Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

Notable playoff performances on NBCSN: Kane’s hat trick tops Kings

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Hockey Week in America continues Friday with some big-time individual playoff performances.

The Western Conference foes dueled to a Game 7 that went into double overtime. Dallas relied on St. Louis native Ben Bishop and his 52 saves, the 5th-most saves in a Game 7 in history, to nearly defeat the Blues, but St. Louis prevailed 2-1, on the way to their historic 2019 Stanley Cup run.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire called the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.

You can catch Kane’s Game 5 hat trick Friday on NBCSN beginning at 12 a.m. ET or watch the stream here.

FRIDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE:
• Kane’s hat trick: Kings vs. Blackhawks (2013 Western Conference Final) – 12 a.m. ET

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

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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.

Notable playoff performances on NBCSN: Bishop, Maroon shine in Game 7

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Hockey Week in America continues Friday with some big-time individual playoff performances.

In a double-overtime thriller between these two Western Conference contenders, Patrick Kane and his series-clinching hat trick propelled Chicago to a 4-3 victory. In the Stanley Cup Final, the Blackhawks defeated the Bruins to capture the 2013 championship.

The late, great Dave Strader, Darren Pang, and Brian Engblom had the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill.

You can catch Bishop’s 52-save performance and other memorable individual playoff memories Friday on NBCSN beginning at 10 p.m. ET.

FRIDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE:
• Bishop’s 52-save effort: Stars vs. Blues (Round 2, Game 7, 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET
• Kane’s hat trick: Kings vs. Blackhawks (2013 Western Conference Final) – 12 a.m. ET

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

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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.

Notable playoff performances on NBCSN: Tavares leads Isles into Round 2

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Hockey Week in America continues Friday with some big-time individual playoff performances.

Trailing by one with less than a minute remaining in regulation with the extra attacker on the ice, Islanders captain John Tavares scored to tie the game at one to force overtime. In the second overtime period, Tavares scored the game-winner, leading the Islanders to a playoff series win in 2016 for the first time in 23 years.

Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro called the matchup from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

You can catch Tavares’ two-goal night and other memorable individual playoff performances Friday on NBCSN beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

FRIDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE:
• Tavares’ big night: Panthers vs. Islanders (Round 1, Game 6, 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs) – 8 p.m. ET
• Bishop’s 52-save effort: Stars vs. Blues (Round 2, Game 7, 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET
• Kane’s hat trick: Kings vs. Blackhawks (2013 Western Conference Final) – 12 a.m. ET

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

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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.

Blues broadcaster ‘symptom free’ after self-quarantine

Longtime St. Louis Blues broadcaster John Kelly, jr. during the St. Louis Blues victory parade
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The quarantine strategy medical professionals have urged society to use have proved effective once again.

John Kelly, a broadcaster for the St. Louis Blues, tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and is now symptom free after being self-quarantined for 14 days.

The St. Louis Blues released the following statement earlier Friday.

The St. Louis Blues are confirming that play-by-play announcer John Kelly has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

John has been in self-quarantine since March 13. We are thrilled to report that John is now feeling strong and symptom free.

The health and safety of the entire Blues family remains our core focus during these unprecedented times. We wish John well as he continues his recovery at home.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.


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.