Chris Driedger

The Wraparound: Panthers keeping faith facing elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your nightly roundup of all the postseason action.

James Reimer‘s goaltending and Sebastian Aho’s highlight-reel goal helped the Hurricanes complete the sweep of the Rangers.

• Here are the updated round-robin standings and scenarios as of Wednesday.

Facing elimination, Joel Quenneville isn’t learning towards making a change in goal for Game 3 (12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream). “Very likely,” he said after Tuesdays’ loss to the Islanders about going back to Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bob was their big summer acquisition, a $10 million a season investment. Their season is on the line Wednesday and they’re going to ride with him. Chris Driedger played well in only 12 regular season appearances, but he’s inexperienced. Quenneville has never been one to have much confidence in throwing young players into the fire.

Beyond the goals allowed, the goals for haven’t been helping. Florida has just two even strength goals in two games. There’s also the discipline problem as the Panthers have handed New York 12 power plays, allowing three extra man goals.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Florida isn’t looking past Game 3, knowing there’s plenty of work to be done.

“This is the best time of my life,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “You get to play playoff games. Our whole team is here. We want to win. We want to play our best game. Obviously, our last two games are not our best. We can do a lot better. We’re going to do a lot better in the next game.

“If I’m disappointed in being here? No. This is a great chance for us. I’ve seen so many teams coming back from 3-0, 2-0, 3-1. It’s not over until …”

“The fat lady sings,” chimed in teammate Keith Yandle.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 3: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (Series tied 1-1): A short memory is what Rick Tocchet is pounding home to his players. “We’ll move by this [loss to Nashville] in about two minutes,” he said after the Predators evened the series with a Game 2 win. Getting clean shots through on goal will be one of Arizona’s keys. They sent 26 Juuse Saros‘ way Tuesday, but Nashville blocked 21 shots.

Round-robin: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream: At the end of every round this postseason, teams will be re-seeded – so round robin standings are critical. If Boston loses, the Presidents’ Trophy winners would no longer have a shot at the first seed in the East. Tuukka Rask, who has been dealing with a fractured finger on his glove hand, is expected to start. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos did not take line rushes with the team on Tuesday and has been ruled out.

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream: How do you top a buzzer beater? Colorado is going to try. As they look to try and claim the West’s top seed, the Avs take on a Dallas team eager to forget about Monday’s third-period collapse to Vegas. Jared Bednar has no named starting goalie, but Pavel Francouz is expected to play.

Game 3: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Sidney Crosby has two goals in this series, scoring in each of the first two games. With his goal in Game 2, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th all-time with 68 playoff goals. The only active player with more postseason goals is Crosby’s teammate, Patrick Marleau. The goal also gave Crosby 188 career playoff points, tying Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth-most in history.

Game 3: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Many expected this to be a high-scoring series, and it hasn’t disappointed. Nineteen goals have been scored through two games, with the winning team scoring six goals in each game. The big names on both teams have impressed, including Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who both have six points after consecutive three-point performances. Patrick Kane has three points in the series (1G-2A).

THURSDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 3: Wild vs. Canucks, 2:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Capitals, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Blues vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Game 3: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Jets vs. Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning – 2 pts. (.657)
Flyers – 2 pts. (.645)
Capitals – 1 pts. (.652)
Bruins – 0 pts. (.714)

WEST
Avalanche – 2 pts. (.657)
Golden Knights – 2 pts. (.606)
Blues – 0 pts (.662)
Stars – 0 pts. (.594)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Jets vs. Flames
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks

Islanders take 2-0 series lead vs. Panthers; Time to bench Bobrovsky?

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Whether you put a lot or very little of the blame on Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers are in big trouble, as the Islanders won Game 2, 4-2 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.

Should the Panthers bench Bobrovsky for another option, such as lightly-used backup Chris Driedger? That isn’t the easiest question to answer, and coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t have much time to mull it over. The Islanders have a chance to sweep the Panthers swiftly, as Game 3 takes place on Wednesday.

Islanders take advantage of sloppy Panthers play, goaltending to take 2-0 series lead

Early on, the Panthers won the special teams battle.

Florida killed a high-sticking double-minor by Michael Matheson, then Mike Hoffman scored the 1-0 goal just as their power play began. Unfortunately for the Panthers, that lead — and those special teams victories — would not last.

Things fell apart for the Panthers during the second period, as the Islanders scored three of the four goals in a busy, sloppy middle frame. The Islanders exploited the Panthers’ mistakes (and maybe Bobrovsky’s fading confidence?) to score plenty of goals, including going 2-for-7 on the power play.

Should Panthers consider changes, including benching Bobrovsky?

To some extent, the Panthers hands (paws?) are tied. When you spend $10 million per year on a goalie, you kind of have to cross your fingers and hope things work out. At least long-term.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But, right now, the Panthers are on the brink of elimination. This team isn’t perfect defensively by any stretch, yet with every goal at a premium against a structurally stingy Islanders squad, the Panthers really cannot afford to wait until Bobrovsky hopefully finds his game.

Yes, this was a laser by Ryan Pulock. Sometimes you need your goalie to stop these, though:

Joel Quenneville should at least explore the idea of giving Chris Driedger a shot.

While it wasn’t a large sample size, Driedger managed a strong .938 save percentage over 12 games in 2019-20. When given opportunities, Driedger produced solid stats at other levels recently, whether he was in the ECHL or AHL.

None of that means Driedger would be able to clean up all of the Panthers’ messes. Again, it’s not necessarily all Bobrovsky’s fault.

Yet, at this pace, can the Panthers really afford to just hope that the results change while they do the same things? Maybe this is a matter that’s too big for a one-day turnaround, but this current setup doesn’t seem to be working.

As a side note, the Islanders received a scare when Mathew Barzal crashed hard into the boards late in Game 2. Remarkably, Barzal stayed in the game, so it seems like he’s OK. Still, it was such a violent crash that it’s worth keeping an eye out for updates.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

* If necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

What is the Panthers’ long-term outlook?

Florida Panthers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Florida Panthers

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Everything about this team in the immediate future is going to be built around the forward duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau.

They are two of the best and most productive players in the league, while Barkov has developed into one of the NHL’s most complete two-way centers. Barkov is signed for two more seasons after this one, while Huberdeau is locked in for another three. They have matching salary cap hits of $5.9 million per season.

Beyond them, the core gets a little cloudier because all of their long-term investments come with some pretty significant risks.

Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is signed for another six seasons at a salary cap hit of $10 million per season. They are going to need him to be significantly better than he has been so far if there is any chance of him playing out the remainder of that deal in Florida.

In front of him they have invested heavily in their defense with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, and Mike Matheson all signed for at least the next two seasons, while Ekblad, Yandle, and Matheson go for at least the next three years. Ekblad and Matheson are both signed for the next five. They have a ton of money invested in that quartet, but they haven’t really received a great return on that investment at this point.

Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, two of their best forwards, are unsigned beyond this season and eligible for unrestricted free agency. If they can not re-sign one — or both — that would be a significant amount of offense going out the door.

Long-Term Needs

Even though the Panthers have made a huge long-term financial investment in their defense and goaltending, they are still one of the worst defensive teams in the league right now.

Ekblad and Yandle are a solid duo at the top, and maybe even a little underrated. Ekblad’s status as a former No. 1 overall pick definitely raises the expectations around him, but he has been an extremely productive player offensively and shown improvement in his all-around game. He may not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s a good player.

But once you get beyond that top duo there are a lot of flaws and question marks with the defense as a whole, and not a lot of immediate help on the horizon to help fix it. That is one of the things that made the in-season trade of Vincent Trocheck so confusing. It was a deal that did not need to be made, and they did not even use it to address their biggest flaw.

They could also be looking at a depth issue at forward if they can not get Hoffman and Dadonov re-signed.

Long-Term Strengths

The biggest strength for the Panthers is probably the simple fact they not only have two elite players in Barkov and Huberdeau, but that they have them both signed for multiple seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $11 million per season. They are exceptional bargains against the cap, they are both elite players, and they are both in the middle of their prime years in the NHL. Having that sort of situation at the top of the lineup should be a massive advantage for a front office to work with. Those are the hardest players to find (the elite, game-changers on offense) and they tend to cost the most money. The Panthers not only already have them in place, they have them for far less than they should ordinarily cost. That is a gift and a bonus you do not want to waste.

It also might seem weird saying this given how much Bobrovsky struggled in his debut season with the team, but they do seem to have a lot of goaltending options in the short-and long-term.

Even if Bobrovsky’s contract turns into a problem in a few years, he should be better than he was this season and at least give them a few seasons of high level play. Chris Driedger has also been a pleasant surprise in net this season and could settle in as a nice back-up option, while they also have one of the top goaltending prospects in the league in Spencer Knight after using a top-15 pick on him in the draft a year ago.

They also have one of the NHL’s best coaches in Joel Quenneville.

More:

• Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers
• Panthers’ surprises and disappointments

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.

Florida Panthers: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

Florida Panthers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Florida Panthers.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s slow start

This has not yet worked out as hoped.

Even during the 2018-19 season it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Panthers were going to do everything in their power to throw a truck load of money at Bobrovsky on the free agent market in an effort to fix their biggest organizational weakness from a year ago — goaltending.

They desperately needed a goalie, Bobrovsky was the best goalie available on the market, and he has a track record of being one of the best goalies in the league. It was a perfect match, even if an expensive one.

The Panthers ended up signing him to a seven-year, $70 million contract. It certainly came with some risks and concerns, with the biggest one being how long he would be worth such a monstrous salary cap number. Given his age and the normal aging curve for goalies there was an expectation that the contract would become an albatross before it expired, but that the Panthers should still get some high-level years out of their prized addition. So far, they have not even received that.

Bobrovsky got off to a massively disappointing start that has resulted in one of the worst overall seasons of his career. It would be entirely unfair to put all of the blame on him — the Panthers are lousy defensively — but there is no question that his performance has been less than expected. He has been better since the start of December, but still not what the Panthers hoped for.

Noel Acciari‘s 20-goal season

The Panthers were extremely busy this past summer on the free agent market, and one of their most successful signings has probably been the one that received the least fanfare at the time.

Before this season the 28-year-old Acciari had scored 18 goals 180 career games with the Boston Bruins.

This season? He already has 20 goals in 66 games with the Panthers, including back-to-back hat tricks in mid-December.

Sure, he is riding an exceptionally high shooting percentage that will eventually regress (18 percent), but 20 goals in 66 games is still a positive development. Can not take those goals away. They still happened.

Chris Driedger a pleasant surprise in net

Before this season Driedger had appeared in just three NHL games, and none since the 2016-17 season.

Even though his sampling this season has been small (only 12 appearances) he has still been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Panthers thanks to a 7-2-1 record and .938 save percentage.

He  has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between the ECHL and AHL (and posting very good numbers along the way) without really getting much of an opportunity at the highest level. He was able to take advantage of it this season and has helped keep the Panthers in the playoff race when they needed a short-term boost in goal.

The Vincent Trocheck trade made little sense

By little sense, I actually mean no sense.

Just before the NHL trade deadline, and with the Panthers still very much in the race, they traded Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for what basically looked to be a quantity over quality return.

All signs indicated that it was trade done simply to “shake things up” for a team that was struggling.

The problem with that mindset is that Trocheck was not only one of their core players and still signed beyond this season, but they were also moving him at what might have been his lowest value and did not even address their biggest need — defense. What was the point? It simply was not good asset management from a team that has demonstrated some poor asset management habits in the very recent past. It just seemed like the type of move that would be a letdown for Panthers fans that are desperate for a competitive hockey team, and one that might finally make the playoffs with some regularity.

MORE PANTHERS:
Looking at the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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.

NHL teams putting importance on backup goaltender position

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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins had it all set up to honor backup goalie Jaroslav Halak on Tuesday night for becoming the 74th goalie in NHL history to play in 500 games.

Then something went wrong: Starter Tuukka Rask was injured, Halak became the No. 1 guy and the Bruins decided to postpone the ceremony until a night Halak would be off.

”A lot of times, they’re in a zone before the game. We want them to enjoy that ceremony,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”With Tuukka’s, injury we were forced to change it.”

There are a lot of NHL teams making a lot of changes because of injuries to their starting goalies this season – and not just the ceremonies to honor middling milestones. Four goalies selected for the All-Star Game are injured, with Rask joining Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury. (Rask had already begged out of the game before he was injured.)

For NHL teams, the days of riding one goalie as much as possible have long since passed. Now, general managers know they need a strong No. 2 to get the team through the back-to-backs and the injuries that can pop up at any time.

”Some of that’s obviously the ability of the second goaltenders. Some teams just don’t have that,” Cassidy said. ”We’ve got two guys we feel real comfortable with. It makes for a good combination. Jaro, he’s handled if before. If it was Jaro hurt, Tuukka could have handled it.”

Last week, the Panthers said Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury. Starter Sergei Bobrovsky has already missed much of January with an unspecified injury.

Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was out for 15 games because his wife had a serious medical situation, and the Wild went 9-3-3, with six of those wins credited to Alex Stalock, their primary backup in his third season with the team.

The Coyotes thought they had their No. 1 goalie for the future when they got Antti Raanta from the Rangers in 2017. But he played just 59 games his first two seasons in Arizona. Darcy Kuemper took over and earned a spot in last year’s All-Star game, finishing fifth in the Vezina Trophy Award voting.

When Raanta returned, the Coyotes went with co-No. 1’s, and hovered near the top of the Pacific Division. Then Kuemper, who was 15-7-2 and second in the league with a 1.97 goals-against average, was injured on Dec. 20 and hasn’t played since.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said there was interest in Raanta earlier in the season, and he’s glad that general manager John Chayka didn’t bite on trade offers.

”I remember him saying to the staff, ‘A lot of teams are calling about Rants. We all looked at each other and said, ‘Rants and (Kuemper) are the identity of our team. They give us a chance to win,”’ Tocchet said ”I mean, we try to play good defense and do a lot of other things. But they give us this identity and this confidence. Why would we want to put a crack in the armor?”

Raanta went 9-9-2 before he was injured early this month. Adin Hill, who played 17 combined NHL games the previous two seasons, has gone 2-2-1 with a 2.40 goals-against average with Kuemper and Raanta out.

Bobrovsky won two Vezina Trophies in Columbus before departing for Florida as a free agent, and Korpisalo inherited the No. 1 job. A five-game winning streak in December landed him an All-Star selection.

But Korpisalo injured his knee trying to block a shot in a shootout on Dec. 29; rookie Elvis Merzlikins, a 25-year-old Latvian who had never won an NHL game when he took over, is 8-2-0 with a .955 save percentage, 1.55 goals-against average and three shutouts in his last four games.

”There’s certain teams in the league, they rely on one guy,” Cassidy said. ”Some of that may be that their salary cap just played out that way. They didn’t have the luxury. The cap probably precludes you from going to fix an area that maybe you didn’t see coming, or you did see coming but, hey, you went and spent it somewhere else.

”I just know as a coach, whoever’s number is on the board to go into the nets, we feel good about our chances.”