Philadelphia Flyers v New York Rangers

Game of the Week preview: Breaking down the East playoff bubble

The New York Rangers are currently the eighth-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, but the three other major teams in the race for the last two playoff spots earned wins while they sat idle on Saturday. What was once a nice cushion keeps shrinking, meaning that the Rangers face yet another crucial late-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers. (You can watch that NBC Game of the Week at 12:30 pm ET on Sunday, by the way.)

In the same spirit of our breakdown of the Flyers’ race to wrestle the top seed from the Washington Capitals, we thought it might be wise to handicap the battle for the last two playoff spots in the East. We’ll exclude the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens (91 points with three games remaining) for the sake of simplicity, but will throw in the long shot 10th-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the interest of being comprehensive.

Let’s count down the closing stretches for those four teams, from highest to lowest ranking.

7. Buffalo Sabres (39-29-10 for 88 points with four games remaining; 34 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 96.

Remaining games: @ Carolina (Sunday), home vs. Tampa Bay (Tuesday), home vs. Philadelphia (Friday) and @ Columbus (next Saturday).

Thoughts: Obviously, Sunday’s contest against the Hurricanes is enormous. A regulation win would give them nice breathing room, but their schedule isn’t a cakewalk after that. The Lightning and Flyers will likely have incentive to spoil the Sabres’ playoff run, with Philadelphia having the bonus of trying to avoid Buffalo in the first round to boot. The Blue Jackets aren’t an automatic win either, although the team is way out of the West playoff picture.

8. New York Rangers (41-32-5 for 87 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 95.

Remaining games: @ Philadelphia (Sun), home vs. Boston (Mon), home vs. Atlanta (Thurs) and home vs. New Jersey (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Rangers are odd ducks, with a nice win total and a strong goal differential, yet a reliance on shootout wins (eight so far). Anyway, surviving back-to-back games against the Flyers and Bruins is vital. The Rangers must hope that Boston will take Monday’s game easy since they already clinched the Northeast Division. After those games, there are should-wins against two teams that were eliminated from the playoffs on April 2nd … although one can bet the Devils would love to ruin things for the Rangers on New York’s last game of the season.


9. Carolina Hurricanes (38-30-10 for 86 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 94.

Remaining games: Home vs. Buffalo (Sun), home vs. Detroit (Wed), @ Atlanta (Fri) and home vs. Tampa Bay (next Sat).

Thoughts: Again, Sunday’s game against the Sabres is huge. If Carolina manages to earn a regulation win against Buffalo, they would tie them in points and draw even in the first major tiebreaker category too. After that, they face an always-tough game against the Red Wings, a should-win contest against the golf course-bound Thrashers and what could be a big game (or a shoulder shrug) for the Lightning. This isn’t an easy finish, but a regulation victory against Buffalo could really open things up for the Canes.

10. Toronto Maple Leafs (37-32-10 for 84 pts with three games remaining, 32 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 90.

Games remaining: Home vs. Washington (Tues), @ New Jersey (Wed) and home vs. Montreal (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Leafs have less points than all three teams (four less than Buffalo, three less than the Rangers and two less than Carolina) and one less game in hand. They also lack much help in the way of a non-shootout win tiebreaker and face a rocky schedule. Overall, their chances are the slimmest of the East teams who haven’t been eliminated, but it’s not a done deal just yet. They’ll just need help to get there.


After examining the four teams’ closing schedules, I think the Rangers have the best chance of gaining one of the final spots and the Maple Leafs are a long shot at best. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes could really muddy the situation with a regulation win against the Sabres on Sunday.

Overall, the Sabres and Rangers have the best chance to retain a spot, but it should be a very close race. It all starts with Sunday afternoon’s NBC Game of the Week between the Flyers and the Rangers, so don’t miss it.

Let us know which teams you think will make it in the comments.

Blues to retire Bob Plager’s No. 5

ST. LOUIS - APRIL 9:  Former St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis #2 and his family watch his banner being raised during his jersey retirement ceremony prior to the game between the Blues and Edmonton Oilers at the Savvis Center on April 9, 2006 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will commemorate their 50th anniversary with a special ceremony on Feb. 2, retiring the No. 5 jersey worn by longtime defenseman Bob Plager.

More, from the club:

Plager, who was acquired by the Blues on June 6, 1967 and has been with the organization for all 50 years, will become the seventh player in Blues history to have his number retired, joining No. 2 Al MacInnis, No. 3 Bob Gassoff, No. 11 Brian Sutter, No. 16 Brett Hull, No. 24 Bernie Federko and his brother, No. 8 Barclay Plager.

Bob and Barclay Plager join Maurice and Henri Richard (Montreal Canadiens) as the only brothers to have their numbers retired by the same team in NHL history.

Plager played 10 seasons with the Blues, then transitioned to a number of front office and coaching roles within the organization.

In a unique twist, his No. 5 was never taken out of circulation and subsequently worn by another staple of the Blues organization — Barret Jackman, who recently retired after spending 16 years in St. Louis, appearing in over 800 games.

Prior to the February retirement ceremony, Blues fans will be able to recognize Plager this Saturday when St. Louis hosts Los Angeles at Scottrade.

Flames can get back to .500 with win over Sens

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24: Matt Stajan #18 and Lance Bouma #17 of the Calgary Flames congratulate Brian Elliott #1 after a shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Flames defeated the Blachawks 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Calgary Flames have won two in a row, but they’re still a losing hockey club heading into tonight’s home game against Ottawa.

That’s the message head coach Glen Gulutzan has been preaching after encouraging back-to-back victories in Chicago and St. Louis.

“We’re still below .500,” Gulutzan said. “We can’t rest at all. We haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’ve played two good games. That’s what we’ve accomplished. You need to get on a roll and you need to keep pushing. Keep the focus and keep pushing.”

The Flames (3-4-1) did not just get lucky in their last two games. They were especially good Tuesday in St. Louis, outshooting the Blues, 30-24, in a 4-1 win. Meanwhile, goalie Brian Elliott has bounced back after a tough debut for his new team; he’ll get a third straight start tonight.

Suffice to say, the mood around the team has improved considerably.

“My lips were getting sore from sucking on the exhaust pipe,” GM Brad Treliving jokingly told the Calgary Sun. “It was never as bad as it seemed, but it’s a stark change to how we played. … It’s a relief to stop the bleeding. We were disciplined, the power play worked, we limited chances, we didn’t turn the puck over and the goalie found his groove.”

Related: The Flames are still learning their new system, and it shows

Goalie nods: Kinkaid makes season debut for Devils

New Jersey Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid (1) watches a shot on goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Newark N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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There’ll be a new look in goal for New Jersey this evening, as backup Keith Kinkaid gets his first start of the season as the Devils host the Blackhawks.

Kinkaid will give Cory Schneider the night off, after Schneider started New Jersey’s first six games of the year.

This promises to be a game worth monitoring. Kinkaid spent last year as Schneider’s backup — going 9-9-1 with a 2.81 GAA and .904 save percentage — but, this year, had to beat out Scott Wedgewood for the gig during training camp and the exhibition campaign.

What’s more, Kinkaid is being thrown into a difficult matchup, taking on a Chicago team that’s averaging 3.43 goals per game this season. The ‘Hawks are busting out new lines tonight, too, as Patrick Kane will skate alongside Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik.

Corey Crawford will start for Chicago.


Cam Ward will start for the Hurricanes, who are playing their first home game of the season. Henrik Lundqvist goes for the Rangers.

— It’s Michael Hutchinson versus Semyon Varlamov as the Jets take on the Avs in Colorado.

Andrew Hammond, now Ottawa’s No. 1 with Craig Anderson away dealing with a personal issue, gets the nod in Calgary. He’ll be up against Brian Elliott, who has rebounded from a poor start to win both of his last two starts.

— The red-hot Cam Talbot goes again for Edmonton tonight in Vancouver. The Canucks will counter with Ryan Miller.

— No confirmed starters in Anaheim yet. Sergei Bobrovsky played in last night’s loss to San Jose, and John Gibson has been carrying the load lately with Jonathan Bernier out injured.

Marchessault, Pirri providing great bang for buck

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 13: Jonathan Marchessault #81 of the Florida Panthers celebrates a goal during Opening Night of the 2016-2017 NHL Season against New Jersey Devils at BB&T Center on October 13, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

This summer’s free agent class was highlighted by a number of big-money deals.

Yet through the first month of the season, the real highlight has been the guys that came on the cheap.

Nowhere is this more true than in Florida, where Jonathan Marchessault — signed to a two-year, $1.5 million deal with a $750,000 cap hit — has been a revelation. The undrafted free agent, who spent time with the Rangers, Blue Jackets and Lightning, has five goals and 10 points through seven games with the Panthers.

Marchessault is playing on the club’s top line with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, and leads the Panthers in scoring.

“It’s been a wonderful find for us,” team president Dale Tallon told Sportsnet. “He’s real tricky and good down low. Sees the ice well. He’s not the biggest guy. Some guys slip through the cracks. Some guys are late bloomers.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to not get drafted.”

In New York, one of Tallon’s ex-players is providing equally good value.

Brandon Pirri, who went most of the summer without a contract before signing with the Rangers in August, is off to a terrific start. Inked to a one-year, $1.1 million deal, Pirri has four goals and six points in seven games, and leads the team in power-play markers.

“I’m glad we’re the ones who got him,” Derek Stepan said, per the Associated Press. “He’s got a knack for the net. It’s not easy to score goals in this league and he seems to be in those areas to score.

“That’s a difficult thing and, to me, that’s a skill. If you have it, it’s special and it’s rare.”

Some other under-the-radar signings that have stood out:

— The backup goalie position in Montreal was a disaster last season, so full credit to GM Marc Bergevin for solving it on the cheap. Al Montoya was brought aboard for $950,000, and all he’s done is go 3-0-1 with a .955 save percentage and 1.47 GAA. He also provided crucial stability at the start of the year, too, when Carey Price was sidelined with the flu.

— In Dallas, Adam Cracknell has capitalized on the opportunity provided by all the club’s injuries at forward. Signed to a two-way deal with a $600,000 cap hit, 31-year-old has two goals and three points through seven games, appearing in every contest for the Stars this season while averaging over 10 minutes per.

Patrick Wiercioch, who didn’t even get a qualifying offer from Ottawa, signed with Colorado for $800,000. The 26-year-old d-man has been great offensively, with five points through five games, leading all Avs blueliners in scoring.

— Speaking of Ottawa, GM Pierre Dorion did well to sign Tom Pyatt out of the Swiss League. Inked to a one-year, two-way deal worth $800,000, Pyatt returned to the NHL after two years abroad and “has been really good for us on both sides of the ice,” according to head coach Guy Boucher. Pyatt has three points through six games and is one of the club’s top penalty killers.