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Penguins’ playoff hopes keep looking brighter

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For much of this season, the question hasn’t been “Can the Pittsburgh Penguins threepeat?” Instead, it’s been very reasonable to wonder if they’d even be able to make the playoffs, and that’s still fair to ask.

Still, with the All-Star break approaching, it’s been quite some time since their playoff outlook seemed this promising.

One big piece of the puzzle, naturally, is the Penguins’ own play. Sidney Crosby made some history in passing Jaromir Jagr in team scoring tonight, and Evgeni Malkin was also electric in Pittsburgh’s 6-3 drubbing of the Minnesota Wild.

They’ve now won seven of their last nine games, pasting the Wild and Hurricanes by a combined score of 9-4 during the first half of their four-game homestand.

Beating the Hurricanes in regulation captures the other piece of the puzzle: other Metropolitan Division teams are either treading water or in danger of sinking altogether. As of tonight, the Penguins are ranked second in the Metro with 57 standings points, although 51 games played exaggerates their advantage.

Still, there are trends that make you wonder if Pittsburgh and maybe a few other Metro teams can really separate from the pack.

  • The Capitals are in a pretty cushy spot. They closed off a three-game losing streak on Thursday, giving them 63 points in 49 games.
  • The Devils, on the other hand, are in serious danger to slip, and maybe slip drastically.

New Jersey is now on a four-game losing streak, and the larger downward trend is especially disturbing, with just two wins in their last 12 contests. With injuries really starting to pile up (Cory Schneider, Taylor Hall, and Marcus Johansson being hurt lately), the magic might dry up for the Devils in a dramatic way. They fell 3-0 to the Predators on Thursday.

They now have one fewer standings point (56) than Pittsburgh’s 57, although they hold three games in hand. Considering the lead they built earlier this season, it’s notable that they’re no longer a no-brainer to finish ahead of the Pens and other Metro contenders.

  • The Flyers have been on the rise in a big way overall, sandwiching one loss between two four-game winning streaks from Jan. 4-23. They did lose tonight, however, falling 5-1 to the Lightning.

Like New Jersey, the Flyers have 56 points, but with one fewer game in hand (49 games played versus Pittsburgh’s 51).

  • The Blue Jackets could pass the Penguins if they win tonight’s game against the Coyotes, as Columbus currently sits at 55 points in 48 games.

One would probably peg the Blue Jackets as especially likely to pass the Penguins, as it seems like their best hockey is ahead of them. Injuries and a light recent schedule has been frustrating, much like losing three of four. At least Torts is being entertaining, though.

  • The Rangers are in serious danger of slipping out of the picture and becoming sellers at the trade deadline. Sitting at 53 points in 49 games, they hope to end a three-game losing streak against the Sharks tonight.
  • The Islanders are also up-and-down with 53 points in 49 games, as the ascent of Mathew Barzal hasn’t totally protected them from poor defense and goaltending. They’ve also lost three of their last four games and might go into the All-Star break on a down note considering that they’re facing the shockingly effective Golden Knights.
  • The Hurricanes really needed tonight’s 6-5 win against the Montreal Canadiens.

They head into the break with 52 points in 49 games. This marks just their fourth win since Dec. 30, a 4-7-1 stretch. If Sebastian Aho misses serious time, Carolina could be in precarious position.

***

Considering the games in hand advantages for those other prominent Metro teams, it would be shocking if the Penguins finagle a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed.

If you expand the scope to merely finishing in the top five in the division, things look increasingly positive, as it’s unlikely that the Atlantic will send more than three teams to the playoffs. That’s especially true if some teams fade, especially if the Devils really flop down the stretch.

For those who’ve barely glanced at the standings, this might seem “same old, same old.” Those who’ve been monitoring the situation more closely likely realize that there have been times when the playoffs truly looked like a coin flip – or worse – for the defending champs.

The Penguins still have a lot of work to do to make another postseason berth a reality, but again, it’s been a long time since things looked this promising.

Which isn’t especially promising for the rest of the NHL’s contenders.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Slumping Blue Jackets lose Nick Foligno for 1-2 weeks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Times are tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening the Blue Jackets are now just 4-9-2 in their past 15 games and have fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point back of the New York Islanders entering play on Monday.

Now the team has announced that captain Nick Foligno will be sidelined for the next one-two weeks due to a lower body injury that he suffered in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins.

Foligno, 30, is having a down year with just 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games but he is still one of the Blue Jackets’ top forwards, and for a team that is struggling to score goals they really can not afford to lose anybody. Especially given the schedule they have coming up.

Over the next two weeks the Blue Jackets have games against the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

That is a tough stretch that could end up making or breaking their season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: Time to lose Lucic

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This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players you should think of adding that are owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues and we’ll also make recommendations on players you should think of dropping. 

Here we go:

Adds:

Clayton Keller– C/LW/RW- Arizona Coyotes (44 percent)

After a terrific start to his rookie season, Keller’s play dropped off. He wasn’t putting up as many points and he wasn’t making as many headlines as he was in October and November. But it looks like now might be the right time to pick up in your fantasy leagues. He has eight points in his last six games, including a four-point night against Montreal last week.

Anthony Mantha– LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (39 percent)

Mantha was owned in a lot more leagues earlier this season, but his production dropped off quite a bit. He appears to be back on now, as he’s picked up six points in his last six games. He’s versatile enough because he’s eligible to play both wing positions in Yahoo leagues. The Red Wings forward should be added in deeper leagues.

Nico Hischier– C- New Jersey Devils (30 percent)

Hischier and Taylor Hall have formed a remarkable duo over the last little while. After hitting a bit of a wall near the midway point of the season, the first overall pick from last June’s draft has managed to pick up the offensive part of his game. He’s now found the back of the net in four straight games and he’s riding a five-game point streak.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Derick Brassard– C- Ottawa Senators (25 percent)

It sure seems like trade winds have given Brassard an added boost of motivation. The Sens forward has racked up six points in his last four games and he’s coming off a three-point performance against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Ondrej Kase– LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (11 percent)

Kase isn’t a big name, but he’s been lighting it up for Anaheim lately. The 22-year-old has nine points in his last seven games. He’s on pace to hit the 25-goal mark in 2017-18. He could be an intriguing add in deeper fantasy leagues.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (59 percent)

If your league doesn’t award points for penalty minutes, there’s absolutely no reason for Lucic to be on your roster. He hasn’t picked up a point in any of his last 11 games and he hasn’t scored in 22. And in his last 12 contests, he’s also managed to accumulate just four penalty minutes. Lucic needs to be dropped ASAP.

[More Fantasy: Check out the Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (47 percent)

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to Kesler. He missed over two months of action because of a hip injury and he just hasn’t looked like himself since returning. The Ducks forward missed the last game because of a lower-body issue. It’s time to cut ties with him and add one of the other players mentioned above.

Robin Lehner– G- Buffalo Sabres (51 percent)

Not only are the Sabres struggling, but Lehner is now day-to-day with an injury. Don’t expect Buffalo to win many games down the stretch, so picking up someone like Petr Mrazek, who might get traded before the deadline, could be a worthwhile gamble.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Canada women beat Russia 5-0, will meet U.S. in hockey final

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — It’s part of the routine now, as much a staple of the Winter Games as the medal ceremonies, the doping scandals or the sequins on the figure skating costumes.

The United States playing Canada for the Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.

Jennifer Wakefield scored twice and Shannon Szabados stopped 14 shots on Monday night to lead the Canadians to a 5-0 victory over Russia and earn the four-time defending Olympic champions a spot in another gold medal game.

It will be the fifth time in six Winter Games since women’s hockey was added to the program that the North American neighbors have met in the final. No one else has ever skated away with an Olympic gold medal.

Canada outshot Russia 47-14 but struggled to pull away, scoring just once in each of the first two periods before Wakefield bounced one in off goalie Valeria Tarakanova’s right arm just two minutes into the third and then Emily Clark made it 4-0 just 31 seconds later.

Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov swapped his goalies, but it was too late. The Russians still have a chance for their first Olympic women’s hockey medal ever when they play Finland in the bronze medal match on Wednesday.

Marie Philip-Poulin and Rebecca Johnston also scored for Canada, which has won 24 in a row at the Olympics since losing the gold medal game in Nagano in 1998.

The United States advanced to the gold medal game with a 5-0 victory over Finland earlier Monday.

The Americans won the Four Nations Cup, third only to the Olympics and world championships in importance, beating Canada in three of the first four games in a Pyeongchang tuneup tour. But Canada has won the last four, with a 2-1 victory in the pool play finale on Thursday.

None of it matters, really.

The gold medal match is the game these two have been looking forward to since Canada rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Americans in overtime in Sochi four years ago.

And it’s the only thing right now that can help the 10 American holdovers from that team ease the pain of their 2014 collapse.

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org