Getty

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

4 Comments

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

Hjalmarsson says ‘Hawks are ‘too comfortable’ after rough trip through Florida

Getty
Leave a comment

When most people take trips to Florida, it’s to get away from the stress and struggle of everyday life. But it’s safe to say that this edition of the Chicago Blackhawks won’t want to remember their visit to the Sunshine State.

The ‘Hawks dropped an embarrassing 7-0 decision to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night before blowing a 4-1 lead in last night’s game against the Bolts (they eventually lost 5-4 in OT).

They still have a comfortable lead atop the Central Division (eight points up on the struggling Wild), but they aren’t satisfied with their play.

“It’s getting close to the end here and we’re getting a little bit too comfortable maybe,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said, per the Chicago Tribune. “As soon as you do that, you’re going to lose games … At the same time I’m glad that we were playing like this before the playoffs so we can make some adjustments.

“Eighty-two games is a long season. It’s a mental grind more than anything. As soon as you’re not there 100 percent, it’s going to show in the scoring.”

As Hjalmarsson said, six games is still enough time to figure things out for Chicago. They just won’t have the luxury of facing easy opponents when they do try to sort out their struggles.

They’ll play the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Wednesday before returning home to play Columbus and Boston. They’ll then head back on the road to close out the season in Denver, Anaheim and Los Angeles.

PHT Morning Skate: This season’s top five breakout performers

2 Comments

Jake Allen wore a special U.S. Navy tribute mask during last night’s game against the Coyotes. It’s really a gorgeous mask. “The blue and yellow complements our colors well, and it’s a great tribute to the Blue Angel pilots who have the honor of flying and performing across the country.” (NHL.com/Blues)

–With every NHL season, there are surprises and disappointments. Rather than focus on the negatives, The Hockey News breaks down the top five breakout seasons in 2016-17. At the top of the list is Panthers forward Jonathan Marchesault, who is shockingly closing in on a 30-goal season. Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson and Boston’s David Pastrnak have also made names for themselves. (The Hockey News)

–It’s no secret that NHLers are forced to travel a lot, but each team makes the most of their road trips in different ways. For example, Kevin Shattenkirk and the Capitals enjoy fine dining when they’re away from home.  “It’s so easy to go to the top names or the ones that you hear of all the time, but when you go to a lot of these cities, the food scenes everywhere now are really starting to improve. A lot of my friends naturally are foodies. They bring me to some of their places. Even just a simple Google, most of the times, the first two things that come up are Yelp or TripAdvisor, and I usually go a couple down and look at a local newspaper, if they have the best spots to eat in 2017. I like to focus on those.” (Washington Post)

–The Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves down 4-1 in lasts night’s game against Chicago, but they were able to battle back and win in a thrilling overtime period. You can check out the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Tonight will mark the first time that Jordie and Jamie Benn play against each other since the trade that saw the older Benn head to Montreal. The Canadiens took the opportunity to ask their Benn some questions about what it was like growing up with his brother. Here’s a sample question: “Of the two of you, which one is Peyton and who is Eli?” (NHL.com/Canadiens)

–This year’s rookie class with Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Zach Werenski, Mitch Marner and Matt Murray is one of the best in recent memory, but which other freshmen classes stand out? BarDown takes a look at the top five rookie classes since 2000. (BarDown)

–Capitals forward Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky had some fun during picture day. The two players showed up to the rink with some pretty poofy hair. There’s no point in me trying to explain it when you can see the pictures for yourself. (NHL.com)

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

3 Comments

As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

Getty
Leave a comment

For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP