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With All-Star break over, let’s take a look at playoff races

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were linemates. Connor McDavid scored on a pass from Ryan Kesler. Wayne Simmonds was the shooting star of the show.

The dreamlike quality of the NHL All-Star Game was particularly pronounced on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Hollywood. After all, just about every All-Star got to meet his hockey heroes when most of the game’s greatest living players performed the ceremonial opening faceoff with them.

“I was pretty star-struck,” Montreal goalie Carey Price said.

But when the league revs up again Tuesday night, another dream comes into focus. Only 40 percent of the regular season remains, and there’s a Stanley Cup to chase.

Few teams are out of the postseason race, and nearly every club is about to begin 10 weeks of high-stakes play. Most teams reported back to work on Monday morning, and the league schedule resumes Tuesday with 28 of the 30 teams in action.

Nobody is an overwhelming title favorite yet. The Canadiens’ seven-point lead in the Atlantic is the biggest edge in a division race, and the competition for the Presidents’ Trophy is still wide-open as well: There are 10 teams within nine points of Washington’s league-leading 72 in the chase for home-ice advantage in the postseason.

“The All-Star (weekend) a great time, but we all know what happens when we have to get back to work,” San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.

Here’s a quick preview of the four divisional races and what’s coming up in the NHL’s home stretch:

PACIFIC

The race out West is particularly enticing: San Jose, Anaheim and upstart Edmonton are separated by one point atop the division.

McDavid and the Oilers have hung in with the division’s three California powers all winter, capped by back-to-back road victories over the Ducks and Sharks to close out the first half.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position, and we’re happy about that,” McDavid said. “We realize how much work we have left to do, because this is a long season. None of it means very much if you don’t finish out the way you started.”

The Golden State’s trio of contenders isn’t about to give up.

The Ducks have won four straight Pacific titles, and they’re hoping coach Randy Carlyle can inspire postseason success that Bruce Boudreau couldn’t. The Sharks look easily capable of defending their Western Conference title, and the Los Angeles Kings should get star goalie Jonathan Quick back from injury shortly before the postseason.

CENTRAL

The Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks are in tight competition atop the division. Boudreau got the Wild off to their best start to a season in franchise history, and All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk is having another standout season. This could be the year Minnesota reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or at least wins two playoff rounds for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the team that beat them in the second round twice in the past three years is right behind them in the Central standings – and it just happens to be the best playoff team of this era.

Chicago returns with three of the 100 greatest players in NHL history in its lineup. Captain Jonathan Toews admits he isn’t having a great season, but he has plenty of time to ramp up for another playoff run with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

METROPOLITAN

The best divisional race might be among the stars who won the four-division, 3-on-3 tournament at the All-Star Game. A four-team competition has swung back and forth in the Metropolitan, with Columbus streaking in front on its 16-game winning streak, only to be passed by Washington two weeks ago.

The Capitals’ fretful fans might think they’ve peaked too soon yet again, but nobody gets comfortable with Crosby’s Penguins lurking behind them. The defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half in third place, just seven points back.

ATLANTIC

The Canadiens have bounced back smartly from last season’s second-half collapse without the injured Price, and Les Habitants’ nearest competitors all have problems: Ottawa’s goal-scoring woes, Boston’s inconsistent play and powerful Tampa Bay’s major injuries have all put a cushion underneath the Canadiens.

But that cushion isn’t as big as it looks. The Senators have three games in hand on Montreal, and the Lightning hope to get Steven Stamkos back for the late playoff push.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? They’ve got problems, as you’d expect for a team that’s made the postseason once since 2004. They’ve also got All-Star Auston Matthews, fellow high-scoring youngsters Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and more than enough talent to be dangerous down the stretch.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gregbeacham

What is Alex Galchenyuk’s future in Montreal?

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Alex Galchenyuk is already a good player.

The question for the Montreal Canadiens is, can he be great?

Galchenyuk, the third overall draft pick in 2012, is coming off a decent regular season with 17 goals and 27 assists in 61 games. However, it wasn’t as good as last year’s 30-goal campaign, and he didn’t score a single goal in the playoffs.

“Hopefully he took a step back this year so he can take two forward next year,” GM Marc Bergevin said Monday at the Canadiens’ season-ending press conference.

Three assists were all Galchenyuk could manage in six games against the Rangers. More importantly, after more than 300 NHL games of experience, the 23-year-old is still not an everyday center, on a team where center depth is by far the biggest concern.

Habs defenseman Shea Weber thinks Galchenyuk still has a ton of potential.

“I think we’ve seen glimpses of it,” Weber said, per NHL.com’s Arpon Basu, “but I don’t think he’s tapped into how good he can be. One day he’s going to realize it, like all young guys do, he’s going to get it.”

Of course, not all young guys do get it. And at times, there have been questions about Galchenyuk’s competitiveness.

To play center in the NHL, you have to compete all over the ice.

“Ideally, we would love to have him play center,” head coach Claude Julien said. “But I think he realizes the same thing we realize right now. As a centerman, it’s one of the toughest jobs there is because you have to be all over the ice, and you’ve got to be able to skate. As a centerman, you have to be good at both ends of the ice, and you have to be responsible. Right now, he’s not at that stage.”

The kicker in all this is that Galchenyuk can become a restricted free agent this summer. He’s already signed one bridge deal, and he’s at the age now where many young stars sign for big money and a long term.

So, does he want to sign long term in Montreal?

He ducked the question today.

“My season just ended a couple of days ago,” Galchenyuk told reporters. “I honestly didn’t give it too much of a thought yet.”

Kunitz cleared for contact, available for start of Caps series

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The Pens may get back one of their most veteran skaters for their second-round series against Washington.

Chris Kunitz, who missed the last five regular season games and all of Pittsburgh’s Round 1 win over Columbus, has been cleared for contact (per the Tribune-Review) and could return from his lower-body ailment for Thursday’s opener at Verizon.

Kunitz, 37, finished the year with nine goals and 29 points in 71 games, averaging 15:31 TOI per night. It was a down season offensively, but the Pens are hopeful he can reclaim some of the form shown last spring, when he racked up 12 points in 24 games en route to the title.

A three-time Cup winner, Kunitz skated on the fourth line at today’s practice with Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnackl.

In other health news, the Pens also declared d-man Chad Ruhwedel a game-time decision for Thursday, after he was sidelined with an upper-body injury. Carl Hagelin, out with a lower-body ailment, has continued skating and head coach Mike Sullivan said the team is hopeful Hagelin can play at some point against Washington.

DeBoer praises ‘courageous’ Thornton for playing with torn ACL, MCL (Updated)

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In a fairly stunning admission on Monday, Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters that Joe Thornton played in four of San Jose’s six playoff games versus Edmonton with a significant knee injury.

Thornton, who was hurt against Vancouver late in the regular season, suffered tears to both his left MCL and ACL.

“I’ve never seen a guy play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said, per the club’s Twitter account. “It’s a courageous effort as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton, 37, missed the first two games of the series to rest his knee, before suiting up for the final four. He averaged 18:50 TOI per night and finished with a pair of assists, numbers that are pretty remarkable given the severity of his ailment.

Jumbo wasn’t the only unhealthy Shark during the first-round playoff ouster. Logan Couture‘s face/mouth injury was well-documented and, today, DeBoer also revealed that Tomas Hertl was playing with a broken foot, and Patrick Marleau with a broken thumb.

Looking ahead, Thornton’s knee injury might cloud what’s an already murky future. He’s a pending UFA, and there have been no clear signals from the organization on how they’ll address his potential return. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported in January the Thornton camp was looking for a three-year deal.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Sharks GM Doug Wilson has time on his side. It’s understood the club probably wouldn’t act on an extension for Thornton until after the June expansion draft, which could give the Sharks enough time to better gauge his health.

Update:

Per NBC Sports California, Wilson confirmed Thornton is undergoing surgery today to repair the ligaments.

 

 

Online bookmaker: Caps are Stanley Cup favorites

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The Washington Capitals got a bit of a scare in the first round, but they’ll go into the second round as the Stanley Cup favorites.

Per online bookmaker Bovada, here is the full list of Stanley Cup odds for the eight remaining teams:

Washington Capitals   7/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    17/4
Anaheim Ducks             11/2
Edmonton Oilers          11/2
St. Louis Blues              13/2
Nashville Predators     7/1
New York Rangers       8/1
Ottawa Senators           10/1

The Chicago Blackhawks entered the postseason as 4/1 Cup favorites at Bovada. Of course, the ‘Hawks were then swept by the Preds, who’ve gone from 25/1 long shots to 7/1 heading into their series with the Blues.

The Caps’ odds actually dropped to 13/2 after they fell behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. But three straight wins, two in overtime, clinched them a spot against the Penguins in the second round.

The Ottawa Senators are the long shots of the bunch now, despite having home-ice advantage over the Rangers in the second round.