Cam Ward, Erik Cole

Race for the playoffs: Caps can clinch top spot, Buffalo looks to lock in, Canes control destiny

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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.”

Eastern Conference playoff race

y-1. Washington – 107 pts (1 GR)
x-2. Philadelphia 103 pts (2 GR)
y-3. Boston – 101 pts (2 GR)
x-4. Pittsburgh – 102 pts (2 GR)
x-5. Tampa Bay – 99 pts (2 GR)
x-6. Montreal – 94 pts (1 GR)
7. Buffalo – 92 pts (2 GR)
8. NY Rangers – 91 pts (1 GR)
9. Carolina – 89 pts (2 GR)

y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Philadelphia @ Buffalo – 7:30 p.m. ET

Part of our attention tonight will be focused on Buffalo where a point of any kind earned by the Sabres locks them into a playoff spot. Buffalo has an open door to make a run at the sixth seed after Montreal’s overtime loss to Ottawa last night but going up against a Flyers team that’s down in the dumps but looking to win the Atlantic Division won’t make it easy.

The Flyers have just a one point lead on Pittsburgh for the division and all the Flyers need to do is finish tied with or ahead of the Pens to win the division title. With the Penguins in Long Island tonight in what could turn into a circus, the Flyers might want to find a way to take home two point no matter how in this one. A Flyers win and Penguins loss either in regulation or overtime/shootout would give Philly the division crown. The Sabres just need a point of any kind at all to stay out of the potential mess brewing underneath them between the Rangers and Hurricanes.

Carolina @ Atlanta – 7:30 p.m. ET

Carolina has playoff life and it’s thanks to the Thrashers that they’ve got that after Atlanta dealt a crushing shot to the Rangers last night beating them 3-0 to put playoff destiny firmly in the hands of the Hurricanes. A Carolina win gives them 91 points, the same as New York, and with the Hurricanes holding the tiebreaker on New York, would slip them into eighth place and shift all attention to Saturday night to see who goes to the postseason. A Carolina loss would mean the Rangers would just have to get one point on Saturday to clinch. Guess who the Rangers are rooting for in this one.

For Atlanta, while they’re not enjoying the role of spoilers, they probably wouldn’t mind getting one more over on a divisional foe and having a healthy hand in screwing up everyone’s playoff hopes. A Carolina loss in overtime or the shootout would clinch a playoff berth for Buffalo even if the Sabres lost in regulation tonight.

Pittsburgh @ NY Islanders – 7 p.m. ET

A point by Pittsburgh would guarantee them at least the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. With a win and depending on what happens with the Flyers against Buffalo they could vault them into first place in the Atlantic Division. With just one point separating those two teams, the Pens still have a shot at the division title, but they’ll need the Flyers to at least lose one game in regulation to help make it happen. Should the Pens and Flyers end the season tied in points, the Flyers would win the division thanks to having fewer shootout wins. This game against the Islanders won’t be easy nor will it necessarily be all that clean.

Florida @ Tampa Bay – 7:30 p.m. ET

Most of the scenarios for Tampa Bay are out of their hands, but a Lightning win and a Penguins loss in regulation means the fourth seed is in play for them heading into the final game of the season. Getting home ice in the first round of the playoffs for Tampa Bay would be huge as their home record this year is outstanding at 24-11-5. The only thing Florida could be playing for is trying to not end up the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

Sharks scratch Flames’ big lead, Calgary wins anyway

Calgary Flames' Mikael Backlund (11) chases down the puck against San Jose Sharks' Tomas Hertl (48) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
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If you turned off Thursday’s Calgary Flames – San Jose Sharks game early, you’ll probably be stunned to see that Calgary won 6-5 via a shootout.

For instance:

  • A Sharks fan may have bitterly called it a night when Calgary went up 4-1.
  • Conversely, a Flames devotee might have retired after San Jose took a 5-4 lead, possibly with a broken remote.

The Flames only trailed for about two minutes before scoring the last “real” goal of the game, eventually taking their third straight win thanks to a shootout triumph.

It’s been a strange ride for Calgary, with its most recent win happening after Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Lance Bouma were punished with a healthy scratch. As strange as this game was, the “charity point” can leave both teams looking through a lot of film, yet with something gained as well.

Ultimately, the message may very well be: don’t sleep on these teams.

(In less positive news, Karri Ramo is injured, and it doesn’t look good.

Jonas Hiller closing out the game on a hot streak could be pretty important if Ramo’s out for some time.)

By winning fifth straight, Caps extend Wild’s slump to seven losses

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alex Ovechkin scored three times in the second period for his 14th career hat trick, and the Washington Capitals beat the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Thursday night.

Ovechkin, who leads the league with 34 goals, has 13 in his past 13 games. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists and Jason Chimera added an empty-netter for Washington, which improved to a league-best 20-5-2 on the road.

Braden Holtby made 33 saves for the Capitals, who won their fifth consecutive game and became the first team to reach 40 victories this season.

Charlie Coyle, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund scored for the Wild, but Minnesota lost for the 12th time in its past 13 games (1-10-2). Devan Dubnyk made 29 saves for the Wild, who have lost seven in a row at home (0-4-3).

Ovechkin’s third goal, which deflected off both the post and the back of Dubnyk into the net, was upheld following a coach’s challenge. Wild coach Mike Yeo challenged that the puck had left the zone for offsides, but the call stood after a review showed that Backstrom stopped the puck before it crossed the blue line.

The goal gave Ovechkin his first hat trick since he scored four goals against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10, 2013.

It wasn’t the only fortunate bounce for Ovechkin on the night, and the five-time 50-goal scorer capitalized on each opportunity.

A shot from T.J. Oshie deflected off of Minnesota forward Zach Parise across the ice right to Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle and Ovechkin quickly snapped off a shot to beat Dubnyk, who couldn’t get across the crease to get into position. Three minutes later, Ovechkin scored on the power play when a point shot bounced off the end boards right to Ovechkin in front of the net.

The tally provided some relief for the Capitals’ surprisingly ineffective power play. Washington had one power play in its previous six games, an empty-netter for the only goal in its previous 20 power-play chances. The Capitals were 1 of 5 on the power play on Thursday.

Coyle scored for the fifth time in eight games in the second, but second periods have doomed the Wild during their slump. Minnesota has been outscored 13-3 in the period in five straight losses.

Suter scored his sixth goal of the season on the power play in the third as Minnesota went 1 of 5 with the man advantage.

NOTES: Washington C Evgeny Kuznetsov left in the third period after he was hit in the face by the stick of Mikael Granlund off a faceoff. … Backstrom has 20 points in his last 17 games. … Minnesota D Jared Spurgeon missed his second straight game with an unspecified deep bruise. Spurgeon has returned to practice, but was held out again. … Holtby is 27-1-3 in his last 31 games with two shutouts, a 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

Watch the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp tribute video

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Over the years, the Chicago Blackhawks have been forced to let some important players leave to keep their core together, which ultimately meant parting ways with Patrick Sharp.

The talented winger now wears a Dallas Stars jersey, so Blackhawks fans must face the reality of watching Sharp ply his trade for a formidable Central Division opponent.

Even if that might feel awkward, Blackhawks fans gave Sharp (and Johnny Oduya) a warm reception in Chicago on Thursday.

CSNChicago.com provides video of that ovation, which you can see in the clip above.

The Stars currently lead the Blackhawks 4-2, thanks in large part to Patrick … Eaves.

Ovechkin’s 14th career hat trick helps him make more history

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Death, taxes and Alex Ovechkin winning the Maurice Richard Trophy.

OK, the third thing on that list isn’t technically inevitable. It just feels that way lately in the NHL.

It’s unclear if the Washington Capitals can hold on against the Minnesota Wild, but we know for certain that Ovechkin already has a hat trick, the 14th of his high-scoring career.

(He also passed Jean Beliveau for 39th all-time in goals with his 509th, as NHL.com notes.)

This propels Ovechkin to the goals lead as of this writing, as he already has 34. As impressive as Patrick Kane has been, No. 8 is heating up, and may just edge No. 88 if Ovechkin can remain healthy.

One has to feel a little sympathy for the struggling Wild. They played well but lost against the Dallas Stars earlier this week and now must deal with Ovechkin and the just-as-hot Capitals.

Update: Minnesota managed three goals, but it wasn’t enough, as Washington got the edge 4-3.