NHL on NBCSN: Blackhawks, Wild fight for first place in Central

NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild at 7:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

The game of the night in the NHL on Sunday is in Chicago where divisional foes the Blackhawks and Wild meet for the first time this season.

It just so happens to be for the top spot in the Central.

For the Wild, they come into the game as one of the hottest teams in the NHL thanks to their current run dating back to the start of December that has seen then go 16-1-2 in their past 19 games. When the month of December started the Wild were in third place in the division and eight points back of Chicago. Since then they have completely eliminated that gap and raced to the top of the standings even though they enter Sunday’s game having played four fewer games than the Blackhawks on the season.

They are doing it with a balanced scoring attack that has been led by an offensive resurgence from Eric Staal, who has turned out to be one of the best offseason pickups in the entire league this year, and the continued dominance of Devan Dubnyk in net as he plays his way to the front of the pack in the Vezina Trophy discussion.

It has also been a tremendous debut season for first-year coach Bruce Boudreau who has his eyes set on yet another division title.

Say what you want about his postseason record, especially when it comes to Game 7’s, but no matter where Boudreau goes you can pretty much guarantee that his team is going to be in the running for a division crown after winning one in eight of his first nine seasons as an NHL head coach with two different teams (Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks). The only year he did not win a division was the 2011-12 season that he split with the Capitals and Ducks. Given where the Wild are in the standings at this point, thanks in large part to this 19 game run where they have collected 34 out of a possible 39 points, they are in the driver’s seat to give him another one with a third team.

That is part of what makes games like Sunday’s game so big for both teams. If they remain on their current point paces the rest of the season, the Wild would finish the season with 117 points, while the Blackhawks would only get to 107. The x-factor in that is that they have all four of their head-to-head meetings in the second half. What happens in those games could play a big role in determining who ends up on top.

From the Blackhawks side, it is going to be interesting to see how they respond on Sunday after what was perhaps their worst game of the season on Friday night in Washington where they were blown out, 6-0, by a Capitals team that is running over everybody at the moment.

After the game Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was, in the words of Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times, “fuming” after the game. Even though the Blackhawks have continued to win this season it has been a tough year for Toews after missing some time due to injury and having what is currently the worst offensive season of his career. With 21 points in 36 games he is currently on pace for 43 points in 72 games this season.

But while his scoring has experienced a drop, other forwards on the team are picking up the slack, especially when it comes to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Both players enter play on Sunday among the top-10 in the league in scoring, while both have been on a roll over the past few weeks. Panarin has 19 points in his past 16 games, while Kane has 18 over the same stretch.

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.