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West playoff picture: Canucks make it official, Predators win and Sharks crush Stars

Western Conference playoff race

p – 1. Vancouver – 113 pts (4 GR)
x- 2. San Jose – 99 pts (5 GR)
3. Detroit – 98 pts (5 GR)
4. Phoenix – 95 pts (4 GR)
5. Los Angeles – 94 pts (5 GR)
6. Nashville – 94 pts (4 GR)
7. Anaheim – 93 pts (5 GR)
8. Chicago – 90 pts (6 GR)
9. Dallas – 87 pts (6 GR)
10. Calgary – 87 pts (4 GR)

p – clinched conference title and Presidents’ Trophy
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot
GR – Games Remaining

Nashville 3, Colorado 2

The Predators only have four games left, so some of their seeding fortunes will be out of their hands, but Nashville is taking care of business. The fact that the questions are drifting from “Will they make the playoffs?” to “Who will they face?” is a testament to their strong finish. Three of their last four games are at home and three of four against teams outside of the postseason, so they should be able to earn plenty of points (especially after their Saturday contest against the Red Wings).

Nashville built a 3-0 lead before the Avalanche showed a little pride in making in 3-2 in a decent third period finish, but the Predators were able to hold off Colorado in this one. Pekka Rinne made 27 saves and Martin Erat scored a goal and an assist in another nice win, as Nashville is 8-2-0 in their last 10 games.

Vancouver 3, Los Angeles 1

Before we get to the Canucks’ Presidents’ Trophy clinching win, let’s focus on the Kings’ loss for a second. With 94 points and five games remaining, Los Angeles isn’t likely to catch the Sharks for the Pacific Division crown. That being said, their playoff spot is fairly comfortable and they can make it even cozier by beating the Stars on Saturday. Their final five games are against Pacific teams, including a home-and-home against the Anaheim Ducks to finish the 2010-11 season. It isn’t panic time for the Kings, but failing to get a point hurts.

Then again, not many teams are earning points against the Canucks, who clinched the Presidents’ Trophy tonight. Here’s some of the big numbers from the NHL’s press release on the subject.

The Canucks, celebrating their 40th anniversary season in 2010-11, have claimed the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time. Tonight’s milestone victory caps a regular season in which the club already has set franchise records for most points (113), most wins (52) and most road wins (26). Their 17-1-2 run in games from Nov. 24 through Jan. 8 marked the best 20-game stretch in franchise history.

The Canucks have scored the most goals in the NHL (253), allowed the fewest (177) and have recorded the top power-play and penalty-killing percentages (24.7% and 86.6%, respectively). No club in the League’s ‘expansion era’ (since 1967-68) has finished first in each of these categories in a single season.

Yup, they’re pretty good.

San Jose 6, Dallas 0

Obviously, it’s not as fancy as clinching everything like the Canucks did, but the Sharks joined the Tampa Bay Lightning in guaranteeing a playoff bid tonight. They did so by absolutely humiliating the playoff-desperate Dallas Stars 6-0.

It’s interesting that former Blackhawks did so much damage tonight, considering how much this Sharks win helps Chicago. Antti Niemi earned a 29-save shutout while Ben Eager – yes, Ben Eager – scored what might be the Goal of the Night to help San Jose spank the Stars. Patrick Marleau scored twice while San Jose out-shot Dallas 52-29.

The Stars aren’t totally out of it, as they play four of their last six games against teams outside of the playoff picture, but this obviously hurts their chances by a great margin. They trail the Blackhawks by three points with both teams having six games left. Dallas might actually need four more points than the Blackhawks down the stretch because Chicago also has some win-related tiebreaker advantages right now.

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So the ultimate trend of tonight’s games was that the rich West teams got richer. Is this is for the Stars? We’ll have to wait and see, but there’s a good chance they’ll need to deal with San Jose or Vancouver if they manage to make the playoffs.

Video: Frustrations boil over as Stars lose again

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The Dallas Stars just cannot get it together. And this afternoon in Buffalo, where the Stars dropped a 4-1 decision to the Sabres, captain Jamie Benn‘s frustrations boiled over.

As you can see in the video above, Benn snapped three sticks in total — one on the ice, two while on the bench.

It’s worth noting that Benn committed a bad giveaway on the Sabres’ winning goal in the first period. With the Stars on the penalty kill, Benn had a chance to clear the puck. Instead, he put it right on the stick of Jake McCabe, who beat Antti Niemi to make it 2-0 Buffalo.

With the loss, the Stars’ record fell to 18-19-8. And after 45 games, last year’s Central Division champs find themselves four points back of Los Angeles for the second wild-card spot in the West, with the Kings holding two games in hand.

Credit to the Sabres, who improved to 17-17-9 with today’s well-earned victory. But this one will be remembered for Benn’s very public display of frustration. The Stars get right back at it tomorrow in Manhattan against the Rangers.

Pre-game reading: On Willie O’Ree, who ‘broke so many barriers’ for black hockey players

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— Up top, enjoy Rick Jeanneret’s call after Tyler Ennis opened the scoring this afternoon in Buffalo. Ennis was making his first appearance for the Sabres since Nov. 7. He missed 30 games with a groin injury.

— Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. To honor it, Willie O’Ree will drop the puck in a ceremonial faceoff prior to this afternoon’s Kings-Lightning game in Los Angeles. O’Ree was the NHL’s first black player and has served as an inspiration for present-day players like Tampa Bay’s J.T. Brown. “He broke so many barriers, made it possible for me to play the game that I love. Anything I can do to keep growing the game, keep doing the things he did to help, that’s something I’m willing to do.” (Tampa Bay Times)

— The Detroit Red Wings are probably going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, and that could turn them into sellers at the trade deadline. Might Thomas Vanek draw interest? The 32-year-old winger is a pending unrestricted free agent with a cap hit of $2.6 million. He’s also the Wings’ co-leading goal-scorer with 11 tallies in 32 games. (The Detroit News)

— Speaking of the trade deadline, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox has written a “Who’s Buying and Who’s Selling” post. Halfway through the season, only Colorado and Arizona are totally out of the race, but teams like the Wings, Devils, Sabres, Islanders and Canucks need to be realistic about their chances of making the playoffs. At the very least, a Plan B should be put in place now, because March 1 isn’t all that far away. (Sportsnet)

— Derek Boogaard’s father, Len, wants fighting banned from all levels of hockey. And he’s not just passing the buck — he fully accepts responsibility for allowing, or even encouraging, his late son to become an NHL enforcer. “You’re supposed to be looking after your kids. In hindsight it is always, ‘Well, maybe I should have done this, maybe I should have done that.’ When I was taking him to Saskatoon for boxing lessons at 15, it’s like, ‘What was I thinking?'” It’s a compelling read, even if you still think there’s a place for fighting in the game. (Globe and Mail)

— Edmonton used to have the best ice in the league. But that’s not the case anymore at their new downtown rink, Rogers Place. Milan Lucic gives the ice a 6.5 out of 10, which is at least better than the 3 he gave it back in October. “I don’t think there is a 10 out there, but I definitely do feel that they’re going to eventually get it to be an eight and a half or nine.” (Edmonton Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Waived at start of year, Watson’s become ‘a real force’ for Preds

NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 12:  Austin Watson #51 of the Nashville Predators is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Boston Bruins during the second period at Bridgestone Arena on January 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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Seven years ago, hopes were high for Austin Watson.

A big-bodied forward from the OHL, Watson was selected 18th overall by Nashville at the 2010 draft — ahead of the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Charlie Coyle, among others.

“We were really happy to get Austin. He’s certainly a Predator- type player, doing all the little things to help your team win,” GM David Poile said at the time, per the Peterborough Examiner. “He’s got leadership qualities, and he’s been compared to Ryan Kesler in Vancouver.

“If he’s anything close to that, we’ll have had a very good day at the draft.”

Needless to say, expectations were high.

Yet expectations couldn’t have been much lower at the start of this campaign when Watson, who’d only played 63 games for the Preds over four seasons, was placed on waivers after training camp.

He’d failed to establish himself at the big-league level and was off to AHL Milwaukee, where he’d already spent a good part of his professional life.

That, it seems, was the motivation Watson needed.

Since being recalled in late October, the 25-year-old has been impressive, scoring a career-high 11 points through just 39 games. He’s averaging over 12 minutes per game and has earned not just the trust of head coach Peter Laviolette, but praise as well.

“He’s been doing everything right,” Laviolette said, per the Preds website. “His physicality, his defensive play, his offensive play, he’s been a real force for our team.”

Watson’s been on a tear lately, with three goals and four points in his last four games. Poile said he’s starting to play like the power forward the Preds envisioned back in 2010, and Watson has certainly acquitted himself physically, sitting second among all Nashville forwards with 76 hits.

That’s key for a team that doesn’t boast a ton of physicality. With Watson and the newly-acquired Cody McLeod in the lineup, the Preds feel they’re a tougher team to play against — and they are playing some of their best hockey of the year at the moment, with five wins in their last eight.

Isles chase Rask with three goals on just 15 shots (Updated)

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 1: Goaltender Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins watches a replay during first period action against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on November 1, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Bruins defeated the Panthers 2-1. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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Boston’s maddening inconsistency was on display once again Monday.

Fresh off a 6-3 win against the Flyers on Saturday, spirits were high. The B’s felt like their offense was finally starting to connect, and there was hope the club could string together victories for the first time this calendar year.

Then the opening 40 minutes of today’s game transpired.

After a nondescript first period, Boston came out flat in the second and were smacked by an Islanders team down the services of Andrew Ladd and Cal Clutterbuck. By the time the middle frame ended, Tuukka Rask had been beaten three times in just over five minutes — two of those goals courtesy Nikolai Kulemin — and was hooked at the intermission, with Zane McIntyre coming out to start the third.

The B’s did out-shoot the Isles 24-15 through two periods, but that hardly impressed the TD Garden faithful:

If the Bruins can’t turn things around in the third, they’ll head into a tough stretch on a rather sour note. Four of Boston’s next seven games are on the road — in Detroit, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Washington — and their home dates include tough matchups against the Blackhawks and Penguins.

Update: Well, that was ugly. Jason Chimera added a shorthanded marker in the third to make the final score Isles 4, Bruins 0.

“Whether it was fatigue or not, I don’t know,” head coach Claude Julien said postgame, per CSNNE. “But we were flat today. It’s very disappointing.”