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NHL Playoff Push: Eastern Conference playoff field could be set tonight

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It is entirely possible that when Tuesday’s schedule of games is completed all eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference will be set.

At the moment there are still three spots up for grabs with four teams competing for them. All four teams are in action on Tuesday night and if the Florida Panthers are unable to defeat the Nashville Predators it opens the door for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils to all clinch spots in the playoffs.

Here is a look at the Eastern Conference standings entering the day.

So here is what is at stake for Tuesday.

  • If Columbus beats the Detroit Red Wings and the Panthers lose to the Predators then the Blue Jackets are in. If Columbus loses to Detroit in overtime or a shootout and the Panthers lose to the Predators in regulation that will also clinch a spot for the Blue Jackets. A Columbus win would also move it into a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Flyers are facing the exact same scenario as the Blue Jackets. A win over the New York Islanders, combined with a Panthers loss, puts them in the playoffs. An overtime or shootout loss combined with a regulation Panthers loss does the same thing. A Flyers win combined with a Blue Jackets loss (or a Flyers point and the Blue Jackets getting no points) would also move them into a tie with Pittsburgh for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Devils need to beat the New York Rangers and get a loss from the Panthers in regulation.

The other big game in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night is of course the one in Tampa Bay where the Bruins have a chance to open up a four-point lead over the Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and for the top spot in the conference.

You can catch that game on NBCSN.

The big news for the Bruins on Tuesday is that they are getting Charlie McAvoy, one of their top defenseman, back in the lineup as they continue to get all of their top players back at just the right time of the season. Without him and Zdeno Chara over the past couple of weeks the Bruins still found a way to keep collecting points. With them in the lineup they have been nearly unstoppable.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the only clinching scenario in play relates to the Predators and their quest to wrap up the Central Division and the No. 1 seed in the West.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Here are the standings entering the night.

The Predators have three different paths to clinching the division.

A regulation win over the Panthers, or a regulation loss by the Winnipeg Jets to the Montreal Canadiens, or the Predators losing in overtime or a shootout combined with a Jets regulation loss would all produce the same result: A division title for the Predators.

A win will also clinch the top spot in the West. If they lose in regulation a Jets regulation loss combined with a Vegas Golden Knights loss to the Vancouver Canucks would also do the trick.

When it comes to the other playoff races in the Western Conference none of the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks are in action on Tuesday night.

The San Jose Sharks, however, could take another step toward securing home-ice advantage in the first-round with a win over the Dallas Stars. The Sharks enter the day two points ahead of the Kings and three points ahead of the Ducks.

If the Playoffs Started Today

Tuesday’s Important Games

New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Detroit Red Wings vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Montreal Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Florida Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET
Dallas Stars vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Tank Watch!

The Canucks and Red Wings have been trending in the wrong direction over the past week or so as it relates to improving their draft lottery odds. The Canucks enter Tuesday’s game against Vegas having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Red Wings are taking a three-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game against Columbus. The Canucks are currently sitting in 27th place in the NHL, two points back of the Red Wings. Montreal, hosting Winnipeg on Tuesday, is just behind them.

The other team that has been slowly climbing the standings recently has been the Arizona Coyotes, a team that has jumped out of the basement with a strong fourth quarter of the season. It is possible that they could find themselves tied with Vancouver after Tuesday’s game. The Coyotes are in Calgary on Tuesday night to play a Flames team that  has been tumbling down the standings for a couple of weeks now. That has been great news for the New York Islanders who own their first-and second-round picks as a result of the past summer’s Travis Hamonic trade.

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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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.