Roundtable: Fixing the Predators; most exciting NHL players

Fix the Predators. Go!

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: To start, you have to move on from David Poile. He’s the only general manager the franchise has ever known, but a fresh set of eyes is needed. Poile long did wonders with the Predators on a limited budget. But as they’ve loosened the purse strings, the money spent has ended up hampering progress.

Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene are the three current cap hits that are restricting the Predators from building smartly for the future. Turris’ six-year, $36M deal signed in 2017 was bought out in October and $2M will remain on their cap through 2023-24. Johansen (2024-25) and Duchene (2025-26) likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

It’s so bad that one of your better defensemen, Mattias Ekholm, is reportedly on the trade block because he has one year left on an attractive contract.

So if you’re Poile, or a new GM, what do you do? You hope the likes of Eeli Tolvanen, Dante Fabbro, Philip Tomasino, and Luke Evangelista, among others, develop into core piece over the next few seasons. The prospect pool needs to be restocked, which might be helped with an Ekholm, or even a Filip Forsberg deal. The future could be brighter, but for now it’s going to be painful.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: If there’s one overarching rule, it should be “nothing is sacred.”

During a recent intermission bit, Elliotte Friedman noted that the Predators were willing to trade all but three players: Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Pekka Rinne. I totally get that Rinne’s meant a ton to that organization, but if he’s really off limits, that, to me, speaks of an organization that’s simply not spry enough. The thing is, I feel like you could sell Rinne on a Ray Bourque-type trade: get him to a contender, give your fans a surrogate team to root for, and get a future asset for your trouble.

That sort of thing should be elementary, but the “nothing is sacred” motto applies to what’s probably most important. David Poile’s accomplished a lot during his staggeringly long run in two GM jobs, but this Predators team needs a renovation, and he’s not the person to do it.

Really, anyone too married to old decisions has to go. If there’s any hesitation to get out of difficult contracts like that of Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and so on, then that’s unacceptable.

The overarching plan should be to yank that Band-Aid off hard and fast, rather than going the “managed decay” route. If you don’t want to blow it all up, then you at least need to get fresh faces.

Take a look at all of the coaches on “the free agent market,” especially with Claude Julien added to the mix, and tell me you wouldn’t prefer most or all of the prominent ones to John Hynes. Why not go after a Julien, a Gerard Gallant, a Bruce Boudreau, and so on?

Whether it’s a rebuild, a less dramatic retool (maybe just take it on the chin during this low-attendance season, then swing one more time?), or a desperate gasp at being competitive in 2020-21, the Predators need to do something. They’re beyond stale. Honestly, it’s hard not to feel bummed out by their total lack of positive energy. Bad vibes, y’all.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: For the better part of a year now I have been telling myself “The Predators are better than this. There are signs this can turn around.” Last year it was the fact they were such a good 5-on-5 team and getting crushed by bad special teams and goaltending. This year it is the fact they possession and shot numbers are so good and they are getting crushed by bad shooting percentages and … bad special teams. But after a year-and-a-half of that, maybe it’s not just bad luck anymore.

Maybe this is just what they are. A team that has gotten a little older, does not have a ton of players on the upswing, and has reached its ceiling. I am not saying they can not possibly compete for a playoff spot this season or next season. But I am also not sure there is a quick fix here, which leads me to believe a full scale rebuild could be on the horizon in the next year or two.

The last thing a team wants is to be stuck in the middle ground between rebuilding and contending, because that is a brutal place to be and it can be awfully difficult to get out that cycle. The longer you put off the rebuild, the longer the rebuild is going to take. So I think you ride out the rest of this shortened season, see where you end up, and then make your decision on which way to go after that.

I suspect the answer will be rebuild.

[Fresh off No. 400, Blackhawks star Patrick Kane wants more]

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: This feels like a classic rebuild situation for a team that isn’t aware it’s time to rebuild. They have some solid pieces they could move and this is a good year to do it, since nothing is real and everything is a mess anyhow.

Try to move the Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen and Pekka Rinne contracts for one. Everyone is going to think they have a chance by the time the trade deadline rolls around and the Preds can probably sell high on any one of them to a team desperate to make an addition.

If they want to make a coaching change Gerard Gallant is probably the best option on the market but also, wouldn’t it be a fun time to go the creative route and hire someone totally new who isn’t one of the same like 35 guys recycled in NHL coaching job conversations? A concept.

They seem like they need some change, I think this is a perfect time to rebuild with the expansion draft on the horizon and surely another weird offseason anyways.

[Hockey Culture: Grant Fuhr on how he became part of Oilers dynasty]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The recent report from Elliotte Friedman that there “maybe only three untouchables” on the Predators roster, and that Filip Forsberg was not one of them, should give you a good sense for where things stand with Nashville. At the right price, virtually anything could be on the table for players not named Josi, Ellis, or Rinne.

If “fix the Predators” means make a proposal to get them back into annual contention for the Stanley Cup, I think any possible trades for their $8M forwards Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene should be explored as a first step. Both players are seriously underperforming relative to their salaries. Duchene has 50 points (16 goals) in 87 games as a Predator since signing his big ticket. Johansen doesn’t have a goal this season and has not turned into the caliber of number one center you’d expect when the price is Seth Jones.

It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be a market for a pair of top six players, but given the remaining term on their contracts (Johansen four more years, Duchene five), it’s also hard to imagine the potential return for Johansen, Duchene, or both, being the entire solution for Nashville.

That brings us to Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm. These are the two most “tradeable” players on the roster given their combination of proven talent and contract status (both are UFA after next season). Each of those players would net Nashville a serious haul. If the Preds don’t want to break the bank to extend them (which may not even be possible depending on whether Johansen and Duchene stay put), the optimal strategy may be to trade them too.

All of this is to say, Nashville is in a precarious position. Years of decisions while in “win-now” mode have put the Preds in limbo at this juncture. It’s possible that in one or two years this roster could look much different as the team navigates some critical decisions for its top players.

[NHL Power Rankings: Kaprizov, Zuccarello helping Wild make big climb]

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: After winning four of their last five games, I don’t know if the Predators need fixing. The easiest thing to do is always fire the coach and see if that works but it looks like the Predators are coming around. I thought the Predators biggest problems would be in goal with Pekka Rinne an aging veteran and coming off a poor 2019-20 season where he was 18-14-4 with a 3.17 goals-against-average and a 895 save percentage, but he has turned around his peripherals and has a 2.52 goals-against-average with a .911 save percentage.

I was never a fan of Juuse Saros and thought Nashville made a good play in drafting Yaroslav Askarov with the 11th pick of the 2020 Draft.

On the blueline they are strong led by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm but they are a bit short up front with Filip Forsberg being their only quality forward. Nashville has received some nice production of late from Eeli Tolvanen and if he is able to produce like he was expected to a couple of years ago when he came into the NHL with plenty of fanfare, then that will help the Preds future. They need better production from Mikael Granlund, Matt Duchene, Viktor Arvidsson and Dante Fabbro to contend but all in all, I would just see what happens in the interim and hope that their success continues on their recent hot streak.

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Who has been your must-watch player through the first two months of the season?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’d love to get all artisanal and praise the tannins of the Carolina Hurricanes. And there’s no denying that you can lean in hipster directions. In hockey terms, that’s walking in with Kirill Kaprizov under your arm, rather than an obscure record on vinyl.

But, come on, it’s Connor McDavid. You know that time someone scored a cheesy, seemingly impossible goal against you in a video game, and you shrieked at your friend about how that goal would never happen? Your friend should just spam your inbox with McDavid highlights, adorned with the occasional “See??!!?!”

Since McDavid is smothered in the obvious — allow me to next praise the deliciousness of pizza — let me throw in some bonus insight.™

The All-Canadian North Division is the must-watch division. It gets at part of why Connor McDavid is so must-watch. Not only is he a speedy superhuman hockey player (have we definitively proven he’s not an alien?), but McDavid often needs to assert his dominance to bail out a flawed Oilers roster. And, delightfully, he’s often facing defenses totally unequipped (extra-unequipped?) to stop a scoring supernova at his level.

Beyond McDavid and his pal Leon Draisaitl, we get to enjoy Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner picking defenses apart like cats with defenseless prey. There are messy soap operas from the Flames, Canucks, Canadiens, and Senators to sort through. And it’s not as though there are many dull moments with the Jets, either.

Somehow, that division’s been more captivating than we even expected, and you could say the same for McDavid, the greatest player in the world.

[Contender or Pretender: Goaltending, injuries will determine Blues season]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: We know what Connor McDavid can do on a nightly basis. We have years of evidence to tell us he’s the most exciting player in the league. But… I’m all for new content, so give me Kirill Kaprizov, and then give me some more.

It’s been some time since I wanted to stall on a Wild game as I flip through the NHL Center Ice channels, but here we are. “Dollar Dollar Bill Kirill” is the bolt of electricity that that organization has needed. The Calder Trophy favorite is a big reason why they’re a threat in the West Division.

Kaprizov is so good you could be entertained by watching him just skate:

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Obviously Connor McDavid chasing 100 points in a shortened season and Kirill Kaprizov single-handedly turning the Minnesota Wild into a must-watch team are at the top of my list. But Mathew Barzal has also been standing out to me. When he is at his best he is a top-five player to watch with the puck in my eyes because of his speed and the way he can stickhandle his way out of a phone booth. He has had that going on a lot this year. It has also been fun to see Marc-Andre Fleury playing at a super high level again. But if you are going to make me pick one and only one, I think I have to go with Kaprizov just because new talent and skill in the league is always exciting and because he has just been that good.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Maybe it’s basic but Cale Makar. Maybe it’s also because I watch too much college hockey and when Makar was at UMass he was my favorite player to watch then, too.

I appreciate a player who can do what everyone wants to do and do it so much better than anyone can even dream to be, and that’s what Makar does as a dynamic, two-way defensemen. Today’s game has a ton of “puck movers” and defensemen who can skate well or who can serve as like a fourth forward on the ice, but Makar makes offense happen and is legit still one of the best defenders in the game.

It’s early for award conversations and yeah Charlie McAvoy and Jeff Petry are looking great too but Makar is a shoo-in for the Norris now, for me, barring anything weird in an all-too weird year.

He ranks behind just John Carlson and Victor Hedman in points per game for a defenseman. Just a super fun player to watch night in and night out.

[Examining Mika Zibanejad’s stunning slump for the Rangers]

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: That’s easy. Kirill Kaprizov. The Minnesota Wild rookie is a supremely talented player that produces a “wow” moment pretty much every time he’s on the ice, even when he doesn’t score a goal or set one up. Kaprizov is an elite skater with incredible hockey sense, and he’s helped turn the Wild into appointment viewing each and every night. Give him the Calder Trophy already!

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: My must-watch player is the same as it has been since the start of the 2015-16 season. Connor McDavid. He is a pleasure to watch and seeing him combine his speed and talent to make so many players look like minor leaguers is what makes watching the Oilers so good every night they are on the schedule.

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    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

    stars golden knights
    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

    Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

    panthers stanley cup final
    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

    The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

    Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

    The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

    “This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

    Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

    The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

    And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

    “It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

    NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

    That’ll wait for the big prize.

    “It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

    Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

    Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

    Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

    “Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

    Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

    Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

    “Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

    That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

    But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

    Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

    Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

    Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

    “It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


    Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


    Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.