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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

David Quinn bringing ‘different energy’ to Rangers

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If you ask New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes what’s different from last season now that new head coach David Quinn is in charge, he’d tell you there’s a “different energy” around the team.

“It’s very positive, hard working energy,” Hayes told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

The new energy includes plenty of communication from the coach. Quinn is vocal and open with his players. They may have only been with him for a month, but already players know where they stand with him. That’s an important detail, and one that can help a roster like the Rangers’ develop into what general manager Jeff Gorton imagines.

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The rivalry between Boston College and Boston University is well-documented in the college hockey world. So when asked if he would be able to play for a coach with BU ties, Chris Kreider jokingly responded, “Begrudgingly. They brought in a BC assistant coach (Greg Brown), so it evens out.”

Kreider has been with the Rangers since the 2013 NHL season, John Tortorella’s final year in New York. One season later, and under head coach Alain Vigneault, they reached the Stanley Cup Final. That was followed up by a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Final, where they would fall in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It’s trended downward since then for the Rangers, and the decision last February by Gorton to look toward the future signaled a new era for the team and the end of Vigneault’s time in New York. Over that time Kreider has watched the identity of the team disappear and understands that there’s a first step that can be taken in order for a turnarond to begin.

“We need to fall in love with hard work as a group,” he said. “I think that needs to become our identity. We’re not going to get outworked on pucks; we’re not going to get outworked at any point in a game at any position on the ice. Practice habits have to be improved upon I think our details have to be there. I think we gotta lean on each other and trust each other that everyone’s gonna do the job to the best of their abilities.”

If you’re going to be outworked or not give full effort, then you’re not going to see the ice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known the coach for over a decade, either through hometown ties (Hayes) or you played for him before arriving in New York and even invited him to your wedding (Kevin Shattenkirk). Effort is non-negotiable to Quinn. Hayes was benched during the game against Buffalo and Shattenkirk’s recovery from knee surgery saw him take a seat in the press box last Thursday against San Jose. Not easy decisions, but ones that align with the coach’s vision for how he needs to help the Rangers succeed.

After going through the experience is playing for Quinn, knowing his coaching style and how he connects with people, his former players have the utmost confidence his jump from the NCAA to the NHL will be a successful one.

“You know, it’s not easy to make a transition, by any means, from college to professional level,” said Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who played for Quinn at BU during the 2014-15 season. “But I think more than anything you have to be a good person, and have people skills, and I think probably his biggest asset is how well he’s able to relate to players, relate to people. I think he’ll do a great job building relationships to players away from the ice, and in turn I think that’s how they’ll gain his trust and they’ll believe in him.”

Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller played one season at BU under Quinn and found him to be a player’s coach, one who finds the right buttons to push to maximize talent. He credited the coach with a successful freshman season that saw him lead the Terriers in goals (21) and points (45).

Shattenkirk, who played for Quinn at BU and with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, is a product of the impact Quinn can have on a player.

“I was always the skilled player who came in and in his mind will probably say didn’t want to work and didn’t want to defend,” said Shattenirk. “He did so much for me as a player in college and really turned me from a raw talent into a well-rounded player to be able to succeed at the next level… He was so driven in developing players and coaching players that it meant a lot to me.”

Asking around about Quinn and “good communicator” comes up often from those that have been around him. Kreider described his initial talks with his new coach as “kind of disarming” in regards to how approachable he is. This first season is going set a foundation for what the franchise is hoping are many successful years ahead.

Quinn takes over the Rangers in a transition year. Gorton’s eye is on the future, and no one will mistake them for Cup contenders this year. But they still have Henrik Lundqvist playing at an elite level and just under $19 million in cap space (before a potential rise in the cap ceiling) to play with next summer.

As soon as next season, if Quinn’s influence ends up being a positive one, a return to being a perennial playoff team is not out of the question. Reaching that point requires achieving small steps along the way — steps that can be taken this year with a new voice behind the bench. The desire to get back to that point and prove the doubters wrong are what fuel this Rangers team.

“When people don’t expect you to do well it’s obviously a little chip on your shoulder,” said Hayes. “We still have Hank in net. He’s a Hall of Fame goalie… I think if you buy into the system and you work as hard as you can when you’re on the ice, it’s a pretty good way to create wins.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Kovalchuk hasn’t cured Kings’ power play yet

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The general consensus was that, while age might catch up to 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk during his return to the NHL, his scoring touch would at least pay dividends for the Los Angeles Kings’ power play.

The good news is that Kovalchuk has been a gem at even strength, firing a team-leading 21 shots on goal (3.5 per game, up from his last Devils season SOG average of 3.32), generating four points in six contests. He’s been glued to the puck at times, and while his shot is dangerous, Kovalchuk also boasts the vision to make passes like this ridiculous dish to Alex Iafallo:

While Kovalchuk seems like a quick study alongside Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ top line, Los Angeles’ power play has been as stale as Cartman bleating “Let’s Go Kings!”

Somehow, the combination of Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, and (fill in the blank, really) hasn’t delivered on the power play yet in 2018-19, suffering through a brutal 0-for-21 start.

Seriously though, shouldn’t that quarter power at least an above-average on its own merit? Kovalchuk’s shot ranks as one of the deadliest (and most accurate) of his generation, yet he isn’t the only forward who could pull the trigger from “Ovechkin’s office.” Jeff Carter could conceivably fit that bill at times, too; during his time with the Kings, 48 of his 157 goals came on the man advantage. Combine Carter and Kovalchuk with Doughty – whose offensive game seemed liberated last season – and the Kings should at least be dangerous from the perspective of right-handed shots.

Kopitar (a left-handed shooter) is a fantastic scorer in his own regard, yet he’s not the one-timer threat that Carter or Kovalchuk is, so maybe the missing piece of the puzzle is finding a left-handed bomber.

Maybe Tanner Pearson would be the right fit. Perhaps the Kings could buck the four-forward, one-defenseman trend by adding Dion Phaneuf‘s shot to the mix? Perhaps Tyler Toffoli, another right-handed shot, would instead be the better solution merely by adding more talent?

Those are all interesting questions to explore, and Kings coach John Stevens would be wise to tinker with different setups. Keeping a cool head might be the real key, and Drew Doughty admitted to some frustration even before Los Angeles went 0-for-3 in a 4-1 loss to Toronto.

“I don’t want to say we’re ‘playing scared’ out there, because we’re not playing scared, but we’re overthinking it. Just keep things simple, get pucks to the net,” Doughty said, via LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen. “I’m even going out there – and I’ve never thought this way in my life – and I’m thinking, ‘if we don’t score here, we failed.’ You’re only supposed to succeed on the power play 20, 25-percent of the time. If you look at it that way, you don’t expect to score a goal every single time, but you expect to get momentum every single time.”

Some of the stats back up Doughty’s belief that the Kings might be overthinking things on the power play.

As you can see from this breakdown from The Point, the Los Angeles power play has struggled with the easier-said-than-done basics of setting things up. They haven’t had great success entering the zone or possessing the puck during these opportunities. The Kings might want even more shots from Carter and Kovalchuk, although each forward averages at least one power-play shot per game so far.

An optimist would say that those things will improve as this team gets more familiar with Kovalchuk (and gets Carter back in full swing after missing a lot of time last season). A pessimist might wonder if the Kings’ lack of foot speed and aging core might make for some transition struggles.

It’s worth noting that the Kings are no strangers to starting cold when it comes to 5-on-4 play. Los Angeles began last season on an 0-for-16 drought before rattling off a 3-for-3 night, according to Rosen. Even the best power play units endure a cold streak or two.

Even still, a productive power play could very well sustain the Kings while Jonathan Quick is week-to-week with an injury. If there’s slippage at even-strength, getting things to an optimal level might even make the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

Considering where Kovalchuk, Carter, Kopitar, and Doughty are in their careers, it’s probably too much to ask the Kings’ power play to rival a unit as menacing as that of the Penguins, Capitals, Flyers, or Maple Leafs. They still need to get it right, though, and might need that group to move the needle.

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.

More feuds, more personality means more fun for NHL

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For all we know, it might take decades for hockey players to totally shake off their generic “aw shucks” mentalities. Maybe it will never fully happen.

That said, it sure seems like we’re seeing a rise in trash talks, brutally honest conversations, and examples of bigger personalities during this goal-happy start to the new NHL season. The latest incident involves Lars Eller, Nazem Kadri, “bulletin board material,” the Leafs, Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So, yes, it’s pretty entertaining.

To catch you up to speed, Eller half-dismissed the rising Maple Leafs after they beat his Capitals 4-2 on Saturday, as NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti reported:

“We’re used to playing against Crosby and Malkin,” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there, so it’s not that special.”

While Eller added that the Maple Leafs are “a good team” and that he thinks Toronto would make the playoffs, Nazem Kadri didn’t take those comments kindly.

“Bulletin board material,” Kadri said on Monday, via NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy. “I don’t know how he can be serious with that comment. I understand they’re coming off hanging a banner, but you’ve got to give teams respect that have earned it, and I certainly think we’ve earned it.”

Juicy stuff, right?

Here’s a request: teams and players shouldn’t be so stuffy. Instead of getting tense in the shoulders about “respect,” it would be a lot more fun for fans if there were more comments like those of Ellers, and if personalities continue to surface.

Now, don’t get this totally twisted. NHL players aren’t going to rival the NBA when it comes to gloriously flamboyant behavior, at least not yet. It’s fitting that Eller was already walking back his comments on the Maple Leafs, as Gulitti notes today:

Sure, it’s possible that people got a little carried away with Eller’s comments … but who does it really hurt?

OK, so maybe Eller himself was recently bloodied by Brad Marchand for showing some personality following a goal, so you can understand why he might want to pump the brakes a bit here:

Let’s not forget that, while there’s a lot on the line in the NHL, this is still about entertainment.

Thankfully, this latest crop of hockey players – particularly stars – are opening up in ways that are keeping us laughing and sometimes egging on a fight like a crowd watching high schoolers slap each other. And it’s great.

Consider the recent flourishes we’ve enjoyed:

Matthews’ fashion sense generates memes that are almost as fun as watching him score ridiculous goals.

  • Do the Hurricanes have a name for this celebration yet? “The Carolina Climb” doesn’t have the same ring to it (or the same accuracy) as “The Lambeau Leap.” Either way, it’s a fun celebration; it also shows that elder statesmen can get it on the fun, as apparently this is the masterwork of Justin Williams:

(And you thought the team undergoing “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” practices couldn’t have fun.)

  • The Ryan JohansenRyan Kesler feud hasn’t resulted in a parking lot brawl … yet. The real highlight is Johansen’s adorably weak smack talk, to be frank.
  • Patrik Laine is just about as quick with quips as he is releasing shots. The highlight might be the jab he sent Vancouver’s way regarding “Fortnite” habits, as PHT’s own Scott Billeck reported on Oct. 3:

Good stuff, and this list is really just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve already seen Connor McDavid embrace his funny side with commercials and that meme-generating awkward airport photo. Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leafs youngster who can take and/or dish out jokes, as we saw from those cheesy Mitch Marner as a child barbs.

Maybe this all boils down to a more social media-savvy, meta generation of hockey players. On the other hand, we all might need to step up our games to even briefly wrestle the attention away from Gritty.

Whatever the case may be, let’s hope these moments of personality become a consistent part of hockey fandom, and – if we’re really lucky – crop up even more often.

If this is just a brief wave before we land back into blandness, at least it’s been a good run.

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.

Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.