Honda NHL SuperSkills

Southeast Division Watch (January 31)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Southeast Division outlook

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5 for 67 pts; 51 Games Played)

Current streak: five wins in a row

Week ahead: three home games – Philadelphia (Tuesday), Washington (Friday) and St. Louis (Sunday).

Thoughts: The Lightning started off their epic 12-game homestand with two wins. This week won’t be easy with a game against the top team in the East and their biggest divisional threat, but at least they get plenty of time to rest.

2. Washington Capitals (27-15-9 for 63 pts; 51 GP)

Current streak: two straight losses

Week ahead: home vs. Montreal (Tues), away vs. Tampa Bay (Fri) and home vs. Pittsburgh (Sun).

Thoughts: Their schedule is similar to Tampa Bay’s week, at least in the way the games are tough but spread out in a friendly way. Friday’s game is the biggest, but they should be mad at themselves if they don’t win at least two of these games considering the fact that the Penguins are banged up.

3. Atlanta Thrashers (24-19-9 for 57 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Home vs. Islanders (Tues), home vs. Calgary (Thurs) and road vs. Carolina (Sat).

Thoughts: The Thrashers stumbled into the break before winning their last game, but this week presents an opportunity for them to strengthen their playoff foothold. Winnable home games against the Islanders and Flames give way to an important game against the hard-charging Hurricanes, their biggest playoff threat.

4. Carolina Hurricanes (26-19-6 for 56 pts; 50 GP)

Current streak: Two wins in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Boston (Tues), road vs. Toronto (Thurs) and home vs. Atlanta on Saturday.

Thoughts: The Bruins are going to be a tough out, but perhaps the Hurricanes will be pumped up after hosting a successful All-Star weekend? Carolina needs to take Toronto seriously to give themselves a great chance at earning at least two wins this week. If they could beat Atlanta in regulation, they might find themselves in the top eight by Saturday night.

5. Florida Panthers (22-22-5 for 49 pts; 49 GP)

Current streak: Lost their last game.

Week ahead: Three road games – Toronto (Tues), Montreal (Wed) and New Jersey (Fri).

Thoughts: The Panthers’ optimism can be gauged by how they look at this week. There is the half-empty: three road games and a back-to-back to start things off. Then there’s the half-full: they play against two cellar dwelling teams in the Maple Leafs and Devils, so the games are winnable. If they flop this week, they might want to begin eye-balling a lottery pick.

Some tough decisions await the Blues

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Yet again, the St. Louis Blues failed to achieve their ultimate goal.

And boy does it hurt right now.

“We’re all hurting,” coach Ken Hitchcock said last night after getting eliminated by the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final.

“You don’t want this to be our best opportunity. You want this to be a building block. In this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don’t know where you’re going to be a year from now.”

Indeed, GM Doug Armstrong has some tough decisions to make this offseason.

At the top of the list is whether to bring Hitchcock back. Yes, the Blues did better than 26 other teams, and yes, they finally got past the first round. Still, there are people who believe this will be it for the head coach, that a new voice could help. Overall, Hitchcock has done a great job in St. Louis. But then, so did Todd McLellan in San Jose. Sometimes, change can be good.

Then there are the unrestricted free agents. Both captain David Backes and winger Troy Brouwer need new contracts. The former is 32, the latter 30. The former had seven goals in the playoffs, the latter eight. How much money will they want? How much term? The second question might be the most important.

On the back end, it’s Kevin Shattenkirk that will garner the most attention. He’s signed through next season before he can become an unrestricted free agent. Just 27 years old, and considering the demand for what he does, he’ll be very expensive to keep. And with the emergence of Colton Parayko, trading Shattenkirk could probably be justified, especially if the return is good. A team like the Boston Bruins might be willing to pay up.

Right now, the pain is still fresh for the Blues.

“It’s so hard to win in the league right now,” said Hitchcock. “It’s so hard to win a series. So hard to just get in the playoffs. When you get this far, you get this close, you think you got the opportunity.”

The challenge for Armstrong will be to give his team another opportunity next season. And with the draft less than a month away, all these tough decisions will need to be made very soon.

Goals of the Week get tougher as Cup Final approaches

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The Stanley Cup Final is almost upon us and picking the very best Goals of the Week is a tough task. See how we did on this edition!

Just for Men: Mike Commodore

RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 14:  Mike Commodore #22 of the Carolina Hurricanes warms up before game five of the 2006 NHL Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers on June 14, 2006 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Getty
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Maybe one would argue that time hasn’t been kind to the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Carolina Hurricanes (at least compared to the pedigree of other winners), but Mike Commodore’s incredible red afro and beard rank as one of hockey’s most timeless combinations.

Seriously, just take a step back from your monitor* and bask in the splendor of that carrot-topped Commodore.

Even then-President George W. Bush remarked on Commodore’s bushy hair and beard (or its tragic absence) when the Canes visited the White House:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all for coming. Have a seat. It’s a pretty big deal for a guy that doesn’t know how to ice skate — (laughter) — to welcome the Carolina Hurricanes to the White House. We appreciate you coming. You know, I’m not sure what is prettier, the Stanley Cup, or Mike Commodore’s hair. (Laughter.) A little disappointed you got a haircut. (Laughter.) But, welcome.

Good stuff.

And it really is kind of disappointing any time you see Commodore relatively clean-shaven. It’s like Superman without a big “S” on his chest or Metallica with short hair or any number of not-quite-right sights.

* – If you’re doing the Rumsfeld-style “standing at your desk” thing then … kneel for a second maybe?

Here’s your Stanley Cup playoffs schedule for tonight

Stanley Cup
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There’s nothing better than a Game 7, especially when a spot in the Stanley Cup Final is up for grabs. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins will battle in a do-or-die game for the right to play the San Jose Sharks with Lord Stanley on the line. You can watch the game via the NBC Sports Group’s television and digital platforms.

Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh (8:00 p.m. ET)

The television broadcast of Game 7 will be on NBCSN. To stream the game using the Live Extra app, click here.

Here’s some reading material to get you ready for this one:

Penguins, Lightning prepare for ‘roller coaster’ Game 7

Penguins force Game 7 after holding off Lightning rally

Lightning lament Game 6 effort, Cooper doesn’t blame disallowed goal