Eastern playoff race: Caps clinch #1 seed, Sabres are in

Eastern Conference playoff race

z-1. Washington – 107 pts
x-2. Philadelphia – 104 pts
x-3. Boston – 101 pts
x-4. Pittsburgh – 104 pts
x-5. Tampa Bay – 101 pts
x-6. Montreal – 94 pts
x-7. Buffalo – 94 pts
8. Carolina – 91 pts
9. NY Rangers – 91 pts

x – clinched playoff spot

Pittsburgh 4, NY Islanders 3 (SO)

The last time the Penguins ventured to Long Island, they were crushed 9-3 and the two teams racked up 346 total penalty minutes. Twelve minutes into the game, Francois St. Laurent and Eric Furlatt had already dealt out four fighting majors and three misconducts. Maybe the officials did a good job of getting the game under control, maybe it’s because Colin Campbell was in attendance, or maybe it was just because the Penguins had too much to play for—but that was where the really rough stuff ended. In front of a ton of Pittsburgh fans in Nassau Coliseum, the Penguins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the 1st period and held a 3-2 lead in the waning moments of the 3rd period. But a funny thing happened on the way to Pittsburgh’s victory—Travis Hamonic scored with 35 seconds to force the game to overtime. The Islanders had plenty of chances to win it in OT, but failed to score the game winner. The game went to a shootout and finally fell as Chris Kunitz scored the only goal for the Pens’ victory.

The win guarantees the Penguins will finish no worse than 4th in the Eastern Conference and will start the playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center with home-ice advantage. They also were able to pull into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers with 104 for the top spot in the Atlantic Division. Even though the Flyers own the tiebreaker, the divisional crown will come down to the last game of the season.

Tampa Bay 4, Florida 2

From the outside looking in, this game didn’t offer very much intrigue. The Lightning were locked into the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they had won 5 of their last 6 games, and were playing against a rival who had lost 9 straight. After the game, the Lightning were still locked in the 5th seed, they’ve now won 6 of 7 and the Panthers are winless in their last 10. The win put the Lightning over the century mark (101 to be exact) for the season and pleased their first-year coach Guy Boucher:

“When you pass 100 points in this league, you are automatically part of the elite. It’s hard to get 100 points … and so it’s quite an achievement for a team that started with so many new faces and had injuries all year long and battled through so much adversity lately.”

Buffalo 4, Philadelphia 3 (OT)

For all of the playoff implications on Friday night, the Sabres/Flyers game was the only game in the Eastern Conference where both teams had something on the line. Behind a perfect 3rd period return by Ryan Miller and thrilling overtime winner by Thomas Vanek, the Buffalo Sabres were able to lock up their ticket for the playoffs. For the Flyers, the news wasn’t as good. The overtime loss delivered the Eastern Conference’s top spot to the Washington Capitals. The loss also dropped Philadelphia into a first place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division. Even though they’ve lost five straight, they only need to beat the lowly Islanders at home on Saturday night to win their first Atlantic Division title since 2004 (and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference). However, if they fall to the Isles and the Penguins are able to win their final game, the Flyers will drop all the way down to the #4 seed and secure a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina 6, Atlanta 1

After the New York Rangers lost on Thursday night, they gave the Carolina Hurricanes control over their own destiny. Judging by their performance against the Thrashers, they have every intention of grabbing onto their playoff opportunity and running with it. Rookie Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu each had a goal and two assists while goaltender Cam Ward came within 39 seconds of his second shutout in a row. Then again, one goal against isn’t a big deal when the team in front of him puts up a 6 spot.

The Hurricanes now have 91 points after their win in Atlanta and move into a tie with the Rangers. The problem for the Rangers is that the Canes also own the tiebreaker. Long story short: if the Canes win their final game at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they’re in the playoffs. If the Rangers lose in regulation, the Canes are in. The beauty of controlling one’s own destiny.

Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

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No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4. You can see it all in this video:

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

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In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sean Couturier played through torn MCL, still had hat trick in Game 6 loss

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Sean Couturier was the Philadelphia Flyers’ best player in Games 5 and 6 of their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the former, he was a beast on the penalty kill and scored the game-winning goal with a minute to play in regulation. In the latter, he had a hat trick and five total points (factoring in to every single one of the Flyers’ goals) in their 8-5 defeat. He did everything he could have possibly done to try and force a Game 7 in the series.

He did all of that while playing on a torn MCL.

Had this been the regular season that sort of injury probably would have sidelined him for at least four weeks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Couturier revealed the nature of his injury following the loss on Sunday. He was injured in practice before Game 4 of the series when he was involved in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas. It kept him out of the lineup in what would be a 5-0 loss for the Flyers. He returned for Game 5, and even though he was obviously limited he still played an incredible game.

He was even better on Sunday.

This was a breakthrough season for Couturier as he doubled all of his previous career highs offensively, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points.

He is also a finalist for the Selke Trophy which is awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward. It is the first time he is a finalist for the award.

Related: Guentzel scores 4 goals as Penguins, eliminate Flyers in Game 6

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Guentzel scores four as Penguins eliminate Flyers in Game 6

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It took until the sixth game but the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally had their series turn into complete chaos.

The Penguins were able to close out the series on Sunday afternoon with an 8-5 win what was clearly the most physical, chippy, and just downright crazy game of the series.

What made it all so wild? Well let’s go through this piece by piece if we can.

First, the Penguins were trailing by a pair of goals with less than 10 minutes to play in the second period only to rally and tie the game before the intermission, with Jake Guentzel‘s third goal of the playoffs in the final minute being the equalizer.

From there, Guentzel took over, scoring three consecutive goals to open the third period to help the Penguins take a 7-4 lead.

The third goal, the one that completed the hat trick, came moments after the Penguins had to kill off a Kris Letang penalty after he attempted to cross-check Flyers forward Sean Couturier through the Penguins’ net. In any context it would have been a bad, selfish penalty, but given that the Penguins were only leading by one mid-way through the third period of a potential knockout game it was … bad. After coming out of the box Letang appeared to get away with a trip on Sean Couturier, allowing the Penguins to keep possession of the puck and Guentzel to score his third goal of the game.

Just 10 seconds later Guentzel scored again, capping off a 16-minute stretch of hockey where he scored four consecutive goals.

After leading the league in postseason goal scoring a season ago he is now tied for the league lead as of Sunday with his teammate, Sidney Crosby.

Crosby also scored his sixth goal of the playoffs on Sunday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Including the playoffs, the Penguins played five games in Philadelphia this season and not only won all of them, but scored at least five goals in all of them.

They scored at least five goals in eight of their 10 games against the Flyers this season, losing the only two games they did not top the five-goal mark.

They did it on Sunday without the services of Evgeni Malkin who missed the game after being injured early in Game 5.

Along with Malkin’s absence, the Penguins also lost Carl Hagelin on Sunday after he exited the game due to a devastating hit from Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

That was just part of the physicality from this game, most of which went uncalled on both sides.

When it came to the actual game, the Penguins needed another offensive outburst in Philadelphia because Sean Couturier did everything in his power to try and single-handedly will his team to a win.

After returning from injury on Friday and scoring the game-winning goal, he recorded five points on Sunday — factoring in all five Flyers goals — and recorded his second career postseason hat trick.

It was not enough because, well, the Flyers just simply did not have an answer for the Penguins’ offense.

Defenseman Radko Gudas had a particularly brutal game and was guilty of costly plays on the two Penguins’ second period goals to tie the game.

They also had more issues in net.

Michal Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Game 5 and played well enough to get the win, making a highlight last minute save on Crosby. He was not anywhere near as good on Sunday giving up seven goals on the 27 shots he faced (the Penguins’ eighth goal was an empty net goal).

The Flyers used three goalies in this series — Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek — while none of them finished with a save percentage higher than .857.

All three of them gave up at least two goals to Crosby.

With that, the Penguins have now won nine consecutive playoff series. They will play the winner of the Washington Capitals-Columbus Blue Jackets series in the second round. They have played the Capitals in the second round in each of the past two seasons. The Capitals lead the series 3-2 entering Game 6 in Columbus on Monday night.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin in Game 6; Patric Hornqvist returns

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have another opportunity to try and win their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon. If they do it they are going to have to do so without one of their top players, Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin did not take the pre-game warmups and will not be in the lineup after suffering an injury in their Game 5 loss on Friday night.

Here is a a look at the play where he became tangled up with Flyers forward Jori Lehtera in the first period.

Malkin left the game for the remainder of the period only to return for the second. He played the remainder of the game but did not get his regular workload and seemed to be struggling. After the game Penguins coach Mike Sullivan would only say that Malkin was fine.

Obviously he is not fine or he would be in the lineup on Sunday.

Malkin has three goals and two assists in five games this postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Riley Sheahan took pre-game line rushes between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin in place of Malkin, allowing the Penguins to keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together as it has played very well in this series.

While the Malkin injury is bad news for the Penguins they will be getting winger Patric Hornqvist back in the lineup after he missed the past two games due to an upper body injury.

Hornqvist is a difference-maker on the Penguins’ power play, a unit that struggled mightily in their Game 5 loss on Friday night, going 0-for-5 while also giving up a shorthanded goal. He will skate on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.