Huberdeau, Panthers search playoff success after rising to high of NHL

Jonathan Huberdeau and the Florida Panthers have risen to the top of the NHL together, and it bodes well for them ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The forward leads the NHL in scoring with 111 points (30 goals, 81 assists) entering play Wednesday, one point ahead of Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (42 goals, 68 assists). The Panthers are tied with the Colorado Avalanche for first place in the NHL standings with 116 points and next play Thursday when they host the Detroit Red Wings (7 pm ET; HULU, ESPN+, NHL LIVE).

“It’s kind of my prime,” Huberdeau said.

True. Huberdeau was the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, and now he’s 28 years old and in his 10th NHL season. But it’s more than that.

“Last year, I thought I played well too, and it kind of started in the playoffs,” he said. “I thought I had a good round, and then after that, I just never looked back.”

Huberdeau led Florida with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists) in 55 games last season, which was shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Panthers finished second in the revamped Central Division and played the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

In Huberdeau’s first eight NHL seasons, the Panthers made the postseason twice. They lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round in 2016 and to the Islanders again in five games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in 2020, when the NHL played a 24-team tournament in bubbles due to the pandemic. He had three points (one goal, two assists) in each series.

Now the Panthers were playing the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first Battle of Florida in the playoffs, and they felt they had a legitimate shot to knock them off.

Huberdeau led Florida with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in the series, but the Panthers lost in six games and watched the Lightning go on to win the Cup for the second straight season.

“I think the experience last year in the playoffs, what he did against Tampa, was unbelievable,” Panthers forward Anthony Duclair said. “This year, he just came in refreshed. He came in like he had a goal in mind.

“You just really see that every day. You see it in games. He’s really hungry. I think the hungriest I’ve ever seen him. It’s good for him to lead the charge like that, and all the boys are just following.”

Video: WPG@FLA: Huberdeau buries Giroux’s feed for his 30th

Huberdeau has tied his NHL career high in goals, but what leaps out are his 81 assists, 19 more than ever before. Not only has he set the Florida record for assists, he has set the NHL record for assists by a left wing. Joe Juneau of the Boston Bruins had 70 in 1992-93.

The Panthers roster is deeper than perhaps ever before. Huberdeau is setting up teammates, and they’re finishing. Fourteen of his teammates also have tied or set NHL career highs for goals this season.

“It’s much easier when everybody’s having a career year,” Huberdeau said.

Coach Andrew Brunette pointed out that at even strength Huberdeau has not been playing with first-line center Alexander Barkovwho has been between Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe.

Huberdeau has been on the second line with center Sam Bennett and lately claude-girouxwhom the Panthers acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers on March 19.

He has 72 even-strength points, third behind Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau (85) and Toronto Maple Leafs center Austin Matthews (74). He has 34 power-play points, seventh in the League.

“He’s kind of playing a secondary offensive role,” Brunette said. “It’s amazing, the numbers he’s put up.”

It should make the Panthers a more difficult matchup in the playoffs too, and that’s what Huberdeau cares about most.

“Obviously, it’s team first for me,” Huberdeau said. “I just want to win. I mean, it’s so important. Obviously, it would be nice to finish first [in the scoring race]. Obviously, they’re good players up there, especially McDavid, these kind of guys, but I try not to look at it.”

The Panthers have not won a round in the playoffs since they made the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, three years after Huberdeau was born. He has spent his entire career in Florida. He’s fully invested.

Like Duclair said, he’s really hungry.

“It’s important to get in that playoff kind of mode, playing well, playing well defensively, because playoffs is a different season,” Huberdeau said. “It’s so different. It’s more defensive. We’re not going to score six, seven goals a game like we’ve doing all year, so I think we’ve got to understand that, and it’s just exciting.

“For me personally, it’s to win one round right now, and after that, you never know what can happen. I’ve never won a round, so I think that’s the goal for us, and after that, the sky’s the limit. “

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