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PHT makes the case for the Norris Trophy finalists

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While high-scoring forwards and dynamic goalies are precious entities, big-time defensemen also rank among the most important players in hockey. It’s a bit tougher to gauge which ones are the true greats – you can’t just “feel” your way to the best ones with 30 teams in play – but sometimes the elites are painfully obvious. The PHT staff weighs the strengths of all three candidates below.

Matt Reitz’s case for Zdeno Chara:

It’s an interesting year for the Norris voting. All three are captains, all are great leaders for their respective teams, and as much as the award as changed over the years, all three are true two-way defensemen. They put up points but they’re also defensive anchors for their respective teams. But of the three, Zdeno Chara puts it all together the best.

There are a lot of people who will disprove the importance of the plus/minus stat. Both Shea Weber and Chara were on the plus side of the ledger—but its debatable whether Weber is even the best player on his team. He’s a spectacular defenseman, but he also had the advantage of playing with Ryan Suter all season. If this were an award for best defensive pairing, they should win it in a landslide. Unfortunately for Weber, this is an award for best defenseman. He very well may be able to do it on his own—we just never saw him do it this season. When Suter was out with an injury, the entire term suffered.

When looking at the statistics between Nicklas Lidstrom and Zdeno Chara, it was hard to look past that Chara a league best +33 and Lidstrom is a minus player for the season. Both guys play against their opponents’ top lines, both score, and both are depended to play shutdown roles. The only difference is that Chara’s team scored significantly more than the opposition when he was on the ice. While Lidstrom was out there against the best, statistics prove that he didn’t thrive like he has before.

This season very well may prove to be Lidstrom’s swan song and he’s going out on a high note. You have to give him credit—he may have been the second best defenseman in the NHL year. Right behind Chara.

Joe Yerdon’s case for Nicklas Lidstrom:

He’s won the award six times already and after everyone was ready to start calling Nicklas Lidstrom an old man after his sub-par (for him) year last season, he came back with a vengeance. He was second on the Red Wings in points with 62, the most points he’s scored since 2007-2008 when he won the Norris Trophy. Points aren’t always where it’s at for defensemen of course and Lidstrom always plays the biggest minutes against the opponents top players. His 23:28 average time on ice was tops among everyone on Detroit that wasn’t a goalie. Oh right, and he’s 41 years-old.

We’re not going to pull the lifetime achievement card here for Lidstrom since he’s coming back next season, but given how he played this year, how important he was to Detroit’s success and how much the team relied on him at both ends of the ice he embodies what the Norris Trophy is all about. In a finalists class that has such other tremendous talent, Lidstrom is the guy both Weber and Chara hope to be when their careers are through.

James O’Brien’s case for Shea Weber:

With all due respect to Lidstrom and his outstanding 62-point season, Weber and Chara have been more important to their teams than the first ballot Hall of Famer from Sweden.

It isn’t easy to narrow it down between Chara and Weber, though. They both receive plenty of even strength, power play and shorthanded time on ice. Each player was above average in the overrated points categories (Weber had 48, Chara had 44) especially since their teams don’t generate buckets of scoring chances like Detroit does.

Chara gets a lot of attention for his intimidating size, but Weber was sixth among defensemen with 211 hits while Chara had 153. Despite this disparity in violence, Weber seemed to pick his spots a little better, being that he registered 56 PIM to Chara’s 88. Chara’s +33 rating definitely jumps out at you, but that is usually a team-based stat. Weber isn’t a slouch on the penalty kill, either.

He might not be the most obvious pick for the Norris, but Weber was the most valuable and well-rounded defenseman in hockey this season. (Although Chara was very, very close behind.)

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.