Race for the playoffs: Three gigantic games highlight the West race 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.”

Western Conference

p – 1. Vancouver – 113 pts (4 GR)
x-2. San Jose – 99 pts (5 GR)
3. Detroit – 98 pts (5 GR)
4. Phoenix – 96 pts (3 GR)
5. Los Angeles – 94 pts (5 GR)
6. Nashville – 94 pts (4 GR)
7. Anaheim – 93 pts (5 GR)
8. Chicago – 92 pts (5 GR)
9. Calgary – 89 pts (3 GR)
10. Dallas – 87 pts (6 GR)

p- clinched Presidents’ Trophy
z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot
GR – games remaining

Detroit @ Nashville – 3 p.m. ET

The task is simple for Detroit: Earn a point, clinch a playoff spot. Of course, there’s the matter of still winning the Central Division and a regulation win by Nashville gets them within two points of Detroit for the top spot there. Detroit is buoyed by having Jimmy Howard return to action in goal today. The downside there is that Pekka Rinne will be in goal for Nashville. In his career against Detroit, Rinne is 8-2-2 with a 1.98 goals against average and a .948 save percentage. Add that in with Nashville’s tenacious dedication to defense and you’ve got yourself a problem if you’re Detroit. Nashville’s never won the Central Division and this year they’ve got their best chance of doing it.

Dallas @ Los Angeles – 4 p.m. ET

Dallas has six games left to play and they’re lucky to have that many games in hand because they’re a hurting team on a losing streak that’s painful. They’ve dropped five games in a row and they’re currently 10th in the West. Fortunately for them, they’re just five points out and while they can make up ground on Chicago for eighth, they need to snap out of their awful funk. Going up against L.A. who’s in desperate need of wins to keep their own heads above water in the playoffs (even in spite of being in fifth out West) the Kings have plenty of motivation. A win by L.A. draws them even with Phoenix for fourth place with a game in hand on the Coyotes.

Home ice in the first round is a definite possibility for the Kings and doing that without Anze Kopitar would be a tremendous accomplishment. Getting through Dallas, however, will be tough because the Stars are in that “cornered animal” situation. They’re dangerous and unpredictable. That is, unless, the Stars recent losing streak has sapped their will from them. It won’t get any easier for the Stars tomorrow as they’ll face Anaheim at the Pond. Speaking of the Ducks…

Anaheim @ San Jose – 10:30 p.m. ET

San Jose’s locked up their spot in the playoffs but they’d like to get a division title as well. Things in the Pacific are tight and facing the Ducks won’t make it any easier. Anaheim’s in seventh for the time being but could move up as high as fifth if things go right for them during today’s games (regulation losses by L.A. and Nashville). Both of these teams are hot and both are playing great hockey. All that means to us is that there’s a game worth staying up late tonight for out east. These teams don’t like each other and getting to see Corey Perry face off with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau is about as marquee as it gets out west.

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.