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.

What is Alex Galchenyuk’s future in Montreal?

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Alex Galchenyuk is already a good player.

The question for the Montreal Canadiens is, can he be great?

Galchenyuk, the third overall draft pick in 2012, is coming off a decent regular season with 17 goals and 27 assists in 61 games. However, it wasn’t as good as last year’s 30-goal campaign, and he didn’t score a single goal in the playoffs.

“Hopefully he took a step back this year so he can take two forward next year,” GM Marc Bergevin said Monday at the Canadiens’ season-ending press conference.

Three assists were all Galchenyuk could manage in six games against the Rangers. More importantly, after more than 300 NHL games of experience, the 23-year-old is still not an everyday center, on a team where center depth is by far the biggest concern.

Habs defenseman Shea Weber thinks Galchenyuk still has a ton of potential.

“I think we’ve seen glimpses of it,” Weber said, per NHL.com’s Arpon Basu, “but I don’t think he’s tapped into how good he can be. One day he’s going to realize it, like all young guys do, he’s going to get it.”

Of course, not all young guys do get it. And at times, there have been questions about Galchenyuk’s competitiveness.

To play center in the NHL, you have to compete all over the ice.

“Ideally, we would love to have him play center,” head coach Claude Julien said. “But I think he realizes the same thing we realize right now. As a centerman, it’s one of the toughest jobs there is because you have to be all over the ice, and you’ve got to be able to skate. As a centerman, you have to be good at both ends of the ice, and you have to be responsible. Right now, he’s not at that stage.”

The kicker in all this is that Galchenyuk can become a restricted free agent this summer. He’s already signed one bridge deal, and he’s at the age now where many young stars sign for big money and a long term.

So, does he want to sign long term in Montreal?

He ducked the question today.

“My season just ended a couple of days ago,” Galchenyuk told reporters. “I honestly didn’t give it too much of a thought yet.”

Kunitz cleared for contact, available for start of Caps series

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The Pens may get back one of their most veteran skaters for their second-round series against Washington.

Chris Kunitz, who missed the last five regular season games and all of Pittsburgh’s Round 1 win over Columbus, has been cleared for contact (per the Tribune-Review) and could return from his lower-body ailment for Thursday’s opener at Verizon.

Kunitz, 37, finished the year with nine goals and 29 points in 71 games, averaging 15:31 TOI per night. It was a down season offensively, but the Pens are hopeful he can reclaim some of the form shown last spring, when he racked up 12 points in 24 games en route to the title.

A three-time Cup winner, Kunitz skated on the fourth line at today’s practice with Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnackl.

In other health news, the Pens also declared d-man Chad Ruhwedel a game-time decision for Thursday, after he was sidelined with an upper-body injury. Carl Hagelin, out with a lower-body ailment, has continued skating and head coach Mike Sullivan said the team is hopeful Hagelin can play at some point against Washington.

DeBoer praises ‘courageous’ Thornton for playing with torn ACL, MCL (Updated)

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In a fairly stunning admission on Monday, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that Joe Thornton played in four of San Jose’s six playoff games versus Edmonton with a significant knee injury.

Thornton, who was hurt against Vancouver late in the regular season, suffered tears to both his left MCL and ACL.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said, per the club’s Twitter account. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton, 37, missed the first two games of the series to rest his knee, before suiting up for the final four. He averaged 18:50 TOI per night and finished with a pair of assists, numbers that are pretty remarkable given the severity of his ailment.

Jumbo wasn’t the only unhealthy Shark during the first-round playoff ouster. Logan Couture‘s face/mouth injury was well-documented and, today, DeBoer also revealed that Tomas Hertl was playing with a broken foot, and Patrick Marleau with a broken thumb.

Looking ahead, Thornton’s knee injury might cloud what’s an already murky future. He’s a pending UFA, and there have been no clear signals from the organization on how they’ll address his potential return. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp was looking for a three-year deal.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has time on his side. It’s understood the club probably wouldn’t act on an extension for Thornton until after the June expansion draft, which could give the Sharks enough time to better gauge his health.

Update:

Per NBC Sports California, Wilson confirmed Thornton is undergoing surgery today to repair the ligaments.

 

 

Online bookmaker: Caps are Stanley Cup favorites

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The Washington Capitals got a bit of a scare in the first round, but they’ll go into the second round as the Stanley Cup favorites.

Per online bookmaker Bovada, here is the full list of Stanley Cup odds for the eight remaining teams:

Washington Capitals   7/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    17/4
Anaheim Ducks             11/2
Edmonton Oilers          11/2
St. Louis Blues              13/2
Nashville Predators     7/1
New York Rangers       8/1
Ottawa Senators           10/1

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the postseason as 4/1 Cup favorites at Bovada. Of course, the ‘Hawks were then swept by the Preds, who’ve gone from 25/1 long shots to 7/1 heading into their series with the Blues.

The Caps’ odds actually dropped to 13/2 after they fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. But three straight wins, two in overtime, clinched them a spot against the Penguins in the second round.

The Ottawa Senators are the long shots of the bunch now, despite having home-ice advantage over the Rangers in the second round.