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The Buzzer: Maple Leafs win records tumble, Caps win fifth straight

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Players of the Night:

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals: He didn’t score on Wednesday, but his two assists were vital for the Capitals. Backstrom’s first helped tie the game with 33 seconds left in the first period. And with 65 seconds left in the game, his second apple of the night set up the tying goal that forced overtime, which Washington won via Evgeny Kuznetsov 38 seconds into the extra frame.

Kevin Connauton, Arizona Coyotes: Not a name you’re probably accustomed to seeing here, but Connauton put in a solid effort tonight, The 28-year-old opened the scoring for the Coyotes and then scored the game-winner in the second period to see off the Vegas Golden Knights.

Highlights of the Night: 

Roberto Luongo and Frederik Andersen put on an incredible-save clinic on Wednesday:

Luongo’s blocker save:

Andersen’s glove save:

The saves kept coming:

Kuznetsov fires home the winner and his sixth straight game with multiple points:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 4, Panthers 3

Capitals 3, Rangers 2

Flyers 2, Avalanche 1

Coyotes 3, Golden Knights 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

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: Luongo, Fleury, Jones notch shutouts, Predators win 10th straight

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Players of the Night: 

Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers: The Cats need a few things to go right to make the playoffs. The man called Lu (or Strombone) posting 31-save shutouts will certainly help their cause though. Luongo was stellar in the win, his 75th career shutout, and the Panthers are two points out of a playoff spot. Fancy that.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights: Fleury turned aside all 28 shots he faced against a porous Detroit Red Wings team in a 4-0 win. Vegas matched the record for most road wins (19) by a team in its inaugural season because of course they did. Honorable mention to Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin, who split the spoils with a pair of goals each.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: 16 saves don’t seem like many to get a shutout, but it’s hard as a goalie to keep your wits about you when you’re facing next to no shots. Jones faced 16 shots in a 2-0 shutout, with only two of those coming in the third period. St. Louis was very bad on Thursday, with Jake Allen standing in the way of a complete blowout. Allen stopped 34 of 35.

The whole team, Nashville Predators: Yes, every single one of them. Because winning is hard in the NHL and yet the Predators recorded their 10th straight win on Thursday in a 4-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks.

Highlights of the Night:

Hischier pass warning:

Nolan Patrick with the no-looker:

Poor Jake Allen:

Defeated:

Quick robbery:

News of the Night: 

Factoids of the Night:

Some Jets stuff, because they have players named Laine and goalies named Hellebuyck:

Uh oh. The Lightning have another player who can produce at will:

Scores:

Panthers 5, Canadiens 0

Lightning 5, Rangers 3

Golden Knights 4, Red Wings 0

Sabres 4, Senators 3 (OT)

Blue Jackets 5, Avalanche 4 (OT)

Jets 3, Devils 2

Bruins 3, Flyers 2

Predators 4, Ducks 2

Hurricanes 3, Blackhawks 2

Oilers 2, Islanders 1 (SO)

Sharks 2, Blues 0

Kings 3, Capitals 1


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

Roberto Luongo on streaking Panthers, approaching 1,000 NHL games (PHT Q&A)

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A glance at the list of hottest NHL teams since the end of January will show you that teams currently in playoff spots have done well to position themselves for the season’s final month. The Florida Panthers are just on the outside of the postseason picture, but have truly helped themselves with a 13-3-0 run in their last 16 teams.

The Panthers are a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, but they also possess three games in-hand, which could put them in a comfier position should they win those.

Starting goaltender Roberto Luongo, who missed two months due to a groin injury, returned during this run and has helped the Panthers win six of his last seven starts while boasting a .945 even strength save percentage over that stretch.

The mood, as you can imagine, is quite fun inside the Panthers’ room.

“We’re excited to come to the rink every day and that’s what it’s all about,” Luongo told Pro Hockey Talk on Monday. “You want to be playing meaningful games this time of the year. Right now, we actually feel like we’re in playoff mode. It’s just fun coming to rink, hanging out with the guys, laughing and knowing that every time you step on the ice it can be a difference maker in the season.”

We spoke with Luongo about the teammate who’s impressed him the most, what he would tell his younger self, how fantasy sports has impacted his future career plans and more.

Enjoy.

PHT: This run started in early February and it kept rolling after you came back. When you miss as much time as you did, how much easier is it to return when a team’s playing well compared to in a slump? Is there less pressure on you?

LUONGO: “Yeah, it was quite seamless. You’re not quite sure how you’re going to feel after not playing for two months, but the fact that the team was playing so well made it much easier on myself and didn’t put as much pressure on my shoulders to come in and try to save the day.”

The team is in a similar position today as it was last year, but there are new faces and there’s some positive momentum. How is what’s driving this team this year different than last year?

“I think it’s totally different. Last year it was a bit of a whirlwind with everything that happened. This year, I think we’re more settled. We believe in our group, in our systems, in our coaches. We’re just a confident group in the way we’re playing. It’s just got a different vibe to it in general.”

Who’s a guy on the team that has made the biggest jump from training camp?

“Obviously, [Aleksander] Barkov’s been our best player, but as far as jumps go, he’s always been our best player. I feel like he’s taken it to another level the last few weeks here. What he’s been able to do in the last 2-3 weeks has been head-scratching. It brings me back to my early days with Vancouver when I would see [Daniel and Henrik Sedin] play when they’re at the peak of their careers, but there were two of them; he’s by himself, so it’s quite impressive.”

When you’re out for the amount of time you were at the end of last year and then this season, how much are you playing coach and pointing things out to James [Reimer] from what you see?

“We chat once in a while… Whenever we have a game, if I know certain tendencies of certain guys, what they like to do, I’ll give him a quick word. But most of the time the guys know how to prepare and what they need to do to be ready. Even if I have something to say, I will once in a while, most of the time I don’t want to disrupt their routine.”

You’re approaching game No. 1,000. What do you remember about game No. 1 (43-save, 2-1 win vs. Boston, Nov. 28, 1999)?

“I remember it being an afternoon game and I had just got called up and I was notified that morning that I was starting. It was quite short notice and I didn’t have my parents or anybody to have time to come down and see me play. Maybe it was a good thing, so it didn’t allow me too much time to think about it and just go out there and play. I remember being really nervous and just realizing a dream.”

If you could go back and give 21-year-old Roberto advice, what would you tell him?

“I think in the earlier stages in my career I didn’t have as much fun playing the game, just because I was so nervous and so wanting to perform well that most of my energy was focused on that. As I got a little bit older, I realized that [I need] to go out there and have fun and enjoy the game, and if you work hard the results will come. I see it in a different way now and it’s really helped me out.”

How much of that mindset changed going from a media market like Vancouver back to Florida?

“I started thinking that way towards the end of my tenure in Vancouver and with all the stuff that happened, I realized that sometimes it’s not worth it to beat yourself up over things and that you are still playing in the NHL and you need to realize that and enjoy the moment. You don’t want to have any regrets when you’re done playing. That’s what came about and since then I find that it’s really helped me out along the way as far as performance.”

You still have four years left on your deal after this season. Have you given thought as to what you might want to do after hockey is over? Poker player? Professional fantasy football analyst?

“I don’t play poker anymore. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much time for it. But honestly, I love fantasy sports so much that I’d like to maybe become a GM, if possible, in the future of an NHL team. If that works out.”

Have you asked [Panthers GM] Dale [Tallon] for any tips on how to get started?

“[Laughs] Not yet. I’ve got to wait until I retire for that. I want to keep going for now.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Bergeron’s at it again, Nash’s resurgence continues

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Players of the Night:

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins: Bergeron did it again. The perennial Selke contender showed off his scoring prowess (again), scoring his second hat trick in 12 days. He now has nine goals and five assists in his past eight games. The Bruins have run up a 15-game point streak (11-0-4).

Rick Nash, New York Rangers: Nash scored twice for the second consecutive game in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Nash now has four goals in this past two games after putting up a goose egg in his previous 12.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: MacKinnon’s successes this season have been well documented, and he kept that narrative going with two more goals — his 21st and 22nd — and an assist in the Avs 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the Night:

Bergeron’s hat trick came after some trickery by Brad Marchand:

A Double Dustin:

Robin Lehner made this dandy of a save. Unfortunately, he allowed a goal moments later. Still, this save.

Bonehead play of the Night:

Dustin Brown strikes again. This time in the wrong category. Someone’s getting suspended.

Factoids of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Devils 4, Capitals 3 (OT)

Bruins 5, Islanders 2

Blue Jackets 2, Stars 1 (SO)

Rangers 4, Sabres 3

Blues 4, Senators 1

Golden Knights 4, Lightning 1

Flyers 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)

Predators 3, Coyotes 2 (SO)

Avalanche 5, Sharks 3

Penguins 3, Kings 1


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