Hockey Day Preview: Who’s under the most pressure?

The fact that all eight teams involved in Sunday’s Hockey Day in America event hail from the United States is a given. The fact that all eight teams have a chance to make the playoffs, however, is just a blessed coincidence. Let’s take a look at what kind of pressure these teams will face in the four games, with a verdict regarding which team will have more on the line in each match.

Washington Capitals (road): The Caps’ hold on a playoff spot is secure right now, but few would have guessed that Bruce Boudreau’s bunch would be in second place in the Southeast this deep into the season. They’re still only four points behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, though, so maybe Hockey Day could be part of a Caps surge to the top spot?

Buffalo Sabres (home): The Sabres are just two points out of a playoff spot after struggling during a significant chunk of the 2010-11 season. Still, they’re in a dogfight with at least the Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes, if not an upstart team like the New Jersey Devils or Toronto Maple Leafs. Beating the Caps won’t be easy, but they need to do it since they’re at home.

Who’s under the most pressure?: Buffalo.

Philadelphia Flyers (road): If there’s one club who might be able to stretch their legs and play with empty minds on Sunday, it might be Philly. Sure, they’re in a tight race for the Presidents Trophy against the Vancouver Canucks right now, but that pales into comparison to the teams who are fighting for their playoff lives.

New York Rangers (home): After losing six games in a row, the Rangers righted the ship with two straight wins. Still, Henrik Lundqvist & Co. cannot rest on their laurels, as the East bubble teams could easily start breathing down their necks again if the Rangers stumble.

Who’s under the most pressure?: Rangers.

Detroit Red Wings (road): Much like the Flyers, the Red Wings aren’t that worried about their division mates right now, but instead how they compare to the Canucks.  Detroit has a legitimate shot to take the top spot in the West if Vancouver’s injury woes start to push them down the standings.

Minnesota Wild (home): How much longer will an ultra-loyal fan base show up in droves to support a middling franchise? The Wild continue to test the limits of hockey-mad Minnesota, although they’re at least (foolishly?) spending a lot more money on their roster lately. Mikko Koivu’s team is stuck in the West muck, so this should be an absolutely crucial contest against a very tough team.

Who’s under the most pressure?: Minnesota.

Pittsburgh Penguins (road): The banged-up Penguins probably believe that they can still make a run at the Atlantic Division crown, but with two less wins, five fewer points and two more games played, it seems like a long shot. Especially when you consider how bruised this roster is. On a more immediate note, this team is enjoying a nice break from NHL action (getting Thursday through Saturday off), so they’ll really kick themselves if they flop against Chicago.

Chicago Blackhawks (home): Could this be another rare instance in which a Stanley Cup winning team misses the playoffs during the following season? It’s a genuine possibility, as the Blackhawks sit at 11th place in the West (one point behind Minnesota). The ‘Hawks should also know if the Wild lost as they suit up for the Penguins, meaning this could be their chance to rise in the ranks by a position or two.

Who’s under the most pressure?: Chicago.

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So, the overarching point is that all eight teams have something to play for. It seems like the Sabres, Wild and Blackhawks have the most to lose because they’re currently outside the top eight in their respective conferences. If I had to pick one team that faces the biggest pressure, it would be Chicago for three reasons: they’re the defending champs, they’re playing a game they should win (against an undermanned team, plus they host the game) and they’ll know the outcome of Minnesota’s game already. That’s a stacked deck, but shouldn’t champions be able to roll with that?

The best part is that hockey fans can follow all the action via NBC. We’ll have more coverage of the games going forward – both from individual contest standpoints and big picture perspectives – so keep checking in on PHT this weekend.

Looks like Laine, Jets are heating up

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Big breaks can be really nice for NHL teams, but sometimes you wonder if the timing is all wrong. It will be interesting to see if the Winnipeg Jets (and Patrik Laine) feel that way about their upcoming breather.

The Jets had really been cooking after shaking off a tough start from Steve Mason (the Jets dropped their first two games in ugly fashion). By edging the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Friday, the Jets have now won four of their last five contests.

As you can see from the video above, Laine played a significant role in that win, showing that he might have some potential from “Alex Ovechkin‘s office” on Winnipeg’s power play. Laine doubled his 2017-18 goals total from two to four with that effort, pushing him to six points in seven games.

Laine was unleashing that lethal shot with aplomb last night, too, firing eight shots on goal.

(Last night’s edition of The Buzzer notes that it was a milestone night for Paul Maurice and Blake Wheeler, who collected his 200th assist in sending the puck to Laine’s wheelhouse.)

The Jets have high hopes for 2017-18, and Laine’s a big part of that excitement, so it was nice to see him unleashed.

If it’s a matter of rhythm, then this break is a bummer. Their next game doesn’t take place until Thursday, making for almost a week off, just when they were really sizzling. It’s a tough haul for the next while, so maybe they’ll take advantage of the break (or get rusty?):

Thu, Oct 26 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 27 @ Columbus
Sun, Oct 29 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 @ Minnesota

November isn’t a breezy month for the Jets, either, so Winnipeg has to hope that they can carry over some of this momentum.

For more Jets-related fun, check out this interesting NHL.com piece about how Connor Hellebuyck is changing things up.

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.

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Look at what Rangers are up against right now

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You have to really squint to find bright sides to look on if you’re the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are currently on a five-game losing streak and have one shabby win to show for their first eight games of 2017-18, and they’ll shortly face a challenge in the Nashville Predators, who are riding a five-game point streak (4-0-1 after losing their first two games).

With six of those eight games coming at home, the Rangers are really squandering opportunities in the malicious Metro. About the only positive things you can say boil down to: a) scrapping two “loser points” out of the past two games and b) the team at least saying the right things, as Rick Nash notes according to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks.

“The bad teams I’ve been on, guys get away from the game plan, they don’t give the effort and there’s finger-pointing, whether in the room between guys; from the coach; or in the media. That’s what happens when things get away from you as a team.

“None of that is happening here,” Nash said. “We’re together and we’re focusing on taking this one step at a time.”

They might be wise not to look at the divisional standings. Just consider some of the teams they’re up against:

Devils (12 points in 8 games): New Jersey currently has a perfect road record and a fleet of young legs, something the transitional Rangers must envy. Even if they’re likely to slip (being blanked by the Sharks could be an early sign of regression), the Devils figure to be a tougher out this season.

Penguins (11 points in 8 games): Not much needs to be said, though it’s worth noting that they’ve won three in a row.

Blue Jackets (10 points in 7 games): All signs point to former Rangers coach John Tortorella’s group being very much the threat that once surprised us.

Capitals (9 points in 8 games): Finding ways to win, and scrappy in particular on the road so far (3-1-1 away record).

Flyers (8 points in 7 games): Might be better than their record indicates, at least judging by their +9 goal differential. Philly has the potential to at least be a pesky “bubble” team.

Hurricanes (7 points in 5 games): Light early schedule might keep them under the radar, for now.

Islanders (7 points in 7 games): Mixed results might not help the Islanders retain John Tavares, but a competent Isles team would only make it tougher for the Rangers.

Yeesh, kind of discouraging, right?

The Rangers currently sit at four points in eight games played, and like this post argues, they really need to wake up soon. They’ve already played six home vs. two road contests, and they face a similar saturation of MSG going forward.

Counting today’s game hosting the rising Predators, the Rangers play the next three in a row at home. After that, they play three of four on the road, but then enjoy a three-game homestand.

So, by Nov. 11, they’ll have played 13 games at home and just five on the road.

One gets the sense that the seat is getting hotter for Alain Vigneault by the day. Fair or not, it might feel like it’s boiling if the Rangers are still a wreck in mid-November.

(If he still has a seat at the table, at all.)

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.

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Devils fans help singer who forgot words to national anthem (Video)

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The biggest save of the night at Prudential Center on Friday didn’t come from either goaltender, but rather New Jersey Devils fans in attendance for their game against the San Jose Sharks.

Lauralie Mufute began singing the national anthem but midway through forgot the words. That’s when the crowd of 14,381 picked up where the 14-year-old left off and finished the song.

A great job by the crowd in what certainly was a terrifying moment for the young performer.

These flaps happen, as we’ve seen many times before in different situations. It’s always good to know the crowd can act as backup singers in times of need.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin’s blast lifts Capitals in OT, Sheary speeds by Panthers

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Player of the night: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin has already reached double digits in goals scored in this new campaign. The Capitals’ star recorded his 10th goal of the season on Friday and it counted as the overtime winner against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals trailed late in the third period, but T.J. Oshie scored the tying goal and Ovechkin won it on a power play less than two minutes into the extra period, as he deployed that famous one-timer slap shot from his off-wing. This time, Petr Mrazek was victimized by the wicked slapper.

Ovechkin is now only two goals behind the entire Montreal Canadiens team — in the same amount of games.

Highlight of the night:

What a weapon speed is in today’s National Hockey League. Conor Sheary illustrated that once again, as he saw a little bit of room down the left side and flew around Alex Petrovic before making a move to the backhand on James Reimer. That goal counted as the eventual winner, as the Penguins defeated the Panthers 4-3. Earlier in the third period, Sheary and Roberto Luongo came together near the Florida net, causing Luongo’s right hand to get caught against the post, injuring the Panthers’ netminder.

Factoid of the night:

It was a milestone night in Winnipeg for Blake Wheeler and coach Paul Maurice.

Scores:

Vancouver 4, Buffalo 2

San Jose 3, New Jersey 0

Washington 4, Detroit 3 (OT)

Pittsburgh 4, Florida 3

Winnipeg 4, Minnesota 3

Anaheim 6, Montreal 2

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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