Why tonight’s Capitals-Flyers match is (and isn’t) a statement game

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Some might frame tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers (on Versus, 7:30 p.m. ET) as an opportunity for the second seed to overtake the first seed. Those people would be half-correct; while a regulation Washington win would tie the teams up at 96, Philly has two more games in hand and more non-shootout wins.

Others may call it a “statement game” that could determine the true power in the East. They would be partially right too. A late season game is often a great barometer for future success, but in some ways the Flyers should kick themselves if they drop this one. The Capitals are hobbling with mostly short-term injuries, from the week-plus problems ailing Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott to the nagging symptoms curtailing John Erskine and Eric Fehr all the way down to the troubling concussion issues that plague Mike Green. Maybe it’s still a statement game, but both teams would make very different statements than one might expect.

Two CSN insider perspectives cast this game in an insightful new light.

Tim Panaccio of CSN Philly reveals that this week, overall, could help the Flyers to decide whether or not they are ready to call themselves legitimate Stanley Cup favorites. Along with tonight’s game hosting the Capitals, Philadelphia will also play a home game against their hated cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Oddly enough, both the Caps and Pens represent “should-be” wins since they are both injury-marred, yet each team remains genuinely dangerous.

Meanwhile, Chase Hughes of CSN Washington soberly points out that the Capitals are aware that earning the top seed in the East isn’t some magic elixir that will guarantee success.

“It’s not the be-all, end-all,” forward Mike Knuble said Monday about landing the conference’s top seed.  “We’ve been there last year, and it didn’t work out great for us necessarily.”

Last season’s Capitals built their record on a high-scoring game plan. But the offensive Supermen met their kryptonite in Halak. This season, Washington has taken a more defensive approach, which has meant struggles while the team has adjusted. However, the Caps have turned a corner as the postseason approaches. Washington has won nine of its past 10 games and is the hottest team in the NHL.

“I think we feel pretty good about our team. I know all of our guys and me personally I just like where we’re at this point as a group, how our team’s made up much more than last year,” Knuble said.

“I think we have a much better balance and we’re more prepared.”

In a way, I cannot help but agree with Knuble and others who wonder if the Capitals might be in their best position for playoff success yet. While I lament the loss of their high-octane offensive attack, their impressive performance during the March 13th NBC Game of the Week against the Chicago Blackhawks revealed that they can mix an aggressive strategy with a competent defensive setup. It remains to be seen how consistently they can pull that off, but it was a promising sign nonetheless.

As usual with life and sports, the answer as to whether or not this is a true statement game is somewhere in the middle. This is definitely a big game for both teams and could reveal plenty about the Flyers and Capitals. That being said, with the Caps shorthanded by injuries and Philadelphia also lacking Chris Pronger, it’s probably hasty to say that this game is the hockey equivalent to a crystal ball reading.

There’s nothing wrong with hyping up this game – it’s possibly the most interesting of tonight’s 10, even if it’s far from the most crucial – but keep in mind it might not mean as much as you think. Which makes it a lot like the top seed, in some ways.

The Buzzer: Celebrating genius of McDavid, Bergeron, Karlsson

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Player of the Night: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Nico Hischier collected two goals and an assist in a blistering effort as the Devils beat the Senators in overtime. Erik Karlsson almost ruined things for New Jersey with three assists. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched an impressive 43-save shutout as the Lightning edged the Blue Jackets. Ben Bishop narrowly kept Clayton Keller and Derek Stepan from even bigger nights, yet each player scored two goals and one assist apiece in a slim Stars win vs. the Coyotes.

Even Bergeron’s teammates made some waves.

There were great choices for player of the night, but ultimately, Bergeron’s return to the Bruins lineup stands tallest. He scored a goal and three assists, soothing injury-bummed Bruins fans as part of Boston’s victory against Vancouver.

Bergeron didn’t ease right in. He won half of his draws, fired six shots on goal, and almost logged 21 minutes of ice time. Maybe he can hold things together for Boston?

Highlight of the Night: Connor McDavid‘s ridiculous assist

This post goes into greater detail on that and Edmonton’s win, so we’ll just stick this GIF in here because you need to see it either way:

OK, but to avoid an overly redundant buzzer, check Hischier here, David Pastrnak‘s great goal, and Mikhail Sergachev‘s big night. And, as a bonus, Will Butcher must have nodded to Karlsson after sending this ridiculous outlet pass:

Outstanding.

You know what? Enjoy Bishop robbing Derek Stepan as a bonus bonus.

Misc.

Click here for Erik Gudbranson‘s hit and fight. Zack Kassian‘s hit on Ryan Hartman is mentioned there, but just in case you missed it, here it is one more time:

Factoids of the night

Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators continued their hot streak by blanking the Flyers. Rinne enjoys a milestone moment:

Two impressive bits regarding how dominant McDavid and Karlsson have been:

Scores and more

Bruins 6, Canucks 3 (more)

Devils 5, Senators 4 [OT] (more)

Islanders 4, Rangers 3 [SO]

Predators 1, Flyers 0

Lightning 2, Blue Jackets 0 (more)

Oilers 2, Blackhawks 1 [OT] (more)

Blues 4, Avalanche 3

Hurricanes 2, Flames 1

Stars 5, Coyotes 4

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.

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Should Erik Gudbranson get suspended for boarding Frank Vatrano?

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The Boston Bruins power play made Erik Gudbranson and the Vancouver Canucks pay with three goals during the major for his hit on Frank Vatrano, but the NHL might decide to go further.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety confirmed that Gudbranson, 25, will receive a Friday hearing for the boarding check. The league tends to be vague about this, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that it’s expected to being an interview over the phone, rather than the in-person variety that can bring about harsher punishments.

Vatrano returned to the Bruins’ eventual 6-3 win against the Canucks, yet there’s a chance that he might have a setback. (Knowing Boston’s recent luck, don’t count on good news until you see it.)

Watch the video and Gudbranson’s fight with Tim Schaller in the video above, via Hockey Fights.

Fans responded to that announcement by pointing out one of Thursday’s other questionable hits: Zack Kassian on Ryan Hartman, which only drew a minor penalty:

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.

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McDavid dazzles again, Oilers break slump with OT win vs. Blackhawks

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Update: The Edmonton Oilers ended up needing every bit of Connor McDavid‘s brilliance, as goals weren’t coming easily against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.

(Even though, as you can see with that highlight-reel assist, McDavid often makes it look easy.)

McDavid also managed a secondary assist on Mark Letestu‘s overtime-winner, ending the Edmonton Oilers’ losing streak at four games. The Blackhawks continue to be resourceful in getting standings points, in this case falling 2-1 in OT.

Anton Forsberg made 40 of 42 saves, but it wasn’t enough against a driven group led by number 97.

Here’s the OT goal.

If you haven’t seen the more amazing of McDavid’s two helpers, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t regret it.

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Connor McDavid’s speed and skill are glorious, but the thing that makes him extra-sensational is just how unstoppable he seems. Even against some of the NHL’s best.

To start the season, McDavid made very-solid Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie look downright permeable during the most impressive goal in his opening-night hat trick.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, the superstar tore through the Chicago Blackhawks – including certain future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith – and then sent absolutely obscene pass to Patrick Maroon for an easy goal.

You know how people used to say that a fire hydrant could score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux? We might need to bump that down to 30 for modern hockey, but either way, Maroon might laugh uncomfortably at such jokes.

If you prefer your jaw-droppers in GIF form, drop away:

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.

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Bergeron bombastic in return, but Bruins lose Krejci to injury

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The roller coaster isn’t slowing down for the Boston Bruins.

With Tuukka Rask‘s concussion looming over the proceedings, the Bruins gave fans some reason to celebrate; Patrice Bergeron scored a goal and three assists in an impressive 6-3 output by the B’s top guns against the overmatched Vancouver Canucks.

Even Anders Bjork enjoyed some measure of redemption after bowling over Rask in practice, as the young player scored two goals and an assist despite being limited to 12:29 TOI.

Other big guns like Brad Marchand did their increasingly reliable damage, with David Pastrnak probably providing the most exhilarating goal of the contest:

Yeah, that might get some attention from Canucks coach Travis Green in film sessions, assuming he doesn’t just burn the tape.

Bergeron broke down his night to Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy after the game:

The Bruins really made Erik Gudbranson and the Canucks pay for boarding Frank Vatrano, as they scored three power-play goals on the major penalty. Vatrano’s another health situation to watch, although it’s heartening that he returned during the game.

MORE: Gudbranson faces hearing for hit

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So … solid stuff overall, as the Bruins provided ample evidence that they might have the weapons to scrap through all this bad luck.

Then again, if opponents can slow the top-end guys, you wonder what kind of supporting cast the Bruins will have left through this run of attrition. David Krejci is the latest name to land on Boston’s troubling list of walking wounded.

Here’s hoping that it isn’t a big issue for a veteran center who’s dealt with nagging injuries in recent years.

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.

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