Chris Kunitz, Al Montoya

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.

‘It looks like a disaster’ — Senators could be facing more injury problems

BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  Head coach Guy Boucher of the Tampa Bay Lightning speaks to the media after their 0 to 1 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on May 27, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Not only did the Ottawa Senators lose on Sunday, but three different forwards left the game because of injury.

And that was after they had already lost forward Bobby Ryan indefinitely because of a hand injury. In a 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Senators had Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Tommy Wingels leave with injuries.

Hoffman suffered a lower-body injury in the first period, while Stone was caught with a hit to the head from defenseman Jacob Trouba. That infraction might result in Trouba getting further supplementary discipline from the NHL.

“Tough day with the loss of Bobby and then we lost another bunch of guys. At some point I felt, there was nobody on the bench,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher, who appeared furious with the officials’ decision to give Trouba only a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head.

“I can give you an update – it doesn’t look good. We have to wait until tomorrow to be clear and precise about all these guys.

“Right now, we could be losing quite a few guys … It looks like a disaster. We’ll see tomorrow and maybe the disaster is not as bad as we think but you’ve got to be ready for anything.”

What especially hurts for the Senators is that Hoffman, Stone and Ryan are three very capable offensive players, and if all three are out long-term, that’s a good chunk of scoring suddenly gone from their lineup. Stone leads the team with 22 goals, while Hoffman is tied for second in that category with Kyle Turris at 19 goals.

The Senators had a chance to take over top spot in the Atlantic Division. With a win, Ottawa would’ve tied Montreal with 70 points, but taken first in the division because of fewer games played.

Blackhawks snap Sabres winning streak

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The Eastern Conference playoff race is tightening up, especially when it comes to the wild card.

The Buffalo Sabres, thanks to a three-game winning streak and six wins in their last 10 games prior to Sunday, have suddenly jumped right into the thick of that race. But with a chance to win four in a row and tie, at least temporarily, the Bruins at 64 points, the Sabres ran into the Chicago Blackhawks.

And that proved problematic.

After Evander Kane scored the equalizer with 5.6 seconds left in the first period, Chicago took over through the second half of the game, scoring four unanswered goals for a 5-1 victory to move within seven points of the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division.

Patrick Kane put a stamp on this one. Given an absurd amount of time in front, Kane was able to put on a stickhandling clinic before beating Robin Lehner on the backhand.

It further hurt Buffalo’s cause that it was unable to capitalize on a lengthy five-on-three in the first period.

“I thought our opportunity was that 5-on-3, to get not just one goal, maybe two. We gave them too much,” said coach Dan Bylsma, per the Sabres.

The Sabres now enter their bye week. They play the last-place Colorado Avalanche next Saturday. The time off might provide a rest in the middle of a grinding season, but teams have struggled immediately out of the break and the Sabres can ill afford a set back in the playoff race.

Video: On Hockey Day in America, Auston Matthews did this . . .

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 11:  Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Air Canada Centre on November 11, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Flyers 6-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Born in Scottsdale, AZ., Auston Matthews has taken the NHL by storm in his rookie season as an elite talent headlining an impressive freshman class.

Taken first overall last June, Matthews made history with four goals in his debut, surely a dizzying experience for Maple Leafs fans accustomed to heartbreak and frustration. And he really hasn’t slowed down since.

On Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes — and on Hockey Day in America — the 19-year-old Matthews once again put on a show, scoring his 28th goal of the season. That gave Toronto a two-goal lead.

As he’s often done in his brief time in the NHL, this goal was of the spectacular variety, as he broke in off the left wing and, as he was getting hauled down to the ice, slid the puck five-hole on Cam Ward.

Related: Auston Matthews is having a rookie season for the ages

Video: After a slow start, Evander Kane is on a roll for the Sabres

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For about a month now, Evander Kane has enjoyed a particularly productive stretch for the Buffalo Sabres.

Kane scored with 5.6 seconds remaining in the first period of Sunday’s game versus the Chicago Blackhawks, converting on a nifty pass from Jack Eichel and going top shelf on Scott Darling.

He now has goals in three straight games, and 15 points in 14 games as the Sabres have fought their way back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, this latest run comes just before the trade deadline, and Kane’s name has consistently been in speculation about a possible move — in addition to off-ice issues. While GM Tim Murray has said earlier this month that he’s not actively shopping Kane, he also didn’t absolutely rule out trading the 25-year-old left winger, now into his second season in Buffalo.

(Murray: “Is there a crazy deal that somebody could throw at me that would force me to do it? I guess there is.”)

Most impressive about Kane’s numbers — remember he missed time earlier this season with a rib injury and then had a slow start, which drew the ire of the coach — is that he’s done the vast majority of his scoring, 20 of 21 goals, at five-on-five.