Around the Rink – Friday, March 11th

The horrifying earthquake in Japan is yet another reminder that calling any sports game “important” is a matter of semantics. Obviously, there are much bigger thing in life than how the East and West playoff bubbles play out. We wish anyone affected by that scary seismic situation the absolute best. Hopefully they’ve already braved the worst parts of that disaster.

OK, let’s get back to the escapism and joy of hockey, shall we? All start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Boston @ NY Islanders

If the Bruins win this game, they’ll take the league lead in road wins so far this season with 23. Even if they end up taking the Northeast Division title, that’s still the kind of stat that must make them feel good about their playoff hopes.

(What, were you expecting more Zdeno Chara discussion? Take a break.)

Los Angeles @ Columbus

There was a time when these two teams were separated by a point or two (probably a few times, actually), but now there is a considerable distance. Eight points to be exact, as the Kings are in eighth place while the Blue Jackets are sprawling out of contention with six straight losses. They should be a hungry group, but Los Angeles has plenty to play for too, so this should be interesting to follow.

Carolina @ Washington

The Capitals have been red-hot lately, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the desperate Hurricanes. Carolina could capitalize on a struggling Rangers team if they win this game as the East playoff race intensifies. Washington is on a six game winning streak, so it won’t come easily.

7:30 pm

Ottawa @ Tampa Bay

On its face, this seems like a great situation for the Lightning to tie up the top spot in the Southeast. The Capitals play against a higher ranked and desperate team in the Hurricanes while the Lightning host the seemingly lowly Senators. The problem is that Washington is on that aforementioned tear while Ottawa is tougher than their record right now. We’ll see how it works out.

Edmonton @ Detroit

The Red Wings’ hopes of catching the Canucks for the top spot in the West have more or less been neutralized thanks to a four-game losing streak, but they shouldn’t need to worry about the surging Blackhawks unless they really fall flat. Beating up on soft teams such as the Oilers would help that avoid that fate.

New Jersey @ Atlanta

It seems a bit much to say that every game between the Devils and a bubble team like the Thrashers is “big.” Especially because both squads could go irrelevant with just a few more losses. Still, one side will feel much better about their odds after this match than the other. New Jersey is trending up while Atlanta is sliding, but the Thrashers are still above them right now, which just says how different their starts were.

8:30 pm

Minnesota @ Dallas

When you consider how fluid professional sports rosters can be, it’s tough to imagine that the Wild players are particularly aware of the fact that they are playing the ex-North Stars. Maybe they know, but it’s hard to fathom that this game means as much to them as it might to some Wild fans.

On the bright side, both teams need this for playoff reasons, so each side will play with plenty of gusto anyway.

9:00 pm

Anaheim @ Colorado

Amazingly, the Avalanche have fallen so far that they’re now the third worst team in the NHL from a standings perspective. The Ducks really need to take advantage of this wounded Colorado gang.

Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

Just about every relevant team in the East playoff races won tonight

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After Eastern Conference teams deserved a “C” on Monday, they generally passed Tuesday’s tests with flying colors. Sometimes they carved out three-point games when relevant teams faced off, too.

It’s almost bewildering trying to figure out where to start … so how about the top of the East?

Metro’s rich get richer

The Minnesota Wild deserve credit for fighting back from a considerable deficit, including overcoming an Alex Ovechkin hat trick (all on the power play). Ultimately, T.J. Oshie‘s overtime-winner gave Washington the 5-4 (OT) win.

Elsewhere in the Metro’s top ranks, Sergei Bobrovsky grabbed his 41st win of the season (3-1 win against the Sabres) to put Columbus three points behind the Capitals and two ahead of the idle Penguins.

Metro top three (all with 75 games played)

1. Capitals – 108 points
2. Blue Jackets – 105 points
3. Penguins – 103 points

Canadiens gain ground

The Montreal Canadiens handled the Dallas Stars 4-1 in The Epic Battle of the Benns. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the second-place Senators 3-2 via a shootout

Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins won their games, leaving Toronto one point ahead of Boston for third in the Atlantic.

Atlantic top five

1. Canadiens – 95 points in 76 games played
2. Senators – 91 points in 75 GP
3. Maple Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP
Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP

Finally, let’s look at the final spot in the East

OK, so there’s some overlap here. Why don’t we check on the most wild-card-relevant teams?

Third Atlantic spot: Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Final spot: Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 82 points in 75 GP
Flyers – 80 points in 76 GP
Panthers – 77 points in 76 GP

Again, the Bruins won, as did the Flyers. The Lightning were idle. The Panthers fell to the Maple Leafs. Buffalo lost while Detroit and New Jersey are out of the running.

You know who deserves special mention outside of the top eight? The Carolina Hurricanes deserve such a distinction, as they are enjoying one of their hottest runs in franchise history after beating Detroit 4-1.

The overall message: just about any truly relevant team at least grabbed a standings point, with most winning games outright on Tuesday.

It doesn’t exactly thin the herd, but it keeps the door open for a fun race to the finish.