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.

Stars’ Klingberg is building serious Norris argument

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From Nicklas Lidstrom to Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, NHL fans are used to Swedish defensemen being involved in Norris Trophy talks, and often winning the award outright. It’s about time that we add another name to the conversation: John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.

Some might roll their eyes when points come up in the Norris discussion, but how could they not, especially in Klingberg’s case?

After collecting three assists in the Stars’ 7-1 Saturday squash of the Sabres, Klingberg now has a whopping 46 points in just 48 games. As of this writing, Klingberg leads all defensemen by 10 points. If he maintains that margin for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, it will be tough to deny Klingberg the first Norris Trophy in Stars history.

Klingberg’s 46 points tie him with Jamie Benn for the team points lead, and place him in a multi-player tie for 18th overall in the NHL.

About two weeks ago, Jamie Benn told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that Klingberg deserves consideration.

“One hundred percent,” Benn said. “He’s such a dynamic player, and a leader on this team. And I think this year he’s taking his game to another level, and it’s showing out there on the ice.”

It’s not just about the scoring. Klingberg is getting the ice time you’d expect from a Norris hopeful, with an average of 23:33 per game. While that isn’t in the Drew Doughty range, it shows that the slick Swede is a go-to guy for the Stars (he easily leads Dallas in ice time).

His all-around game is impressive. You can see strong possession stats at a glance at Hockey Reference, and with just 14 penalty minutes so far, he’s not hurting his team with bad discipline. While he’s not a primary penalty killer for Dallas, there’s some trust in that area, as he’s averaging 1:18 PK time per contest.

Maybe you’d lean more toward Doughty, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, or Karlsson – it’s a dynamic and deep field this year – but Klingberg deserves consideration, and he’s already drawing favorable comparisons to beloved Stars blueliner Sergei Zubov (without the in-game smoking breaks, one would assume).

You could argue that Klingberg has been one of the greatest beneficiaries to Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas.

Not that long ago, Klingberg was suffering through healthy scratches as the Stars experienced a wildly disappointing 2016-17 season. Now he’s easily on pace to surpass his career-high of 58 points, and Klingberg might just collect some hardware in the process.

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.

Johnson’s shot at Duchene makes lack of Colorado return a bummer

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Through a rare scheduling quirk, Matt Duchene‘s first game as a member of the Ottawa Senators against the Colorado Avalanche was both a letdown and a case of instant gratification.

The Senators faced the Avs on back-to-back games on Nov. 10 and 11, Duchene’s debut contests with Ottawa. That’s really something, but those contests took place in Sweden, so fans – and former teammates, honestly – were deprived of the spectacle of seeing Duchene return to town.

Barring a highly unlikely trade or an equally unlikely meeting in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (hey, the Avs are doing a better job holding up their end of the bargain in that regard), Duchene won’t play in Colorado as a member of the opposing team until 2018-19.

That was already a bummer, even before Colorado extended its scorching run to nine straight wins. That missed opportunity for drama and entertainment stings more today, though, as Erik Johnson took a swipe at Duchene without using his name, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work,” Johnson said, via Sadowski.

Zing.

Again, Johnson didn’t add “Right, Matt Duchene?” at the end, so perhaps there’s plausible deniability right there. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Johnson wasn’t taking a shot at, say, Mikhail Grigorenko, though.

It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see those two teams play in North America until next season, but at least Erik Johnson provided the in-real-life answer to a “subtweet” on Matt Duchene, eh?

(Hot take: the NHL needs more smack-talking moments like these, even if names aren’t always named.)

In case you’re wondering

Duchene now has 13 points in 29 games with the Senators heading into Saturday’s action, numbers that lag behind his Colorado work (including 10 points in 14 sometimes-awkward games with the Avs in 2017-18).

That said, Duchene has been heating up lately, generating at least one point in four of his last five games (three goals and four assists for seven points during that span).

Samuel Girard has nine points (all assists) in 31 games with Colorado after generating a goal and two assists in five contests for Nashville. Girard has three assists in his last five appearances for the Avs. He also has seven assists during Colorado’s nine-game winning streak, even with more modest ice time than he first received with the Avalanche.

Kyle Turris‘ numbers are most relevant to Sens fans, but nonetheless: he’s been slowing down a bit with Nashville lately, yet he still has 19 points in 29 games as a member of the Predators.

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.

Are boiling-hot Avalanche for real? We’ll find out soon

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If the Colorado Avalanche’s New Year’s resolution was to never lose again, they’ve been sticking to it so far.

With a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers today, the Avalanche are undefeated in 2018 (7-0-0), and that’s not even the extent of their ridiculous winning streak. They’ve now won nine games in a row, with this run stretching back to an overtime win against Toronto on Dec. 29.

The Avalanche are now at 26-16-3, a resounding rise from being under .500 not that long ago (they dipped to 12-13-2 on Dec. 7).

About two weeks ago, PHT glanced at the Avalanche when their winning streak was at five consecutive victories.

Since then, they’ve tacked on four more wins, outscoring opponents 15-6 during that span. It’s not as if they’re facing cupcakes, either, as these last four teams (Stars, Ducks, Sharks, and Rangers) are either in playoff position or are battling hard for a spot.

Many of the same things continue to go right for the Avalanche.

  • Nathan MacKinnon continues to battle for Hart recognition: MacKinnon scored a goal and an assist against the Rangers today, giving him 23 goals and 59 points in just 45 games this season. This is already the second-best total of his career, and his peak of 63 points isn’t far away. One could probably assume that Nate-Mac is more intrigued by the possibility of flirting with a 100-point season than any of his previous marks.

MacKinnon’s point streak now spans the Avalanche’s nine-game run: eight goals and 11 assists for a blistering 19 points. He’s currently ranked second in scoring with 59 points, just two points behind Nikita Kucherov‘s 61.

  • Jonathan Bernier is also leading the way: Remember when Bernier was going to be the next big thing?

Instead, he’s quietly showing why scouts were once so excited about him, and you wonder what the pending UFA ($2.75 million cap hit this season) might net the Avalanche if they’re not sold on his future. With injured would-be starter Semyon Varlamov only signed through 2018-19, Colorado has some questions to answer. That said, it’s a lot better to have multiple options in net than none.

Bernier is now on an eight-game winning streak and has won nine of 10 games. Bernier has an absurd .957 save percentage in seven January appearances.

The two have even combined for some highlights, conveniently enough.

Now, there are some caveats.

The Avalanche have played nine of their last 10 games at home. Only the Rangers have seen a more home-dominant start to 2017-18, as the Avs have played 26 games in Colorado versus just 19 on the road.

Starting Monday, the Avalanche will essentially see their schedule reverse:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

You could extend the tough times to about a month, really.

So far, the Avalanche are 18-7-1 at home and just 8-9-2 on the road. Of course, they’ll now be going on the road with a rejuvenated Bernier; with that in mind, maybe this stretch of away games will merely give the Avs a chance to drive home the point that they’re a true contender?

It’s already been a marvelous turnaround for this group, as they basically exceeded their atrocious 2016-17 season at the midway point of this one.

Much like MacKinnon in trying to do far more than merely set career-highs, the Avalanche don’t need to settle for moral victories right now. They’re getting plenty of actual victories, especially lately.

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.

What happened to the Los Angeles Kings?

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They were doing so well, those Los Angeles Kings.

And it wasn’t that long ago, either.

Back on Jan. 4, these same Kings were tied for the second spot in the whole of the Western Conference. Hell, they were knocking on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s door at the summit of the league.

That night, the streak began.

Now, the Kings are fresh off their latest defeat, a narrow 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night. It was Los Angeles’ sixth straight loss and their second to the rival Ducks in less in a week.

But why?

Why has a team that looked so dominant prior to this fallen off a proverbial cliff so quickly?

Perhaps fans could blame Jonathan Quick.

He’s lost his past five starts now, allowing three goals or more in four of them. But while his numbers might be in a little bit of decline, it’s hard to pin the Kings’ woes on a man who’s sporting a .924 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.

We must look deeper.

There we find some issues with getting the rubber puck in the back of the net.

When the streak began, the Kings were scoring. They posted three goals in each of their 4-3 losses to the Calgary Flames and the Nashville Predators – tight games that may have gone another way depending on a bounce or two. But since then, they’ve scored two, one, one and one in their past four, respectively.

Winning hockey games where you score one goal and expect your goalie to stop a barrage of shots is, well, nearly impossible in today’s NHL.

The lack of scoring is perhaps the Kings’ biggest problem. They simply need more of it.

They’re a team that ranks among the top in goal differential. They have a starting netminder that gives them a chance to win nearly every night.

Yet, when Anze Kopitar registers just two markers in 15 games, it’s not exactly helping. And when a resurgent Dustin Brown stops surging with just three goals in his past 16 games, it’s not helping. And when 18-goal man Tyler Toffoli has one goal in his past seven games… you get the picture.

Scoring is a must. No one needs to be told this, let alone the Kings who have won a couple Stanley Cups in recent years.

The good news: those scoring slumps likely won’t last.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck