Race for the playoffs: Rangers and Hurricanes play for their playoff lives

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

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

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot
GR – games remaining

New Jersey @ NY Rangers – 12:30 p.m. ET

It’s not the position the Rangers wanted to be in. Last week it seemed almost elementary that they’d make the playoffs but today they must get at least one point to put any pressure on Carolina to do the same tonight. If the Rangers lose in regulation, that’s it – season over. Carolina owns the tiebreakers on the Rangers, which right now means that they’ve got more regulation/overtime wins than New York (35 to 34).

Should the Rangers win in regulation and Carolina wins in the shootout, the edge still goes to Carolina by virtue of better head-to-head record. While the two teams split their four games, Carolina won both of theirs in regulation while the Rangers won once in overtime (good) and once in the shootout (not good).

Should the Rangers get either a point for losing in overtime or the shootout or a win of any kind, they can force Carolina to either match them or equal them later tonight. With both teams sitting on 91 points today turns into a high-stakes game of “can you top this?” for the Rangers. Again, New York can’t afford a regulation loss today and a loss in overtime or shootout means they’ll be rooting doubly hard for Tampa Bay tonight.

Tampa Bay @ Carolina – 7 p.m. ET

Tampa Bay is locked in as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and they’ll get to face either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs. Their fate is simple as they can’t move. Carolina won’t have to do any scoreboard watching at all as they’ll know what they have to do before they even hit the ice for warmups tonight. This game could turn out to be a meaningless playoff warm up for both teams if the Rangers lose in regulation as it would be set in stone that Carolina makes the playoffs as the eighth seed and has a first round date with Washington. If this game does turn out to be just a 60 or 65 minute practice for these two, you might see some drastically different lineups and starters in goal.

NY Islanders @ Philadelphia – 7 p.m. ET

The task is simple on paper for the Flyers: Win the game, win the division. A win by Philadelphia regardless of how they do it gives the Flyers the Atlantic Division title and the second seed in the playoffs. An overtime/shootout loss would put the pressure on Pittsburgh to beat Atlanta tomorrow while a regulation loss means Pittsburgh could get a point through any means to win the Atlantic. The fact that this comes down to the final game of the season for the Flyers is stunning considering how they’ve led the division virtually all season long. The Flyers have lost 14 of their last 20 games dating back to February 26 while the Penguins have stayed steady all along. Finishing fourth means facing Tampa Bay in the first round. Finishing second (or even third should Boston win out) means getting either Buffalo or Montreal.

Montreal @ Toronto – 7 p.m. ET
Buffalo @ Columbus – 7 p.m. ET

Two games will help figure out where Montreal and Buffalo sit in the standings. Should Montreal and Buffalo finish tied in points, Montreal will start the playoffs as the sixth seed. Buffalo still has a shot at sixth and a first round rematch with Boston if they earn more points than Montreal today. With the Sabres facing a hapless Blue Jackets team and the Habs taking on their bitter rivals from Toronto, nothing at all is set in stone here especially with Toronto breaking out a pair of prospects tonight in Joe Colborne and Hobey Baker Award finalist Matt Frattin.

Ottawa @ Boston – 1 p.m. ET

We’ll keep it simple here, a Boston win keeps them alive for a shot at the second seed. That’s the upside. The flipside of that is their first round opponent is going to be Buffalo or Montreal one way or another. The higher the seed, the better it is for home ice purposes in match-ups later on, of course. The secret highlight of this game is seeing former Merrimack College star Stephane Da Costa return to Boston for the first time since leaving college to go pro.

Pekka Rinne finding consistency at the right time for Predators

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PITTSBURGH — As the longest-tenured member of the Nashville Predators roster, the team’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final has to be extra special for starting goaltender Pekka Rinne.

He has been one of the core players in the organization for more than a decade and been through all of the recent postseason disappointments as the team was unable to climb the hurdle that was the second-round of the playoffs until this season.

“Before each season, you know, when you’re a professional hockey player, you dream about this situation,” said Rinne on Sunday afternoon during the Stanley Cup Final media day.

“Every season my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, in all honesty. You come to training camp, you prepare yourself all summer, and now finally we are in this situation. I always felt that one day we would be in this situation.”

One of the biggest reasons the Predators are in this situation has been because of Rinne and his play in net.

Nashville’s defense has obviously gotten a significant portion of the headlines this postseason, and for very good reason. It is the NHL’s best group, has played exceptionally well, and as Rinne himself said on Sunday is “the backbone of the team.”

But goaltending is still the one position that can make-or-break a postseason run and flip everything upside down. A hot goalie can lift an underdog and sink a favorite in any given series. As the last line of defense, Rinne has been a rock for the Predators and been able to take his play to an entirely different level this postseason.

The biggest change: Just finding some consistency to his game.

Even though Rinne’s overall numbers for the season were strong (his .918 save percentage was above the league average) they fluctuated wildly on a month-by-month basis.

It looked a little something like this: .906, .949, .875, .933, .888, .923, .960 (three games).

After finishing the last two months on a high note, Rinne has continued that strong play into the postseason and posted a save percentage of .930 or better in 12 of his first 16 playoff games. Combine that with a defense that has a top-four like Nashville’s and it has made them the toughest team to score against this postseason.

Entering the Final the Predators are allowing just 1.81 goals per game. The only team that allowed fewer goals during in one playoff run during the salary cap era was the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings (1.50).

“It’s hard to explain,” said Rinne on Sunday when asked about what changed in his play.

“I think we started off really well against Chicago, then you gain some confidence, and personally I was playing well. Once that ball starts rolling you feel better and better and things start to go your way. I feel the biggest thing is as a team, for a long time in the regular season we were trying to find consistency and at times we didn’t do a good job. I feel like this postseason we’ve been really consistent and solid and playing really good hockey for 16 games now.”

The Predators were the 16th out of 16 teams to clinch a playoff spot this year and had to begin their Stanley Cup Final run with a first-round matchup against their long-time arch nemesis, the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only a team that entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and was viewed as the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, but also a team that had eliminated Rinne and the Predators twice in the past seven years.

Nashville was not only able to conquer that hurdle, it ended the series in a clean four-game sweep. It set the stage for the Predators to break through and advance beyond the second-round for the first time in franchise history.

“I feel like any year the hardest thing is to get past the first two rounds,” said Rinne.

“You still have so many teams at that point. Once you get past those rounds, you really start feeling confident and things are going your way. It is a very powerful feeling when 23 guys come together. It was something against Chicago, that was my third time playing against that team and first time winning against them, it was almost like a hurdle we had to get over and we did that. It was a big win for the organization as well.”

Now the organization has chance to do something even bigger over the next two weeks.

In recent years as Rinne has gotten older his play has started to decline a bit from where it was earlier in his career, almost to the point where he was viewed as a question mark or perhaps even the weak link on the roster. That has not been the case this postseason, and it is one of the biggest reasons the team has this opportunity in front of it.

Minus Johansen, the Preds have ‘some big shoes’ to fill

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PITTSBURGH — It was Jan. 6, 2016, when the Nashville Predators took on the look of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

That was the day the Preds acquired Ryan Johansen from Columbus, giving them that true No. 1 center that every Cup champ seems to have.

It was the one, big piece the Preds had been lacking. To get him, it cost them an excellent, young defenseman in Seth Jones.

Alas, Johansen has now been lost for the playoffs. To their credit, the Preds managed to eliminate Anaheim without him, taking Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Final after he was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome.

But in the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup Final, the Preds will have to take on the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with two of the best centers in the game.

Suffice to say, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are tough to handle at full strength, let alone without such an important player as Johansen.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

Preds winger Filip Forsberg didn’t try to sugarcoat the loss of Johansen.

“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Forsberg. “It’s tough to play without him. But at the same time, other guys stepped up. I think that’s been the case all year. We’ve been dealing with injuries all year. I don’t know how many players we’ve used, but every player that’s come up has made a huge impact on the team.”

Colton Sissons stepped up big time against the Ducks, notching a hat trick in Game 6. The 23-year-old is expected to center Nashville’s top line, flanked by Forsberg and possibly Pontus Aberg, when the final starts Monday in Pittsburgh.

“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking,” Sissons said. “We lost a lot of offense and a big, heavy, strong centerman in Johansen. There’s gonna be some big shoes for us to fill.”

Sissons, 23, has spent most of his professional career in the AHL. With the Preds, he’s mostly been in the bottom six. But his new linemate is a big fan.

“He can do it all,” said Forsberg. “He’s been playing mostly on the third and fourth lines this year, and been playing really well. Solid, two-way player. But we played together in Milwaukee and I saw the offensive upside that he had.”

It’s quite the matchup this series offers. One team without its No. 1 center, but a great group of defensemen. The other team without its No. 1 defenseman, but a pair of elite centers.

“Certainly we’ll miss Ryan,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think anybody can argue that. He was a big horse for us down the middle that was able to match up against anybody. We had to go a couple of games without Ryan. Our guys responded OK.”

Fleury trying not to think about if this is his last run with Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — With Matt Murray reclaiming his starting spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net, the topic of Marc-Andre Fleury‘s future with the team was again a talking point during Sunday’s Stanley Cup Final media day.

Specifically, whether or not this series against the Nashville Predators will be his final games with the only NHL team he has ever known.

Given the expansion draft situation this summer, as well as the fact Murray has clearly passed him in the eyes of the coaching staff, it seems even more inevitable than ever that his time with the team is limited.

On Sunday, he was asked if he ever lets his mind go there and think about it.

“I try not to,” said Fleury. “I try to live, day-by-day, go like that. We will see what happens at the end of the season.”

For Fleury, the circumstances for his status as Murray’s backup are vastly different from a year ago when he started the playoffs on the bench due to injury and, outside of one Game in the Eastern Conference Finals, never really had an opportunity to contribute to the team’s playoff run.

That has not been the case this year.

Fleury has not only been a major contributor, he is probably the single biggest reason they escaped the first two rounds against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.

He was also asked if it would be easier to potentially leave Pittsburgh after this season having been able to contribute to a deep playoff run after not really getting a chance to play a year ago.

“Yeah, those are memories I will always keep,” said Fleury. “The support from the fans, the atmosphere in the building, the fun I had winning those games. But still another championship would be even better.”

His play through the first two rounds is what made Mike Sullivan’s decision to go back to Murray such a bold — and even controversial — move.

Fleury was not only playing extremely well, he was playing what was perhaps the best hockey of his career. Given that performance, along with the fact Murray had not played in more than a month due to injury, it was a move that most coaches probably would not have made.

“The decision that was made in goal was a very difficult decision,” said Sullivan on Sunday.  “Our coaches discussed it at length. That was a very difficult decision because we have so much respect for both players. Both of these goaltenders that we have are Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders. I’ve said all year long that we believe that we have two No. 1 goalies. That’s a unique challenge to our team, because most teams don’t have that.”

He continued: “Part of my responsibility is to try to decide which guy on a particular game is going to give this team the best chance to win. There are a lot of factors that go into it. Quite honestly, I like to keep those decisions within the confines of our hockey team. But there are a lot of factors that go into it.”

Fleury was asked on Sunday what the change was like but declined to go into much detail, instead focussing on how much he has enjoyed this postseason.

“I don’t think I want to get into it really,” said Fleury. “I was having a lot of fun winning some games. It’s a coaches decision and I have to respect it.”

“Not being in net I just try to encourage the guys, cheer the guys on and if I ever get another opportunity I will be ready.”

Penguins can become first repeat champs of NHL’s salary-cap era

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins will make history if they can beat the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.

No team has been able to win back-to-back Cups since the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005. The Detroit Red Wings nearly did it in 2009, only to be beaten by the upstart Pens.

Since 2009, no defending champ had even made it back to the final, until the Penguins knocked off the Senators Thursday.

According to captain Sidney Crosby, the chance to become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era is just one of the things that’s driving his team.

“I think when you get here you have a ton of motivation, regardless if it’s trying to go back-to-back,” said Crosby. “The motivation comes from a lot of different things for a lot of different guys. Maybe (repeating) is one of them, but it’s not something that we talk about a whole lot. This is a new year. It’s a new opponent.”

And the Predators will be a tough opponent, even without their No. 1 center, Ryan Johansen. Nashville’s strength is on the back end, with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm comprising arguably the strongest top four in the league.

“You have to be aware of where they are,” said Crosby. “They’re so good at joining the rush, they’re so good at leading the rush.”

But the Pens have the clear advantage down the middle. Crosby on the first line, Evgeni Malkin on the second. That combination has helped Pittsburgh win seven straight series, with a chance to make it eight.

“I can’t tell you how rewarding it’s been to have the opportunity to coach this team,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity. We believe we’ve got such a competitive group of players. They’re high-character people. They have an insatiable appetite to win. They’re a privilege to coach.”

Winger Bryan Rust was on last year’s team. For him, the opportunity to win two straight Cups, in a league that loves to brag about its parity, is energizing.

“I think it does motivate us to be able to do something that is so hard, and be able to accomplish a goal that hasn’t been done in a very long time,” said Rust. “It gives us an extra spark. Winning it once is hard enough, but trying to do it twice in a row is even harder.”

Game 1 of the series goes Monday in Pittsburgh.

The Red Wings were the last team to repeat as champions. They won the Cup in 1997 and 1998, back when teams had no limits on their spending.

Related: For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Kris Letang