Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks

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.

***

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.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.