Nick Bjugstad (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Florida Panthers are right in the thick of their first-round series against the New York Islanders, despite the fact they're not getting an awful lot of offense from their top line, including future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr.
Jaromir Jagr hasn’t scored a goal in 35 playoff games. Man, that was four years and four teams ago. You remember him playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, don't you? It's actually five teams if you include Kladno, his hometown team in the Czech League for which he played during the last lockout.
The scoring drought will not keep the 44-year-old out of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but the Florida Panthers are going to need him to make an offensive contribution at some point in these playoffs. Perhaps the speed and chaos of the post-season doesn’t suit him very well, but you’d have to think one of the greatest players in the history of the game has a couple more big goals left in him.
Until then, though, the Panthers will be perfectly content to get a lot of the heavy lifting in the offense department done by their secondary – or even third- or fourth or fifth-dary scorers – as was the case Wednesday night when they evened their first-round series with a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders in Brooklyn.
Consider that the game-winning goal in the third period was scored by Panthers defenseman Alex Petrovic, the proud owner of two career goals in 112 regular-season games during his career. Consider, too, that while Jagr did draw an assist on Teddy Purcell’s first-period goal, the Panthers top line of Aleksander Barkov between Jonathan Huberdeau and Jagr has accounted for just one of the Panthers’ 12 goals in the series.
But if the play of Huberdeau and Jagr is any indication, that could change. Huberdeau was the most dangerous player on the ice in Game 4 for either team and had what looked like a goal called back due to goaltender interference. Apparently, the NHL defines goaltender interference as when a player drives the net on a partial breakaway with an opponent draped over him, then falls and knocks the puck past the goaltender. Whatever. Sometimes I’m convinced the NHL actually hates goals.
And Jagr was pretty good, too. It’s obvious the Islanders’ strategy involves making life miserable for Jagr and his linemates miserable from a physicality standpoint, but Jagr has responded with an inordinate amount of patience and tolerance. After getting just nine shots in the first three games, he accounted for four in Game 4 and set Huberdeau up for a wonderful opportunity after getting drilled in the corner by Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock.
It certainly helps that the Panthers second line of Nick Bjugstad between Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen has accounted for more than half of the Panthers’ goals in this series – seven of 12. As far as the Islanders are concerned, exactly half of their 10 goals have come from their top line of John Tavares with Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. It would be really, really good for the Islanders if someone other than Tavares struck fear into the hearts of the Panthers.
This is a series now that is looking very much like it will go seven games. As MSG play-by-play man Howie Rose adeptly put it after the game: “It’s not only tied, it’s hermetically sealed.” Pretty darn good turn of phrase there.
As we go back to south Florida for Game 5, this is anyone’s series. Who knows, maybe the Panthers will actually sell out a playoff game in this series. There were 2,000 empty seats for Game 1 and almost 1,000 for Game 2. The people who do show up for Game 5 will be looking for their big guns to bust loose. And if that happens, the Panthers will stand a very good chance of moving on to Round 2. If not, the lesser-lights will have to continue to contribute in a series that is as close as any in this year’s playoffs.