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Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.


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

The Buzzer: Winnin’ MacKinnon; Laine the teen dream

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Players of the Night

  • James Reimer collected a big win for the Florida Panthers, who bested the Boston Bruins 3-0 on Thursday. Shutting out the Bruins is a tough task in 2017-18, as this was their first goose egg since October. It wasn’t an off night either, as Reimer made 46 saves.
  • Anze Kopitar collected a goal and three assists in leading the Kings to a 4-1 win against the Red Wings. More on that match here.
  • Quite a few players enjoyed three-point outputs. Nathan MacKinnon probably steals the show thanks to context, though, as he extended a 10-game point streak by collecting two goals and one assist, pushing his season scoring total to a ridiculous 85 points in just 62 games.

Highlights

Check out Oliver Bjorkstrand scoring from down on one knee:

Let’s not forget about MacKinnon’s linemates in Colorado. If it helps, watch Gabriel Landeskog send a tremendous pass to splendid sophomore Mikko Rantanen, who buried a high-skill backhand goal:

Evgeni Malkin scored his 40th goal of the season, gently reminding the hockey world that he can do amazing things during a relatively healthy campaign:

Want a lowlight and maybe some comic relief? Watch as poor ‘ol OEL (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) gets elbowed by an official calling him for a penalty. Sheesh.

Teen Spirit

Patrik Laine might occasionally sport the sort of facial hair that makes him look like he could have starred in a John Lithgow classic, the Winnipeg Jets winger is actually still a teenager. (Laine turns 20 on April 19.) Laine is also still scoring,

More fun facts

Patrick Marleau climbs the ranks.

Nashville Predators: still red-hot.

Scores

Maple Leafs 5, Sabres 2
Capitals 7, Islanders 3
Blue Jackets 5, Flyers 3
Penguins 5, Canadiens 3
Panthers 3, Bruins 0
Avalanche 4, Blues 1
Jets 6, Blackhawks 2
Predators 3, Coyotes 2
Kings 4, Red Wings 1

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.

Blue Jackets shrink Flyers’ playoff buffer

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are streaking; the Philadelphia Flyers just can’t stop from being streaky.

Columbus edged Philly 5-3 on Thursday, extending a winning streak to six games.

Cam Atkinson managed a hat trick by scoring his third goal with about a second remaining in the contest, Artemi Panarin collected two assists, and the Blue Jackets once again enjoyed nice offense from defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (an assist apiece).

Again, this simply seems to continue the Flyers’ trend of either being hot or cold. Lately, Philly has been traveling in the wrong direction, as this represents losses in seven of eight games.

The Flyers have to hope that Brian Elliott‘s recent return to the ice signals a looming return to suiting up for NHL action, as Petr Mrazek‘s really been struggling lately. He was pulled from Thursday’s game early in the second period after allowing four goals on just 10 shots. The pending UFA has just one win in his last seven appearances, making it tough to remember that he rattled off three straight victories in late February.

This result didn’t push Philly out of the Metropolitan Division’s top three, but Columbus is breathing down their necks, and the Florida Panthers’ lopsided games in hand situation makes it difficult to tell how much of a buffer the Flyers possess overall.

Take a look at how the bubble looks now, which could end up being increasingly, uncomfortably relevant to Philly:

Third Metro: Flyers – 81 points in 71 games, 33 ROW

First WC: Blue Jackets – 81 points in 71 GP, 32 ROW

Second WC: Devils – 80 points in 70 GP, 31 ROW

Panthers – 77 points in 68 GP, 32 ROW

Bob adds some pizzazz to that playoff outlook. Thanks, Bob. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

As you can see, the Flyers could easily slip into the wild-card ranks thanks to threats from both the Devils and Blue Jackets. Again, they also can’t dismiss the Panthers if Florida can make the most of games in hand. (James Reimer did his part on Thursday, authoring a masterful shutout in a 3-0 win against the Boston Bruins.)

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Now, look, the Flyers still find themselves in a decent spot. While they face a closing schedule that’s pretty road-heavy, the Devils and Blue Jackets must struggle with similar challenges. The Panthers also need to stay hot to overtake one or more of those Metro bubble teams.

Still, it’s a bit jarring to see the Flyers even vulnerable to slipping out of the playoff picture, at least after they seemed to pull away from the pack.

Then again, for a team that once lost 10 in a row and then shook that off with a six-game winning streak, maybe that’s just how things are going to go for 2017-18? Ultimately, we’ll see where they land after navigating the peaks and valleys of a bumpy season.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Norway gets first Olympic win since ’94; What should Jackets do at deadline?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Ryan Donato keeps scored big goals for Team USA with his father in attendance. (NBC Olympics)

• Norway’s win over Slovenia was their first victory since the 1994 Olympic Games. (NBC Olympics)

• Team USA took down Slovakia, which means they have a date with the Czech Republic in the quarters. (NBC Olympics)

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

• The approach the Blue Jackets take a the upcoming trade deadline could impact what happens to Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Zach Werenski. Jarmo Kekalainen (The Cannon)

• By calling up prospect Oskar Lindblom and trading for Petr Mrazek, Flyers GM Ron Hextall has put his team in a good spot. (Sons of Penn)

• Speaking of last night’s trade, TSN’s Frank Seravalli believes it’s a low-risk bet for the Flyers. (TSN.ca)

• Flames defenseman Travis Hamnonic hit the 500-game mark of his NHL career this week. And as he explained, he has a great support system around him. (Calgary Sun)

• Pucks and Pitchforks takes a look at the New Jersey Devils’ goalie situation by breaking down some advanced stats. (Pucks and Pitchforks)

• The Rangers haven’t made any moves yet, but a storm is on its way. (Blue Seat Blogs)

Harri Sateri held his own while Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were injured. (The Rat Trick)

• Mile High Hockey outlines the Colorado Avalanche’s objectives at the upcoming trade deadline. (Mile High Hockey)

• Predators top prospect Eeli Tolvanen has been nothing short of incredible at the Olympics. Is a move to NHL next? (Predlines)

 

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Panthers want to keep gang together

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

If you want a sign of a GM/front office with power, observe moments when a marginal player gets a somewhat bafflingly long contract extension.

On one hand, congrats to Colton Sceviour, who surely works hard for the three-year extension he signed today; it’s reportedly worth $1.2 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. He’s getting rewarded for being a diligent penalty killer, and this should help him limit the risk of becoming a “journeyman” player.

Still, it’s a little confounding that the Florida Panthers would be so compelled to lock up yet another piece of a roster that’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

You see successful teams fall into this sort of trap quite often. The Detroit Red Wings roster is littered with questionable decisions for non-core guys; you might gasp at remaining years for Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Luke Glendening.

At least those teams were trying to perpetuate past successes, though.

The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and even with bargain contracts for fantastic players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, it’s tough to say if they’re much closer today. They’ve only made it to the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, and only four times since that John Vanbiesbrouck-fueled run.

You’d think this team would be light on commitments as something of a message to players to “earn” their deals, but instead there are a ton of players locked up to lengthy deals.

[Can the Panthers still make a playoff run?]

Again, in the case of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck, that’s a very good thing. Barkov and Huberdeau are absolute steals at $5.9 million per year, with Huberdeau covered until 2022-23, while Barkov’s locked up until 2021-22.

Still, it’s a little unsettling how “locked in” this team is, what with Florida almost certain to miss the playoffs once again.

Forwards signed through at least 2019-20:

Huberdeau ($5.9M through 2022-23), Barkov ($5.9M, 2021-22), Trocheck ($4.75M through 2021-22), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21), Evgeni Dadonov ($4M through 2019-20), and Sceviour ($1.2M through 2020-21).

Defensemen signed through at least 2019-20:

Aaron Ekblad ($7.5M through 2024-25), Keith Yandle ($6.35M through 2022-23), Michael Matheson ($4.875M though 2025-26), and Mark Pysyk ($2.73M through 2019-20).

Both goalies locked up with considerable term:

Roberto Luongo (eternal $4.5M through 2021-22) and James Reimer ($3.4M through 2020-21).

***

Yikes, right?

Again, the Panthers’ roster construction looks a lot like that of a team in the middle of a championship window, where they’ve had to take on some risky contracts to reward successes. Only, the successes have been minimal in Florida. It’s tough not to think back to GM Dale Tallon commenting on being fully in control again, and then to observe what looks like a risk-heavy roster.

To be fair, there are some real bargains on this team, and they’ve shown flashes of brilliance even during a couple of dire years. They’ve also dealt with injuries to both Luongo and Reimer. While Bobby Lou might simply be in that phase of his career, you’d hope Reimer will enjoy better luck in the future. Oddly enough for a team with such lengthy, pricey investments in goalies, they might want to ponder another option, especially if Luongo is charting a course toward the LTIR in the future.

Beyond that, the Panthers need to get the most out of an expensive defense. That starts with Ekblad, who signed a mammoth deal that won’t be easy to live up to. Still, if he can make strides during his career, it will be much easier to stomach, especially since Florida is saving with other marquee guys at forward.

[Tallon is focused on the future]

All things considered, Tallon & Co. can salvage this, likely by finding decent bargains around those pricey core players, and also by making sure that they’re making the most out of coaching and development.

So it’s not all bad, yet it’s a bit head-scratching to realize just how many players have long-term security on a team that’s seemingly stuck in puck purgatory, year after year.

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.