There are a few connections between Miami and Winnipeg in mid-December.
Seriously. Stay with us on this.
First of all, Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who started against the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre in a shootout loss on Thursday night, is just one win away from tying the legendary Terry Sawchuk for fifth place in NHL history with 447 career victories.
Sawchuk, who was born in 1929 in East Kildonan, a working-class Ukrainian part of Winnipeg, won four Stanley Cups in the 1950s and ’60s and held the record for career shutouts at 103 until Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils broke it in 2009-2010.
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He also won four Vezina trophies as the league’s best netminder and in 2010 was ranked by The Hockey News as the No. 1 goalie in NHL history.
So, you know, he could play.
Unfortunately, Sawchuk died at the age of 40 shortly after the 1969-70 season from internal injuries after an off-ice fight with a teammate with the New York Rangers.
Luongo doesn’t talk to the media on game days, but his coach, Tom Rowe, was happy to chime in on two of his players closing in on a pair of the game’s legends. Right winger Jaromir Jagr, 44, after an assist Thursday night, needs just three points to tie Mark Messier for second on the all-time points list at 1,887.
“[Approaching milestones] doesn’t play on them at all. That’s what’s impressive about Roberto and Jaromir. They just come to the rink every day prepared mentally and physically. That’s why they’re going to be able to reach those milestones. It doesn’t play on them and it doesn’t play on the team whatsoever. It’s fun to be a part of it, and it’s fun to watch,” he said.
Jagr isn’t losing any sleep over his pursuit of the record book or Messier. He said he’s more concerned with putting an end to the Panthers’ four-game losing streak.
“I don’t really think about [catching Messier] right now. We have to win some hockey games, that’s the priority right now to me. I know if I just stay healthy and I’m going to play good, the points are going to come. The team is No. 1 for me right now,” he said.
Next up for Jagr? Just another 970 points to tie Wayne Gretzky for first. The Great One would have been the top point-getter of all time even if he hadn’t scored 894 goals as his assist total alone — 1,963 — is sufficient for the top spot.
Jagr also has a ways to go if he wants to break the record for being the oldest player in NHL history. That honor goes to Gordie Howe, who retired from the Hartford Whalers in 1980 at the age of 52.
(If you ask Winnipeg Jets fans, Jagr scored about one million of his 1,883 points against both incarnations of their team.)
▪ Next on the connection to Winnipeg list is Panthers assistant general manager and vice president of legal affairs Steve Werier. He was born and raised in Winnipeg but was just a kid when Jets 1.0 moved to the Arizona desert to become the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. A team scout, Richard Pollock, is also from Winnipeg.
▪ A slightly more obscure connection is Panthers TV broadcaster Denis Potvin, a Hall of Fame defenseman for the New York Islanders from 1973-88, and Ulf Nilsson, part of the early-’70s invasion of Swedes to come to North America. Nilsson played for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association before jumping to the New York Rangers after the 1977-78 season.
Potvin infamously hit Nilsson near the end of the following season that resulted in the Swede breaking his ankle. He was never really the same after the injury and he retired in 1983. The legend, however, lives on at Madison Square Garden where fans still shout “Potvin Sucks” whenever the Islanders come to town.
“It’s the most incredible aftermath ever,” Potvin said, noting he and Nilsson have been friends for years. “It’s been, what, 37 years now? Just a month ago I was in Madison Square Garden and it took 48 seconds and the old chant started all over again.”
Friday: Panthers at Avalanche
When/where: 9 p.m.; Pepsi Center, Denver.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.
Series: Colorado leads 21-11-3.
Scouting report: The Panthers will be playing their second game in as many nights and third in four days as this abbreviated road trip comes to a close. … The Avs snapped a six-game losing streak on Dec. 8 in Boston and have won two of their past four.