Letang logged 26:23 of ice time in last night’s 4-3 OT victory over the Bruins. It’s not clear how he got injured, though he did take a hit from David Backes that could’ve caused the issue.

With no Letang, expect to see Justin Schultz‘s role increase over the next two weeks. It may also be an opportunity for young Derrick Pouliot, who’s currently in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Steve Oleksy was a healthy scratch versus Boston, so the Penguins do have six healthy defensemen, even without Letang.

The Pens have five games before the Christmas break, starting Friday when they host Los Angeles.

Letang missed five games in October with an upper-body injury. Pittsburgh went 4-1-0 without him.

Related: Pouliot’s goal is to become ‘full-time player’ for Penguins

The Jets are finally rested, and it’s time to start winning

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Fatigue can’t be an excuse anymore. The Winnipeg Jets have had three days off. Starting tonight against Florida, they really need to put some wins together.

The Jets (13-16-3) started the season in grueling fashion, with 32 games in 60 days. By the mid-point of November, it began to show. They went 4-9-1 from Nov. 17 to Dec. 11, making them the NHL’s worst team over that stretch.

“Sometimes you’d dig into the bank and there’s nothing left in there,” said forward Blake Wheeler, per the Winnipeg Free Press. “That’s kind of a bad feeling. You normally have that reserve to tap into and to have that gone on a given night, that makes it tough… There’s obviously an element of mental fatigue that goes with the travel and everything but the physical burden can sometimes be more challenging.”

Looking ahead, Winnipeg plays four times before the Christmas break, and all four games are winnable. Tonight it’s the Panthers at MTS Centre, Sunday the Avalanche pay a visit, then it’s off to Vancouver for a pair of games against the Canucks.

The Jets are only one point back of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference; however, that’s a little misleading, since they’ve played four more games than the Predators.

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Tonight’s opposition should also be a motivated group, as the Panthers too are fighting to stay in playoff contention. Whoever wins will get a much-needed two points. Whoever loses will fall further back and face more, tougher questions.

Related: Tyler Myers, who’s missed 16 straight, has ‘plateaued’ in recovery

Pre-game reading: Imagine if Iginla gets traded to Edmonton…or Calgary!

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— Up top, frustrations are clearly boiling over for the Florida Panthers, who lost again last night in Minnesota. Roberto Luongo was pulled after allowing five goals on just 17 shots, then nearly killed Vincent Trocheck. (Unintentionally, we think.)

— The Hockey News comes up with five possible trade destinations for Jarome Iginla, a pending unrestricted free agent on a bad team. One is Edmonton, which would be amazing. Another is Calgary, which would be even more amazing. Iginla, 39, has just three goals in 27 games for the Avalanche this season; however, he does have 52 shots, so it’s not like he’s been totally lacking chances. (The Hockey News)

— Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is rightly worried about his team. “We’re falling in some categories — our penalty killing is dropping, our goals against, our shots against. We’re in the bottom half of the league now in those three categories, and those categories have to be good in order to win.” The Bolts kick off a three-game road trip tonight in Calgary, where the Flames have won four straight. (ESPN)

— If you missed it yesterday, don’t forget to read Elliotte Friedman’s weekly “30 Thoughts.” It includes a tidbit about Eric Staal, who’s been such a good fit with the Wild. Writes Friedman: “I’d heard he was really disappointed in himself after last season, and changed his regimen to deal with that. Staal is very proud and played down the ‘disappointed’ aspect, but admitted he started skating earlier than he used to in the off-season.” (Sportsnet)

— Bruins coach Claude Julien on 19-year-old prospect Jesse Gabrielle: “He’s very energetic. He’s got a good shot. He reminds me a little bit of Brad Marchand in his early years: He’s a little bit reckless, and at times maybe he’s not controlling his emotions. … But he’s got a lot of upside.” Gabrielle currently leads WHL Prince George with 19 goals in 27 games. (CSN New England)

— Speaking of the Bruins, Montreal’s Paul Byron scored a big goal against the B’s on Monday. It was his 10th goal of the season, and it sent the game to overtime, allowing the Habs to salvage a point from a game they trailed late. The Canadiens plucked Byron off the waiver wire last year, and that’s sure proven to be a good move by GM Marc Bergevin. (Eyes on the Prize)

Enjoy the games!

Babcock wants Leafs to be aggressive with the lead

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One of the youngest teams in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs are still learning how to win hockey games.

If they could only figure out how to win the third period, they’d be in much better shape standings-wise.

Consider:

— The Leafs have won just 10 of the 16 games they’ve led after two periods, falling once in regulation and five times in overtime or the shootout.
— Their goal differential is plus-5 in the first two periods combined, and minus-6 in the third.

Last night against San Jose, the Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Zach Hyman and Auston Matthews. But the Sharks scored twice in the third, then won it in the shootout.

“We have left points out there,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. “I think part of it is just not continuing to play with your foot on the gas as much. I didn’t think they took it to us big time or anything like that.”

They didn’t, really. The Sharks only outshot the Leafs, 13-9, in the third. They tied it on the power play with just 5:10 remaining, after d-man Matt Hunwick got called for interference.

But Babcock will keep telling his players the same thing.

“The best way to play when you have the lead is like when you have the first tied and you play like you want to get the next one, so you’re on your toes and you continue to get after the other team and you don’t just try to defend back in and play careful,” he said.

That, of course, is easier said than done, when the natural instinct is to play it safe with a lead. Get too aggressive and turn the puck over, you’re not going to look too smart if it ends up in your net.

So it’s a fine line, and the Leafs are learning where it is. They’re 11-11-6 after 28 games, six points back of third place in the Atlantic Division, i.e. six points back of a playoff spot.

Toronto hosts Arizona Thursday.

Lowest winning percentages when leading after two periods

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