Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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.

The Buzzer: Scheifele lights the lamp three times; Binnington earns second straight shutout

Mark Scheifele #55 of the Winnipeg Jets
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Three Stars

1) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele picked up his third NHL hat trick in the Jets’ 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators.  The overlooked centerman completed the milestone with 1:33 remaining in the third period. Nick Paul kicked off the scoring to give the Senators an early advantage, but the Jets stormed back with five unanswered. Scheifele scored his first two goals late in the first period to help Winnipeg gain control of the game. He collected a loose puck near the top of the crease and buried a wrister to even the game, 1:11 after the equalizer, Scheifele redirected Neal Pionk’s shot from the point to give the Jets a lead they would never relinquish. With the win, Winnipeg claimed the top wild card spot in the Western Conference for the time being.

2) Ben Chiarot, Montreal Canadiens

Chiarot recorded his second two-goal game of the season in the Canadiens’ 4-3 overtime victory against the Washington Capitals. The defenseman had two pretty goals, including the overtime winner when his blistering one-timer sped through the legs of Braden Holtby to help the Canadiens end a five-game losing streak. Early in the third period, Chiarot fired a wrist shot from the high slot to give the Canadiens a one-goal advantage. With two more years after this season remaining on his contract at an average annual value of $3.5 million, Chiarot is unlikely to be moved in the coming days even though the playoffs are a long shot for the Canadiens.

3) Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs and Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues

Andersen rebounded from a tough performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week and posted his second shutout of the season in Toronto’s 4-0 victory. It was Andersen’s first win in four starts since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for four games. Binnington has not been tested frequently in the past two games, but two consecutive shutouts is an accomplishment despite the limited save totals. Mackenzie Blackwood’s 36 saves and Antti Raanta‘s 45 stops also deserve recognition on a solid night from a few goaltenders in the NHL.

Highlights of the Night

The between-the-legs craze continued when Nick Foligno fooled Brian Elliott with this beauty.

Chiarot is not known for his offense but hammered this one-time feed from Max Domi.

It didn’t take long for Gabriel Vilardi to score his first NHL goal.

Raanta was nearly unbeatable, but Ryan O'Reilly finished a precise pass from Brayden Schenn to lead the Blues past the Coyotes.

Kevin Hayes‘ game-winning goal wasn’t anything special, but his celebration following was something to see.

Pavel Zacha threaded a perfect stretch pass and then Jesper Bratt mesmerized Martin Jones with a series of dekes.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

New Jersey Devils 2, San Jose Sharks 1

Montreal Canadiens 4, Washington Capitals 3 (OT)

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 5, Ottawa Senators 1

St. Louis Blues 1, Arizona Coyotes 0

Vegas Golden Knights 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 3

Los Angeles Kings 5. Florida Panthers 4


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Ovechkin ends scoring drought in Capitals OT loss

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Alex Ovechkin inched closer to 700 career goals, but the Washington Capitals fell in overtime against the Montreal Canadiens Thursday, 4-3.

The Capitals captain recorded his 699th career goal to open the scoring early in the first period, but Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot scored twice, including the game-winner after regulation.

The Pittsburgh Penguins took over the top spot in the Metropolitan Division earlier this week, and the Capitals’ recent slump could cost them home-ice advantage in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Additionally, the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets and trail the Capitals by five points for second place in the division.

Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher also scored for the Canadiens as they snapped a five-game losing streak. Carey Price made 29 saves in his 25th win of the season.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson evened the score in the final minute of the third period to force overtime and help Washington earn at least one point. The power forward jammed a puck past Price to give Ovechkin another shot at 700 in the extra session.

However, less than a minute into the three-on-three portion, Chiarot hammered a feed from Max Domi through the legs of Braden Holtby. The defenseman scored his first of the evening early in the third period when he wired a wrist shot from the high slot to give Montreal a 3-2 lead.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 to break a five-game streak without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Price.

Weber knotted the game at 1-1 when he notched his 14th of the season late in the first period. The Canadiens captain was originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks due to an ankle injury but returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing only six games.

Ovechkin’s chase for 700 continues Saturday when the Capitals square off with the New Jersey Devils.

 

Ovechkin’s quest for 700:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

WATCH LIVE: Ovechkin continues chase for 700 vs. Canadiens on NBCSN

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals celebrates
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington hosts Montreal in D.C. tonight in what will be the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season. All eyes will be on Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin as he continues his quest for 700 career goals.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

The Capitals have struggled in the midst of Ovechkin’s trek towards 700 goals. For the first time since mid-October, Washington no longer owns at least a share of the Metro Division lead as Pittsburgh now occupies the top spot.

Tuesday afternoon, the Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon from the San Jose Sharks for a 2020 second round pick (originally acquired from Colorado) and a conditional 2021 third round pick.

Montreal lost 4-3 at Detroit on Tuesday night after blowing a two-goal third period lead. The Habs led 3-1 entering the third and gave up three unanswered goals to pick up their fifth straight loss. To make matters worse, the Red Wings swept the Habs in the regular season (four games) for the first time in franchise history. Four of Detroit’s league-worst 15 wins this season have come against Montreal.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Thursday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhilip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Jonathan DrouinNick SuzukiJoel Armia
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiIlya Kovalchuk
Paul ByronNate ThompsonNick Cousins

Ben ChiarotShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Xavier OuelletChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerRichard Panik
Travis BoydNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Michal KempnyRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

NHL teams get jump on deadline with flurry of early trades

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Tom Fitzgerald changed teams twice at the NHL trade deadline as a player and knows how it feels.

As interim general manager of the New Jersey Devils, he didn’t wait until deadline day to trade captain Andy Greene or forward Blake Coleman. Beating the buzzer by more than a week, Fitzgerald recalled his own rough experiences of getting dealt late.

”I wish I was traded a week and a half before so I could get adjusted a little bit quicker,” he said.

Greene and Coleman are among more than a half-dozen players who are already adjusting to a new team because of an early trading flurry. The deadline isn’t until Monday, but some major moves are already done thanks to a clear definition between buyers and sellers, contenders interested in the same possibilities, and reasonable prices around the league.

”Over (last) weekend, a lot of things started to pick up,” said Los Angeles Kings GM Rob Blake, who has already made three trades and could still be active. ”It seems after the All-Star break, a lot of teams start finding their direction on where they’re going, what’s available and prices.”

Los Angeles got things going by dealing goaltender Jack Campbell and versatile forward Kyle Clifford to Toronto in early February, and this week traded winger Tyler Toffoli to Vancouver and defenseman Alec Martinez to Vegas. On Tuesday, Pacific Division rival San Jose traded defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington, and the Winnipeg Jets got blue liner Dylan DeMelo from Ottawa.

A couple of days earlier, the Devils traded Greene to the New York Islanders and Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning within hours of each other.

It isn’t taking much time to close the book on some big trades.

”I think there’s probably five or six teams talking to the same teams about the same players,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”And it sorts itself out for each team and then it happens quickly because then you’ve got to react to what happens with your other conversations.”

MacLellan didn’t rule out the Capitals making another move. But by getting Dillon early, he could be in the lineup for three extra games – which is significant given how tight the standings are.

It helps Dillon get acclimated, too. The 29-year-old who was considered the top pending free agent defenseman available didn’t have to sit around and wonder when San Jose would trade him.

”I’m sure you guys can read the papers just as much as we are, or social media,” Dillon said. ”It was definitely nice just from the mental side of things to get that done with.”

The NHL several years ago moved the trade deadline from March to February to give teams more time to benefit from acquiring players. Fitzgerald was traded in March each time and played 11 and 15 regular-season games, respectively, after getting moved.

Times have changed.

”A lot of teams like to get to things early,” Fitzgerald said. ”(Teams) want you to mesh with the team quicker rather than later. … A little bit longer runway is useful.”

DEADLINE DAY

All the early trades does not mean Monday might be quiet. The New York Rangers could wait until the last minute to trade forward Chris Kreider or one of their goaltenders. The Devils, Kings and Senators still have assets, too.

A few days after Montreal traded defenseman Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues, speculation continues to swirl around the Canadiens. Coach Claude Julien said, ”I don’t know that the noise is done,” and players involved in rumors are trying to block it out.

”Anything can happen, obviously,” winger Tomas Tatar said. ”I’m not too worried now. It’s just part of the business.”

WHO’S GONE

– Campbell and Clifford traded from Kings to Maple Leafs for Trevor Moore, 2020 third-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

Jason Zucker traded from Wild to Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison and conditional 2020 first-round pick

– Greene traded from Devils to Islanders for David Quenneville and 2021 second-round pick

– Coleman traded from Devils to Lightning for Nolan Foote and 2020 first-round pick

– Toffoli traded from Kings to Canucks for Tim Schaller, Tyler Madden, 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2022 fourth-round pick

– DeMelo traded from Senators to Jets for 2020 third-round pick

– Dillon traded from Sharks to Capitals for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 third-round pick

– Scandella traded from Canadiens to Blues for 2020 second-round pick and conditional 2021 fourth-round pick

– Martinez traded from Kings to Golden Knights for 2020 second-round pick and 2021 second-round pick

WHO’S LEFT
– Rangers: F Chris Kreider, G Alexandar Georgiev, F Jesper Fast
– Kings: F Trevor Lewis
– Devils: F Wayne Simmonds, D Sami Vatanen, G Louis Domingue
– Senators: F Jean-Gabriel Pageau, F Vladislav Namestnikov
– Red Wings: F Andreas Athanasiou, D Mike Green, D Trevor Daley
– Canadiens: F Ilya Kovalchuk
– Sharks: F Patrick Marleau, F Joe Thornton
– Jets: D Dustin Byfuglien

WHO COULD STAY
– Rangers: G Henrik Lundqvist
– Devils: F Travis Zajac
– Senators: F Anthony Duclair
– Canadiens: F Tomas Tatar, D Jeff Petry
– Sabres: D Zach Bogosian
– Wild: D Jonas Brodin