Getty

Flyers rise, Leafs fall, Islanders lurk on busy night in East playoff races

4 Comments

On a busy night for the Eastern Conference’s bubble teams, the Philadelphia Flyers probably ended up being the biggest winners.*

Let’s try to sort things out lightning-round style, then we’ll take a look at where the most relevant East bubble teams stand.

  • The Philadelphia Flyers grabbed their third straight win, and it was a significant one, edging the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1. The Flyers move ahead of the Leafs and other teams for the second wild card spot in the East, although Philly’s edge on Toronto looks a lot shakier when you factor in games in hand (more on that in a moment). Still, it was a big win for the Flyers.
  • The Maple Leafs really might be the biggest losers of the night, at least among teams whose chances seem most realistic right now. The Ottawa Senators lost, but they lost in overtime (3-2 to the Calgary Flames), so they have a three-point edge on the Maple Leafs. The Boston Bruins won a hectic 4-3 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins to move one point ahead of Toronto … but again, for now. The games in hand things is going to come up again.
  • The Florida Panthers managed to get the extra point against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 2-1 overtime win. The Cats aren’t in a position of strength, yet they can’t be discounted altogether, either.
  • The New York Islanders continue to rise in the East, gaining another win against an opponent in “contender” position. Andrew Ladd (yes, Ladd) scored two goals as the Isles beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1, giving the Islanders a six-game point streak. They still need to make up some ground, yet they’re a reminder of how much of a difference a surge can make. Even with the Habs hobbling a bit lately, that’s impressive stuff.

Phew, that’s a lot to digest, right?

Well, this might make things a little easier to follow. Let’s break things down by way of the Atlantic Division races and also the bubble races overall.

Races for the last two spots in the Atlantic

2. Senators – 58 points in 47 games
3. Bruins – 56 points in 52 GP

Maple Leafs – 55 points in 47 GP
Panthers – 52 points in 50 GP

As you can see, the Bruins lead the Maple Leafs for that third spot … but that’s a huge chunk of games for Toronto to make up ground (at least in an era rife with three-point games). Boston might end up being more concerned about the East bubble races, then, so that’s a good excuse to look at that situation.

Wild card

1. Rangers – 63 points in 49 GP
2. Flyers – 56 points in 50 GP

Maple Leafs – 55 points in 47 GP
Panthers – 52 points in 50 GP
Islanders – 51 points in 47 GP
Lightning – 50 in 50
Sabres – 49 in 47
Hurricanes – 49 in 48
Red Wings – 49 in 49
Devils 49 in 50

With the Rangers likely out of reach, the Maple Leafs (and maybe the other somewhat-close Atlantic teams) must eye teams like the Flyers, Senators and Bruins instead. Games in hand make things interesting, particularly if you’re an Islanders fan dreaming of big gains or a Leafs fan being quite realistically optimistic.

If Thursday is any indication, there’s a lot of room for movement in these races for East playoff spots.

* – The Washington Capitals are probably the biggest winners of all in the East if not the NHL, as they continued their pattern of bullying teams by beating the New Jersey Devils 5-2.

In a surprise, Blues name Steve Ott assistant coach

Getty
Leave a comment

Pretty wild last few days for St. Louis on the coaching front.

After gutting Mike Yeo’s staff of four assistants, then hiring hiring Darryl Sydor, the Blues went totally off the grid on Friday by announcing longtime NHLer Steve Ott would become Yeo’s new assistant.

“Steve was a competitor on the ice as a player and I expect him to bring that energy in this role,” Yeo said in a release. “He was highly respected as a player and a person among his teammates and I believe he will be a huge asset to our staff.”

The decision caught many off guard given Ott, 34, has no prior coaching experience and was playing as recently as last month, suiting up for Montreal in its opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Ott is familiar with the Blues organization, having played there for three seasons.

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” said Ott. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

Blues GM Doug Armstrong signed Ott to a three-year deal. It’s fitting that Armstrong was the one to engineer this move, as he’s been behind unorthodox coaching moves in the past. Last summer, he defied convention by hiring Yeo as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant, with the understanding that Yeo would inherit the head man position next season.

It didn’t go exactly to plan. Armstrong fired Hitchcock in February, accelerating Yeo’s ascension.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

Getty
Leave a comment

Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

Getty
Leave a comment

Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.

Swedes have shown well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Getty
Leave a comment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg is having quite the spring for the Nashville Predators, setting franchise records with his eight goals and 15 points. He’s tied the team mark with at least a point in seven straight games.

Pontus Aberg scored the game-winning goal to put Nashville up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, while defenseman Mattias Ekholm, has been smothering top lines all postseason. Viktor Arvidsson has 10 points, and his plus-13 rating ties him with Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell for second-best this postseason — behind Forsberg (plus-17).

All five of these players are Swedish. It has been a sweet postseason for players from a nation whose players once were derided for being soft and not able to handle the rigors of the NHL. In all, general manager David Poile has six Swedes on Nashville’s playoff roster as the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 19-year history.

“I must admit we haven’t gone out of the way necessarily to get them to this point, but I’m thinking maybe we should,” Poile said. “They’ve certainly been key parts of our team.”

The Predators have lots of company in mining Sweden for talent. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of four Swedes playing for Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals, while former Nashville forward Patric Hornqvist is one of three for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A check of NHL rosters shows 79 skaters and 10 goalies from Sweden played during the regular season, with 40 appearing in at least one playoff game.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sweden has become a hockey power for a small country. Teammates with Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1976 in Toronto, Carlyle saw the abuse directed at both.

“That was a little bit more barbaric or archaic times of hockey,” Carlyle said. “But that’s how much the game has grown, and it has become a world-class game. And these players are world-class players and now you’re looking at their contribution and the numbers that are in the NHL, it’s all a tribute back to those two players.”

Because of the time zone difference, Rakell said, it was pretty tough to watch NHL games when he was growing up. The best chance to watch hockey stars came during national team tournaments in Europe. Rakell, now 24, started watching more of the NHL when he got to junior hockey, though he also had a favorite.

“I was growing up in the same hometown as Mats Sundin, and he was pretty big in that small town I grew up in,” Rakell said of the 13-year NHL center. “So he was one of the guys I was looking up to and watching highlight videos.”

Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday that it’s a very good time to be a Swedish hockey player, noting Sweden beat Canada 2-1 in a shootout Monday for the world hockey championship . Each NHL team seems have two or three Swedes on the roster.

Yes, they do keep track of their countrymen during the regular season. In the playoffs, all friendships are put aside.

“In the playoffs, you just play to win games,” Hagelin said.

Hagelin estimated a third of Sweden watched the world championship. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s much easier to watch the NHL these days.

“There’s a lot of people watching us back home,” Aberg said.

Penguins forward Oskar Sundqvist agreed: “I know a lot of my friends stay up basically the whole night and watch games. I think it’s growing every day in Sweden, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

Swedish hockey has become so strong that Carlyle said NHL scouts are visiting the country regularly. Making the jump to playing in North America has its challenges for young players. Pittsburgh drafted Sundqvist in 2012 when he was 19, and he stayed in Sweden for two full seasons before making his NHL debut last season. He spent much of this season at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and now is 23.

“It’s not like you’ve got a one-hour car drive and get home with mom and dad,” Sundqvist said. “I have a lot to thank Pittsburgh for letting me stay in Sweden one more year and prepare to get ready for everything that is over here.”

A Swedish teammate means being able to relax and talk with each other in the same language. It’s also a little easier to get tips on what to do and not do to ensure a long stay in the NHL.

“Everybody wants to play here and everybody wants to make the best out of it if you ever get the chance,” Rakell said.