Eastern playoff race: Caps take over top spot, Leafs look forward to next year

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Eastern Conference playoff race

x-1. Washington – 105 pts
x-2. Philadelphia – 103 pts
x-3. Boston – 99 pts
x-4. Pittsburgh – 102 pts
x-5. Tampa Bay – 99 pts
x-6. Montreal – 93 pts
7. Buffalo – 92 pts
8. NY Rangers – 91 pts
9. Carolina – 87 pts

x – clinched playoff spot

Buffalo 4, Tampa Bay 2

At a time when the Buffalo Sabres need every point they can get to maintain their place in the standings, Thomas Vanek made sure they’d get the two points against Tampa Bay. Vanek scored his first hat trick this season and the 7th place Sabres lowered their “magic number” to 2 over the Carolina Hurricanes. The win also helped Buffalo keep pace with the 6th seeded Montreal Canadiens who are only a single point ahead of them in the standings.

For the Lightning, the loss snapped their 5-game winning streak. Worse than the loss on the scoreboard was when stud defenseman Viktor Hedman went down with a lower-body injury in the 2nd period. Head coach Guy Boucher hinted that it might have just been for precautionary reasons, but added, “We’ll have to see, we’ll have to wait.” Any extending period absence that potentially extends into the playoffs would be a huge loss for the Lightning. Hopefully for the Lightning and their fans, it’s a minor injury and the team is exercising caution.

Washington 3, Toronto 2 (SO)

Both the Capitals and Leafs made news in the Eastern Conference playoff race—although for much different reasons. The Capitals were finally able to catch and pass the Philadelphia Flyers behind the power of Mike Knuble’s lone goal in the skills competition. The Caps only have two games remaining, yet hold a two-point advantage over the Flyers and have clinched the Southeast Division. Not too bad for a team that was having a disappointing time this season.

For the Leafs, they were battling to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. Unfortunately for Leafs Nation, their fate was sealed even before the shootout was completed because the Sabres were able to beat the Lightning at home. The shootout loss hurt, but their season had already been decided. Leafs’ captain Dion Phaneuf captured the sentiment of the locker room (and probably a fair amount of fans as well):

“It’s probably the worst feeling in hockey, other than losing in the playoffs. Right now, [the run] still doesn’t make it any better. As players, we play to play in the playoffs.”

 

Ottawa 5, Philadelphia 2

Coming into the game against the lowly Ottawa Senators, the Flyers had the chance to clinch the Atlantic Division, a guaranteed top 3 seed that comes with the division crown. Instead, not only did they get pumped by the Sens and not only did they lose the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings, but they are now only a single point ahead of the Penguins to win the division (both have two games left). The Flyers have been the class of the East all season—but they’re playing their worst hockey of the season at the worst possible time. The loss to the Sens was the fourth straight defeat for the Flyers. Needless to say, Philadelphia isn’t exactly streaking towards the playoffs.

On top of the poor play, newcomer Ben Holmstrom did his best Matt Cooke impression in his first game in the league. Yeah, Chris Pronger can’t come back soon enough.

Pittsburgh 4, New Jersey 2

No Sidney Crosby, no Evgeni Malkin, no problem. People keep waiting for the Penguins to start slipping without their two superstars but they just keep winning. Now, instead of slipping down the standings, they’re seriously threatening the Flyers for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Their magic number for clinching home ice advantage in the first round dropped to 2 with their win against the Devils and the Lightning’s loss in Buffalo.

Next up, a simple game in Long Island. Surely there won’t be any storylines to follow in that game, right?

Montreal 2, Chicago 1 (OT)

Some people may have said it was only a matter of time, but when a team clinches a playoff spot, a burden is invariably lifted. With their thrilling OT victory over the defending champs, the Habs officially sent in their RSVP for the 2010-11 playoffs. Carey Price was an absolute wall as he stopped 42 of 43 shots directed at him by the Hawks. Michael Cammalleri looked like he was ready for the playoffs to start today and PK Subban proved that he has a flair for the dramatic (Blackhawks fans may have a different take on his drama lessons). But if you truly like drama, keep this in mind: if the playoffs started today the Canadiens would face the Bruins in the first round.

Wild extend captain Mikko Koivu’s contract for two years, $11M

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Minnesota Wild fans fearing that the 2017-18 season could be Mikko Koivu‘s last can breathe a sigh of relief, and that suspense didn’t even carry into opening night.

Instead, the Wild signed Koivu to a two-year contract extension worth $11 million.

That $5.5M cap hit kicks in during the 2018-19 campaign and ends after 2019-20. It represents a minor cut in pay for Koivu, as he’s entering the final year of a deal with a $6.75M cap hit.

Koivu, 34, enjoyed a strong first season under Bruce Boudreau, becoming a Selke finalist for the first time in his underrated career. He’s been Minnesota’s captain since 2008-09.

Koivu’s deal would qualify as a 35+ contract, according to Cap Friendly.

The Finnish forward likely valued stability, maybe taking a little less in AAV for the sake of peace of mind.

This continues a busy week-or-so for the Wild, who also broke their impasse with RFA Marcus Foligno by handing him a four-year, $11.5M deal.

Opinion: this Koivu deal is a much, much easier decision to justify, even taking into account his advanced age.

Predators captain announcement looming; they have some great options

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Multiple reporters* indicate that the Nashville Predators will name their captain (and alternates) on Wednesday.

Mike Fisher briefly held the title, and before him, Shea Weber wore the “C.” Both were safe, obvious choices; this time around, there are some intriguing options. The Tennessean’s Adam Vignan reports that the Predators themselves realize that there are quite a few logical captains in their midst (which probably isn’t a bad problem to have).

“It’s totally different this time around,” Pekka Rinne said. “I think Mike last year, I think everybody saw that coming. Everybody agreed. Everybody was really comfortable with it. I think now we have, in my opinion, at least four great options to choose from.”

Note: the Predators would be wise not to pull a Canucks with Roberto Luongo as captain experiment, even if Rinne’s easily one of the team’s leaders.

Some of the most obvious options include young-yet-veteran defenseman Roman Josi, big-dollar-center Ryan Johansen, and star blueliner P.K. Subban.

(Honestly, though, it’s difficult to imagine Subban wearing the “C” after all the weird, Listerine-scented stuff with the media happened during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.)

As strong as those options are, it sure feels like Josi is the favorite, especially since he’s been around longer than Subban, Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson.

Vegas oddmakers agree:

And so do reporters covering the team on a day-to-day basis:

One moment of devil’s advocacy, though: Subban, Johansen, Arvidsson, Filip Forsberg, and Mattias Ekholm all have more term on their contracts than Josi, who is a bargain at $4M for three more seasons.

OK, that’s kind of a weak argument, but hey … sometimes it’s a pain to have to deal with captain questions so often, and you never know if the team might determine that Josi is expendable, considering their deep war chest on the blueline.

Nah, Josi’s probably the easy and correct choice. Right?

* – Including Cory Curtis of WKRN-TV and Justin Bradford of 102.5 The Game.

Duchene dusts off ‘one day at a time’ for Avalanche trade questions

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The Denver Post’s Mike Chambers posted an exclusive video interview with Matt Duchene, who was verbose …

… Compared to the terse statement he provided, without questions, last week regarding what must seem to him like ubiquitous Colorado Avalanche trade rumors.

Check out Duchene’s comments in the video below, which seem to mix saying a lot of the right things – and finding a new way to use the “one day at a time” cliche – with a little bit of edge that makes you wonder how well he’ll contain his frustration in other situations.

How often will he be available for such questioning on the road, particularly in big media markets and/or around reporters covering teams who’ve long been connected to Duchene?

Either way, Chambers’ video is another reminder that, for all the times people roll their eyes at canned responses during press conferences and locker-room interviews, reporters can get less-guarded moments where you can parse out greater truths.

(And, hey, it’s nice to give Duchene a chance to make faces that seem a little less … depressed?)

Chambers transcribes an especially intriguing part at the end of the interview (click here for more transcriptions from Chambers at the Denver Post, if video isn’t an option or your preference).

What if he’s not traded? “I’m not looking that far (ahead),” he said. “I’m taking one day at a time.”

Hmm, interesting, right?

/Refreshes the #FreeDuchene hashtag.

Kings’ power play – with Toffoli on point – is latest nod to modern NHL

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Considering how well the Darryl Sutter-coached Los Angeles Kings hogged the puck, there was a sense that he yielded as much as one could expect from a talented, but aging roster.

With a new regime in the front office (from GM Rob Blake to assistant-turned-head-coach John Stevens), there’s at least one interesting test taking place: what if modern tactics were applied to a Kings team that, structurally, often felt like a “throwback” team?

(Again, to Sutter’s credit, that throwback style worked very well at times.)

LA Kings Insider’s Jon Rosen reports that the Kings are embracing the modern approach that sometimes scares off more conservative coaches: going with four forwards and one defenseman on a power play.

Rosen reports that the team rolled with Michael Cammalleri, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Drew Doughty on their top unit. In that alignment, Toffoli joined Doughty on the points.

The puck movement drew praise from Rosen:

There was ample movement; such positioning didn’t always remain that way. Toffoli drifted lower towards the half wall, and Doughty often was found straight away, at the top of the key. The plan? More one-time opportunities from high-danger areas closer to the net.

Of course, it’s important to note that it’s September, and the Kings could go a different way once the games count in the standings.

Even if their philosophy stays the same, injuries could force personnel changes. Then again, this alignment leaves a talented forward like Tanner Pearson off the top unit, so it’s plausible that this 4F-1D combo could weather a storm or two. Pearson could also nudge his way in if the Kings believe they need a better balance of left and right-handed shots (and so on).

Checking Left Wing Lock’s listings, it’s clear that his is quite the departure, as the Kings rolled with Doughty plus either Jake Muzzin or Alec Martinez in most instances last season.

Los Angeles fell in the middle of the power-play pack in 2016-17; their 19.1 percent rate of success ranked 15th, while their 46 power-play goals tied for 16th in the NHL. They only allowed three shorthanded goals, so for those other numbers to climb, they might have to stomach more risk.

When you ponder how much the Kings struggle to score at times, it might be worth it.

For more on the pros and cons of putting a forward on the point, check out Matt Cane’s 2015 bit for Hockey Graphs.