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.

 

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.