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.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.

Video: An early taste of the Tkachuk-inspired violence in Kings vs. Flames

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BREAKING: the Los Angeles Kings really don’t appreciate Calgary Flames rookie-pest-forward Matthew Tkachuk thanks to that elbow on Drew Doughty (and the fallout from all … that).

Tkachuk responded by critiquing Doughty for “complaining to the media,” so there was testiness from the start.

There was jawing before the game. Then Jake Muzzin rebuked Tkachuk’s kind offer for a fight. Finally, Keith’s son dropped the gloves with Brayden McNabb:

It wasn’t the only bout of the opening frame, and there could be more blood to come beyond this Jarome IginlaDeryk Engelland feud:

Players from both teams better keep their heads up (and on a swivel) tonight. The Flames have to hope that this doesn’t result in injuries, judging from what happened to Johnny Gaudreau.

Avalanche sign Toews-like first-rounder Tyson Jost

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Things have been pretty bleak for the Colorado Avalanche this season, but at least they can look to a high pick in the next draft … and maybe dream about how their top pick from 2016 may pan out.

The Avs signed Tyson Jost, the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract on Wednesday. Colorado notes that he’ll jump right into some NHL action to close out this season.

It’s a nice sneak preview, as NHL insider Bob McKenzie noted on an NBCSN appearance (see above) that doing so will not burn the first year of Jost’s entry-level contract. Nice.

Even nicer? McKenzie also compares Jost favorably to … (drum-roll, though the headline spoiled it) Jonathan Toews.

Most obviously, the two both starred at the University of North Dakota. For the sake of fun, here are their numbers in their final years in the NCAA:

Jost: 16 goals, 35 points in 33 games, +17 rating (2016-17)
Toews: 18 goals, 46 points in 34 games (2006-07)

Naturally, Toews enthusiasts in particular will tell you that points aren’t everything … but maybe there are some shades of the two-way Blackhawks center there?

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy raved that Jost has “man-strength already” back around the 2016 NHL Draft, as you can see in this profile.

“Jost oozes confidence and already looks like NHL captain material for the future.”

Hey, that does sound at least somewhat Toews-like, doesn’t it?

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In other signing news, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass-Lowell’s CJ Smith. More on that below.

Video: This Kane-to-Panarin goal is all sorts of ridiculous

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When people were arguing against Artemi Panarin‘s Calder case, they often discounted his work because of Patrick Kane‘s brilliance (at least when they weren’t focusing on age questions).

It always felt a little unfair to Panarin.

Do we blame a great wide receiver playing with an adept quarterback? Sure, it’s an interesting discussion to have, but it seems fairly clear that there’s a symbiotic relationship between Panarin and Kane.

One could see that plainly in a 1-0 goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Pittsburgh Penguins that … admittedly was driven by Kane’s almost audacious creativity and skill.

But still, Panarin has 26 goals this season because he’s really good, too. This season has been a nice showcase for such thoughts, and a reminder that – like most great combinations – they make each other better.

(Seriously though, Kane was out of his mind there.)