Panthers first NHL team to clinch playoff spot, plus a Claude Giroux review

Panthers first NHL team to clinch playoff spot, plus a Claude Giroux review
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

As of this writing, the mighty Colorado Avalanche lead the NHL with 104 standings points. However, the Florida Panthers clinched a playoff spot before any NHL team this season after reaching 102 points and beating the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.

With the Panthers clinching a playoff spot, this seems like a good time to review Claude Giroux seven games into his run with the team, ponder where Florida’s at, and more.

Panthers first team in NHL to clinch playoff spot, could top the East

Remarkably, the Panthers could end up winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Again, the Avalanche boast the advantage (104 points in 69 games, and 46 regulation/OT wins). It would only take mild slippage for Florida to leap over them, though, as the Panthers sit at 102 points in the same games played (69 GP, 45 ROW).

If I had to guess, I’d say the Panthers care more about gaining home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference, and in their Atlantic Division bracket.

With the Hurricanes stumbling (relatively speaking) at 4-3-3 in their last 10 games, the Panthers gained a nice buffer for home-ice in their conference. As of this writing, this is how the Panthers’ record compares to that of the Hurricanes, as well as the rest of the Atlantic’s top four:

Panthers: 102 points in 69 games played, 45 ROW

Hurricanes: 98 points in 69 GP, 44 ROW

Maple Leafs: 93 points in 68 GP, 42 ROW
Lightning: 93 points in 68 GP, 41 ROW
Bruins: 91 points in 68 GP, 41 ROW

Really, the Panthers could improve their odds of a deeper playoff run in two significant ways.

  1. Avoiding a 2/3 Atlantic Division matchup seems pretty crucial.
  2. Yet, with the way the Bruins have played lately (including an 8-2-0 record in their past 10 games), drawing the lower wild card might be almost as important. Mind you, no one’s dismissing the Capitals as a threat. Yet, in an Eastern Conference littered with dangerous opponents, that might be as “manageable” a matchup as you can get.

[More on the recent rise of the Bruins]

Really, that’s the scary part for teams with a lot on the line, like the Panthers. While the Maple Leafs face the pressure of running out of patience, the Panthers burned through first-rounders at the trade deadline. As much as this team seems viable for multiple pushes, a first-round failure would feel fairly disastrous after spending so big.

A brief Claude Giroux/Panthers trade deadline review

Speaking of that big spending, here’s a quick Claude Giroux review.

  • Through seven games, Giroux hasn’t scored a goal, but he’s collected seven assists. Overall, the goals should come, as he’s fired a solid 18 shots on goal.
  • His playmaking is already paying off. On Saturday, Giroux generated two helpers, including an assist on a Jonathan Huberdeau goal. Huberdeau set a new Panthers franchise-record with an impressive 97 points:

  • Looking at Giroux’s Natural Stat Trick gamelog, his underlying numbers mostly look strong. Aside from a game where Giroux was under water against the Blackhawks, he’s rested comfortably above 50% in expected goals. In three games, Giroux’s expected goals percentage was at 83% or higher, and he was above 63% two other times. That’s a formula for success, possibly pointing to even better times as he settles in.

How Chiarot looks so far in Florida

If you look at Ben Chiarot‘s goals for and against totals, you might lambaste the trade. After all, at 5-on-5, the Panthers have allowed nine goals with Chiarot on the ice so far, versus creating a mere six.

That seems to mostly boil down to bad luck. If this were over a season, the Panthers’ on-ice save percentage with Chiarot at 5-on-5 (83.02%) would easily mark his career-low. Overall, though, just about every important underlying stat shows promise for Chiarot.

  • For sheer volume, Chiarot checks out, including a strong Fenwick For/Against tally (116 FF, 78 FA).
  • The quality’s going the right way, too. He’s been on the ice for 37 high-danger chances for, and merely 20 against.

Curiously, the Panthers haven’t been going overboard throwing Chiarot out in defensive situations. At least not yet.

[2022 NHL Trade Deadline Winners and Losers]

This season, Chiarot began less than 40% of his shifts in the offensive zone with the Canadiens. So far with the Panthers, Chiarot’s begun a whopping 70.73% of his shifts in the offensive zone (58 offensive zone faceoffs vs. just 24 defensive zones).

Naturally, some of this might boil down to small sample sizes. It’s only been seven games. (Expand beyond 5-on-5 and it’s at least a bit more balanced, too.)

Still, it’s intriguing that he’s been used in a different role so far.

From Anthony Duclair to Carter Verhaeghe to Gustav Forsling, the Panthers keep getting the most out of a wide variety of players. At times, the transformations almost feel revolutionary. Could they have a different vision for Chiarot? They certainly gambled a lot, paying up a first-rounder for a defenseman who was really struggling.

Between Chiarot, Giroux, and battles for playoff positioning, the Panthers will be fascinating to watch down the stretch. Hey, it also doesn’t hurt that they’re about as entertaining as any team we’ve seen in years.

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.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.