Game of the Week preview: Breaking down the East playoff bubble

The New York Rangers are currently the eighth-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, but the three other major teams in the race for the last two playoff spots earned wins while they sat idle on Saturday. What was once a nice cushion keeps shrinking, meaning that the Rangers face yet another crucial late-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers. (You can watch that NBC Game of the Week at 12:30 pm ET on Sunday, by the way.)

In the same spirit of our breakdown of the Flyers’ race to wrestle the top seed from the Washington Capitals, we thought it might be wise to handicap the battle for the last two playoff spots in the East. We’ll exclude the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens (91 points with three games remaining) for the sake of simplicity, but will throw in the long shot 10th-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the interest of being comprehensive.

Let’s count down the closing stretches for those four teams, from highest to lowest ranking.

7. Buffalo Sabres (39-29-10 for 88 points with four games remaining; 34 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 96.

Remaining games: @ Carolina (Sunday), home vs. Tampa Bay (Tuesday), home vs. Philadelphia (Friday) and @ Columbus (next Saturday).

Thoughts: Obviously, Sunday’s contest against the Hurricanes is enormous. A regulation win would give them nice breathing room, but their schedule isn’t a cakewalk after that. The Lightning and Flyers will likely have incentive to spoil the Sabres’ playoff run, with Philadelphia having the bonus of trying to avoid Buffalo in the first round to boot. The Blue Jackets aren’t an automatic win either, although the team is way out of the West playoff picture.

8. New York Rangers (41-32-5 for 87 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 95.

Remaining games: @ Philadelphia (Sun), home vs. Boston (Mon), home vs. Atlanta (Thurs) and home vs. New Jersey (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Rangers are odd ducks, with a nice win total and a strong goal differential, yet a reliance on shootout wins (eight so far). Anyway, surviving back-to-back games against the Flyers and Bruins is vital. The Rangers must hope that Boston will take Monday’s game easy since they already clinched the Northeast Division. After those games, there are should-wins against two teams that were eliminated from the playoffs on April 2nd … although one can bet the Devils would love to ruin things for the Rangers on New York’s last game of the season.

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9. Carolina Hurricanes (38-30-10 for 86 pts with four games remaining; 33 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 94.

Remaining games: Home vs. Buffalo (Sun), home vs. Detroit (Wed), @ Atlanta (Fri) and home vs. Tampa Bay (next Sat).

Thoughts: Again, Sunday’s game against the Sabres is huge. If Carolina manages to earn a regulation win against Buffalo, they would tie them in points and draw even in the first major tiebreaker category too. After that, they face an always-tough game against the Red Wings, a should-win contest against the golf course-bound Thrashers and what could be a big game (or a shoulder shrug) for the Lightning. This isn’t an easy finish, but a regulation victory against Buffalo could really open things up for the Canes.

10. Toronto Maple Leafs (37-32-10 for 84 pts with three games remaining, 32 non-shootout wins.)

Maximum possible points: 90.

Games remaining: Home vs. Washington (Tues), @ New Jersey (Wed) and home vs. Montreal (next Sat).

Thoughts: The Leafs have less points than all three teams (four less than Buffalo, three less than the Rangers and two less than Carolina) and one less game in hand. They also lack much help in the way of a non-shootout win tiebreaker and face a rocky schedule. Overall, their chances are the slimmest of the East teams who haven’t been eliminated, but it’s not a done deal just yet. They’ll just need help to get there.

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After examining the four teams’ closing schedules, I think the Rangers have the best chance of gaining one of the final spots and the Maple Leafs are a long shot at best. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes could really muddy the situation with a regulation win against the Sabres on Sunday.

Overall, the Sabres and Rangers have the best chance to retain a spot, but it should be a very close race. It all starts with Sunday afternoon’s NBC Game of the Week between the Flyers and the Rangers, so don’t miss it.

Let us know which teams you think will make it in the comments.

Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

Here’s the full schedule:

Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph

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Alex Ovechkin will get his chance.

The Great 8 will contest for the Stanley Cup after his Washington Capitals defeated their past demons and the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Yes, the Capitals — a team that had to overcome a horrific playoff record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and then had to deal the disappointment of beginning the Conference Final with wins in Games 1 and 2 only to drop three straight to trail 3-2.

They took care of business in Game 6, and that train kept chugging along into Game 7.

Ovi put his stamp on Game 7 just 62 seconds in as he wired a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The first period was a wild affair, filled with scuffles, a fight and stolen jersey.

And then Andre Burakovsky arrived.

Burakovsky missed the first 12 games of the plays because of injury and then followed that up with seven games without a point.

He revealed earlier in the series that he lays a mental beating on himself too often. So Game 7 must have felt pretty good.

Burakovsky scored on two separate breakaways in the second period.

The first came off a brutal giveaway from Dan Girardi in his own zone. His second came after the Lightning got caught on a bad change.

Tampa looked like a shell of their former selves. They dusted themselves off after dropping the first two at home, but simply stopped scoring after the 33-second mark in the second period of Game 5.

[PHT’s Three Stars]

Braden Holtby showed up at precisely the right moment in the series, posting consecutive shutouts to close out the series.

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, meanwhile, were far from brilliant. No one over the last seven periods and change was on the Lightning.

The Lightning went 159:33 without scoring. Ouch.

You can’t win games when you don’t score, something the Lightning will have all summer to ponder. They led the NHL with 296 goals this season, all of which means sweet nothing now.

And now the attention turns to one of the more intriguing Cup Finals in a long time.

One of the greatest players of all-time with a chance to win his first Cup silence his critics after years of disappointment against the best story in sports, period.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

MORE:
NHL Playoffs 2018: Stanley Cup Final TV Schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT’s Three Stars: Burakovsky’s goals push Capitals into Stanley Cup Final

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1st Star: Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals

After being benched earlier in the series, Burakovsky responded in a big way in Game 7 scoring twice as the Capitals moved on to the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2nd Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby finished the Eastern Conference Final in a strong way, posting a second straight shutout while making 29 saves. The Capitals netminder has not allowed a goal since 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5.

3rd Star: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The captain only needed 62 seconds to open the scoring and quiet the AMALIE Arena crowd.

[Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph]

Highlight of the Night:

A wild first period included a tilt between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn:

Factoid of the Night:

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Brooks Orpik leaves Game 7 after Paquette’s hit from behind

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While the Washington Capitals built up a lead in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, they lost two players before the end of the second period.

First, Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a Ryan McDonagh shot with the back of his neck in the first period. After returning to the game, he would leave the Capitals’ bench late in the second period.

Joining him would be Orpik, who took a big hit from behind along the boards from Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. As Orpik was being tended to, the officials got together and determined that there would no penalty on the play, which is an odd decision.

As Orpik goes to get the puck in the corner, he does peek over his shoulder and sees Paquette a ways away, but he doesn’t change his body position as Paquette drills him. He’s probably not expecting to get hit even with the Lightning forward in the area. That would have easily been at least a major, maybe even a game misconduct (Remember Steve Bernier?).

The Capitals would respond to the hit two minutes later. On the scoreboard. Andre Burakovsky potted his second goal of the night to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.