Friday Options Loom for the #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

This Friday will mark my fourth time covering an NHL Draft in the last five years, and this one should be far different from the previous ones. In fact, this draft could throw more of a curveball at fans and media than the recent drafts.

At Minnesota in 2011, there were talks of Florida trying to move up from No. 3 to first to grab Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but those rumors didn’t come to fruition. I didn’t even bother chatting much with Adam Larsson or Sean Couturier because Tallon loved Jonathan Huberdeau. No point in wasting anyone’s time, right?

After GM Dale Tallon transformed the Panthers with the addition of Brian Campbell and others, Florida was left in Pittsburgh to draft 23rd – moving to the back of the draft floor after making the playoffs. I had my eye that Friday on Teuvo Teravainen, the Finnish right winger I thought would be a great addition, and Jacob Trouba, who was staying at the same hotel as I was. And his family – many of them South Florida residents – and I enjoyed watching the Miami Heat dispatch of Oklahoma City for the NBA title. Both Teravainen and Trouba were longshots to Florida, as the Panthers’ draft position wasn’t accommodating. So I’ll keep my eye on smooth-skating Mike Matheson this season instead.

I skipped the draft at Newark two years ago that nabbed Aleksander Barkov, which is proving to be a fine selection with Florida’s then-need at center. There are no questions about that pick. The key issue from that draft is whether the biggest mistake may have been made by Tampa Bay in passing on Seth Jones, who’s the real deal, with the third pick in favor of Jonathan Drouin, who pretty much had his named etched on the Calder Trophy before last season began. Not only is Drouin not the best rookie in the NHL, he wasn’t even the best rookie in the Sunshine State. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not on record as thinking he’s a bust. It’s too early for that. However, he did have just four goals in 76  games for the highest-scoring offense in the NHL.

The Philadelphia draft was a no-brainer for Tallon in keeping the top pick and selection defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Vancouver and the host Flyers offered some trinkets and beads, but Tallon stood firm and made the right choice. Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander and Leon Draisaitl are fantastic talents who were a pleasure to get to know, especially the German-born Draisaitl, but Ekblad was too good to pass up.

That brings us to this Friday.

Florida is in an unusual situation in owning the 11th pick. That’s an area where a team can easily move up or down, depending on what’s available and whether the club has targeted an individual or not. I think this draft is too deep with talent to trade out of the spot, even in a deal for an elite winger (which I don’t think happens either). In fact, there’s probably a better chance of the Panthers trading up into the 5-10 range if Tallon really likes a player, say, like Mikko Rantanen or Mathew Barzal, who likely slots into that area. Or maybe a high-flying, amped-up Valeri Nichushkin-clone such as Pavel Zacha, who may be a little raw but makes up for it with energy, speed and edginess. With Florida being the host, it makes more sense to see them trading up to get a difference-maker it really wants than trading away that pick or trading back.

And there’s another scenario that’s a possibility. Maybe a longshot but an interesting one to consider.

The Buffalo Sabres get a nice consolation prize on Friday – it’s the old “home version of the game” on the game shows for the contestants who didn’t win – when they get to choose Jack Eichel as the runner-up in the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes. For them, picking second in this draft is a letdown, and  in a very bad PR move, the organization let that slip out after Edmonton won the rights to the first pick. Having another pick at No. 21 likely isn’t thrilling either considering many feel the top 12 is where the talent breaks off, and Buffalo GM Tim Murray will weigh his many options with that second first-rounder.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Tallon contact Murray about Buffalo’s pick at 21. Buffalo also has two second-round selections (Nos. 31 and 51), and a simple swap of first-round selections – Florida getting the No. 21 this Friday, Buffalo getting the Panthers’ first-rounder next year – might be enticing to the Sabres.

Where’s the draft next year? Yep, at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.

And Buffalo could feel Florida’s first next year will slot out in the same place as this year’s instead of at No. 21, which is where the Islanders would have picked this year. Does Murray think the Panthers will be a playoff team next year like the Islanders’ or does he feel the Cats will be similar to this year? At worst, Buffalo would have two first-round picks in front of its home crowd.

As for Tallon and the Panthers, they can sit there and take a future top 6 forward at No. 11, then add on 10 picks later with perhaps another forward from a pool of American Paul Bittner or Russians Evgeny Svechnikov or Denis Guryanov. While Tallon hasn’t shown a propensity for drafting Russians, there is no “Russian Factor” with Svechnikov, who played for Cape Breton in the Q and has said his ultimate goal is the NHL. The speedy Guryanov may be too good to pass up at 21. And Tallon did draft Yaroslav Kosov in Minnesota.

Sure, it’s a gamble to trade away a future first-round pick. However, if you think your club next season is bound for the playoffs, putting next year’s pick in the teens, and you can add another talented prospect this weekend, it might be worth the risk to walk out of BB&T Center on Friday with two of the first 21 selections in a very strong draft. True, Florida wouldn’t have a first next season — one it could use at the trade deadline for some help in a playoff push. Yet that’s the gamble, and you err on the side of making the organization stronger.

Of course, this option would result in me not visiting Buffalo a year from now.

Stay tuned Friday morning as I’ll release my mock draft of the top 11 players and who I feel the Cats will select – yes, at No. 11.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers online at TCPalm.com

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Panthers Notes: Language Barriers

By Bill Whitehead

A couple of quick notes from the end of Florida’s developmental camp:

SEASONAL FRENCH: If any of Florida’s English-speaking-only prospects is going to learn French simply by the company he keeps, look no further than forward Rocco Grimaldi, who hears plenty of French during summer camp.

The 5-foot-6 University of North Dakota player roomed with Jonathan Huberdeau in a previous camp, and the pair playfully kidded one another often, even taking the joking to Twitter. Grimaldi took shots at the Quebec-born Huberdeau’s troubles with English – though in reality it’s quite good – while Grimaldi’s short stature was a source of Huberdeau’s Twitter teasing.

In this year’s camp, Grimaldi was paired with Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, native Francis Beauvillier. On the last day of camp following the scrimmage, Beauvillier was casually chatting with the media about how certain English words were borrowed from French – the word petard, from “hoisted by one’s own petard,” for example – when Grimaldi came by.

Upon hearing Beauvillier’s explanation in English, Grimaldi couldn’t resist a final dig before exiting: “Most of the English he speaks, I taught him.”

NO TRANSLATION: Speaking of linguistic strides, forward Alexander Delnov was seen doing one-on-one for interviews without an interpreter. When Florida drafted Delnov in the fourth round in Pittsburgh last year, Delnov spoke broken English and needed the assistance of Vadim Podrezov, Florida’s scout in Russia.

It’s no surprise that Podrezov came to the rescue. He and Delnov hail from Mytischi, a town just northeast of Moscow. Podrezov helped put the Panthers on to Delnov, vouching for the speed and talent of the 19-year-old who idolized former Panther great Pavel Bure.

Florida hopes Delnov (below, left) becomes one of two Russian major finds. Two years ago in Minnesota, the Panthers drafted Delnov’s countryman Yaroslav Kosov (right), who completely bypassed the interview room because of the language barrier. A fifth-round selection, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound right winger has played two seasons for Magnitogorsk Mettalurg in the KHL and scored a hat trick against Germany on the way to earning a bronze medal in this past WJC tournament held in Kosov’s homeland. Scott Luce, Florida’s scouting director, said in St. Paul at the draft that he felt the organization had found a hidden gem in Kosov, who just turned 20.

Delnov                Kosov

SIZING HIM UP: One Panther who meandered in and out of the dressing room was Huberdeau, whose name slotted low on the list for the exit meetings the team was conducting with each player. Huberdeau said he had received a smaller replica of the Calder Trophy, but what stood out the most about Huberdeau, in his third year in the organization, was the muscle he had added on his 6-foot-1 frame.

No one will ever confuse Huberdeau with any winners of the Mr. Universe contest, but he’s also no longer the lanky lad who showed up to camp in 2011 and who’s biggest advice was that he needed to add weight.

Look for a slightly bulkier red No. 11 sweater flying toward opposing goalies next season.

SCANT FEW: The best deal in hockey is heading toward the finish line as the Panthers announced that its new $7 season ticket offer, which it implemented during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final last month — has nearly sold out. Sunrise Sports & Entertainment announced Tuesday that less than 50 tickets remain.

Fans who sign up will receive a free jersey, free parking, four free concerts at the BB&T Center, a $25 Duffy’s gift card and more for just $7 per game.

Interested fans can call 954-835-PUCK or got to FloridaPanthers.com to order their tickets.

LOOSE PUCKS: Florida announced its preseason schedule Tuesday afternoon. The team opens with a doubleheader on Monday, Sept. 16, against Nashville at 2:30 and 7 at the BB&T Center.  Florida then travels to Dallas to face the Stars two days later, and again in San Antonio on Sept. 20. The Panthers then play three games against the Lightning — Sept. 21 in Tampa, Sept. 26 in Estero at Germain Arena and two days later at home…Florida inked center Greg Rallo and defenseman Michael Caruso to one-year, two-way contracts.

Barkov Pick a Bold, Strong One

By Bill Whitehead

When the draft lottery occurred two months ago and the Colorado Avalanche leapfrogged the Florida Panthers by gaining the No. 1 pick overall, most said the Avs had won the “Seth Jones Sweepstakes.” It didn’t quite work out like that, did it?

The forward-laden Avs defied the experts who said they should draft defense, stuck to their word and chose Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon with the top pick — the only forward they took in Sunday’s draft. To most Florida fans, that was discouraging. MacKinnon was the hot commodity coming out of the Memorial Cup tournament, and Jones, while a fantastic prospect, was a local Denver kid with ties to the Avs; Jones staying in Denver seemed to be a sure thing. Frankly, it didn’t seem that Jones excited Cats fans, and in retrospect Sunday afternoon, he must not have blown away the Panthers’ brass away either. Or Tampa Bay’s.

Like Colorado and going against most of the experts’ opinions as well, Florida selected Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, the 17-year-old son of a former Russian player, with the second pick. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and company were on the phone after Panthers GM Dale Tallon passed on Jones, then Stevie Y decided his club, which desperately needs defense like Florida, didn’t want the WHL defenseman either. Surely Carolina, sitting at No. 5, was hoping the drama would continue to play out, but the Nashville Predators, who all along considered Jones the best player in the draft, ended it and drafted the Portland Winterhawks star.

First off, I’m pretty excited Tallon elected to go with offense instead of defense. The Panthers started the draft in the same situation as Tampa: Needing defense. But unlike its upstate rival, Florida has major offensive deficiencies as well. In a few games this past season, especially in the year’s first third of games, the Bolts rallied from late 2-goal deficits to earn at least a point by taking a team to overtime. Florida was incapable of doing that because they don’t have Stamkos, St. Louis or Lecavalier (well, not yet). MacKinnon was first on the list to be taken by Florida, but fans had to feel confident that Jonathan Drouin or Barkov would be there to give the offense a boost and help Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau develop as an elite player.

My impression of Barkov. The good: I like his overall game. The fact that he plays a strong game, as Tallon says, in all three zones makes him a valuable asset and the kind of player coach Kevin Dineen wants; this organization doesn’t want to ice one-dimensional players. Barkov is already big and will fill out even more, has fantastic hockey sense, can score and sees the ice well, and has been outplaying men much older than him in the top Finnish league. He has the potential to make everyone around him better and constantly wins puck battles. The Boston Bruins reportedly tried to trade up Sunday to take Barkov, who received this praise from a Canadian writer after being taken No. 2:

“Many scouts told me in lead up that Barkov could be the best player in this draft. Talk in Finland was always that he would go top three,” said James Mirtle of the Toronto Globe & Mail.

The bad: His shoulder. He hurt it in March in the first shift of his Tappara club’s playoff game against IFK Helsinki. That’s a concern, but I have to feel Tallon, assistant GM Mike Santos and scouting director Scott Luce did their homework and wouldn’t have gambled with such a high selection if they felt the injury was prolonged and perhaps recurring. Drafting at No. 2, Tallon said the Cats would get an immediate impact player, and he would’ve passed on Barkov if health were a major issue. Also bad is that his English isn’t so good and he’s rather laid back and stoic. Really, I’m kidding. If he leads all rookies in points, gives the Panthers a repeat Calder winner and doesn’t speak one word of English over the course of 82 games, I couldn’t care less. It’s all about production.

I could have imagined Tallon taking Barkov, but not at No. 2. I figured if it happened it would’ve been at No. 4 with Florida swapping picks with its trading partners in Nashville. The only reason I can guess that it happened at 2 is that Florida really liked Barkov better than Drouin — much, much better — and felt that Nashville would take Jones. Tampa, having bought out Lecavalier, might seek center help by adding the young Finn at 3. At that point, Florida would’ve been left with the prospect of having to take Drouin at 4, which, again, it didn’t seem to like too much. There was very little talk from Florida about MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate. Drouin seems to be a big risk-reward guy: If he develops, you’ll see plenty of his highlights on NHL Network, but he’s going to have to get much stronger and play in both ends.

Bottom line: I think the Barkov pick is good, rock solid, enticing and exciting — as long as that shoulder injury is a distant memory when camp opens.

Huberdeau Named NHL’s Top Rookie

By Bill Whitehead

It should be no surprise that the pace quickened at 7 p.m. Saturday when the remainder of the National Hockey League awards were announced. With just a one-hour time slot to work with before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, the broadcast crew rushed through five trophies — the Calder, Ted Lindsay, Vezina, Norris and Hart.

Why should it be no surprise? Well, with the 2012-2013 season being essentially cut in half — actually, you can forget the “2012” part of that — it only makes sense that the awards show was just as abbreviated and crowbarred into a one-hour time slot. The broadcast crew rushed through as if they had to get ready for a game, which they did.

If you followed Twitter earlier Saturday, you had a pretty good feeling Florida Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau was going to be awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy honoring the premier rookie. TSN leaked out word that the Quebec native would receive the award and become the first Panther ever to claim the honor.

Huberdeau, who turned 20 earlier this month, had my vote for the Calder, and he did win the award over Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. The pair tied with 54 first-place votes each, but the former Saint John Sea Dogs star beat Gallagher, who plays for Huberdeau’s childhood fave Habs, by a margin of 1,141 to 1,048. And Huberdeau deserved it: He had multiple highlight-reel goals and posterized Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov twice. And don’t forget he was the top-scoring rookie. That goes a long way, especially on a club that finished 30th in the NHL. Huberdeau was also the second consecutive player from the 2011 draft class to be named Calder winner, joining Gabriel Landeskog, who was selected in front of him at the Minnesota draft and won the award last year.

HubyCalder2

It was the second consecutive season a Florida player won a trophy. Brian Campbell claimed the Lady Byng award for sportsmanship last year by being assessed just six penalty minutes in 82 games. Tampa Bay’s Marty St. Louis, a classy player like Soup, earned the honor this year, though his 14 PIMs in 48 games looks goonish next to No. 51’s numbers.

The other two winners who were interviewed live on set were Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a translator with him to discuss his Vezina win as the top goalie, and P.K. Subban, who was resplendent in a suit that looked like it had been dipped in dijon and splendid in his interview accepting the Norris Trophy. The Canadiens defenseman is a PR dream — he’s extremely talented, articulate, candid, often somewhat controversial and fiery. What’s not to like about that? I’m always dumbfounded by Habs fans who complain about Subban; 29 other teams would love to see him on their blue line.

Huberdeau was complimentary and answered all the questions posed to him. He couldn’t have been any better on the set. The only complaint I have is that the crew cut him short, kind of like how the season was cut short. Looking back, though, 48 games was enough to see of this Florida team. Huberdeau’s season is the brightest spot in a lousy 2013 campaign — the 31 points he tallied and the Calder Trophy were fun experiences — and another great addition will be acquired on June 30 at the draft. But I still wanted to hear more from Huberdeau Saturday night. I wanted to hear more of that story of him and Kris Versteeg rooming together.

No worries, though, Huberdeau will do all his talking next year on the ice and for many seasons to come wearing the red of the Florida Panthers.

Huberdeau Named Calder Trophy Finalist

By Bill Whitehead

In the closing minutes of that slugfest in Ottawa Sunday night — and slugfest might be too tame of a description — Brandon Prust crosschecked Cory Conacher. The former Tampa Bay Lightning fan favorite skated away, but Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, likely angry as his team was on the receiving end of a 6-1 beatdown by the Senators, took the opportunity to fight with the former Canisius forward.

It was a three-second clash between two high-profile rookies, both Calder Memorial Trophy candidates all year, and the battle for the top first-year player was far more intense. Is it as intense as the 232 minutes produced in Game 3 of the Montreal-Ottawa series? Maybe.

The NHL announced its three finalists for the Calder on Monday, and Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau was among the trio who made the cut. Huberdeau, 19, being a finalist is no surprise. After all, we all saw him set the tone early by scoring against Carolina on the first shot of his NHL career.

Huby

Huberdeau’s numbers stack up well with the rest of the Calder competition, which just so happens to be Gallagher and Chicago Blackhawk forward Brandon Saad. Huberdeau was durable, playing in all 48 games for the injury-riddled Panthers. He was productive, too — tallying 14 goals and 17 assists, which tied him as the league’s top scoring rookie with Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov, last year’s first overall pick. The Quebec native, along with Kid Line teammates Drew Shore and Peter Mueller, gave Florida an offensive spark that was its best weapon on most nights. Huberdeau, the only NHLer to score on two penalty shots, also had three assists in the season finale in Tampa and created a few highlight-reel moments that should help him in the voting. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.

HubyPS

As for Huberdeau’s competition, both have benefited from playing on far better teams and surrounded by better talent. Gallagher, a 21-year-old winger, had 15 goals and 13 assists in 44 games on a Montreal club that was very good for most of the regular season, though they struggled on defense at the end and are currently being manhandled by Ottawa through three games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. Saad, 20, had the good fortune of playing on a stacked team that was the best in the NHL during  the regular season. A native of Pittsburgh, Saad had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games.

Gallagher

Saad

The Calder choice will be a close fight and discussed much longer than the brief bout between Conacher and Gallagher, but perhaps native son Huberdeau can garner some of the Quebec media votes away from Gallagher to claim the prize as the league’s top rookie. It would be a nice reward, along with the No. 2 overall pick next month, to cap off a Florida season that was downright wretched.

With what’s on the horizon for the Panthers in terms of young talent — names like Bjugstad, Petrovic, Trocheck, Rau, Grimaldi and whoever gets chosen June 30 in Newark —  Huberdeau might just be starting a new Florida tradition over the next few years.

Cats End Season on High Note, Look Ahead

By Bill Whitehead

By both mediocre teams’ standards, the season finale between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning likely turned out for the best, with each club getting the most it could out of the outcome, a 5-3 win for the visiting Cats, who rallied twice in a strong performance.

For Florida, beating its in-state rival is always a good thing, and this season’s games with the Bolts have been particularly frustrating. The Panthers battled back from down 2-0 and 3-2 on Saturday night, scoring three unanswered goals to end the season 2-2-1 against the Lightning. But it could have been much better than that if Florida had taken care of business in its only two meetings with the Bolts in South Florida.

On Feb. 16 at BB&T Center, Florida appeared to be on the way to a 5-4 win but couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone — a season-long problem that hounded the  team — with Tampa’s net empty. Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Benoit Pouliot tallied the game-winner in overtime.

A month later at home, the Cats turned in easily its most frustrating performance of the season in another loss — a defeat that truly defined the team’s shortcomings in the shortened season. Florida completely outhustled and outshot Tampa for the first 40 minutes, spending almost the entire time in front of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback. Despite holding a 30-6 shot advantage after two periods and its opponent to a season-low 13, Florida dropped a 3-2 decision.

The Panthers (15-27-6) exacted a little revenge at the Tampa Times Forum, leaving the Cats fans who made the trip feeling a little better about the drive up I-75. The team showed a resilience that has been absent most of 2013, plus a snapshot (key word there) of its skill. Nick Bjugstad scored the first goal of his career. Alex Petrovic looked like a true NHL blueliner. T.J. Brennan looked like he had played with the Cats all year. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden were aggressive and had scoring chances. Eric Selleck scored his first NHL point by stealing the puck from Vincent Lecavalier in the third period and speeding toward Lindback, resulting in a tying goal by Scottie Upshall. And the prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau strengthened his bid in his quest to win the Calder Trophy with three assists, including one on the empty-net goal by Marcel Goc that shut out the lights on Tampa’s season that started so promisingly but spiraled out of control.

The Lightning (18-26-4) started 6-1 and pulled out wins early in dramatic fashion, appearing to be a playoff team, but they only won 12 more times, fired mad genius coach Guy Boucher, traded away fan-favorite Calder candidate Cory Conacher for yet another goalie (Ben Bishop) and ended the season with a fizzle. This despite having flashy Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and sharpshooter Steven Stamkos, who both had fantastic campaigns.

More significantly, though, for the Bolts is that it didn’t completely blow the season by beating Florida to close the year. In fact, St. Louis’ possible game-tying shot with the Tampa net empty that rang off the iron before Goc’s goal may have been a godsend. A win or overtime loss would have moved Tampa out of the top three draft spots (a club outside the top three could also do that Monday night by winning the draft lottery, with the Lightning then drafting fourth).

The top three selections in the draft, in some order, should be defenseman Seth Jones, center Nathan MacKinnon and left winger Jonathan Drouin. Unless it wins the lottery or makes a trade, Tampa won’t get Jones, which would be a huge asset to a club bereft of defense, but GM Steve Yzerman could walk away with MacKinnon or Drouin when he leaves the podium in Newark on June 30. That wouldn’t have happened if the Bolts had beaten Florida or even lost in overtime or a shootout if St. Louis had scored in the last 90 seconds.

Both teams’ futures look good. No team in the NHL showcased more top-shelf, highly drafted talent than Florida this year. Kris Versteeg likely won’t be healthy enough to open next season, but his and Sean Bergenheim’s return, plus some roster tightening — and maybe a deal or two at the draft — and the Cats should be a far better team next year. Adding one of the three top picks or trade out of the top spot for an impact player will just make them stronger.

The Lightning, meanwhile, will bring back all that offensive wizardry and a coach who has produced winning teams, but until it strengthens its blue line and finds a legit No. 1 goalie, Tampa won’t be a serious postseason contender. Both Lindback and Bishop have been backups during their careers. With Nashville having Pekke Rinne, who wasn’t going to be beaten out by Lindback, and Ottawa icing ex-Panther Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, both Lindback and Bishop were expendable. One of the tall goalies will have to step up and win the job in camp, not in a season-long tryout each night.

It was locker cleanout day on Sunday, but next season likely can’t get here soon enough for both teams.

Just Who Are These New York Islanders?

By Bill Whitehead

Remember the New York Islanders and how they factored into the Florida Panthers’ season a year ago? They were the season-opening opponent, hosting Florida on Long Island in that incredibly outdated, mausoleum of a hockey arena. The Panthers’ win that night was typical for the 2011-2012 season and set the tone for the team’s run to the Southeast Division crown with a 2-0 win behind a power-play goal, reliable defensive play and stellar goaltending.

Jason Garrison scored the power-play goal that night after Stephen Weiss scored Florida’s first goal of the season. In his Florida debut, goaltender Jose Theodore was rock solid and showed a preview of the consistency he would give the club in net during the season by recording 27 saves in authoring the 31st shutout of his career. Oddly, one of those players is already gone, and a very good chance exists that the other two won’t be back as well. Weiss and Theodore are both unrestricted free agents, and their future with the Panthers is uncertain right now.

Instead of remembering the past, though, the Panthers (13-22-6, 32 pts.) will look to the future in Tuesday night’s game (7 p.m., Sun Sports). Fans are still waiting for Nick Bjugstad to score a goal or get on the score sheet. Same for Quinton Howden. In fact, the first goal by either will put him just one behind Drew Shore. Yep, that’s another achievement worth clamoring for — a third goal by Shore. The rookie has seemingly hit the wall, scoring just twice in 36 games. Defenseman T.J. Brennan has two in 12 games, and had two taken away on deflections. Also, it would be nice to see Jonathan Huberdeau (one goal in last 15 games) get a leg up on the Calder competition.

Someone said the other day that he was in a bar in New York, and hockey highlights came on the TV. A fellow patron leaned over and said, “Hey, did you see that Islanders game?” I think the last time anyone said that, even in the City That Never Sleeps, may have been 1983 when The Police (“Every Breath You Take”) and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”) were battling it out for top song and most of the guys had steely eyes and were riveted on steel worker Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. That’s not exactly yesterday, folks. In that game last Saturday that the bar patron was referencing, the Islanders lost to the hated rival Rangers, dropping a 1-0 home game in overtime, but the rallying cry could likely be heard echoing throughout those dark, dank spaces of Nassau Coliseum: “Hey, at least we earned a point!”

Sound familiar?

The Islanders (21-16-5, 47 pts.) are clinging to the seventh spot in the playoff standings, just three points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, and are a fun team to watch. They have a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate in skillful John Tavares (24-18-42), plus 30-point scorers in wingers Matt Moulson (13-26-39) and Brad Boyes (8-23-31). Casey Cizikas burned Florida last month with the game-winning goal in New York’s 4-3 win at BB&T Center after the Panthers rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Michael Grabner, a player Cat fans are all too familiar with, is a burner on the ice who presents plenty of problems for defensemen on long stretch passes. On the back end, veteran Evgeni Nabokov is 20-11-5 in his 36 starts, logging a 2.50 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

But, really, who are these New York Islanders?

Simple. They’re the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference, an underdog team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 — a club that is generally overlooked, underestimated and not taken very seriously by hockey fans in the metropolitan New York area. A team who has stunk up the joint for a long while but appears to be headed to the postseason.

They’re last year’s Florida Panthers.

GETTING DRAFTY: In Calgary, the improving Flames dropped a 4-3 game to the Minnesota Wild, who received two goals from newly acquired Jason Pominville. The Flames have 36 points — four more than last-place Florida…In Denver, Columbus tied the game late on a goal by R.J. Umberger, then Nick Foligno scored with 28.7 seconds left in overtime to carry the Blue Jackets past the Avalanche for the win. The single point added by Colorado brings their total to 35, putting them 29th in the NHL…Carolina (36 points) and Tampa Bay (37) both play tonight — the Hurricanes in Ottawa, the Lightning in Winnipeg.