When the National Hockey League paused its season on March 12 at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the Florida Panthers were sitting on the outside looking in on the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Florida was three points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes for the final Wild Card spot.
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The Panthers were also three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third spot in the Atlantic Division standings with 14 games left in the regular season. When the NHL recently announced its 24-team playoff format, Florida will be part of the return to play plan. They are seeded 10th and will play the seventh-seeded New York Islanders in a best-of-five qualifying round series.
It’s the first time in four seasons that the Panthers will be part of the playoffs. Ironically, the last time they made the playoffs was as champions of the Atlantic Division in 2016 and they lost in six games to the Islanders in the opening round. This season, if the Panthers are going to advance through the qualifying round and make into the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, three former Boston Bruins have the opportunity to play a part.
Acciari spent his first four seasons with the Bruins as primarily a fourth-line center. In 180 games, he only scored 18 goals and had 13 assists with a minus-10 rating. In 35 playoff games, including 19 during their 2019 run to the Stanley Cup Final, he tallied just four goals with three assists. Following the playoffs, the Johnston, Rhode Island native hit free agency and signed a three-year, $5-million contract with the Panthers in early July.
After struggling to score goals in four seasons in Boston, a change of scenery has done Acciari good. This season, he has a career-high 20 goals and 7 assists. He is one of five 20-goal scorers for the Panthers and is tied with Aleksander Barkov with the 20 goals. Coach Joel Quenneville moved him from the center on the fourth line in the middle of the season to the right-wing on the second line into a top-six forward spot.
In December, the 5-foot-10, 203-pound Acciari recorded hat tricks in back-to-back games against the Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars in two Panthers victories. In an offensive outburst that nobody saw coming, he scored three straight goals in the second period against the Stars in four minutes. That kind of scoring will be beneficial to the Panthers against the Islanders.
Brett Connolly played 78 games for the Bruins over a year and a half after being acquired during the 2014-15 season from the Tampa Bay Lightning for two draft picks. He scored nine goals for Boston during the 2015-16 season before he signed a free-agent contract with the Washington Capitals. After three seasons in the Nation’s Capital, Connolly signed a four-year, $14 million contract last summer with Florida and has made a big impact this season.
In Washington, he averaged 17 goals a season. This season, before the pause, Connolly had surpassed his average in Washington with 19 goals and was on pace to tie his career-high of 22 goals he had last season. He has provided a Florida team that can score in bunches with another weapon. 15 of his 19 goals this season have been scored at even strength and he has given the Panthers a solid two-way presence that they had been lacking in years past.
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He is another free agent signing that will bring playoff experience to a team that lacks it. He played in 38 postseason games in three years for the Capitals, including 24 in during the Stanley Cup championship run in 2018. He had six goals and three assists during that postseason.
Frank Vatrano spent three seasons in Boston, but they were split between the Bruins and their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence. He also battled injuries, including a torn ligament in his foot that cost him the first three months of the 2016-17 season. In 108 games for the Black and Gold, he had just 20 goals and 11 assists. Bruins general manager Don Sweeney traded him to the Panthers for a third-round draft pick on Feb. 22, 2018.
Just like Acciari, a change of scenery has done Vatrano good. He scored five goals and had three assists in 16 games after the trade in 2018, before scoring a career-high 24 goals and with 15 assists for a career-high 38 points in 2018-19. This season, he has continued his production with 16 goals and 18 assists in 69 games.
Quenneville has used Vatrano in just about every situation this season in meaningful roles. He has killed penalties and been on the power play where he has two man-up goals. Vatrano signed a three-year contract extension in February of 2019 and is locked up for two more seasons.
Former Bruins Trio Key Turnaround
All three former Bruins have added scoring to a team that has been on the outside looking in on the playoffs for the last four years. This season, before the pause, they were in the hunt for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. Florida general manager Dale Tallon has done a nice job of signing players that struggled in Boston, but have re-energized their careers in South Florida.
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With the league looking to resume next month with a new playoff format, the Panthers have a chance to make the 16-team playoff field. In three games against the Islanders this season, the trio only has one point, an assist from Connolly. If the Panthers are to get by the Islanders, they will need more production from players who have given them plenty this season.