Tonight on NBCSN: A Pacific Division battle royal featuring Coyotes-Stars and Sharks-Kings

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If you’re not infected with playoff fever yet, perhaps tonight’s doubleheader will do the trick. Four teams from the Pacific Division all battling for the lead there while also duking it out for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Saddle up and get ready for a wild finish.

Dallas Stars vs. Phoenix Coyotes (8:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

These two teams are tied atop the Pacific with 83 points and the winner gets to steer clear of the pack for at least a night. The Stars got back into the thick of things thanks to a run that saw them win 10 of 11 games. Since then they’ve dropped their last two games putting them straight into the quagmire with everyone else. Led by Loui Eriksson, Michael Ryder, and Jamie Benn the Stars have the scoring talent up front to make you pay. What keys them to victory, however, is how well Kari Lehtonen is playing in goal. If ever there’s a slightly off night, the Stars’ climb uphill gets a bit steeper.

The Coyotes are in much the same spot as how Mike Smith goes in goal, so go the Coyotes. Lately, things have been alternating between hot and cold as the Coyotes have alternated wins and losses in their last five games. With that kind of run coming off a five-game losing streak, frustration is there. While the Coyotes offense goes through the motions at times, the guy they’ve been banking on lately is Ray Whitney. “The Wizard” has a four-game points streak with a goal and five helpers in that span. They might have it tough tonight, however, as Radim Vrbata is questionable to play.

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks (10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

source: APThese two sit tied for third in the Pacific just one point behind both the Stars and Coyotes. While they won’t be able to catch up for the divisional lead tonight, they can help make their case stronger for either the seventh or eighth spot in the West.

For the Sharks, they’re coming off an ugly loss to the Ducks last night that saw them get dumped 5-3 and unable to beat backup goalie Jeff Deslauriers. After seeing Antti Niemi get chased in favor of Thomas Greiss last night, confidence cannot be high. At the very least the Sharks have Joe Pavelski and Martin Havlat playing well recently. They could stand to see Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau do a lot more. It’s stunning to see the Sharks even in a position where they have to fight for the playoffs. So much for being Stanley Cup hopefuls.

The Kings, on the other hand, are in the midst of an era of good feelings. Since acquiring Jeff Carter, the Kings offense has picked up dramatically averaging over three goals a game. That might not sound huge to you, but considering they were barely averaging over two a game before he arrived, it’s an immense improvement. The Kings’ record since Carter’s arrival? 8-3-0.

Keying their resurgence are two Kings fixtures in Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Brown has points in 10 of his last 11 games and Kopitar has points in nine of his last 10 including six goals and five assists. It’s taken almost the entire season, but with how the Kings are playing now this is the team we expected to see all year long. That’s bad news for the Sharks and everyone else in the playoff hunt out West.

Gaborik unlikely to be ready for start of training camp

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Marian Gaborik‘s recovery from a non-surgical procedure to address his “chronic” knee issue will likely bleed into training camp.

“He’s progressing pretty well from the summer,” Kings GM Rob Blake told LA Kings Insider. “He still has some difficulty with some of the lifts and the strength. We’re probably not sure if we’ll see him in training camp right away, but again, he’s a guy that trains at a very high level and he’s made a commitment to stay in L.A. after he got married, get the rehab back on course. We’re hopeful he can get back to the level that he started last season and the World Cup at.”

Gaborik has been an elite scorer at times during his career, but injuries have been a recurring issue for him. Over the past four seasons he’s played in 220 of a possible 328 contests and he’s been limited to 43 points in 110 games over the last two campaigns.

That’s particularly worrying given that the 35-year-old forward still has four seasons left on his seven-year contract worth roughly $34 million. At the same time a bounce back campaign out of Gaborik would go a long way towards addressing the offensive woes Los Angeles endured in 2016-17.

Under Pressure: Jaroslav Halak

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This post is a part of Islanders day at PHT…

No goaltender went through a season that could be more accurately called a roller coaster than Jaroslav Halak.

The veteran netminder entered the campaign immediately following a superb showing in the World Cup, but he struggled in the first half of the season to the point where he cleared waivers and was then sent to the minors on Dec. 31. Rather than fade away though, he got a second wind in the AHL. That led to him being called up on March 23 and shining in the finals weeks of the campaign.

So after all that, what’s next for Halak? Will he excel like he did towards the end of the season, struggle like he did at the beginning, or end up being wildly inconsistent yet again?

He’s down to the final season of his four-year, $18 million deal and Thomas Greiss has emerged as a strong alternative for the starting gig with the Islanders. Greiss is entering the first season of a three-year, $10 million deal, so he is more firmly established as part of the Islanders’ plan than Halak, but Greiss’ contract isn’t so expensive or long-term that the Islanders can’t re-sign Halak too if the situation calls for it. Especially if Halak were to step up and become a major part of guiding the Islanders back into the postseason after their disappointing 2016-17 showing.

What the presence of Greiss does though is give Halak little leeway in order to reestablish himself as that type of goaltender. If Halak even has a bad October, he might find himself set more clearly in the backup role beyond that.

Perhaps the Islanders are looking to Greiss as their future though and have little interest in Halak beyond this season. Maybe they would prefer a younger and/or cheaper pairing with Greiss once given the flexibility that Halak’s contract expiring affords them. Even in that scenario, this would still be a critical season for Halak as he’ll need a strong showing in order for him to find a gig elsewhere. After all, it wasn’t long ago that the entire league said they didn’t want his contract and while he’s bounced back since then, he still needs to prove this season that he’s worth a new deal.

The goaltender market is always a tough one, especially for those seeking a starting job, but for a great netminder that’s a nonissue. Halak has played at that level at various points of his career. He needs more than ever to be that goaltender again.

Gallant thinks Golden Knights can ‘win and compete consistently’ during inaugural season

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What can we expect from the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18? No one really knows what they’ll look like once they hit the ice because they’ve never played together before.

Of course, the expectation is that they’ll be bad, which is fair considering the track record expansion teams have in pro sports. But are they gonna be “Colorado bad” or will they be able to hold their own more often than not?

“I knew we were going to have a pretty decent team, but the team was better than I thought,” head coach Gerard Gallant said, per NHL.com. “I thought we got better top-end players than I thought we’d get.

“So I think we did a real good job building our team. Is it good enough to win and compete consistently? I think it is.”

Through the expansion draft, Gallant’s team was able to find themselves a quality number one goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury and a relatively young backup in Calvin Pickard.

After parting ways with defensemen like Alexei Emelin and Marc Methot, the Golden Knights are left with solid options like Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, and veterans like Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa and Brayden McNabb. That’s a decent group for an expansion side.

Up front is where things get a little more complicated. They signed Russian free agent Vadim Shipachyov and picked James Neal, David Perron and Reilly Smith during the expansion draft, but they’re also light on scoring depth.

“There’s going to be issues,” added the Golden Knights head coach. “Some nights we’re going to have trouble scoring goals. You look at our roster, there’s a lot of good players. Are there any superstars there?”

It’ll be interesting to see how Vegas’ first year in the NHL will unfold under Gallant and general manager George McPhee’s watch.

Poll: Will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

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This post is part of Islanders Day on PHT…

Is this going to be the last year we see John Tavares in a New York Islanders uniform?

That will likely be the question that surrounds the Islanders as long as Tavares is around and he hasn’t signed a long-term extension with the only club he’s ever played for.

The Tampa Bay Lightning went through this a couple of years ago with Steven Stamkos. In the end, the sniper opted to remain with the club that drafted him. Will Tavares do the same thing? Only time will tell. But what happens if Tavares doesn’t sign before the trade deadline?

The Bolts had to chose between keeping Stamkos for a playoff push and risk losing him for nothing, or trading him for a few assets to make sure they got something to show for him. The situation worked out well for Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

Players like Tavares rarely make it to free agency, which is why it could be tempting for him to wait until July 1st to see what he could fetch on the open market.

The 26-year-old holds all the cards. He’s already said that he’s in no hurry to sign a new contract extension.

“For me, there’s really no rush,” Tavares told Newsday last week. “I’m trying to determine things, let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal and it’s been good so far . . . In terms of signing a new contract, there’s a lot that goes into it. To really dive into all the details, get into all the conversations I’ve had with Garth [Snow], the team and Doug [Weight], I don’t think it’s productive to the situation and the negotiating. I prefer to keep it all internal, that’s the best way to keep it all open, honest and healthy.”

Since he joined the Islanders as an 18-year-old in 2009-10, he hasn’t exactly been surrounded by incredible talent. Sure, New York has had some quality players on their roster, but they’ve always leaned heavily on Tavares.

This summer, they traded away inconsistent forward Ryan Strome to the Oilers for proven scorer Jordan Eberle, who could see some time on Tavares’ wing. Will it be enough to convince him to stay?

The biggest difference between the Tavares/Stamkos situation, is that Stamkos expected to Lightning to be very competitive over the next few years (yes, they missed the playoffs this year, but the future still looks bright). Can the Islanders superstar expect the same from his organization?

Many have already speculated that he could decide to sign with his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even though the Leafs have plenty of talented forwards on their roster, they could still benefit from having a guy like no. 91 around.

Will he stay or will he go? Let us know what you think by voting in the poll below. Feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section.