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.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.

 

 

Ducks send Stoner to AHL on conditioning loan

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Clayton Stoner is going to play some hockey again.

The Anaheim Ducks announced today that the 32-year-old defenseman has been assigned to AHL San Diego on a long-term injury conditioning loan.

Stoner has not played since Nov. 15. He had abdominal surgery in December, at which point the Ducks said he’d miss an additional 4-6 weeks. But a setback in his recovery extended the time frame.

“The setback was kind of just me trying to get back maybe a little bit quicker than I should,” Stoner told the O.C. Register recently. “And I wasn’t ready. Things have been good here for a little while so hopefully I’m just trying to string some days together and earn a spot back and kind of prove that I can be healthy and stay healthy.”