Sergei Bobrovsky

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

Leave a comment

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
Getty Images
1 Comment

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

Leave a comment

Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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 down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

4 Comments

SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.

Hurricanes’ Hamilton suffers nasty looking leg injury in loss to Blue Jackets

Leave a comment

(UPDATE: The Hurricanes announced on Friday that Hamilton suffered a broken leg.)

The Carolina Hurricanes dropped a tough 3-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night. That result was not their biggest concern from the game.

The concern is the status of defenseman Dougie Hamilton after he exited the game late in the second with what appears to be a nasty leg injury following a collision along the boards.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was unable to put any weight on his leg as he was helped off the ice.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour didn’t have much of an update after the game, simply saying that it “doesn’t look good.”

If Hamilton is seriously injured and has to miss any significant time that would be a massive hole for the Hurricanes to have to try to fill. He has been arguably the best defenseman in the NHL this season and is one of the Hurricanes’ top players in every aspect of the game. He helps drive the offense, he runs the power play, he helps shut down teams defensively, he drives possession, and he is their leader in ice-time. That is not a player you just replace, whether it be internally or from outside the organization.

Huge win for Blue Jackets

As for the game itself, this was a huge game in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race as the two teams entered the game separated by just two points. Columbus’ win, combined with Philadelphia’s loss to Montreal, means that that the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, and Flyers are in a three-way tie for the two Wild Card spots with 56 points each.

The Florida Panthers, just one point back following their 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings, are just one point back of that group with games in hand on all three teams.

The Blue Jackets were able to get the win thanks to a late third period goal from captain Nick Foligno.

Columbus’ recent success is one of the most surprising stories of the 2019-20 season. After losing four key players –including their two best players over the summer in free agency (Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel) they have been one of the most injured teams in the league this season. Even with all of that they are still on a 13-2-4 run over their past 19 games.

Cam Atkinson, their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, had been one of the key players sidelined in recent weeks. He returned to the lineup on Tuesday and recorded two points (one goal, one assist) in the win.

Elvis Merzlikins continued his great play in place of the injured Joonas Korpisalo by stopping 32 out of 34 shots for the Blue Jackets.

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.