Tonight's games: Time to focus on the playoffs

The 2010 Winter Olympics allowed hockey to take center stage (at least for one day) but now it’s time to get back to business. With 24 teams returning to action, let’s take a look at each game beginning with the most intriguing match-ups.

Today’s Best

New Jersey Devils (37-21-3, 77 pts) at San Jose Sharks (40-13-9, 89 pts) – 10:30 PM ET

A staggering 13 players from the Sharks and Devils represented their countries in Vancouver. There won’t be much time for them to lick their wounds, though, because both teams hold paper-thin leads over their rivals.

Buffalo Sabres (33-18-9, 75 pts) at Pittsburgh Penguins (36-22-4, 76 pts) – 7:30 PM ET
Yes, it would have been sexier if we had the chance to see overtime gold medal winning goal (OTGMWG?) scorer Sidney Crosby play against USA goaltender Ryan Miller a mere two days after that thrilling game on Sunday. Still, with only one point separating Pittsburgh from Buffalo, both teams have plenty to play for.
Rest of the games after the jump


Montreal Canadiens (29-28-6, 64 pts) at Boston Bruins (27-22-11, 65 pts) – 7:00 PM ET


Montreal’s grasp on the 8th-seed is tenuous at best and slightly-more-comfortable Boston would like nothing more than to make life miserable for their eternal rivals.

Chicago Blackhawks (41-15-5, 87 pts) at New York Islanders (25-29-8, 58 pts)  – 7:00 PM ET

With nearly 30 points separating these teams, this is a true battle of  the “Haves” versus the “Have nots” …

Carolina Hurricanes (24-30-7, 55 pts) at Toronto Maple Leafs (19-31-11, 49 pts)  – 7:00 PM ET
… while this game basically pits the poor versus the homeless.
Florida Panthers (24-27-10, 58 pts) at Atlanta Thrashers (26-24-10, 62 pts)  7:00 PM ET

In the spirit of Wednesday’s trade deadline, we have the most demoralizing move of last year (Florida losing Jay Bouwmeester for nothing) against this year’s most depressing trade (Atlanta receiving peanuts for Ilya Kovalchuk). H-hooray?
Vancouver Canucks (37-22-2, 76 pts) at Columbus Blue Jackets (25-28-10, 60 pts)  7:00 PM ET

Obviously, the Canucks probably went home during the break but it’s way more fun to imagine the team on the road this entire time as if they’re in some Homer-like odyssey. Right?
New York Rangers (28-27-7, 63 pts) at Ottawa Senators  (36-23-4, 76 pts)   7:30 PM ET

Two of the most unlikely success stories in the NHL face each other in this one. The Senators are inexplicably on fire (8-2 in their last 10 games) while Glen Sather inexplicably made two good trades this season.
Philadelphia Flyers (32-25-3, 67 pts) at Tampa Bay Lightning (26-24-11, 63 pts)  7:30 PM ET

If the Flyers actually do land Dan Hamhuis, we might as well call Philadelphia “Nashville East.” Which, strangely enough, is one of the nicest things anyone ever said about the Flyers.
Edmonton Oilers (19-36-6, 44 pts) at Nashville Predators (33-23-5, 71 pts) – 8:00 PM ET
When you shoot the puck though the net like Shea Weber did, you can drink at my imaginary bar for free.
Los Angeles Kings (37-20-4, 78 pts) at Dallas Stars (28-21-12, 68 pts) – 8:30 PM ET

It’s kind of weird that Johnathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury received medals for doing nothing, sort of like when Tom Brady’s backup gets a Super Bowl ring for holding a clipboard. Can’t they get half medals or something?
St. Louis Blues (28-25-9, 65 pts) at Phoenix Coyotes (37-21-5, 79 pts) – 9:00 PM ET

With the Coyotes seemingly poised to make an improbable run to the playoffs (and possibly, gulp, home ice for the first round), it’s pretty difficult to argue against  naming Dave Tippett coach of the year.

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    WATCH LIVE: Penguins, Jets, Predators look to advance

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    Game 5: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (Penguins lead 3-1)
    NBCSN
    Call: John Forslund, Pierre McGuire
    Series preview
    Stream here

    Game 5: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Jets lead 3-1)
    USA
    Call: Dave Randorf, Louis Debrusk
    Series preview
    Stream here

    Game 5: Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET (Predators lead 3-1)
    NBCSN
    Call: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Brian Boucher
    Series preview
    Stream

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Leafs ‘under the gun,’ especially Matthews and Kadri

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    Nazem Kadri told reporters that he didn’t apologize to his teammates about the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Tommy Wingels, explaining that he was sticking up for Mitch Marner.

    An apology might not be necessary, but the bottom line is that Toronto Maple Leafs fans likely expect a lot from Kadri – not to mention star center Auston Matthews – as this team tries to fight back from down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Letdowns

    The Maple Leafs dropped two of three games with Kadri out of the lineup, prompting plenty of “What if?” questions, even if people merely wondered how different things would be if it was just a one-game suspension.

    Regardless, when it came to last night’s 3-1 loss in Game 4, Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about Toronto failing to exploit the Bruins’ absence in the form of Patrice Bergeron.

    “I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “That didn’t happen …”

    Auston not scoring often

    Ultimately, Matthews has been limited to one point (the game-winner in Game 3) through the first four games of this series. That’s a disappointment for the NHL’s biggest jersey seller, especially since he showed nicely during his first playoff series, collecting five points during that memorable first-round bout with the Washington Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

    It’s easy to throw Matthews under the bus, and Babcock essentially admits that not enough was there last night.

    Still, quite a bit of this comes down to bounces. Matthews has generated more than four shots on goal per game (17 overall) so far in this series, suffering with a Rick Nash-like 5.9 shooting percentage during this postseason. Such numbers tend to balance out over time; note that Matthews scored four goals in six games during that Capitals series on 16 SOG, good for a 25-percent shooting rate that would be unsustainable during an 82-game regular season.

    There’s also at least some reason to wonder if Matthews is at least somewhat limited by the injury that cost him 10 games from Feb. 22 until his return to the lineup on March 22. As brilliant as he was (six goals, seven assists for 13 points in nine games), maybe he’s missing a few mph on his fastball against unforgiving competition like Zdeno Chara?

    Either way, Matthews (and William Nylander) have struggled while the Bruins’ top-line forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak find ways to feast upon the Maple Leafs’ mistakes.

    Kadri has plenty to prove

    Expectations will be high for Kadri, too, and his offensive numbers have been modest over a small sample size of playoff appearances.

    So far, Kadri has generated two goals and six assists in 14 career playoff games, piling up 35 penalty minutes. At minimum, Toronto would like to see his finishing touch pay off a bit more in the postseason after the agitating center generated 32 goals in each of the past two regular seasons.

    Much of that can be filed under “easier said than done,” particularly when Tuukka Rask is on his game.

    Under the gun

    That said, Babcock believes that players like Matthews and Kadri should “embrace and enjoy” the pressure.

    ” … No pressure means you have no chance. Go to the Olympic games, if you’ve got no chance for a medal there’s no pressure,” Babcock said during Friday’s press conference.

    “Do you want to be that person or the person under the gun? I want to be under the gun. We want to build our program so big that we’re under the gun, we’re supposed to win. Like I said, I talked about those fans, we’ve got an unbelievable fan group. They expect us to be good. We want to be good. Let’s be good.”

    Kadri, Matthews, and the Maple Leafs will get their chance to “be good” enough to keep this series alive in Game 5 on Saturday. You can tune in on NBC, with puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Penguins won’t have Hornqvist; Flyers lineup murky for Game 5

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    If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 tonight, they’ll do so without Patric Hornqvist.

    The Swedish winger already missed Game 4 with an upper-body injury, and the team ruled him out for Game 5. Hornqvist had been playing quite well lately, including generating a point-per-game (three in as many contests) during this series. He’s also been a pain in the neck, riling up his opponents while amassing 16 penalty minutes in Game 2.

    It’s worth noting that Hornqvist scored the Penguins’ last series-clinching goal. He found the net late in Game 6 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, stunning the Nashville Predators as Pittsburgh repeated as champs.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Kessel gets boost with Hornqvist sidelined

    The Penguins won Game 4 against the Flyers by a score of 5-0 after rearranging lines.

    Hornqvist was lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, while Phil Kessel climbed to that second-line spot in Game 4 after pairing with Derick Brassard. Brassard’s wingers changed to Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, while Sidney Crosby anchors a line of Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel.

    Those configurations worked well, but a desperate Flyers team could provide a different look.

    That’s especially true if Sean Couturier can return to the mix for Philly after missing Game 4 himself. The team considers the Selke finalist a game-time decision, while he was seen wearing a knee brace during this morning’s optional skate.

    Shuffling with Couturier hurt

    The Flyers fiddled around with some interesting combinations with Couturier in doubt. Nolan Patrick centered Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux during much of Wednesday’s loss, while Left Wing Lock indicates that Valtteri Filppula could replace Patrick between Voracek and Giroux if Couturier is out.

    Couturier playing or sitting is pivotal, as he’s been carrying a huge workload for Philly. That was especially true in Games 2 (27:15 minutes of ice time) and Game 3 (26:18), when Couturier logged big minutes. He also benefited the Flyers from a balance standpoint, as they were able to place Giroux and Voracek on different lines at even-strength with Couturier available.

    That’s not the only big question mark for the Flyers (and perhaps for the Penguins’ hopes of prepping for the Flyers). Head coach Dave Hakstol didn’t name the starting goalie for Game 5, generating speculation that Michal Neuvirth may step in for Brian Elliott.

    For all we know, the Flyers are aware of their starting goalie situation, along with Couturier’s status, but we might need to wait to actually find out. Then again, when you consider Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch for the Bruins in Game 4 of their series, it could indeed be a coin flip for Couturier, too.

    ***

    Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight, with puck drop set for 7 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Capitals lose Burakovsky for rest of Blue Jackets series

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    Capitals coach Barry Trotz shared bad news with reporters (including the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan): Andre Burakovsky will miss at least the remainder of the series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Burakovsky required “minor surgery” for an upper-body injury suffered thanks to a Boone Jenner hit during Game 2 of the first-round series. (Game 4 took place last night, with the Capitals tying things up 2-2.)

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    NBC Sports Washington shared footage of Jenner’s hit on Burakovsky in GIF form:

    On the bright side, the Capitals aren’t ruling out the possibility of Burakovsky returning during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least if they can advance beyond this first-round series against Columbus. Khurshudyan noted that Trotz said Burakovsky will be out at least through April 25, but the full window of recovery seems hazy.

    This marks another daunting setback for Burakovsky, a 23-year-old who hasn’t had much injury luck lately. He only played in 56 games this season and 64 in 2016-17, totaling 25 points each time. It’s a bummer to see him not be able to take the next step after scoring 17 goals and 38 points in 2015-16, particularly since Burakovsky consistently churns out strong possession stats.

    Trotz spoke of Burakovsky’s bad luck shortly after Game 2:

    “For [Burakovsky], it’s frustrating,” Trotz said, via NBC Sports Washington’s Tarik El-Bashir. “Our mentality is the next guy up. Next guy up will be Jakub Vrana. I feel bad for Andre because everything for a young player is about getting confidence and building on that. So, every time he’s played very, very well he’s had some injuries. This is a setback but he’ll come back strong.”

    Burakovsky had been lining up with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie during the Blue Jackets series. In his absence, Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson have been getting looks with Backstrom and Oshie. With Oshie also banged up right now, it certainly stings to realize that Burakovsky won’t be back for what’s been a difficult series, even though the Capitals deserve credit for hogging the biscuit lately despite being without one of their best puck-hoarders.

    Game 5 shifts back to Washington on NBC/NBCSN on Saturday. Puck drop is slated for 3 p.m. ET. Here is the livestream link.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.