Minnesota Wild

Holtby has been the difference for Caps this season

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The Washington Capitals didn’t sit on their hands after missing the playoffs in 2014. They replaced both their general manager and head coach with Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz respectively. They splurged on free agent defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. One thing they didn’t do though was address their goaltending, which was a point of significant uncertainty based on how the 2013-14 campaign played out.

All the same, the Washington Capitals decided to stick with Braden Holtby and only bring in Justin Peters to serve in a supporting role. Their belief in Holtby paid off on Sunday when the Capitals’ netminder turned aside 35 of 36 shots versus Detroit on no rest en route to securing a playoff spot.

“That was an outstanding performance,” Trotz said, per the Washington Post. “Back-to-back in this league against good teams, goalies usually don’t fare very well and he stepped up tonight.”

That wasn’t an isolated incident by any stretch of the imagination. Holtby’s been a big part of Washington’s resurgence this season with a 40-19-10 record, 2.24 GAA, and .922 save percentage in an incredible 71 games. He’s the first goaltender since Pekka Rinne in 2011-12 to reach both the 40-win and 70-game marks. Of course, Rinne was also guided by Trotz and goalie coach Mitch Korn. Among goaltenders that played in at least 70 games in a single season, his GAA is the best since Martin Brodeur in 2007-08.

Holtby’s brilliant season has been overshadowed somewhat by Carey Price’s Hart Trophy bid. In fact, in a campaign where Pekka Rinne has been nearly as dominant as Price and Devan Dubnyk swooped in to reverse the Minnesota Wild’s fortunes, Holtby might not even warrant a Vezina Trophy finalist spot. Nevertheless, Washington’s fortunes this season have been tied to Holtby.

So far that’s been to the Capitals’ benefit. They just have to hope that continues to be the case.

“Great season for him and if we’re going to go somewhere great this spring, we’re going to need a great effort from him for sure,” Niskanen said.

Goalie nods: Canucks sticking with Lack, who wants ‘to be the hero again’

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All the latest from the blue paint…

You can be their hero, Eddie

The Canucks had three goalies on the ice for this morning’s optional skate — Ryan Miller, Jacob Markstrom and Eddie Lack — but it’ll be the latter who’ll get the start tonight in a crucial tilt versus Los Angeles.

Lack hasn’t exactly been a hero over his last five games, going 2-2-1 with a .903 save percentage, numbers that have been skewed by tough outings in Winnipeg (five goals on 36 shots) and Nashville (four goals on 38). It’s also worth noting Lack’s seen an awful lot of rubber lately; he’s faced an average of 35.2 shots per game over his last five, including 40 in a overtime loss to Dallas last week.

With Miller getting closer to a return to game action, tonight’s tilt will prove huge for Lack’s future as Vancouver’s No. 1. Tonight’s tilt will also prove huge for Western Conference playoff jockeying, as the Kings head into tonight’s action just three points back of Vancouver in the Pacific, and one back of Calgary.

Speaking of the Kings, no official word yet on who’ll start, but it’s expected to be Jonathan Quick.

Elsewhere…

‘Canes at Sabres: Cam Ward vs. Anders Lindback

Blue Jackets at Rangers: Sergei Bobrovsky vs. Henrik Lundqvist

Jets at Wild: Ondrej Pavelec vs. Devan Dubnyk (“DUUUBS” — Halford.)

Stars at Sharks: (No Dallas starter yet) vs. Alex Stalock

Wild should get Koivu (eye) back Monday vs. desperate Jets

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Wild captain Mikko Koivu was a late scratch on Saturday because of what has been revealed to be a scratched cornea. Minnesota suffered a 3-2 shootout loss to Detroit in that contest, but Wild coach Mike Yeo thinks Koivu “should be absolutely fine by” Monday for their game against the Jets, per the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo.

Minnesota will try to avoid its first three-game losing streak since Devan Dubnyk took over the goaltending duties on Jan. 15. Thanks to the Wild’s midseason turnaround, they are very likely to make the playoffs at this point, but they’ll also want to keep their momentum going in the hopes that it will continue into the playoffs.

They’ll be facing a desperate Jets squad though as Winnipeg would be narrowly eliminated if the regular season ended today. Like Los Angeles, Winnipeg has 92 points in 78 contests, but the Kings control the tiebreaker (ROW) so the Jets need to finish at least one point ahead of them to advance to the postseason.

Prior to Koivu’s injury, he had three goals and five points in his last four games. It sounds like his injury probably didn’t occur during a game.

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Hawks, Blues battle in tight Central Division race

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2014-15 campaign tonight as the Chicago Blackhawks host the St. Louis Blues at the United Center, with coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game and pre-show online.

With just a week worth of games left, the battle for the Central Division title is fierce. Nashville leads the pack with 104 points in 79 contests while St. Louis and Chicago are just one and two points back respectively and have each participated in one less game than Nashville. So clearly the stakes will be high tonight and on Thursday when the Blue and Blackhawks battle (Thursday’s rematch will also air on NBCSN).

“It’s amazing,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You play all these games and it always comes down to the last week or the last game. We’re both chasing Nashville. We’re both (trying) to finish in first place overall. We know (Sunday’s game is) a big one and we’re excited for it.”

“Twice in the next three games — huge games for us,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’re four-point games with little time to make up ground. We know they’re meaningful (because) there’s still a lot to be sorted out.”

Even the winner of the Central Division will likely face a difficult first round opponent given that the Minnesota Wild – which are 26-7-3 during goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s run – and the defending champion Los Angeles Kings currently occupy the two Wild Card seeds. However, the Western Conference being that tight only adds to the importance of possessing Game 7 home-ice advantage as deep into the playoffs as possible.

It certainly has been a factor when Chicago has played St. Louis in recent years as the Blues haven’t won in regulation in the United Center over their last 13 regular season and three playoff contests. That’s not all St. Louis will have to overcome tonight as Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen are both dealing with lower-body injuries. Those are the Blues top two scorers, but their absence hasn’t stopped St. Louis from outscoring its adversaries 11-6 over its last two games.

Meanwhile Chicago, which is without Patrick Kane (clavicle), has won four straight contests. One of those winning streaks will end tonight and the fight for the Central Division will draw closer to its conclusion.

Eye injury makes Wild’s Koivu a late scratch

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The Minnesota Wild made captain Mikko Koivu a late scratch against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, as he’s sidelined with an eye injury.

Koivu, 32, is considered day-to-day with this ailment.

While Koivu failed to score in Minnesota’s most recent game, he had been heating up lately with three goals and two assists for five points in a three-game span from March 24-28.

At the moment, Minnesota’s place in the playoffs looks comfortable, yet there’s enough competition in the West that they can’t just coast. Considering what Detroit has on the line as well, this game could be that much tougher without Koivu.