Western Conference playoff field all set – Familiar faces get reacquainted

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After the Wild disposed of the Dallas Stars and put the Chicago Blackhawks into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, it set the table for the Western Conference playoffs to have a familiar feel to it all. While there’s some new flavor in some of the pairings, there’s a couple match-ups that will look really familiar to fans from last year.

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks

For the third straight season these two teams will meet in the playoffs. This time it’s in the first round and this time it comes with Vancouver in a much more dominant position. They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners, they’ve been killing it all season long and now they have destiny set things up nicely for them so they can exorcise the demons of playoffs past right off the bat. Should Vancouver get over this psychological mountain in the form of a Blackhawks team living like they’ve been granted a new life, they’ll be very dangerous to deal with throughout the playoffs.

Chicago will instead hope to get in the Canucks heads like they have in the past and pull off a tremendous upset in their effort to retain the Stanley Cup. For Vancouver, this series has a Ric Flair feel about it: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings

An all-California playoff series is something we’ve been rooting for to happen for all season long and with all three California teams in the playoffs, things broke down perfect to get these two to face off against each other. The Sharks have the “playoff choker” thing still following them around but that doesn’t apply to this team. Antti Niemi has been lights out, they’ve got a host of new blood in the form of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to go along with the quietly monstrous year from Patrick Marleau as well as his running crew of Joe Thornton, Devin Setoguchi, and Dany Heatley. The Sharks are firing on all cylinders now and very dangerous.

Los Angeles meanwhile is hurting without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Their offense isn’t as lethal as it once was without them and it’ll be up to Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown to score goals while Jon Quick will need to be lights out to keep the Kings involved. One thing they’ll really need is for Drew Doughty to once again look like the Norris Trophy finalist he was last year. He’s been off a bit and they could really use big production at both ends of the ice from him.

3. Detroit Red Wings vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes

They meet yet again. Last year it was Detroit ending Phoenix’s dream season in Game 7 in the desert during the first round of the playoffs. These two teams are more than familiar with each other and they’ll get to dance once again, this time with Detroit having home ice advantage. Detroit’s been a bit erratic to close out the year and they’ll start their series without Henrik Zetterberg. They’ll have a fully healthy defensive corps with Niklas Kronwall returning but they’ll need to be tough offensively to deal with the tough Coyotes defense.

Phoenix has been similarly hot and cold going into the end of the season and matching up against a skilled veteran squad like Detroit means they’ll have to be especially sharp. It’s a dangerous draw for both teams as they each have parts of their game that the opponent can struggle with. Phoenix’s physicality can give Detroit fits and the Wings’ savvy in big moments frustrates the Coyotes. If Shane Doan can break out his “DoanFace” a couple more times, the Coyotes might be able to finally make the second round.

4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 5. Nashville Predators

What a brawl this one should be. Both teams play overtly physical hockey. Anaheim comes in with offense to burn with Rocket Richard trophy winner Corey Perry and old man dominator Teemu Selanne scoring tons of goals. Not to mention Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan along with defensemen Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky, these Ducks aren’t like the Ducks from 2007 that won the Cup and would mug your grandmother to do it. The Predators are going to have to add that kind of snarl to the series if they’re going to win their first playoff series in franchise history.

Goaltender Pekka Rinne will need to be the best player for Nashville while they try to generate offense from Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, and Steve Sullivan. The Preds have been here before and at some point they’re going to get through. Whether or not captain Shea Weber can rally his team to do it this time against a Ducks squad that’s been uber-dangerous the last two months should make for some great drama and even better hockey.

Coyotes are (gasp) on a winning streak

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As of this writing, the Arizona Coyotes have the least standings points in the NHL (11) despite playing a league-leading 22 games.

Things could change for this young team, but for now, it’s about small victories, which makes actual wins that much bigger. Perhaps what they really needed was this road trip through Canada?

After losing to the Jets in Winnipeg 4-1 on Nov. 14 (no real shame, really, as everyone’s losing to the Jets lately … just asking the Devils), the Coyotes left Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens fuming by getting their first regulation win of 2017-18 by a score of 5-4.

Arizona couldn’t make it consecutive wins in regulation, but when Anthony Duclair completed a hat trick with the overtime game-winner, they did something rare: the Coyotes won back-to-back games. Yes, gang, those scrappy kids now have their very own winning streak after today’s 3-2 OT win against the Ottawa Senators.

They wrap up this run of Canadian games by facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Monday.

Just like any self-respecting sports team, the Coyotes get to participate in a ceremony after wins.

One would guess that Zac Rinaldo got the “championship belt” stemming from the rough stuff between the Coyotes and Canadiens, which included a Rinaldo fight (no surprise) and Tomas Plekanec‘s first NHL bout (in his 941st career game).

The Coyotes want to bounce back from their bad start, while Duclair hopes to shed the weight of a lousy 2016-17 season.

At 4-15-3, Arizona might already be in too big of a hole to make any waves. Even so, they can gain some respect, and show that they’re not as bad as their record indicates. Heck, a win in Toronto would give them an undeniably successful road trip, something that’s not always a layup even for established, contending teams.

Now, now, all of that aside … it might be a little too early to take them seriously.

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.

Update: Matthews returns at perfect time for Maple Leafs

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Update: Auston Matthews is indeed playing for the Maple Leafs against Montreal on Saturday. Read below to find out why this is a big deal, even beyond the obvious of merely having a star return.

(And not just because they’re trying to win a sixth game in a row and make life more miserable for the rival Canadiens.)

***

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock must be delighted by how his team is winning games.

Most obviously, they’ve been doing so without Auston Matthews, who’s currently dealing with an upper-body injury. The Leafs won their fifth consecutive game 1-0 in OT thanks to William Nylander‘s slump-breaking goal, and Toronto’s played the last four without Matthews.

The variety of wins – some in overtime, some with outstanding goaltending, many likely boosting other talents who step up – must really encourage Babs. And that confidence could come in handy very soon.

The Athletic’s James Mirtle breaks down how they’ve been winning and who’s stepped up in Matthews absence, so check that out for more in that regard (sub required).

That’s all good stuff, but here’s the thing: the Maple Leafs are lucky that Matthews seems like he’s nearing his return, because the rest of 2017 presents a beast of a schedule. Before we get to that, consider that Matthews appears to be a gametime decision for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens:

So, obviously, that’s not a guarantee that he’ll play. It implies that he’s at least getting closer, though.

Feast your eyes on the remainder of the Maple Leafs’ schedule during this calendar year, which might prompt a New Year’s resolution of “Let’s just try to forget what we just went through.” The away games are bolded, with back-to-backs underlined.

Sat, Nov 18 @ Montreal
Mon, Nov 20 vs Arizona
Wed, Nov 22 @ Florida
Fri, Nov 24 @ Carolina
Sat, Nov 25 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 28 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 30 @ Edmonton
Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas

The Maple Leafs play 15 of their next 20 games on the road. The final stretch is especially rough, with a five-game road trip and eight of nine away from home. There are also five back-to-back sets.

So, it’s great that the Maple Leafs have manufactured ways to win without their brilliant top forward. That said, as Mirtle points out, they’ve been outplayed pretty badly at times in those games, and you wonder how long that luck (and timely work, to be fair) can last.

From the look of things, the Maple Leafs might not have to worry too much about that, and Matthews’ return couldn’t come at a much better time.

Not that it will be easy even with him, especially since he might not be at full-strength right away.

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.

Don’t panic? McDavid can’t save Oilers once again

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Things are about as ugly for the Edmonton Oilers right now as this stomp by Dallas Stars pest Antoine Roussel.

Maybe, as Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli insists, the Oilers really aren’t in panic mode right now. But are we certain that they aren’t experiencing something just as bad, like, say, paralysis?

Saturday presented another disconcerting loss in the form of a 6-3 defeat to the Dallas Stars, dropping the Oilers to 7-11-2. Performances like these can’t do much for Cam Talbot‘s confidence, as he allowed six goals on just 21 shots.

Connor McDavid finished the game with a -2 rating, yet the beleaguered, poorly supported captain of the Oilers doesn’t deserve the blame. Not when he’s giving his team a chance to win by being involved in all three of their goals (one goal, two assists).

There’s the creeping feeling that the Oilers are finding ways to lose, as they tend to grab the shots advantage, yet they drop games with many and few games alike. You can’t even really pin everything on the likes of Milan Lucic, who grabbed an assist and at least seemed to show a pulse. Even if his efforts increasingly seem futile.

It’s never a good sign when people give McDavid & Co. the Simon & Garfunkel treatment, yet what else can you do when you’ve lost four of five games and seem to be digging the hole deeper and deeper?

And, to little surprise, there’s at least some grumbling about the play of number 97, too. That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to losing, especially when you’ve done as much of it as the contemporary Oilers have.

“General disappointment, that’s your headline” is what Chiarelli recently said of his team’s play, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

On Saturday, it felt a bit more like “general disillusionment,” even if the Oilers haven’t suffered a total defeat. With four games remaining on this current road trip and only three home tilts in their next 11 games, something needs to give.

The Oilers are running out of both time and patience.

Here’s that ugly stomp by Roussel, by the way:

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.

2019 Winter Classic: Bruins – Blackhawks at Notre Dame Stadium

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It’s official: the Boston Bruins will take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2019 Winter Classic.

That edition of the event, which will air on NBC on Jan. 1, 2019, gets a really fun hook: it will take place at Notre Dame Stadium, home of the Fighting Irish. Maybe both teams will wear special gold helmets as an ode to their hosts?

“The Blackhawks and Bruins, two of our most historic franchises, will be meeting outdoors for the first time at the 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Notre Dame Stadium, with its capacity approaching 80,000, will provide an ideal setting for this ground-breaking event and will host the largest live audience ever to witness a game by either of these teams.”

This marks the fourth Winter Classic for the Blackhawks and the third for the Bruins. It’s also Chicago’s sixth outdoor game overall.

Both teams pumped out some fun videos to celebrate the announcement.

In the case of the Blackhawks, they remind us that their players have had a chance to soak in the Notre Dame Stadium atmosphere before.

Maybe this will paint the picture a bit more?

Here’s a bit more information regarding the history of the Winter Classic, via the league’s press release:

The 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® continues the tradition the League established in 2008 of hosting a regular-season outdoor game at the onset of the new year. This game will be the eleventh NHL Winter Classic, the first time that the Blackhawks have faced off against the Bruins in an outdoor game, and the fourth Original Six matchup (2009, 2014, 2016). Bridgestone, the Official Tire of the NHL® and NHLPA, returns as title sponsor for the tenth consecutive year. Over the past decade, the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® has become a tentpole hockey event on the North American sporting calendar, and Bridgestone will be maintaining their partnership with the League through 2021.

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.