Around the Rink – Friday, March 18th

Want a nice sign that the playoffs are almost here? Teams are starting to clinch playoff spots this week, as the Vancouver Canucks already accomplished the feat while both the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers are eligible to do so tonight. We’ll explain how and preview tonight’s four games in this post.

As always, all start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

First, how the Flyers can clinch a playoff spot (without even playing):

If the Hurricanes lose in regulation and Devils get one point or less, Philadelphia’s playoff spot will be secure. (Source: NHL.com.)

7:00 pm

Washington @ New Jersey

If the Capitals win and the Hurricanes lose in regulation, Washington will clinch a playoff spot tonight. Obviously, that means that it’s just a matter of time for the Caps.

The same cannot be said for the Devils, who must continue to jump through hoops to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. They’ll root for the Canes to go without a point, but would prefer the Capitals to complete the other half of that task on some other night.

Nicklas Backstrom will be back in the lineup and Michal Neuvirth is expected to return to the Washington net, so this could be a genuine challenge for the desperate Devils.

NY Islanders @ Carolina

The Hurricanes have a chance to increase their bubble lead over the Devils, as they have no excuses when it comes to playing a team like the Islanders. That’s not to say that Garth Snow’s gang hasn’t been intermittently frisky, it’s just that if Carolina wants to make the playoffs, they need to win games like these.

Montreal @ NY Rangers

The Rangers have a tiny cushion for a playoff spot, but they must be weary of the Devils, Hurricanes and other bubble teams (plus the Buffalo Sabres, if they fall out of the eighth spot).

That means making the best of every game, which will be tough tonight. The Rangers have lost five straight games against the Canadiens and have only scored three goals in the teams’ last three contests.

They will, however, have the opportunity to exploit a Habs team that might be a little winded. Montreal played a high-energy game against Tampa Bay last night, so if there’s ever a time for the Rangers to get over the hump, it would be tonight.

10:00 pm

Phoenix @ Vancouver

If you want evidence of how far ahead the Canucks are compared to every other team in the NHL, here’s this simple fact: Vancouver clinched the Northwest Division title before anyone else clinched a playoff spot.

You would think that their substantial points lead would cause their motivation to wane, but they keep playing great hockey. The Coyotes need this game to keep themselves a stride ahead of the pack, but knowing the Canucks, points won’t come easily … if at all.

Talbot torments Ducks as Oilers take 2-0 series lead

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Those who vehemently argued for Cam Talbot being a Vezina finalist likely felt vindicated tonight (even if postseason results don’t factor into the voting).

In Game 1, Leon Draisaitl stole the show. Talbot was the standout of Game 2, snubbing a steady Ducks threat as Edmonton won 2-1 on Friday.

And, just like that, the Oilers are up 2-0 in their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Better yet for this young group: the venue shifts to what’s likely to be a rowdy scene in Edmonton for Games 3 and 4.

The tone was set when Andrej Sekera scored just 65 seconds into the contest. That said, the Oilers could have sulked when a would-be 2-0 goal was called off (and they had to kill a penalty). Instead, they just kept battling, even after Jakob Silfverberg ended Talbot’s shutout bit with a laser beam on the power play.

Speaking of the power play, the Oilers managed to match the Ducks (1-for-4 each on the PP), even as Talbot faced 12 shots on goal during Anaheim’s power-play opportunities.

Talbot ultimately made 39 of 40 stops, and while the Ducks kept Connor McDavid from scoring, number 97 sure looked speedy and dangerous at times in Game 2.

Anaheim came into the second round with home-ice advantage through the West side of the playoffs, seemingly enjoying a golden opportunity when other conference powers fell. Instead, it’s looking like the Oilers might just have a chance to prove that they’re big-time contenders, too.

Game 3 airs on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream.

Latest goalie interference mess: Oilers get penalty, not goal

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Ah, goalie interference. Does the fun ever start?

Arguably the most irritating facet of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs reared its pesky head once again on Friday, as the Edmonton Oilers saw a would-be 2-0 goal disallowed in the first period of Game 2 against the Anaheim Ducks.

The goal wasn’t just disallowed, either, as Mark Letestu was given a minor penalty.

One would imagine that there are opinions for or against the goal (and penalty counting); there are also many who are just getting a little worn out by the uncertainty surrounding such calls. Tomas Holmstrom is nodding his head so hard right now, everyone.

Here’s one unhappy take:

Moments after this post went up, the Oilers made it 2-0 for real this time. Check out the game here.

Math may help build Vegas Knights, but biggest aim is not being boring

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Unlike Pierre Dorion, it sounds like Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee would rather listen to analytics-minded people rather than … you know, hit them.

As McPhee readies for the expansion draft, he told The Star’s Kevin McGran in Q&A that they’ll at least be factored into decisions.

I’ve been really fascinated by how revealing that data can be. You have these kids speaking a different language. But I’m convinced it has a really important place in this game. You have to pay attention to it, and you have to use it.

Naturally, the real question with McPhee and other executives comes down to how much they will lean on analytics. Some teams seem to pick and choose when to listen to such voices, ending up with an odd mix of moves that please and unnerve the “fancy stats” community.

Owner Bill Foley gave a good idea of how much they’ll lean on stats vs. more traditional approaches in an interview with the Vegas Hockey Hotline back in February, which was transcribed by The Hockey Writers’ Keith Scheessele.

“Analytics is not going to drive how we draft,” Foley said. “Analytics are going to supplement what the scouts are seeing. We’re going to rely on the scouts and what they recommend.”

(Foley also spoke of rating players in 10 different categories, which started to make one think about how old sports video games could only quantify skills in so many ways. Anyway …)

So, it sounds like McPhee & Co. will take a modern approach – a mixture of the old and the new – rather than going full-on bold and revolutionary like, say, the Cleveland Browns or Golden State Warriors.

Considering the mystery of roster quality one faces with the Vegas Knights, it honestly might be most important that McPhee is repeatedly stating that he doesn’t aim to put together a boring hockey team.

Hey, if it takes a while to be good, at least the Vegas Knights might fit with their environment and put on a show.

Tarasenko’s two goals help Blues tie series with Predators

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One of the (many) remarkable things about the St. Louis Blues dispatching the Minnesota Wild was that they didn’t need a ton of production from Vladimir Tarasenko. He didn’t score a goal until the clinching game of that series.

The Blues needed more from him tonight, and he responded with two huge goals to help St. Louis win 3-2 in Game 2, tying the second-round series at 1-1.

Tarasenko scored the opening goal on that major power-play opportunity from the Vernon Fiddler knee on Colton Parayko, while Joel Edmundson wisely got out of the way to let Tarasenko nab the game-winner.

That ended up being the decisive factor as the Nashville Predators finally lost their first game of the postseason.

St. Louis must be breathing a sigh of relief for a number of reasons. The series shifts to Nashville for Games 3 and 4, so going down 2-0 might have been lethal.

Even beyond that, the Blues had some breaks go their way that likely won’t repeat to the same degree in future contests. The Predators didn’t receive a single power-play opportunity while St. Louis spent significant chunks of the contest on the man advantage, going 1-for-5 (but again, that includes a major).

The Blues also won despite what must have been a frustrating start. They only managed a 1-1 tie after the first 20 minutes despite holding Nashville to a mere three shots on goal.

The Predators also managed leads of 1-0 and 2-1, yet the Blues kept fighting to get back in this series. Game 3 will air on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday. You can watch online and via the NBC Sports App (Click here for the livestream link).

* – That said, he made a lot of commotion to set up Edmundson’s overtime game-winner from Game 1. That connection continued on Friday, as you likely noticed.