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Hats off to the Florida Panthers, who have clinched the President’s Trophy for the first time with a shutout win over the Ottawa Senators, their 58th of the season, while the Colorado Avalanche lost to Nashville Predators in the shootout.
“We play hard. We do the right things," said Florida Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette after the game. "We bought into what we're trying to do. It's fun. I think it was as much fun for the guys that sat out to watch other guys have success — and that's been them all year.”
The Panthers hit 122 points with the win, only the second time in franchise’s 28-year history that they’ve been able to top the 100-point mark in a season.
It’s been a pretty remarkable season all-around for Florida while finishing as the only team that’s averaging four plus goals per game (4.14) while also getting solid goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight for a team .910 save percentage this season.
It wasn’t Jennings Trophy-good, of course, but that’s plenty good for a hockey team averaging over four goals per game with a 115-point scorer in Jonathan Huberdeau, along with a near 40-goal scorer in Aleksander Barkov and fellow 30-goal scorers in Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair.
Truthfully, the Panthers have impressive depth up and down the forward lineup with six 20-goal scorers and 13 players that finished in double-digits with goals this season.
The question is going to be whether there’s going to be enough defensive grit, enough toughness and enough playoff experience to push the Panthers over the top. It’s part of the season they signed Jumbo Joe Thornton prior to the start of the season and traded for experienced playoff performers Claude Giroux (23 points in 18 games since arriving in Florida) and Ben Chiarot at the NHL trade deadline.
Bill Zito’s big moves at the trade deadline spurred on a 23-4-1 finish to the regular season for the Panthers dating back to March 3, and pushed the Panthers into a clear, unfamiliar role as favorites headed into this postseason.
"We're just trying to play our best and keep building our game," said Panthers forward Eetu Luostirenen. "I think it's a good thing for when we start to get going into the playoffs."
But there are concerns whether it’s the incredibly tough Atlantic Division bracket that could feature both Toronto and back-to-back champ Tampa Bay, and an Eastern Conference where all eight teams have topped 100 points this season. There will be no easy opponents and the road is going to be difficult for a Panthers team without a ton of postseason experience.
There’s also top defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who has been out since mid-March with a lower body injury that the Panthers were projecting would allow him to return by the first round of the playoffs.
But they’re ready for the challenge and to prove that they didn’t peak too early during the regular season.
"It's my favorite time of year," said Panthers forward Mason Marchment said of upcoming postseason. “I love winning. I love competing. It's going to be exciting. I'm ready to go."
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the Panthers will be able to overcome the President’s Trophy jinx. Since the 2001-02 season, the league's top team has only won the Stanley Cup on three occasions. The dynastic Detroit Red Wings won Stanley Cups in 2002 and 2008 after winning the Presidents' Trophy hardware while the Chicago Blackhawks accomplished the feat in 2013. No President’s Trophy winning team has even made it to the Stanley Cup Final since the Blackhawks in 2013 making it an almost 10-year curse for the NHL’s best team.
Will the Florida Panthers change all that? Tune in to the best playoffs going in professional sports when the Stanley Cup playoffs kick off on Monday, May 2.
*There are still playoff positions open for several spots as the NHL goes into its final games of the regular season. FOH (Friend of Haggs) Greg Wyshynski has the breakdown over at ESPN.com.
*Patrice Bergeron notched his 400th career goal as a member of the Boston Bruins in Thursday night’s blowout win over the Sabres, and voiced pride at doing it all with the same team over the last 18 years. (Boston Hockey Now)
*If you’re looking for some good television, here are the Calgary TV guys doing the pregame smelling salts that the Flames players have taken to in recent years.
*Speaking of the Calgary Flames, my goodness is Matt Duchene going to have Milan Lucic nightmares for a while after this hit. Lucic was whistled for interference, but I do believe the puck was in Duchene’s vicinity prior to the hit even though you can’t see it in this video clip.
*Cool remembrance of Guy Lafleur on the anniversary of a day he visited an Inuit village to open their first hockey arena. By all accounts Lafleur sounds like a truly special person. (CBC.com)
*It’s been a wonderful ride for Rick Jeanneret as he rides off into the sunset with his call of the final few Buffalo Sabres games. (Buffalo News)
*For something completely different: Jerry Seinfeld celebrates his 68th birthday today and we can all celebrate this moment in time with Larry King.