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.

Simmonds goes from game-time decision to game-winner for Flyers vs. Oilers

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With extra protection on his face and at least a couple ailments slowing him down, Wayne Simmonds wasn’t even a sure-thing to play for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. In true hockey player fashion, Simmonds ended up being the difference-maker.

(That’s so hockey, right?)

Simmonds finished off some fantastic work from Jori Lehtera and Valtteri Filppula to score the decisive goal in the Flyers’ tight 2-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers this afternoon:

The gritty-but-talented winger also made his usual havoc in front of the net as part of Philly’s vaunted power play, ultimately getting the primary assist on Claude Giroux‘s goal:

This victory moves the Flyers to 5-3-0 in this young season, with three wins coming in their last four games. They’ve shown an ability to limit opponents lately, too; the Flyers have only allowed three goals in as many games and five in their last four.

While the Flyers stayed in the merciless Metro’s arms race, the Oilers feel punchless once again.

Their only goal was somewhat random, as Patrick Maroon made a great play, and a rare tally without the help of Connor McDavid:

It doesn’t really kill the trend of the Oilers relying far too much on McDavid and his top line. Maroon and McDavid fired eight of Edmonton’s 24 shots on goal in this contest, with another eight coming from the Oilers’ blueline.

Some of these top-heavy struggles come down to the structure put in place by GM Peter Chiarelli. Still, you wonder if head coach Todd McLellan needs to make some tweaks where he can, as the Oilers are asking a lot of a small group. (Ryan Strome continues to be a disappointment, as he didn’t register a single shot on goal after showing some life with nine SOG in his past two games.)

There’s also the impression that the Oilers sorely need Leon Draisaitl to carry his own line whenever he can return from concussion issues. Even in their slump-breaking victory on Thursday, they needed two McDavid assists, including one of the best you’ll ever see.

The Oilers close off a three-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, then maybe they’ll get a chance to gather their wits with a five-game homestand (though their opponents aren’t always the easiest).

Meanwhile, the upstart Flyers aim to win four of five during a solid homestand. What a difference a goal (and Wayne Simmonds) makes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Lundqvist sharp, Rangers scrappy against Predators to end slump

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Is it melodramatic to say that the New York Rangers needed this one?

Whatever weight you put on it, the Rangers finally broke a troubling five-game losing streak, managing a 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. The Predators saw a streak end in their own right, as they had been on a 4-0-1 run.

MORE: Rangers are still in for a steep climb in the Metro

As much as this was a confidence-booster, it was sometimes a sleepy afternoon effort by the Rangers. After generating a 2-0 lead in the first period, New York snoozed at times, only firing six shots on goal on Juuse Saros during the final 40 minutes.

Whether it came down to sitting on a lead or the Predators pressing on the gas, Henrik Lundqvist had to be alert at times in stopping 23 of 25 shots. One of his best efforts came in snubbing Colton Sissons in close:

In winning his 407th career regular-season game, Lundqvist tied Glenn Hall for ninth all-time in NHL history.

The Rangers were opportunistic on Saturday, a positive sign for a team that hasn’t always been getting the bounces early in 2017-18.

Kevin Hayes exerted his will at times, assisting on the Rangers’ opening goal and powering past Matt Irwin for what would stand as the game-winner:

Impressive stuff by Hayes, even if it was almost an equally lousy showing by Irwin.

Ryan Ellis is clearly missed by Nashville, but moments like Irwin’s lapse and Alexei Emelin flailing badly on the opening goal make one wonder why, exactly, Samuel Girard isn’t getting more looks after some promising early showings. With Irwin and Yannick Weber logging less than 11 minutes on Saturday, both P.K. Subban (27:55) and Roman Josi (27:31) flirted with 28-minute workloads despite the contest ending in regulation.

The Predators likely cringed a little extra at the empty-net goal since it came via former Preds prospect Jimmy Vesey:

If the Rangers want to get back on track, they’ll need to win in a number of ways, even if they’re not always pretty ones like this one was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Seems like Laine, Jets are heating up

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Big breaks can be really nice for NHL teams, but sometimes you wonder if the timing is all wrong. It will be interesting to see if the Winnipeg Jets (and Patrik Laine) feel that way about their upcoming breather.

The Jets had really been cooking after shaking off a tough start from Steve Mason (the Jets dropped their first two games in ugly fashion). By edging the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Friday, the Jets have now won four of their last five contests.

As you can see from the video above, Laine played a significant role in that win, showing that he might have some potential from “Alex Ovechkin‘s office” on Winnipeg’s power play. Laine doubled his 2017-18 goals total from two to four with that effort, pushing him to six points in seven games.

Laine was unleashing that lethal shot with aplomb last night, too, firing eight shots on goal.

(Last night’s edition of The Buzzer notes that it was a milestone night for Paul Maurice and Blake Wheeler. Along with grabbing that assist, Wheeler scored his 200th goal.)

The Jets have high hopes for 2017-18, and Laine’s a big part of that excitement, so it was nice to see him unleashed.

If it’s a matter of rhythm, then this break is a bummer. Their next game doesn’t take place until Thursday, making for almost a week off, just when they were really sizzling. It’s a tough haul for the next while, so maybe they’ll take advantage of the break (or get rusty?):

Thu, Oct 26 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 27 @ Columbus
Sun, Oct 29 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 @ Minnesota

November isn’t a breezy month for the Jets, either, so Winnipeg has to hope that they can carry over some of this momentum.

For more Jets-related fun, check out this interesting NHL.com piece about how Connor Hellebuyck is changing things up.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Look at what Rangers are up against right now

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You have to really squint to find bright sides to look on if you’re the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are currently on a five-game losing streak and have one shabby win to show for their first eight games of 2017-18, and they’ll shortly face a challenge in the Nashville Predators, who are riding a five-game point streak (4-0-1 after losing their first two games).

With six of those eight games coming at home, the Rangers are really squandering opportunities in the malicious Metro. About the only positive things you can say boil down to: a) scrapping two “loser points” out of the past two games and b) the team at least saying the right things, as Rick Nash notes according to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks.

“The bad teams I’ve been on, guys get away from the game plan, they don’t give the effort and there’s finger-pointing, whether in the room between guys; from the coach; or in the media. That’s what happens when things get away from you as a team.

“None of that is happening here,” Nash said. “We’re together and we’re focusing on taking this one step at a time.”

They might be wise not to look at the divisional standings. Just consider some of the teams they’re up against:

Devils (12 points in 8 games): New Jersey currently has a perfect road record and a fleet of young legs, something the transitional Rangers must envy. Even if they’re likely to slip (being blanked by the Sharks could be an early sign of regression), the Devils figure to be a tougher out this season.

Penguins (11 points in 8 games): Not much needs to be said, though it’s worth noting that they’ve won three in a row.

Blue Jackets (10 points in 7 games): All signs point to former Rangers coach John Tortorella’s group being very much the threat that once surprised us.

Capitals (9 points in 8 games): Finding ways to win, and scrappy in particular on the road so far (3-1-1 away record).

Flyers (8 points in 7 games): Might be better than their record indicates, at least judging by their +9 goal differential. Philly has the potential to at least be a pesky “bubble” team.

Hurricanes (7 points in 5 games): Light early schedule might keep them under the radar, for now.

Islanders (7 points in 7 games): Mixed results might not help the Islanders retain John Tavares, but a competent Isles team would only make it tougher for the Rangers.

Yeesh, kind of discouraging, right?

The Rangers currently sit at four points in eight games played, and like this post argues, they really need to wake up soon. They’ve already played six home vs. two road contests, and they face a similar saturation of MSG going forward.

Counting today’s game hosting the rising Predators, the Rangers play the next three in a row at home. After that, they play three of four on the road, but then enjoy a three-game homestand.

So, by Nov. 11, they’ll have played 13 games at home and just five on the road.

One gets the sense that the seat is getting hotter for Alain Vigneault by the day. Fair or not, it might feel like it’s boiling if the Rangers are still a wreck in mid-November.

(If he still has a seat at the table, at all.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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