Game of the Week preview: Flyers hope to outlast Capitals for East’s top seed

The last time the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers met in an NBC Game of the Week, the Flyers were smothered 7-0 in a game the Rangers clearly needed more than Philly. To at least some extent, it seemed like the Rangers took advantage of a Flyers team that didn’t have much on the line.

There was some concern that the April 3rd NBC Game of the Week (at 12:30 pm ET) would follow a similar script, but the Washington Capitals’ meteoric rise to the top spot in the East should give Philadelphia much more motivation. Sure, the Rangers still have more on the line since they are fighting for their playoff lives (more on that in the next post), but at least Philly has a delicious, dangling carrot to drive them to fight harder in this one.

The simplest way to look at the two-horse race for the East’s top seed is to point out that the Capitals have one more point, but the Flyers have one game in hand. A slightly deeper take would point out that Philly currently owns the non-shootout wins tiebreaker by one victory (43-42).

While that’s fine and dandy, those details only say so much regarding which team will prevail. Let’s take a look at both teams’ schedules and try to handicap the race for home ice advantage in the East.

Philadelphia’s remaining schedule

Home vs. Rangers (Sunday), @ Ottawa (Tuesday), @ Buffalo (Friday) and Home vs. Islanders (Saturday).

Two home vs. two away games.

One set of back-to-back contests.

Two matches against playoff contenders (Rangers and Sabres), two against cellar dwellers.

Additional thoughts: The Flyers will get a nice breather between Sunday afternoon’s game against the Rangers and Tuesday night’s contest against the Senators. They’ll get another nice break between that Ottawa contest and their back-to-back games, so they’re in a decent position to mop up points. It would certainly help their chances if the Senators and Islanders are in tank mode, rather than relishing the role of being spoilers, though. (The Islanders might resist the urge to tank since they’ll be going against their divisional rivals.)

Washington’s remaining schedule

Away vs. Toronto (Tuesday), home vs. Florida (Wednesday) and @ Florida (Saturday).

One home game vs. two away contests.

One set of back-to-back games.

One match against a playoff contender (Maple Leafs), two against the same cellar dweller (Panthers).

Additional thoughts: As slim as Toronto’s chances actually are, there’s a good chance they will go all-out in that Tuesday game against the Caps. Mix that hard working attitude with the game taking place in Toronto and it might be a tough draw for Washington. Luckily the Caps can beat up on the lowly Panthers, with a big break between the second half of a back-to-back on Wednesday and the final game of the season in Florida next Saturday.

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Overall, it’s really tough to gauge which team will end up with the top seed. Washington has a great chance to win both games against Florida and the Flyers’ game in hand might be slightly neutralized by an extra game against contenders. That being said, Philly does hold a small (but potentially crucial) tiebreaker, meaning Washington might need to finish with one more point to take the top spot.

If you weigh recent trends heavily, then you might want to know that the Caps have been hotter than the Flyers. Washington is 7-2-1 in their last 10 while Philadelphia is a lethargic 4-3-3 in their most recent 10 games. Will this lead change be a wake-up call for the Broadstreet Bullies, or is it too late?

For the second year in a row, Philly’s playoff position might not be decided until the final game of the season. This time around, they’re feeling a lot more comfortable, though.

Either way, these separate races give both the Rangers and Flyers a reason to care about Sunday’s game … making hockey fans the true winners.

Kovalchuk reiterates desire to return to NHL next season

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Ilya Kovalchuk made a bit of news after he won the Olympic gold medal with the Olympic Athletes from Russia. The 34-year-old winger confirmed that he wants to return to the NHL next season.

He last played for the New Jersey Devils during the 2012-13 season, but he’s been with SKA St. Petersburg for the last five seasons.

Kovalchuk, who put up five goals and two assists in six games during the Olympics, has put up some relatively impressive numbers over in Russia, so there should be no shortage of interest from teams in North America. But according to Sports Express’ Slava Malamud, he’ll prioritize winning a Stanley Cup ahead of money.

Malamud added that teams from the New York area, the state of Florida and the city of Los Angeles will be the favorites to land him. Would the Devils take him back? How close are the Rangers and Islanders to winning the Stanley Cup? Maybe playing with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov is interesting for him, but teaming up with Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning might be too much to pass up. The Kings would also be in the mix.

Kovalchuk’s rights belong to SKA St. Petersburg until the end of this season. Once his contract runs out in the KHL, he’d remain property of the New Jersey Devils until July 1st, but he’d hit the market with all the other free agents on that day, per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.

MORE: Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas hockey team wins state championship

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The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School varsity hockey team can now call themselves state champions, 11 days after a gunman killed 17 and injured 14 others on the Parkland, Florida campus.

Their 7-4 victory over Jesuit High School capped off a Sunday that saw them upset top-seeded East Lake High School 3-1 in the semifinals. Stoneman Douglas lost to both teams in the round-robin phase of the tournament on Saturday. Their three losses in the early stage put them as the lowest-seeded team heading into the elimination games of the Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida High School State Championship tournament held at Germain Arena in Estero, Florida.

According to NBC2’s Joe Putrelo, some Stoneman Douglas players dyed their hair yellow to honor a friend of the team, Joaquin Oliver, who died in the shooting.

The state title now means that Stoneman Douglas will take part in the high school hockey national championship tournament next month in Minnesota.

“We came into the game knowing we had to give it our all to get the win and that’s what we did, and now we get to bring the trophy back to the best high school in America,” said forward Joey Zenobi.

MORE: Panthers’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Datsyuk: Olympic gold medal means more than Stanley Cup

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Seconds after the Russians won their first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1992, Pavel Datsyuk couldn’t contain his joy at what he considers the peak of his career.

Even though Datsyuk won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and 2008, the 39-year-old said capturing gold at the Olympics in his fifth try was his greatest accomplishment, even in a tournament without NHL players and even when called “Team Olympic Athlete From Russia” because of sanctions over state-sponsored doping.

“When you play for your country and I win this medal, this special time, it’s more important,” Datsyuk said. “I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dream.”

Datsyuk, who took home a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, had six assists to help the Russians capture Pyeongchang gold as captain and one of their best players.

“There are a lot of nice feelings now in my heart, but at the same time I can’t believe it yet.”

Datsyuk went home to Russia in the summer of 2016 citing family reasons after putting up 314 goals and 604 assists for 918 points in 953 regular-season games over 14 seasons with the Red Wings. Datsyuk, who was the oldest men’s hockey player in the Olympics, still hasn’t decided whether to retire after this season.

He accomplished his dream with the help of Ilya Kovalchuk, who went back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League despite being just three seasons into a $100 million, 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk had five goals and two assists and was voted tournament MVP.

Kovalchuk and Nikita Gusev, who led Russia and the tournament with 12 points including two goals in the gold-medal game, were great. Datsyuk was Russia’s captain and leader.

“Our hearts almost stopped beating,” Datsyuk said of the back-and-forth final, “but we recovered and the team showed character.”

Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for completed deals as the Feb. 26, 3 p.m. ET deadline approaches.

Feb. 25 – Nashville Predators acquire Brandon Bollig and Troy Grosenick from the San Jose Sharks for 2018 sixth-round pick.

Feb. 25 – Nashville Predators acquire Mark Letestu from the Edmonton Oilers for Pontus Aberg. Predators then trade Letestu to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. | PHT analysis

Feb. 25 – The Toronto Maple Leafs acquire Tomas Plekanec* and Kyle Baun from the Montreal Canadiens for Rinat Valiev, Kerby Rychel and Toronto’s second-round draft pick in 2018. (*The Canadiens will retain 50 percent of Plekanec’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 25 – The Boston Bruins acquire Rick Nash* from the New York Rangers for a 2018 first-round pick, a 2019 seventh-round pick, Matt Beleskey*, Ryan Spooner and the rights to Ryan Lindgren. (*The Rangers will retain 50 percent of Nash’s salary, while the Bruins are retaining half of Beleskey’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 24 New York Islanders acquire Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2019 third-round draft pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 23 – Vegas Golden Knights acquire Ryan Reaves and a 2018 fourth-round pick; Pittsburgh Penguins acquire Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn, Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 third-round pick; Ottawa Senators acquire Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 22 – New Jersey Devils acquire Michael Grabner from New York Rangers for 2018 second-round pick and Yegor Rykov. | PHT analysis

Feb. 22 – Florida Panthers acquire Frank Vatrano from Boston Bruins for 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 21 – Washington Capitals acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal Canadiens for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

Feb. 21 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Tobias Rieder* and Scott Wedgewood from Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. (*Arizona retains 15 percent of Rieder’s salary.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 20 – Boston Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers for Rob O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

Feb. 20 – San Jose Sharks acquire Eric Fehr from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2020 seventh-round pick.

Feb. 19 – Washington Capitals acquire Michal Kempny from Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional* 2018 third-round pick. (*Chicago will receive the higher of Washington’s own third-round draft choice or the third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Washington acquired the Toronto draft pick from the New Jersey Devils as part of the Marcus Johansson trade on July 2, 2017.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 19 – Philadelphia Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek* from Detroit Red Wings for a conditional* 2nd round pick in 2018 or a 3rd round pick in 2018 or a 4th round pick in 2018 and a conditional* 3rd round pick in 2019 (*Red Wings retain half of Mrazek’s salary. *The 2018 fourth-round pick turns into a third-round pick if the Flyers make the playoffs and Mrazek wins five games during the regular season. That pick will become a second rounder if the Flyers win two playoff rounds and Mrazek wins six games. The 2019 third rounder becomes Red Wings property if Mrazek signs with the Flyers.) | PHT analysis

Feb. 15 – Chicago Blackhawks acquire Chris DiDomenico from Ottawa Senators for Ville Pokka.

Feb. 15 – St. Louis Blues acquire Nikita Soshnikov from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2019 fourth-round pick.

Feb. 13 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Dion Phaneuf*, Nate Thompson from Ottawa Senators for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. (*Senators retain 25 percent of Phaneuf’s salary.) | PHT analysis