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.

Show me the money! Nylander sets Leafs rookie record with latest assist

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Toronto’s talented rookies were back at it again Thursday, as William Nylander and Auston Matthews combined to set up the Maple Leafs’ first goal versus the New Jersey Devils.

Nylander added the second assist on the power play goal, giving him 35 helpers on the season.

That’s significant for a couple of reasons: He extends his point streak to 10 games, which sets a new Leafs rookie record. And the assist reportedly secured him another entry-level bonus:

Not bad.

Gibson (lower-body injury) will play again this regular season, says Carlyle

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The Anaheim Ducks have been without goalie John Gibson for almost two full weeks because of injury, but head coach Randy Carlyle provided reason for optimism on Thursday.

Per reports, Gibson took part in practice and Carlyle has said that his No. 1 netminder will play again during the regular season. Anaheim has nine games remaining on its schedule.

That’s good news for Anaheim heading into the post-season.

While Gibson has been out, Jonathan Bernier has stepped beyond his back-up role and provided solid goaltending for the Ducks during the stretch drive — which should also be a bonus for this club with the playoffs quickly approaching.

Bernier has wins in six of his last seven starts. In nine games this month, he has only twice allowed three goals or more.

The Ducks have fought their way back into contention for the Pacific Division with a recent surge that has coincided with San Jose’s current skid — only four wins in their last 10 games and four straight losses.

Related: Career back on track, Bernier hopes he can re-sign in Anaheim

Report: IIHF needs NHL’s Olympic decision by end of April

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The Winter Olympics are less than a year away and time is ticking on the NHL to make a decision — one way or another.

From TSN.ca:

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel tells The Associated Press he needs to know by the end of April whether NHL players will be cleared to play in the South Korea Olympics next year.

NHL team owners have made it clear they don’t want to stop their season again for the Winter Games and put their stars at risk of injury. The reluctance has come up before and yet the NHL has participated in the Olympics since 1998. This time, however, there seems to be an impasse.

For those hoping NHL players will compete in South Korea next year, the situation right now appears bleak, given the recent comments of commissioner Gary Bettman, who told Reuters that “…people should assume we are not going.”

Bettman has also argued the compressed schedule that accompanies the league’s participation in the Olympics is bad for the NHL.

Read more: Fehr: Players won’t negotiate with NHL over Olympics

Meanwhile, a number of players — Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Jakub Voracek and rising star Connor McDavid among them — have publicly lobbied for the opportunity to once again compete in the Olympics, adding that having the world’s best players there is a benefit to growing the game.

(In McDavid’s case, he has never played in the Olympics, but given his stature as arguably the league’s best player right now in only his second season, he’d be a shoe-in to make Team Canada if healthy.)

Voracek recently sounded off the matter, essentially calling the league’s position, “Absolutely ridiculous.”

Goalie nods: Vezina candidates clash as Bobrovsky faces Holtby

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Sergei Bobrovsky leads the NHL in GAA, at 2.04. Braden Holtby sits second, at 2.05.

Bobrovsky leads the NHL in wins, with 39. Holtby sits second, with 37.

Holtby leads the NHL in shutouts, with eight. Bobrovsky sits third, with six.

Perhaps you see where this is going.

Tonight, the two will square off in a much-anticipated game, as the Jackets travel to Washington to take on the Caps.

“It’s a great opponent,” Bobrovsky said, per NHL.com. “It’s going to be interesting. It’s one of the best teams in the League, so we’ll see. We’ll see who’s going to be better.”

Holtby is the reigning Vezina winner, while Bobrovsky captured the trophy three years prior. Both have already been unofficially shortlisted for this season’s award — along with Devan Dubnyk and, perhaps, Cam Talbot — but tonight’s game is about much, much more than goaltending.

The Caps head into the tilt two points up on Columbus for first spot in the NHL (and just one up on Pittsburgh). Columbus has made it clear it would love to capture the first Preisdents’ Trophy in franchise history, and a victory tonight would be a big step towards it. The Jackets, Penguins and Capitals all have 10 games left in their respective seasons, and Columbus will have one more shot at each this year.

Elsewhere…

— The Bolts begin a back-to-back set tonight, and will start Peter Budaj against the Bruins. Tuukka Rask will likely be in for the B’s, after allowing three goals on just 22 shots in a loss to Ottawa on Tuesday.

Keith Kinkaid, who’s seen more playing time that usual down the stretch, will get another start when the Devils take on the Leafs in New Jersey. Curtis McElhinney goes for the Leafs, after Frederik Andersen beat Columbus last night.

— It’s Matt Murray versus Mike Condon as the Penguins take on the Sens.

Eddie Lack, who’s played very well since being verbally lambasted by head coach Bill Peters, looks to start when the ‘Canes take on the Habs in Montreal. Carey Price will be in goal for the Canadiens.

— After Reto Berra’s first start in over a year on Tuesday, the Panthers will go back to James Reimer against Arizona. The visiting Coyotes will start Mike Smith.

Ryan Miller goes up against his old Blues teammates as the Canucks visit St. Louis. Jake Allen, who continues to be one of the better comeback stories this season, looks for his seventh win in his last eight starts.

Chad Johnson gives Brian Elliott a night off as Calgary takes on Nashville. Looks as though the Preds are going back to Pekka Rinne, after he earned his third straight win over the Coyotes on Monday.

— It’s Steve Mason versus Devan Dubnyk as Philly travels to Minnesota.

Corey Crawford will look to bounce back after allowing four goals on 10 shots (and getting hooked) against Vancouver on Tuesday. The visiting Stars look like they’ll go with Kari Lehtonen.

— Some thought Cam Talbot, the NHL’s leader in starts, would get a rest tonight in Colorado after getting hooked against Anaheim last night. Nope. Talbot’s back in, going up against Jeremy Smith for the Avs.

— In the late game, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck gets back in goal after Michael Hutchinson scored a rare win on Tuesday. He’ll be in against Ben Bishop, who looks to keep the Kings’ faint playoff hopes alive.