Jason Brough

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On Jagr’s 45th birthday, Panthers begin crucial California swing

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The Florida Panthers are rested and healthy and ready to make a run.

But a three-game journey through California could just as soon doom their playoff hopes. They’re in San Jose tonight (on NBCSN), Anaheim Friday, and Los Angeles Saturday. Then, on their way back to Florida, they have to make a stop in St. Louis to take on the revitalized Blues.

“We know these games are very important to us to start climbing the standings and get ourselves into a playoff spot,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said, per the Miami Herald.

wild-cardThe Panthers are coming off a 7-4 victory in Nashville on Saturday, an encouraging bounce-back after that bye-week “hangover” loss to the Kings.

But in order to make the playoffs, it’s estimated the Panthers (24-20-10) will have to go around 16-9-3 in their remaining 28 games. With a full lineup, including Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, that’s doable. Any extended losing streaks, however, and it will be tough to recover.

Of note, today is Jaromir Jagr‘s 45th birthday. The ageless wonder is by far the oldest player in the NHL. The next oldest is Shane Doan, who’s 40.

The fifth overall draft pick in 1990, Jagr played for the Pittsburgh Penguins as an 18-year-old rookie. At the time, the oldest player on the Pens was Bryan Trottier, who is now 60.

What’s been the key to his longevity?

“When they’re talented and skilled, if players in any sport decide that they can work as hard as anybody else, then they can play forever,” Jagr said, per the Sun-Sentinel. “They’ll always have the edge. … You can’t take a day off. Once you do you lose it very quickly.”

A ‘change had to be made’ — Bergevin explains firing of Therrien

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The way Marc Bergevin sold it, the firing of Michel Therrien had everything to do with the way the Canadiens were playing and nothing to do with, well, anything else.

It didn’t happen because Claude Julien suddenly became available.

It didn’t happen because the owner stepped in.

It didn’t happen because Carey Price was never the same after that game in December when Price glared at the bench after being pulled.

And it had nothing to do with that reported meeting in Arizona that Bergevin held with his team leaders, and without Therrien.

It was simply this — after starting the season 25-9-6, the Canadiens are 6-10-2 in their last 18 games. On Sunday, in Therrien’s last game behind the bench, they got blasted, 4-0, in Boston.

“We were not the same team as we were earlier on,” Bergevin said at a press conference today. “There was something missing. The team’s performance showed that there was something not right, and the change had to be made.”

The general manager did want to clear one thing up, about that meeting in Arizona that caused such a buzz back home in Montreal.

“I want to be clear on this, because that was blown out of proportion,” he said. “Michel and I had a meeting in the morning, and we were talking like we talk every day, and I mentioned that I was going to meet some players and (I invited him) to join me. And Michel said, ‘You know what, Marc? Today’s a day off for the team, for the coaches. Maybe you just go alone.’

“So Michel was aware of the situation, and it was not about Michel Therrien, my conversation (with the players). I’m not going to go into detail what we talked about, but it was not about Michel.”

Surely, though, last week’s firing of Julien by the Boston Bruins was partly related to the timing of Therrien’s dismissal.

“I just felt we weren’t playing the way we’re capable of,” said Bergevin. “So, everything happened for a reason. Maybe the timing was — you know, Claude let go by Boston last week — but I didn’t make my decision based on how Boston operates, that’s just not how I did it, no.”

Read more: No real surprise that Therrien was fired

Looking ahead to the March 1 trade deadline, Bergevin left the door open for some minor tinkering. However, he insisted that a young prospect like Mikhail Sergachev would not be sacrificed for a short-term fix.

“It’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen,” Bergevin said. “As you see, there’s barely any trades in the NHL, and there’s a reason why. You make your team in July, you hope you stay healthy, and you try to address some needs at the deadline. But again, it’s what the price is going to be. And if it’s asking for our young prospect, it will not happen.”

Did you hear that Joe Sakic in Colorado?

The Canadiens’ first game under Julien is Saturday against Winnipeg.

“In my opinion, with his track record, he’s a superstar,” Bergevin said of his new bench boss. “He’s a great coach. I think his record speaks for itself.”

No real surprise that Therrien was fired

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Sunday’s 4-0 loss was the last straw.

In a twist, it came at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

Two days later, with his players on their bye week, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin announced that he’d fired Michel Therrien as head coach and hired Claude Julien.

Julien, of course, was fired last week by those very same Bruins.

The sudden availability of Julien obviously influenced Bergevin’s thinking. It is not easy to hire a head coach in Montreal, where proficiency in French is expected, in addition to everything else. Julien has already coached the Habs once before. In fact, he replaced Therrien back in 2003.

The Canadiens enjoyed limited success under Julien, reaching the second round of the playoffs in 2004 but going no further. He was fired in January of 2006, replaced by then-GM Bob Gainey.

A bit more than a decade later, with a Stanley Cup title under his belt, Julien returns to take over a Canadiens team that sits first in the Atlantic with a record 31-19-8. Though first place is good, with just one victory in February, it’s been hard not to recall last year’s collapse, which came under Therrien’s watch.

Granted, that collapse had a lot to do with Carey Price‘s injury. But the trading of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber hinted at turmoil behind the scenes. Throughout it all, Bergevin stuck with Therrien, whose relationship with Subban had been constantly put under the microscope.

Lately, the talk in Montreal has surrounded 23-year-old Alex Galchenyuk. Is he a center? A winger? That’ll be up to Julien to decide now. Therrien was heavily criticized for not trusting Galchenyuk at the center position, which comes with added defensive responsibility. On that note, it will be interesting to see how Julien handles that situation, given he’s been criticized himself for not trusting young players enough.

As for Bergevin, he may not be finished making changes. The Canadiens could use another center, regardless of where Galchenyuk plays. They’ve been linked to Arizona’s Martin Hanzal, a pending unrestricted free agent. The trade deadline is only two weeks away.

Montreal’s next game is Saturday at home to Winnipeg.

“I would like to sincerely thank Michel for his relentless work with the Montreal Canadiens over his eight seasons behind the bench, including the last five seasons when we worked together,” Bergevin said today in a release. “The decision to remove Michel from his coaching duties was a difficult one because I have lots of respect for him.

“I came to the conclusion that our team needed a new energy, a new voice, a new direction. Claude Julien is an experienced and well respected coach with a good knowledge of the Montreal market. Claude has been very successful as an NHL coach and he won the Stanley Cup. Today we hired the best available coach, and one of the league’s best. I am convinced that he has the capabilities to get our team back on the winning track.”

Pre-game reading: On Wes McCauley, the NHL’s most enthusiastic referee

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— Up top, you’ve probably seen it already, but feel free to enjoy Wes McCauley’s “five minutes each for FIGHTING” call one more time.

— TSN’s Bob McKenzie was curious if the NHL had a problem with McCauley’s call, and the answer was a resounding no. Writes McKenzie: “NHL director of officiating Stephen Walkom say he had no issue with it, since McCauley’s call was an accurate and true reflection of who he is and how he officiates a game. He has a passion and a feel for it; that’s who Wes McCauley is.” McCauley, by the way, has been chosen to referee the last four Stanley Cup Finals, so clearly the league likes the job he’s doing. (TSN)

— Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the Mike Yeo firing in Minnesota, and boy have things changed since then. Yeo is now the head coach in St. Louis, after taking over ahead of schedule from Ken Hitchcock. The Wild, meanwhile, are enjoying an outstanding season under their new bench boss, Bruce Boudreau. (The Star Tribune)

— On Capitals winger Brett Connolly, who’s finally starting to realize the potential he showed as a star in junior. The 24-year-old signed with the Caps on July 1 for just $850,000. At the time, it was safe to say his NHL career was hanging in the balance. He’s since found chemistry with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky on Washington’s rebuilt third line. “You’ve got to have thick skin to play this game. I’m happy I stuck with it. To be doing as well as I am now, I want to keep going.” (Sports Illustrated)

— At 34, Henrik Lundvist is one of the oldest starting goalies in the NHL. But with a big contract that runs through 2020-21, the Rangers are hoping he’ll take a cue from Jaromir Jagr and keep playing at a high level for a while longer. Lundqvist turns 35 next month. Among regular starters, only Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, and Craig Anderson are older. (Daily News)

— With the trade deadline looming, Sean McIndoe comes up with a ready-made list of excuses for NHL general managers who can’t find a deal. Poor Jim Benning really could’ve used this list last year in Vancouver. (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

Chiarelli doesn’t see Oilers delving into rental market

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The Edmonton Oilers may be on the verge of breaking of a decade-long playoff drought, but their general manager, Peter Chiarelli, doesn’t sound like a motivated buyer ahead of the March 1 trade deadline.

“I really don’t want to delve into [the rental] market,” Chiarelli said today, per NHL.com. “Things fall in your lap, and we’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of time left, but I don’t see us being heavily involved in that market.”

Chiarelli was one of the NHL’s busiest GMs this past summer, when he traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and signed Milan Lucic, among other moves. The Oilers (29-19-8) have improved a lot, to the point it would take a pretty big collapse to keep them out of the postseason.

Still, Chiarelli doesn’t see his team competing for the Stanley Cup this spring, even if the Western Conference does look rather wide open.

“I don’t think we’re quite ready to contend for the Cup,” he said. “You never know. I know it happened here in 2006.”

The Oilers could still use a right-shot defenseman to run the power play — someone like, say, Kevin Shattenkirk. But the price to add that kind of player would be high, and according to Chiarelli, that’s “certainly not on my shopping list this deadline.”