East update: Panthers, Capitals clinch playoffs; Sabres are done

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Thursday night ended up being bittersweet for the Florida Panthers, bitter for the Buffalo Sabres and just plain sweet for the Washington Capitals.

With the Capitals’ 4-2 win against the Panthers and the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2-1 regulation victory against Buffalo, this much is clear:

1. The Sabres have been eliminated from the playoffs.
2. The Panthers are officially in the postseason for the first time since 2000 – the longest playoff drought in NHL history.
3. The Capitals will capture at least the eighth seed.

Point No. 3 is the most interesting because of what hasn’t been settled. In a made-for-TV blessing, the Capitals can wrestle the Southeast Division title from the Panthers if they get any sort of win and the Panthers lose in regulation on Saturday (the last night of the season).

The Capitals might actually feel more comfortable facing a team they’ve booted from the playoffs twice in the Ovechkin era in the No. 1 seed New York Rangers, but a seventh seed – and thus a match with the defending Stanley Cup champions the Boston Bruins – is still plausible if Washington wins and Ottawa doesn’t register another point.

Either way, Washington shook off a disturbing Michal Neuvirth injury when they only had a 1-0 lead to build it to 3-0. The Panthers found a way to get back into the game with two goals but Alex Semin scored a late insurance backhander as a power play expired to put it out of reach at 4-2.

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Meanwhile, the Sabres face a summer of “What if?” questions, beginning perhaps with giving up a slim 1-0 lead to the Flyers. Philly certainly isn’t an easy draw, but Ryan Miller & Co. must live with the fact that the orange and black ended their season two years in a row. (This time before the playoffs.)

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Oh, and if you’re into somewhat-ridiculous comparisons between Brooks Laich’s guarantee and Mark Messier’s famous one, guess who scored tonight’s game-winner? Brooks Laich.

Here’s a video update of what the East standings look like after a big night:

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Looks 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, who collected his 200th assist in sending the puck to Laine’s wheelhouse.)

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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Devils fans help singer who forgot words to national anthem (Video)

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The biggest save of the night at Prudential Center on Friday didn’t come from either goaltender, but rather New Jersey Devils fans in attendance for their game against the San Jose Sharks.

Lauralie Mufute began singing the national anthem but midway through forgot the words. That’s when the crowd of 14,381 picked up where the 14-year-old left off and finished the song.

A great job by the crowd in what certainly was a terrifying moment for the young performer.

These flaps happen, as we’ve seen many times before in different situations. It’s always good to know the crowd can act as backup singers in times of need.

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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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin’s blast lifts Capitals in OT, Sheary speeds by Panthers

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Player of the night: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin has already reached double digits in goals scored in this new campaign. The Capitals’ star recorded his 10th goal of the season on Friday and it counted as the overtime winner against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Capitals trailed late in the third period, but T.J. Oshie scored the tying goal and Ovechkin won it on a power play less than two minutes into the extra period, as he deployed that famous one-timer slap shot from his off-wing. This time, Petr Mrazek was victimized by the wicked slapper.

Ovechkin is now only two goals behind the entire Montreal Canadiens team — in the same amount of games.

Highlight of the night:

What a weapon speed is in today’s National Hockey League. Conor Sheary illustrated that once again, as he saw a little bit of room down the left side and flew around Alex Petrovic before making a move to the backhand on James Reimer. That goal counted as the eventual winner, as the Penguins defeated the Panthers 4-3. Earlier in the third period, Sheary and Roberto Luongo came together near the Florida net, causing Luongo’s right hand to get caught against the post, injuring the Panthers’ netminder.

Factoid of the night:

It was a milestone night in Winnipeg for Blake Wheeler and coach Paul Maurice.

Scores:

Vancouver 4, Buffalo 2

San Jose 3, New Jersey 0

Washington 4, Detroit 3 (OT)

Pittsburgh 4, Florida 3

Winnipeg 4, Minnesota 3

Anaheim 6, Montreal 2

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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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