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.

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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.

Goalie nods: Budaj set to make Kings debut

during a preseason game at Staples Center on September 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
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Journeyman Peter Budaj looks as though he’ll make his first regular-season NHL appearance since April of 2014, when the Kings take on the Rangers at MSG.

Recalled from AHL Ontario due to an injury to Jonathan Quick, Budaj gets the nod tonight after Quick’s backup, Jhonas Enroth, was beat for four goals on 29 shots in last night’s loss to the Islanders.

Budaj, 33, has certainly earned another crack at the big leagues. After catching on with the Kings through a PTO in training camp, he’s been terrific in Ontario, going 26-9-3 with a 1.58 GAA and .935 save percentage. The Slovakian netminder also has eight shutouts this year.

For the Rangers, Antti Raanta gets the start in goal, giving Henrik Lundqvist a night off.

Elsewhere…

Ben Scrivens, who appears to be the new No. 1 in Montreal, will go for his fourth straight win when the Habs visit Buffalo. Chad Johnson is in goal for the Sabres, who’ve really struggled of late.

Marc-Andre Fleury goes for the Penguins, while it looks like Cam Ward is in for Carolina.

— Really good matchup in Detroit as Semyon Varlamov goes up against Petr Mrazek who, according to Yahoo’s Puck Daddy, has “crashed Braden Holtby’s Vezina party.”

— Battle of All-Star netminders in Tampa Bay, as Ben Bishop goes for the Bolts while Pekka Rinne starts for Nashville.

The red-hot Brian Elliott will continue to roll as St. Louis’ No. 1 in Florida. The Panthers will go with their old reliable, Roberto Luongo.

Now that Karri Ramo’s on IR, it’s Jonas Hiller time for the Flames. He’ll start tonight in Arizona, against Louis Domingue.

Therrien refutes report that Price is likely done for the season

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Contrary to a report by La Presse newspaper, Montreal head coach Michel Therrien says that Canadiens goalie Carey Price could still play again this season.

“We know what’s going on with Carey,” Therrien told reporters today. “It takes more time, obviously, than we were expecting. Like I said, he’s working extremely hard and he’s put in a lot of hours to make sure that he’s going to make that comeback. The fact that he’s working extremely hard is not to make sure that he’s going to look good this summer on the beach; he wants to come back and play for the Montreal Canadiens.”

That being said, Price does not appear close to a return. He’s yet to practice with teammates. He’s yet to even skate in goalie gear.

The Habs have 27 games left to get back into a playoff spot. They close out the regular season on April 9, less than two months from today.

Related: With Price possibly done for the season, Scrivens has Dubnyk-like opportunity

With trade deadline approaching, Canucks announce Edler out 6 weeks, Sutter 6-8 weeks

Washington Capitals v Vancouver Canucks
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The Vancouver Canucks announced today that they’ll be without defenseman Alex Edler (fractured fibula) for six weeks and center Brandon Sutter (broken jaw that required surgery) for six to eight weeks.

So basically those two are gone for the remainder of regular season, save for possibly a few games at the tail end of the schedule.

For a bubble team that doesn’t boast a ton of depth, the injuries are significant. Edler leads the Canucks in ice time, averaging almost 25 minutes per game. Sutter, arguably their best defensive center, already missed a big chunk of games earlier in the season following sports-hernia surgery.

But GM Jim Benning still isn’t giving up on the playoffs. Yesterday, he went on Vancouver radio and suggested the Canucks could actually be buyers at the trade deadline.

Benning only has a couple of weeks to decide what to do with pending unrestricted free agents defenseman Dan Hamhuis and winger Radim Vrbata. The trade deadline is Feb. 29.

The Canucks, currently just two points back of Nashville for the final wild-card spot, have a pair of winnable games coming up. They host Toronto Saturday and Minnesota Monday.

Related: Preds entering key (and tough) stretch before trade deadline

Jets activate Pavelec from IR, send Hellebuyck back to minors

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Winnipeg’s goalie of the future is off to continue his development in the AHL.

On Friday, the Jets activated veteran netminder Ondrej Pavelec from injured reserve and, in a subsequent move, sent rookie netminder Connor Hellebuyck back to their affiliate in Manitoba.

Hellebuyck, 22, arrived in Winnipeg with great fanfare, having starred for Team USA at the 2015 Worlds while being named an AHL All-Star as well.

This was his first-ever stint with the Jets, and it went OK — Hellebuyck posted an 13-11-1 record, .918 save percentage and 2.34 GAA — but he did struggle of late, getting hooked in two of his last three outings.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Pavelec.

His numbers prior to getting hurt weren’t any better than Hellebuyck’s — .906 save percentage, 2.82 GAA — and there will be considerable rust to knock off, given he’s been out since late November with a knee issue.

There’s also the long-term implication.

Pavelec, a lightning rod for criticism over the last few seasons, has one year left on his five-year, $19.5 million extension, meaning he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in July of ’17.

It could be his last season in Winnipeg (assuming he’s not bought out of the final year of his deal), which makes one wonder what GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has in store.

It’s also worth noting there’s a third goalie in this equation: Michael Hutchinson, who’s a pending RFA.