Atlantic Division Watch (March 9)

Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Atlantic Division outlook (March 9 -March 15th)

1. Philadelphia Flyers (41-19-6 for 88 pts; 66 Games Played)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Away vs. Toronto (Thursday), home vs. Atlanta (Saturday) and @ Florida (Tuesday).

Thoughts: Look, I don’t think the Flyers are going to lose their Atlantic Division lead to the scrappy but undermanned Penguins. Still, if Pittsburgh were to make headway, it would be soon. Philadelphia plays four of their next five games away from Cream Cheese Land. Granted, the Flyers have a nearly identical road (20-9-3) vs. home (21-10-3) record, but if you want straws to grasp … there you go.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins (39-21-8 for 86 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: Two straight wins.

Week ahead: Home vs. Montreal (Sat), home vs. Edmonton (Sun) and away against Ottawa (Tues).

Thoughts: The Penguins are turning heads with their all-out effort, although one cannot help but wonder how much damage they can really do during the playoffs in their current format. If they want to maintain their fourth seed, they better play well in the next week or so, because they finish the season with four of their last five games on the road.

3. New York Rangers (35-29-4 for 74 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: Two straight wins.

Week ahead: @ Anaheim (Wed), @ San Jose (Sat) and home vs. Islanders (Tues).

Thoughts: A late slump sunk the Rangers into a race with the Sabres, Hurricanes and x amount of bubble teams for one of the last two playoff spots in the East, so now they need to make the most of every game. The Islanders would be the cherry on the top of a tough week, but the Long Island gang has been awfully pesky lately. As most weeks, the Rangers should feel disappointed if they come away with less than four points.

4. New Jersey Devils (30-32-4 for 64 pts; 66 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: @ Atlanta (Fri), home vs. Islanders (Sat) and home vs. Atlanta (Tues).

Thoughts: It’s been a long time coming, but I think I’ve stumbled on a good (if obscure) parallel for these Devils. Have you ever played a fighting game such as “Mortal Kombat” or “Street Fighter” in which you fought poorly until you were down to the “Danger” mark? You know, that spot when one more leg sweep or blocked jump kick would cause your doom? Those are the times when you’re most dangerous; you get to play with that sense of freedom and danger that you never play with when you’re running with a full bar of health. The Devils are really scary right now, but can they really dodge every fireball thrown their way for the next month?

5. New York Islanders (26-32-10 for 62 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: Home vs. Boston (Fri), @ New Jersey (Sat) and @ Rangers (Tues).

Thoughts: After Friday’s home game against the Bruins, the surprisingly surging Islanders play their next five contests on the road. Maybe they can sit in their hotel rooms and read the memo that they’re supposed to tank right now. Don’t get me wrong, the team’s probably tired of losing, but what good will moving up a few rungs on the ladder really do? Just saying.

Penguins avoid collapse, beat Preds in crazy Stanley Cup Final opener

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PITTSBURGH — The game of hockey can be crazy at times.

Then you have nights like Monday, when it gets really crazy.

In a game that often made no sense at all, the Penguins built up a 3-0 lead, blew that lead, then rallied late to beat Nashville 5-3 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

So, uh, where to even begin with this?

Let’s start with the game-winner. Jake Guentzel, who was on the verge of being a healthy scratch for tonight’s affair, scored with less than four minutes remaining to snap an eight-game goalless drought.

Now, consider the circumstances under which this goal was scored.

Guentzel was facing tremendous pressure to get his offense going. And the shot he scored on was Pittsburgh’s first in 37 minutes of action. During that time, the Pens recorded the first zero-shot playoff period since NHL began tracking SOG in 1957-58.

Guentzel’s goal also came after Nashville had staged a furious, wild three-goal rally to even things up.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissions and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Preds, with Sissions and Gaudreau finding the back of the net less than four minutes apart in the final frame. Gaudreau, who up until a few weeks ago was playing in the Calder Cup playoffs, looked as though he was primed to become the next unlikely postseason hero.

But it wasn’t to be.

Because there were other equally unlikely developments on the night.

Heck, we haven’t discussed the first period yet. Evgeni Malkin, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino scored in a span of 4:11 in the opening frame, a flurry filled with fortuitous bounces and breaks. Malkin’s tally came on a 5-on-3 man advantage, after Calle Jarnkrok and James Neal were whistled for simultaneous penalties. Bonino’s marker was an own goal, knocked in by Preds d-man Mattias Ekholm.

Oh, and there was that disallowed marker.

Perhaps you heard? It was an ignominious start for the NHL on its biggest stage. Seven minutes in, the Preds looked to have taken a 1-0 lead when P.K. Subban‘s blast beat Matt Murray. But hold on. Pens head coach Mike Sullivan quickly challenged and, upon review, it was deemed that Filip Forsberg entered the Pittsburgh zone illegally.

More, from the NHL’s situation room blog:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesmen, NHL Hockey Operations staff determined that Forsberg preceded the puck into the attacking zone, nor did he have possession and control before crossing the blue line.

This ruling came just hours after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman defended offside challenges in his state-of-the-league address.

Crazy is right. And fitting, given what transpired tonight.

Video: Guentzel, Penguins regain lead after 37-minute shot drought

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Luck keeps going the Pittsburgh Penguins’ way in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Nashville Predators kept firing away at Matt Murray, holding the Penguins without a shot on goal for a whopping 37 minutes and managing to tie the contest 3-3 after falling behind 3-0.

It was a ridiculous display … and then Pittsburgh got its next shot.

Jake Guentzel scored on that attempt, roofing it past a struggling Pekka Rinne. It’s the sort of thing you can’t even dream up.

Pittsburgh also added an empty-net goal, so Nashville needs an epic final 30 seconds if they hope to avoid a crushing Game 1 loss.

Predators hold Penguins without a shot in second, now down 3-1 in Game 1

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There’s little sense denying the Pittsburgh Penguins’ luck through 40 minutes against the Nashville Predators in Game 1.

Through the first period, some favorable calls and a lucky bounce or two helped Pittsburgh generate a stunning 3-0 lead. Pittsburgh ended the opening frame with a burst of activity after a strong start to the Stanley Cup Final by Nashville.

The Predators regained their composure and confidence in the second, resulting in a dominant display on the ice (if not on the scoreboard).

The Penguins only managed couldn’t even manage a single, measly shot on goal against Pekka Rinne during the middle frame, but unfortunately for Nashville, some dominant puck possession only resulted in a goal by Ryan Ellis.

A 3-1 deficit is digestible, if frustrating, for Nashville. We’ll see if they can get back into Game 1 in the third period.

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Video: Calls go Penguins’ way early in Game 1; own goal plagues Predators

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However you feel about the context of each call, it’s tough to deny that some big decisions ended up going favorably early for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

To start, a would-be 1-0 goal by P.K. Subban was waved off thanks to Filip Forsberg being deemed offside. More on that here.

In a rare span, the Predators were whistled for two penalties during the same sequence in the first period, giving the Penguins a 5-on-3 advantage for a full two minutes. Pittsburgh started off the advantage a little rocky, but then Evgeni Malkin made it 1-0. (Video of that tally in the headline above.)

The controversy comes as Sidney Crosby seemed to get away with interference/elbow shortly before that goal was scored. That sequence will feed a conspiracy theory or two.

The Predators have managed to avoid tough stretches for much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but things seemed to really escalate from there. The Penguins managed three goals in a staggering 4:11 of game time, with Nick Bonino putting a puck off Mattias Ekholm for a painful own goal, making it 3-0 as the first period concluded.

The Penguins seemed to take control of the game after that disallowed goal, adding to the argument that some combination of the decision and the slowdown helped turn the tide.

How will the Predators respond to this adversity in Game 1? Find out on NBC and via the stream below.

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