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.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson