Northwest Division Watch (March 11)

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.

Northwest Division outlook (March 11 -March 18th)

1. Vancouver Canucks (44-16-9 for 97 pts; 69 Games Played)

Current streak: Four straight wins.

Week ahead: @ Calgary (Sat), home vs. Minnesota (Mon), home vs. Colorado (Wed), and home vs. Phoenix (Fri).

Thoughts: The Canucks have taken the last week to remind the entire Western Conference that they’re the team to beat this year. After a lackluster effort against the Predators at home, they came back with a couple dominating performances in southern California, a win in Phoenix, and a spectacular shootout victory in San Jose. Anyone who thought they had peaked too soon might want to take a step back. Right now they’re the best in the West and are at the top of their game.

2. Calgary Flames (36-25-9 for 81 pts; 70 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: Home vs. Vancouver (Sat), home vs. Phoenix (Tues), home vs. Colorado (Thurs).
Thoughts: Ever since Christmas, the story has been the same. The Flames win and win often. They’ll have a huge showdown with the rival Canucks over the weekend and then a rematch of the 1-0 defeat against the Coyotes on Tuesday. Jay Feaster and Brent Sutter told the team they wanted to win 2 out of every 3 games—they might need to keep up that pace just to make the playoffs.

3. Minnesota Wild (35-26-7 for 77 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: One loss.

Week ahead: Three road games: @ Dallas (Fri), @ Vancouver (Mon), @ San Jose (Thurs).
Thoughts: The good news for the Wild is they are only 2 points out of a playoff spot and would win the tie-breaker with every relevant team with 33 regulation/OT wins. The bad news is they are still in 11th place and in the time they should be making a push, they’re 4-4-2. Falling flat on their face in a big game against Nashville was not the way they wanted to start their final push.

4. Colorado Avalanche (26-32-8 for 60 pts; 66 GP)

Current streak: Lost two in a row.

Week ahead: Home vs. Anaheim (Fri), @ Nashville (Sat), @ Vancouver (Wed), @ Calgary (Thurs).
Thoughts: It seems like only a couple of months ago when people were talking about the Avs as one of the young, exciting teams in the league. Unfortunately, anything that could go wrong has gone wrong and golfing season can’t come soon enough. The best news for fans in Colorado? They’re currently looking at the 3rd overall pick in June’s draft.

5. Edmonton Oilers (23-37-8 for 54 pts; 68 GP)

Current streak: Two losses.

Week ahead: @ Detroit (Fri), @ Pittsburgh (Sun), home vs. Phoenix (Thurs).

Thoughts: As if the Oilers needed a reminder where they stand right now, they recently traveled to Philadelphia and Washington and lost by a combined score of 9-1. In 10 days, they’ve lost their top 4 scorers (3 injured, Penner via trade). Forget throwing in the towel—the Oilers might want to just forfeit the rest of their games to avoid any potential problems for next year.

Ristolainen suspended three games for hit that concussed Guentzel

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Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been suspended three games for interfering with Pens forward Jake Guentzel, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Thursday.

Ristolainen was given a five-minute interference major and game misconduct for the hit in Tuesday night’s tilt, which left Guentzel bloodied and, as we later learned, with a concussion.

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed the diagnosis in his postgame presser.

Ristolainen, 22, didn’t have any prior history with the DoPS, which has yet to release a video explanation for the punishment. It could be argued that Guentzel was in a prone position, and that Ristolainen took advantage of it.

“I thought it was bad,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said of the hit, per the Buffalo News. “The puck doesn’t get to him. He’s looking to get the puck to get into the play, and the guy holds up a second and then he still goes through him.”

As a result of today’s announcement, Ristolainen will now sit out Buffalo’s game on Saturday against Toronto, Mar. 27 against Florida and Mar. 28 against Columbus. He’ll be eligible to return on Sunday, Apr. 2, when the Sabres take on the Isles.

Ristolainen will also forfeit $90,000 in salary to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

Pre-game reading: Does the NHL’s playoff format need fixing?

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— Up top, Brian Boucher and Mike Milbury have their say on NHL participation in the Olympics, something Gary Bettman continues to put into doubt.

— At least fans can still be certain there will be playoff hockey. That being said, does the NHL’s format need fixing? Because as it stands right now, at least one of Washington, Pittsburgh, or Columbus is guaranteed to be gone after the first round, and only one of those three can survive past the second round. The Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets are first, second, and third in the overall standings, respectively. Hence, the debate. (The Washington Post)

— The Caps take on the Blue Jackets tonight in D.C., and Barry Trotz is looking forward to the fight for playoff positioning. The Caps, you’ll recall, coasted to first place in the Metro Division last season. But they can’t afford to coast now. “Having gone both routes now, I prefer this,” Trotz said. “Because it’s more meaningful. … It was in our hands too early last year, and I think it took a little edge off. You get too comfortable for too long, you get too soft.” (Washington Post)

— Don’t expect the NBA’s controversial practice of resting star players to become a common problem for the NHL. Said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty: “I just think hockey’s a different kind of animal where I don’t think guys would want to do it. Guys are stubborn enough to probably fight it if they were asked and that’s how I would see that going down.” (Canadian Press)

— Why Dave Hakstol won’t be fired, by Flyers beat reporter Dave Isaac, who writes: “It took multiple pleas to woo Hakstol from a much more comfortable college job at the University of North Dakota. To fire Hakstol this early would be an admission from Hextall that this part of his grand plan — hiring the coach that he thought would grow with the roster — was wrong.” (Courier-Post)

William Nylander may sometimes get overshadowed in Toronto by fellow Maple Leafs rookies Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. But with 20 goals in 70 games, what Nylander has done is still very impressive. (The Hockey News)

Enjoy the games!

Bowling Green goalie Nell leaves school, signs with Rangers

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The Blueshirts added to their goaltending depth on Thursday, signing Bowling Green junior Chris Nell to an entry-level contract.

Nell, 22, just wrapped his junior campaign at Bowling Green, going 17-14-2 with a 2.15 GAA and .916 save percentage. This year, he became the school’s all-time leader in career shutouts, this after a terrific sophomore campaign in which he finished with a sparking 1.31 GAA and .930 save percentage.

An undrafted free agent, Nell now joins an organization with several young netminders in the mix. Mackenzie Skapski, a 2013 draftee, made his NHL debut two years ago but has struggled this season, splitting time between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville. Brandon Halverson, a second-rounder in ’14, has also split time between Hartford and Greenville, and was recently recalled to New York on an emergency basis.

New York has also drafted Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin (fourth round, ’14), Slovak Adam Huska (seventh round, ’15) and UMass-Lowell product Tyler Wall (sixth round, ’16).

 

On verge of missing playoffs, Red Wings aim to keep winning culture

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The Detroit Red Wings have no intention of tearing their roster down and undertaking a painful rebuild, a la the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Why not, you ask?

Because even though the Wings are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, and even though their leading scorer (Henrik Zetterberg) is 36 years old, they don’t want to lose the culture that made them so successful over the past quarter century.

“There are organizations where they have lost culture,” said head coach Jeff Blashill, per the Detroit Free Press. “They have missed the playoffs, and they miss it 10 straight years. We don’t want to be in this position again. This isn’t OK. That is the approach we are taking every day.”

We have heard other teams say similar things. For example, the Vancouver Canucks. (Which won’t make Wings fans feel great to hear.)

While there’s nothing wrong with trying to maintain a winning culture, the biggest challenge the Wings have is a lack of talent — particularly on the back end.

That’s up to GM Ken Holland to solve, and solve relatively quickly, given his lack of appetite for a lengthy rebuild.

“We’re going to continue to try and be competitive, we’re going to continue to try and make the playoffs and our ultimate goal is to eventually be a Cup contender,” Holland said a few months ago.

“To me, rebuild means eight to 10 years, and there are teams that have made the playoffs one year in 10 while rebuilding.”

Related: It’s going to be a very different draft for the Red Wings