Joel Quenneville

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Push for the Playoffs: Can Panthers get back into playoff spot?

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

When the Florida Panthers hired Joel Quenneville as head coach and signed Sergei Bobrovsky, Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly, many expected them to be one of the eight playoff teams in the East. But if the postseason started today, they wouldn’t be participating in them.

Luckily for Florida, there’s still time for them to get back into the playoff hunt. They managed to take care of a bad Montreal team over the weekend, but they’ll have a stiff test against the St. Louis Blues tonight.

As of this moment, the Panthers are three points behind Carolina for the final Wild Card spot in the conference. The bad news is that they’d have to leap over three teams to get into that position. The good news is that they’re also three points back of the Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division. They’d only have to jump one team to get that.

So they’re still very much in this race. They just need to put it all together soon.

“Let’s use this momentum swing here and change the direction here in a real positive way,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said after the win over Montreal, per NHL.com. “We have a great opportunity ahead of us and let’s take advantage of it.

“I thought we had a workmanlike type of game, more businesslike than we’ve had recently. We took that awful stretch we’ve had here and turned it into a different situation when you look at where we’re sitting.”

If they’re going to get in, they’ll need Bobrovsky to find his game in a hurry. The 31-year-old’s first year as a Panther has been underwhelming at best. He owns a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage this season. That’s nowhere close to being good enough for a player that signed a seven-year, $70 million contract over the summer. He’s currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury. They need him back and at the top of his game as soon as possible.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Bruins vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Flyers vs. Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Blues vs. Canucks
Golden Knights vs. Wild
Avalanche vs. Stars
Oilers vs. Flames

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Capitals vs. Sabres, 7 p.m. ET
Coyotes vs. Jets, 8 p.m. ET
Panthers vs. Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Golden Knights vs. Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Avalanche vs. Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Bruins – 100 percent
Lighting – 100
Capitals – 99.9
Flyers – 99.7
Penguins – 95.6
Hurricanes – 78.2
Maple Leafs – 71.7
Islanders 61.2
Panthers 38.8
Blue Jackets – 35.6
Rangers – 18.6
Canadiens – 0.4
Devils – 0.3
Sabres – Out
Senators – Out
Red Wings – Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES 
Avalanche – 100 percent
Blues – 100
Stars – 98.3
Golden Knights – 97.5
Oilers – 97.4
Flames – 66.5
Canucks – 62.9
Wild – 53.9
Predators – 50.2
Jets – 42
Coyotes – 28
Blackhawks – 3
Ducks – Out
Sharks – Out
Kings – Out

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Detroit Red Wings — 18.5 percent
Los Angeles Kings — 13.5 percent
Ottawa Senators — 11.5 percent
Ottawa Senators* — 9.5 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 8.5 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 7.5 percent
New Jersey Devils — 6.5 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 6 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 5 percent
New Jersey Devils** — 3.5 percent
Winnipeg Jets — 3 percent
Minnesota Wild — 2.5 percent
Florida Panthers — 2 percent
New York Rangers 1.5 percent
Columbus Blue Jackets — 1 percent

(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 110 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 96 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 94 points
Artemi, Panarin, Rangers – 93 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 47 goals
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Auston Mattews, Maple Leafs – 45 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 43 goals
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers – 39 goals

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Bruins won’t make it easy for Panthers to rebound

Panthers Push for the Playoffs vs. Bruins
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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Florida Panthers experienced a February they’d like to forget, even looking past the baffling Vincent Trocheck trade. The Panthers simply need to do better if they hope to avoid another unsuccessful push for the playoffs.

Since Feb. 1, the Panthers have squandered many opportunities to fight off the Maple Leafs or secure a wild-card spot, going 5-10-2. The schedule hasn’t always been easy, but respite might not come anytime soon, what with Thursday’s opponent being the formidable Bruins.

There’s talent on this Panthers, team, though. With that in mind, it makes sense that they’re focusing on execution. Erik Haula beamed that “I think you’re going to see a different team on Thursday” following a recent practice, while Joel Quenneville emphasized attention to detail.

“We’ve got to fine-tune our game,” Quenneville said. “The last couple games we got really loose in our own end, and I think our overall game’s got to be tightened, assured and [we’ve got to have] a lot of trust in how we play without the puck. Defensively, we’ve got to be predictable and accountable.”

Whether the Panthers need big changes or minor tweaks, the point is clear: time is running out for the Panthers to make their push for a spot in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins vs. Islanders
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Flyers vs. Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blues vs. Jets
Golden Knights vs. Canucks
Avalanche vs. Stars
Oilers vs. Flames

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Penguins at Sabres, 7 p.m. ET
Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals at Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Hurricanes at Flyers, 7 p.m. ET (Watch live on NBCSN)
Islanders at Senators, 7:30 p.m. ET
Stars at Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Oilers at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Wild at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET
Maple Leafs at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

Push for the Playoffs East Thursday

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Bruins: 100 percent
Lightning: 100
Capitals: 99.8
Flyers: 99.1
Penguins: 96.8
Maple Leafs: 85.4
Islanders: 74.6
Hurricanes: 63.7
Blue Jackets: 33
Panthers: 23.6
Rangers: 22.2
Canadiens: 1.6
Sabres: 0.2
Devils: 0
Senators: 0
Red Wings: out

Push for the Playoffs West Thursday

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (Via Hockey Reference)

Avalanche: 100 percent
Blues: 100
Stars: 99.8
Oilers: 97.1
Golden Knights: 96.7
Flames: 69.7
Canucks: 65.6
Wild: 52.2
Coyotes: 45.1
Jets: 34.7
Predators: 29.3
Blackhawks: 9.6
Sharks: 0.2
Ducks: 0
Kings: 0

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Red Wings – 18.5 percent
Kings – 13.5 percent
Senators – 11. 5 percent
Ducks – 9.5 percent
Senators – 8.5 percent*
Devils – 7.5 percent
Sabres – 6.5 percent
Blackhawks– 6 percent
Canadiens – 5 percent
Devils – 3.5 percent**
Jets – 3 percent
Predators – 2.5 percent
Panthers – 2 percent
Rangers – 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets – 1 percent

(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS RACE

Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 108 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 95 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 92 points
Artemi Panarin, Rangers – 90 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 88 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

David Pastrnak, Bruins – 47 goals
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 46 goals
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 45 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 43 goals
Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes – 36 goals

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.

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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: Vatrano helps Panthers win sixth in a row; Dodgeball ‘Storm Surge’

Vatrano hat trick Panthers six in a row Buzzer
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Three Stars

 1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers

The Lightning understandably drew a ton of attention for their rise up the rankings. Should we give their in-state neighbors some love, too? Consider the Panthers’ winning run, which cued up nicely with Joel Quenneville’s return to Chicago:

  • The Panthers keep overcoming mostly hit-or-miss (and sometimes hit by injuries) goaltending by scoring, a lot. Tuesday’s 4-3 win against the Blackhawks marks Florida’s sixth win in a row. They’ve scored at least four goals in every game during that streak.
  • The Panthers’ strong play extends beyond this streak. Florida carried a strong 13-4-0 run in its last 17 games.
  • They closed off a three-game road trip, all with wins. They return with another three-game road trip (so technically, it’s six in a row on the road). If they stand strong after this stretch, it would be quite a testament to what Coach Q & Co. are building.

Vatrano caught fire during this six-game winning streak. Tuesday represents the peak of that run, as the winger generated his second NHL hat trick. Vatrano also extended his point streak to five games (five goals, four assists for nine points).

He showed flashes of brilliance in Boston, and has largely converted that into a solid niche with Florida. Vatrano quietly scored 24 goals and 39 points last season. Tuesday’s outburst places Vatrano at 14 goals and 27 points for 2019-20.

Florida needed all three of Vatrano’s goals, as his third ended up being the game-winner. The Panthers were up as much as 3-0 and 4-1, so Chicago fought back, but not enough.

Count Mike Hoffman as one of the other Panthers who are scoring up a storm.

2. Josh Bailey/Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

The Rangers generated a massive 42-18 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, but the Islanders held on for a 4-2 win. Getting outchanced like that remains a cause for concern, but Griess bailed the Isles out with 40 saves.

(Quick thought: is it possible Barry Trotz needs to loosen up when the Islanders hold leads? They lost after coughing up a big one against Washington, and almost invited the Rangers to creep back in on Tuesday.)

Bailey generated three points (1G, 2A), so maybe you’d call him the bigger star over Greiss?

3. Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes

Justin WIlliams continues to make an early impact for Carolina. After producing the shootout-deciding goal in his return, Williams fired in two goals on Tuesday. Not bad, considering his modest 11:45 time on ice.

Teravainen gets the overall edge, though. Like Bailey, Teravainen scored a goal and two assists for three points. The shifty Finn is backing up last season’s almost point-per-game play (76 points in 82 GP), with similar results (48 points in 50 GP).

Andrei Svechnikov demands a mention of his own. The splendid sophomore collected two assists, placing Svechnikov close behind Teravainen with 45 points in 50 GP.

Kreider replaces Panarin at All-Star Game

The Rangers played without Artemi Panarin thanks to an injury. It appears that they’ll have a different All-Star Game representative, as Chris Kreider will replace him.

Another fun Storm Surge

If you can block a shot, you can dodge a ball?

Feisty Scheifele

The Jets are struggling, and thus Mark Scheifele is taking no guff.

Factoids

Scores

BOS 3 – VGK 2
NYI 4 – NYR 2
CAR 4 – WPG 1
PHI 3 – PIT 0
FLA 4 – CHI 3

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.