Western playoff picture: Predators, Coyotes, and Ducks all clinch playoff spots

Western Conference playoff race

z – 1. Vancouver – 115 pts
y – 2. San Jose – 103 pts
y- 3. Detroit – 102 pts
x-4. Nashville – 99 pts
x-5. Phoenix – 99 pts
x-6. Los Angeles – 98 pts
x-7. Anaheim – 97 pts
8. Chicago – 97 pts
9. Dallas – 95 pts

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Chicago 4, Detroit 2

The optimists among the hockey brethren will say the Blackhawks came to play and took it to the Detroit Red Wings. Skeptics among hockey fans will say the Red Wings absolutely mailed it in and never really gave themselves a chance to win. So which is it? As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. There’s no questioning that the Blackhawks came out and played one of their most effective periods in the 1st to get off on the right foot. Yet on the other hand, there’s no questioning the fact that the Wings players just didn’t have the edge needed to compete with a desperate team. It’s not that the game was meaningless for the Wings—the loss has them sitting in 3rd place with 102 points (one point behind the Sharks for 2nd).

For Chicago, the win was just the first step of handling their business to make the playoffs. Entering into the home-and-home series with Detroit, the Hawks could say they controlled their own destiny. If they earned 3 out of a possible 4 points in the two games, it wouldn’t matter what the 9th place Dallas Stars did in their games. In the first act of the final stretch in the regular season, the Hawks knocked out an impressive effort. If they can earn at least an overtime loss (or a win) against the Wings on Sunday afternoon, they’ll be in the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Nashville 4, Columbus 1

Every team has a certain team that seems to have their number. Sometimes there’s a certain city where a team fails to perform. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, that team is undoubtedly the Predators and the city is Nashville, TN. After losing 4-1 to help the Predators secure a playoff spot for the sixth time in seven years, the Blue Jackets are now winless in their last 17 games in Nashville. In Friday’s game, Columbus managed 45 shots on goal against Pekka Rinne—only to see him turn away 44. Combine Rinne’s spectacular effort with a two-goal performance from Patric Hornqvist (7 points in his last 3 games), and it’s no wonder the Predators are looking at potential playoff opponents. For the Blue Jackets, they will have a top 10 pick in the entry draft for the tenth time in eleven drafts. That’s probably not the kind of organizational consistency they’re looking for.

Minnesota 3, Edmonton 1

The Minnesota Wild and their new #1 line (Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu) performed well as the Minnesota Wild clinched at least a #12 seed in the Western Conference standings. If they can get help from the Predators, Minnesota may even be able to jump over the Blues and into the #11 seed.

Meanwhile, Edmonton continued to weigh the pros and cons between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog. Clearly the debate between those prospects would be more competitive than their team on the ice.

Dallas 3, Colorado 2

There were a bunch of scenarios the Stars were hoping for on Friday night, but each and every one of the scenarios revolved around Dallas winning their remaining games. After winning the rest of their games, there were a bunch of situations where the Stars would be able to sneak into the playoffs as another team faltered down the stretch. One Friday night, they were able to take care of the most important part of the plan as they went into Colorado and escaped with a 3-2 win. Since the Avalanche have struggled so much this season, it may be hard to believe that the Stars had been outscored 13-1 at Pepsi Center in their last three visits. But tonight was a different kind of night and Dallas was able to control the game from the opening face-off.

Near the end of the game, Mike Ribeiro went down and blocked a shot—but initial reports say he’ll back and ready to take the ice against the Minnesota Wild in the last game of the season. As is been stated ad nauseam, if they can win and the Hawks lose in regulation, the Stars will make the playoffs. They may need help, but they’re still alive going into Game 82. That in itself is a surprise to a lot of people who expected the Stars to struggle this season.

Phoenix 4, San Jose 3

With the Red Wings losing earlier in the evening, the Sharks had a chance to lock-up the 2nd seed in the West with a win over the Coyotes. So much for that. In what was a theme around the NHL team, the team with a chance to clinch showed far more desperation and earned the right to play in the NHL’s second season. The Coyotes jumped out to a 4-1 lead only to hold on for dear life as the Sharks came storming back. The win gives Phoenix 99 points for the season and temporarily puts them in the 5th seed in the conference. If they win their last game against San Jose, they’ll have a chance to finish the season in the 4th spot for the second consecutive season. For all of the turmoil surround the team over the last two seasons, there aren’t many teams that can lay claim to home-ice advantage in two consecutive seasons.

Anaheim 2, Los Angeles 1

The Ducks had one thing on their mind going into the game: “win and we’re in.” Thanks to Teemu Selanne and his two goals, the Ducks were able to beat the Kings to secure their spot in the playoffs. Dan Ellis filled-in for the injured Ray Emery and Jonas Hiller with a 23-save performance to help Anaheim get to the promised land. After the game, Selanne said they would come with the same kind of effort to improve their seeding on Saturday—but that’s easier said than done.

Going into the game, the Kings controlled their own destiny for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. If they were able to win both of their final two games against the Ducks, they’d earn the 4th seed no matter what any of the other teams did. Well, after the loss to the Ducks and the Preds and Coyotes winning, the Kings dropped down to the 6th spot with a single game left in the regular season. It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on Kings’ defenseman Matt Greene:

“I think we need some help now. I think this is the first time where it hasn’t been in our own hands, and that’s not what we wanted to do, but we’ll come back tomorrow. We’ve got to win tomorrow. Everybody wants to go into the playoffs with a win under our belts, playing hard and doing the right things. Hopefully that comes tomorrow. Maybe we get some help and maybe we don’t, but our focus now is on tomorrow, and not what’s going on around the league.”

 

Marian Gaborik plays game No. 1,000 on Friday

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Marian Gaborik has already hit two milestones that end in double zeroes this season.

On Friday night, and at the world’s most famous arena, he hit his first that ends in three.

Gaborik took to the ice at Madison Sqaure Garden in his 1,000th NHL game as the Los Angeles Kings took on the New York Rangers.

It’s not a bad backdrop for the veteran of 19 NHL seasons.

Gaborik played 255 games with the Blueshirts between 2009 and 2013, hitting the 40-goal plateau twice and recording his career-best season in 2009-10, scoring 42 goals and adding 44 helpers for 86 points in 76 games played.

Gaborik has only played 11 games this season after starting the year on the shelf with a knee injury. Gaborik only returned to the lineup on Nov. 24, but he set two milestones in his return, hitting 400 career NHL goals and 800 career NHL points earlier this month.

Coming into Friday’s game, his stat line read 800 points in 999 NHL games.

As Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston points out, perfect symmetry could be achieved if Gaborik finishes with a plus-one in the plus-minus column in the game and he is held without a point.

I’m sure he’d rather have a new puck to add to his mantle… but think of the stats, Marian.

UPDATE: He didn’t think of the stats. 


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

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”

U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

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NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.