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I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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NHL Playoff Push: Must-win games

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For a select few NHL teams, we’re truly in “must-win” territory.

In fact, certain games could determine if we’ll see much drama during the final week of the 2018-19 season. On the bright side, it sure seems like the Avalanche and Blues will finish their seasons with a do-or-die game in Colorado on Saturday.

Now, it’s true that the Stars aren’t technically out of the running yet, although their chances remain slim. It’s also tough to imagine the Kings and Ducks slipping out (the odds look good for three California teams to make it, based on multiple projections). So, yes, there’s at least some room for more plot twists.

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

It’s easiest to picture one playoff spot coming down to the Avs or the Blues, though. Naturally, both teams need to hold up their ends of the bargain to make that a do-or-die scenario instead of an underwhelming formality.

West

While the competition’s been heftier for the Avalanche, they’ve also been afforded more opportunities to face other bubble teams head-to-head.

They received one of those chances on Sunday, managing to grab a point in overtime before succumbing to the Ducks. The Avs face a tough test in closing up a back-to-back set, as they’ll face a (comparatively) rested and driven Kings team in Los Angeles. No doubt, this 48-hour span is a real test for Nathan MacKinnon & Co.

The Avs might not get much help from the Blues’ opponent, as the Capitals clinched the Metro Division and don’t have anything but pride and individual pursuits to play for. St. Louis can’t totally dismiss the latter point, however, as John Carlson is hoping to drive up his free agent value while Alex Ovechkin aims for another Maurice Richard Trophy.

 

Still, the Blues probably drew the Capitals at the perfect time to grab a win, so we’ll see if they can follow through.

Other West games are more about playoff positioning than fighting for a postseason berth altogether.

The Wild would really need to collapse to not end up with the third spot in the Central Division. They might be reeling with Ryan Suter‘s injury, and the Oilers have spoiler potential with Connor McDavid on fire to close out the season, but this is the type of game Minny should win. Or so you’d think.

Winnipeg is almost certain to face Minnesota as the Central’s second seed, but if the Jets want to keep any hope of winning the division alive, they’ll need to beat Ottawa. Dustin Byfuglien‘s getting the night off, among others, so the Jets might err on the side of caution.

East

Monday stands as a bigger day out West, and it’s up to the Florida Panthers to keep any drama alive in the East.

The Cats trail the Devils by seven points for the final wild-card spot in the East, but they’re not totally hopeless with two games in hand on New Jersey (not to mention Columbus and Philly, if those two teams aren’t totally out of reach already).

The Panthers have been a lot more effective at home than on the road this season, so the table is set for a win against Carolina in Florida. That said, the Panthers are suffering from a three-game losing streak while the Hurricanes have won four of their last six contests, so there’s at least a mild threat that another upset might happen.

Losing to Carolina in regulation would almost certainly doom Florida’s playoff hopes, even if it wouldn’t mathematically eliminate the Panthers from contention.

If the playoffs started today

Biggest games

Hurricanes at Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Capitals at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Kings, 10:30 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.

Two of a kind: Sedin twins retire from NHL

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In a heartfelt letter to Vancouver Canucks fans, Henrik and Daniel Sedin announced that they’re retiring from the NHL after this season ends.

The letter made it sound like they’re ready to hang up their skates instead of playing overseas in Sweden or the KHL, too:

Being part of the Canucks family for 18 seasons has been the best period of our lives. But it’s time to focus on our families and life after hockey. It’s time to help with homework every night. It’s time to be at every birthday party and to stand in the cold at every hockey rink, soccer game and riding lesson on weekends. It’s time to be at home for dinner every night.

The Sedin twins referencing 18 seasons with the Canucks really drives home just how long they’ve been a fixture in that organization. It probably also helps explain how hockey fans took those cycling siblings for granted; while we’ll probably never see a combination quite like them again, the Sedins have been a crucial part of the Canucks franchise since 2000-01.

It all began when Brian Burke made a complicated set of trades to land the Sedins with the second and third picks of the 1999 NHL Draft. Take a step back for a moment and observe the sheer volume of their great work:

Daniel Sedin, second pick in 1999: 2010-11 Pearson winner, 391 goals, 1,038 points in 1,303 regular-season games. Daniel also collected 71 points in 102 playoff games, including 20 in 25 games during the Canucks’ run to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

Henrik Sedinthird pick in 1999: 2009-10 Hart winner, 240 goals, 1,068 points in 1,327 regular-season games. Henrik generated 78 points in 105 playoff games, with 22 points in 25 games during that 2011 run.

Daniel was “The Shooting Sedin,” while Henrik was the center who managed to snag an MVP trophy. There was never much sense debating which Sedin was better, as they were always so conjoined on the ice (although it’s still a fun argument to have). It was also amusing to imagine how either one would fare without the other, although such a novelty would probably feel wrong for more than just the twins in due time.

The Sedins announced their retirement with the Canucks holding three more games on their schedule: home games against the Golden Knights (Tuesday) and Coyotes (Thursday), along with a final contest against the Oilers in Edmonton on Saturday. It’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the Swedish brothers to avoid anything but the most dignified of a “farewell tour.”

You can read the full letter here, but one other passage stands out, as they praise Travis Green for laying down a foundation for the future. They don’t mention how difficult it is to imagine the Canucks without them, though, of course:

It’s time to let the next generation of young players lead the Canucks. Travis is building a strong culture and emphasizes a style of play we know will be successful. The team is in great hands, with people who care about its success and it’s headed in the right direction. We know there is a bright future for the Canucks.

The Sedins eliminated the “will they or won’t they?” questions about retirement, so now we just need to wait for the Canucks to retire their numbers and, if voters know what they’re doing, when they’ll be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Again, we’re not likely to see a combination quite like Henrik and Daniel again. All things considered, we should feel lucky we had the chance to watch them befuddle defenses for as long as they did.

At least we’ll always have that NHL ad:

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.

The Buzzer: Karlsson’s killer clincher for Vegas; Lucic fights Glass

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Clinching

  • The Vegas Golden Knights probably couldn’t have clinched the Pacific Division in a more fitting way: on a dramatic, shorthanded goal by William Karlsson. Karlsson scored his 42nd goal of 2017-18 with incredible style, confounding Martin Jones with a ridiculous between-the-legs shot. See that goal in the highlight of the night section.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins will be able to defend their repeat title (in other words, go for a “threepeat”) after clinching their 12th consecutive trip to the playoffs.
  • Nashville wasn’t able to clinch the Central Division, but the Winnipeg Jets will finish no worse than second after winning against Toronto. So, a franchise without a single playoff win will get at least one round of home-ice advantage.
  • Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Stars kept their slim odds alive.

Injury concerns

Ryan Suter, Viktor Arvidsson, Travis Dermott, Brandon Carlo, and Victor Antipin rank among players with injury worries. Find out more here and here.

Highlights of the Night

This Karlsson goal is just ridiculous.

Let’s watch it from another angle.

There were a lot of ugly moments for Nashville in its 7-4 loss to Buffalo, with Scott Hartnell hurting Victor Antipin. This was pretty, however:

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

Players of the Night

  • Jack Eichel collected a ridiculous five assists in Buffalo’s win against Nashville, crossing the 100-assist barrier for his career. Sam Reinhart generated a hat trick for the Sabres, too.

  • Antti Raanta collected a 34-save shutout as the Coyotes shocked the Blues 6-0. Solid night for spoilers.
  • The Blue Jackets lost in overtime, but don’t blame their top guys. Seth Jones scored a goal and three assists while Artemi Panarin collected four helpers as Columbus generated a key standing point.

Heavyweight bout

It hasn’t been a great season for Milan Lucic, but hey, at least he handled heavyweight bruiser Tanner Glass in this brutal fight:

Scores

Bruins 5, Panthers 1
Red Wings 2, Senators 0
Canucks 5, Blue Jackets 4 (OT)
Jets 3, Maple Leafs 1
Devils 4, Islanders 3
Penguins 5, Canadiens 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 7, Predators 4
Stars 4, Wild 1
Coyotes 6, Blues 0
Flames 3, Oilers 2
Golden Knights 3, Sharks 2

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.

Hartnell says he ‘didn’t try to hurt’ Antipin

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Nashville Predators winger Scott Hartnell hopes that Buffalo Sabres defenseman Victor Antipin is OK after being stretchered off the ice thanks to a check he delivered.

(Moments before this post was about to be published, the Sabres announced that Antipin has been released from hospital. The team is expecting to provide an update regarding his status on Sunday. Fantastic news.)

Hartnell received a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct for that hit on Antipin. The Sabres made the Predators pay on the ensuing power play, scoring three times to set the stage for Buffalo’s 7-4 upset win.

Hartnell regretted putting his teammates in that position, and also was concerned about the Sabres defenseman; NHL.com’s Robby Stanley reports that Hartnell insists he wasn’t “head-hunting.”

“I didn’t try to hurt the guy,” Hartnell said. “It was just kind of a hockey play. Those plays happen 10, 15 times a game. It was just an unfortunate accident.”

You can judge the hit for yourself in the video above this post’s headline, and view the check from other perspectives in this post. As you’d likely expect with a hit that caused a played to be taken off the ice on a stretcher and eventually hospitalized, there was plenty of debate regarding how dirty or clean that check might have been.

However you feel about the hit and the penalty call (not to mention potential supplemental discipline), it’s fantastic to learn that Antipin is no longer hospitalized. It’s a very positive sign that it happened during the same night that he was under observation.

The Predators will need to wait longer to clinch the Central Division, yet it’s unlikely that losing this game will hurt them too badly.

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

It can’t be a great feeling for Hartnell, however, as Nashville’s deep when it comes to forward options, and Peter Laviolette might view the rugged winger as the sort of player who might find himself taking bad penalties.

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.

Penguins eye threepeat after reaching playoffs

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In closing out 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced some real doubts about making the playoffs. They had lost three of their last four games, dropping to a mediocre 19-18-3 record.

Many headed into 2018 thinking “if any team can overcome this, it’s the Penguins,” and that turned out to be right. In defeating the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Saturday, they improved to 45-28-6, clinching a playoff berth.

This locks up their 12th consecutive trip to the postseason, and Pittsburgh’s dreams of a third consecutive Stanley Cup victory remain alive.

(That #3elieve bit looks better in the image than it does in hashtag form, agreed?)

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

Pittsburgh’s clinching win against the Canadiens embodied some of the better elements of the 2017-18 season.

The Penguins made their own luck at times, such as Carl Hagelin‘s brutal goal against Antti Niemi:

Ouch, Niemi. Ouch.

They also received some top-notch saves from Matt Murray, which admittedly harkens back more to previous runs than this season, as Murray’s dealt with injuries and other struggles. The standout sequence came as Murray made some big saves on shorthanded chances, including one against Habs speedster Paul Byron:

Also fitting: Patric Hornqvist scoring a goal from a dirty area right near the net, and the usual suspects generating points. Phil Kessel beefed up his career-high to 87 points thanks to a goal and an assist, Evgeni Malkin collected two helpers, and Sidney Crosby nabbed an assist.

***

The Penguins stand in a solid position to grab at least a round of home-ice advantage with 96 points and three games left. They’re unlikely to catch the Capitals for the Metro title (Washington’s at 99 points with a game in hand on Pittsburgh), but the Pens hold a two-point edge on Columbus for second in the division.

Considering their 16-20-4 road record, the Penguins likely covet at least some home-ice more than others.

Still, when you look around the league at all of the injuries and then consider all the mileage accrued by Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kris Letang, and others, you wonder if Mike Sullivan might opt to give some of those workhorses a little time off down the stretch.

It’s a point worth considering, and it’s also remarkable that the Penguins enjoy the luxury to make such a choice with a week remaining considering how dire things seemed at times during the first half of this season.

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.