Stars widen Pacific lead after sinking Canucks

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For most of this season, the Dallas Stars seemed like they were dreaming big merely because they were aiming for a playoff spot. After Tuesday, you’d be foolish to dismiss the team’s chances of taking the third seed.

Dallas came into the night with a tie-breaker lead in the Pacific Division, but logic argued its lead would dissolve. Instead, the Stars legitimized it – first and foremost with a resounding 5-2 victory against the Vancouver Canucks.

Sharks, Coyotes blow it

That wasn’t the only plus for the scrappy team, though, as their closest competition lost to lowly teams. The San Jose Sharks salvaged a charity point from the Edmonton Oilers (3-2 in a shootout), while the Phoenix Coyotes managed to flub another lay-up against Columbus. (The Blue Jackets swatted them away 3-2.)

Stars make a statement

The Stars could have receded in a Northwest trio of road games; instead, they went 3-0 even with Richard Bachman starting against Vancouver. The backup had an excuse to be rusty after playing in just his third game since Feb. 2, but Zack Kassian failed to expose that 24 seconds into the game on a penalty shot.

Dallas is combining fortuitous bounces with underrated talent to defy expectations.Mike Ribeiro doesn’t exactly have a sterling retribution in many circles, but it’s pretty tough to argue with his three-point output tonight.

The Stars’ 7-0-1 streak is a startling counterpoint to the claims that they needed to fully embrace “seller” status at the trade deadline.

Bigger picture

Even with all those good feelings flowing, the cushion isn’t exactly huge. The foreboding Los Angeles Kings kept it from being a perfect evening with a decisive win of their own. The Kings gutted out a 5-4 victory against the Predators in Nashville.

With that in mind, let’s piece together the Pacific puzzle (current West position in parenthesis):

Dallas (3): 77 points with 15 games remaining
Phoenix (7): 75 points with 15 GR
San Jose (8): 74 points with 17 GR
Los Angeles (9): 74 points with 16 GR

Yup, that’s not a large margin of error. Say what you will about the lack of a “truly elite” Pacific team, the division still managed to produce four borderline playoff teams. (Oh yeah, and one scary spoiler team in the Anaheim Ducks.)

Video: Drew Doughty (mostly) avoids massive Matthew Tkachuk hit

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Hockey is such a fast sport that it’s probably not so easy to make someone your “target.” Instead, a big hit often comes down to the right combination of circumstance and timing.

Still, there’s no denying that Matthew Tkachuk is gunning for Drew Doughty (and the Kings are gunning for Tkachuk) on Wednesday.

Doughty isn’t oblivious to that notion, either, as you can see him avoid what looked like a pretty terrifying hit above.

We’ve already covered the early violence in this game, and it’s quite possible that there will be more carnage going forward. Stay tuned.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.

Video: An early taste of the Tkachuk-inspired violence in Kings vs. Flames

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BREAKING: the Los Angeles Kings really don’t appreciate Calgary Flames rookie-pest-forward Matthew Tkachuk thanks to that elbow on Drew Doughty (and the fallout from all … that).

Tkachuk responded by critiquing Doughty for “complaining to the media,” so there was testiness from the start.

There was jawing before the game. Then Jake Muzzin rebuked Tkachuk’s kind offer for a fight. Finally, Keith’s son dropped the gloves with Brayden McNabb:

It wasn’t the only bout of the opening frame, and there could be more blood to come beyond this Jarome IginlaDeryk Engelland feud:

Players from both teams better keep their heads up (and on a swivel) tonight. The Flames have to hope that this doesn’t result in injuries, judging from what happened to Johnny Gaudreau.

Avalanche sign Toews-like first-rounder Tyson Jost

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Things have been pretty bleak for the Colorado Avalanche this season, but at least they can look to a high pick in the next draft … and maybe dream about how their top pick from 2016 may pan out.

The Avs signed Tyson Jost, the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract on Wednesday. Colorado notes that he’ll jump right into some NHL action to close out this season.

It’s a nice sneak preview, as NHL insider Bob McKenzie noted on an NBCSN appearance (see above) that doing so will not burn the first year of Jost’s entry-level contract. Nice.

Even nicer? McKenzie also compares Jost favorably to … (drum-roll, though the headline spoiled it) Jonathan Toews.

Most obviously, the two both starred at the University of North Dakota. For the sake of fun, here are their numbers in their final years in the NCAA:

Jost: 16 goals, 35 points in 33 games, +17 rating (2016-17)
Toews: 18 goals, 46 points in 34 games (2006-07)

Naturally, Toews enthusiasts in particular will tell you that points aren’t everything … but maybe there are some shades of the two-way Blackhawks center there?

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy raved that Jost has “man-strength already” back around the 2016 NHL Draft, as you can see in this profile.

“Jost oozes confidence and already looks like NHL captain material for the future.”

Hey, that does sound at least somewhat Toews-like, doesn’t it?

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In other signing news, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass-Lowell’s CJ Smith. More on that below.