Western playoff picture: Predators, Coyotes, and Ducks all clinch playoff spots

Western Conference playoff race

z – 1. Vancouver – 115 pts
y – 2. San Jose – 103 pts
y- 3. Detroit – 102 pts
x-4. Nashville – 99 pts
x-5. Phoenix – 99 pts
x-6. Los Angeles – 98 pts
x-7. Anaheim – 97 pts
8. Chicago – 97 pts
9. Dallas – 95 pts

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Chicago 4, Detroit 2

The optimists among the hockey brethren will say the Blackhawks came to play and took it to the Detroit Red Wings. Skeptics among hockey fans will say the Red Wings absolutely mailed it in and never really gave themselves a chance to win. So which is it? As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. There’s no questioning that the Blackhawks came out and played one of their most effective periods in the 1st to get off on the right foot. Yet on the other hand, there’s no questioning the fact that the Wings players just didn’t have the edge needed to compete with a desperate team. It’s not that the game was meaningless for the Wings—the loss has them sitting in 3rd place with 102 points (one point behind the Sharks for 2nd).

For Chicago, the win was just the first step of handling their business to make the playoffs. Entering into the home-and-home series with Detroit, the Hawks could say they controlled their own destiny. If they earned 3 out of a possible 4 points in the two games, it wouldn’t matter what the 9th place Dallas Stars did in their games. In the first act of the final stretch in the regular season, the Hawks knocked out an impressive effort. If they can earn at least an overtime loss (or a win) against the Wings on Sunday afternoon, they’ll be in the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Nashville 4, Columbus 1

Every team has a certain team that seems to have their number. Sometimes there’s a certain city where a team fails to perform. For the Columbus Blue Jackets, that team is undoubtedly the Predators and the city is Nashville, TN. After losing 4-1 to help the Predators secure a playoff spot for the sixth time in seven years, the Blue Jackets are now winless in their last 17 games in Nashville. In Friday’s game, Columbus managed 45 shots on goal against Pekka Rinne—only to see him turn away 44. Combine Rinne’s spectacular effort with a two-goal performance from Patric Hornqvist (7 points in his last 3 games), and it’s no wonder the Predators are looking at potential playoff opponents. For the Blue Jackets, they will have a top 10 pick in the entry draft for the tenth time in eleven drafts. That’s probably not the kind of organizational consistency they’re looking for.

Minnesota 3, Edmonton 1

The Minnesota Wild and their new #1 line (Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu) performed well as the Minnesota Wild clinched at least a #12 seed in the Western Conference standings. If they can get help from the Predators, Minnesota may even be able to jump over the Blues and into the #11 seed.

Meanwhile, Edmonton continued to weigh the pros and cons between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog. Clearly the debate between those prospects would be more competitive than their team on the ice.

Dallas 3, Colorado 2

There were a bunch of scenarios the Stars were hoping for on Friday night, but each and every one of the scenarios revolved around Dallas winning their remaining games. After winning the rest of their games, there were a bunch of situations where the Stars would be able to sneak into the playoffs as another team faltered down the stretch. One Friday night, they were able to take care of the most important part of the plan as they went into Colorado and escaped with a 3-2 win. Since the Avalanche have struggled so much this season, it may be hard to believe that the Stars had been outscored 13-1 at Pepsi Center in their last three visits. But tonight was a different kind of night and Dallas was able to control the game from the opening face-off.

Near the end of the game, Mike Ribeiro went down and blocked a shot—but initial reports say he’ll back and ready to take the ice against the Minnesota Wild in the last game of the season. As is been stated ad nauseam, if they can win and the Hawks lose in regulation, the Stars will make the playoffs. They may need help, but they’re still alive going into Game 82. That in itself is a surprise to a lot of people who expected the Stars to struggle this season.

Phoenix 4, San Jose 3

With the Red Wings losing earlier in the evening, the Sharks had a chance to lock-up the 2nd seed in the West with a win over the Coyotes. So much for that. In what was a theme around the NHL team, the team with a chance to clinch showed far more desperation and earned the right to play in the NHL’s second season. The Coyotes jumped out to a 4-1 lead only to hold on for dear life as the Sharks came storming back. The win gives Phoenix 99 points for the season and temporarily puts them in the 5th seed in the conference. If they win their last game against San Jose, they’ll have a chance to finish the season in the 4th spot for the second consecutive season. For all of the turmoil surround the team over the last two seasons, there aren’t many teams that can lay claim to home-ice advantage in two consecutive seasons.

Anaheim 2, Los Angeles 1

The Ducks had one thing on their mind going into the game: “win and we’re in.” Thanks to Teemu Selanne and his two goals, the Ducks were able to beat the Kings to secure their spot in the playoffs. Dan Ellis filled-in for the injured Ray Emery and Jonas Hiller with a 23-save performance to help Anaheim get to the promised land. After the game, Selanne said they would come with the same kind of effort to improve their seeding on Saturday—but that’s easier said than done.

Going into the game, the Kings controlled their own destiny for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. If they were able to win both of their final two games against the Ducks, they’d earn the 4th seed no matter what any of the other teams did. Well, after the loss to the Ducks and the Preds and Coyotes winning, the Kings dropped down to the 6th spot with a single game left in the regular season. It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on Kings’ defenseman Matt Greene:

“I think we need some help now. I think this is the first time where it hasn’t been in our own hands, and that’s not what we wanted to do, but we’ll come back tomorrow. We’ve got to win tomorrow. Everybody wants to go into the playoffs with a win under our belts, playing hard and doing the right things. Hopefully that comes tomorrow. Maybe we get some help and maybe we don’t, but our focus now is on tomorrow, and not what’s going on around the league.”

 

Stanley Cup Final Roundtable: Series standouts, surprises

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What’s the biggest thing that’s stood out to you through three games?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The flip in special teams execution for both teams. From the start of the First Round through the conference finals, the Dallas Stars‘ power play was dominant (26.5%) and their penalty kill was strong (83.3%). Meanwhile, Tampa’s extra man unit was down 6% from the regular season to 17.9%.

The Lighting’s power play issues were well-documented heading into the Stanley Cup Final, but that unit was woken up since Game 2 and is at 27.3% in the series with three goals in two games. Dallas has only one goal in 11 opportunities. Tampa holds a PK advantage of 90.9% to 72.7%.

Special teams can decide a series, and right now, through three games, they’ve made a huge difference for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: The Lightning’s physicality, particularly though a grinding playoff run, has been unexpected. I truly expected fatigue to be a bigger factor for Tampa Bay. Combined with the Stars’ mix of speed, size, and stinginess, I thought the Bolts would be forced to the outside a lot more. This Lightning team isn’t just skill, and all of the talk about depth additions isn’t out of line. Consider that Tyler Johnson (!) was credited with nine hits during Game 3 alone.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I want to see that Andrei Vasiilevskiy might actually be underrated. Crazy to say about a goalie that has been a Vezina Finalist in each of the past three seasons, but there are so many other stars on this team (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos when he is in the lineup) that we kind of overlook the goalie that is also one of the best players in the world at his position. He has literally played every minute for the Lightning in the Return To Play and he has been great while doing so. In any other year on any other team he would be a runaway Conn Smythe favorite, and on this team in this postseason he is just sort of like an afterthought.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe thing that has stood out to me has been how the Lightning have been dominating the play. The Stars got off to a quick start in Game 1 but the Lightning came back to outshoot them 22-2 in the third period and with the exception of the middle frame of Game 2 when Tampa Bay took four minor penalties, the Stars have looked rather ordinary. It is obvious to me that Tampa Bay is the best team in the NHL and Dallas needs Anton Khudobin to stand on his head and that could be difficult as he must be tired, playing more games in the last seven weeks (23 games) than he has at any other time in his career.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The level of play from each team’s top line. For the Lightning, they continue to receive significant contributions from Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov. That trio has combined for 10 points in the team’s two victories. On the Dallas side, it’s been radio silence from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin: zero points through three games for each. Benn was instrumental in the Vegas series, but that production has slowed. Meanwhile, Seguin is mired in a massive slump, with just one point (an assist) over his last 12 games.

Getty Images

Which player has surprised you (good or bad) so far?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: They’re good, we’ve known that, but Tampa’s top line has been unbelievable to watch. Kucherov is in beast mode. Point is making a Conn Smythe case. Every goal Palat scores seems to be a big one. Via Natural Stat Trick, through three games of the Cup Final, the Lightning have outshot the Stars 23-5 at 5-on-5 when the trio is on the ice. They’ve combined for three goals to one against in over 34 minutes of even strength time together.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Besides Stamkos showing how much he could accomplish in a few minutes (reflects for a moment on how long it often takes me to do the dishes), this series has served as a helpful reminder of how good Ondrej Palat is. During the last two games, Palat scored two goals and one assist, pushing him to 10 goals and 16 points in 22 playoff games. While I don’t use plus/minus to condemn a player (or really use it much at all), it can quickly give you an idea of if a player is going through happy or bummer-y times (sorry for the scientific jargon). Palat is a +13 during these playoffs after enjoying a +25 rating during the regular season. Palat doesn’t deserve Kucherov or Point-type attention, yet he’s an all-too-easily forgotten contributor who can fit right in with top linemates.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Can I say Steven Stamkos? Because I definitely want to say Steven Stamkos. Here is a guy that did not play a game in more than six months, was clearly not 100 percent, then showed up in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, played two minutes, and scored a huge goal to help set the tone for a win. He not only scored a goal, it was an absolutely beautiful play to dodge a check at the blue line and then pick the corner off the rush against an NHL goalie. It was starting to get to the point where I did not expect to see him play at all, and I still don’t think we will see him play again in this series, and he just showed up for five shifts and did that like it was nothing.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I have been surprised by the lack of scoring from Tyler Seguin. He must be injured and playing through it as he has only two goals and six assists in 23 games. That is tied for eighth best on the Stats with Radek Faksa who has not seen the ice since September 10. Seguin is averaging .35 points per game in the post-season, which is better than only his rookie season in the NHL where he averaged .30 points per game as an 18-year-old. The only logical explanation is an injury but his lack of scoring is hurting the Stars a lot as they attempt to win their second Stanley Cup.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Anton Khudobin has come back to Earth. To pin the losses in Games 2 and 3 solely on Khudobin would be unfair, but clearly the level of play he displayed in the Western Conference Final (and even Game 1 of the Cup Final) has dipped a bit. Perhaps the Lightning exposed a weakness, as all five goals in Game 3 were scored on Khudobin’s blocker side. With the back-to-back coming up this weekend, all eyes will be on the Dallas netminder to see if he can bounce back.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

Lightning-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Boosted by the long-awaited and “inspirational” return of Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning got goals from all three of their first-line forwards, their top defenseman and their captain in a threee-goal win to move within two wins of the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. For the second straight game, Tampa jumped out to a multi-goal first-period lead before the Stars got on the board. The Dallas Stars cut the deficit to one entering the second period, but the middle frame was all Lightning, outscoring Dallas 3-0 in large part thanks to a 21-4 shot differential.

After Game 2, Kevin Shattenkirk said, “when we play our best game it’s hard for teams to win.” In Game 3, Tampa played one of its best games this postseason, getting major contributions from its usual suspects in the top line trio and Hedman and also a quantifiable (one goal from Stamkos) and unquantifiable lift from the return of its captain.

The top line of Palat, Point and Kucherov carried the day once again, combining for three goals and six points in Game 3, their second straight game with four-plus points. Point leads all players this postseason with 11 goals and with Palat and Hedman also reaching double-digit goals in Game 3, the trio make Tampa the first team in a decade to have three players with 10-plus goals in the same postseason.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tyler Seguin has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28-year-old has now gone 12 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span (which was six games ago). His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado

Along with Seguin, some of Dallas’ other forwards have been quiet recently as well:

Jamie Benn: Zero points this series after ending West Final on a three-game goal streak
Denis Gurianov: Zero points, three shots this series (OT goal and assist in series-clincher vs. Vegas)
Alex Radulov: Zero goals, three assists this series

Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967-present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, September 25, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

Cracking Khudobin: How Lightning have solved Stars goalie

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EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — The goaltender known as ”Dobby” has lost some of his magic in the Stanley Cup Final.

After three rounds of dominant play put him in the playoff MVP mix, Anton Khudobin has allowed the Tampa Bay Lightning to score eight goals over the past two games to take a 2-1 series lead on the Dallas Stars. Solving Khudobin is a combination of the Lightning making it harder on him in multiple ways, perhaps finding the right place to shoot the puck at, Khudobin playing the most hockey of his NHL career and the Stars breaking down in front of him – and it might be enough to help Tampa Bay lift the Cup.

”There were three shots that beat him blocker side in Game 3. … Have they figured something out?” said retired goaltender Brian Boucher, who’s rinkside inside the bubble as an NBC Sports analyst. ”It might be a little fatigue and it also just might be that, you know what, Tampa’s got a really good team that’s got some great offensive weapons, that’s got some guys that play with some real grit and sandpaper that’s wearing down some of the Dallas defense and they’re exposing them right now a little bit.”

Khudobin posted a .920 save percentage in his first 19 games this postseason and set a Cup final record making 22 stops in the third period of the Stars’ Game 1 win. He has allowed eight goals on 60 shots – an .867 save percentage – in five periods since and got pulled after the second period of Game 3 only because coach Rick Bowness wanted to rest him with a back-to-back coming up.

The Stars don’t see Khudobin as a problem, and he’ll be back in net for Game 4 Friday night.

”We need to play better in front of him,” Bowness said. ”He doesn’t have to do anything better. He doesn’t have to do anything different. He just has to keep doing what he’s doing, and in terms of our team, it would help him a lot if we didn’t make it so easy for the other team to play against us sometimes.”

That’s why it’s such a multifaceted situation. It starts with Tampa Bay, the most talented team Khudobin and the Stars have faced since hockey resumed with a core and coach who have been here before.

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who tended goal in the NHL for 11 seasons, thinks it’s a product of the Lightning practicing with Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy and generating better scoring chances.

”When you give those players (on) Tampa that type of time and space and when they fight to get that type of time and space, it’s tough,” Weekes said. ”Those are Grade A looks that Tampa’s getting now. Here’s the thing: Tampa’s not settling really for just plays off the rush. They’re not settling for that, and they’re not settling for like long-distance shots off nice passing plays. They’re skating the extra 5 feet, the extra 8 feet to get to a more prime shooting area.”

The Lightning learned their lesson from Vegas’ downfall in the Western Conference final, when players peppered Khudobin with some easy-to-stop shots and got frustrated. Tampa Bay did that trying to mount a comeback in the third period of Game 1, and Khudobin set a Cup Final record with 22 saves.

The onslaught started with two power-play goals early in Game 2 that got Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman going, and they’ve taken fewer shots to the outside that Khudobin can stop and build up his own confidence. They’re waiting it out for those Grade-A chances.

”You’d rather have 45 shots from the outside and everybody’s boxing out and there’s no second-chance opportunities,” Boucher said. ”The high-end players for Tampa, I do think in general these guys look for the better play. And really high skilled players, guys of high offensive IQ, they’re not just OK with getting the puck to the net.”

That’s why Barclay Goodrow‘s assertion that the Lightning are just getting the puck to the net more isn’t quite right. They put up five goals on 29 shots in Game 3 by getting to prime scoring areas.

Then there’s Khudobin himself. The 34-year-old had never started an NHL playoff game before August.

”I think the amount of hockey he’s played, eventually it catches up to you,” said Boucher, a veteran of 43 playoff games.

That’s not to take anything away from the Lightning, who adjusted well to Khudobin after their Game 1 loss. Point said the idea was ”trying to get to that net hard,” and he and his teammates are doing a good job of making the offensive zone a crowded mess.

”You’ve got to make it busy in front of the net,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”There’s one thing about screening shots, but you screen passes. Guys have been really good on faking shots and moving pucks and being deceptive around the net.”

Cooper between Games 2 and 3 was reticent for cracking Khudobin, saying, ”I’m not sitting here saying we’ve gotten to him.” Still, for many reasons, they have, and it may be the key to a championship.

Hedman leading the way for Lightning in Stanley Cup Final

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Victor Hedman’s skill set as one of the NHL’s best defenseman is well-known. The Tampa Bay Lightning blue liner has been a Norris Trophy finalist in each of the last four seasons, winning the award in 2018.

He’s an all-world defender, one whose offensive game has flourished over the last seven seasons. Since 2013-14, Hedman has hit double digit goals ever year and averaged 55 points per season. Prior to this summer, he’d never scored more than four goals or recorded more than 14 points in one playoff. He’s blown both of those personal bests out of the water this postseason.

Through 22 games, Hedman has 10 goals. He’s currently tied with Bo Horvat, Joe Pavelski and Ondrej Palat for second in the NHL, only behind teammate Brayden Point (11). Only Paul Coffey (12) and Brian Leetch (11) have scored more goals in a single postseason among defensemen. (Hedman did not score in three Round-Robin games.)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The increase in offense is a result of Hedman shooting more. Since 2015-16, he’s averaged over two shots per game, scoring 56 times over that period. This postseason he’s firing pucks at a 3.22 per game rate and has been held to one shot or fewer only three times.

“When he’s shooting the puck, we’re in a better spot,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said last week. “I think he realizes that and we’re definitely taking advantage of it.”

Hedman added to his total this postseason during Wednesday’s 5-2, Game 3 win over the Stars. It was a timely goal coming 54 seconds into the second period after Dallas had cut the lead to 2-1. It was also a power play marker, another sign that the once-struggling special teams unit was back on track.

But ask the 6-foot-6 Swede about his own exploits and he’ll give you the typical hockey player answer.

“I like to contribute offensively, but we’re not here for our personal stats, we’re here for one thing and that’s winning the Stanley Cup,” Hedman said after Game 3. “When I get the puck on my stick, I’ll make a pass or shoot for a goal. Obviously happy with the way things have been going, but at the end of the day it’s about helping our team win, and if it’s by a goal or a blocked shot, it doesn’t really matter to us. The end goal is still the same.”

[2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

How dominant has Hedman been this postseason? He is a favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but his defensive ability has been unrivaled. According to Natural Stat Trick, when he’s on the ice the Lightning have outscored opponents 24-6 at even strength since the start of the First Round. In all situations, he’s averaged 27:46 of ice time in his last 19 games.

“He’s a pretty determined player,” Cooper said. “He’s been nominated for four straight Norris Trophies, so he’s pretty damn good. His timing and uplifting us at these big moments when we need a boost — overtime winning goals, defensive plays he’s made — the timing of a lot of things he’s done has been remarkable. But I guess if you’re doing great things your timing is always going to be good.”

Timing is everything — whether it’s a goal to increase a lead or a great defensive play to deny a goal scoring opportunity. Denis Gurianov found that out in Game 3.

Hedman has developed the ability to carry his team when other stars are out of the lineup. This Lightning team is deep and can find its own way should he have an off night. But when he’s on, which is more often than not, life isn’t easy for opponents.

Said Tyler Johnson: “I’m pretty thankful he’s on our team.”

You can watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Stamkos on Game 3 return: ‘It was a dream come true’

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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.