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.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson