Race for the Playoffs: Eastern races can get a bit clearer today

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With the season winding down and the playoff picture sorting itself out, we’ll be taking a look at the night’s games and how they’ll potentially affect the playoff races. This is ProHockeyTalk’s “Race for the Playoffs.”

Eastern Conference

6. Montreal 87 pts
7. NY Rangers 85 pts
8. Buffalo 83 pts
9. Carolina 80 pts
10. Toronto 78 pts

Today could see things get cleared up a bit more in the race for the 7th and 8th spots in the East. With all five of these teams in action, today turns into put-up-or-shut-up day.

NY Rangers @ Boston – 1 p.m.

A Rangers win will help them continue to keep the heat off as well as help them draw closer to Montreal for the time being. A Rangers loss puts them right into the throes of battle with Buffalo for the eighth spot. The Bruins can do their own bit of playoff maintenance with a win and help virtually put away the Northeast Division title and a top three seed. Sean Avery is back in the lineup for New York and we can only imagine he’ll be making Tuukka Rask’s life miserable around the goal.

New Jersey @ Buffal0 – 7 p.m.

The Sabres can help strengthen their spot in the playoffs with a win while simultaneously putting the final stake through the heart of the Devils. New Jersey is ten points behind the Sabres for eighth and a loss today would put them down by 12 with just seven games left. Yeah, not looking good there. For Buffalo, if things break right with Montreal and New York ahead of them, a win gives them an honest shot at moving up as far as sixth.  With Carolina behind them by three points, winning is the only way to keep it all going.

Washington @ Montreal – 7 p.m.

The Habs aren’t really in peril here, but their hold on the sixth seed is if they can’t keep winning. With just a two point edge on the Rangers and four on the Sabres, if they want to avoid a potential first round meeting with the likes of the Caps or Flyers and attempt to draw the Bruins, they’ve got to get back to winning. After getting humiliated by Boston, you wonder if perhaps they’d be more comfortable not facing them in a seven game series. Washington has a playoff spot locked up, but can put Tampa Bay out of sight and out of mind in the division title race with a win. The Caps are seven points up on the Lightning in the Southeast.

Tampa Bay @ Carolina – 7 p.m.

Carolina’s in a rough spot just on the outside looking in by three points. After getting a big win over Tampa Bay last night in Florida, they head to RBC Center to try and complete the sweep and keep pace with Buffalo in the race for eighth. Tampa Bay is in a bit of desperate spot of their own as they’re trying to get things turned around positively heading into the playoffs. For Carolina, they can’t get into scoreboard watching though as they just need to keep winning to stay relevant in the race.

Toronto @ Detroit – 7 p.m.

While this seems like a bad match-up at a bad time for the Leafs, they’ve done exceedingly well against the Wings the last few years. They’ll need to be great tonight to keep up in the Eastern race, however, as they’re on the precipice of becoming a full-on afterthought in the playoff race. Sitting five points back of Buffalo with seven games to play makes it a desperate situation. A loss to Detroit for all intents and purposes puts the Leafs and their great story away as James Reimer hopes to continue his folk hero-like play. Detroit is second in the Western Conference and can essentially salt away the division with a win as they’d at least temporarily have a nine point lead on Chicago in the Central.

Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

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As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

WATCH LIVE: Vegas eyes Stanley Cup Final berth with Game 5 win

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Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Maurice wants Jets to stay loose ahead of elimination game

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wants the Jets to focus on fun, not the magnitude of Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The expansion Golden Knights are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final and could eliminate the Jets and reach the Stanley Cup Final with a victory.

”These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said Saturday. ”Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way, and it shouldn’t be very difficult, to love every minute of it. … This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”

The Jets have accomplished more in the playoffs than the Atlanta Thrashers franchise did before relocating to Manitoba in 2011. They’ve also surpassed the achievements of the original NHL Jets franchise that moved to Arizona in 1996.

As the current Winnipeg team eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the first round in five games and then bounced the Predators in a Game 7 in Nashville, fans from across the country have cheered on the only Canadian team left in the championship run.

Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and his teammates have seen the adoration, particularly in Winnipeg with their white-clad crowd inside Bell MTS Place and thousands more outside at ”whiteout” street parties around the rink.

Now, though, isn’t the time to let the hopes of hockey fans weigh them down, he said.

”I don’t think you can think about that, how many people we have watching us,” Chiarot said.

”It’s a little daunting when you think of a whole province, or even the whole country, watching us play. So you just focus on what you do and the guys in the room and that’s all we focus on.”

Winnipeg won the first game against the Golden Knights at home.

The Jets had an NHL-best home record of 32-7-2 in the regular season and finished with nine straight victories at home. They added four more in the playoffs, but have lost three of their last four games at home.

In the last two losses to Vegas, the Jets gave up the first goal. When they did tie it up in both matches, the Golden Knights responded with goals in under a minute to regain their lead.

”It’s going to be really important, not only just to score the first, but just to have a good start,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. ”We felt like we actually started OK last game, just kind of got in penalty trouble early. That can determine how it looks like you start.”

If the Jets can pull out a victory Sunday, Game 6 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas. A Game 7 would be Thursday night in Winnipeg.

Maurice wants his players to approach the do-or-die game like their Game 7 victory in Nashville.

”I want them to take their experience from Game 6 and 7 and create the environment they created there where they came out with an excitement and smile on their face,” he said. ”Going into Game 7, there’s as much pressure in that game as there was here, right? It’s the exact same game. This one is at home. We’ll need that crowd. They’ve been great for us.

”Both teams, all four teams now (left in the playoffs), there’s not quite as much in the tank as there was before. You’re looking to draw on that and go out with an excited smile.”