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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: Crucial games for Flyers, Avs, Panthers

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The New Jersey Devils essentially drove in the final nail on the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff hopes by beating them in regulation last night, so the East’s playoff races now truly boil down to nine teams vying for eight spots.

Despite a modest slate of four games, Wednesday presents some big matchups in the bubble battles in both conferences, with the East in particular boasting an intriguing slate.

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

East

In the biggest game of the night, the Philadelphia Flyers (first wild card, East) take on the Avalanche (ninth place, one point out of West’s final WC) in Colorado.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but Philly has really been gutting out key points. While they’ve lost three of four games, they’ve generated a standings point in each contest, going 1-0-3 during that span. They face a driven Avalanche team that’s more rested, while the Flyers lost to the Stars in overtime last night. Philly can go empty the tank here, as the Flyers don’t play again until Sunday.

The Panthers trail the idle Devils by three points, so they need to take advantage of their two games in hand. Doing so won’t be particularly easy tonight as they face the Maple Leafs in Toronto. The Buds don’t have as much on the line with the Atlantic’s third spot essentially locked up, but they probably want to get things going as the playoffs near. Drawing the Lightning or Bruins means that they better enter the postseason with their best foot forward.

With a five-point lead for the Metropolitan Division crown, the Capitals are nearing a third consecutive division title. They have a game in hand on second-ranked (and idle) Pittsburgh, too, so beating the Rangers would give them what would likely be an insurmountable lead. You can watch that game on NBCSN with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

[Rangers – Capitals preview]

West

Again, tonight’s game is huge for the Avalanche, even bigger than the Flyers’ implications.

After losing to the Golden Knights on Monday, the Avalanche slipped out of the West’s top eight. Tuesday proved to be a mixed bag, as the Blues won while the Ducks laid an egg against the lowly Canucks. (The Stars kept their slim hopes alive with that OT win against the Flyers.)

Colorado can hop over the Ducks and Blues with a win tonight, while a charity point would push them above Anaheim. Beating a playoff-desperate team like Philly isn’t easy, yet with rest and home-ice advantages, a loss – especially in regulation – would cause the Avs to lose sleep.

[West playoff races come down to final games.]

Much like the Capitals against the Rangers, the Golden Knights aim to beef up their Pacific Division lead against a Coyotes team with incentive to lose.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning – New Jersey Devils
Boston Bruins – Toronto Maple Leafs
Washington Capitals – Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets

Nashville Predators – Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets – Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights – St. Louis Blues
San Jose Sharks – Los Angeles Kings

Wednesday’s games

Panthers at Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. ET
Rangers at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET
Coyotes at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
Flyers at Avalanche, 10 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.

Jets’ Morrissey avoids suspension for hit on Bruins’ Grzelcyk

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NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey will avoid supplemental discipline for a hit on Matt Grzelcyk of the Boston Bruins.

Morrissey received a five-minute boarding major for the hit, but he wasn’t ejected from an eventual 5-4 shootout win for Winnipeg. The check happened shortly after Brad Marchand landed a hit on Mark Scheifele. You can see the hit for yourself in the video above this post’s headline.

Bruins fans haven’t been happy with the Department of Player Safety lately, as you can see from Stanley Cup of Chowder’s sarcastic headline “Brad Marchand suspended 10 games for Josh Morrissey’s hit on Matt Grzelcyk.”

The Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont is referencing this hit on David Krejci by Brayden Schenn:

The Bruins announced last night that Grzelcyk has an “upper-body injury” and is being evaluated in Boston. The hits seem to keep coming for Boston, with the 24-year-old blueliner joining Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy as other defensemen who are dealing with injuries.

On the bright side, the Bruins announced a one-year extension for Chara earlier today and the team still has some time to heal up by the time the playoffs begin.

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

Boston’s next game comes against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. The Bruins only trail the Lightning by one point and Boston holds a game in hand on the Bolts, so tomorrow’s contest is a big one in the race for the Atlantic Division title. The Bruins might need to go a little shorthanded in that game, but if nothing else, they’re likely getting accustomed to fighting through injuries.

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.

West playoff races could come down to final day

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Picture this: two teams fighting for the final playoff spot in their final game of the regular season.

For fans of the sport as a whole, it would be delicious. Granted, if your team was involved, there might be some indigestion.

That dream scenario happened fairly recently for the NHL. The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers memorably battled it out for a playoff spot on April 11, 2010, the last day of the 2009-10 season. Some complained about it boiling down to a shootout, yet most enjoyed the do-or-die thrill of it all.

The same could very well be true during this season with two great Western Conference games on April 7, the last day of the season for West teams. (The Bruins and Panthers close out the regular season overall the next day).

As of today, the most fascinating matchup comes as the eighth-ranked Avalanche host the Blues, who are currently in ninth. Also on April 7: the seventh-ranked Kings face the Stars, whose hopes could be more less crushed tonight. Avalanche vs. Blues really could determine a playoff spot, though.

That’s an exciting proposition, but there are other fun matchups that should make for a great stretch run.

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

Let’s look at additional games of real note down the stretch. It may be helpful to see the standings first, though:

Crucial clashes

Wild, Sharks, Stars note first: If the Stars have any chance, it’s if they beat the Sharks tonight. The Wild are also unlikely to slip into the bubble, but if they do, it might come down to botching a home-and-home against the Stars on Thursday and Saturday.

[More on Tuesday’s games here.]

Friday: Kings at Ducks

Sunday: Avalanche at Ducks

Monday, April 2: Avalanche at Kings

Wednesday, April 4: Wild at Ducks

Thursday, April 5: Avalanche at Sharks, Wild at Kings

Friday, April 6: Stars at Ducks

Saturday, April 7: Blues at Avalanche, Stars at Kings

Even if the Wild don’t sink to the pack and the Stars fall out of the running, the above dates stand as huge for at least one of the teams involved. It’s interesting to note which teams have advantages, too.

The Ducks get to play four key games at home. Los Angeles plays three of four at home as well, giving them a lot of “control over their destiny.” The Avs face three of their four noted games on the road, while the Blues generally face teams who’ve either locked up a spot and might be resting a bit (Vegas, Washington) or teams out of the mix (Blackhawks twice, Coyotes once) between tonight’s game against the Sharks and that closing clash with Colorado.

One can debate which teams hold the best odds, but particularly when it comes to the top nine teams in the West, it could be a race to remember.

Some of key dates, team by team (not full schedules, click each team for more)

Anaheim Ducks

Fri, Mar 30 vs Los Angeles
Sun, Apr 1 vs Colorado
Wed, Apr 4 vs Minnesota
Fri, Apr 6 vs Dallas

Colorado Avalanche

Sun, Apr 1 @ Anaheim
Mon, Apr 2 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Apr 5 @ San Jose
Sat, Apr 7 vs St. Louis

Dallas Stars

Thu, Mar 29 @ Minnesota
Sat, Mar 31 vs Minnesota
Tue, Apr 3 @ San Jose
Fri, Apr 6 @ Anaheim
Sat, Apr 7 @ Los Angeles

Los Angeles Kings

Fri, Mar 30 @ Anaheim
Mon, Apr 2 vs Colorado
Thu, Apr 5 vs Minnesota
Sat, Apr 7 vs Dallas

Minnesota Wild

Thu, Mar 29 vs Dallas
Sat, Mar 31 @ Dallas
Wed, Apr 4 @ Anaheim
Thu, Apr 5 @ Los Angeles

St. Louis Blues

Tonight vs San Jose
Sat, April 7 @ Colorado

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.

NHL Playoff Push: Last gasps; incentive to tank?

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With the 2017-18 regular season winding down, the highs and lows will feel extremely dramatic for the teams fighting for their playoff lives.

There also might be some quibbling regarding teams who aren’t mathematically eliminated, but realistically speaking, have little-to-no chance at making it. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon with certain seeding battles. For instance: the Capitals haven’t clinched the Metro title, but last night’s win makes it difficult to imagine anyone passing them by.

It’s possible that the Stars and especially the Hurricanes are already doomed, but Tuesday could really drive the point home for both teams if they lose.

East

The Hurricanes face the one East team they have a somewhat reasonable chance of passing: the Devils, who currently reside in the second wild card spot. Of course, the Panthers are the most legitimate threat to New Jersey, and might have better odds of grabbing that spot overall. Florida is idle after winning last night:

Speaking of remote chances, the Penguins are the one team with a far-flung chance of surpassing the Capitals for the Metro crown. Beating the Red Wings tonight would improve those slim odds. As you’ll see later in this post, Detroit would benefit from that happening, even if they’re unlikely to roll over against a team they faced in consecutive championship rounds in 2008 and 2009.

The Bruins actually have a very real chance of edging the Lightning for the Atlantic title after Tampa Bay was upset by Arizona last night. Boston faces a Jets team with little chance of winning the Central, though maybe Winnipeg feels differently.

The Blue Jackets and Flyers continue to vie for positioning, and most importantly, to solidify a playoff spot. Each team is at 89 standings points, with Columbus standing at third in the Metro with more wins. The Blue Jackets face the Oilers, who are ranked lowly but are an upset threat in part because of Connor McDavid‘s Hart/Art Ross push, while the Flyers take on the Stars. More on that …

West

With eight consecutive losses, the Stars don’t enjoy much better chances than the Hurricanes. Sports Club Stats gives them a .5 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Blues, on the other hand, have to like their chances. In fact, that same site gives them better odds to land a spot than Colorado, who slipped to the second wild-card spot after losing to Vegas last night. The bad news for St. Louis is that they face a red-hot Sharks team that’s won eight in a row. The good news is that they have a rest advantage, as the Sharks needed a shootout to beat the Blackhawks on Monday.

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

Speaking of slippage, if the Ducks lose to the lowly Canucks, the Kings would overtake them for the third seed in the Pacific. From a big picture standpoint, Anaheim beating Vancouver is best for each side’s future, much like with the Penguins besting the Red Wings.

While the Predators are positioned to cruise to a Central title, the Wild have some incentive to pad their lead for third in the division. They have a healthy edge over the Blues and Avalanche, yet a losing streak could make things far more snug.

Tank wars

It seems like there’s more incentive to suffer a steep drop, even beyond the lure of winning the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the 31st-ranking team will have an 18.5-percent chance to win the draft lottery, up from 17.9 last year (Buffalo currently sits last). The second-worst team’s odds will be 13.5 compared to 12.1 in 2017 (Arizona is second right now). For more, click here.

The Canadiens are sixth from last with 68 points and five games remaining. They don’t have any real chance to slip to last, but they might dip a bit. Moving on, the bottom five:

Red Wings: 65 points, 76 games played, 22 ROW
Senators: 63 points, 75 GP, 24 ROW
Canucks: 63 points, 76 GP, 27 ROW
Coyotes: 63 points, 76 GP, 24 ROW
Sabres: 60 points, 76 GP, 23 ROW

The Red Wings face a hungry opponent in the Penguins tonight, while the Senators take on the up-and-down Islanders. The Canucks face what’s likely to be a desperate Ducks team.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning – New Jersey Devils
Boston Bruins – Toronto Maple Leafs
Washington Capitals – Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins – Columbus Blue Jackets

Nashville Predators – Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets – Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights – Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks – Anaheim Ducks

Biggest games

Hurricanes at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Penguins at Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Sharks at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Bruins at Jets, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Stars, 8:30 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.

Christian Ehrhoff retires from hockey, but Sabres will keep paying him

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With a booming, erratic slapper and 789 regular-season games of NHL experience, Christian Ehrhoff left an impact on the game from a literal and metaphorical standpoint.

The German defenseman recently announced his retirement via his Instagram account, and did so in the best of ways, by sharing a photo from his hockey-playing youth. Before we get nerdy about the Sabres/NHL teams spending a ton of money on inactive players, let’s take a moment to celebrate what was ultimately an impressive hockey career:

So hat alles angefangen und heute endet meine professionelle Karriere! 19 Jahre Profi sind eine lange Zeit. Danke an meine Teams, Mitspieler, Coaches, Betreuer, Physios, Ärzte und natürlich den Fans für die Unterstützung und unzählige wunderschöne Momente und Erinnerungen. Ein besonderes Dankeschön an meine Frau Farina, meine Kinder, meine Eltern und meine Schwester, ohne eure Unterstützung, eure Aufopferung und euren Rückhalt wäre es für mich nicht möglich gewesen Leistung auf höchsten Niveau zu bringen! #itwasagreatride #CE10 After 19 years of pro hockey I‘ve decided to call it a career. Thanks to all my teams, teammates, coaches, staff members and fans for your support and countless amazing memories.

A post shared by Christian Ehrhoff (@cehrhoff) on

The 35-year-old’s most lasting impact might be on the Buffalo Sabres’ payroll, though, as the Buffalo News’ John Vogl notes.

Indeed, that $857K toll will run through 2027-28.

Fork in the road

It’s interesting to remember that the Islanders gave up a fourth-round pick to acquire Ehrhoff’s rights back in 2011.

The Isles are already stuck paying off Rick DiPietro’s buyout for a whopping 16 years. If Ehrhoff accepted rather than nixing the Islanders’ advances, would the Islanders be stuck paying both? Would Ehrhoff’s career have ended up being more successful?

(After being bought out by Buffalo before the 2014-15 season, Ehrhoff played for the Penguins in 2014-15, the Kings in 2015-16, and then eight games for Chicago in 2015-16 before closing out his career in Germany.)

It’s quite the “What if?” scenario that might just make Islanders feel a little better during a tough time.

Buffalo’s bumbles

Ehrhoff is far from the only player the Sabres are paying to, well, not play. It’s a disquieting subsection of the Sabres’ salary structure (see their Cap Friendly page), as if Buffalo fans need more reasons to grumble about management mistakes from the past.

Via Cap Friendly, the total value of Ehrhoff’s buyout is $12 million. June 2014 ended up being an expensive run of compliance buyouts for the Sabres, as they also got rid of Ville Leino’s disastrous deal. Leino is scheduled to receive $1.22M from Buffalo through 2019-20, with the six-year buyout carrying a total value of $7.33M. None of those two buyouts affect the cap since, again, they were compliance buyouts.

About a year later in late June 2015, the Sabres also bought out Cody Hodgson’s deal, with an eight-year value of $6.33M. Since this was a more traditional buyout, the cap impact varies.

The Sabres are also “burying” the Matt Moulson deal in the AHL at the moment. His near-$4M cap hit won’t expire until after 2018-19, so there’s a jarring sum of dead money on Buffalo’s payroll. You might even say it sort of makes the debate about paying Jack Eichel $10M per year feel a little moot?

The Bobby Bonilla Bunch

Ehrhoff belongs in a select group that feels a lot like the Bobby Bonillas of hockey.

Allow an explanation: as ESPN’s Darren Rovell noted a couple years ago, the New York Mets are slated to pay Bonilla a bit more than $1M every year through 2035.

A man who last played 5,381 days ago owns this day. Not just this July 1, but every July 1 through 2035. It’s the day when the New York Mets pay him $1,193,248.20.

Let’s take a look at a handful of buyouts that are eye-popping in cost and duration, even if they’re not Bonilla-bombastic. Cap Friendly has a handy tool for this, so if you want to entertain yourself, sort the different categories.

PLAYER TEAM DATE VALUE LENGTH LAST YEAR
Vincent Lecavalier TBL Jun 27, 2013 $32,666,667 14 2026-27
Rick DiPietro NYI Jun 3, 2013 $24,000,000 16 2028-29
Ilya Bryzgalov PHI Jun 25, 2013 $23,000,000 14 2026-27
Brad Richards NYR Jun 20, 2014 $20,666,667 12 2025-26
Alexei Yashin NYI Jun 6, 2007 $17,632,000 8 2014-15
Mikhail Grabovski TOR Jul 4, 2013 $14,333,333 8 2020-21
Alexander Semin CAR Jun 30, 2015 $14,000,000 6 2020-21
Ehrhoff BUF Jun 29, 2014 $12,000,000 14 2027-28
Mike Ribeiro ARI Jun 27, 2014 $11,666,667 6 2019-20
Stephen Weiss DET Jun 30, 2015 $10,000,000 6 2020-21

Interesting stuff, eh?

Here’s hoping Ehrhoff enjoys himself after hanging up his skates. If nothing else, that buyout should provide him with some … walking around money.

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.