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I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

West playoffs set after Avs beat Blues

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While two Eastern Conference matchups are still up in the air, the West is settled after the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in Colorado.

More on that decisive game in a moment. First, take a look at how it shakes out:

(Central 1) Nashville Predators vs. (Second wild) Colorado Avalanche

(Central 2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (Central 3) Minnesota Wild

(Pacific 1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (First wild) Los Angeles Kings

(Pacific 2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (Pacific 3) San Jose Sharks

Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy, so the Predators will hold home-ice advantage as long as they are in the playoffs. The Jets – Wild matchup seemed to be in the cards for some time, while there was plenty of turbulence below Vegas in the Pacific. The Ducks won their last game of the season while the Kings and Sharks fell on Saturday.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Out East, two intriguing playoff matchups are set. The Metropolitan Division-winning Washington Capitals will take on Columbus, the first wild card. Meanwhile, the in-state rivalry will continue for the Penguins and Flyers in the Metro’s two versus three matchup.

The Bruins and Lightning continue to vie for the Atlantic Division – and thus, the East’s eighth seed – so the Maple Leafs and Devils must wait to see who they’ll face. More on that here.

Play-in game

The Avalanche ended up winning 5-2 following a flurry of late goals (two for Colorado, one for St. Louis) with the Blues’ net empty. It ended up being closer than that score seemed, and there’s some controversy.

St. Louis has some reason to complain about Colorado’s second goal, as Tyson Barrie‘s power-play tally survived an offside review that’s more than a little bit polarizing:

The league ultimately determined that replays were inconclusive. Alex Pietrangelo was not happy after the game, as the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reports.

“Maybe they need some glasses in Toronto,” Pietrangelo said. ” … Maybe they’re guessing, or maybe they didn’t want us to get in the playoffs.”

With that, the Avalanche went up 2-0 6:11 into the second period, and the decision could have been even more controversial if the Blues would have failed to kill the delay of game penalty. St. Louis managed to kill it off, though.

Regardless, the game could have been very different if Colorado’s lead stayed at 1-0. Alongside Duncan Keith‘s last-second goal to cost the Blues a win, that Barrie goal stands as a painful “What if?” question for St. Louis.

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.

Rangers fire Alain Vigneault

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New York Rangers fans got their wish with #FireAV, as the team parted ways with head coach Alain Vigneault. The news was first reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

After the Philadelphia Flyers clinched a playoff spot against the Rangers in a 5-0 drubbing, Vigneault told reporters that he expected to be back with the team.

“Yes, yes, without a doubt. I think my staff is the right staff for this job,” Vigneault said, according to the New York Post’s Brett Cyrgalis. “I think one of the strongest assets of this organization is its coaching staff and their experience.”

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

The Rangers concluded their fifth season under Vigneault with a 34-39-9 record. This was the first time the Rangers failed to make the playoffs with AV behind the bench. His first season (2013-14) ended up being his best in New York, as the Rangers fell to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. The Rangers also made it to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final under Vigneault.

Despite some significant regular-season successes and some playoff triumphs, fans quibbled with many of his lineup decisions. Many were irritated that Vigneault often turned to Tanner Glass, and beyond that, he drew plenty of critiques for his reluctance to trust young players.

Vigneault appeared to be on the hot seat after a terrible start to 2017-18, yet the Rangers rallied for a portion of the season, delaying the seemingly inevitable.

The team also sent out a letter essentially acknowledging a coming rebuild, which cemented the notion that AV’s time might have been limited. It turns out that Vigneault will not be around to help the Rangers rebuild, whether that means a quick fix-up or something that takes a little longer.

[How the Rangers rebuild could pick up steam.]

This brings about plenty of questions. What happens with assistant Lindy Ruff? Will another NHL team be interested in bringing in Vigneault or would AV decide to take some paid time off?

There are plenty of interesting factors here, but we won’t need to wonder another moment about Vigneault’s future in New York.

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 can claim top East spot after Lightning loss

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Yes, the final game and day of the 2018-19 NHL regular season will matter. To be specific, Sunday, April 8 will determine the winner of the Atlantic Division, and thus the top seed in the East, as the Boston Bruins host the Florida Panthers.

Saturday’s games opened the door for this last-minute scenario. The Tampa Bay Lightning grabbed a standings point, but they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime, so they’ll finish the season with a 54-23-5 record, 113 standings points, and 48 regulation/overtime wins.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

The Bruins took care of business by beating the Senators 5-2. They head into their final game against Florida with a 50-19-12 record, 112 standings points, and 47 ROW.

It’s a fairly straightforward situation, then. If the Bruins win in any way, they grab the Atlantic and East. If not the Lightning get it instead.

Consider some of the other factors:

  • The Atlantic Division winner will take on Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils, who slipped to the second wild-card spot in the East after losing to Washington.
  • Meanwhile, the runner-up faces the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic’s two vs. three-seed matchup. The Maple Leafs finished the season with an identical record to that of Metro winner Washington (49-26-7), so that’s a steep climb from New Jersey, at least from a standings perspective.

It will be intriguing to see how hard the Panthers chase this one. The Flyers flattened their playoff hopes by defeating the Rangers during Saturday afternoon, but Florida beat Buffalo 4-3. They’ve finished off 2018-19 with a hard drive toward a playoff spot, yet you wonder if they’ll sit a lot of players with nothing on the line.

(The Hurricanes didn’t do too bad of a job as the spoilers against the Bolts tonight, mind you.)

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

The Bruins also must weigh the risk and reward here.

While an easier first-round draw and more home-ice advantage stand as an inviting combination, the B’s are also a banged-up bunch. There could be some tired legs closing out a back-to-back set, so this is one more big regular-season challenge for Boston.

Will the Bruins get that win, or will the Lightning grab the Atlantic from their couches?

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.

Red Wings extend GM Ken Holland, for better or worse

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Some teams dive in the deep end when it comes to rebuilding (and/or “tanking”). Generally speaking, the Red Wings have instead opted to dip their toes in that pool.

With that in mind, it’s probably not too surprising to see the team hand GM Ken Holland a two-year contract extension.

As the Red Wings note, this opens the door for Holland to enter his 22nd season as GM. The team does a solid job of listing his biggest accomplishments as the league’s second-longest tenured general manager:

Under his watch, the Red Wings have won four Presidents’ Trophies, captured 10 division championships, won five regular-season conference titles and reached at least 100 regular-season points a league-high 13 times in the last 17 seasons. The Red Wings have also won 893 regular-season games and 119 playoff games since Holland assumed general manager duties in July 1997, topping the NHL in both categories during that span.

Of course, that press release doesn’t ruminate much on the present, and it only fixates on one positive part of the future: that they made 10 picks in the 2017 NHL Draft, hold 11 in the upcoming 2018 edition, and already claim 10 for 2019.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For one thing, the massive haul of draft picks are a mixed bag. Holding such a quantity of picks does open the door for Holland to justify the belief that the Red Wings might once again unearth gems as they had in the past, a thought that becomes more promising if you still believe that they’re better than most at developing prospects.

On the other hand, such a smorgasboard of selections could also have been useful for a new GM to define a new vision. And, hey, maybe some of those picks could be packaged in a deal to ship some crummy deals out of Detroit.

Because, make no mistake about it, this team is a real mess on paper. Despite missing the playoffs for the second straight season in 2018-19, they were essentially a cap team. Via Cap Friendly, the Red Wings already have $56.875 million in cap space devoted to 14 players, and that’s with key young players (including Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou) needing new deals as pending RFAs.

Now, there are some contracts that even the most creative, aggressive executive would probably just need to deal with.

Still, you wonder if Holland might be “too close” to some deals and decisions, thus keeping the Red Wings from making crucial calls to accelerate the process toward being competitive again. This franchise clearly needs to yank the “Band-Aid” off swiftly, and you have to wonder if the chief architect is truly willing to undergo a necessary makeover.

This is yet another example of a franchise handing a polarizing GM an extension, such as the Vancouver Canucks re-upping oft-criticized exec Jim Benning. Time will tell if Holland can turn the Red Wings around, but from a sheer PR standpoint, it’s not a move savvy Red Wings fans are very happy about.

In other key organizational news, the team is expected to make an announcement regarding head coach Jeff Blashill in the coming week. The Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James and others indicate that he’ll probably be back, and it’s worth noting that Blashill has one year remaining on his contract.

Holland’s name has been connected to the Seattle expansion franchise, and while it’s feasible that he could still move on, this extension should at least turn the volume down on such speculation for a while.

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.

Alex Ovechkin scores 49th goal, claims another Rocket Richard Trophy

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Alex Ovechkin came close, but fell one goal short of hitting 50 for the seventh time in his NHL career. In the process, he’ll claim his seventh career Rocket Richard Trophy for leading the league in goals scored. No other player has won the award more than twice since it was introduced during the 1998-99 season.

The Washington Capitals captain tallied twice during a 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils Saturday night. After needing just 2:21 into the game to score his 48th of the year, Ovechkin added No. 49 minutes into the third period.

There were plenty of opportunities for Ovi to grab his 50th, but he couldn’t capitalize, including on a third period breakaway and a late power play chance for the Capitals.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

The second goal was Ovechkin’s 102nd career game-winning goal, passing Jarome Iginla (101) for sole possession of eighth place on the NHL’s all-time list.

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.