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Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Bruins score eight while Hall makes it 23 straight

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Players of the Night:

David Krejci, Boston Bruins: In a game that featured 12 goals, it was Krejci who stood out, scoring his first hat-trick in four years as the Bruins doubled up the Pittsburgh Penguins 8-4.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers: Barkov scored his third game-winning goal of the season in a two-goal game as the Panthers knocked off the New Jersey Devils 3-2. The win put the Panthers to within three points of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Barkov also pushed his personal point streak to four games.

Viktor Arvidsson, Nashville Predators: There’s no quit in these cats. The Predators won their sixth straight game and Arvidsson played a big role, bringing the Preds level at 2-2 in the second period before scoring the game-winner at the 14:52 mark of the third period. Nashville now leads the Winnipeg Jets by six points for the Central Division lead.

Highlights of the Night:

The question is starting to become, will Taylor Hall ever not put up a point again?

Connor McDavid is a cheat code on an old NES Game Genie:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Panthers 3, Devils 2

Hurricanes 4, Flyers 1

Bruins 8, Penguins 4

Lightning 5, Stars 4 (OT)

Predators 4, Oilers 2

Coyotes 5, Wild 3

Sharks 7, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Laine, Barkov heading home for regular season games next year

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Finnish supremacy will be duked out in the homeland of Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov next season.

The NHL is sending four teams to Europe during the 2018-19 season, with a marquee matchup that will pit two of the best Finland-born players currently plying their trades in the NHL for a battle in the Land of the Midnight Sun come November.

The Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers will play a two-game set in Helsinki, roughly two hours north of Laine and Barkov’s hometown of Tampere.

And while the battle for the best Finn title will take place between both superstars, more could be in the mix.

The Jets boast forward Joel Armia, a fellow Finn from Pori, who has become a staple on the roster this season.

Winnipeg also has prospect forward Kristian Vesalainen, a first-round pick in the 2017 draft, and defenseman Sami Niku in their system, although both would have to secure roster spots out of training camp next year to make the trip home.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have goaltender Harri Sateri on their roster currently, but have Roberto Luongo and James Reimer ahead of him in the pecking order at this point.

In their system, 2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom hails from Helsinki, while fellow prospect forward Henrik Haapala comes from Tampere.

Elsewhere in Europe, Connor McDavid and Nico Hischier will take their talents to Sweden to open the regular season.

The Edmonton Oilers and the New Jersey Devils will play two games in Sweden to cap off an extended stay in Europe. Both teams they will face each other twice in the preseason — once in Germany, the home country of Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and again in Switzerland, where Hischier hails from.

In other NHL games abroad, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins are candidates for a two-game series in China next year.

Fellow TSN insider Pierre LeBrun said the league and the NHLPA are ironing out the details.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Aleksander Barkov on Panthers’ season, the shootout, playing with Jagr (PHT Q&A)

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While things are pretty bleak in South Florida, Aleksander Barkov is continuing to shine for the Florida Panthers. The 22-year-old center is having another productive season, which has been buoyed by an increase in ice time.

Over the summer new Panthers head coach Bob Boughner told Barkov that he wanted to give him more time on special teams, and so far through 28 games he’s at career highs in power play (3:39/game average) and shorthanded minutes (1:51/game average). Known for a strong two-way game, being handed more responsibility was music to the young Finns ears.

“I don’t mind it. I like to be on the ice in every situation and try to help the team,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “That’s why I play hockey. I want to be good anywhere, if it’s our own end or offensive zone or face-offs or whatever. I’m trying to get better every day.”

In order to prepare for the bump in ice time and because of injuries that caused him to miss 36 games over the last two seasons, Barkov changed his summer training a bit. He wanted to make himself lighter and faster in order to not expend as much energy on the ice. He focused on running and sprints and increased the amount of stretching, all of which he believes has helped him this year, and he has 10 goals and 27 points to show for it.

We spoke with Barkov earlier this week about his two-way game, his success in the shootout and playing with Jaromir Jagr.

Enjoy.

Q. The team is currently sitting in a position you don’t want to be in at this point of the season. What hasn’t clicked so far?

BARKOV: “Sometimes we’ve been playing pretty well, but that’s not enough. We need to play well all 60 minutes. It’s so tough to win in this league if you [only] play a 40-minute game instead of 60. We have such good teams in this league that can find a way to win games. We just need to concentrate on our own game and try to play our best game every night and give everything.”

Your two-way game is very noticeable and that’s led to some Selke Trophy talk. How much of your off-season work focuses on the defensive aspect of the game?

“It comes with the territory. If you’re in good shape, you can play anywhere, not just offense or not just defense. If you play in your own end for 30 seconds you still have that energy to go in the offensive zone or in the offensive zone you still have energy to go and play in your own end and not let them score on you.”

Along with your minutes your face-off win percentage (55 percent) is up quite a bit as well. Are you approaching face-offs this season using a different technique?

“Actually, I don’t think it’s a different technique, just we have a pretty good coach, Paul MacFarland, who is helping us a lot with face-offs and he’s telling us about other players and how they take face-offs and what should work against them. Of course, a lot of practice and confidence, too. You need that confidence in the face-off [circle] when you’re taking it, you know you’re going to win or at least tie him up.”

You’re at 51 percent for your career in the shootout. Before an attempt, do you have a move in mind that you want to do or do you just react to how the goalie is moving?

“I should have a move in my mind, otherwise it will probably not [be a] goal. If I take the puck and I know what I’m going to do, it gives me a lot of confidence that I can score.”

Is there a move that you’ve worked on in practice and haven’t pulled it out in a shootout yet?

“There’s a couple move but I still need to work on them in practice a couple more times to get confident with the move. Maybe we’ll see one day.”

You’re pretty good with that Kent Nilsson/Peter Forsberg/Jussi Jokinen move.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty good one. I have a long reach so it’s tough for the goalies. I know the goalies are watching videos too and they know that I like to do that so they try to play that way, so I need to create a lot more moves so they won’t know what I’m doing.”

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You got to spend parts of three seasons playing with Jaromir Jagr. With the time you spent on and off the ice, what kind of things did you learn from him?

“He might be the guy I learned the most from. A guy like him, when he came into our team you just couldn’t believe it happened. He was my favorite player when I was growing up and now we’re playing on the same team and maybe even on the same line. It was a dream come true. Of course, playing with him and practicing with him and just being around him, you learn so much, especially about living the life of a professional hockey player and what it takes to be a good player and to get to the top.”

When a guy like Jagr enters the room, a living legend, someone who won Stanley Cups before you were even born, were you nervous around him at first?

“When I first heard he got traded to our team we had a game that night, he wasn’t there yet but still I was thinking about that the whole game. I don’t remember anything about that game except that he got traded to our team. Then he came in an hour before the next game, so they put us in the same line and we never talked before, never did anything before, just go on the ice and I think we created two or three good chances with him during the first shift. Then we just noticed it was so much fun to play with him. He tried to get us a lot better and we tried to get him a lot better, and that’s how we had success.”

Was there one piece of advice that he gave that’s stuck with you ever since?

“If I want to be the best I have to work more than anybody else. It doesn’t mean that I have to go and skate with him at 5 a.m. or 4 a.m., whatever he does. All the time, try to work on your game, try to work on your body and try to be better all the time. Of course, rest is a good thing too. But try to work as much as you can.”

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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.

Florida Panthers ’15-16 Outlook

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Jaromir Jagr is extremely important to the Florida Panthers, and not just because he found such great chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

One can imagine a scenario where the Panthers’ bounty of youngsters make a huge leap and help Florida burst onto the scene in its market.

Still, many would probably agree that the Panthers are more likely to make incremental improvements in 2015-16, which pivots back to Jagr: if this team wants any butts in seats, their veterans may be the ones to draw them. Even if it’s really about the young guns.

Discuss Florida’s attendance issues here.

Barring that meteoric rise, it will take time for crucial casual fans to really get acquainted with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Barkov and even Aaron Ekblad.

In the meantime, the Panthers can trumpet Jagr’s continued gallop through the record books to entice the less-hardcore among their potential base. Just look at how much he could climb if the 43-year-old continues to defy the aging process:

All-time goals list:

3. Brett Hull – 741 goals
4. Marcel Dionne – 731
5. Jagr – 722

All-time points:

2. Mark Messier: 1,887 points
3. Gordie Howe: 1,850
4. Jagr: 1,802

Remarkable stuff, right?

Roberto Luongo may be a subtle draw, too, although goalies probably don’t bring in audiences quite like a seemingly ageless, legendary forward might.

Again, the truth is that Jagr would ideally serve as a supporting cast member on the ice. The Panthers will probably just market him as if he’s still the marquee star – at least until the team is clearly in contention – and who would blame them?