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Handicapping the Central Division title race between Wild, Blackhawks

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The Minnesota Wild have a chance to increase an already solid lead for the Central Division crown if they can beat the Chicago Blackhawks in a game being televised on NBCSN tonight. (They couldn’t, as the Blackhawks won 4-3 in overtime.)

Really, though, the next month presents quite the opportunity to fatten that edge.

With that being the only game on Wednesday, this seems like a worthwhile time to take a look at the bigger pictures facing each team. Here are the full Central Division standings heading into tonight’s game to add some context:

Central Division standings, now updated with Chicago’s OT win

1. Wild – 76 points in 53 games
2. Blackhawks – 71 points in 55 GP
3. Predators – 60 in 53 GP

Blues – 59 in 54 GP
Jets – 54 in 56 GP
Stars – 52 in 54 GP
Avalanche – 32 in 50 GP

Yes, there’s a chance a team like the Predators or Blues could figure into the conversation, but honestly even the Blackhawks have quite a bit of ground to make up to catch Minnesota.

Looking at their schedules really cements the notion that Bruce Boudreau’s crew could essentially silence the discussion with a strong month.

Opportunities ahead for the Wild

  • Tonight’s game against the Blackhawks begins an eight-game homestand for Minnesota. The Wild are less dependent upon winning at home (17-6-1 in Minnesota, 18-6-5 on the road), but it’s still a great chance to stock up points.

Minnesota will host the Blackhawks twice during this eight-game homestand and could also distance themselves from other Central opponents with a home contest against each of the Predators and Stars.

  • While February presents opportunities, the Wild start off March with more road games. From Feb. 28 – March 19, the Wild play eight of 11 contests away from Minny.
  • The Wild end the season with some solid chances to end the debate. They play five of six in Minnesota from March 21-30 and seven of nine at home from March 21 through April 4.
  • Finally, they end the season with two road games. Those games are against the Avalanche (April 6) and Coyotes (April 8), two teams that will likely have very little to play for.

Overall, it seems like a pretty beneficial schedule for the Wild’s aims. Let’s see how things look for Chicago.

Blackhawks are resilient so far on the road

  • The Blackhawks began this current six-game road trip with a 3-1 loss to the Sharks on Jan. 31. They’ve won the next three contests of that tour, so they’ve been carving out those difficult points.
  • This six-game trip ends with a back-to-back set on the weekend. Counting Wednesday’s game, Chicago faces five of their next six games away from the United Center.
  • As things get tougher for the Wild at the end of February/beginning of March, the Blackhawks enjoy a friendlier stretch. The Blackhawks play four in a row, five of six and six of eight at home from Feb. 23 through March 12.
  • After that, it’s back-and-forth. They play three games on the road (March 14-18), three at home (March 19-23), three on the road (March 25-29), two home games (March 31 and April 2) and then close things out with three away games. They face the Avalanche in that closing set, but also the Ducks and Kings.

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So, you can see that things go both ways, but the Wild generally seem to have a more favorable schedule. At least on paper.

With the additional benefit of two games in hand, one would say that the Wild have the edge … but it would be foolish to count out the Blackhawks.

Penguins shouldn’t rush to replace Bonino

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Nick Bonino was an important player for Pittsburgh the past two years. So when he signed with Nashville on July 1, it was natural for Penguins fans to want an immediate replacement.

But for GM Jim Rutherford, finding a new third-line center may take some time. The Penguins might even start the season without knowing who it will be.

What Rutherford wants to avoid is panicking and being forced into a mistake. All the other general managers are well-aware of what he needs. He’s probably been thrown a few anvils already.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while.”

If nothing is done by the start of the season, the Penguins could give someone like Jake Guentzel a chance to take over Bonino’s role. Or, if they’d prefer to keep Guentzel in the top six, maybe a youngster like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese would be game to try, at least on a temporary basis.

It should be noted that Rutherford has proven a savvy mid-season trader. In 2015-16, he brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, a couple of veterans who played big roles on the way to a Stanley Cup title. And then, last season, he acquired Ron Hainsey, who likewise played a key part in a championship.

Perhaps owing to that experience, Rutherford says he’s more comfortable waiting to unearth a solution than “trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not.”

In fairness, it’s not easy to just replace a productive third-line center whose salary was a bargain. The Penguins had Bonino for a cap hit of just $1.9 million, and he turned his time in Pittsburgh into a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Predators.

One potential target that’s come up in speculation is the Maple Leafs’ Tyler Bozak, who just so happens to be Phil Kessel‘s good friend and former center.

Bozak, 31, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, a status that naturally lends itself to trade speculation.

But with a $4.1 million cap hit, making room for Bozak could be a challenge for the Penguins. And on top of that, the Leafs are bound to ask a fair bit for a guy who had 55 points (18G, 37A) last season.

That’s why it’s so hard to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. The Penguins were lucky to bring back mostly the same roster last season.

Things will be different in 2017-18.

Related: Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”