Risk Factors: Florida Panthers edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

1. Panthers will only go as far as Luongo takes them.

Roberto Luongo is a star goalie. No disputing that. His return to the Florida Panthers prior to last season’s trade deadline essentially ended a long-running goalie soap opera in Vancouver.

And he saw plenty of rubber upon his arrival back with the Panthers. In his second game, against the Boston Bruins, he faced 41 shots and turned away 37 of them. On one occasion, he was in goal when the Panthers gave up 54 shots. He likes getting shots, likes getting the work to get in a rhythm.

But Luongo is also 35 years old. Not exactly ancient, but definitely at the age when bodies with over 800 NHL games played start breaking down.

Behind him, in the back-up position, is Al Montoya, a former sixth overall pick from the 2004 NHL Draft. Since then, Montoya has appeared in just 91 games on three different teams. His numbers last year in Winnipeg were decent — 13 wins in 28 games, and a .920 save percentage and 2.3 goals-against average.

From a two-time Olympic gold-medal winning goalie to one that has never gotten his NHL career on track. That’s the immediate scenario should an injury or prolonged absence to Luongo occur, and he has dealt with groin ailments during his time in Vancouver.

How will Luongo’s body hold up over the course of the season, and just how many games does Florida’s coaching staff intend to play the veteran puck stopper?

His Panthers teammate Willie Mitchell — they were together in Vancouver for a time, too, and named the club’s captain this week — remains optimistic Luongo will put together a strong season.

“No one wants to win a Stanley Cup more than Roberto; he cares so much that sometimes I hate to say this but you care too much and you start chasing it trying to make other people happy … instead of trying to be Roberto Luongo, one of the best goalies in the game,” Mitchell told the Sun-Sentinel.

“Coming back down here is a breath of fresh air for him because, who’s kidding who, it’s not [the same] market, there’s not that pressure and he could be himself. I think you’ll see the best of him.”

Anything less, and the Panthers, even with a young and upstart roster, might be in for a long season.

2. Aaron Ekblad’s inexperience is a concern.

There is less risk here in the short term, we admit.

The Panthers can choose to keep Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, in the NHL on a nine-game trial and then send him back to junior after that. Or, they can choose to keep him up with the big club for the entire season and his entry-level deal would set in.

From the Miami Herald on Oct. 3:

Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad played his biggest minutes of the preseason Thursday. He said the game was “tenfold” different from his preseason opener last weekend in Nashville.

“I was much more confident, very excited to play,” said Ekblad, the top pick of the 2014 draft. “I was more calm, more patient. I made some plays I wanted to make.”

(Florida GM Dale) Tallon said Ekblad would remain with the Panthers for “a while” and will get at least his nine-game NHL tryout.

There is a huge difference between playing defense in junior compared to the NHL. It’s faster in the big league. The players are bigger and stronger. If Ekblad does play a full season, how will he cope with the demands of the schedule, the travel and adjusting to a much different game?

He’s only 18, by far the youngest of the eight defensemen still on Florida’s roster. If he struggles, will his confidence take a hit? If it does, how might that affect his development?

3. Not so home-ice advantage.

The Florida Panthers did play to some capacity crowds last season. Lucky for them, the Montreal Canadiens were in town and suddenly attendance for one night only skyrocketed.

In the end, though, they averaged just 14,177 fans per game, according to ESPN. Only the Phoenix Coyotes, now known as the Arizona Coyotes, were worse.

From the Miami Herald in March:

The team tried to create excitement in a market that yawned. The Panthers slashed prices on season tickets — some were going as low as $7 per game — with a number of perks to those who signed on.

The numbers may have been low for the Panthers in the past, and that’s with lowered ticket prices and different deals. Then, just last month, owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu spoke to the Miami Herald and the message about declining attendance didn’t sound positive whatsoever.

No more discounted tickets or giveaways, according to the Miami Herald.

“We are 100 percent ready for the reality that we’ll have smaller attendance this season,” Cifu told the newspaper.

“We want people who are there to be paying a fair price, the same price and enjoying a great product on the ice. We can get 15,000 in there if we gave away 5,000 seats. We don’t want to do that. It’s not fair.”

This may not translate to a risk on the ice. The Panthers are coming off a season in which they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

But dwindling attendance would perpetuate a grim opinion for the future of NHL hockey in south Florida even if the owners state they are committed to keeping the team in that area despite “tremendous losses of money.”

The Buzzer: Avalanche keep rolling; Capitals clip Bruins

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Three Stars

1. T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals.

With only one goal in his previous 10 games, Oshie scored two beautiful goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 win against the Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey. The American forward recorded a power-play goal early in the second period to knot the score 1-1. Oshie rang a shot off the crossbar after a crafty deke and then found the loose puck behind Jaroslav Halak to pick up his 12th of the season. Then, Oshie scored the goal of the night when he avoided Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton and converted a breakaway opportunity to give Washington a 2-1 lead.

2. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche.

In his sixth game back since suffering a lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for 16 games, Rantanen notched two goals to help the Colorado Avalanche earn a 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Finnish forward tapped in a pretty pass from Nathan MacKinnon to extend the Avalanche advantage to 2-0 in the second period. In the third, Rantanen sealed the game after Nazem Kadri delivered a perfect pass. Colorado has kept pace in the competitive Central Division with Rantanen sidelined, but will now look to emerge as the class of the division with the return of its star forward.

3. Cayden Primeau, Montreal Canadiens.

The first NHL win for any goaltender is always a special moment. Primeau made 35 saves as the Montreal Canadiens skated to a 3-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators.  Primeau, 20, was the No. 199 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and is the son of former NHL All-Star forward Keith Primeau. He was recalled from the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate on Tuesday after Montreal placed Keith Kinkaid on waivers.

Highlights of the Night

Oshie performed a nifty deke around a Bruins defender, then converted a breakaway while drawing a penalty.

Carter Hart submitted another candidate for the save of the year with this impressive glove save.

Factoids

  • Carlson (33 GP) required the fewest games by a defenseman to record his 45th point of a season since Al MacInnis in 1990-91 (32 GP w/ CGY). [NHL PR]
  • Carlson’s five game-winning goals (33 GP) are one shy of the Capitals single-season franchise record by defensemen (Kevin Hatcher: 6 in 83 GP, 1992-93). [NHL PR]

  • Only four goaltenders in Canadiens history recorded their first NHL win at a younger age than Primeau. [NHL PR]

  • Primeau is the second goalie in as many seasons to record his first NHL win prior to his 21st birthday. The other: Carter Hart on Dec. 18, 2018 w/ PHI (20 years, 127 days). [NHL PR]
  • Rantanen has collected 20 points in 15 or fewer games for the second time in his career [NHL PR].

Scores

Capitals 3, Bruins 2

Canadiens 3, Senators 2 (OT)

Avalanche 3, Flyers 1

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

Rantanen’s goals help Avalanche defeat Flyers, extend point streak

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Mikko Rantanen scored twice and the Colorado Avalanche extended their point streak to eight games with a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Calvert also scored, and Pavel Francouz made 32 saves in Colorado’s seventh win over the past eight games.

Claude Giroux scored the lone Flyers goal late in the third period and Carter Hart made 25 saves, but the Flyers fell in regulation for only the second time in the previous 10 outings (7-2-1).

Francouz provides boost between the pipes

With Avalanche starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sidelined with a lower-body injury, Francouz made his fourth straight appearance and collected his eighth win of the season with a strong performance against the Flyers.

After a rocky showing against the Flames earlier this week which resulted in a 5-4 overtime loss, Francouz bounced back and was a steadying force in the crease. Claude Giroux ended Francouz’s shutout bid late in the third period, but the Czech goalie held off a late push from Philadelphia.

After a second-round defeat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche have eyes on home-ice advantage in the 2020 postseason. If Francouz can provide consistent goaltending when called upon, they certainly have the star power up front to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Kadri acquisition paying early dividends

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic acquired Nazem Kadri this past summer to help the Avalanche become a deeper team with improved secondary scoring. With 21 points in 28 games this season, Kadri has added another element to Colorado’s dynamic offensive attack.

Early in the third period Wednesday, Kadri patiently waited behind the Flyers’ net until Rantanen skated into position to convert a one-timer to give Colorado a three-goal third-period lead.

The Avalanche’s top line is one of the most lethal trios in the NHL, but Colorado is that much more dangerous if Kadri continues to provide an extra boost.

Looking ahead for Flyers

The Flyers began a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents with a loss against the Avalanche, but cannot let one game ruin the momentum they have generated with strong play in recent weeks. The Flyers will travel to Minnesota and Winnipeg over the weekend and need to continue to secure points to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.

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

Oshie, Carlson lift Capitals over Bruins in mid-season test

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The 82-game regular season is a marathon for NHL teams, but at various points of the season you want to measure yourself up against a top team in your conference.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins 3-2 at Capital One Arena.

John Carlson scored the go-ahead goal 4:42 into the third period to help propel the Capitals. T.J. Oshie scored twice and Braden Holtby made 30 saves as the Capitals collected their seventh win in the previous eight games.

David Pastrnak scored his NHL-leading 26th goal for Boston but the Bruins have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1).

Oshie often overlooked

Whether it’s Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson or Holtby, Oshie is often neglected when listing the Capitals’ star power.

Since being acquired in July of 2015, Oshie has been a consistent offensive threat for the Capitals in the previous four-plus seasons. He has averaged 25.5 goals and added his 12th and 13th of this season in stellar fashion on Wednesday.

Oshie made a quick deke to his forehand before ringing a shot off the crossbar, but then finished his own rebound to even the score early in the second period.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a highlight-reel goal. The American forward danced around Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton before converting a nifty deke 3:30 after his first of the game.

While other players in Washington’s lineup receive credit for the Capitals’ strong play in recent years, Oshie should not be forgotten about as he has proven to be a key piece to the puzzle in Washington.

Pastrnak remains red-hot

The Czech winger has solidified himself as one the best pure goal scorers in the NHL today and recorded his 26th goal of the season on Wednesday. No. 88 is on pace for 67 goals this season and has helped the Boston Bruins secure a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division.

Pastrnak tallied a short-side snipe to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead against the Capitals Wednesday. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was able to complete a cross-ice pass because centerman Patrice Bergeron skated hard to the net in order to create an open passing lane.

If Pastrnak is able to continue this torrid pace, he could be in line to collect a lot of hardware at the NHL Awards show and help the Bruins collect a trophy they fell just short of last season.

Ovechkin’s office

The sign of dominance in any competitive sport is if you can continue to repeat an action while your opponent is aware of what is coming.

For Alex Ovechkin, his presence from the left circle throughout the course of his career has been spectacular. The captain of the Washington Capitals has recorded 299 of his 679 goals (44%) from the left circle or above. And since the 2012-13 season, 54% of his goals have come from that spot on the ice.

NHL teams will continue to game plan and know exactly where No. 8 will be on the ice, especially when Washington is on a power play, but his excellence from that area should be viewed in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky’s operation from behind the net.

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

Flyers vs. Avalanche livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flyers and Avalanche have both won six of their last seven games and each enter this matchup in playoff position in their respective conferences. This is the first of two meetings this season as these two will play at Philadelphia on Feb. 1.

Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, is having another standout season. After MacKinnon’s breakout season in 2017-18 (39 goals, 97 points), he upped those totals last season with two more goals and this season he’s tracking towards another career-best year. MacKinnon ranks third in the NHL in points (47) and is tied for fourth in goals (19) this season.

Travis Konecny leads Philadelphia with 28 points this season and is tied with Oskar Lindblom for the team lead in goals (11). Konecny took a hard, open-ice hit from Mark Borowiecki late in the first period on Saturday and did not return – he’s out indefinitely with a concussion. The 22-year-old Konecny was having a career season, on pace for 30 goals and 76 points.

Sean Couturier (22 points), Claude Giroux (21) and Jakub Voracek (21) are next on the team in scoring. Couturier has scored 30-plus goals each of the last two seasons as he’s totaled 76 points both years (his career high). Giroux already has four game-winning goals this season (as many as he had all of last year). Voracek has five points in the last five games (all assists).

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk – Morgan Frost – Tyler Pitlick
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesJoel Farabee
Chris Stewart – Mikhail Vorobyev – David Kase

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimJustin Braun
Shayne GostisbehereRobert Hagg

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareValeri Nichushkin
Matt NietoJ.T. CompherTyson Jost

Nikita ZadorovSamuel Girard
Ryan GravesIan Cole
Calle Rosen – Mark Barberio

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.