Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?

Paul Maurice and the Jets could really use a win right now

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This was always going to be a challenging season for the Winnipeg Jets.

After a surprising run to the Western Conference Final during the 2017-18 season, they regressed last season and opened this season with a makeshift defense due to offseason departures and the still unsettled situation regarding Dustin Byfuglien. At times, and especially recently, the defense has looked has looked exactly like the patchwork unit that it is. They get bombarded on the shot chart, and had it not been for some superhuman play from starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck over the first couple of months their playoff chances for this season might already be in the toilet.

But they’re not.

They are still — for now — very much in the Western Conference Wild Card race, and with a win on Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could enter the All-Star break and bye week just a single point back of a playoff spot. Considering the state of the defense and the way the team has actually played at times, that would be a decent conclusion to the first half of the season.

It would also probably be a big win for coach Paul Maurice, whose seat seems to get warmer with each and every loss. And the losses have been piling up recently. After losing in Carolina on Tuesday night, 4-1, the Jets have lost five of their past six and are just 6-11-2 in their past 19 games.

On Tuesday, it was another tough start that saw the Jets give up three early goals and have to play from behind again. When asked about another slow start, Maurice was defiant in saying there was no slow start (using an expletive in the process) and instead defended his team’s effort and the way they played. It was a little surprising given how rough this recent stretch has been, especially the past three games when they’ve been outscored by a 16-4 margin. Listening to him talk about the team’s effort and how they “played their asses off,” it almost sounded like a coach that is resigned to his team being undermanned at a major position (defense) and that things are just unraveling. It was basically: They did everything they could, and this is all they had.

Given the current situation and the recent slide, it’s enough to wonder if Thursday’s game against Columbus is approaching must-win territory. It is believed that Maurice’s contract expires at the end of this season, and as Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s really hard to see the Jets giving him another contract extension after two straight years of declining results.

If there were ever a time for a team to consider a change, wouldn’t this be it? A coach in the final year of his contract, for a struggling team that seems to have hit its ceiling with that coach, while the team itself is still flirting with a playoff spot. Not to mention the fact that after Wednesday they have a week-and-a-half and an opportunity to hit the reset button coming out of the break.

Whether or not that would make a difference is certainly up for debate. There is probably not a coach or prospective coach in the league that can turn this defense as constructed into a contender, and no matter who is behind the bench is going to have to rely on the forwards being able to outscore their opponents and hope for Hellebuyck to return to his Vezina/MVP level from the first couple of months.

It just seems like the Jets and their coach are at a crossroads for this season, and maybe beyond.

It is difficult — and maybe even silly — to put so much emphasis on one regular season game in the middle of January, but Thursday’s game against Columbus seems like it has the potential to dramatically shift things one way or another for the Jets.

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.

Police investigating after Gritty accused of punching 13-year-old in back

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We have an early contender for strangest hockey story of 2020.

Philadelphia police are investigating a claim that Gritty, the rambunctious googly-eye mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, punched a 13-year-old fan in the back during a meet-and-greet with season ticket holders in November.

The claim comes from Chris Greenwell, a Delaware native and 22-year Flyers season ticket holder, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As Greenwell tells it, after waiting in line for more than hour to meet Gritty for a photo, his son “playfully patted” the mascot on the head before walking away. At that point, Gritty is accused of getting out of his chair, taking a running start, and punching Greenwell’s son in the back as hard as he could. He told the Inquirer that he took his son to a chiropractor a week later, providing the paper with a document showing that his son was diagnosed with “mild pain” and a “back bruise.”

When Greenwell and the Flyers could not come to terms on how handle the situation, he reported the incident to Philadelphia police who are currently investigating.

The Inquirer details email exchanges between Greenwell and the Flyers ownership group, Comcast Spectacor, where he initially complained about the lousy quality of the picture where Gritty did not look at the camera.

From the report:

After the alleged punch, Greenwell emailed officials at Comcast Spectacor, first complaining of the “lousy picture” with the mascot who didn’t look at the camera. Then he raised the “more serious and disappointing” concern.

“I know it was not correct for my son to harmlessly tap him on his head but for a Flyers employee to get (sic) throw a full punch at someone with his back turned and hurt a 13 year old boy is assault, unprofessional and unacceptable for your organization,” he wrote.

During that email exchange the Flyers claim there is no video footage to support Greenwell’s claim, while no witnesses were able to verify the same story. Still, Greenwell and the Flyers attempted to find ways to make it right. Greenwell suggested the team show his son on the scoreboard or allow him into the locker room to get autographs from players.

The Flyers countered by giving him the opportunity to sit on the team bench during warmups before a future home game.

That was not deemed to be acceptable.

That was not the only issue in the exchanges.

From the Inquirer:

But the email exchange soured when Greenwell and Kleinman disagreed on what was said during a December phone call. Greenwall claimed Kleinman told him that Gritty admitted he hit Brandon. Kleinman denied saying that.

“At no time did I state that one of my colleagues hit your son,” Kleinman replied in a Dec. 23 email. “Gritty, however, recalls being hit on the head repeatedly by someone during one of the earlier photo shoots.”

Greenwell, who said he is dumping his season tickets with the team, added that he only wanted an apology and something special for his son.

Gritty is a little different than your typical mascot in how the Flyers have it act. When they unleashed Gritty on the world prior to the 2018-19 season they described it as having “bully tendencies” and being “mischievous.” Everything about the Gritty persona since then has backed that up. There was always the chance that Gritty might fly too close to the sun and get burned.

According to one fan, that happened.

The Flyers insist it did not happen that way.

Now we are left with … this.

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.

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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The Florida Panthers not only gave head coach Joel Quenneville a win in his first return to Chicago on Tuesday night, they extended their winning streak to six games and roll into the All-Star break and bye week as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.

They are also in the rather unfamiliar territory of having a strong hold on a playoff spot this late in the season.

The Panthers are just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division while also owning a four-point cushion over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It obviously doesn’t lock them into anything, but it has to be a pleasant change of pace after slow starts the previous two years all but crushed their playoff hopes by the All-Star break.

It’s also a big step in the right direction for an organization that needs to earn the trust of its fanbase and give people in their market a reason to finally care about them. As we detailed back in August, this has been the least successful organization in terms of playoff success since the start of 2000 across the NHL and NBA. Overall, they have made the playoffs just five times in 25 years and have only won three playoff series ever — all of them coming during one improbable playoff run during the 1995-96 season.

In recent years we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere after years of struggle to go on deep playoff runs. Two years it was the Winnipeg Jets, after never winning a playoff game in the first 17 years of their existence, going to the Western Conference Final. A year ago it was the Carolina Hurricanes snapping a nine-year postseason drought and going to the Eastern Conference Final.

There is at least some reason to believe the Panthers could be capable of going on a similar run this season.

The offense is legit

Pop quiz: Who is the NHL’s highest scoring team right now? Toronto? Pittsburgh? Washington? Tampa Bay? Colorado? All good guess, and all wrong. It’s the Florida Panthers, averaging a league-best 3.83 goals per game as of Wednesday.

Leading the way is their outstanding top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Individually, they have each been top-10 scorers in the NHL over the past three seasons and together they are one of the best top-line duos in the league, producing goals at a rate similar to some of the league’s best.

But it’s not just them that drive the offense.

Thanks to Frank Vatrano‘s hat trick on Tuesday, the Panthers already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season, most in the league. There are only six other teams in the league that have more than four (Vancouver has six; Colorado, Vegas, Washington, and Winnipeg all have five each).

Goaltending can still be the big difference maker here

This is probably the wildest part of Florida’s success.

Goaltending was by far their biggest area of need this offseason and they addressed it by delivering a dump truck full of money to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had been one of the NHL’s best goalies during his time in Columbus and on more than one occasion helped carry the team to the playoffs. The Panthers’ hope was that he could be their new No. 1 goalie, solidify the position, and be the missing piece to finally get them back in the playoffs.

The Panthers may end up back in the playoffs, but right now it is in spite of their goaltending.

As of Wednesday the Panthers sit 27th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and 25th in all situations save percentage. Typically teams with goaltending like this do not make the playoffs, or even have a chance to make the playoffs. Out of the bottom-15 teams in overall save percentage right now, Florida and Vegas are the only two teams holding a playoff spot.

On one hand, this might be their undoing in the second half if Bobrovsky can’t get back on track.

On the other hand, if he DOES get back on track the Panthers could be a dangerous team to deal with. There was always risk with giving a 31-year-old goalie a seven-year, $70 million contract, but his career shouldn’t fall off a cliff this quickly. His first half in Florida has been similar to his first half performance in Columbus a year ago. He finished last season by catching fire in February, March, and April and not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, but also sweep one of the best regular season teams in NHL history. He still has that ability.

They could still use some help on defense

While Bobrovsky has definitely struggled, it would be unfair to put all of the Panthers’ goal prevention problems on just him. Because there are some issues in front of him.

The Panthers have invested a ton of money and resources on their blue line but the results have not yet followed. In terms of shot attempts against, shots against, scoring chances and expected goals the Panthers are no better than average (and in some cases near the bottom of the league). That’s something that is going to have to be addressed, but the salary cap situation will not make it easy.

Big picture: The Panthers have some flaws, and right now might have to get through Tampa Bay and Boston in rounds 1 and 2 in a potential playoff run, but there is reason for optimism here. They have the highest scoring team in the league, the eighth best points percentage in the league, and have done that with some of the worst goaltending in the league. A tweak or two on the blue line and Bobrovsky rediscovering his ability to stop pucks and there might be something interesting brewing here.

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.

My Favorite Goal: Spurgeon’s baseball swing goal for Wild

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers, personalities and NHL players remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Derek Stepan of the Coyotes remembers Jared Spurgeon‘s baseball swing goal vs. the Devils in 2017.

Derek Stepan wasn’t even involved in the game that featured his choice for favorite goal. With the Devils visiting the Wild on Jan. 17, 2017,  a deflected shot was saved by Cory Schneider and flew into the air to the side of the New Jersey net. That’s when Spurgeon quickly gloved the puck and dropped it to himself and swung for the fences for a goal.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
Darren McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Alex Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie
Marek Malik’s stunning shootout winner
Paul Henderson scores for Canada
• Mario Lemieux’s end-to-end masterpiece; Hextall scores again
Tomas Hertl goes between-the-legs
Borschevsky’s goal sealed with a kiss

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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.