Race for the Playoffs: Eastern races can get a bit clearer today

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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.”

Eastern Conference

6. Montreal 87 pts
7. NY Rangers 85 pts
8. Buffalo 83 pts
9. Carolina 80 pts
10. Toronto 78 pts

Today could see things get cleared up a bit more in the race for the 7th and 8th spots in the East. With all five of these teams in action, today turns into put-up-or-shut-up day.

NY Rangers @ Boston – 1 p.m.

A Rangers win will help them continue to keep the heat off as well as help them draw closer to Montreal for the time being. A Rangers loss puts them right into the throes of battle with Buffalo for the eighth spot. The Bruins can do their own bit of playoff maintenance with a win and help virtually put away the Northeast Division title and a top three seed. Sean Avery is back in the lineup for New York and we can only imagine he’ll be making Tuukka Rask’s life miserable around the goal.

New Jersey @ Buffal0 – 7 p.m.

The Sabres can help strengthen their spot in the playoffs with a win while simultaneously putting the final stake through the heart of the Devils. New Jersey is ten points behind the Sabres for eighth and a loss today would put them down by 12 with just seven games left. Yeah, not looking good there. For Buffalo, if things break right with Montreal and New York ahead of them, a win gives them an honest shot at moving up as far as sixth.  With Carolina behind them by three points, winning is the only way to keep it all going.

Washington @ Montreal – 7 p.m.

The Habs aren’t really in peril here, but their hold on the sixth seed is if they can’t keep winning. With just a two point edge on the Rangers and four on the Sabres, if they want to avoid a potential first round meeting with the likes of the Caps or Flyers and attempt to draw the Bruins, they’ve got to get back to winning. After getting humiliated by Boston, you wonder if perhaps they’d be more comfortable not facing them in a seven game series. Washington has a playoff spot locked up, but can put Tampa Bay out of sight and out of mind in the division title race with a win. The Caps are seven points up on the Lightning in the Southeast.

Tampa Bay @ Carolina – 7 p.m.

Carolina’s in a rough spot just on the outside looking in by three points. After getting a big win over Tampa Bay last night in Florida, they head to RBC Center to try and complete the sweep and keep pace with Buffalo in the race for eighth. Tampa Bay is in a bit of desperate spot of their own as they’re trying to get things turned around positively heading into the playoffs. For Carolina, they can’t get into scoreboard watching though as they just need to keep winning to stay relevant in the race.

Toronto @ Detroit – 7 p.m.

While this seems like a bad match-up at a bad time for the Leafs, they’ve done exceedingly well against the Wings the last few years. They’ll need to be great tonight to keep up in the Eastern race, however, as they’re on the precipice of becoming a full-on afterthought in the playoff race. Sitting five points back of Buffalo with seven games to play makes it a desperate situation. A loss to Detroit for all intents and purposes puts the Leafs and their great story away as James Reimer hopes to continue his folk hero-like play. Detroit is second in the Western Conference and can essentially salt away the division with a win as they’d at least temporarily have a nine point lead on Chicago in the Central.

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.