Eastern Conference playoff update: Lightning clinch a spot, Leafs keep dreaming

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Eastern Conference playoff race

x-1. Philadelphia – 102 pts (5 GR)
x-2. Washington – 101 pts (4 GR)
x-3. Boston – 97 pts (5 GR)
x-4. Pittsburgh – 98 pts (4 GR)
x-5. Tampa Bay – 95 pts (5 GR)
6. Montreal – 89 pts (4 GR)
7. Buffalo – 87 pts (5 GR)
8. NY Rangers – 87 pts (4 GR)
9. Carolina – 84 pts (5 GR)
10. Toronto – 82 pts (4 GR)
11. Atlanta – 78 pts (5 GR)

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot
GR – Games Remaining

Toronto 4, Boston 3 (SO)

This game probably just delays the inevitable for both teams. The Maple Leafs are still a big-time long shot since they need to close a five-point gap to take a playoff spot from the currently eighth-ranked Rangers. In fact, with New York holding a wins tiebreaker, they may need to make up a six-point difference in only four games.

Meanwhile, the Bruins earned a point, so they only need one more point in their last five games to clinch the Northeast Division.

Still, for one night, Maple Leafs fans can wonder how different life would be if the season was just a week or two longer. Joffrey Lupul scored two goals and an assist and Nazem Kadri scored the only shootout goal for Toronto to a win a thriller against the Bruins in Boston.

Atlanta 1, Philadelphia 0

Speaking of long shots, the Thrashers kept their incredibly slim playoff hopes alive thanks to a 43-save shutout by Chris Mason. The fact that they beat the Flyers in regulation opens up the door for the Vancouver Canucks to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy tonight, although Philly must be a lot more concerned about the East’s top seed (more on that in a moment).

Evander Kane scored the game’s only goal, giving the Thrashers a nice thrill, even if it will ultimately be an empty one. The Rangers only need two points and the Sabres only need to earn a single point to slam the door shut on Atlanta’s playoff hopes, making their fate all but certain.

NY Islanders 6, NY Rangers 2

Some might say that the Islanders are only playing for pride, but there’s also another driving force called “spite.” This loss pushes the Rangers into eighth, shrinking their lead against the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes to only three points. The Canes hold a game in hand over the Rangers and play a huge game against the Sabres on Sunday.

This regulation loss also gives the idle Sabres the seventh seed, since Buffalo has five games remaining versus New York’s four. Time will tell if Marian Gaborik will face any discipline for his hit on Frans Nielsen, but the Isles made the Rangers pay dearly on the scoreboard tonight.

Washington 4, Columbus 3 (OT)

Jason Chimera scored the game-winning overtime goal and also provided an assist during his return from being a healthy scratch against the Carolina Hurricanes. This win maintains their six-point lead over the Lightning for the Southeast Division crown while moving them to within one point of the East-leading Flyers.

Philadelphia has one extra point, one more game in hand and one more win, so they have a slight advantage. Still, it’s not out of the question for Washington to catch up to them during the stretch run, especially with the Caps’ final two games coming against the tanking Florida Panthers.

Tampa Bay 2, Pittsburgh 1

The Lightning edged the Penguins in what almost certainly should be a preview of a first round match between the two squads. Steve Downie and Martin St. Louis scored for Tampa Bay while Michael Rupp scored Pittsburgh’s only goal. Dwayne Roloson made 36 saves to help the Bolts clinch a playoff spot tonight. St. Louis now has 30 or more goals in six different seasons.

This result could make for an interesting race for the fourth seed. The Penguins still hold a three-point lead over the Lightning, but Tampa Bay (five games remaining) has one more game in hand than Pittsburgh (four games remaining). Pittsburgh has more wins (45 to 42), but both teams have an identical 36 non-shootout wins.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.