Cam Tucker

AP

Tough times for Maple Leafs during recent California trip

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A trip to California provided at least a temporary setback to the playoff dreams of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Three games in four nights against the San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks can be a difficult task for any club, whether they’re at the top of the standings, middle of the pack or at the bottom. For the Maple Leafs, full of youth and an abundance of talented stars-in-the-making, they were able to secure only a single point out of a possible six, which obviously does nothing to help their playoff ambitions.

The trip was capped off Friday with a 5-2 loss to the Ducks — and former Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and goalie Jonathan Bernier.

It was a game Toronto actually had the lead in before Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell scored just 16 seconds apart and Anaheim took back the lead for good. Sami Vatanen, left all alone to bury a Ryan Getzlaf pass, put it further out of reach as the Ducks capitalized on defensive breakdowns from a young team that coach Mike Babcock lamented afterward.

From the Toronto Star:

The pant-dropping moments were junior-hockey-worthy mistakes. Marner and Connor Brown, the latter one of the Leafs’ most impressive forwards in Thursday’s game in L.A., both made turnovers that keyed goals. Babcock called timeout, huddled the troops, offered what appeared to be a stern lecture.

Marner was benched, at least briefly, playing 4:13 in the second period – considerably less than his usual minutes. But by the time Anaheim’s Sami Vatanen found himself alone on the back door less than two minutes into the third period — Ryan Getzlaf’s cross-eye threading setting up the one-timer — the Leafs seemed beyond redemption.

“I thought we did tons of good things but I didn’t like the free goals we gave them,” said Babcock, per the Toronto Sun. “I thought we gave them three of them. The NHL is too good a league to think you are going to outscore your mistakes.

“You have to take care of the puck, you have to check right and you have to know what you are doing without the puck. It was evident on three of those goals we didn’t.”

A fruitless trip to California does not doom an entire season, though it’s certainly far from ideal at this time of year and given what is at stake.

The Maple Leafs were only one point out of a wild card spot prior to puck drop for Saturday’s schedule of games. They were also two points out of third place and four points out of second in the Atlantic Division.

Ryan Ellis is out versus Blackhawks due to a lower-body injury

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The Nashville Predators will be without Ryan Ellis on their blue line when they host the Chicago Blackhawks tonight.

The Predators are looking to further solidify third place in the Central Division, however the 26-year-old Ellis has been ruled out for this game because of a lower-body injury. P.A. Parenteau, acquired at the trade deadline, will also not play due to an upper-body injury.

According to Adam Vingan of The Tennessean, Anthony Bitetto is expected to take Ellis’ place in the lineup.

Tough news for the Predators. Ellis averages more than 24 minutes of ice time per game, used on both the penalty kill and power play while on pace for the most productive season of his NHL career, with 11 goals and 29 points in 56 games.

Despite a loss to Montreal on Thursday, the Predators have been able to string together some positive results with five wins in their last seven games, bolting into third in the division while the St. Louis Blues have fallen out of a playoff spot courtesy five straight defeats.

With a win tonight — obviously easier said than done considering Chicago has won six straight — the Predators can put eight points of separation between them and the Blues.

Mikael Backlund is on the verge of Flames history after OT winner

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First place in the Pacific Division may be unrealistic.

But suddenly the idea of home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea for the Calgary Flames, winners of six consecutive games following a 3-2 overtime victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday.

The Flames are now at 74 points, which is two back of both the Anaheim Ducks — winners versus Toronto on Friday — and the idle Edmonton Oilers, as those teams battle for second and third in the division.

Calgary has suddenly marched right into the thick of this race, which represents quite a turnaround from earlier in the season when there was actually talk about Glen Gulutzan’s future, despite this being his first season with the Flames.

(The Flames are also six points up on L.A. in the wild card.)

On a team that features Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, it has been Mikael Backlund emerging as the team’s leading scorer to this point. He continued what will be by far his most productive NHL campaign — 20 goals and 46 points in 65 games — with the overtime winner, breaking down the left wing and ripping a shot by Petr Mrazek.

That puts Backlund in impressive company in Flames history.

“It’s cool to score 20 goals, of course, in this league. It’s something to take pride in,” said Backlund, per the Calgary Sun. “But the biggest thing is we won the game tonight. We want to keep pushing. We want to make playoffs. That’s the main thing. That’s all I care about — making the playoffs again. It was awesome last time, so I want to get back to that.”

The Flames, looking for a seventh straight win, host the New York Islanders on Sunday.

Blackhawks’ back-up goalie Darling out three weeks with upper-body injury

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Injured toward the end of the morning skate, Chicago Blackhawks back-up goalie Scott Darling is now expected to miss three weeks.

That is according to reports following Chicago’s shootout win over the New York Islanders on Friday.

Darling, who is dealing with an upper-body injury, has been impressive this season, with a 16-5-2 record and a .931 save percentage in 26 games. He’s also a pending unrestricted free agent and is likely to be in line for a starting netminder job when free agency rolls around in July.

With Darling out, the Blackhawks recalled Jeff Glass from Rockford. He backed up Corey Crawford on Friday.

Crawford made 31 saves and the Blackhawks rallied on a late tying goal from Artemi Panarin, who scored with 1:14 remaining in regulation to force overtime. He then scored the clinching goal in the shootout for Chicago’s sixth straight victory.

The red-hot Blackhawks are now one point back of Minnesota for the Central Division, but the Wild have two games in hand.

Make that five straight losses for the Blues

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How quickly things have changed for the St. Louis Blues in the last two weeks.

On Feb. 16, the Blues had beaten the Vancouver Canucks for a sixth straight win and a seventh win in eight games since firing Ken Hitchcock and naming Mike Yeo as the replacement head coach ahead of schedule.

In terms of results, the Blues had seen the desired impact in the immediate wake of the coaching change.

Since then? The Blues have now lost five in a row, as their skid, which has once again put them outside of a wild card spot in the Western Conference, continued Friday in a 3-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

“We’re trying to build more pace into our game. We’re seeing less consistency in our game lately in the four losses,” said Yeo prior to Friday’s game. “Just not enough in there to guarantee wins.”

Blake Wheeler opened the scoring in the first period and finished it with just over a minute remaining in the third period. Mixed in there was Brian Little’s empty net goal that put this one out of reach for St. Louis. Making matters worse, Alex Pietrangelo crashed hard into the boards after losing the race to the puck with Little.

The Blues remain a single point back of L.A. for the final wild card spot, but with a game in hand, too. So the old adage of controlling their own destiny does still apply, but with less than 20 games now remaining in their schedule, a prolonged losing skid can quickly squash that.

The Blues are in Colorado to face the last-place Avalanche on Sunday.