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Panthers’ Barkov explodes for five assists, sets franchise record

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Aleksander Barkov was already having a remarkable season for the Florida Panthers prior to Friday night.

His five-assist effort against the Minnesota Wild just added another chapter to the tale he’ll be able to tell and another passage in the Panthers’ history book.

You see, five assists are the most any one Panther has ever recorded in a game. Barkov was magical, his hands in on five of Florida’s six goals in a 6-2 win, including four primary apples.

Barkov came into Friday with 70 points, eight back of his career-high. He’s now just three off 78-point season he had last year. His 29 goals this season were already one more than his previous career-high, and his 46 assists now are five shy of the 51 he has last season.

The Finn has scored some ridiculous goals this year, too.

The Panthers, nine points out of a playoff spot coming into the night, chased Devan Dubnyk after one period. Jonathan Huberdeau had four points, Evgeni Dadonov had three assists, and MacKenzie Weegar and Mike Matheson each had a brace.

Sam Montembeault, making his second NHL start, picked up his first NHL win after stopping 25 shots.

This weird thing also happened:


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

Aleksander Barkov can’t stop scoring ridiculous goals for the Panthers

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How’s your week going? For Aleksander Barkov, it’s been quite good.

The Florida Panthers captain has been on an offensive tear, scoring five goals and registering nine points in three games. In each of those three games he’s scored a highlight-reel goal.

Let’s take a look.

Sunday

The 2018-19 goal of the year competition might have ended Sunday afternoon when Barkov drove to the net and went between-the-legs to beat Carey Price.

He would end the night with his second career hat trick.

“I’ve seen those [goals] in the YouTube and in highlights, and I was just dreaming about maybe one day I can score that kind of goal,” Barkov said afterward. “I think I’ve tried that like 17 times in my career. It worked [for] the first time. I’m happy, but, of course, more importantly we got the two points.”

Tuesday

Continuing to add to his highlight reel, Barkov took a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and brought it between-his-legs and nonchalantly tucked it under Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark’s pad.

“I was kind of trying to look for a pass until the end,” Barkov said. “Then I just tried to jam it in the goalie’s pads, maybe get a rebound. Then, behind the net, I saw the puck was in the net. I would call it a lucky goal.”

Thursday

In a back-and-forth game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Barkov evened the score after a wild deflection from a Evgenii Dadonov shot-pass that was going very, very wide.

At only 23 years old, we have plenty of years left to enjoy the wonder that Barkov brings to the ice every night.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers’ Barkov scores candidate for goal of the year

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Well, this is beyond filthy.

Scoring a goal in the NHL is hard enough. Dropping it between your legs and roofing it while being hacked by a defenseman who’s in close proximity? Impossible, you’d think.

Aleksander Barkov: “Hold my drink…”

Barkov pulled off the impossible on Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens, making Victor Mete look silly and Carey Price, too. Two good players, both left embarrassed.

Make sure you’re sitting for this one:

As the color man said on the Fox Sports broadcast, “There are some things you just cannot analyze.”

Indeed. You can only marvel at this one.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


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

Luongo, Wade Luongo still feel anguish a year after Parkland

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PARKLAND, Fla. — Manuel Oliver has not seen a Miami Heat game in almost a year.

Truth be told, he never was the biggest basketball fan in the first place. He watched a lot of games, was even coaching a team at this time last year, and did all that because of the joy his son got from the sport.

And his son is gone now.

Thursday marks one year since Joaquin “Guac” Oliver and 16 others took their last breaths, all shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a massacre that only heightened the gun-control debate in this country. Manuel Oliver, an artist, only watched and took part in sports because of the bond it allowed him to forge with his son.

“I miss my son every single day,” Manuel Oliver said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m not counting the days. I just miss him. And I decided to defeat that feeling by empowering myself to get out there and make statements through art or speeches. Thursday, to me, is just another day. It will close the loop of the year, one loop of special occasions where we won’t have him. And then a new loop starts, where we won’t have him.”

Joaquin Oliver is the teen who was buried in the jersey of his favorite player, Heat star Dwyane Wade. The boy’s mother Patricia was the one who decided her son should be put to rest in the No. 3 jersey, and when Wade — who lost a cousin to gun violence in 2016 and had been traded back to Miami from Chicago less than a week before the Parkland shooting — learned of the gesture he was moved to act.

He met the Olivers. He learned about their son. He made a surprise appearance at the school on the day it reopened. He made kids laugh and smile and perhaps forget for a brief moment that their school was a crime scene, that their lives were forever changed and certainly not for the better.

“I still don’t have the words to express how much all that meant to me,” Wade said. “I mean, in that moment of grief, in a moment of ultimate sadness and a moment where you know so much was going on the thing that family decided to do was to bury him in my jersey because he was such a fan of mine. It’s still, I don’t know … I’m still very emotional.”

Sports, more often than not, can be a healing influence in times of tragedy.

Such was the case after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when baseball and football resumed a week or two later and the Olympics five months later in Salt Lake City became a celebration tinged in the U.S. colors of red, white and blue. When 49 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, the Orlando Magic decided to retire the number 49 months later in tribute. The Florida Panthers have never hoisted the Stanley Cup, but they made sure the Stoneman Douglas hockey team did last year in a private on-ice ceremony. Even Stoneman Douglas’ football team, when it won its first game of the season, prevailed by exactly 17 points — the same number of lives lost, a coincidence not lost on anyone.

“Sports bring people together,” Wade said. “Sports bring races together. Sports bring communities together. What this game we play, and the games other people play, can do is special. Not many things or people can bring a community, different races, people of different shapes, sizes, ages together the way sports does. And after Parkland, we saw that. We needed that.”

Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo lives in Parkland, not far from the school. He still feels the anguish of his adopted hometown.

The Panthers’ first home game after the shooting was eight days later, and Luongo took the unusual stance of speaking to the crowd for about three minutes before the opening face-off. The jammed arena hung on his every word. The Panthers rallied in the final minutes for a 3-2 win over eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington.

The Panthers will be paying tribute again in the coming days to those who were lost, with moments of silence and other gestures at games this week.

“Whatever little we can do to help, you know, whether that’s just playing a game or taking the time to say ‘hi’ or whatever it is, I think those are the key little things that you want to try to do as much as possible,” Luongo said. “If we can be doing something that helps with their grieving, we should be doing it. It’ll never be enough, but we should still be doing whatever we can.”

Wade, for obvious reasons, has had Joaquin Oliver in mind often for the last year — especially in recent days, as the anniversary nears.

The Oliver family started a foundation called Change The Ref, with a mission of raising awareness about gun-control laws they want changed and the effect of mass shootings. Even the name has ties to the boy’s love of basketball: As the story goes, he got ejected from a game last year by a referee whose call he didn’t like, and Manuel Oliver — the coach — also got ejected for complaining.

On the way home, Joaquin told his father that their only way of winning that game would have been to change the ref.

“And when I remembered that, I knew what we had to do,” Manuel Oliver said.

With that, the foundation was born.

In a year of anguish, little moments of joy mean more than ever. Manuel Oliver couldn’t watch the Super Bowl this year, because it’s something he and his son usually did together. He doesn’t watch sports on television anymore, for the same reasons. But when he needs a smile, he can look at the trophy in his house from Joaquin’s last basketball season.

In the days after the shooting, Joaquin’s team finished its season without him. The team won its league championship. The Heat were there to help them celebrate.

“I always thought Joaquin was overreacting when he talked about Dwyane Wade,” Manuel Oliver said. “But he wasn’t. I’m not even a basketball fan, but he’s a great dude. Not just him: his mother, his sister, his dad, they’re all great. This took our son, but we’re still here. Joaquin’s parents are still here, fighting for him.”

Crazy intro over, Pens newcomers McCann, Bjugstad settle in

By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — It wasn’t the hastily arranged private plane ride from Miami to Pittsburgh. Or the police escort from the airport to PPG Paints Arena. It wasn’t the sight of a black-and-gold jersey with his name on the back hanging in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ locker room. It wasn’t even racing to the bench and jumping over the wall and onto the ice with his new teammates without exchanging so much as an introductory handshake.

No, Jared McCann‘s ”whoa” moment from the most exhilarating and surreal weekend of his professional life came Sunday, when the newly acquired forward arrived at Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby‘s house to watch the Super Bowl with the rest of the gang.

”There’s like an area to the side there, and it’s Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy,” McCann said, referring to Crosby’s three NHL MVP awards.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, where the climate isn’t the only thing that’s a shock to the system.

On Friday morning, McCann and Nick Bjugstad thought they were part of the long-term plans for the Florida Panthers. By Sunday night, they were hanging out in the home of one of the game’s biggest stars while playing for a team where anything less than a Stanley Cup parade through downtown in mid-June is considered a disappointment.

No pressure or anything.

”As soon as I walked in the rink here, they have the (championships) banners hanging everywhere,” McCann said. ”It’s like: ‘You know what? We win here.’ You get that feeling. You just have confidence. You know you have guys that are going to show up every night and play well, and I want to be a positive influence for this team.”

The Penguins are counting on that from both the 22-year-old McCann and the 26-year-old Bjugstad, brought over in a trade with Florida for veteran forwards Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and three 2019 draft picks.

The early returns have been promising. Both players hardly looked overwhelmed while playing a back-to-back against Ottawa and Toronto in their first 27 hours with their new club. Bjugstad joined the second line and picked up an assist in a victory over the Senators while McCann played solidly centering the third line between forwards Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist.

”I thought they handled it great coming into a new dressing room 10 minutes before the game, getting thrown in there right into a game, playing some pretty good minutes, too,” Crosby said. ”There’s a lot to be said about that. Sometimes that’s the best way, get thrown into it like that.”

McCann credited Hornqvist for helping put him in the right spots on the ice over the weekend while the 6-foot-6 Bjugstad tried not to overdo it while centering the second line in place of injured Evgeni Malkin.

”It’s almost better not having time to think,” Bjugstad said.

That came on Monday when they went through their first practice in Pittsburgh. If Bjugstad wasn’t getting pulled away for a private moment with assistant coach Mark Recchi, then McCann was peppering anyone who would listen with questions.

While they want to catch up quickly for a team that heads into Tuesday’s game against Carolina tied with Washington for second in the Metropolitan Division with 30 games to go, they also have the benefit of time. Neither player is a rental. Bjugstad is signed through 2021 while McCann’s contract runs through the end of the 2019-20 season.

Coach Mike Sullivan still hasn’t settled on who will play where once Malkin – who is day to day with an upper-body injury – returns. Bjugstad could be effective as a third-line center, a spot the Penguins have been struggling to fill since Nick Bonino left following the team’s second straight Stanley Cup in 2017.

Bjugstad also has size (6-foot-6) and a skillset that includes a 20-goal season, making him a candidate to find a spot in the top six. McCann, meanwhile, is an effective penalty killer who believes he is prepared for whatever the Penguins might throw his way. He already is taking pointers from 42-year-old Matt Cullen, who had made a career out of finding ways to do all the little things coaches love. It’s not a bad blueprint to follow.

”I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to become the player I know I can be,” McCann said.

First things first, however. McCann acknowledged he might have to stop at a shopping mall to pick up some pants. Seems he was in such a rush to get to Pittsburgh he mostly packed shorts for the trip north, not exactly ideal in a city where the sun is more rumor than fact between November and May. If that’s his lone misstep after the craziness surrounding his arrival, he’ll take it.

”I had a great time in Florida,” McCann said. ”But I feel like this is the next stepping stone in my career.”

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