Penguins clinch playoffs as Malkin, Neal overshadow Radulov’s return

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Thursday night was supposed to be all about Alexander Radulov’s return to the Nashville Predators, but it’s pretty tough to steal the Pittsburgh Penguins’ thunder – even when you score.

Radulov provided the Predators’ lone goal as the Penguins dominated the game, winning 5-1 – and thus becoming the East’s second team to clinch a playoff spot – thanks in large part to another outstanding performance from Evgeni Malkin and James Neal.

Penguins pound Preds

Malkin scored his 44 and 45th goals of the season, giving him a stunning seven goals and four assists in his last five games. Malkin has nine games left to get the five tallies needed for 50, which would defy my (seemingly reasonable?) guess that Steven Stamkos would be this season’s only 50-goal guy. Geno now has a whopping 95 points in just 66 games, making it hard to deny the crowd’s logic in chanting “M-V-P!” tonight.

Neal wasn’t exactly chopped liver, either, collecting four assists for the game’s first star nod. Chris Kunitz (one goal, one assist) and Kris Letang (two helpers) also played a big part in the win, with the only “bummer” being that Sidney Crosby went without a point.

(It looked like Crosby “finally” scored his first goal of his second return, but Kunitz received credit for the goal as the puck deflected off of a Predators’ skate instead.)

Radulov under review

Radulov did get his goal, but a -2 rating and just two shots on goal show that he didn’t have a super-busy return. He appeared in just under 16 minutes (15:54 time on ice), but it’ll probably be fairer to judge his work this weekend, when the Predators host the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday and start a three-game road trip by visiting the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday (which you can watch on NBC Sports Network).

Atlantic race update

As I mentioned before, the Penguins are now guaranteed a playoff spot. Here’s what the Atlantic title battle looks like now:

Rangers: 99 points, 43 regulation/OT wins, nine games left
Penguins: 98 points, 37 regulation/OT wins, nine games left
Flyers: 94 points, 39 regulation/OT wins, eight games left

It’s likely that the Flyers (who beat the Washington Capitals 2-1 in a shootout tonight, more on that soon) are out of the mix at this point, although they’ll face the Penguins two more times this season.

Honestly, one cannot help but wonder if it might all come down to an April 5 home game against the Rangers. New York holds tiebreaker advantages so the Penguins almost certainly need to finish with one more point to win the division, but that contest could represent the difference if the two teams remain neck-and-neck down the stretch.

Just ask the Predators how easy it is to stick with the Penguins.

Roberto Luongo leaves game with apparent injury, as Panthers fall to Penguins

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The Florida Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday. Making matters worse was the fact their goalie Roberto Luongo left the game in the third period with an apparent hand injury.

The injury occurred after a collision in the crease with Penguins forward Conor Sheary.

Luongo immediately went down to the ice in pain. A replay from above the net showed Luongo’s right hand getting caught in an awkward position against the post after coming into contact with Sheary as he cut through in front of the crease in pursuit of the puck.

The injury forced James Reimer off the bench and into the game with the Panthers trailing by a goal. MacKenzie Weegar tied the game for Florida before Sheary scored the eventual winner about eight minutes later, on a night when the Penguins fired 48 shots on the two Panthers goalies.

Luongo gave up three goals on 36 shots before leaving the game. The Panthers now head out on the road. They’ll visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Video: More offside drama had Sabres coach Phil Housley up in arms

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Just hours after the NHL admitted to an offside challenge error, there was another controversy during the Sabres-Canucks game on Friday.

Vancouver appeared to take the lead on a Daniel Sedin goal. However, Buffalo coach Phil Housley challenged the play for offside, after replays showed Jake Virtanen may not have had complete control of the puck as he broke in over the blue line.

The following challenge resulted in a brutally long review. For Buffalo, it was also unsuccessful as, surprisingly, officials deemed Virtanen did have control of the puck as he entered the zone. The goal counted, Vancouver took the lead.

Housley was not happy about it.

Not only was the challenge unsuccessful, but the Sabres were penalized for delay of game as a result.

From the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Linesman, NHL Hockey Operations staff confirmed that Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had possession and control of the puck as he entered the attacking zone prior to the goal. According to Rule 83.1, “a player actually controlling the puck who shall cross the line ahead of the puck shall not be considered ‘off-side,’ provided he had possession and control of the puck prior to his skates crossing the blue line.”

Therefore the original call stands – good goal Vancouver Canucks.

It took 4:27 to come to a decision, too.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Devils place goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve with a lower-body injury suffered Thursday night in a 5-4 overtime victory at Ottawa.

Schneider left after the second period. Keith Kinkaid replaced him and stopped all nine shots he faced to earn the victory.

With Schneider sidelined, Kinkaid was expected to start Friday night at home against San Jose.

The Devils recalled goalie Scott Wedgewood from Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

The Devils catch a scheduling break with a week off until their next game Oct. 27, the first day Schneider is eligible to return.

Schneider is 4-1-0 in six games this season with a 3.30 goals-against average.

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Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings finally settle on one-year deal

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The contract stalemate between the Detroit Red Wings and Andreas Athanasiou is finally over.

On Friday, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that the two sides struck a deal that will see the 23-year-old forward back in the lineup, at least for this season. It’s a one-year deal worth $1.387 million.

Due to Detroit’s tight salary cap situation, the deal has not been officially registered with the NHL because general manager Ken Holland needs to free up space in order to fit Athanasiou’s contract.

Athanasiou, who was a restricted free agent this summer, was seeking a two-year deal worth around $2.5 million per season. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were holding firm on a one- or two-year deal carrying a $1.9 million AAV. As the stalemate dragged on, he began practicing with Swiss side HC Lugano, but did not sign a contract. He had until Dec. 1 to make an NHL return in order to be eligible to play this season. The KHL card was played, but as Torey Krug showed, that move is always a clear bluff.

The one-year pact is essentially a “show-me” deal for Athanasiou, who scored 18 goals and recorded 29 points last season. He finished second on the Red Wings in even strength goals (17) in 2016-17 and tallied a pair of overtime winners. A good year and with some salary off the books next summer, he can cash in with a longer-term contract. He’ll once again be an RFA next summer, so Detroit will control his rights, but he’ll have arbitration rights.

According to MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, along with the contract Athanasiou has been promised a minutes bump from the 13:27 he played last season, as well as regular time on both special teams units.

Detroit is off to a 4-3-0 start and averaging 3.14 goals per game. Once Athanasiou arrives from Switzerland and gets up to speed — possibly with an AHL conditioning stint — his presence will certainly be a boost to the Red Wings’ lineup.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.: