San Jose Sharks v Vancouver Canucks - Game Five

Five Thoughts: Canucks get all the puck luck while Sharks shake off “choker” label

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We’re down to just one series left to figure out who will take part in the Stanley Cup finals and thanks to the Canucks amazing and fortunate double overtime victory, we know how half of the final matchup will be set up. Last night’s game is one that will stand out through these playoffs as one of the better games we’ve seen. As for our thoughts on things… We’ve got a few.

1. Remember when people were bagging on Roberto Luongo as a goalie who couldn’t get things done in the playoffs? It seems like forever ago, but that series against Chicago that saw Luongo benched in Game 6 turned out to be the turning point for him. He played great in Game 7 of that series and has been out of his mind good since then in helping beat Nashville in six games and now San Jose in five. His 54 save performance last night stands out as one of his best in these playoffs, if not his career.

In a playoffs that’s seeing players shake off old criticisms and carving out new legacies for themselves, it might turn out to be Luongo that gets the monkey off his back in the biggest way. You keep waiting to see signs of the old, shaky Luongo pop up and it just hasn’t happened since the Chicago series. In the Stanley Cup finals he could prove to be Vancouver’s biggest factor should they win it all, he’s been that good.

2. One of my thoughts after the Canucks got past Chicago in the first round was that it would be the motivator they needed to roll through the rest of the playoffs. Since then they got a great series out of Ryan Kesler and stellar play from Luongo to beat Nashville and then got incredible play out of Henrik Sedin and his line as well as more great play from Luongo to beat San Jose. Whether they face Boston or Tampa Bay, those teams are going to have their hands full with trying to defend against all the depth the Canucks bring to the table.

If you shut down the Sedins, you have Kesler playing out of his mind. If you bottle up the forwards, the Canucks defense finds ways to generate offense. And if you’re able to get through all of that there’s still Luongo to try and beat. Vancouver’s depth and talent level are two major reasons why we liked them to win the Stanley Cup when the playoffs began but now they’re getting the puck luck and the other breaks that teams that win it all seem to get.

3. Ryan Kesler’s apparent injury in last night’s game gave Vancouver fans a reason to feel sickly about things. Of course, whatever it was that was ailing Kesler wasn’t enough to keep him out of action long as he got back on the ice and managed to score the game-tying goal late in the third period. His production was vastly reduced in the Western Conference finals especially when compared to the previous round against Nashville, but his importance to the team is sky high and will be vital to the Canucks chances at winning the Stanley Cup.

Of course, the key here will be to see just how hurt Kesler is. With the Canucks continuing on we may not find out right away and considering he did come back into the game, it may not be all too bad. The upside to finishing up now means he’ll get at least a few days to rest up. We’re going to assume he and the Canucks will be rooting for Boston and Tampa Bay to go seven just to be safe.

4. After the game it was revealed that Sharks captain Joe Thornton played Game 5 with a separated shoulder. Thornton had 32:15 of ice time last night while getting seven shots on goal, no points, and finishing up with a -2 plus/minus rating. Thornton was also 10-18 on faceoffs. I think we can put the “playoff stiff” label away for good on Thornton. His play was solid, his play was tough, and he continued to do all the same things he had done in the playoffs defensively. He wasn’t able to get the offense going in this one, but he did more than his fair share of work all series and playoffs long.

Anyone looking to cast negative words toward Thornton now is either a wayward fan who’ll never be happy or a long time Bruins fan still holding a grudge against him for similar injured yet point-free heroics in the 2004 playoff loss to Montreal. The Sharks failure to get out of the Western Conference finals again will make it seem like they choked yet again, but getting knocked off by a better team is no reason to hang your head in shame. It’s just how it goes sometimes.

5. Sharks fans are obviously disappointed after another shortcoming in the Western Conference finals and some may wish for GM Doug Wilson to make drastic changes. One of the names being thrown around by fans immediately is that of Dany Heatley but with three years and $19 million still owed to him, he’s not going anywhere after such a miserable playoff series. Heatley did play well defensively in Game 5, but paying $7.5 million a year against the cap for a guy who’s supposed to score bunches of goals who’s playing better as a checking forward doesn’t make him attractive to any team.

Heatley should have some soul searching to do during the offseason to figure out where his heart and focus have gone off to. He showed signs of that in Game 5, but overall his playoffs were yet again highly forgettable. Heatley is being paid to play like a force of nature on the ice and striking fear into goaltenders. He’s got to find a way to blend in that tough defensive work and reignite his offensive game.

Senators, Panthers fail to gain in Eastern playoff races

OTTAWA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 7: Jay Harrison #44 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates his game winning overtime goal with team mate Jeff Skinner #53, during an NHL game at Scotiabank Place on February 7, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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PHT already touched on the Florida Panthers falling to the Calgary Flames on Friday, but in tandem with the Ottawa Senators losing to the Carolina Hurricanes, it makes for a night of teams failing to gain valuable points out East.

With the Montreal Canadiens failing lately, the Senators had a chance to take first place in the Atlantic by tying the Habs in points while holding games in hand. Instead, they’ll need to wait.

For the sake of simplicity, here are the Atlantic rankings, with emphasis on the top five.

1. Canadiens – 72 points in 61 games played
2. Senators – 70 in 59
3. Maple Leafs – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Sabres and Lightning have 62 in 60, Red Wings have 58 in 60

You can see the Panthers hanging around the perimeter of the top three; a point or two would have made them a bigger threat to Toronto and Boston. Alas, even with a heavier slate of home games lately, Florida has lost two straight at home.

Here’s an updated look at the wild card races after the Panthers failed to make up some ground:

1. Blue Jackets – 79 in 58, more concerned with Metro races
2. Islanders – 68 in 60

Bruins – 68 in 61
Panthers – 66 in 60
Flyers – 63 in 60

Tiebreaker situations would have meant that the Panthers would have ended tonight technically outside of the playoffs anyway, but a win or even a “charity point” congests an already snug situation. Instead, they stayed put and wasted a game.

Ottawa’s still in a solid situation to overtake Montreal or at least maintain a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed in the Atlantic. So while both teams are kicking themselves for their losses, the Panthers have more to be upset about.

Ultimately, some of the biggest winners in the East were teams that didn’t play or that have a lot less to play for.

(Perhaps the Hurricanes feel a little more optimistic, by the way, as 58 points in 57 games played means they could at least theoretically fight their way back into the discussion.)

Road warriors: Flames move to first West wild card spot with win vs. Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Troy Brouwer #36 of the Calgary Flames celebrates his second period goal against the Florida Panthers with Lance Bouma #17 and Matt Stajan #18 at the BB&T Center on February 24, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The road has been doing both the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers quite a bit of good lately.

Calgary moved to the first wild card spot on Friday after beating the Panthers in Florida by a score of 4-2. So far, they’ve grabbed at least a point in every game during a road trip that ends in Carolina on Sunday:

Feb. 18: 2-1 OT loss at Vancouver
Feb. 21: 6-5 OT win at Nashville
Feb. 23: 3-2 win at Tampa Bay
Tonight: 4-2 win at Florida

You can’t totally blame the Panthers if they almost miss their road trip.

They rattled off five straight wins through what seemed like a brutal road haul on paper, but now they’ve lost back-to-back home games in regulation. With five of six and six of seven slated in Sunrise, the Panthers need to make the most of these opportunities. So far … not so good.

Here’s how the West wild card situations look now:

1. Flames – 68 points in 62 GP
2. Predators – 67 points in 60 GP

Kings – 62 in 60 GP
Jets – 62 in 63 GP

(The Blues could easily slip below the Predators into the wild card spot, as they also have 67 points in 60 games but hold wins and ROW tiebreaker advantages.)

So, Calgary might not manage to maintain its hold over the first wild card spot, but this streak makes a playoff berth look far more likely.

Capitals could make home-ice advantage a serious edge in playoffs

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01: Brett Connolly #10 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his goal with teammates against the Boston Bruins during the third period at Verizon Center on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Look, there’s no escaping the naysayers who will dismiss just about any Washington Capitals accomplishments with snark about past playoff letdowns.

All the Capitals can do is march forward and lock down as many edges as they can.

With 89 standings points after a tight 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, the Capitals look increasingly likely to have home-ice advantage either through the East (seven-point edge on the Penguins or the entire playoffs (five-point edge on idle Wild, who only hold a game in hand on the Caps).

Now, it’s fair to argue that home-ice (or home-court) advantage matters less in hockey than some other sports. Sure, you can line-match more often with the last change, among other advantages. Still, the biggest edges might be mental.

That said … those small edges might be enough for a team as loaded – and with as much urgency – as this rendition of the Capitals.

Heeding the call at the Verizon Center

They’ve now won 13 games in a row at the Verizon Center, improving their overall home record to 25-5-1.

The Capitals are still a strong team on the road (16-7-6), yet that home record is lofty. It also could come in awfully handy, particularly if they face off against the Penguins again. Pittsburgh’s 24-4-3 home mark contrasts sharply with a more modest 13-10-5 road record.

Perhaps this talk is all small potatoes. Still, when you consider how close things have been – in this age of parity, and in the extremely competitive Metropolitian Division specifically – it could be quite the edge.

In short, the Capitals are a pretty scary group possibly with home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. At least as of right now.

As far as the Oilers go, they’re locked in a tight race for second in the Pacific, as the Ducks currently hold the ROW tiebreaker. Grabbing at least a standings point in this one would have helped … but that’s a tall order against the Caps in their own backyard.

It wasn’t all good news for Washington, tonight:

Loss vs. Pens at Stadium Series could push Flyers to sell at trade deadline

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28:  Chris Pryor, Director of Scouting (R), and Ron Hextall General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers (L) sit at their team table on Day Two of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Is a cross-state, historic NHL rivalry not enough to drum up interest in Saturday’s 2017 Stadium Series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins? Maybe a trade deadline hook will do it for you.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi reports, Flyers GM Ron Hextall already rules his team out as buyers. That leaves two options, really: standing pat or going into “sell mode.”

Hextall provides an interesting nugget in that regard: it might just come down to what happens against the Penguins tomorrow, via NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman:

It seems odd to imagine that the difference between generating zero versus two standings points might dictate a team’s direction, but it also shows the power of parity in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Granted, it’s not like Hextall locks himself into one direction based on the result. Still, it sounds like that game could have some power in swaying his decision.

The Flyers have some interesting trade chips if they do decide to make a move. Michal Neuvirth fears being moved, while Steve Mason at least needs a new contract, leaving their goaltending future up to question.

There are some other interesting UFAs, particularly in defensemen Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto.

Some Flyers fans believe that they should indeed be sellers, though it’s tough to imagine many of them rooting for the Penguins to win just to make it happen.