It’s been a whirlwind of a season so far, and with just 7 games, there’s still plenty of work to be done for the Panthers who currently sit in first place in the Atlantic Division. Despite an upbeat locker room heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, every single player is aware that while a playoff spot is within reach, nothing is guaranteed.
The Panthers are coming off wins in arguably two of their biggest games so far this season, and they both came within a few days of each other last week. In pivotal Atlantic Division match-ups against the Bruins on Thursday and the Lightning on Saturday, the Panthers outscored the two opponents 9-3 overall to remain in first place through the 3rd-to-last weekend of the season.
“To be able to go into Boston and Tampa on the road and get two big wins to kind of separate ourselves a little bit and get a little cushion against those teams is huge,” said Vincent Trocheck.
Jaromir Jagr — the player with the obvious advantage over everyone else in the Panthers’ locker room in terms of seasons played and playoff experience — made it clear that even though the team is close to securing a spot in the post-season, they must continue to work hard.
“We are pretty close so it would be a shame not to make it,” said Jagr. “We play some teams that are out of the playoffs, but sometimes it’s too dangerous to play those teams. They’ve got nothing to lose, there are some guys who fight for jobs.”
With the Panthers being as close as they are to securing their 2nd divisional title in their 22-season history (and 2nd in the past 4 seasons), they’re also just 7 points away from reaching 100 points for the first time in franchise history. But again, the Panthers aren’t focused on that as much as they are on finishing out the season as strong as possible.
“I don’t think we’re really focusing on 100 points,” said Trocheck. “We’re in first place right now and whatever first place points is, that’s what we want to get to. It’s just making sure we’re staying ahead of Tampa Bay and Boston.”
“We’re still not there yet,” said Nick Bjugstad. “We’re still staying focused on the rest of these games here. We’re focused on the 2 points every night, I think that’s what’s gotten us to this point now not worrying about what’s gonna happen in the future.”
“It’s a big family in here and you can feel it every day you walk into the dressing room,” said Reilly Smith.
Troch Chipping In
Trocheck has been one of the Panthers’ main offensive weapons, not only over the past two games against Boston and Tampa, but since the beginning of the season when he tallied 4 points on Opening Night against the Flyers.
“It’s just going out there and playing the game and trying to win and help my team win,” said Trocheck. “Now is the time to find that extra gear and move forward towards the playoffs.”
Jagr chimed in on Trocheck for the second time in the past couple of weeks by praising his speedy development and strong two-way play. After being asked about the young center, Jagr almost couldn’t think of a word to describe his recent play until he arrived at “huge.”
“The way he plays, I think he surprised everybody,” said Jagr. Personally me, I didn’t know he was that good.”
The 22-year old Pittsburgh-native is 3rd in the NHL with the most points since the beginning of March (15) and leads the league in goal differential since then as well (+14). He also has 29 points in his last 28 games, including 13 goals and 16 assists while also reaching the 25-goal mark for the first time in his career.
Jussi Jokinen admitted that Trocheck’s been so good this season that there’s no way he’s a secret to the rest of the NHL anymore. The veteran winger pointed out how Trocheck has stepped into a penalty-killing role with key players out of the lineup and performed admirably as well as in the face-off circle.
He scored a huge shorthanded goal on Thursday to put the Panthers up 2-1 in the 2nd period against the Bruins, and the Panthers never looked back from there.
“He shouldn’t be,” said Jokinen. “We’ll hope he’s still a secret to some teams but he shouldn’t be obviously. It’s remarkable how well he’s played the whole year…he’s been able to step up when we needed him. I think everyone knows his offensive game is there but now he’s taking big steps defensively.”
Jokinen On Fire
There’s been a lot of talk about the success of first-year Panther Reilly Smith and the incredible emergence of Vincent Trocheck, but one of the keys to both players’ breakout years has been their linemate Jussi Jokinen. Now in his second year with the Panthers, the 33-year old veteran has proven to be a consistent offensive and defensive threat while putting up career numbers.
“He’s probably one of the easiest players to play with,” said linemate Reilly Smith. “He does a lot of the little things really well, he knows the game really well and he communicates it really well, too.”
Jokinen reached a career-high in assists on March 19th against the Red Wings when he made a nice chip pass off the wall to Trocheck who went in alone for his 22nd goal of the season. His previous career-high in assists was set during the 2005-2006 season — his first in the NHL — when he recorded 38 in 82 games; now, he has 41 assists in just 74 games.
“It just feels so easy right now, it’s tough to explain,” said Jokinen of his recent success. “When things are going well, it just feels so easy, so natural, and when things are not going well, it feels like ‘what can i do,’…it feels so hard. It’s just something you can’t explain.”
Jokinen is currently tied for 3rd in the NHL with Trocheck for the most points since March 1st with 15, although he credits most of his success to his linemates. The Panthers “second line” of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith are tied for 4th in the NHL with 26 goals for while on the ice together, and that’s just 3 goals behind the line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr.
Jokinen’s 3rd period goal against the Bruins on Thursday pretty much sealed the deal, and it looked pretty good, too:
“When [Trocheck and Smith] can get their stride going, it’s tough to catch them. If I can get the puck to them and they have speed, they are tough to stop.”
Although Jokinen has been used to moving up and down the lineup throughout his career as a result of being such a versatile player, he’s happy to have finally found a home in the Panthers’ top-6.
“When I can get even 1 month with the same line, I feel really good.”
With the playoffs on the horizon — although not guaranteed just yet — the players couldn’t help but talk about the status their beards. Playoff beards have long been the tradition for players of most sports, however there are always the handful of players that can’t grow one like the rest. For the Panthers, one of those players seems to be Nick Bjugstad, the team’s 23-year old center.
“Twenty-year old [Aaron] Ekblad can grow a heavier beard in 2 days than I can in 2 months,” said Bjugstad as a way of summing up the status of his beard. “I might just let it go, but my mom…she’s been on me [about it].”
Logan Shaw and Reilly Smith seemed to have some advice to get his beard to be more noticeable come the end of the season, and he seemed to agree with it.
“That one’s kind of embarrassing,” said Shaw. “Might as well keep it clean-shaven I think for him. Tell him to shave it or get a mohawk or something.”
“Bjugy’s got his whiskers coming in nice,” said Smith. He’s got about 6 on his chin, maybe 3 or 4 more above his lip…it’s pretty embarrassing. I think mine, it’s not great but it’s gonna look better than that. We talked about Just For Men…we were thinking dark brown probably, maybe like jet black…I think it’ll look good on him.”
The other hair-related talk around the locker room on Monday afternoon had to do with Jagr’s mullet, and Bjugstad was questioning whether or not it’s even growing anymore.
“His mullet seems to be stunting out,” said Bjugstad. “He’s 44, I don’t think it grows like it did when he was 20, so someone might have to take his reign and start growing a mullet.”
That someone could be Vincent Trocheck, and the fact that he sounds like he’s growing one could be the reason for his all-around success this season.
“I’m trying right now,” said Trocheck. “My hair is pretty long, but I don’t know if I can rock the mullet like [Jagr].”
And when it comes to Jagr himself…
“I got the hair, I got the beard, I got everything,” he said.
Shaw Feeling Right At Home
Logan Shaw was among the many call-ups to the Panthers this season and the coaching staff seems to be fairly happy with his play overall. He’s played primarily in the bottom-6 and has quietly racked up 52 NHL games dating back to his debut on October 30th.
Like many players, Shaw spent time in the AHL before making his debut, and the veteran support in the locker room as well as the fact that the Portland Pirates and Panthers employ similar systems appears to have helped his transition.
“It’s been fun,” said Shaw. “A lot of this dressing room really help me. The older guys, and even the younger guys with experience, they made it a lot more comfortable. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, like the speed of the game, but these guys have really helped me out.”
Shaw hasn’t been the only player called up from the Pirates this season as there are a few other players from the Panthers’ AHL affiliate on the roster right now, including Garrett Wilson and Greg McKegg. Those are in addition to Alex Petrovic, Quinton Howden, and Steven Kampfer who each spent time in the AHL last season.
“It’s a lot of fun [having them around here],” said Shaw. “I live with those guys when we’re all up here together and just being comfortable around those guys makes a big difference in the dressing room.”
Mitchell Speaks, Gudbranson and MacKenzie Close To Returns
After the news broke a few days ago that Willie Mitchell was considering retiring after sustaining a concussion over 2 months ago, the 38-year old defenseman practiced with the team today like nothing ever happened.
Mitchell has been skating with the team for the past few weeks, however he hasn’t played in a game since January 18th when the Panthers faced the Oilers at home. Doctors apparently voiced their concern to Mitchell and the team’s front office that his health could be in trouble should he sustain another concussion after returning to action.
On Monday, just before the team’s practice was set to begin, Mitchell called the rest of the players to the center of the rink at the Panthers’ Ice Den, and although he wasn’t loud enough to be heard by the fans and media watching, it was pretty clear the type of message he had delivered to them.
The captain apparently told the team to “savor the moment” because they’ll never know when they won’t be able to play hockey again. With the playoffs on the horizon, Mitchell likely gave them some advice on staying humble and not looking too far ahead as a way of staying focused on one game at a time.
Head coach Gerard Gallant obviously wouldn’t comment on whether Mitchell would be retiring or playing any time soon aside from saying “when he’s ready, he’s ready.” Also, Erik Gudbranson and Derek MacKenzie, who have been recovering from nearly identical foot injuries as a result of blocking shots a couple of weeks ago, participated fully in practice today with the Panthers. Gallant said they hadn’t been cleared to play in a game yet, but are close and their statuses will become more clear tomorrow after morning skate.