West playoff races could come down to final day

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Picture this: two teams fighting for the final playoff spot in their final game of the regular season.

For fans of the sport as a whole, it would be delicious. Granted, if your team was involved, there might be some indigestion.

That dream scenario happened fairly recently for the NHL. The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers memorably battled it out for a playoff spot on April 11, 2010, the last day of the 2009-10 season. Some complained about it boiling down to a shootout, yet most enjoyed the do-or-die thrill of it all.

The same could very well be true during this season with two great Western Conference games on April 7, the last day of the season for West teams. (The Bruins and Panthers close out the regular season overall the next day).

As of today, the most fascinating matchup comes as the eighth-ranked Avalanche host the Blues, who are currently in ninth. Also on April 7: the seventh-ranked Kings face the Stars, whose hopes could be more less crushed tonight. Avalanche vs. Blues really could determine a playoff spot, though.

That’s an exciting proposition, but there are other fun matchups that should make for a great stretch run.

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

Let’s look at additional games of real note down the stretch. It may be helpful to see the standings first, though:

Crucial clashes

Wild, Sharks, Stars note first: If the Stars have any chance, it’s if they beat the Sharks tonight. The Wild are also unlikely to slip into the bubble, but if they do, it might come down to botching a home-and-home against the Stars on Thursday and Saturday.

[More on Tuesday’s games here.]

Friday: Kings at Ducks

Sunday: Avalanche at Ducks

Monday, April 2: Avalanche at Kings

Wednesday, April 4: Wild at Ducks

Thursday, April 5: Avalanche at Sharks, Wild at Kings

Friday, April 6: Stars at Ducks

Saturday, April 7: Blues at Avalanche, Stars at Kings

Even if the Wild don’t sink to the pack and the Stars fall out of the running, the above dates stand as huge for at least one of the teams involved. It’s interesting to note which teams have advantages, too.

The Ducks get to play four key games at home. Los Angeles plays three of four at home as well, giving them a lot of “control over their destiny.” The Avs face three of their four noted games on the road, while the Blues generally face teams who’ve either locked up a spot and might be resting a bit (Vegas, Washington) or teams out of the mix (Blackhawks twice, Coyotes once) between tonight’s game against the Sharks and that closing clash with Colorado.

One can debate which teams hold the best odds, but particularly when it comes to the top nine teams in the West, it could be a race to remember.

Some of key dates, team by team (not full schedules, click each team for more)

Anaheim Ducks

Fri, Mar 30 vs Los Angeles
Sun, Apr 1 vs Colorado
Wed, Apr 4 vs Minnesota
Fri, Apr 6 vs Dallas

Colorado Avalanche

Sun, Apr 1 @ Anaheim
Mon, Apr 2 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Apr 5 @ San Jose
Sat, Apr 7 vs St. Louis

Dallas Stars

Thu, Mar 29 @ Minnesota
Sat, Mar 31 vs Minnesota
Tue, Apr 3 @ San Jose
Fri, Apr 6 @ Anaheim
Sat, Apr 7 @ Los Angeles

Los Angeles Kings

Fri, Mar 30 @ Anaheim
Mon, Apr 2 vs Colorado
Thu, Apr 5 vs Minnesota
Sat, Apr 7 vs Dallas

Minnesota Wild

Thu, Mar 29 vs Dallas
Sat, Mar 31 @ Dallas
Wed, Apr 4 @ Anaheim
Thu, Apr 5 @ Los Angeles

St. Louis Blues

Tonight vs San Jose
Sat, April 7 @ Colorado

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.

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

Rasmus Sandin
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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.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.