Sharks take Pacific Division lead, Flames stay alive

At least one former St. Louis Blues player hopes to the Blues see the San Jose Sharks in the first round, but the odds of that happening dropped considerably Monday. Then again, considering the up-and-down nature of the West’s stretch run, the most important word is “Monday” because things seem to change drastically from night to night.

In March 26’s case, the Sharks took a slim Pacific Division lead, the Calgary Flames stayed in the hunt and everyone else took a step back. To keep things neat, I’ll go in order of where the teams are in the standings as of this writing.

(Which, again, might only hold true for a day or two.)

Sharks contain Avalanche 5-1

It’s silly to call any individual contest the biggest of the night because they’re all huge for the individual teams, so let me temper that by deeming this the most “sweeping.”

The Sharks regulation win places them atop the Pacific and in the third seed – for now – with 88 points and six games remaining. Meanwhile, the Avalanche suffer a crushing blow that’s only a little less debilitating than the one that the Winnipeg Jets received earlier tonight.

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While the Avalanche are technically only a point behind seventh and eighth place at 86 points, they only have four games left this season – the least of all the bubble teams.

It’s hardly any solace, but at least the Avalanche didn’t fall just short in this game. They lost soundly, so there’s little sense staying up all night thinking of a single bad bounce. Instead, they must just move on and hope for bounces in their favor on future nights – but things look pretty shaky.

Flames burn Stars

In fact, I’d argue that Calgary might actually have a better chance than Colorado after Monday’s festivities. Despite allowing Jamie Benn goals 26 seconds into the first period (1-0) and 44 into the second (2-1), the Flames managed to win  5-4 – and in regulation to boot. That places them in 11th overall, but they have five games left and are only two points back of one of the final two seeds. At worst, their odds are similar to Colorado’s all things considered.

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Canucks blank Kings

If the Los Angles Kings miss the playoffs, the sad symbol of their season might just be a goose egg. Los Angeles has been shut out 10 times this season after Roberto Luongo’s perfect night, guaranteeing that more than 12 percent of the Kings’ games were fruitless.

The Canucks have already clinched the lowly Northwest Division – which looks unlikely to produce a second playoff team once again – so their sites are focused on the West’s first seed. That’s far from a pipe dream, either, because the St. Louis Blues only have a two point lead for the No. 1 spot. (Although it must be noted that the Blues currently have 47 wins and 43 regulation/OT victories to 46 and 39 for Vancouver.)

Los Angeles probably wishes that its opponents had less to play for because that 1-0 loss really hurts.

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Instead of taking the Pacific lead or at least essentially tying the Sharks with 88 points, the Kings are instead seated in ninth place with 86 behind the Sharks, Stars and Coyotes.

West update

In fact, here’s a look at how the West races shake out – we’ll focus on the Pacific and final seed battles for now:

3. San Jose – 88 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, six games left

7. Dallas – 87 points, 34 regulation/OT wins, six games left
8. Phoenix – 87 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, five games left

9. Los Angeles – 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, six games left
10. Colorado – 86 points, 31 regulation/OT wins, four games left
11. Calgary – 85 points, 32 regulation/OT wins, five games left

As you can see, Monday didn’t really deliver a death blow or open up an easy avenue for anyone, bu the Kings, Stars and Avalanche must really be kicking themselves. The Pacific appears to be fair game, but to use a regrettable media term, San Jose “controls its own destiny.” All six of its final contests take place against Pacific teams, with just one against the irrelevant-beyond-spoilers Anaheim Ducks.

In general, there’s plenty left in play but the Flames and especially the Sharks won the biggest tonight. We’ll find out soon enough how much that matters.

Want a video summary of the night as well? NBC Sports Network has you covered:

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Golden Knights’ defense coming into focus with signings

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As the Vegas Golden Knights’ success gradually goes from shocking to accepted, there’s still the question of what this team might look like next season and beyond. Such questions are only natural when you consider all the key players who still need contract extensions.

Golden Knights management is chipping away at those questions regarding their defense in 2018-19, particularly this week.

On Monday, the Golden Knights signed local favorite and rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to a one-year extension worth $1.5 million. (That deal includes $1M in potential performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.)

One day later, the team announced a two-year extension for Jon Merrill (pictured). The deal is for $2.75M overall, so it will make for a $1.375M cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The Golden Knights now have five defensemen on their current roster who are signed through 2018-19, if not longer: Engelland, Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Brad Hunt. McNabb is locked up the longest, with a $2.5M cap hit kicking in next season and expiring after 2020-21.

The most interesting remaining defensemen to sort out are Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, both pending RFAs. The Golden Knights have been buying up blueliners at bargain rates, but Theodore and Miller could be tougher nuts to crack contracts-wise. (Two UFA defensemen Luca Sbisa and Clayton Stoner on IR.)

Quick look at Engelland and Merrill

Engelland, 35, has been one of the Golden Knights’ ice time leaders with 19:39 per night, collecting 13 points while limiting his time in the penalty box (16 PIM in 41 games) compared to his usual numbers. He’s not perfect, but it’s conceivable that he’ll be worth that minimal cost to Vegas, especially since he’s an ambassador for the still-new franchise.

While Vegas hopes Engelland can bring that veteran presence for another year, they’re likely banking on Merrill to be more effective at a cheap rate.

The 25-year-old has been dealing with injuries and other issues, limiting him to 14 games played.

***

These defensive signings aren’t as important as locking up Jonathan Marchessault, nor is it as crucial as making the right call with the likes of James Neal and David Perron. With Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury seeing their deals expire after 2018-19, management will need to make some goaltending decisions not that long from now.

A little bit of greed can inspire players to go that extra mile and stay that much hungrier, yet it’s also comforting to sometimes have some answers. After this week, there’s some clarity on the blueline, even if some decisions still need to be made.

And, hey, the Golden Knights haven’t really locked themselves into bad contracts yet. Old teams could probably learn a thing or two from these new kids.

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.

Johnny Gaudreau is playing best hockey of NHL career

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Maybe it’s because Johnny Gaudreau has been a productive scorer since day one. Almost literally.

Gaudreau scored a goal in his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames, his only appearance in 2013-14. The slick, undersized forward then generated 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 2014-15, and really hasn’t missed a beat.

While there were plenty of questions heading into 2017-18 for Calgary – goaltending, Jaromir Jagr, depth on defense and offense – everyone just assumed Gaudreau would keep scoring. So perhaps that explains why people aren’t making much of a deal about Gaudreau scoring even more than usual.

As of Tuesday, Gaudreau is in a four-way tie for second in NHL scoring with 54 points.

After scoring two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, the Flames forward was named NHL’s first star of the week, ahead of teammate Mike Smith (also red-hot). His point streak actually extends into 2017, a stretch of seven games, five of which were multi-point (two goals, 11 assists for 13 points).

Gaudreau set career-highs in goals (30) and points (78) in 79 games back in 2015-16. While he’s at a solid goal-scoring clip of 15 so far this season, his playmaking is what might make this his best work. Gaudreau is averaging 1.2 points-per game, a pace of about 98 points during an 82-game season.

Upon hearing about Gaudreau’s All-Star nod about a week ago, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan did a great job summarizing what makes him so effective.

“I think he gets the best looks in the National Hockey League,” Gulutzan said, via the Calgary Sun. “He puts himself into position every game to create and shoot. Just the way he navigates himself on the ice and can handle the puck, it’s pretty amazing. For not a big guy, he can strip guys of pucks and get those kind of opportunities, too. It’s a combination of speed, agility and high hockey I.Q. that allows him to do it. He’s our engine for generating offense.”

This goal Gaudreau scored against the Stars on Nov. 24 is a great example of his ability to “strip guys of pucks,” and why he’s such a nightmare to defend.

Gaudreau and the Flames are currently resting up on a bye week, and hopefully not getting too rusty, as Calgary owns the longest active winning streak in the NHL at seven games. Beginning on Saturday, the Flames will play six of their next seven games at home, so there’s a solid chance that they’ll keep their strong play going.

If so, the Flames – and Gaudreau – will be difficult to ignore.

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.

Drouin or Galchenyuk at center? Habs may choose neither

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It’s been a weird season for the Montreal Canadiens, and Tuesday presented a new wrinkle.

With Phillip Danault sidelined (but resting at home) with a concussion after taking that scary Zdeno Chara shot, the Canadiens are dealing with some injuries at center. One would think that might inspire management to keep Drouin in the middle, or – dare we wonder – even give Galchenyuk another shot at center.

Instead, the plan for at least one day is to mark “none of the above,” with Galchenyuk at left wing and Drouin on the right on a line with Jacob De La Rose. This seems like a good time to break out that blinking gif, eh?

To review, Bergevin explained about a week ago that Drouin was better suited to play at wing “in an ideal world.” It was startling to hear Bergevin say that much after dismissing Galchenyuk as a center – to some controversy – back in September.

Maybe this ends up being a short-term experiment; maybe this is what Bergevin and/or Julien wanted all along. But yes, it’s a little odd.

Now, not a lot has changed since PHT did this study of how Drouin was doing heading into a reunion in Tampa Bay.

Despite being 60.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, Drouin’s been a poor possession player. He’s also regressed from an already weak place on faceoffs, winning a pitiful 40.4 percent of his draws this season. With just six goals and 21 points in 39 games, Drouin hasn’t been explosive enough to excuse his other failings. (Numbers via Hockey Reference.)

To that extent, it’s almost surprising the Canadiens waited so long, but it’s still frustrating for many to see them so easily dismiss Galchenyuk’s acumen while seemingly letting Drouin’s shortcomings slide.

Much of that frustration comes from the feeling that they’re essentially mirror images: offensive players who can thrive in the right situations, but can also frustrate their coaches. During Drouin’s Lightning days, Jon Cooper essentially said the same things about his two-way struggles as the Habs have about Galchenyuk. Remember that “two nets” comment?

So, yes, on many levels it’s baffling that the Canadiens are rolling Paul Byron out at center and putting De La Rose in the middle rather than allowing Galchenyuk to get another shot.

The real key might be about a different kind of opportunity: if this is how they get the best players on the ice more often, it may all be worth the headaches and snickers. Because when you line up with Drouin, there’s a solid chance you’ll be getting more reps.

Just look at Alex Galchenyuk’s split stats. It’s a small sample size, but so far in January, his average time on ice is 18:37, a mark that towers over his season average of 15:25. The way Julien sees it, De La Rose can do the heavy lifting while those two (ideally) light up the scoreboard.

“At the end of the day, you have a center who might be a little more defensive when you’re in your own end and I want them to play in the other end. The quicker you can kill the play, the better,” Julien said, via PHT’s Joey Alfieri. “Let those two other guys use their offense to their advantage.”

There are quite a few hockey people who envision a future in which you rarely look at the five skaters on the ice as five different positions, instead letting the situation dictate and transition flow organically. Such a way of thinking would probably be the most positive way to look at this situation. At least beyond the previously stated very-bright-side of getting Galchenyuk on the ice more often, without being to Drouin’s detriment.

If nothing else, Drouin and Galchenyuk are finding some chemistry and rhythm together, and that could end up being a beautiful pairing to watch.

It’s so zany it might just work.

That doesn’t keep it from being zany, though.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

The Flyers aren’t currently in a playoff spot, but things have been going pretty well for them of late. They’ll head into tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak. In each of those victories, they’ve managed to score at least four goals.

Captain Claude Giroux has continued to light it up offensively during the winning streak. Not only has he racked up eight points during his team’s winning streak, he’s also registered at least one point in 11 of his last 12 contests, which is pretty impressive.

But Giroux isn’t the only one producing. Linemates Jakub Voracek (seven points in four games) and Sean Couturier (nine points in four games) have also helped the Flyers catch fire of late.

Another reason the Flyers have been filling the net is because of their red-hot power play that is now 7-for-14 in their last four outings.

As for the Rangers, they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum right now. They’re currently one point ahead of the Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings, but Philadelphia has a game in hand. The fact that New York has dropped three games in a row certainly won’t help their chances of playing hockey in the spring.

Their most recent loss may have been their ugliest one in a while, as they were badly out played by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night.

Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist was particularly vocal after the disaster that took place on the weekend (they lost 7-2 to the Islanders on Saturday and 5-2 to the Penguins on Sunday).

“You have to face it, too. The last 15-20 games, we’re a team that’s going to battle hard to get in,” Lundqvist said, per the New York Post. “We score about two goals a game, so obviously we have to limit our mistakes to stay in games. That’s a fact, and that’s something we have to realize. I’m going to start with myself, work as hard as I can and try to help the team.

“And we need everyone doing that to see if we can turn it around.”

On a positive note, Ryan McDonagh, who’s missed the last game with an undisclosed injury, was back on the ice this morning. McDonagh could return to the lineup tonight.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.