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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

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

***

Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Poll: Will the Coyotes be the worst team in the NHL next season?

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Arizona GM Don Maloney thinks his Coyotes are “going to be a better team” than the one that finished 29th overall last year.

In fact, he says they’re “entering the season to be a playoff team.”

“I look at our roster and say, ‘OK, we may not have the most pure talent as some of the teams in the West,” Maloney told NHL.com, “but with a great coach and a great game plan and a stable center ice and a better blue line and solid goaltending, we should be able to compete every night, whether it’s the Chicago Blackhawks or the Stanley Cup champions or the bottom of the Western Conference.”

Others look at Arizona’s roster and wonder how anyone can be so optimistic. Shane Doan is 38 now. Sam Gagner and Keith Yandle, their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, are gone. The goaltending remains a big question mark. Besides Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the blue line isn’t overly impressive. Sure, the Coyotes have some excellent prospects in Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome, but their combined NHL experience is practically nil.

At online bookmaker Bovada, the Coyotes are the longest shot on the board to win the Stanley Cup, at 150/1. The Leafs, Sabres, and Hurricanes are next, each at 100/1.

OK, time to vote.

If you don’t think the Coyotes will be the worst team in the NHL, feel free to add your pick below.

Coyotes praise Duclair’s ‘outstanding’ playmaking skill

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Anthony Duclair’s making a solid impression on his new team.

Duclair, acquired by Arizona from the Rangers in the Keith Yandle trade, took part in the Coyotes’ prospect development camp this week and earned high praise from head coach Dave Tippett.

“Some of the plays he makes out there are outstanding,” Tippett said, per the Arizona Republic. “He’s a young player that he’ll still have to learn how to play without the puck, some coverage things, but his assets of skating and quickness and skill all are very high priority for us.”

Duclair, who turns 20 in August, figures to be on Arizona’s opening-night roster this season. He’s got NHL experience — seven points in 18 games with the Rangers last year — and is an integral part of the Coyotes’ youth movement.

What’s more, Duclair doesn’t have a ton of competition.

Though they made some moves at forward in free agency — bringing aboard (or, re-board) the likes of Antoine Vermette, Boyd Gordon, Steve Downie and Brad Richardson — the Coyotes are still pretty thin up front, especially on the wings. A left-handed shot that can play the right, Duclair’s in a battle with fellow youngsters Max Domi, Henrik Samuelsson, Jordan Szwarz, Lucas Lessio, Brendan Perlini and Christian Dvorak for minutes with the big club.

It’s a battle he’s ready to take on.

“They’re pushing younger, so what better scenario for me,” he said. “I’m pretty lucky to be here.”

Columnist: O’Reilly deal could be costly for Rangers with Stepan

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Derek Stepan might lack a little in the way of negotiating power as a restricted free agent, but the New York Post’s Larry Brooks believes that he recently received a big boost in leverage.

In Brooks’ mind, the big seven-year, $52 million deal ($7.5 million cap hit) Ryan O’Reilly signed with the Buffalo Sabres will leave the New York Rangers in a “cap vise” thanks to its comparables regarding Stepan:

A number than starts with a “7” for Stepan is all but untenable for the Rangers as they are constructed. An award that’s closer to starting with an “8” than a “7” would place the ’15-16 Blueshirts’ roster in a cap vise. Beyond that, an arbitration award almost certainly starts the clock ticking on Stepan’s Broadway expiration date two years hence.

As Brooks notes, it’s plausible that Stepan, 25, may indeed file for salary arbitration by today’s deadline.

Even if this doomsday scenario gets downgraded to things being really tight, Brooks has a point about possible domino effects for the Rangers. General Fanager pegs the Rangers’ cap space at about $10.2 million, so anything in the $7 million range would start to make things uncomfortable, especially since New York still has other RFAs to consider in J.T. Miller, Emerson Etem and Jesper Fast.

Could that force the team’s hand in trading someone like Keith Yandle? Might the Rangers need to make more like the Chicago Blackhawks and move Stepan’s rights instead?

Yes, this speculation could turn out to be excessive worrying, especially if Stepan decided to take a slight “hometown discount” to stay on a contending team/help keep his team in contention.

Even so, if Stepan’s reps use O’Reilly’s extension as a measuring stick, the Rangers might indeed be sweating it.