NHL Playoff Push: Panthers start tough stretch run; Penguins, Sharks could clinch

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Facing a three-point deficit in the Wild Card race entering Saturday the Florida Panthers are still clinging to their playoff chances. If they are going to complete this incredible late season run and earn one of those spots they are going to have to do it by getting through some of the toughest teams in the league.

Of their remaining six games, four of them come against two of the NHL’s top-three teams, the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.

Florida began that run on Saturday afternoon when they visited the Bruins, and it did not go well in a 5-1 loss. The Panthers were able to get on the board first thanks to a Jamie McGinn goal just five minutes into the game. That would be the highpoint of the day for the Panthers as Boston stormed back for five consecutive goals, including a pair from Jake DeBrusk in his return to the lineup.

After Saturday, they still have two games remaining against Boston (with another one, the regular season finale, being in Boston) and one game at home against the Nashville Predators. In between all of that they have games against Buffalo and Carolina thrown in.

That is not going to be an easy run to navigate, especially with the Bruins still having something to play for. They entered Saturday just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference) and jumped back into first place with their win over the Panthers.

Here is where the standings in the Eastern Conference sit entering play on Saturday.

When it comes to the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff race, the second and third spots in the Metropolitan Division are still up for grabs with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets occupying those spots respectively. With the Panthers’ loss in regulation, the Pittsburgh Penguins can clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Montreal Canadiens in any fashion.

Columbus could also leapfrog the Penguins into the second spot with a win over Vancouver and a regulation loss by the Penguins.

The New Jersey Devils, currently the owners of the second Wild Card spot, are also in action on Saturday night when they host the New York Islanders. The Devils could move five points ahead of the Panthers in the race for the second Wild Card spot with a win.

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

Meanwhile in the Western Conference..

The Predators can clinch the Central Division with a win over the Buffalo Sabres and if the Winnipeg Jets lose in regulation to the Toronto Maple Leafs. If all of that happens and Vegas loses to San Jose the Predators would also secure the top spot in the Western Conference.

Speaking of that Sharks-Golden Knights game, it is a pretty big game for both of those teams as well. The Golden Knights can clinch the Pacific Division crown if they get at least one point against the San Jose Sharks. That game is also big for the Sharks because a win in any fashion will clinch a playoff spot.

When it comes to the Western Conference Wild Card race only one of those teams is in action on Saturday night when the St. Louis Blues, who just had their six game winning streak snapped on Friday night with an overtime loss in Vegas, will visit the Arizona Coyotes. By earning that point on Friday night the Blues were still able to maintain their hold on a Wild Card spot but find themselves tied in the standings with the Colorado Avalanche at 92 points. The Blues currently hold the playoff spot by way of a tiebreaker.

If you still think the Dallas Stars have a fighting chance, entering the day in 10th place, six points out of a playoff spot with only four games remaining, they are taking on the Minnesota Wild. But given the way things are going for them probably are all but eliminated.

Draft Lottery Watch

Big day at the bottom of the standings with Arizona, Buffalo, Ottawa, Vancouver, Detroit and Montreal all in action. The Red Wings and Senators game on Saturday afternoon takes on some importance if you are keeping up with the NHL’s tank battle as the two teams enter the day separated by just four points in the standings.

The Sabres seem to have the NHL’s worst record locked down at this point sitting five points behind the the next worst team, while the Canucks and Coyotes are still winning enough games to improve their spot in the standings and lower their lottery odds. The Canucks enter Saturday’s game against Columbus having won three in a row and four of their past five, while the Coyotes are 15-8-2 in their past 25 games.

If The Playoffs Started Today

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

Nashville Predators vs. St. Louis Blues
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Saturday’s Key Games

Boston Bruins 5, Florida Panthers 1
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Vancouver Canucks, 4 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
New York Islanders vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m ET
Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Buffalo Sabres vs. Nashville Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Minnesota Wild vs. Dallas Stars, 8 p.m. ET
St. Louis Blues vs. Arizona Coyotes, 9 p.m. ET
San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 10:30 p.m. ET

————

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.

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.