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NHL Playoff Push: Stars, Panthers need wins; Jackets go for 9 in a row

The NHL season is quickly wrapping up which means time is running out for the teams that are still trying to make up ground in the playoff races.

With 11 games on the schedule on Tuesday night there is plenty at stake, both for teams that are still scrambling to get in and teams that are trying to get the possible seed.

Let’s take a look at what is on the line for Tuesday starting with the Wester Conference.

In the Western Conference the Dallas Stars, losers of eight of their past 10 games, are desperate for a win in an effort to stop the recent bleeding. They have been fading fast in recent weeks, are without starting goalie Ben Bishop, and have to go on the road (where they have struggled all season) to play a first-place Capitals team.

They enter the day two points back of the second Wild Card spot which is currently occupied by the Anaheim Ducks. A win would bring the Stars back even for the time being, though Anaheim would still have a game in hand. It could also bring them even with the Colorado Avalanche if they fail to gain a point against the Chicago Blackhawks. And speaking of the Blackhawks, a loss on Tuesday would officially mathematically eliminate them from playoff contention this season and end their run of nine consecutive postseason appearances.

It is a significantly busier night in the Eastern Conference race, though most of that comes down to seeding and potential first-round matchups.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Blue Jackets are looking to run their current winning streak to nine consecutive games when they visit the New York Rangers, and depending on what happens with the Penguins and Flyers they could find themselves tied for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Blue Jackets enter the day tied with the Flyers with 85 points (the Flyers have the tiebreaker at the moment) and just two points back of the Penguins.

The Penguins are in New York to play the Islanders, while the Flyers take on a Detroit Red Wings team that has lost 10 games in a row.

You can catch the Flyers-Red Wings game on NBCSN.

Tampa Bay can extend its lead for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference) with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Lightning are currently three points ahead of the Boston Bruins, but the Bruins will have two games in hand after Tuesday.

When it comes to competing for an actual playoff spot, the Florida Panthers continue their current road trip in Ottawa. The Panthers were 2-0 winners on Monday night in Montreal and have a quick turnaround for this one. A week ago the Senators handed the Panthers a tough loss on home ice, part of a stretch that saw the Panthers drop games to two teams well out of the playoff race.

The Panthers can not afford to let that happen tonight. A Panthers loss, combine with a Devils win in San Jose would put them in a five-point hole. Or, on the other hand, a Panthers win and a Devils loss could narrow that gap down to a single point. The Panthers are catching  a break in this one, too, because an already bad Senators team will be without All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Needless to say, there is plenty on the line for both teams.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Tuesday’s Key Games

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. New York Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Dallas Stars vs. Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET
Florida Panthers vs. Ottawa Senators, 7:30 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Detroit Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Colorado Avalanche vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
New Jersey Devils vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

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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.

The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

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Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

2. Brock Boeser

Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

3. Josh Morrissey

This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

Highlights

Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

Lowlight

Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

Factoids

Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

Scores

VAN 6 – STL 1
WPG 7 – PHI 1
BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
MTL 3 – CHI 2
ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 2
EDM 1 – CGY 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nearly 30K stuffed animals fly during Calgary Hitmen’s Teddy Bear Toss night

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The WHL’s Calgary Hitmen fell short in their quest to reclaim the Teddy Bear Toss world record.

One week after the AHL’s Hershey Bears saw 34,798 teddy bears fly to their ice and break the Hitmen’s 2015 record, the crowd inside the Saddledome made it rain with fur Sunday afternoon after Kaden Elder’s first period goal. The 18,015 fans, many of whom brought large plastic bags filled with stuffed animals, helped break a franchise Teddy Bear Toss record with a total of 29,635, up from the 28,815 collected three years ago.

“It was an awesome experience and something I’ll never forget,” Elder said via the Hitmen website. “The atmosphere in the rink was unbelievable with all the fans and the teddy bears. It was definitely an adrenaline rush and when it went in I was thinking about the celebration and kind of zoned out because I was trying to just take in the moment and enjoy every second of it. It just a surreal moment.”

After a 41-minute cleanup delay, the Hitmen went on to win 6-3 over the Kamloops Blazers.

The Hitmen have now collected a total of 377,583 stuffed animals since their first Teddy Bear Toss promotion in 1995.

The event helps benefit 70 local agencies, including the Salvation Army, Calgary Food Bank, Siksika Nation and Hospice Calgary. The Hitmen will spend Monday delivering some of stuffed animals to Alberta Children’s Hospital.

MORE: Teddy Bear Toss season is the best season

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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.

Can Coyotes keep playoff hopes alive without Raanta?

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One of the saddest phrases in sports is “[Player X] would really have been something, if only they could stay healthy.”

Some argue that avoiding injuries counts as a “skill,” and it’s plausible that certain players may simply be better at staying healthy than others, but there are still instances when the injury gods feel awfully cruel.

We’re rapidly approaching that point with Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta.

Even with a challenging start to 2018-19 (just a .906 save percentage over 12 games), Raanta’s been fantastic for the Coyotes so far … when he’s been able to actually play.

That caveat was frustrating last season, as Raanta missed crucial chunks of time – most painfully being unhealthy as the Coyotes went without a win in October 2017 – yet was essentially elite when he could play, generating a splendid .930 save percentage in 47 games.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, it’s looking like 47 Raanta appearances would have been a gift compared to the likely reality. The team announced that the 29-year-old goalie is out “indefinitely,” while The Athletic’s Craig Morgan provided a more detailed (and more troubling) update: Raanta might miss the rest of this season.

Brutal.

It’s fair to wonder if this might become the story of Raanta’s career.

Again, the Finn fought nagging injuries last season, and this year’s been even worse. At 29, he’s not ancient, but Raanta isn’t exactly a spring chicken, either. (If you need a glum example of how quickly a goalie can start looking older-and-more-fragile, look at all of the injury headaches Carey Price has been dealing with at just 31.)

That said, Raanta’s limited starts pre-Arizona came from him being a backup, not necessarily from injuries. There’s the hope that, in hindsight, these past two years will look like speed bumps rather than Raanta’s promising career hitting a brick wall. If nothing else, Raanta is listed at just 6-0, so he’s not one of those prototypical towering goalies whose huge frames only increase odds of additional injuries.

Either way, Raanta’s lengthy absence deals an enormous blow to the Coyotes’ fledgling playoff hopes.

You could argue that they’d be in tough to land a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs even with a keyed-in Raanta. As of this writing, Arizona’s record is 13-13-2 for 28 points in as many games, leaving them in 12th place in the West (five points behind Vegas for the final wild card spot, and seven behind Anaheim for the Pacific’s third seed).

Various projections aren’t totally dismissing the Coyotes’ chances of waging a comeback, but few give them much better than a 20-percent shot to pull that off … and those odds likely only drop once you factor in Raanta’s absence.

The Coyotes haven’t just been without Raanta, who’s been sidelined since Nov. 27. Backup goalie Darcy Kuemper has been hurt, too, making way for Adin Hill and waiver claim Calvin Pickard. To Hill’s credit, he began with a four-game winning streak and currently boasts a .939 save percentage, but his larger history indicates that he probably won’t be able to produce such results over the long haul.

All of this leaves Coyotes GM John Chayka in a tough spot.

If you’re the Coyotes, do you try to trade for a more seasoned goalie, particularly one on an expiring contract?

Or, do you do the uncomfortable and all-too-familiar, and punt on the season?

This Coyotes team is structured largely to compete, with an increasing number of longer-term contracts crowding the team’s salary cap.

Granted, the Coyotes have an interesting player or two. Would someone pay up some futures to land, say, Alex Galchenyuk? The 24-year-old’s endured a quiet first season with Arizona (just 11 points in 21 games), but there’s plenty of talent there. While Galchenyuk isn’t on an easy-to-move expiring contract, his deal doesn’t last much longer, as his affordable $4.9 million cap hit runs out after 2019-20. If you’re a contender, would you hand the Coyotes some futures to add some skill for Galchenyuk, particularly if the Coyotes absorbed a contract you wanted to get rid of (and/or retained some of Galchenyuk’s salary?).

It’s not pleasant to discuss who the Coyotes might sell off in a trade, and it’s even more unpleasant to wonder if Raanta will be injury-prone for the remainder of his career, but Arizona at least needs to ponder these scenarios. They might not have much of a choice, even if Raanta technically finds a way to play a bit toward the end of this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.