Rostislav Klesla, Dustin Brown

Race for the Playoffs: Kings or Coyotes can clinch, Ducks-Sharks battle in Anaheim

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 playoff race

p – 1. Vancouver – 113 pts (3 GR)
y-2. San Jose – 103 pts (3 GR)
y-3. Detroit – 102 pts (3 GR)
4. Nashville – 97 pts (2 GR)
5. Phoenix – 96 pts (3 GR)
6. Los Angeles – 96 pts (3 GR)
7. Anaheim – 93 pts (3 GR)
8. Chicago – 93 pts (3 GR)
9. Dallas – 91 pts (3 GR)
10. Calgary – 91 pts (2 GR)

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

St. Louis @ Chicago – 8 p.m. ET

Chicago was able to get a point last night, but in their quest to make the playoffs, getting two points each night is the goal and right now they’re teetering on the edge of trouble. With a pair of games against Central Division champion Detroit awaiting them this weekend, beating St. Louis is a must for the Hawks. With the Stars streaking in the right direction and with a pair of games coming up against Colorado and their final game in Minnesota, they can’t expect Dallas to go away easily. If the Blackhawks want to get back to the playoffs to defend their Stanley Cup, it starts tonight against the Blues.

St. Louis being a longtime rival of Chicago, they’re eager to put a hurting on Chicago’s hopes and with St. Louis playing better of late (winners of three of their last four, and five of their last seven) it’s not going to be easy. It never is this time of year. If Chicago wants to avoid having their hated rivals from Detroit helping decide their fate completely, they’ll get the job done tonight.

San Jose @ Anaheim – 10 p.m. ET

The Sharks have everything tied up in the division as they won the Pacific Division after disposing of the Kings on Monday night.  Anaheim is still in a perilous position however. After dropping their last two games, they’re still in danger of being passed by Chicago or caught by Dallas and Calgary. While the Ducks own the tiebreaker over all of those teams, getting far enough ahead of them to make it not matter would be ideal. Having to do it against the Sharks tonight and wrapping the year up with a home-and-home battle against Los Angeles doesn’t sound pleasant.

Anaheim hasn’t gotten the stellar goaltending that’s been sustaining them this season in their last two losses allowing four goals in both games. While Jonas Hiller still tries to shake off vertigo, it’s on Ray Emery and Dan Ellis to hold things down. Doing that against a Sharks team that’s been lighting everyone up in the second half of the year is daunting. The Sharks aren’t without something to play for as they’re hoping to lock down the two seed in the West and get an edge on Detroit there. These teams greatly dislike each other so if you’re in need of a real primer for the playoffs, waiting out til the end of the night for this one would be a good idea.

Phoenix @ Los Angeles – 10:30 p.m. ET

It doesn’t get any more cut and dried than this. The winner of tonight’s game punches their ticket to the playoffs while the loser continues to hang in an elevated state of limbo. Tonight’s winner also gets to jump into the fourth seed in the West for the night and continue their battle with Nashville and others to see who can take down the middle two seeds to face each other in the playoffs and hopefully avoid San Jose or Detroit.

L.A. has had their ups and downs since Anze Kopitar went out of the lineup for the remainder of the season and playoffs. They’ve been able to stand tall against the weaker teams, but against the likes of San Jose and Vancouver they’ve struggled. How they do against Phoenix provides a good measuring stick to see where they’re at and where Phoenix is at as well. After Phoenix rattled off a five game win streak a couple weeks ago, they’ve been flip-flopping between wins and losses. Getting consistent would do them a world of good heading into the playoffs and beating a shorthanded Kings team would be a good way to do it.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist

DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.