NHL Playoff Push: Last gasps; incentive to tank?


With the 2017-18 regular season winding down, the highs and lows will feel extremely dramatic for the teams fighting for their playoff lives.

There also might be some quibbling regarding teams who aren’t mathematically eliminated, but realistically speaking, have little-to-no chance at making it. We’re seeing a similar phenomenon with certain seeding battles. For instance: the Capitals haven’t clinched the Metro title, but last night’s win makes it difficult to imagine anyone passing them by.

It’s possible that the Stars and especially the Hurricanes are already doomed, but Tuesday could really drive the point home for both teams if they lose.


The Hurricanes face the one East team they have a somewhat reasonable chance of passing: the Devils, who currently reside in the second wild card spot. Of course, the Panthers are the most legitimate threat to New Jersey, and might have better odds of grabbing that spot overall. Florida is idle after winning last night:

Speaking of remote chances, the Penguins are the one team with a far-flung chance of surpassing the Capitals for the Metro crown. Beating the Red Wings tonight would improve those slim odds. As you’ll see later in this post, Detroit would benefit from that happening, even if they’re unlikely to roll over against a team they faced in consecutive championship rounds in 2008 and 2009.

The Bruins actually have a very real chance of edging the Lightning for the Atlantic title after Tampa Bay was upset by Arizona last night. Boston faces a Jets team with little chance of winning the Central, though maybe Winnipeg feels differently.

The Blue Jackets and Flyers continue to vie for positioning, and most importantly, to solidify a playoff spot. Each team is at 89 standings points, with Columbus standing at third in the Metro with more wins. The Blue Jackets face the Oilers, who are ranked lowly but are an upset threat in part because of Connor McDavid‘s Hart/Art Ross push, while the Flyers take on the Stars. More on that …


With eight consecutive losses, the Stars don’t enjoy much better chances than the Hurricanes. Sports Club Stats gives them a .5 percent chance of making the playoffs.

The Blues, on the other hand, have to like their chances. In fact, that same site gives them better odds to land a spot than Colorado, who slipped to the second wild-card spot after losing to Vegas last night. The bad news for St. Louis is that they face a red-hot Sharks team that’s won eight in a row. The good news is that they have a rest advantage, as the Sharks needed a shootout to beat the Blackhawks on Monday.

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

Speaking of slippage, if the Ducks lose to the lowly Canucks, the Kings would overtake them for the third seed in the Pacific. From a big picture standpoint, Anaheim beating Vancouver is best for each side’s future, much like with the Penguins besting the Red Wings.

While the Predators are positioned to cruise to a Central title, the Wild have some incentive to pad their lead for third in the division. They have a healthy edge over the Blues and Avalanche, yet a losing streak could make things far more snug.

Tank wars

It seems like there’s more incentive to suffer a steep drop, even beyond the lure of winning the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reports that the 31st-ranking team will have an 18.5-percent chance to win the draft lottery, up from 17.9 last year (Buffalo currently sits last). The second-worst team’s odds will be 13.5 compared to 12.1 in 2017 (Arizona is second right now). For more, click here.

The Canadiens are sixth from last with 68 points and five games remaining. They don’t have any real chance to slip to last, but they might dip a bit. Moving on, the bottom five:

Red Wings: 65 points, 76 games played, 22 ROW
Senators: 63 points, 75 GP, 24 ROW
Canucks: 63 points, 76 GP, 27 ROW
Coyotes: 63 points, 76 GP, 24 ROW
Sabres: 60 points, 76 GP, 23 ROW

The Red Wings face a hungry opponent in the Penguins tonight, while the Senators take on the up-and-down Islanders. The Canucks face what’s likely to be a desperate Ducks team.

If the playoffs started today

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

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

Biggest games

Hurricanes at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Penguins at Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Sharks at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Bruins at Jets, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.