Mike Knuble, Mathieu Perreault, John Erskine, Tom Poti, Martin Brodeur

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.

Video: Penguins coach takes issue with late, high Orpik hit on Maatta

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have spoken out against a late, high hit that Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik threw on Olli Maatta early in the first period of an eventful Game 2 on Saturday.

Maatta left and didn’t return. He played only 31 seconds, and the Penguins were reduced to five defensemen for a large portion of the game. Orpik was given a minor penalty on the play, but the league’s Department of Player Safety may see it differently.

The hit occurred well after Maatta had gotten rid of the puck. He struggled on his way to the dressing room for further evaluation.

Based on multiple reports, Orpik wasn’t made available to the media following the game, which went to the Penguins as they earned the split on the road.

But the Penguins have taken issue with the hit.

“I thought it was a late hit,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I thought it was a target to his head. I think it’s the type of hit everyone in hockey is trying to remove from the game.”

Game on: Penguins even series with rival Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins will head back home with a split of their second-round series with the rival Washington Capitals.

Former Capitals forward Eric Fehr came back to burn his hold team, as he scored with under five minutes remaining in regulation to help lift the Penguins over Washington with a 2-1 victory in an eventful Game 2 on Saturday. Evgeni Malkin threw the puck toward the net and Fehr was able to re-direct it by Braden Holtby.

Oh, this was an eventful game, indeed.

It started early in the first period with Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik catching Penguins blue liner Olli Maatta with a late and high hit that warranted — at least for now — only a minor penalty for interference. Maatta, clearly in distress following the hit, didn’t play another shift and saw only 31 seconds of ice time in total, as Pittsburgh was reduced to five defensemen for the remainder of the game.

It continued in the third period. Kris Letang was furious after getting called for a trip on Justin Williams, and even more ticked off when the Capitals tied the game on the ensuing power play.

For two periods, the Capitals couldn’t get much going. Only four of their players had registered a shot on goal through 40 minutes, while the Penguins held the edge in that department and held the lead.

Washington came out with more jump in the third period, testing rookie netminder Matt Murray with 14 shots in the final 20 minutes. But the Penguins got the late goal to break the deadlock.

Video: Penguins’ Letang was furious after Capitals tie up Game 2 with power play goal

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Kris Letang watched from the penalty box as the Washington Capitals tied up Game 2 with a power play goal in the third period. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was called for tripping after he appeared to muscle Justin Williams off the puck as he entered the zone.

Letang let his disagreement with the call be known at the time, and was furious after the Capitals capitalized on a goal from Marcus Johansson.

The Capitals started the period down a goal and being outshot 28-10 by the Penguins, who need a win to even the series.

Also, it seems this is worth mentioning:

Video: Hagelin goes top shelf to give Penguins the lead in Game 2

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In their quest to even the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins had done a nice job through two periods of suffocating the Washington Capitals, while gaining the lead on a beautiful goal.

Carl Hagelin took advantage of a vast amount of space that opened up in front of the Washington net, finishing off a nice pass from Nick Bonino, burying his shot just under the cross bar on the glove side of Braden Holtby.

Through two periods, the Penguins were outshooting Washington 28-10. Only four Capitals players — Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen — had registered shots on goal.