Column by Bruce Penton
The brightest lights of the National Hockey League are usually reserved for the likes of New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, the Habs and the Leafs in Canada. Meanwhile, only dim bulbs seem to reflect on the likes of Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets, two of the league’s most non-descript entities. But this year, even though the Panthers and Jets haven’t been attracting much attention, they could both be playoff-bound.
The Panthers, in fact, are one of the NHL’s leaders in fewest regulation-time losses. The second iteration of the Jets, who moved to Phoenix in 1996 but came back 15 years later in the form of the former Atlanta Flames, have been occupying a playoff spot for most of the season, led by one of the most unlikely of heroes, goalie Michael Hutchinson.
Florida, with a squad that would win gold at the No-Name Olympics (other than, perhaps, goalie Roberto Luongo), had only 10 losses in 36 games after the first weekend of 2015.
That was second-best in the NHL, behind Anaheim’s and Nashville’s nine, and tied with traditional powers Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Want to argue the no-name suggestion? The Panthers’ leading goal-scorer and point-getter is none other than Nick Bjugstad, who is well known on his block back in his hometown of Minneapolis, but few places elsewhere. Hutchinson, meanwhile, was virtually unknown outside of Winnipeg at the start of the Jets’ season — the backup goalie to Ondrej Pavelec.
Usually, there’s no one more anonymous than a backup goalie on a non-playoff team, but Hutchinson’s outstanding play is killing two birds with one stone: He’s losing his anonymity, and the Jets are suddenly making playoff noises.
At last glance, Hutchinson had a 1.81 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage, No. 1 in the NHL in each department. His 10-3-2 record had many Jets’ fans — accustomed to the so-so goaltending of Pavelec and his pedestrian 10-9-5 record — calling for Jets’ coach Paul Maurice to make Hutchinson the full-time No. 1 netminder.
That would open the door for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to perhaps trading Pavelec while the 27-year-old veteran still has some trade value. Whether the Bjugstad and Luongo-led Panthers and the Hutchinson-led Jets can continue their success and qualify for the playoffs remains to be seen, but both teams are giving their fans some unexpected thrills.
• Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, on American sprint champ Tyson Gay’s one-year ban for using PEDs: “Verifying the old Chinese proverb: ‘Even fastest man cannot outrun own urine.’ ”
• NOT Sports Center, on Twitter: “REPORT: Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez have talked about reuniting at Taco Bell as either a shift manager/cashier or janitor/janitor trainee team.”
• Commentator Ben Maller, noting it was the 50th anniversary of the last Cleveland Browns championship: “Anyone can have an off half-century.”
• Seattle Times columnist Dwight Perry, on the $11,050 fine levied against Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch for grabbing his crotch at the end of a 79-yard run against the Cardinals: “So what were you expecting —10 yards for illegal use of hands?”
• Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald: “Kevin Klein of the New York Rangers lost part of his ear, had it sewn back on and then scored the winning goal in overtime vs. Pittsburgh. Contrast this with the Major League Baseball player who missed a month after having a tooth pulled.”
• Janice Hough of leftcoastsportsbabe.com: “On Christmas Day, a baby was born on the Philadelphia subway. Out of habit, Eagles fans booed it.”
• Comedy writer Alex Kaseberg: “Green Bay Packer QB Aaron Rodgers gave his lineman and back-up QBs, 55-inch TVs. Cleveland Browns QB, Johnny “Football” Manziel gave his linemen a foot-long sandwich.”
• Kaseberg again: “In the beginning of December, former Baltimore Raven and fiancé elevator slugger, Ray Rice, had his suspension lifted and was eligible to be signed by any team. In poetic irony, no team took a shot at Ray.”
• Dwight Perry again: “Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett — whose unit ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed this season — tendered his resignation. Fittingly, no one tried to stop him.”
• Blogger Bill Littlejohn, after an NFL arbiter bought Ndamakong Suh’s argument that he didn’t realize he’d stepped on Aaron Rodgers’ injured calf because his foot was frozen: “Numb and number.”
• Janice Hough again: “Rex Ryan is apparently on the 49ers interview list as a possible new head coach. So Christmas may not be over for San Francisco area comedy writers.”
• Another one from Dickson: “LeBron James just turned 30. If you’re looking for a belated gift, he could use a better supporting cast in Cleveland.”
• Ravens receiver Steve Smith, to AP, on why he loves playing in prime-time games: “Family members get to see you play, ex-girlfriends that wished they wouldn’t have dumped you, they’re questioning themselves right now.”
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