Aleksander Barkov

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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The Florida Panthers not only gave head coach Joel Quenneville a win in his first return to Chicago on Tuesday night, they extended their winning streak to six games and roll into the All-Star break and bye week as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.

They are also in the rather unfamiliar territory of having a strong hold on a playoff spot this late in the season.

The Panthers are just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division while also owning a four-point cushion over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It obviously doesn’t lock them into anything, but it has to be a pleasant change of pace after slow starts the previous two years all but crushed their playoff hopes by the All-Star break.

It’s also a big step in the right direction for an organization that needs to earn the trust of its fanbase and give people in their market a reason to finally care about them. As we detailed back in August, this has been the least successful organization in terms of playoff success since the start of 2000 across the NHL and NBA. Overall, they have made the playoffs just five times in 25 years and have only won three playoff series ever — all of them coming during one improbable playoff run during the 1995-96 season.

In recent years we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere after years of struggle to go on deep playoff runs. Two years it was the Winnipeg Jets, after never winning a playoff game in the first 17 years of their existence, going to the Western Conference Final. A year ago it was the Carolina Hurricanes snapping a nine-year postseason drought and going to the Eastern Conference Final.

There is at least some reason to believe the Panthers could be capable of going on a similar run this season.

The offense is legit

Pop quiz: Who is the NHL’s highest scoring team right now? Toronto? Pittsburgh? Washington? Tampa Bay? Colorado? All good guess, and all wrong. It’s the Florida Panthers, averaging a league-best 3.83 goals per game as of Wednesday.

Leading the way is their outstanding top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Individually, they have each been top-10 scorers in the NHL over the past three seasons and together they are one of the best top-line duos in the league, producing goals at a rate similar to some of the league’s best.

But it’s not just them that drive the offense.

Thanks to Frank Vatrano‘s hat trick on Tuesday, the Panthers already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season, most in the league. There are only six other teams in the league that have more than four (Vancouver has six; Colorado, Vegas, Washington, and Winnipeg all have five each).

Goaltending can still be the big difference maker here

This is probably the wildest part of Florida’s success.

Goaltending was by far their biggest area of need this offseason and they addressed it by delivering a dump truck full of money to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had been one of the NHL’s best goalies during his time in Columbus and on more than one occasion helped carry the team to the playoffs. The Panthers’ hope was that he could be their new No. 1 goalie, solidify the position, and be the missing piece to finally get them back in the playoffs.

The Panthers may end up back in the playoffs, but right now it is in spite of their goaltending.

As of Wednesday the Panthers sit 27th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and 25th in all situations save percentage. Typically teams with goaltending like this do not make the playoffs, or even have a chance to make the playoffs. Out of the bottom-15 teams in overall save percentage right now, Florida and Vegas are the only two teams holding a playoff spot.

On one hand, this might be their undoing in the second half if Bobrovsky can’t get back on track.

On the other hand, if he DOES get back on track the Panthers could be a dangerous team to deal with. There was always risk with giving a 31-year-old goalie a seven-year, $70 million contract, but his career shouldn’t fall off a cliff this quickly. His first half in Florida has been similar to his first half performance in Columbus a year ago. He finished last season by catching fire in February, March, and April and not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, but also sweep one of the best regular season teams in NHL history. He still has that ability.

They could still use some help on defense

While Bobrovsky has definitely struggled, it would be unfair to put all of the Panthers’ goal prevention problems on just him. Because there are some issues in front of him.

The Panthers have invested a ton of money and resources on their blue line but the results have not yet followed. In terms of shot attempts against, shots against, scoring chances and expected goals the Panthers are no better than average (and in some cases near the bottom of the league). That’s something that is going to have to be addressed, but the salary cap situation will not make it easy.

Big picture: The Panthers have some flaws, and right now might have to get through Tampa Bay and Boston in rounds 1 and 2 in a potential playoff run, but there is reason for optimism here. They have the highest scoring team in the league, the eighth best points percentage in the league, and have done that with some of the worst goaltending in the league. A tweak or two on the blue line and Bobrovsky rediscovering his ability to stop pucks and there might be something interesting brewing here.

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.

The Buzzer: Devils end Lightning winning streak; Predators shut out Jets

Andy Greene #6 of the New Jersey Devils is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a goal
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Three Stars

1) Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

The Atlantic Division playoff race will be fascinating down the stretch. The Panthers captain tallied a goal and two assists as Florida skated to an entertaining 8-4 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Barkov’s goal in the opening period was not anything spectacular, but his assist in the second period to set up Frank Vatrano was impressive. Barkov batted a puck out of mid-air as he intercepted a pass then raced up ice to set up Vatrano to extend the Panthers’ lead to 5-0 at the time.

2) Andy Greene, New Jersey Devils

Every individual has their own leadership style or opts to use different methods depending on the situation. Greene implemented a lead-by-example process when he clobbered a one-timer in the Devils’ 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Devils have been a huge disappointment this season and fired their general manager Ray Shero shortly before puck drop. Expect New Jersey to sell off several pieces as the NHL Trade Deadline approaches.

3) Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

John Hynes collected his second victory behind the bench with the Predators when Saros made 28 saves for his first shutout of the season. Practice time is severely limited in this day and age, but Hynes is starting to implement his defensive philosophy. The Predators have not played up to expectations this season but are within striking distance if Hynes can get the most out of his players.

Highlights of the Night

Huberdeau ties Olli Jokinen for the most points in franchise history with a nifty deke. He would later add an assist to become the Panthers’ all-time points leader.

Barkov displayed his incredible hand-eye coordination on this interception at the blueline and then added an assist at the other end of the ice.

Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian shows off his ability to stickhandle

Stats of the Night

Scores

Nashville Predators 1, Winnipeg Jets 0

Vancouver Canucks 4, Minnesota Wild 1

Buffalos Sabres 5, Detroit Red Wings 1

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Arizona Coyotes 3 (SO)

Florida Panthers 8, Toronto Maple Leafs 4

New Jersey Devils 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

NHL Power Rankings: Metropolitan Division dominance

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings it is all about the Metropolitan Division which is proving itself to be the best, most competitive, and top-heavy division in the league.

It is so good right now that as of Monday five of the league’s top-11 teams in points percentage (Washington, New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina) all play in it, and four of those teams (Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) are in the top-seven.

All five are also in the top-10 in goal-differential.

The Capitals look like they have a shot to win another Presidents’ Trophy and maybe a Stanley Cup, the Islanders are still locking things down defensively, the Penguins are playing like a legit contender even though they they have been the most injured team in the league, the Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league, and the Hurricanes are quietly surging along with a blossoming superstar on their roster.

Those teams also dominate the top of this week’s Power Rankings.

Where do they — and the rest of the league — currently sit?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. John Carlson is on pace to be the first defenseman since the 1991-92 season to hit the 100-point mark and the Capitals are on pace to win their fourth Presidents’ Trophy since the 2009-10 season.

2. Colorado Avalanche. If they can get Taylor Hall they would be the clear favorite to win the Western Conference, and maybe the Stanley Cup. They might be the favorite for both even if they do not get Taylor Hall.

3. Boston Bruins. Imagine how good they can be when they get Patrice Bergeron back.

4. Philadelphia Flyers. In any given week it feels like they could be a top-five team or a bottom-five team. Right now? Top-five. Losing Travis Konecny for now is going to be tough.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The way they are playing through significant injuries should make the rest of the Eastern Conference worried about what they are capable of when they start getting people back — including Sidney Crosby.

6. New York Islanders. They have come back to earth a little bit since that 17-game point streak came to an end, which is to be expected. Should not be a cause for concern yet.

7. St. Louis Blues. They could still use a little more offense, but the goaltending has been good enough to mask their flaws.

8. Winnipeg Jets. Forget the Vezina Trophy, Connor Hellebuyck is building himself an MVP case right now. Not saying he will win it, but he is building an argument.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei Svechnikov is starting to become a monster, leading the team in goals, points, and averaging more than a point-per-game. He is only 19 years old.

10. Arizona Coyotes. They are off to one of the best starts in franchise history while getting minimal goal-scoring from three of their top players (Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson). If they can get going they might be on to something here, especially with that goaltending duo.

11. Dallas Stars. With this goaltending they can make a lot of noise, assuming the goaltending keeps playing the way it has.

12. Minnesota Wild. A season that looked lost a little more than a month ago is now on the verge of being salvaged. The Wild have earned a point in 14 out of their 17 games (10-3-4) since the start of November and are climbing back up the standings.

13. Edmonton Oilers. There are a lot of cracks in the foundation. Still no depth, and since their 7-1 start they have managed to win just 11 out of 24 games. They are going in the wrong direction.

14. Vancouver Canucks. I don’t think even they expected J.T. Miller to be as impactful as he has been since they acquired him.

15. Calgary Flames. They have started to turn things around the past couple of weeks, and even Milan Lucic is on a two-game goal-scoring streak.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning. Two things have hurt their spot in the standings. The first is they have played a league-low 27 games. The second is they have been wildly inconsistent in the 27 games they have played.

17. Florida Panthers. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are incredible. The goaltending is still incredibly bad.

18. Toronto Maple Leafs. Every team in the Atlantic Division behind Boston is a jumbled mess of mediocrity, and I don’t think the Maple Leafs expected to find themselves in that pile. They have shown signs of going on a run since the coaching change, but it has not all come together yet.

19. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel is having a dominant, breakout season. Hopefully the Sabres can do enough around him so it does not go to waste.

20. New York Rangers. They are hanging in there and have given a lot of teams headaches lately. I don’t know if they are as good as their record, but having a superstar like Artemi Panarin and two outstanding goalies playing the way they are it is going to give a team a chance.

21. Vegas Golden Knights. Something is just off here. This team should be better than it currently is.

22. Nashville Predators. The usually dependable goaltending duo of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros is sinking their season at the moment.

23. San Jose Sharks. Speaking of teams that should be better than they currently are, the Sharks are in a lot of trouble after a miserable road trip through Florida. Teams that get blown out as often as this team does do not typically do very well.

24. Montreal Canadiens. They simply do not have enough depth to overcome the injuries to Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

25. Chicago Blackhawks. Robin Lehner has been a great addition and helped give an otherwise awful defensive team a chance to win. He just can not stop anything in the shootout.

26. Columbus Blue Jackets. We knew the goaltending would be a question mark, but the offense has dropped off even more than it was expected to.

27. Ottawa Senators. After a brief surge in the middle of November the Senators are back to their struggles. The biggest thing to watch here is where Jean-Gabriel Pageau ends up.

28. Anaheim Ducks. They have three wins in their past 15 games. Somehow two of those wins have been against the Blues and Islanders.

29. New Jersey Devils. John Hynes may not have been the right coach for the Devils, but he also wasn’t the biggest problem.

30. Los Angeles Kings. What do you do with Jonathan Quick? Trading him does not seem to be an option given his play. A buyout will be a significant salary cap hit for a long time. He also has shown no sign that his career is on the verge of turning back around.

31. Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings are trending toward “historically bad” territory this season.

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.

The Buzzer: Georgiev shines again; big days for Scheifele, Barkov

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Three Stars

1. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. It was a pretty dominant win for the Rangers on Sunday evening as they picked up a 5-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights thanks to some big offensive contributions from their blue line and another goal from superstar free agent signing Artemi Panarin. It was also another great day for Georgiev as he continued his recent stretch of great play, stopping all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout in his past four appearances. His save percentage for the season is now above .920 while he has allowed just four goals in his past four games.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg has been one of the big surprise stories in the league this season as they continue to make things work and collect points with a mostly makeshift defensive lineup. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck has been the big star for them this season — and he was great again on Sunday — but it was Scheifele that stepped up in a big way against the Anaheim Ducks with a pair of goals in a 3-2 win. He has now scored goals in three consecutive games.

3. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers. The Panthers were dominant on Sunday afternoon against a struggling San Jose Sharks team (read more about them here), and it was Barkov helping to get things rolling with an early goal and assist to get them out to an early 2-0 lead. He is now on a five-game point streak and is continuing to show this season how he is one of the league’s best all-around players. Alongside Jonathan Huberdeau they give the Panthers one of the best scoring duos in the league.

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Colin Miller has been a healthy scratch quite often this season but was in the lineup on Sunday and helped the Buffalo Sabres get two huge points by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime.
  • Carl Soderberg helped the Coyotes erase a two-goal deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks by setting up one goal and then tying the game on a power play goal.

Highlights of the Night

Robin Lehner may not be able to stop anything in the shootout (read more about that here) but he is pretty great during regulation. This save on Clayton Keller was his best of the night on Sunday to help get the game to overtime.

The other goalie in that game, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper, is also pretty outstanding and made a great save of his own to help them get another win to move back into a tie for first place in the Pacific Division.

Jack Eichel continued his brilliant season and extended his point streak by helping set up Colin Miller’s game-winning goal in overtime for the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night.

Image(s) of the Night

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson takes Blake Wheeler‘s stick out of his hands and calmly placed it on top of the net.

Factoids

  • Thanks to points from Marc Staal, Tony DeAngelo, Jacob Trouba, and Ryan Lindgren the Rangers now have more points from their blue line this season than any team in the NHL this season, moving ahead of both the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Huberdeau moved ahead of Stephen Weiss for second place on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list. [Florida Panthers PR]
  • The Coyotes’ win in Chicago on Sunday was their third multi-goal comeback win this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Winnipeg Jets 3, Anaheim Ducks 2
Florida Panthers 5, San Jose Sharks 1
New York Rangers 5, Vegas Golden Knights 0
Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (OT)

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.

The Buzzer: Benn keeps Stars rolling; Pastrnak, McDavid keep dominating

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Three Stars

1. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars. It was only a matter of time until Benn started to produce. He is too good, too talented, and has too much of a track record to keep being as invisible as he had been on the scoresheet at the start of the season. Now the points are starting to show up in bunches. He scored two goals and added an assist on Tuesday to help lead the Stars to a huge 6-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Benn now has three goals and six total points over the past three games. The Stars, meanwhile, are now 11-1-1 after starting the year 1-7-1.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins. Nobody can stop this guy right now. He added two more goals in the Bruins’ 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, giving him a league-leading 19 goals in only 21 games this season. He sits three goals ahead of Leon Draisaitl for the top spot in the league even though Draisaitl has played in two additional games. Even without Patrice Bergeron in the lineup that top line continues to dominate. The duo of Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is one of the best in the league

3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. Speaking of dominating, McDavid extended his current point streak to eight games with a goal and two assists in the Oilers’ big win to snap the San Jose Sharks’ five-game winning streak. He now has 20 points during that streak as he and Leon Draisaitl continue to carry the team. Read more about their win here.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • The New York Islanders’ point streak is now at 15 games (14-0-1) record thanks to their come-from-behind win in Pittsburgh against the Penguins. The line of Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, and Derick Brassard drove this one. Read all about it here.
  • Zach Parise scored two goals for the Minnesota Wild as they cruised to an easy win over the fading Buffalo Sabres.
  • Anthony Duclair continued his strong season for Ottawa with a pair of goals (up to nine on the season) in its 4-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
  • Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho both scored their 10th goals of the season in Carolina’s 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • Colorado’s depth forwards came through in a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames, with Andre Burakovsky leading the way thanks to his two-goal performance.
  • Connor Hellebuyck stood tall for the Winnipeg Jets once again, turning aside 38 shots in a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • Aleksander Barkov, Brett Connolly, and Evgenii Dadonov all had two points in the Florida Panthers’ 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Highlights of the Night

Maybe the highlight of the season to this point, but Marc-Andre Fleury makes an absolutely incredible save to secure the win for the Vegas Golden Knights. Read all about it here.

It came in a losing effort, but Morgan Frost scored his first NHL goal for the Philadelphia Flyers and it was a beauty.

Speaking of beautiful goals, take another look at Oskar Sundqvist‘s goal for the St. Louis Blues in their 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, all set up by an incredible pass from Robert Thomas. Read all about that game here.

Bloopers of the Night

This goes in the books as a goal for Detroit Red Wings forward Robby Fabbri, continuing his strong start with his new team. He ended up getting a big assist from Senators forward Logan Brown who accidentally kicked it in his own net. Oops. Fortunately for him the Senators ended up getting the win.

Columbus’ 5-2 win over Montreal on Tuesday was the first time this season they have won a game by more than a single goal. Pierre-Luc Dubois had another huge night to help lead the way, and they also had a little bit of luck on their side.

Factoids

  • Among players to debut with the Boston Bruins only Barry Pederson required fewer games than David Pastrnak to reach the 150-goal mark. Pederson did it in 316 games while Pastrnak reached it in 346 games. [NHL PR]
  • Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim scored his 13th career goal on Tuesday. He has scored five of those goals against Sergei Bobrovsky. [Sam Carchidi]
  • Kirby Dach has a five-game point streak for the Chicago Blackhawks, tied with Eddie Olczyk for the third-longest streak by an 18-year-old in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Not only did he make the save of the night, Fleury became the seventh goalie ever to record 450 career wins. [NHL PR]
  • Miro Heiskanen recorded his third straight multi-point game for the Stars on Tuesday. The only defensemen in franchise history with a longer streak was Brad Maxwell with four straight games back when the team was still based in Minnesota. [NHL PR]
  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau leads the NHL in goals since the start of November and needs just four more goals this month to tie the Ottawa Senators franchise record for most goals in the month of November. [NHL PR]
  • Emil Bemstrom now has a five-game point streak for the Blue Jackets, tying a franchise record set by Dubois during the 2017-18 season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 5, New Jersey Devils 1
Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Montreal Canadiens 2
Florida Panthers 5, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Minnesota Wild 4, Buffalo Sabres 1
New York Islanders 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3 (OT)
Ottawa Senators 4, Detroit Red Wings 3
St. Louis Blues 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Winnipeg Jets 2, Nashville Predators 1
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Dallas Stars 6, Vancouver Canucks 1
Colorado Avalanche 3, Calgary Flames 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Edmonton Oilers 5, San Jose Sharks 2

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.