Race for the playoffs: East playoff hopefuls all in action 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

x-1. Philadelphia – 102 pts (4 GR)
x-2. Washington – 101 pts (4 GR)
x-3. Boston – 97 pts (5 GR)
x-4. Pittsburgh – 98 pts (4 GR)
x-5. Tampa Bay – 95 pts (5 GR)
6. Montreal – 89 pts (4 GR)
7. Buffalo – 87 pts (5 GR)
8. NY Rangers – 87 pts (4 GR)
9. Carolina – 84 pts (5 GR)
10. Toronto – 82 pts (4 GR)
11. Atlanta – 78 pts (5 GR)

x – clinched playoff spot
GR – games remaining

Tampa Bay @ Minnesota – 2 p.m. ET

So we know the Wild are toast, but Tampa Bay still has a shot at getting home ice in the first round of the playoffs and a very outside shot still of the Southeast Division. They’d need some help from the Caps and to virtually win out to do that, but hey there you go. Tampa is getting streaky at the wrong time of year. They’ve won three in a row after they’d just lost four straight. Facing a Wild team today that’s pretty much thrown it in the tank should help out their prospects of catching Pittsburgh and Washington.

Toronto @ Ottawa – 7 p.m. ET

The Leafs are still hanging on for dear life in the playoff picture and getting through provincial nemesis Ottawa reasons to be a tricky test. Craig Anderson and his great play since being moved to Ottawa stand between the Leafs and keeping hope alive. Ottawa will also have recent signee and college star Stephane Da Costa in the lineup. For a game that would seemingly not have a lot to bring to the table, there’s plenty of interest and intrigue in this one. A loss by the Leafs would all but eliminate them from playoff consideration and don’t think the Sens won’t use that as motivation tonight.

Montreal @ New Jersey – 7 p.m. ET

In Montreal’s race to hang on to the sixth seed, they’ll get to face a New Jersey team hellbent on playing the spoiler. They’ll also get a Devils team getting Zach Parise back to action tonight. With the Habs just two points ahead of both Buffalo and the Rangers, getting a win is huge in helping them hold tight to sixth. While they’re in seemingly little danger of missing the playoffs, if you keep losing you’re toying with the tiger and the last thing the Habs want to get are the teeth. New Jersey was able to spoil the Flyers fun last night and with them missing the playoffs, there’s nothing they’d love more than to make everyone else in the East miserable.

Carolina @ NY Islanders – 7 p.m. ET

They’re just sitting in ninth lurking waiting for someone to slip up. It doesn’t matter if it’s Montreal, Buffalo, or the Rangers but if any of those teams continue to slip up, Carolina would be more than happy to take their spot in the postseason. Of course, getting through an Islanders team that just got done kicking around the Rangers the other night to hurt their playoff chances won’t be easy.

Buffalo @ Washington – 7 p.m. ET

For as big of a game as this is for Buffalo, it’s just as big as it is for the Caps. Washington can take the lead in the Eastern Conference with a win while Buffalo could jump into a points tie with Montreal by the end of the night. Buffalo can’t overtake Montreal for sixth thanks to the shootout tiebreaker, but getting even up in points would be warning enough for the Habs. Washington’s been inconsistent of late trading wins and losses on and off for the last couple weeks. Buffalo has four of their last five games but they’ll be without Ryan Miller and youngster Jhonas Enroth will start. Enroth shutout the Rangers in his last start on Wednesday night.

Pittsburgh @ Florida – 7 p.m. ET

Florida’s toast and they’re without Stephen Weiss tonight. So they’re like blackened toast now. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would like to catch up to the Flyers in the Atlantic Division race. They’re four points back of them right now and they can amp up the pressure in a big way getting two points against the Panthers. After winning four straight shootout games the Pens have lost their last two games. Facing a downtrodden Panthers squad sounds like just the remedy a team in need of a win needs.

Johnny Gaudreau’s line is just on fire right now

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When you talk about the best lines in the NHL, don’t sleep on the trio Johnny Gaudreau is leading for the Calgary Flames.

With his 10th goal of the season coming early in a Flames – Washington Capitals game that is ongoing, Gaudreau collected his 30th point of 2017-18. As of this writing, only two other players have hit that mark so far: Steven Stamkos (35 points) and Nikita Kucherov (33), the headliners of a Tampa Bay Lightning trio that’s grabbing a lot of, well, headlines.

Here’s the goal Gaudreau scored against the Caps, keeping in mind that he has plenty of time to add to his lofty totals:

To an extent, it feels like Gaudreau’s fantastic work has been sneaking under the radar, at least compared to the likes of Stamkos – Kucherov. Then again, maybe some of it has to do with the fact that his hot streak is at least somewhat concentrated in the last few weeks?

Gaudreau, no doubt, is the catalyst. His playmaking ability is often spellbinding, and he’s well beyond questions about being a flash in the pan at this point in his career. The 24-year-old came into tonight’s game with 233 points in 251 career regular-season games; he’s scored more than the likes of Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, according to Hockey Reference. (He ranks 12th overall during that span.)

His linemates deserve some of the spotlight, too.

There remains a debate about how much Sean Monahan can accomplish without Gaudreau, yet the counterpoint would be to wonder if it’s really that wise to mess with such a good thing. Such an argument is especially tough to make on the heels of his first career hat trick:

While Gaudreau has eight goals and 10 assists for a whopping 18 points (and possibly counting) during a 10-game point streak, Monahan collected his 21st point of this season on the primary assist. He added a helper to that hat trick the other night, so even if he’s stopped for the rest of Monday, Monahan has five points in two games. He also generated a six-game point streak (three goals, five assists) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 9.

When people haven’t been discussing Monahan’s dependence upon Gaudreau, they’ve wondered who might be the right winger for that dynamic duo.

Micheal Ferland might spell the end of that debate.

The big 25-year-old currently has 12 points in 18 games, but he’s really been revving up his production as of late. The Flyers snapped his five-game goal streak on Nov. 18, yet he extended his point streak to six contests with an assist (5G, 3A).

Logically, Ferland makes some sense for Gaudreau – Monahan. Neither of those forwards brings a lot of beef to the table, and Ferland has also shown some signs that he possesses the ability to finish the chances they can set up. As fun as it is to watch Jaromir Jagr with those two, Ferland might end up being the best fit for them since Jiri Hudler’s better Flames days.

(Ferland didn’t get an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, so he’ll need to generate some offense as this game goes along to keep his impressive streak going.)

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Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov probably carry the championship belts as the best scoring line in hockey, at least right now. One of the delightful things about this relatively high-scoring start to the season is that there are plenty of contenders for that imaginary title, and Gaudreau’s group shouldn’t be shortchanged in such debates.

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.

Sebastian Aho has found his scoring touch again

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There was a time just over a week ago that people were hitting the panic button on second-year Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho.

Many of these people fell into two groups:

Group No. 1 consisted of Hurricanes fans desperate for their young budding star to get going and rekindle the scoring touch he possessed last season

Group No. 2 was made up of Aho’s fantasy league owners, thousands across North America, who were growing impatient with the 20-year-old’s unproductive start to the season.

And then there was Aho himself, but he chose to stay positive despite the drought.

“I think I’ve played better and better every day, and I think the goals are coming,” Aho told The News & Observer in Raleigh at the beginning of November. “I just need to stay positive. Just relax my game. Obviously, work hard, but still when I get the chances just relax.”

The above concerns of all parties involved were genuine, of course, Hurricanes management, too, were likely chomping at the bit as they awaited the Finn’s scoring touch around the net.

Perhaps Aho just doesn’t like running with the big pack out of the gate. Slow and steady, as the old saying goes. Despite the lack of pucks behind goalies, Aho has been a strong possession player this season and his expected goal numbers are equally as good.

Aho also has his brief history in pro hockey on his side.

Indeed, Aho’s rookie season didn’t start much different. Last season, it took the Finn 13 games to score his first NHL goal, but he managed to finish the season with 24, an impressive number from a new commodity.

He was only off that pace by two games this season.

It took him 15 games (over four-and-a-half hours of ice time) to register his name and number in the goal section of the scoresheet.

It was just a matter of time, and now, he just can’t help himself.

Aho has been on a tear since that Nov. 13 coming out party where he scored his first marker and added two helpers in a dominant 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars.

After adding another goal and another apple on Sunday, Aho now has 13 of his 17 points this season in his past 10 games. He’s also the proud owner of a four-game goal-scoring run.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flyers’ Radko Gudas disagrees with 10-game suspension

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Radko Gudas is just like you and I in the sense that he also expected a big suspension for slashing Mathieu Perreault of the Winnipeg Jets in the back of the neck. He was a right as the NHL Department of Player Safety announced on Sunday that he will sit for 10 games and be docked $408,536.60.

While the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman knew a suspension was coming, he didn’t think it would be as many as 10 games.

“I was surprised. I did not expect that, no,” Gudas said on Monday via Flyers TV.

All of Gudas’ previous encounters with the DoPS involved bad hits, usually to an opponents’ head. This was the first time he’ll sit due to bad stick work.

[Radko Gudas suspended 10 games]

“Before, I never used my stick in any way like that,” he said. “It was unfortunate.”

Despite the ugliness of the slash, Perreault was fine and hasn’t missed any games for the Winnipeg Jets. He was well-aware of Gudas’ rap sheet and while he said the defenseman apologized, he was weary at the thought it wasn’t intentional.

[Perreault bemoans ‘stupid’ slash]

“He apologized in the penalty box, but when you look at the replay, it looks like he did it on purpose,” Perreault said last week. “It wasn’t an accident. He’s been known for doing stuff like that, so I certainly don’t appreciate it. I’m sure the league will take care of it.”

Gudas won’t be able to return to the Flyers’ lineup until Dec. 12 and it doesn’t look like he’s going to appeal. It will be interesting to see what happens the next time he runs afoul of the NHL rulebook given this latest suspension.

“I don’t agree with it, but I accept their decision,” Gudas said. “There’s not much else I can say.”

————

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.

Julien: Price’s return to practice “encouraging”

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A Montreal Canadiens team struggling for answers in the early going this season got a bit of a boost on Monday.

Goaltender Carey Price returned to practice on Monday morning in Montreal, a welcome sign for a team struggling to stop pucks and desperate to start winning as they wallow in the depths of the Eastern Conference.

Price worked on lateral movements with Habs goaltending coach Stéphane Waite prior to practice starting, per TSN’s John Lu, and continued to work in the Canadiens’ backup net for the rest of practice.

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien confirmed after practice that Price would be on the team’s upcoming quick two-game back-to-back road trip beginning in Dallas on Tuesday. Julien also said Price is still listed as day-to-day and that there was still no timetable for his return. Charlie Lindgren will man the crease against the Stars.

Truth be told, the Canadiens weren’t very good with Price in the lineup before he went down with a lower-body injury, forcing him to miss the past eight games.

In 11 starts, Price has been above a .900 save percentage in just three of them and owns a 3-7-1 record. His save percentage sits at .877 with an equally unhealthy 3.77 goals-against average.

Montreal has the second-worst team save percentage in the league at .886 and have several other issues to contend with, including being 29th in goals for, 30th in goals against, 27th in power-play efficiency, 28th killing penalties and dead last in shooting percentage.

Indeed, the Canadiens will take any positives that come their way at the moment.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck