Loui Eriksson, Steve Ott

Western playoff picture: Predators magic number 1, Stars gain ground on 8th place Blackhawks

Western Conference playoff race

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

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Dallas 3, Columbus 0

The Stars are at the point in their season where every game is a must-win. On Tuesday night, not only did they do their part by blanking the Blue Jackets 3-0, but they got a little help when the Canadiens beat the Blackhawks in overtime. Of course, the Stars and their fans would have preferred a Habs win in regulation, but Dallas still managed to gain a point in the standings with their win. It was a good team effort as Steve Ott scored the first goal (eventual game winner) and Kari Lehtonen only needed 23 saves for his third shutout of the season. Not only did the win pull them to within two points of the 8th place Blackhawks, but they’re also only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks. At this point, no one in Big D cares which team they catch.

On a more somber note, Jackets’ defenseman Kris Russell broke his ankle in one of the uglier injuries hockey fans will see. Tough to see a good player go down in a game when the season is, for all intents and purposes, over for his team.

St. Louis 3, Colorado 1

The good news for the Blues is that they were finally able to beat the Colorado Avalanche. After they’d lost seven straight games dating back to the 2008-09 season, the Blues finally picked up a win by beating the Avs 3-1 in St. Louis. David Backes scored his 30th goal of the year, Andy McDonald scored his 20th, and Kevin Shattenkirk picked up his 41st and 42nd points of the year. Not bad for a rookie defenseman who was traded halfway through his freshman campaign.
Of course, the bad news is that this game meant absolutely nothing to the Blues. On the other hand, the loss for Colorado just solidified that top 3 pick in next year’s draft. So yet again, the Avs actually won the night against the Blues.

Nashville 6, Atlanta 3

Going into the night, the Predators were able to clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Thrashers and a Stars loss to the Blue Jackets. Nashville took care of their business early by scoring three 1st period goals, but they didn’t get any help from Columbus. Mathematically, the Predators’ magic number is down to 1. Practically, the win helped solidify the Preds playoff spot and launched them all the way to the 4th seed. Interesting how with only three games left in the season, the 4th seed in the Western Conference still isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot.

Montreal 2, Chicago 1 (OT)

From a Blackhawks perspective, it would be nice if they could start scoring some goals. However, they were able to fire 42 shots on Carey Price and if it weren’t for stellar goaltending from the Montreal netminder, they probably would have scored enough to win. Captain Jonathan Toews was upset after the game for a tripping call that went against him in OT:

“I don’t really know what to say right now. We worked our butts off and you don’t want to blame it on one little thing and say it comes down to a call but that’s obviously what happened. You can argue the call, especially when you feel there are a lot of stick penalties that don’t get called against you out there. And then the game’s decided on something like that, it’s pretty damn frustrating.”

The fact remains that the single point pulls them into a 7th place tie with the Anaheim Ducks with three games remaining. They may be frustrated tonight, but the reality stays the same: if they win the rest of their games, they’re in.

Edmonton 2, Vancouver 0

If people thought the Blues/Avs game was meaningless, they had no idea the Canucks and Oilers were renewing pleasantries. The best team in the league that has already wrapped up the President’s Trophy (and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs) battling the last place team in the league that has almost locked up the top spot for the draft lottery isn’t the type of match-up to get hockey fans in a frenzy. The Oilers were able to best the high flying Canucks for the second time in as many games between the teams—which is great inside the Edmonton locker room. Unfortunately, that’s the only place in the world that it matters.

The game was given a little more juice when Raffi Torres decided to push the limits of the NHL’s headshot tolerance on Jordan Eberle. He received a 5-minute elbowing major and a game misconduct for his transgressions. But unless the league goes “Matt Cooke suspension” on Torres, the worst thing that could happen is that he gets a few unpaid days off before the playoffs.

Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

Perhaps not.

The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.

Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
2 Comments

Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

***

It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.