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.

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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.

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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.

Video: Penguins coach takes issue with late, high Orpik hit on Maatta

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have spoken out against a late, high hit that Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik threw on Olli Maatta early in the first period of an eventful Game 2 on Saturday.

Maatta left and didn’t return. He played only 31 seconds, and the Penguins were reduced to five defensemen for a large portion of the game. Orpik was given a minor penalty on the play, but the league’s Department of Player Safety may see it differently.

The hit occurred well after Maatta had gotten rid of the puck. He struggled on his way to the dressing room for further evaluation.

Based on multiple reports, Orpik wasn’t made available to the media following the game, which went to the Penguins as they earned the split on the road.

But the Penguins have taken issue with the hit.

“I thought it was a late hit,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, as per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I thought it was a target to his head. I think it’s the type of hit everyone in hockey is trying to remove from the game.”

Game on: Penguins even series with rival Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins will head back home with a split of their second-round series with the rival Washington Capitals.

Former Capitals forward Eric Fehr came back to burn his hold team, as he scored with under five minutes remaining in regulation to help lift the Penguins over Washington with a 2-1 victory in an eventful Game 2 on Saturday. Evgeni Malkin threw the puck toward the net and Fehr was able to re-direct it by Braden Holtby.

Oh, this was an eventful game, indeed.

It started early in the first period with Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik catching Penguins blue liner Olli Maatta with a late and high hit that warranted — at least for now — only a minor penalty for interference. Maatta, clearly in distress following the hit, didn’t play another shift and saw only 31 seconds of ice time in total, as Pittsburgh was reduced to five defensemen for the remainder of the game.

It continued in the third period. Kris Letang was furious after getting called for a trip on Justin Williams, and even more ticked off when the Capitals tied the game on the ensuing power play.

For two periods, the Capitals couldn’t get much going. Only four of their players had registered a shot on goal through 40 minutes, while the Penguins held the edge in that department and held the lead.

Washington came out with more jump in the third period, testing rookie netminder Matt Murray with 14 shots in the final 20 minutes. But the Penguins got the late goal to break the deadlock.

Video: Penguins’ Letang was furious after Capitals tie up Game 2 with power play goal

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Kris Letang watched from the penalty box as the Washington Capitals tied up Game 2 with a power play goal in the third period. The Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman was called for tripping after he appeared to muscle Justin Williams off the puck as he entered the zone.

Letang let his disagreement with the call be known at the time, and was furious after the Capitals capitalized on a goal from Marcus Johansson.

The Capitals started the period down a goal and being outshot 28-10 by the Penguins, who need a win to even the series.

Also, it seems this is worth mentioning:

Video: Hagelin goes top shelf to give Penguins the lead in Game 2

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In their quest to even the series, the Pittsburgh Penguins had done a nice job through two periods of suffocating the Washington Capitals, while gaining the lead on a beautiful goal.

Carl Hagelin took advantage of a vast amount of space that opened up in front of the Washington net, finishing off a nice pass from Nick Bonino, burying his shot just under the cross bar on the glove side of Braden Holtby.

Through two periods, the Penguins were outshooting Washington 28-10. Only four Capitals players — Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen — had registered shots on goal.