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Race for the Playoffs – March 23; Western Conference in focus top to bottom

With the season winding down and the playoff picture sorting itself out, we’ll be taking a look at the night’s games and how they’ll potentially affect the playoff races. This is ProHockeyTalk’s “Race for the Playoffs.”

  1. Vancouver 103 pts
  2. Detroit 95 pts
  3. San Jose 92 pts
  4. Phoenix 91 pts
  5. Los Angeles 88 pts
  6. Nashville 88 pts
  7. Chicago 86 pts
  8. Anaheim 85 pts
  9. Dallas 85 pts
  10. Calgary 85 pts

Vancouver @ Detroit – 7:30 p.m. ET

The top two teams in the Western Conference square off and for the Canucks, it’s their opportunity to lock down the top spot in the West for good, for all intents and purposes. Vancouver’s got an NHL-best 103 points while Detroit trails them with 95 atop the Central Division. A win for Vancouver gives them a nine or ten point lead in the West with eight games left to play. That would be one tough hill to climb.

Of course a Detroit win opens up the possibility of things getting stressful towards the end of the year for the Canucks.  Vancouver’s been on top of the West all year long and haven’t had a real threat from anyone in their division or the conference. If Detroit’s able to cut their lead to six with a regulation win, the final games of the season get much more interesting. As it is, there’s no telling who either team will draw in the first round regardless given how crazy things are below them.

Florida @ Chicago – 8:30 p.m. ET

While the Panthers don’t have any fight for the playoffs sitting 13 points out of eighth in the East, Chicago’s got everything to get psyched up for. The Blackhawks are currently alone in seventh place in the West with 86 points, just two points out of fifth with Los Angeles and Nashville just ahead of them. Chicago, like everyone else in the hunt in the West, can’t afford a loss and with Anaheim facing Dallas tonight a Chicago loss would put them in more immediate peril. Playoff time is about survival and winning is the only way to stay alive. For the spot that Chicago’s in a win puts them in fifth place whereas a loss could wind up with them being knocked out of the top eight with Calgary also in action tonight.

Anaheim @ Dallas – 8:30 p.m. ET

These two teams are tied in the West with 85 points and a win in regulation would be crucial for either team to put some space between themselves and the rest of the field. Anaheim rolls into this one winners of three in a row while Dallas has lost three of their last four. Those sorts of cold streaks are killers out West and for Dallas it’s knocked them down into the “danger zone” of having their season potentially decided by a three point game that they may or may not even be playing in. Given that Anaheim is doing well without, perhaps, their best player in Jonas Hiller their run and ability to stay in the playoff hunt this well is remarkable. For Dallas, they need a win, badly, and getting one against Anaheim would do themselves a huge favor.

Calgary @ San Jose – 10:00 p.m. ET

A game that’s huge on both ends of the spectrum. For the Sharks, they’d like to keep the Coyotes off their heels and they’ve won three straight while doing just that. Calgary, meanwhile, is barely hanging on and they’ve lost five of their last six games. Calgary is running out of games as after tonight they’ll have just six games left to play. If the Flames want to make the playoffs, winning out wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. Doing so against a Sharks team that’s been playing great the entire second half of the season makes for a daunting task. If Calgary can win tonight, it breathes a bit more life into their playoff hopes while a loss sets them back in a potentially big way as the teams immediately ahead of them all have a chance to add points tonight.

Hitchcock believes Blues’ Allen is ‘locked up mentally’

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 08: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes the third period save against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Things were already rough for the St. Louis Blues and their goalies (particularly still-pretty-newly crowned No. 1 Jake Allen) heading into Thursday, but the Washington Capitals really highlighted those issues in a 7-3 thrashing.

Blues fans and management must be wondering, then: what’s wrong with their goalies, especially with Allen? Head coach Ken Hitchcock seems resigned to allowing him to fight through it, if nothing else.

“There’s a lot going on right now. … He’s kind of locked up mentally and he’s going to have to fight through this,” Hitchock said, according to Lou Korac of NHL.com. “What we see at practice, we like. That’s why we put him in quite frankly.”

Alex Pietrangelo did the typical deflecting thing, nothing that this is a “team” and that there are “no individuals.”

Still, Hitchcock’s longer press conference makes you wonder how much trust there is in Allen and Carter Hutton.

From Hitch’s perspective, it sure sounds like he believes that the Blues are over-correcting to try to limit “goals, shots.” By trying to do too much, they might be putting themselves in bad positions. And that might stem from a lack of confidence in the guys in net, or in the team’s work in their own zone overall.

Let’s be honest. As much as we can play chicken-or-the-egg as far as a defense’s impact on a goalie, it’s tough to explain away save percentages under .900 in the modern NHL. At some point, your team needs more stops.

With the races for the lower spots in the Western Conference’s playoff picture seemingly tightening up, the Blues don’t have a ton of time to figure this out.

Capitals shine glaring light on Blues’ goalie woes

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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If you’re reaction to the headline “Something is off about the St. Louis Blues” was “Yeah, their goaltending,” then Thursday only emboldened that opinion.

It wasn’t just that the Washington Capitals bombarded the Blues by a score of 7-3. It’s that they really didn’t need to fire a whole lot of shots on goal to get to seven.

Here’s a harsh rule of thumb: when both of your goalies play in a game and each one barely makes more saves than goals allowed, that’s an awful night. Take a look at what Jake Allen and Carter Hutton went through:

Allen: six saves, four goals allowed in 25:11 time on ice
Hutton: five saves, three goals allowed in 35:49

Allen got pulled from the contest twice, by the way. He’s been pulled from four games since Dec. 30. Woof.

Even before these horrendous performances, the Blues goalies have been shaky. Hutton came into tonight with an ugly .898 save percentage; Allen wasn’t much better with a .900 mark.

Those are the type of numbers that would make Dallas Stars fans cringe, or at least experience some uncomfortable familiarity.

Now, is it all on Hutton and Allen? Much like with the Stars’ embattled goalies, much of the struggles probably come down to a team struggling in front of them.

Even so, if you assign more of the blame to Allen and Hutton, nights like this Capitals thrashing definitely strengthen your argument. Yikes.

Rangers overwhelm Leafs, make life pretty easy for Lundqvist in win

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 19:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers faces a shot in the warm-up prior to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on January 19, 2017 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Heading into Thursday, many were wondering how the New York Rangers will handle Henrik Lundqvist‘s struggles. Instead, the focus shifted to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ difficulties, perhaps specifically in dealing with Morgan Rielly‘s absence.

The Rangers handily won this one 5-2, at least giving Lundqvist the win. He wasn’t especially busy, stopping 23 out of 25 shots, so you can probably file his story under “To be continued.”

Lundqvist wasn’t oblivious to his team’s impressive overall play.

Really, it was all about the waves of attackers the Rangers can send at opponents and the trouble that caused for the Maple Leafs. It wasn’t the easiest night for Frank Corrado, in particular, who took a couple costly penalties.

The Rangers’ next two games come in a road contest vs. the Red Wings on Sunday and a home game against the Kings on Monday. Perhaps those matches will serve as a better barometer for where Lundqvist’s really at, as he passed tonight’s test … but it wasn’t a particularly difficult one.

So, is Mike Condon actually really good? He certainly was against Columbus

OTTAWA, ON - JANUARY 8: Mike Condon #1 of the Ottawa Senators stands at the bench during a break in a game against the Edmonton Oilers at Canadian Tire Centre on January 8, 2017 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
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Considering their numbers heading in, many were perplexed when the Ottawa Senators essentially replaced Andrew Hammond with Mike Condon. Now many are perplexed by just how strong Condon’s often been for Ottawa.

Thursday might stand as the prime example that this guy could be better than many expected.

The Columbus Blue Jackets dominated much of the play, generating a 42-28 shots on goal advantage, but Ottawa ended up winning 2-0 tonight.

Condon already came into tonight with a solid save percentage (.915 before this shutout), and he’s now won four of his last five games. Three of his four career shutouts have come this season.

Ignoring his one relief appearance with Pittsburgh this season for the sake of simplicity, just consider his tough times with Montreal last season. He went 21-25-6 with a shaky .903 save percentage.

This marks just his 21st start and 23rd appearance of this season, so it’s not a guaranteee for future results. Still … it’s another example that goalies are as just about as unpredictable as they are crucial to a team’s fate.

More and more, it seems like Condon might just be a difference-maker, and in the positive sense this time around.