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.

Poll: Will the Caps finally make it to the Stanley Cup Final?

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

If you’re a fan of the Washington Capitals, you’re used to having a lot of fun between October and April. Once mid-April hits, things become a little more frustrating.

There’s no denying that the Capitals have been great in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re now coming off back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy titles, but they still haven’t found a way to get to passed the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Heading into 2017-18, they’re still expected to be a quality team, but the salary cap has forced them to make a few significant changes over the summer. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk are all gone. There’s no doubt that those losses will hurt the overall depth they’ve accumulated over the years.

As much as those guys will be missed, general manager Brian MacLellan will be pleased that he was able to lock up key figures like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to long-term contracts. With both players still in the fold, the Caps remain one of the deeper teams in the league. Other squads would kill to be able to come at you with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky.

The departures of Alzner, Schmidt and Shattenkirk have left them a little thin on the blue line. Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are still around, but the only other players on one-way contracts are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney.

If some of their defensemen struggle during the season, they should be able to compensate for that with arguably the best goalie tandem in the league. Both Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are back, and they should provide the team with some solid performances between the pipes.

It’s pretty clear that the Capitals still aren’t over last spring’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins. Now, it’s all about how they respond this coming season. No one will care about the type of regular season they have (unless it’s bad) until they show they can get over their issues in the playoffs.

Will they overcome this mental hurdle?

Alright, it’s your turn to have your say. Feel free to vote in the poll below and leave your opinion in the comments section.

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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Imagine having a hangover without the party.

That’s how some in the Washington Capitals organization felt during the off-season. It was bad enough that they fell – again – to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a second-round series, even with home-ice advantage thanks to their run to the Presidents’ Trophy.

As Brian MacLellan would say, they suffered the losses you’d normally see after a team went all-in and won it all. Kevin Shattenkirk is gone and Karl Alzner also left via free agency, while Nate Schmidt was scooped up by Vegas. Keeping Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie at hefty prices played a big role in Marcus Johansson being traded. Justin Williams won’t bring his clutch credentials to the Caps any longer, either.

Pretty brutal stuff.

Even so, there’s still some serious talent on the Capitals roster.

Braden Holtby ranks as one of the best goalies in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin, even at 31, remains an elite sniper. Washington boasts a great trio of centers in Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Lars Eller. Alex Burakovsky could be on the rise, there are still some nice defensemen, and the Capitals still have an experienced, respected head coach in Barry Trotz.

If you weren’t preoccupied with the surplus of talent from recent seasons, that would be the sort of group that plenty of teams would envy, especially if they somehow find a way to remain absurdly healthy once again.

It’s plausible that the Capitals could still find a way to run away in the standings even after all of these painful losses. There’s the remote chance things instead go sideways in a drastic fashion.

The most realistic scenario might be Washington drawing a middle or even lower seed in the playoffs, and that might not be such a bad thing. All things considered, we’ll likely learn a lot about this group (and Trotz as a coach) based on how they fare in 2017-18.

PHT breaks down the many factors heading into next season for the Capitals on Wednesday.

Months after falling to Penguins, Capitals work to move past playoff letdown

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Sometimes, when a team falls short in a playoff run, it feels a bit melodramatic to throw around words like “devastation.” In the case of the Washington Capitals falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins – yet again – during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a little melodrama almost seems appropriate.

Still, it’s been months since they couldn’t complete a full rally from a 3-1 deficit, ultimately falling to the Penguins 2-0 in what must have been a deeply frustrating Game 7.

NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti caught up with a number of Capitals to reflect upon the past and look to the future, and while one must credit Nicklas Backstrom and others for saying the right things, you could also tell that the wounds haven’t fully healed just yet.

“I think that when it comes to the playoffs it shouldn’t be about individuals,” he said. “It should be about the team and how we lose as a team. How we acted in Game 7, I think that’s telling everything. They absolutely outplayed us in Game 7 at home. That shouldn’t be the case.”

Personally, it seemed like the Capitals seemed to carry significant chunks of play in that contest before running out of gas. There are fancy charts to back up such thoughts, but Backstrom is right in feeling disappointed. How could he not when he’s experienced setback after setback?

Speaking of setbacks, Capitals such as Evgeny Kuznestov and Dmitry Orlov also emphasized to Gulitti that they believe that this team can still compete in 2017-18.

“I don’t like when people say we’re a bad team right now,” Kuznetsov said to Gulitti during the European Player Media Tour on Thursday. “That’s bull to me. It’s not about the names. It’s about the guys when they come together.”

Some of that is soaked in cliche-speak, but you get the picture. It’s something that PHT and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan both argue to certain degrees: although there have been significant losses, there are also plenty of quality players in the meat of their primes.

The difference in 2017-18 may be that, after a couple years of seemingly having their division/the Presidents’ Trophy locked up weeks before April, this time the Capitals might just need to scrape and claw just like most other teams.

Considering how hard you need to fight to win most playoff series, that might not be such a bad thing for this group.

Just ask them how being the heavy favorites worked out in the past.

Eichel on Sabres: ‘We think we can be a playoff team’

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This deep into the salary cap era, it feels like it’s generally easier to identify which teams are contenders and which teams need to rebuild. Things seem fairly “stratified” in the NHL.

That said, there’s still that murky middle class of teams that could either slip into the cellar or fight their way into the bubble. With a cleaner bill of health, a management shakeup, and some off-season tweaks, the Buffalo Sabres stand as one of those tough teams to peg.

So, some might snicker at Jack Eichel thinking big while discussing the Sabres’ outlook with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, but the rest of us might not be so sure that he’s totally off the mark.

“We think we can be really good,” Eichel said. “We think we can be a playoff team. That’s what’s important. We have to go into training camp with the right mindset, get the season off and running, put our best foot forward.”

(Hey, for what it’s worth, almost 70 percent of voters in a PHT poll leaned toward Buffalo making the playoffs.)

If the Sabres make a big push, just about everyone expects the 20-year-old to be a central figure in such a turnaround. With Connor McDavid‘s meteoric rise and the Sabres’ struggles in mind, it’s easy for casual fans to forget that Eichel is trending toward stardom in his own right. But he clearly is.

It can’t hurt that Eichel and some other key Sabres are approaching contract years, even if Eichel could very well sign an extension in the near future.

Even if Eichel does, both goalies (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson) need new contracts, while Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, and others also enter seasons that could make a huge impact on their futures in Buffalo or elsewhere.

One would expect at least some improvement in Buffalo, but will the Sabres make the sort of leap that, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed in 2016-17?

It’s difficult to say, but Eichel sure seems happy about getting a clean slate.