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

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.