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The Buzzer: Panthers stay alive, Jackets and Devils clinch, Brown scores 4

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Player of the Night: Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

It was a big night for Roberto Luongo and the Florida Panthers.

Playing in his 1,000th NHL game, Luongo helped the Panthers keep their slim playoff hope alive by stopping 26 of the 28 shots he faced in a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins.

The final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is now down to just the Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers. Given what needs to happen the Panthers are still probably a long shot at this point, but they needed a win on Thursday and got exactly that. Now they need the Flyers to lose to the New York Rangers in regulation on Saturday afternoon while the Panthers need to win their remaining two games — at home against Buffalo on Saturday night and then at Boston on Sunday in a makeup of a game that was postponed earlier this season. Buffalo has already secured the worst record in the league, but the Bruins could still be playing for the Atlantic Division title in that game.

Player of the Night Part Two: Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

For the past few years Dustin Brown looked like he was finished being a productive player, at least offensively. He has had a huge bounce back year in 2017-18 and will end up finishing with a career high in points after failing to record more than 36 points in each of the past five years. He played one of the best games of his career on Thursday by scoring four goals, including the game-winning goal in overtime, to help lead the Kings to a 5-4 win over the Minnesota Wild. He will not set a new career high in goals (33 is out of reach at this point) but the 28 he currently has would be tied for the second most in his career.

Players of the Night Part Three: Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks

Just because you could not have scripted that game any better. Daniel scored two goals, including the game-winning goal in overtime, in their final home game with the Canucks. Read about it and see the goals here.

Blue Jackets, Devils are in

The reason the Eastern Conference playoff race is down to just two teams is because the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils officially clinched their spots in the playoffs on Thursday night.

Even though the Blue Jackets were on the losing end of a 5-4 overtime game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the point they gained was enough to get them in.

The Devils, meanwhile, clinched their first playoff berth since the 2011-12 season thanks to their 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The seeding remains up for grabs. The Penguins currently occupy the second spot in the Metropolitan Division with 98 points, while the Blue Jackets and Devils are just behind them at 97 points. That leaves a number of different potential first-round matchups still on the table.

We do know one first-round matchup

With the Nashville Predators officially wrapping up the Presidents’ Trophy, top spot in the Western Conference, and the Central Division we officially know at least one first-round matchup, and it will be the No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in the Central Division where the Winnipeg Jets will take on the Minnesota Wild. That series will begin in Winnipeg.

Blues get some help

The St. Louis Blues had the night off but they were still big winners on Thursday night because the team they are chasing for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche, ended up losing to the San Jose Sharks, 4-2. The Blues remain just one point back of that spot while the two teams close out the regular season playing each other in Colorado. The win for the Sharks gave them 100 points in a season for the eighth time in franchise history.

Highlight of the Night

Phil Kessel scored two goals for the Penguins on Thursday night helping him to hit the 90-point mark for the first time in his career. Both goals were absolute lasers and the type of on-the-rush goals that few players in the league are capable of. His second of the game, which was also the game-winning goal in overtime, was the best of the bunch.

Highlight of the Night Part Two

The Sedins stole the show in Vancouver on Thursday night but this Brandon Leipsic goal to tie the game at three in the third period deserves some attention. Without this goal we do not get overtime for the Sedins to have their storybook ending on home ice.

Factoid of the Night

It has been an amazing season for the Winnipeg Jets, and finally getting some quality goaltending is a big reason why. Connor Hellebuyck won his 43rd game of the season in the Jets’ 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Thursday, tying him with Tom Barrasso for most wins in a season by an American-born goalie. Of course it is in the shootout era so all asterisks that you want to use for goalie win totals in this era are in play, but it is still an incredible season for him.

Scores

New Jersey Devils 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

New York Islanders 2, New York Rangers 1

Philadelphia Flyer 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Nashville Predators 4, Washington Capitals 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 4

Montreal Canadiens 4, Detroit Red Wings 3

Florida Panthers 3, Boston Bruins 2

Winnipeg Jets 2, Calgary Flames 1

Edmonton Oilers 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3

Vancouver Canucks 4, Arizona Coyotes 3

San Jose Sharks 4, Colorado Avalanche 2

Los Angeles Kings 5, Minnesota Wild 4

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

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.

Devils keep it simple after years of aggressive moves

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The New Jersey Devils making a big, splashy (usually smart) move was starting to feel like a summer tradition along the lines of waterslides and family vacations.

Such aggression paid off pretty tangibly, too, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy while leading the Devils to an unlikely berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many franchises would take this as a sign to continue pushing chips further into the table. Instead, the Devils are electing – at least currently – to stay quiet, including allowing trade deadline additions Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner to walk.

That trend continued on Tuesday, as the Devils locked down some in-house supporting cast members to affordable contracts. GM Ray Shero handed Blake Coleman a three-year contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit, while Stefan Noesen signed for one year at a similar $1.75M AAV.

Coleman, 26, seems like a solid enough bet. He generated 13 goals and 25 points in 79 games last season despite a modest 8.9 shooting percentage and equally modest reps (an average of 14:24 TOI per game). Considering heavy usage in the defensive zone, his possession stats were respectable.

The story is more or less the same for Noesen, 25. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games despite even sparser ice time (13:17 on average) and managed even stronger possession stats while being placed in comparable defensive situations as Coleman.

Overall, this seems like solid stuff for useful (but not ground-breaking) players.

Maybe most importantly, the Devils seem like they aren’t putting too much weight in a postseason run that might be difficult to replicate. At the very least, New Jersey can’t reasonably ask Hall to improve on his fantastic 2017-18 campaign; anything close to that would be gravy.

Granted, there are a few things that actually could shake out better.

Most obviously, Cory Schneider might get his game back together. Despite two consecutive seasons you could probably describe as “backup-level,” his career save percentage remains strong at .920. Maybe this is the “new reality” for the 32-year-old netminder, but there’s also the chance that he might get his game back together. Goalies are tough to predict.

Regardless, the Devils must continue to wade through the Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Stanley Cup winners. Alongside those Capitals and Penguins, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Hurricanes will be formidable in 2018-19. If New Jersey takes a step back, at least it wouldn’t be after signing risky free agents. They’d probably generally be better off waiting for opportunities to strike, as they’ve done in the past.

(Speaking of leveraging opportunities, perhaps Marcus Johansson will enjoy better health luck next season? His concussion issues ranked as one of the things that didn’t break well for the Devils during what was otherwise a remarkable season.)

No NHL team really gets everything right, and a fair amount of luck is involved in building a winner, but smart franchises try to pile up as many smart moves as possible. Shero’s getting a lot of the big ones right, yet this summer, it seems like he’s making some solid, smaller calls.

Then again, maybe he’s just biding his time for another surprise?

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk confident he’s bringing ‘high level’ of play to Kings

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“I’m a young 35.” That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk described himself to reporters during a conference call over the weekend.

If you follow the Russian forward on Instagram, you’ll see that while he’s on the back nine of his hockey playing days he’s doing his best ensure he’s truly a young 35.

Готовь сани летом💪🏻👍🏻🔝… Nice workout with @primal_joe 🔥👌

A post shared by Ilya Kovalchuk (@ilyakovalchukofficial) on

“You just have to train a little more the older you are,” he said.

There are a lot of miles on Kovalchuk’s 35-year-old body. He has over 1,000 professional games played between the NHL and KHL, including 137 games the last two seasons between SKA St. Petersburg and international duty with Russia. Last month, he agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings — a team with a lot of experience and age, including 10 players who are at least 30 years old.

That’s not a problem in the eyes of the Kings, who lost out in pursuit of him eight years ago and are happy to bring him in to help with their offensive needs.

“He’s very explosive,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NHL Network last month. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [score] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s [Jeff Carter] or it’s [Anze Kopitar] — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”

The Kings have been desperate for scoring having averaged 2.68 goals per game over the last three seasons, good for eighth-worst in the NHL on that span. Kovalchuk netted 30 goals in each of his final two KHL seasons and his 63 points in 2017-18 equates to approximately 72 points over an 82-game season, per Rob Vollman’s latest translation factors. But while there are exceptions to the rule, production from forwards usually nosedives as they get up in their 30s. The supporting cast in LA will play a big part in how much this contract pays off.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

An exceptional talent over his career, you don’t expect Kovalchuk’s production to disappear as soon as he puts on a Kings jersey this season. But it will be interesting to watch, especially on a team that’s been so desperate for scoring.

“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” he said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, Carter, [Dustin] Brown — those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score – we just need to get to our goals.”

Kovalchuk “retired” from the Devils following the 2013 lockout-shortened season but said he followed the league during his time back home in Russia. He sees how the game has changed over the last five years and he’s eager to prove he can be a productive NHL player again.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “All the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level of where I can play.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


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