Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins

PHT staff projects the Eastern Conference playoff teams

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We here at PHT have already hooked you up with who we think is going to win the Stanley Cup and the NHL’s biggest awards so now we’re going to do the really adventurous predictions and see if we can figure out just how we think the conference standings will play out.

Since we’ve got a raging East Coast bias here, we’re starting off with the Eastern Conference. With Washington and Buffalo improved, Philly changing things up, Boston looking to repeat, and Pittsburgh lurking about things could shake out in any direction. Here’s what we’re thinking.

Joe Yerdon says:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Montreal Canadiens
7. New York Rangers
8. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Leafs, Devils, Isles, and Hurricanes will be in the playoff hunt until late in the season but Tampa and the Rangers will nose them out. Boston is still the class of the Northeast despite Buffalo’s advances and it’s only destiny that they’d draw Philly again in the playoffs. Washington should do just fine again in the Southeast while Pittsburgh is going to be the class of the Atlantic. Winnipeg and Ottawa should be terrible. At least they’ll sell out all year in the ‘Peg.

James O’Brien says:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Boston Bruins
3. Philadelphia Flyers
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
7. New York Rangers
8. Montreal Canadiens

The Capitals have a little of everything: that same offensive top-end with extra elbow grease, a versatile defense that will improve with Roman Hamrlik’s addition and one of the best goalies in the NHL. The Sabres are the chic pick in the Northeast, but Boston’s deep down the middle, features the East’s best defenseman and best goalie combo. You can make a legitimate argument for four teams to make the Atlantic Division – even my 11th pick, the Devils – but my gut feeling is that people are sleeping on Ilya Bryzgalov. The 5-8 seeds feature some injury worries (in the Lightning’s case it’s a “What if Dwayne Roloson gets hurt because he’s really old?” worry) and other flaws that should keep them from the playoffs. The most interesting teams that didn’t make the top 8 are the wild card-heavy Leafs, the still-proud Devils and two young teams in the Jets and the Islanders. I’m not a huge fan of the Panthers rebuild, but that might work out too.

Matt Reitz says:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. Washington Capitals
3. Boston Bruins
4. Buffalo Sabres
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
6. Philadelphia Flyers
7. New York Rangers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs

Even though Pittsburgh played half the season without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, they transformed themselves into a defensive team, and tied for the Atlantic Division championship. With two of the best players in the world returning, they should be the cream of the crop. The Caps have proven they are an elite regular season team and the Bruins still should be better than the Sabres. The Flyers slip just because of all the question marks surrounding the team as they attempt to find some team chemistry. The Maple Leafs slide into the final playoff spot because James Reimer should give them some solid goaltending for the first time in years. They may not be a great team, but they’ll rise up and improve a couple of spots in the standings. If any of the eight teams slip, the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes will be there to steal one of the last spots.

With that all squared away – check out our Western Conference previews here – who do you see winning the Eastern Conference? Let us know in our poll.

Flames get Johnny Gaudreau back way ahead of schedule

CALGARY, AB - APRIL 5: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Los Angeles Kings during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on April 5, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Some good news if you’re a fan of the Calgary Flames.

Johnny Gaudreau, who missed 10 games with a finger injury, will be back in their lineup for Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks.

The Flames forward was injured in a game against Minnesota on Nov. 15 (he was slashed by Eric Staal), and after he underwent surgery, the team announced that he’d be out six weeks.

In the end, he missed less than three weeks of action.

“I’m ready to play,” Gaudreau said, per NHL.com. “I think the finger’s healed up pretty well there. I’m just excited to get things going here.

“I think they did a great job with my finger and we did a great job rehabbing it. They keep tell me it’s going to be harder to break the nine other fingers than to re-hurt this one. It feels good. It feels good when I shoot. I’m excited to finally get out of there.”

He’ll be playing with some added protection, as Calgary’s equipment manager made this glove for him:

Before Gaudreau got hurt, the Flames had a 6-10-1 record. But thanks to improved team play and some strong performances from goalie Chad Johnson, they managed to go 6-3-1 in, while Gaudreau was out.

The 23-year-old has five goals and six assists in 17 games, but he had scored three goals in three games before getting hurt.

Related:

Gaudreau injury a reminder as to how star players are treated

Boudreau: Flames made “mountain out of a molehill” over Gaudreau slash

Garret Sparks plays for first time since being suspended by Maple Leafs

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 30:  Garret Sparks #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs gets set to face the Edmonton Oilers in an NHL game at Air Canada Centre on November 30, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Oilers 3-0. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Garret Sparks made waves for all the wrong reasons last week, as he was suspended by the Maple Leafs for remarks he made on social media.

Sparks officially made his return on Saturday night in the Marlies’ 3-2 loss to the Hartford Wolf Pack. He stopped 27 of 30 shots.

“It’s been a lot to deal with. I understand what I did,” Sparks said, per TSN.ca. “[The incident] wasn’t me. That’s not who I want to be known as, it’s not the image I want my reputation to have.

“I should know the difference between what I can and can’t say. It’s just holding myself to a higher standard of professionalism.”

The 23-year-old actually returned to the team on Tuesday, but didn’t play until yesterday.

With Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen dealing with an illness, the Leafs recalled Antoine Bibeau, which opened the door for Sparks to make his return.

Sparks has been limited to just five AHL games this year, but he was between the pipes for 17 NHL games in 2015-16.

‘We were awful’: Duchene calls out Avs after latest shutout loss

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 19:  Matt Duchene #9 of the Colorado Avalanche awaits a face off against the Edmonton Oilers at Pepsi Center on December 19, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Oilers 5-1.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The Colorado Avalanche are one of those teams that’s hard to figure out.

They have plenty of offensive talent on their roster, and going from Patrick Roy to Jared Bednar was supposed to help get the most out of their star players.

But through 23 games, that hasn’t been the case.

Going into Sunday’s action, they find themselves in the basement of the Western Conference with a 9-13-1 record.

It doesn’t help that they’ve had to deal with a number of injuries. They were dealt an even bigger blow on Saturday, when they announced that Erik Johnson (leg) would be out for six-to-eight weeks.

Gabriel Landeskog and Fedor Tyutin are also dealing with lower-body injuries.

“Injuries are no excuse, but it helps to have some of those guys in the lineup,” Bednar said, per the Denver Post. “You’re missing a pair on ‘D.’ I still can’t help but feel we have more to give. .. You still have to stick with it and work through it. That’s the only way you get out of it is to work out of it.”

Colorado had an opportunity to get things on track, but they finished their latest homestand with an 0-4-1 record. Yikes!

One of the biggest problems with this team is that they can’t seem to find the back of the net with any regularity.

No team has scored less times than the Avalanche, who are tied for last with a league-worst 49 goals for. They’ve also been shut out five times already in 2016-17.

Their power play was so bad against Dallas that Bednar decided to start the man-advantage with John Mitchell and Blake Comeau at one point.

“We were awful. I totally get why he did what he did,” forward Matt Duchene said after Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Dallas. “It’s frustrating. We’re just not executing right now. I think we’re overthinking things because we haven’t been winning.

“We’re not playing good hockey right now.”

With Corey Crawford out, ‘Hawks recall goalie Lars Johansson from AHL

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 17: Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks follows the action against the Montreal Canadiens at the United Center on January 17, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canadiens 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Chicago Blackhawks were dealt a blow yesterday, when they announced that starting goalie Corey Crawford would miss two-to-three weeks after undergoing an appendectomy on Saturday.

With Crawford unavailable yesterday, Chicago was forced to look for an emergency backup in the Philly area. Ultimately, they settled on former temple goalie Eric Semborski.

On Sunday, they got their goaltending situation in order, as they recalled Lars Johansson from the AHL.

Johansson, 29, is in his first season in North America. He played the previous 10 years over in Sweden with Mora IK, Vasteras IK and Frolunda HC.

In the AHL, he’s posted a 6-7-1 record with a 2.63 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage in 2016-17.

His numbers in the minors might not look good, but Johansson had the best goals-against-average (1.74) in the top league in Sweden last year.

The Blackhawks also sent forward Nick Schmaltz to the minors.

Schmaltz, who was Chicago’s first-round pick in 2014, made the team out of training camp, but has played limited minutes.

The 20-year-old has just one goal and three assists, while averaging 11:46 of ice time in 2016-17.

Playing a larger role with AHL Rockford should be good for his confidence.