SUNRISE, Fla. — Paul Maurice may have spent the majority of his career in the Eastern Conference, but after spending eight-plus seasons in the West during his tenure behind the bench with the Jets, being back on the other side has been rather eye-opening.
“I haven’t seen as many really, really good teams that won’t make the playoffs. Like dominant teams, at times,” said Maurice, who took over as head coach of the Panthers in June, after resigning from his job with the Jets in December of 2022. “Pittsburgh, who we’re fighting (with), they got on an absolute roll. The Islanders have a unique style of game and they can win on that style of game alone. Buffalo is a dynamic team and they’ve gotten better over the course of the year.
“So we’re talking about really, really good teams and we haven’t even talked about the top four or five. The runs that those teams have been on — one is historic (Boston Bruins), Carolina is all you can handle in a game. It’s a very powerful side now and last year, it was completely split, probably by Christmas, by the top eight and the bottom eight. Now it’s changed, so now there’s lots of good teams.”
In addition to the teams Maurice mentioned, that wild-card chase his Panthers are involved in also includes the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators.
By securing a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Jets on Saturday, the Panthers enter Sunday’s action three points behind both the Penguins (who hold two games in hand) and Islanders (whom the Panthers have a game in hand on).
Now this isn’t exactly where one would expect last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners would be residing, but this group has put some of its challenges behind them and is trying to peak down the stretch and punch a ticket to the post-season.
The Panthers have collected at least a point in six of the past eight games (4-2-2) and continue to get outstanding play from Matthew Tkachuk, who came over in a deal with the Calgary Flames that was the centrepiece of the off-season renovation.
Tkachuk had three assists in Friday’s 4-3 rally against the Chicago Blackhawks, then added two goals and one assist against the Jets — giving him 30 goals and 87 points in 64 games this season, which leaves him fourth in the NHL scoring derby going into Sunday’s action.
Given how long he spent overseeing the Jets’ core, Maurice is uniquely positioned to share an opinion about the challenges Winnipeg (37-26-3) is facing (currently fourth in the Central and hanging on to a wild-card spot) after coming back to earth following a 20-9-1 start.
But after pondering whether he had a sense of déjà vu watching things unfold from afar, Maurice chose instead to offer praise instead.
“When you’re in Canada, you peak and fall five times a month. November isn’t the Stanley Cup and neither is February or March,” said Maurice. “Their last two games, they were dominant. The score doesn’t tell you how a team played. They’re a real good team. They’ve got one of the very best goaltenders in the league.
“They’re in an incredible position to win a Stanley Cup. They’re that good. They’ve got two dominant offensive lines, their bottom six are heavy and play hard and fast, their back-end is mobile, they move the puck and they’ve got a World Class goalie. That’s it. Whatever happens tonight or next week or the week past won’t change those facts. It’s a really good team.”
Maurice was also asked about the offensive emergence of Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who left Saturday’s game with a suspected hip injury.
“He’s always been a very mobile, very offensive player,” said Maurice. “When he first came in and he was a really young man, we played him and another young defenceman, Jake Trouba, in a shutdown role. They played against the other team’s best. And I think that was a good thing for him because you learn the defensive parts of the game.
“But he’s such a responsible guy, I think that was first and foremost in his mind. And now he’s developed into the player that can do both. He can defend well, but he can get up the ice. His hand skills, all the things that when he was originally drafted, the idea of what Josh Morrissey would be, he’s become.”
It’s safe to say that Minnesota Wild goalie Marc-André Fleury has put an uneven start to the season behind him.
As the Wild have gone on a remarkable run that includes collecting at least a point during the past 12 games (10-0-2), Fleury is getting locked in at a perfect time for a team that’s suddenly challenging the Dallas Stars for top spot in the Central Division standings.
During his past five starts, Fleury has gone 5-0 and given up only six goals. On Wednesday, he made 46 saves to defeat the Jets 4-2.
In his first full season with the Minnesota Wild after coming over in a deal with the Blackhawks on March 21 of 2022, Fleury is 21-13-3 in 38 games (37 starts), with a 2.76 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, numbers that are creeping toward his career averages (2.58 GAA and .913 save percentage).
Equally important is the presence Fleury brings to an organization that is thirsty for some playoff success.
“The calmness he has back there. Even in practice, with how much fun he has. He competes every day and hates being scored on,” Wild captain Jared Spurgeon said in a conversation earlier this season. “But that bleeds into the group as well. (Having) a guy of that stature coming to work every day and seeing the way he approaches the game definitely rubs off on the room.”
It was merely a matter of time, but the Bruins became the first team in the NHL to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs when they hit the 50-win mark with a 3-2 triumph over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. Trade deadline acquisition Garnet Hathaway supplied the game-winning goal, which moved him to double digits in goals for the third time in his career. The Bruins are well on their way to nailing down the Atlantic Division title, the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Presidents’ Trophy.
The Jets were expected to make some higher profile moves or maybe see a bit more volume from general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff leading into the deadline, but the early returns on the two forwards acquired have been impressive. By chipping in two goals in Saturday’s 5-4 OT win, Vladislav Namestnikov is up to two goals and five points in four games, while Nino Niederreiter has three goals and five points in six games. Niederreiter was brought in to bolster a top-six that had lost Cole Perfetti and is now playing without Pierre-Luc Dubois. The versatility of Namestnikov has allowed Jets head coach Bowness to promote Namestnikov to the second-line centre role, where he’s shown some early chemistry with Nikolaj Ehlers.
Speaking of early returns, the sample size is obviously small but the Vegas Golden Knights must be liking what they’ve seen from Jonathan Quick since he was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, via the Los Angeles Kings. Quick posted a 33-save shutout on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes to improve to 3-0 with his new team, turning aside 92 of the 98 shots on goal that he’s faced. That gives him a 1.98 goals-against average and .939 save percentage – numbers that far surpass what he did in 31 appearances (27 starts) with the Kings earlier this season. The Golden Knights go into Sunday’s action with a one-point lead over the Kings and Dallas Stars for top spot in the Western Conference.
Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson is inching towards the century mark. By chipping in six points in his past six games (one goal, five helpers), Karlsson is up to 84 points — including 20 goals — in 67 games. One would expect there could be some disappointment for Karlsson that he wasn’t moved prior to the NHL trade deadline. One would also expect his motivation to remain high to continue to boost his stock for the potential of a summer deal, perhaps a blockbuster on the floor of the 2023 NHL Draft.
In the latest edition of “What impressive thing did Connor McDavid accomplish this week?” the Edmonton Oilers captain established a career high for points with 127, topping the 124 he recorded last season. That number is bound to go up considerably during the stretch run, with his career-best for goals already at 55 (and counting). McDavid is running away with both the Art Ross Trophy (he has a 29-point lead over teammate Leon Draisaitl) and the Rocket Richard Trophy (he has a 10-goal cushion over David Pastrnak of the Bruins). The next mark he’ll try to beat is for assists in a season (McDavid currently has 72 and he needs eight more to establish a new high in that category). McDavid also has a firm grasp on the Hart Trophy, where the only races left are who finishes second through fifth on the ballot.