Race for the playoffs: Three make-or-break games on tap tonight

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

5. Tampa Bay – 93 pts
6. Montreal – 89 pts
7. NY Rangers – 87 pts
8. Buffalo – 85 pts
9. Carolina – 82 pts
10. Toronto – 80 pts
11. Atlanta – 76 pts

NY Rangers @ Buffalo – 7 p.m. ET
The Rangers hold just a two point lead on Buffalo. Just think of how much more interesting this would’ve been had Buffalo knocked off Toronto last night. The race at the lower half of the East is filled with intrigue and Montreal’s recent slide has gotten both the Rangers and Sabres back in the mix to potentially have a shot at getting into sixth place and a likely date with Boston in the first round of the playoffs.

The potential goalie battle in this game has us all tingly with Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and Ryan Miller for Buffalo. Miller had a rough go against Toronto last night giving up four goals in the loss. The Rangers can either keep pace with or equal the Habs, depending on what happens in their game against Carolina tonight, but if you’re thinking there’ll be a host of goals in this game, think again.

Montreal @ Carolina – 7 p.m. ET
These two teams have a slight bit of history and it’s none too friendly and there’s nothing more the Canadiens would like than to put a hurting on the Hurricanes playoff hopes. Carolina is three points back of Buffalo and if everything breaks right for them tonight, they could be just one point out after it’s all said and done this evening. Montreal may be poised to roll though after snapping their 199 minute goalless drought last night, a streak that was part of a three-game losing skid. While both teams have had their doses of inconsistency this season, Carolina’s have been a bit more hot and cold. Getting a win over the Caps in the shootout last night could be a sign of righting the ship at the right time as they’ve now won five of their last seven games.

NY Islanders @ New Jersey – 7 p.m. ET
While Zach Parise may get a shot to play for the first time since November, it’s pretty much pride on the line between these two. They’ve been the two hottest teams the second half of the year and while the Devils teased for a bit like they might get close to the playoffs, it’s not going to happen now. The Islanders would love to be the team that casts the fatal blow to the Devils final hopes at the postseason.

Western Conference

5. Los Angeles – 94 pts
6. Nashville – 92 pts
7. Anaheim – 91 pts
8. Chicago – 90 pts
9. Dallas – 87 pts
10. Calgary – 87 pts

Anaheim @ Calgary – 9:30 p.m. ET
This is it for Calgary, a loss to Anaheim and they’re dead in the water for the playoffs. Calgary will have just four games remaining after this one and getting to 95 points won’t guarantee a shot at the postseason. The Flames will essentially have to win their final five games starting with tonight’s game against the Ducks to have any slightly stress-free hopes of the playoffs. With everyone else ahead of them having games in hand to play, things don’t look good for Calgary.

Making things worse for the Flames is they’ll have to play an Anaheim team that’s playing much better of late thanks to Corey Perry’s great play. Anaheim has the chance to move up to sixth in the West with a win and moving ahead of Nashville in the West means that the rumbling talk of Corey Perry for league MVP will rumble on. For us, we’ll just be excited to see yet another game with the ever-awesome Teemu Selanne.

St. Louis @ Detroit – 7:30 p.m. ET
All right there’s not much to this game playoff-wise at all since Vancouver clinched the top spot in the Western Conference, but Detroit still needs to wrap up the Central Division and with Nashville still lurking behind them, only wins can help put them away.

Ekblad out again, this time with a sore neck

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It’s not concussion-related, Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe told reporters today — but defenseman Aaron Ekblad woke up this morning with a sore neck and will miss tonight’s game against Arizona.

Ekblad had only just returned to the lineup after missing four games with a concussion. He logged 18:14 in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Carolina.

And now he’s out again.

Certainly, the timing of Ekblad’s latest injury, not to mention the fact it’s a sore neck, will lead many to doubt Rowe’s assertion that it’s not concussion-related.

But Rowe said before the Hurricanes game that the club was being cautious with its 21-year-old star defenseman.

“We didn’t want to rush him back because he’s such a young guy,” said Rowe, per the Miami Herald. “With a concussion, we didn’t want to rush him back.”

Stars’ Janmark won’t play this season, and there’s a ‘question mark’ about next year

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In a season filled with injuries, one of the biggest Dallas suffered this season was Mattias Janmark‘s knee issue.

The 24-year-old Swede has missed the entire season thus far, but recently resumed skating and practicing with the club. That said, Janmark confirmed he won’t play this year — meaning he’ll miss the entire 82-game campaign.

And what’s more, he might miss games next season as well.

“I think there’s a question mark (about next season), but we don’t know to what degree yet,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, per the Dallas Morning-News. “He’s progressing nicely. He still has a ways to go, but I think the fact he is practicing now and has gone this far always gives a guy like that a better chance for next year.”

Janmark’s original injury occurred during the preseason, when he knee locked up in a game against Colorado.

“He had a small segment, approximately 21 millimeters by 11 millimeters, that became displaced and is locked in his knee,” GM Jim Nill said at the time. “It’s the bone and the cartilage, they both came off together.”

Janmark underwent surgery to correct the issue, but his recovery was plagued by a preexisting congenital condition called osteochondritis dissecans. Nill said the likelihood of a full recovery was 80 percent.

Losing his services was a big blow for Dallas. After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp in ’15-16 — a “great story,” according to Nill — Janmark had a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Janmark’s contract situation complicates things. He’s a pending RFA, currently in the last of a two-year, $1.6 million deal with an $733,750 cap hit. The Stars would (presumably) like to keep him, but the uncertainty regarding his health might made negotiations difficult.

Fehr injures hand, spotted in cast following Leafs debut

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Eric Fehr finally played his first game as a Maple Leaf on Wednesday night, suiting up for the first time since being acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.

It didn’t go especially well.

Fehr, who logged 10:44 TOI in a 5-2 win over Columbus, suffered a hand injury while blocking a shot in the third period and was seen afterward wearing a cast, per TSN.

According to the Toronto Sun, the 31-year-old forward confirmed he spent the night in hospital.

While a break or fracture might rule him out for the remainder of the season, it’s worth noting Fehr won’t be done entirely in Toronto. He’s in the second of a three-year, $6 million deal with a $2M cap hit. Prior to joining the Leafs he appeared in 52 games for the Pens, scoring six goals and 11 points while averaging just under 11 minutes a night.

He was also a regular in last year’s Stanley Cup run, scoring three times in 23 games.

Though his role decreased, Fehr was still frequently used by head coach Mike Sullivan — albeit in a more limited capacity. He is a good PK contributor, and can play both center and wing. Those were some of the attributes the Leafs were hoping Fehr could bring down the stretch and, should they make it, into the postseason.

He’s back: With 10 games left, Isles recall Halak

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The Isles are in full playoff push mode, and on Thursday made a move to bolster their chances.

Jaroslav Halak, the veteran netminder that’s been in AHL Bridgeport since early January, has been recalled ahead of New York’s crucial three-games-in-four-days stretch, the club announced.

It’s the latest in what’s been a tumultuous move for the 31-year-old. Halak opened the year as part of an uncomfortable three-goalie rotation — along with Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube — and was soon on the trading block after agent Allan Walsh criticized the setup on Twitter.

With no takers — and after then-head coach Jack Capuano called him out for his poor play — Halak was placed on waivers, and sent to the minors.

Halak has been really good in Bridgeport. He’s posted a 17-7-1 record with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. And given how spotty Berube’s play has been as Greiss’ backup, there’s a shot Halak could be making a start for the Isles soon.

As mentioned above, the club is in the midst of a compacted part of the schedule. Greiss was excellent in last night’s win over the Rangers — stopping 34 of 36 shots in a 3-2 victory — but he was also busy.

The Isles head to Pittsburgh on Friday, then host the Bruins on Saturday, then host the Preds on Monday. The Boston game looms large because, after last night, New York found itself just two points back of the B’s for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Per Newsday, there’s a real chance Halak will face the Pens on Friday, which would open the door for Greiss to take on the Bruins the following day.