January 19 – Day 104 – Skeletons in the closet

There may not be many games going on today, but at least they’re all being broadcast nationally.

Most of the night’s action drops the puck at 7:30 p.m. this evening, as two (Vegas at Florida [SN360/TVAS] and Montréal at Washington [NHLN/RDS/TSN2]) of the three games get underway. Finally, Los Angeles at Anaheim (NBCSN) closes out the night’s festivities with a rivalry game at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Now, I know that the Freeway Face-Off is taking place today and both teams are on the cusp of playoff position, but there’s one game that has really attracted my attention.

 

 

 

 

 

Featuring this game provides us the enjoyable opportunity of looking back at the Panthers’ decisions over the past year and judging them.

If that doesn’t sound like fun, I don’t know what is.

Gerard Gallant was named the head coach of the Florida Panthers before the 2014-’15 season. The season before, Florida had posted an ugly 29-45-8 record to finish seventh in the Atlantic Division, a whopping 27 points behind Detroit for the second wild card.

While the Panthers didn’t do much climbing in the division standings (they only advanced to sixth in the Atlantic), Gallant’s first year as head coach saw the club improve to 38-29-15, their first winning record since claiming the Southeast Division in 2011-’12.

That growth continued into the 2015-’16 campaign, which was easily his best during his tenure in Florida. The Panthers exploded to a 47-26-9 record to raise their second division banner in franchise history and finish third in the Eastern Conference. One of Florida’s major acquisitions that season was trading RW Jimmy Hayes to Boston for W Reilly Smith. Smith was an instant success in the Sunshine State, as he posted a career-best 25 goals en route to 50 points, finishing sixth on the team in scoring.

Though the young Panthers fell in six games to C John Tavares‘ Islanders in the first round, excitement surrounded the team for their future.

With the Panthers seemingly on the rise, they signed then 26-year-old F Jon Marchessault to a two-year, $1.5 million deal after not being offered a contract by Tampa Bay following three years with the organization. As indicated by where Marchessault plays now (the same almost certainly applies to Smith, but more on that in a minute), it seems Gallant saw potential in a player that had posted only 8-11-19 totals in 49 NHL games, which was realized by Marchessault’s impressive 2016-’17 campaign.

However, a simple slow start of 11-10-1 in 2016 is all it took for Florida General Manager Tom Rowe to fire Gallant and literally desert him at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. after the Panthers lost to the Hurricanes 3-2. How firing the winningest coach in franchise history a year after he led the team to its highest heights since the improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, not to mention that he coached the Atlantic All-Star team, makes sense still baffles the imagination of many outside the Panthers’ front office.

At the time of Gallant’s firing, Marchessault had posted solid 10-7-17 totals through 22 games played, well better than Smith’s 4-3-7 effort in the same amount of time. Even with Rowe assuming coaching duties for the remainder of the season, Marchessault would score a team-high 30 goals and tack on 21 assists for a third-best 51 points in 75 games – all career bests for a player in only his second full season in the NHL. However, Florida returned to sixth in the Atlantic Division with only a 35-36-11 record, 14 points behind second wildcard Toronto. Obviously, the decline was on Gallant and Smith’s shoulders, as Smith finished with only 15-22-37 totals.

After going unsigned for the remainder of the 2016-’17 season, Gallant was hired as head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights on April 13, 2017, allowing him the opportunity to work with General Manager George McPhee to build the exact team he wanted from a blank slate – a luxury afforded to very few in the world of professional sports.

Having recent experience with the Panthers’ system, it’s no surprise that Gallant would do everything in his power to get his favorite players from that team. However, I’d bet that even he didn’t predict his good fortune when General Manager Dale Tallon – the same person responsible for signing Gallant to the Panthers in 2014 – agreed to trade Smith to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights drafting Marchessault in the 2017 Expansion Draft and a measly fourth-round draft pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

Call me crazy, but perhaps it shouldn’t have ever been a surprise that 30-11-3 Vegas is doing so well. Marchessault (16-26-42 totals) and Smith (12-24-36) are both among the top-four point earners for the Knights with the same head coach that led them to glory on the opposite side of the country. Marchessualt has since signed a six-year, $30 million extension with the Golden Knights. That means he and Smith, who came to Vegas with five years remaining on a five-year, $25 million deal will be together through the 2021-’22 season.

Compare that to 18-19-6 Florida’s situation in fourth to last in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference and it makes clear sense why Rowe is no longer the Panthers’ general manager (however, he’s still in Florida’s front office… I wish I had that kind of job security).

Imagining what could have been for the Panthers if Rowe hadn’t screwed everything up by chasing some analytical dream is truly disparaging (and I’m not even a Panthers fan!), and that point will be made even more clear this evening with all the former Panthers in town.

After losing in regulation Tuesday, the Western Conference-leading Golden Knights are looking forward to getting their next winning streak started. Vegas has earned points in four of its past five games, and it owes all its success to 10-3-2 G Marc-Andre Fleury and his defense.

Fleury has been stellar all year. After all, his .945 season save percentage and 1.72 GAA are both best in the league among all 66 netminders with at least four starts to their credit (okay, St. Louis’ 10-3-1 G Carter Hutton has matched Fleury’s GAA on the year). However, Fleury has somehow found an even higher level to play at, as he’s posted an incredible .948 save percentage and 1.51 GAA in his last four starts.

While Fleury has been so good that the word solid doesn’t do him justice, he’s also had the luxury of playing behind an impressive defense. Over their last five games, the Golden Knights have allowed an average of only 29.4 shots against, the seventh-best mark in the NHL since January 5. Whether its been LW William Carrier and D Brayden McNabb‘s 3.6 hits-per-game, D Deryk Engelland‘s two blocks-per-game or C William Karlsson‘s six takeaways over this stretch – or simply the Knights’ impressive offense keeping the puck out of the defensive zone – Vegas is making it easy for the face of their franchise to shine like a jewel in the desert.

Of note, Fleury led the Golden Knights to a 4-1 victory yesterday in Tampa Bay, so it would seem likely that 11-2-0 G Malcolm Subban will draw the start this evening. Subban has posted a .918 save percentage and 2.38 GAA in 13 starts this season.

Meanwhile, the struggle continues for the Panthers, who have posted only a 1-3-1 record over their past five games. While they haven’t been very impressive on either end of the ice, the biggest issues of last have been on the defensive end of the rink.

With 6-6-1 G Roberto Luongo still on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, 12-12-5 G James Reimer has started every game since the December 4. Before this rough patch since January 2, he’d actually been having success to the point that he had earned a 7-3-1 record since assuming starting duties – including a five-game winning streak.

However, the new year has not treated him well, as he’s managed only a .894 save percentage and 3.46 GAA in the Panthers’ last five games.

The reason for Reimer’s decline is obvious. The line about him starting every game since the beginning of December was not hyperbole: he’s literally started Florida’s last 16 games, including both ends of two back-to-backs. Fortunately for the Panthers, this is their first game coming off a six-day bye, so Reimer will be well-rested and ready to go.

However, if they’re going to continue riding their backup so hard, perhaps the Panthers’ defense could help him out and keep pucks away from him. Since January 2, Florida’s defense has allowed an average of 33.4 shots against per game, the 10th-highest in the league in that time.

D Aaron Ekblad may average two blocks per game over this run, D Alex Petrovic 2.8 hits per game and F Vincent Trocheck five takeways since January 2, but something has to change to keep Reimer alive until Luongo returns – especially since rookie G Harri Sateri is currently serving as backup. In essence, this fourth-worst 3.8 goals against-per-game since January 2 falls on the Panthers’ defense.

Florida has already made its trip out to T-Mobile Arena on December 17, and Rowe was justifiably embarrassed as his Panthers lost 5-2. Oh, and who led the way scoring in that game? First Star of the Game Marchessault (1-2-3 totals) and Smith (0-2-2).

We didn’t even talk about Vegas’ well-documented offense. With that corps going against the Panthers’ defense, it’s hard to believe the Panthers will be able to put up much of a fight tonight.


On the night of C Eric Lindros‘ number retirement, the Philadelphia Flyers completed their season sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs, beating them in overtime 3-2 at Wells Fargo Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This contest was a defensive affair at the start, as neither club could register more than nine shots on goal in the first period. As a result, the score read the same during the first intermission as it did at the opening puck drop: 0-0.

However, that all changed in the blink of an eye in the second frame. RW Connor Brown (F Zach Hyman) broke the draw on a wrist shot with 7:03 remaining in the period, followed only 28 seconds later by C Frederik Gauthier‘s (W Matt Martin and D Jake Gardiner) first goal of the season to set the score at 2-0.

Philadelphia finally got on the scoreboard at the 1:33 mark of the third period, courtesy of an unassisted wrap-around shot by Third Star of the Game F Nolan Patrick. Though F Jori Lehtera tried to give the game away by interfering with Gauthier only 34 seconds later, W Wayne Simmonds (F Valtteri Filppula and D Andrew MacDonald) found a way to bury a shorthanded snap shot at the 3:25 mark, leveling the score at two-all.

Though neither team was able to score in the remainder of regulation, it didn’t take long for First Star C Sean Couturier (F Travis Konecny and Second Star G Michal Neuvirth) to win the game in overtime. The play started when Neuvirth made a pad save on C Auston Matthews. Konecny corralled the loose puck and began racing up the right boards. With two Maple Leafs closing in on him near the right face-off dot, he split his defenders with a pass to Couturier in the left face-off circle, setting up Philly’s leading scorer with a one-on-one opportunity against G Frederik Andersen. Couturier slung his wrist shot to the far post, ending the game in the Flyers’ favor.

Neuvirth earned the victory after saving 29-of-31 shots faced (.935 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Andersen, who saved 34-of-37 (.919).

The 58-34-12 home teams are reestablishing their dominance in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as they’re now riding a three-game winning streak. They now hold a 23 point lead on the visitors in the series.