Carolina Hurricanes v Buffalo Sabres

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.

Video: The Ducks and Kings brawl — again

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Oh, look at that: Another heated melee involving the Anaheim Ducks and L.A. Kings.

You’ll recall a first-period fight fest in a pivotal Pacific Division game between these teams almost one full year ago. On Saturday, in another meeting between these California rivals, the Ducks and Kings were once again at odds.

This latest conflict? Well, Corey Perry was involved. Again. (Last year, order had been restored during a brief scrum before Perry gave an extra shot to a Kings player, resulting in mayhem.)

Perry was called this time around for interference on Anze Kopitar. Kings players, as you might expect, suddenly rushed over before Nate Thompson and Brayden McNabb squared off in the main event.

 

Kings activate Jonathan Quick from IR and he is starting against the Ducks

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 08:  Goaltender Jonathan Quick #32 of the Los Angeles Kings tends net during a preseason game against the Colorado Avalanche at T-Mobile Arena on October 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Colorado won 2-1 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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For the first time since the season opener the Los Angeles Kings are going to have starting goaltender Jonathan Quick in their lineup on Saturday afternoon when they take on the Anaheim Ducks.

Quick, who has played just 20 minutes of hockey this season, has been out of the lineup since Oct. 12 due to a groin injury. The team activated him from injured reserve on Saturday before the game.

In his absence the Kings had to rely on Peter Budaj to carry the load, and he did a pretty admirable job with a .917 save percentage (the best performance of his career) in 53 appearances. Keep in mind that Quick’s save percentage the past four seasons has been .914.

While Quick’s absence seemed like it could have been a big deal at the start of the year, the biggest factor in the Kings’ disappointing season has been on the offensive side, especially in recent weeks as the team’s goal scoring woes have seemingly hit rock bottom. In their past nine games the Kings have managed just 15 goals, and that includes one game where they scored six. Simple math says they scored only nine goals in the other eight games. Not great. They were also shutout three times during that stretch.

Even if Quick is the Kings’ best goalie, and even if he returns to the lineup and plays extremely well down the stretch, it is not going to make much of a difference if the offense continues to score at that sort of abysmal level.

The Kings enter Saturday’s game five points out of the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Goalie nods: Murray, Neuvirth get the call at Heinz Field

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers take their long-time rivalry outside on Saturday night it will be Matt Murray and Michael Neuvirth getting the starts in goal for the teams.

For the Penguins, Murray getting the start is no shock at this point since he has clearly taken over the No. 1 job, starting 14 of the past 17 games the Penguins have played and currently owning some of the best numbers of any goalie in the league this season. His .925 save percentage that is currently fifth best in the NHL while his .935 save percentage during even-strength situations is tied for second best.

He has allowed just 10 goals in his past six starts.

The Penguins’ goaltending situation is still going to be one worth watching over the next couple of days leading up to the NHL trade deadline. With Murray as the guy in net trade speculation surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury has picked up, and even though general manager Jim Rutherford said earlier this week that he would prefer to keep Fleury, he mentioned on Friday that a decision resulting his short-term future will be made in the 24-48 hours leading up to the deadline.

Meanwhile, on the Philadelphia side, it will be Neuvirth getting another start as he tries to shake off the rust he has shown since returning to the lineup from an injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the season. Since returning he has just an .894 save percentage in eight starts, continuing what has been an overall disappointing season for him in net.

He faced the Penguins earlier this season in a 5-4 loss, giving up two goals on 12 shots in relief of starter Steve Mason.

Elsewhere on Saturday…

— It will be Jonathan Bernier vs. Jonathan Quick on Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles when the Ducks and Kings face off.

— Phillip Grubauer gets the call for the Washington Capitals when they visit the Nashville Predators and try to prevent Filip Forsberg from recording yet another hat trick. No word yet on who is starting for the Predators.

— Joonas Korpisalo will be giving Sergei Bobrovsky the night off for the Columbus Blue Jackets when they host Thomas Greiss and the New York Islanders.

— The Rangers will go with Antti Raanta for their rivalry showdown with the New Jersey Devils. Cory Schneider goes for the Devils.

— Huge game in Toronto when it comes to the Atlantic Division standings with the Maple Leafs facing off against a Canadiens team they trail by only four points. It will be a Carey Price vs. Frederik Anderson goalie matchup.

Ryan Miller, suddenly the subject of trade speculation, will start for the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday when they face the San Jose Sharks. Look for Martin Jones to go for the Sharks.

Robin Lehner and Calvin Pickard go for the Sabres and Avalanche respectively on Saturday night in Denver.

Antoine Vermette’s 10-game suspension upheld by Gary Bettman

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The NHL announced on Saturday afternoon that commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld the 10-game suspension the league issued to Anaheim Ducks forward Antoine Vermette for an abuse of official incident that happened earlier this month.

Bettman met with Vermette on Thursday and heard his appeal, and has ruled that the 10-game ban will remain in place.

Vermette was ejected from the Ducks’ Feb. 14 game against the Minnesota Wild after he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso in the leg following a face off. The NHL ruled that it was a Category II abuse of official foul, which carries an automatic 10-game suspension. He has already served four of those games. He will lose $97,222.22 in salary as a result of the entire suspension.

Vermette’s suspension is the third abuse of official suspension we have seen in the NHL over the past two years following the 20-game ban Dennis Wideman received last year (later reduced to 10 games) and the three-game suspension given to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season.

After signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Ducks in free agency, Vermette has eight goals and 14 assists in 58 games this season.