Penguins’ playoff hopes keep looking brighter

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For much of this season, the question hasn’t been “Can the Pittsburgh Penguins threepeat?” Instead, it’s been very reasonable to wonder if they’d even be able to make the playoffs, and that’s still fair to ask.

Still, with the All-Star break approaching, it’s been quite some time since their playoff outlook seemed this promising.

One big piece of the puzzle, naturally, is the Penguins’ own play. Sidney Crosby made some history in passing Jaromir Jagr in team scoring tonight, and Evgeni Malkin was also electric in Pittsburgh’s 6-3 drubbing of the Minnesota Wild.

They’ve now won seven of their last nine games, pasting the Wild and Hurricanes by a combined score of 9-4 during the first half of their four-game homestand.

Beating the Hurricanes in regulation captures the other piece of the puzzle: other Metropolitan Division teams are either treading water or in danger of sinking altogether. As of tonight, the Penguins are ranked second in the Metro with 57 standings points, although 51 games played exaggerates their advantage.

Still, there are trends that make you wonder if Pittsburgh and maybe a few other Metro teams can really separate from the pack.

  • The Capitals are in a pretty cushy spot. They closed off a three-game losing streak on Thursday, giving them 63 points in 49 games.
  • The Devils, on the other hand, are in serious danger to slip, and maybe slip drastically.

New Jersey is now on a four-game losing streak, and the larger downward trend is especially disturbing, with just two wins in their last 12 contests. With injuries really starting to pile up (Cory Schneider, Taylor Hall, and Marcus Johansson being hurt lately), the magic might dry up for the Devils in a dramatic way. They fell 3-0 to the Predators on Thursday.

They now have one fewer standings point (56) than Pittsburgh’s 57, although they hold three games in hand. Considering the lead they built earlier this season, it’s notable that they’re no longer a no-brainer to finish ahead of the Pens and other Metro contenders.

  • The Flyers have been on the rise in a big way overall, sandwiching one loss between two four-game winning streaks from Jan. 4-23. They did lose tonight, however, falling 5-1 to the Lightning.

Like New Jersey, the Flyers have 56 points, but with one fewer game in hand (49 games played versus Pittsburgh’s 51).

  • The Blue Jackets could pass the Penguins if they win tonight’s game against the Coyotes, as Columbus currently sits at 55 points in 48 games.

One would probably peg the Blue Jackets as especially likely to pass the Penguins, as it seems like their best hockey is ahead of them. Injuries and a light recent schedule has been frustrating, much like losing three of four. At least Torts is being entertaining, though.

  • The Rangers are in serious danger of slipping out of the picture and becoming sellers at the trade deadline. Sitting at 53 points in 49 games, they hope to end a three-game losing streak against the Sharks tonight.
  • The Islanders are also up-and-down with 53 points in 49 games, as the ascent of Mathew Barzal hasn’t totally protected them from poor defense and goaltending. They’ve also lost three of their last four games and might go into the All-Star break on a down note considering that they’re facing the shockingly effective Golden Knights.
  • The Hurricanes really needed tonight’s 6-5 win against the Montreal Canadiens.

They head into the break with 52 points in 49 games. This marks just their fourth win since Dec. 30, a 4-7-1 stretch. If Sebastian Aho misses serious time, Carolina could be in precarious position.

***

Considering the games in hand advantages for those other prominent Metro teams, it would be shocking if the Penguins finagle a round of home-ice advantage as the second seed.

If you expand the scope to merely finishing in the top five in the division, things look increasingly positive, as it’s unlikely that the Atlantic will send more than three teams to the playoffs. That’s especially true if some teams fade, especially if the Devils really flop down the stretch.

For those who’ve barely glanced at the standings, this might seem “same old, same old.” Those who’ve been monitoring the situation more closely likely realize that there have been times when the playoffs truly looked like a coin flip – or worse – for the defending champs.

The Penguins still have a lot of work to do to make another postseason berth a reality, but again, it’s been a long time since things looked this promising.

Which isn’t especially promising for the rest of the NHL’s contenders.

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.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.