New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins

PHT Morning Skate: Rangers-Pens, ‘Hawks-Wild start it up

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There’s no rest for the weary in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Two of the four teams playing tonight got their pass to the second round on Wednesday night after Game 7 wins. The New York Rangers slipped past the Philadelphia Flyers and are rewarded with a trip to the other side of Pennsylvania to face the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Out West, the Minnesota Wild needed overtime to dispose of the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 and now they head east for a date with the Chicago Blackhawks for the second consecutive season. This time around it’s in a later round of the playoffs and, oh yeah, they may not have their top goalie of the postseason. No one said the playoffs were easy.

Game 1: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers (7:00 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

The Penguins getting by the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games ended up working out just fine for the team to get a little bit of rest heading into the second round. With the added time off, it gives Marc-Andre Fleury an opportunity to reset himself after a series that was a bit more exciting than he’d like.

While the schedule for this series is a bit unkind, the Penguins have to be wary of the team that’s still rolling in game mode. It might seem like the Rangers are coming in tired, but the way this schedule works out it’s no different than how tight the regular season schedule was.

Each team is 2-1-1 against the other this season and there’s pressure on guys on both sides.

For the Rangers it’s on Rick Nash to pick things up. Nash had no goals and four assists against the Flyers and getting him to pot a goal in this series would get a big monkey off his back. In 23 career playoff games he has just two goals.

You could say there’s pressure on Sidney Crosby to score, but with how he’s played in the postseason it’s just a matter of time. The focus, instead, is on Fleury. There’s always pressure on goalies in the postseason, but with him it’s at a higher level. That may not be fair, but it’s just how it is.

Game 1: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild (9:30 p.m. ET — NBCSN)

Perhaps the most curious stat between these two teams this season is the head-to-head record. Minnesota went 3-1-1 against Chicago this season and despite the difference in record, the final three games they played were one-goal games.

Of course in the playoffs you can throw out what happened in the regular season as situations have changed. The Wild may be down three goalies as this round starts as Darcy Kuemper left Game 7 against Colorado with an injury. They’re already without Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding and that puts Ilya Bryzgalov firmly in the spotlight if Kuemper can’t go.

Facing a Blackhawks team that found their mojo beating the St. Louis Blues in six games with your No. 4 goalie doesn’t sound like a plan for success. Chicago got great performances from all their top players. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Marian Hossa were all at their best against the Blues and if that continues into this round, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will have their hands full.

The pressure of containing all those guys shifts to the forwards as well meaning Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise’s ability to defend will be tested. The Wild will need to see more out of Jason Pominville and hope rookies Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle continue to do what they showed against the Avalanche.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.