TGIF: In which we salivate over potential playoff matchups

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Saturday: Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (1 p.m. ET)

These two fierce in-state rivals also meet Sunday on NBC, and could very well meet in the first round of the playoffs. For that to happen, the Flyers would need to finish in a wild-card spot, just not the one that matches up with Boston. Other potential first-round matchups we wouldn’t mind seeing? How ’bout Leafs-Habs. Or Bruins-Habs. Or Bruins-Leafs. Or Bruins-Flyers. Or Pens-Wings. Or Jackets-Rangers. And that’s just in the East. In the West, we could see Kings-Ducks in the battle of Los Angeles. And it seems all but certain we’ll see Avs-Hawks. After Colorado took four of five from the defending champs in the regular season? Yeah, I’d probably watch that.

Saturday: Columbus at Minnesota (8 p.m. ET)

Big game for both teams. If I’m the Wild, I want to win this one badly, because I know what’s ahead. Consider: after Saturday, Minnesota will have 15 games left, including two versus Boston, two against St. Louis, one against Pittsburgh, one against Los Angeles, and one against Chicago. On top of that, most of the rest are against desperate teams like Detroit (twice), New Jersey, Vancouver, Phoenix, and Winnipeg. The Jackets, meanwhile, have a relatively easier schedule, but they don’t have a six-point cushion like the Wild. Theirs is only three, and could easily be just one by Saturday.

Saturday: Anaheim at Los Angeles (10:30 p.m. ET)

I mentioned this yesterday in PHT Extra, but I’ll say it again here. If I’m a potential wild-card team in the West, I’m hoping Anaheim holds on to first in the Pacific, and then I hope I match up with the Ducks in the first round. No disrespect to Anaheim, though I guess it’s hard to take it any other way.  Yes, I think the Ducks are a good team; I just don’t think they’re in the same class as St. Louis. Or, for that matter, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Jose. In fact, if Anaheim draws Dallas in the first round, I’d probably pick the Stars to win. (Note: I reserve the right to change/chicken out of this pick.)

Sunday: Vancouver at Florida (3 p.m. ET)

Roberto Luongo versus his old Canucks. I have to say, I kind of agreed with Don Cherry’s take on Luongo’s tweeting during Vancouver’s 6-1 drubbing in Dallas. Maybe it would’ve been best if old @strombone1 sat that one out. Not that the tweets weren’t funny, because they were definitely funny. And I don’t think he meant any malice whatsoever with them; most of his tweets are of the self-deprecating kind, and that’s a big reason why Vancouver fans fell back in love with him before he was traded away. But if there’s one guy — I mean, ONE GUY — who should know that words can come back to bite, isn’t it Roberto “Easy Save For Me” Luongo?

Sunday: Detroit at Chicago (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

If the Red Wings end up making the playoffs, Mike Babcock deserves serious consideration for coach of the year. Frankly, I thought he deserved a lot more consideration last year, when he only finished 10th in the voting, but there’s no sense complaining about that now. It just can’t be understated how badly the Wings have been banged up this year. Only two players — Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey — have appeared in all 65 Detroit games. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen — all three stars have missed big chunks of the season. According to Sports Club Stats, the Wings have a 39.6 percent chance of making the playoffs for a 23rd straight time. “We talked about it after the Olympic break that we have to win two of every three,” said Babcock after Tuesday’s costly loss in Columbus. “We got off to a good start with that and then we’ve lost two in a row. We have to bounce back.”

Flames sign free agent defenseman Josh Healey

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The Calgary Flames announced on Saturday that they have signed undrafted free agent defenseman Josh Healey to a two-year entry level contract. He will join the Stockton Heat of the AHL for the remainder of this season on an Amateur Tryout contract before his entry level deal begins next season.

Healey, 22, has spent the past four seasons playing for Ohio State and has developed a reputation for being one of the biggest hitters and most physical players at the NCAA level.

“Hits too hard for college,” is how one NHL scout described his play back in February.

That style of play has resulted in him getting himself into hot some water in the form of several ejections and suspensions over the past two seasons.

Along with his willingness to play a physical game, Healey’s offensive game took off a bit during his junior and senior seasons, including the 2016-17 season when he finished as the top scoring defenseman on the Buckeyes with 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) in 35 games.

In 133 games over four years at Ohio State he has accumulated 212 penalty minutes, leading the team by a pretty wide margin the past two years.

Panthers coach Tom Rowe wishes he didn’t play Aaron Ekblad this week

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A miserable season for the Florida Panthers got a little bit worse earlier this month when defenseman Aaron Ekblad was sidelined with another concussion on what coach and general manager Tom Rowe called “a real cheap shot from behind.”

After missing a few games, he was cleared to play by the team’s medical staff and returned to the lineup on Tuesday, 10 days after the injury, and played 18 minutes in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Based on what happened in the aftermath of that game, it seems pretty obvious he may not have been completely ready to return to the ice.

Ekblad will not play in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks and will not accompany the team on its upcoming road trip after he complained of a sore neck following Tuesday’s game. He was also dealing with headaches on Friday that were attributed to a neck injury and not the concussion.

On Saturday, Rowe was asked if he regretted playing Ekblad earlier this week and he was quite honest in his assessment.

“I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t,” Said Rowe, via George Richards of the Miami Herald. “That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.

Ekblad wanted to play in Tuesday’s game but Rowe insisted he should have used his experience to hold his top defenseman out of the lineup.

“I’ve have a lot more experience in this business than he does,” said Rowe, again via the Herald. “I have had a ton of experience with those types of injuries. I usually give those guys two or three days of practice and I wish I had done that. It’s no one’s fault but my own.”

Ekblad has had some significant head and neck injuries over the past couple of years. This is the second time in the past two seasons he has missed time due to a concussion, and he was also sent home from the World Cup of Hockey earlier this year with what was said to be “whiplash.”

The 21-year-old Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, has 10 goals and 11 assists in 68 games for the Panthers this season. With only four games remaining following the team’s upcoming four-game road trip it is not out of the question to think that Ekblad’s season could be over.

The Panthers are only 4-10-1 in their past 15 games and have pretty  much fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Ryan O’Reilly comments on Sidney Crosby spearing incident: ‘It happens’

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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has made some headlines this week for a couple of stick infractions that were overlooked by the on-ice officials during his games.

They were not overlooked by everybody else.

On Thursday, he caught Marc Methot with a slash to the hand that ended up busting the defenseman’s finger on a play that made Senators owner Eugene Melnyk go berserk on Ottawa radio the next day. On its own it would have been an incident that received a ton of attention, if for no other reason than the gruesome image of Methot’s finger dangling around. But what added to it was the fact that two days before that incident there was the spearing incident involving Buffalo Sabres forward Ryan O'Reilly that you see in the video above.

On Saturday, O’Reilly was asked for his thoughts on the play after everything that has happened with Crosby over the past couple of games.  He does not seem to have any hard feelings regarding the play, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

“It was a weird thing,” said O’Reilly. “You know, it happens. I didn’t expect it and he apologized after the play and it was understood. It just threw me off. I wasn’t expecting anything and then something happens, but he’s a good guy and he is just playing hard and he takes a beating every night too so it happens.”

He was then asked if he knew who initially hit him, and O’Reilly said he did not until Crosby apologized later in the game.

“No, I didn’t,” said O’Reilly. I was watching the puck and the next thing I know I had a stick right to the crotch and it threw me off for sure. I got up slowly and turned around to see who it was, and then off the won faceoff he comes up as we’re skating down the ice and says, ‘yeah, sorry about that, I was kind of going for your stick.’ I go, ‘meh, it happens, I guess. Would’ve been nice to have a penalty, but it happens.”

Crosby was not penalized for either play and received no supplemental discipline from the league. The latter part is not a surprise, and it is not because of some sort of preferential treatment from the league. Since the NHL’s department of player safety has been put into place it has never suspended a player for spearing (it has fined seven players) and suspended only two players for slashing (it has fined six).

Bruins will not have Tuukka Rask for massive game against Islanders tonight

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Massive game in Brooklyn on Saturday night when the New York Islanders will be hosting the Boston Bruins in a key game in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

The day is already off to a bad start for the Bruins, losers of four in a row, when coach Bruce Cassidy announced that starting goaltender Tuukka Rask did not make the trip with the team and will not be available for the game. Anthon Khudobin will get the start in his place, while Zane McIntyre has been recalled from the American Hockey League on an emergency basis.

Cassidy said that Rask is dealing with a lower body injury and is considered day-to-day.

Rask did not practice with the team on Friday.

It is a massive game as both teams enter the night tied in the standings with 82 points. But because the Islanders have played one fewer game, they currently occupy the second wild card spot. They are both just one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in what is now pretty much a three-team race for that spot. It is the last meeting of the season between the two teams (Boston does play Tampa Bay once more).

Overall it has been another frustrating season for Rask, whose .910 save percentage is currently the worst of his career. He has really struggled during the Bruins’ current four-game losing streak, giving up 15 goals during that stretch.

Khudobin, meanwhile, has been on a bit of a roll for the Bruins in his recent starts following a terrible start to the season. He has won each of his past four starts, allowing just eight goals.

The Islanders are coming off of a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh on Friday night against the Penguins with Jaroslav Halak making his return to the team and picking up the win.