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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

Sharks, Blues confident, and even, heading into Game 5

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have been at their best this postseason when they had little margin for error.

That’s probably why they feel comfortable heading home for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Blues after a lackluster start led to a Game 4 loss in St. Louis.

Having squandered a series lead for the second time in this matchup, the Sharks know a loss Sunday could mean they won’t get to play on home ice again this postseason.

”It’s a great spot to be in,” coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday. ”This is supposed to be hard. What happened with Boston on the other side, that usually doesn’t happen. Usually these are all six, seven hard-fought games, hard-fought series. We’re right where I expected we would be, in a good spot going home, and we’ve got to get the job done.”

After alternating wins in the first four games, the Sharks and Blues now have a best-of-three to decide who plays the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston swept Carolina in the East and will have 10 days off before the start of the next round May 27.

Nothing has come easy for San Jose or St. Louis. The Blues went six games in the opening round against Winnipeg before needing double overtime in Game 7 of the second round against Dallas to make the conference final.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have endured two seven-game series – Vegas and Colorado. That’s happened in part because they have appeared to let up when leading a series before responding with greater desperation.

San Jose is 0-6 this postseason when leading a series. But it is 10-2 when tied or trailing, including four wins in elimination games sparked by a comeback from 3-1 down in the opening round to the Golden Knights.

”There’s a lot of emotion in the playoffs,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”We’re in the conference finals. We’ve had overtime wins, we’ve had game sevens. We’ve had emotional games for sure. You just lace them back up next game and you compete.”

The Blues got a goal from Ivan Barbashev 35 seconds into Game 4 and added another late in the first period before hanging on for the 2-1 win Friday.

It was an impressive rebound from a crushing Game 3 loss when the Blues allowed the tying goal with 1:01 left in regulation and then the winner in overtime after the officials failed to see a hand pass by San Jose that set up Erik Karlsson‘s goal.

”We’re in a good spot,” coach Craig Berube said. ”So just pushing and keep fighting and be aggressive. Just be aggressive as a team and be confident as a team. That’s our message. You’re going to have ups and downs in the playoffs and you have to move on from it. You really do. As much as we had to move on from that Game 3 loss we have to move on from last night’s win.”

The Sharks need to come out in Game 5 with the kind of play they showed in the final two periods Friday. They controlled the puck and hemmed the Blues into the defensive end for long stretches.

The only problem was St. Louis rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped all 11 shots in the second period and then nine of 10 in the third. He allowed only a power-play goal to Tomas Hertl on the way to his franchise-record 10th win this postseason.

Binnington improved to 11-2 this season in games following a loss.

”As soon as people start doubting him, he pulls another sick performance,” Blues forward David Perron said.

Another big concern for the Sharks is the health of Karlsson, who played only one shift in the final 9:24 after an apparent injury. Karlsson missed 27 of the final 33 games in the regular season with groin injuries that have hampered him in the playoffs.

He’s had big moments, with 14 assists and two goals, including the disputed overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. But he also seems to labor at times, as he did in the third period before taking an extended break when the Sharks were fighting for the tying goal.

He returned for the final 1:55 game with the goalie pulled but mostly stayed positioned at the point for passes and shots, his skating limited. DeBoer offered no update Saturday on Karlsson’s condition.

The Blues will again be without defenseman Vince Dunn, who took a puck to the face in Game 3.

AP freelancer Joe Harris in St. Louis, Missouri, contributed to this report

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins hope to have a healthy Chara for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins were able to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conference final without captain Zdeno Chara.

Now they’re hoping 10 days off before the start of the Stanley Cup Final will be enough time for the defenseman to return.

The title round begins May 27 when Boston will face San Jose or St. Louis, with that conference final 2-2. The Bruins completed their sweep Thursday with Chara out with an undisclosed injury.

”We have a lot of time to make the absolute right decision to give him the proper time to get over something that’s been nagging him,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. ”And we’ll cross our fingers that will be the case. But we’re confident it will be.”

Sweeney stopped short of guaranteeing Chara’s return for Game 1.

”I’m not living in how or where Zee feels. I expect he’ll be fine,” Sweeney said. ”But I’m not going to sit here and make a proclamation in terms of promises. I do believe that time will be used effectively and he’ll be fine. But sometimes those are out of your control.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller and forward Chris Wagner are doubtful for Game 1 of the Final. Miller hasn’t played since April 4 because of a lower-body injury. Wagner injured his right arm blocking a shot in Game 3 against Carolina.

Patrick Roy set to interview for Senators’ coaching vacancy: report

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Interested in seeing more of this?

Or maybe some of this?

Well, you just might be in luck.

Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Patrick Roy is set be the last interview done by Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion as the search for the next bench boss in Canada’s capital continues.

Roy has most recently been coaching the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He last coached in the NHL in 2016 with the Colorado Avalanche, a job he resigned from following that season. Two years earlier, he won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s best coach after the Avalanche went from last to first in the Western Conference.

Roy is 130-92-24 during his 246-game coaching career in the NHL.

“Those close to Roy believe he’d like to return to the NHL in the right situation and initially the only pressure in Ottawa will be to develop the young players,” Garrioch wrote. “The Senators have the potential to have 17 picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts and finding the right fit is paramount.”

The Senators, according to Garrioch, have already interviewed several candidates, including fellow former Avalanche coach Mark Crawford, along with former Senators coach Jacques Martin and Dallas Stars assistance Rick Bowness.

Roy’s experience coaching young players, as Garrioch points out, would be appealing for a team as young as the Senators, who also have a litany of draft picks coming their way over the next three years.

Can Roy work under Senators owner Eugene Melnyk? Can he work with Dorion? Roy didn’t exactly have the best professional relationship with Joe Sakic and Roy would likely want some level of control of the direction of the team.

It remains to be seen, but Roy has a decent track record that is appealing, certainly.


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

Has Erik Karlsson’s lingering groin injury resurfaced?

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It plagued him for most of the second half of the season.

A good chunk of January, a good chunk of February, and the entirety of March, to be exact.

And now Erik Karlsson‘s Game 5 status is up in the air after he appeared to aggravate a lingering groin injury, one Karlsson said had only progressed in the right direction throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t have anything for you there,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer when quizzed on Karlsson’s health following a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues that evened the best-of-seven series 2-2 on Friday.

DeBoer quickly swept that question under the rug.

As did Brent Burns, who just said, “He’s doing good” followed by a “How’re you doing?” when a reporter probed Burns about his teammate.

You may not have noticed it, initially at least.

Normally guys who play 24:33 in a game don’t miss significant stretches. But from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period, Karlsson didn’t see the ice. With the Sharks trailing 2-1 at the time, you’d expect one of the game’s best offensive defensemen to be on the ice. Instead, Karlsson was grimacing in pain, coming out during commercial breaks to test whatever was ailing him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Somehow, he played the final 1:55 of the game — nearly two minutes of madness where the Sharks tried, ultimately in vain, to find an equalizer. Karlsson bit down hard on his mouthpiece and bore the pain, but you could see its effects.

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote on Karlsson’s playoffs prior to Friday’s game.

Karlsson limped into the playoffs and said himself that he could barely move in Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Still, and as James pointed out in his story, it’s been hard to notice with two goals and 14 assists in 18 postseason games. Karlsson has played big minutes and produced at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs, essentially everything the Sharks envisioned he would do when they brought him in last summer.

What they didn’t want was a nagging injury that force Karlsson to missed 29 games during the regular season and now, perhaps, some at a critical juncture for a team that’s hoping they’ve finally put it all together this year.

Maybe it’s nothing. But those painful faces that Karlsson wore in Game 4 weren’t exactly inspiring confidence in the “maybe it’s nothing” part.

If Karlsson can’t play, it’s only going to mean more minutes for guys like Burns, who is already averaging nearly 29 minutes a night. Karlsson has played an instrumental role in these playoffs for the Sharks.

A loss, even for a game, would be a massive blow in what’s now a best-of-three series.

[MORE: Blues handling adversity like champions]


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