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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: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

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“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.