NHL Playoff Race: The teams still in it and the teams that are out of it

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With only about one quarter of the 2017-18 NHL regular season remaining the league’s playoff race is starting to get a little clearer.

Let’s take a look at where things stand as of Saturday afternoon and who should be in, who should be out, and who is still very much on the bubble.

Eastern Conference

Who should be comfortable: Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Pittsburgh, probably Philadelphia

Who is on the bubble: New Jersey, New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina.

Two of those four will get in.

Who is probably out of it: New York Rangers, Florida, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo.

Analysis: The Three playoff teams in the Atlantic Division are pretty much set in stone as Toronto, the third place team, has a 19-point lead over the fourth-place Florida Panthers. It is the most top-heavy division in the league. The only thing left to be decided is what order those top three teams finish in, especially when it comes to Tampa Bay and Boston. Entering play on Saturday the Lightning have a three-point lead over the Bruins, but Boston still has three games in hand.

Over in the Metro the top-three spots belong to Washington and Pittsburgh with Philadelphia right on their tails. All three teams should feel pretty good about their spot in the standings.

That means the other two spots in the Eastern Conference should come down to the remaining four bubble teams.

At the moment Columbus is on the outside of that playoff picture, sitting one point behind the New York Islanders but the Blue Jackets have played two fewer games and hold the edge based on points percentage. If both teams continue on their current pace the Blue Jackets would jump ahead into one of those spots.

Right now Columbus is on track for 89 points, which puts them just barely ahead of the Hurricanes and Islanders in the playoff race. The table below looks at each of the four bubble teams, how many games they have remaining, their current pace, and the records they would need the rest of the way to reach 90 points (to beat Columbus’ current pace) and 95 points (which would make any team a near lock for the playoffs).

Based on their current pace and projections, the Devils are in a pretty good position. The wild card with them, however, is the fact they are still without Cory Schneider and they have been fading a bit down the stretch here.

The Hurricanes and Islanders are still the two teams with the most work ahead of them.

If you are wondering why I made the Islanders and Hurricanes the cut off and did not include the New York Rangers, just keep in mind the Rangers would need to go 15-8-1 the rest of the way to reach 90 points. They would need to do that while potentially selling off players at the deadline and after having gone 8-14-1 in their past 24 games. It is always possible that Henrik Lundqvist could play out of his mind down the stretch, but that seems like it is asking a lot.

Western Conference

Who should be comfortable: Vegas, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas

Who is on the bubble:  San Jose, St. Louis, Calgary, Minnesota, Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles.

Four of those seven will get in.

Who is probably out of it: Chicago, Edmonton, Vancouver, Arizona

Analysis: The Western Conference is a bit more wide open because there are two races taking place at the same time and that is keeping a lot of teams in it. Not only do you have a wild card spot up for grabs, but perhaps two spots in the Pacific Division as well.

At this point Vegas seems to be running away with the regular season Pacific Division crown thanks to the 10-point lead (with one game in hand) it has over the San Jose Sharks.

The other two spots in that division are up for grabs with only five points separating the second place San Jose Sharks and fourth place Los Angeles Kings.

Based on each team’s current point projection the cut-off to make the playoffs in the Western Conference is significantly higher than it is in the Eastern Conference with the final playoff teams on pace for close to 97 points at the moment.

Let’s take a look at those races.

Even though when you look at the standings today and see that the Anaheim Ducks are just one point back of a playoff spot, and ahead of the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings in the standings, they still have the hardest road ahead of them given each team’s current pace and the fact everyone else still has games in hand on them. They would need to win 15 of their final 23 games to hit that 97-point pace to jump ahead of the Flames’ current pace in the Pacific Division.

Still, there is a razor thin margin of error for pretty much every team on that table.

Any of those four teams could grab the four spots that are still legitimately up for grabs.

The Blackhawks would need a 20-3-1 over their final 24 games to reach 97 points. So let us just say that them, and every team below them, is finished for this season.

Even though Dallas is tied with St. Louis with 72 points at the moment I did not include them on the bubble because they have played two fewer games. They have a top-10 points percentage in the NHL and are currently on pace for 101 points. It would take a pretty significant meltdown for them to fall out of the playoff picture.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.