Around the rink – March 19; Kaberle’s return to Toronto, Buffalo-Atlanta showdown

All times Eastern

2:00 p.m.

Columbus @ Minnesota

An early start to the day in St. Paul thanks to the WCHA college hockey championships at night and for the Wild it’s a true make it or break it game. They’re six points out of the eighth spot in the West and a loss to the Jackets pretty much ends their playoff hopes. The return of Mikko Koivu hasn’t given them the boost they were hoping for and the scoring hasn’t shown up enough for them. Hope is a good thing to have and for the Wild it’s all they’ve got right now for the postseason. The Jackets will be hoping to play spoilers and help the Wild join them in misery in waiting until the NHL Draft.

7:00 p.m.

Atlanta @ Buffalo

Buffalo hangs on to the slimmest of advantages in the East playoff race and they’ll be hoping to get a little breathing room against the desperate Thrashers. They’ve got the tiebreaker over the Hurricanes in spite of both teams being tied with 76 points. Atlanta, meanwhile, has 72 points and a win gets them more into the thick of things for the playoffs. Calling this a crucial game for both teams is quite accurate. For teams that may or may not make the playoffs, games like these are their playoff warm up.

Boston @ Toronto

Toronto is hanging on to hope for the postseason by a thread and wouldn’t it figure that they’d have to deal with the Bruins to keep it alive. Making things more awkward, it’ll mark the return of Tomas Kaberle to Toronto, only now as a member of the Bruins. If you’re thinking he’ll get booed, think again. Expect to see James Reimer in goal for Toronto to keep their hopes alive and after J.S. Giguere and the Leafs offense had a spectacular failure against Florida the other night, don’t expect Ron Wilson to make those same mistakes again. For Boston, they’re hoping to gain ground on lurking Montreal in the Northeast Division. The Habs are just two points back of the Bruins but the B’s have two games in hand, meaning a win here goes a long way to securing the division title.

Tampa Bay @ Ottawa

The Lightning are six back of Washington for the division lead in the Southeast but they’re just two behind Pittsburgh for the fourth seed and home ice in the first round. Ottawa has 61 points and the third worst record in the NHL, ahead of just Colorado and Edmonton. Clearly, two teams in very different places. A win for Tampa Bay is huge here if they hope to get home ice. While Pittsburgh doesn’t show many signs of weakening, the Lightning must beat teams like Ottawa to put the pressure on the Pens.

NY Islanders @ Florida

Not every game is going to be one that grabs your attention. Instead, these two will be doing battle over who gets a better advantage in the lottery. Florida is just one point better than the Isles and the Isles are on a two game losing skid. Florida has been typically inconsistent of late alternating wins and losses. If you’re fired up for who wins between the fourth and fifth worst teams in the NHL, you’re a stronger person than most.

8:00 p.m.

Detroit @ Nashville

It’s a huge game for the Predators at home as they’re one point behind Calgary for eighth in the West and two behind Dallas and Chicago. A win puts them back in a great place in the West while a loss falls away as a missed opportunity. A Detroit win would put a virtual lock on the Central Division crown over Chicago. The Wings have a ten point lead on Chicago right now and adding to that would make it nearly impossible for the Hawks to get back in it.

Philadelphia @ Dallas

The Flyers could stand to get a win to continue to keep their lead in the Eastern Conference. With the Capitals continuing to win behind them, getting wins (or even points) is huge. Fortunately for Philly, they have three games in hand on Washington. Dallas sits in sixth in the West with 84 points just one point behind L.A. and five behind Phoenix. The Stars would like to at least just keep up with the joneses and a win would do that. With how things go in the west, any losses at all are a huge set back. With how both teams are playing, this should be one of the more fun games to see tonight.

10:00 p.m.

Colorado @ Edmonton

The two worst teams in the NHL square off to see who wants the best shot at the first pick in the 2011 draft the most. A win by Colorado would put them seven points off of the Oilers for worst record whereas an Oilers victory makes Colorado a real threat to finish the year as the NHL’s worst team. While there’s no real front-runner for the consensus player to be taken number one in the draft, both of these teams should have a huge interest in Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson.

10:30 p.m.

Anaheim @ Los Angeles

It’s the first of three games these two will play against each other over the next few weeks before the end of the season and each one should be vital for both teams when it comes to the playoffs. L.A. is currently in fifth in the Western Conference with 85 points while the Ducks are two points back of Calgary for eighth with 81. The Kings embarrassed themselves at home against St. Louis on Thursday night and facing off against their neighborly rivals should be the potion they need to wake up. The Ducks are winners of six out of their last eight games and coming off a win over the Blues on Wednesday.  It’s got the makings of a barnburner in L.A.

St. Louis @ San Jose

The Sharks would like to keep the surging Coyotes off their heels and a win would extend their lead in the Pacific to three points. Now that Phoenix has reemerged as a threat to the top spot in the division, the Sharks will be tested to see how they handle the stress of being pursued. St. Louis would like to make their California road swing a memorable and potentially spoileriffic one by dealing the Sharks a loss. If they can defend the way they did in their 4-0 win over Los Angeles, the Sharks are in for a world of trouble.

 

Flyers keep finding ways to win

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

A wave of injuries may eventually capsize the Philadelphia Flyers, but not yet.

With both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth sidelined – not to mention bad news for power forward Wayne Simmonds – the Flyers are likely to be tested down the stretch. It’s key, then, to grind out wins while they can, and they managed a tough one tonight.

In this specific case, it came down to getting goals from a sniper who’s become far more of a playmaker this season. Jakub Voracek sent the game into overtime and then scored the game-winner in a 3-2 OT win for the Flyers against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday. Those two tallies pushed him to 13 on the season, a rare bit of puck luck this season for a player who brought a 6.4 shooting percentage into tonight’s action.

Voracek also grabbed an assist, beefing up his league-leading total to 55. The Czech winger’s dynamic performance helped the Flyers win their third game in a row, extending a point streak that covers most of their February games (7-0-2 in their last nine contests).

Taylor Hall‘s fantastic goal was all the Devils could muster in their game tonight, falling in regulation to the Columbus Blue Jackets. With those decisions in mind, Philly is firmly planted at third in the Metropolitan Division with 72 standings points. They’re even in the running for a round of home-ice advantage, if they can catch the just-as-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.

Heck, they even gained on the Metro’s top team, as the Capitals fell to the Lightning 4-2 tonight:

1. Capitals: 75 points in 60 games played (31 ROW)
2. Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
3. Flyers: 72 points in 60 GP (30 ROW)
4. Devils: 70 points in 60 GP (27 ROW)
5. Blue Jackets: 65 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
6. Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
7. Islanders: 64 points in 61 GP (26 ROW)
8. Rangers: 59 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)

If nothing else, the Flyers are separating from the wild-card pack, as they have a nice edge over the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, and Islanders.

Such strong play could empower GM Ron Hextall to add some firepower. Such moves could help ease the loss of Simmonds, and ideally give Philly solid depth when everyone is closer to full strength.

They’ve already taken that step by adding goalie insurance in Petr Mrazek, who should be as hungry as the team he’s joined. It’s truly remarkable how far this team has come since a 10-game losing streak that ended on Dec. 2. No doubt about it, players like Voracek have played a big role in this strong work:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Video: Taylor Hall’s splendid coast-to-coast goal

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

You’re not supposed to be able to do this. Not against NHL defensemen, and certainly not against a goalie like Sergei Bobrovsky.

New Jersey Devils star Taylor Hall continues to impose his will with dynamic play, beefing up his Hart Trophy resume as he keeps adding games to his point streak. On Tuesday, he extended it to a whopping 19 games.

Hall did it in style, grabbing the puck near his own red line, then traveling the length of the ice before beating “Bob” on his short side:

That’s the 25th goal of 2017-18 for Hall, who now has 63 points (possibly and counting) in 55 regular-season games.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

U.S. rides Zapolski, college kids to Olympic quarterfinals

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Tony Granato knew going into the Olympics that Ryan Zapolski would be his goaltender and that the college kids on the Team USA roster would be counted on to supply offense.

It’s worked just like Granato and the late general manager Jim Johannson had hoped, and just in time: Zapolski stopped 21 shots in his best game of the tournament and NCAA players Ryan Donato and Troy Terry dominated offensively in a 5-1 win against Slovakia that put the United States into Wednesday’s quarterfinals against the Czech Republic (Tues., 10:10 p.m. ET, CNBC).

”Jimmy, like we said since Day One, this is his plan,” Granato said Tuesday’s win. ”It’s been a really nice mix.”

Zapolski and Donato both took hits to the head against Slovakia, and both said they were fine afterward.

It looked worrisome at the time.

In a frightening play, Ladislav Nagy crashed into Zapolski’s head and the goaltender was down on the ice for several minutes. Needing to be on top of his game in the Americans’ first elimination game, Zapolski was, even after jamming his neck.

”My hands and feet went numb a little bit, so it just kind of pinched my nerve, I guess,” Zapolski said. ”I think I just needed time for the feeling to come back. It took a little bit. It was a little bit of a scary thing for me kind of losing feeling in your body for a little bit, but it went away pretty quickly.”

Donato took a shoulder to the jaw from 6-foot-4 Slovakia defenseman Michal Cajovsky, who was ejected, and didn’t miss a shift despite a bloody nose he thought might be broken. On the next play, he set the screen on James Wisniewski’s 5-on-3 power-play goal in a game that helped the U.S. get its offensive groove back.

”He’s a really tough kid, and you see how much just of a natural goal-scorer he is,” Terry said of Donato. ”He’s fun to play with, and if I get the puck to him I know it’s got a pretty good chance of going in.”

Donato and Terry have had fun and made some magic playing on a line with former NHL forward Mark Arcobello, who Granato joked was the happiest person at the Olympics because of his skilled linemates. Arcobello, who scored his first Olympic goal against Slovakia, knew at the first practice how good Donato and Terry would be.

”You could just see the talent they’ve got,” Arcobello said. ”They look like pros. They don’t look like college players. They’re poised and they do the right things. They’re smart players. So I knew right away they were going to be pretty good.”

Johannson and Granato wanted to bring three to seven college players and hoped they’d be this good. But their first conversation about a player was about Zapolski, a 31-year-old journeyman with no North American professional experience above the ECHL.

Zapolski is among the best goaltenders in the Kontinental Hockey League but conceded ”maybe things weren’t going the way I had hoped the first few games” when he allowed a few soft goals. There were none of those against Slovakia.

”In a tournament like this, you only win if you have a good goalie,” Wisniewski said. ”You’re going to have to have a good power play and a good penalty kill, but your best penalty killer is going to be your goalie. With his numbers he’s had in the KHL, he’s come in ready to play every game, which has been huge for us.”

It’s huge for the U.S. to get its power play and offense going. And to no one’s surprise, Harvard’s Donato, University of Denver’s Terry and Boston University’s Jordan Greenway are at the forefront.

”You see it more and more in the NHL with these young kids coming in and making a huge impact,” Wisniewski said. ”They come in guns a blazing, they get every opportunity and they want you to make plays. The game has changed and you can see with the guys on our team.”

The U.S. came into the game scoring only four goals in three games. Scoring five against the team Granato called perhaps the best defensive team in the tournament has the Americans feeling good going into the quarterfinals.

”I think people saw tonight we have a very fast team and a team that can play good hockey,” Terry said. ”So we have a lot of belief in our team and we’re excited to keep going.”

Despite a 4-0 loss to the Russians to wrap up group play, Granato and his players believe they’ve gotten better each game and see a benefit in playing the extra qualification-round game to keep improving. The Czech Republic is up next for the U.S.

”There’s some different weapons that we’ll have to be aware of,” Granato said. ”I think what we learned from our team is it doesn’t matter what the other team does. We have to attack, we have to get in on the forecheck, we have to use our offensive players that we do have, the skillset that we do have.”

Elsewhere in the qualification round:

– Norway eliminated Slovenia 2-1 in overtime for its first Olympic win since 1994. Norway will face the Russians on Wednesday in its first Olympic quarterfinal appearance, while Slovenia played without Ziga Jeglic, who was suspended for doping.

– Finland eliminated South Korea with a 5-2 win, advancing to play Canada on Wednesday night.

– Germany eliminated Switzerland 2-1 in overtime, advancing to play top-seeded Sweden on Wednesday night.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org

Puck, player tracking being tested at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finland players looked at the numbers and laughed.

They couldn’t believe captain Lasse Kukkonen only had five sprints in a game and Petri Kontiola had a whopping 46.

Even better: They don’t even know what qualifies as a sprint.

“We were looking at the stats and average speeds and making fun of some guys,” forward Oskar Osala said. “How can you have 46 sprints in a game? It sounds like a ridiculous amount of sprints.”

At these Olympics, data on speed, acceleration, stopping, distance traveled, shift lengths and ice time is available to teams in what could be the next step for puck and player tracking across hockey, including the NHL. Referees even have whistles digitally connected to the clock so it stops immediately without the need for a timekeeper’s quick reaction that will always be a step slow.

Yeah, this feels like hockey’s future. The NHL has worked with technology companies and invested significant money to develop a system it can use. The Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments are a valuable testing field that could speed up the process of getting it ready for use like it is in the NBA, Major League Baseball, Formula One and other sports.

“We’re still searching for the right thing, but technology is developing so fast,” International Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Horst Lichtner said. “We are still all looking for the right solution. Maybe it’s two years. It’ll be fast.”

Lichtner and Alain Zobrist, CEO of Omega Timing, which is doing the tracking in hockey and ski jumping thanks to a deal with the International Olympic Committee, said their organizations have been in contact with the NHL about the technology.

The system includes microchips in the back of jerseys that can be tracked and cameras high above the ice at the Gangneung and Kwandong hockey arenas track the movement of the puck.

It’s not quite Fox’s famous “glow puck” from the 1990s, but it’s similar to the testing the NHL did at 2015 All-Star weekend and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Omega gave the same combination of technology a run-through at the 2016 Youth Winter Olympics in Norway, and it was successful enough to try it with pros.

At the Olympics, a player’s speed is sometimes flashed up on arena video boards and all the data is sent to teams. Unlike the NHL, iPads and other electronic devices aren’t allowed on benches in international play, but if and when they are, the data could be available in real time for coaches and players to evaluate.

“We’re able to measure the data, process it and distribute in less than 100 milliseconds,” Zobrist said. “It might be a great tool for them to help their coaching.”

Player performance tracking is a touchy subject off the ice. Players have expressed concern that data on speed, distance traveled, shot velocity and other things could be used against them in coaching decisions and contract negotiations.

“It’s just all cons,” said former NHL defenseman James Wisniewski, who’s playing for the United States. “There’s nothing pros for a player for that at all. It’s not like you’re going to make more money, get a longer-term deal because you travel more distance or you don’t travel. All this is going to do is hurt you. Being a (NHL Players’ Association) rep for eight, nine years, I really have a hard time believing that the PA’s going to even let that go through. It’s all negative.”

Osala enjoys real-time data he gets as a golf fan and considers it a useful tool for athletes.

“I kind of understand how the pros approach their game and I think it’s pretty cool how you can develop your game after you made a deep analysis of your performance in a long span,” said Osala, who played three NHL games with the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes. “For me as a fan, it makes the game so much more interesting. Absolutely as a fan I would love to have the data in hockey.”

It would be fascinating to see how fast Connor McDavid skates, how quickly Vladimir Tarasenko releases the puck or how hard Zdeno Chara shoots from the point on the power play. But there are questions about how practical that information is. Lichtner called Formula One’s program the “ultimate data experience” because fans know everything, including the G-force on a driver, but said he doesn’t think that’s important in hockey.

“I don’t need to know the G-force of the contact between (Alex Ovechkin) and the other guy if he’s strong, but maybe some people would like it,” Lichtner said. “I can see a coach having a hundred pages more of information. He might love it, but what is the benefit for the fan?

“I’m asking my people always, ‘Why do we do it and what’s in it for promoting hockey better?’ Make it more complicated? It’s already fast and complicated enough. Can you explain the game better? Yes? Then we have a big benefit.”

During the U.S. game against Slovenia, Brian O’Neill’s maximum speed was posted on a scoreboard, visual evidence that this is a team that can fly. As much as Wisniewski doesn’t see any pluses, teammate Bobby Sanguinetti wondered if it the data can help players understand themselves better.

“It might even help with rest for us,” Sanguinetti said. “If you see a guy’s logging a lot of minutes and he’s traveling a lot of distance, I guess, from the chip, maybe that has some impact.”

Finland players joked around about Kukkonen’s five sprints, but Osala said he felt the veteran defenseman was one of the best on the ice.

Therein lies a potential problem.

“I think you need to have somebody looking at the data and somebody looking at the actual game,” Osala said. “You can’t just look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between them.”

That’s the common refrain among players and coaches about advanced stats right now, including Corsi and Fenwick, which measure shot attempts to convey some measure of possession. Once player and puck tracking is perfected and implemented, there could be specific stats on how much time the play was in each zone, similar to time of possession in football.

It seems like just a matter of time until the NHL will track and disperse that information, and Lichtner said the NHL and IIHF are on good terms and will share ideas. He said he doesn’t believe this system, which the IIHF only found out about three weeks before the Olympics and worked with Omega and jersey-maker Nike to implement, is the one that will ultimately be in place.

“The future is a mix of chip data and cameras,” Lichtner said. “But we have to try it.”

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.