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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

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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.

NHL over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

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.

Flyers remain one of NHL’s biggest mysteries

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General manager Chuck Fletcher spent his entire offseason overhauling the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

New coaching staff, new players, big trades, a big free agent signing, and everything else the team’s ownership was looking for when it wanted a “bias for action” in its new GM. Even with all of the changes the Flyers remained a gigantic mystery because it wasn’t entirely clear if they were actually any better than before all of the movement started. If anything, it seemed like a perfect representation of everything the Flyers have come to represent over the past decade where they have enough high-end players on the roster to make you want to buy into them, but just enough questions to give you pause in doing so because there were so many “ifs” attached to their success.

If Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere can rebound and take big steps forward as top-pairing defenders.

If Carter Hart can be a star in goal.

If Kevin Hayes is actually worth $7 million per year.

If Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun still have something left in the tank.

Usually the more “ifs” you throw at a team the worse it tends to turn out for them because pro sports is rarely kind enough for every “if” to work out in a team’s favor. Through the first seven games of the season there still isn’t much clarity on what the Flyers are. On Monday night they snapped a four-game losing streak with what was perhaps their best all-around performance of the season, completely demolishing one of the league’s best teams — the Vegas Golden Knights — in a 5-2 win to bring their record to 3-3-1, the type of record you might expect from the type of mediocre team you expect the Flyers to be. Still, there are some early signs that maybe this team has played better than its early record might indicate and that there could be some hope here.

The process has been good — And by “process” I mean there are strong signs that they are controlling games even if they are not yet turning into wins. They are third in NHL in shots on goal per game, they are allowing the fewest shots on goal, they are the NHL’s best team in both shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick), and they dictating the pace of almost every game they have played. This is, at the very least, a positive sign because the most important part of scoring goals is generating shots, and the most important of preventing goals is preventing shots. It’s common sense, and if you can keep doing that over a full season the odds are going to be in your favor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they might be a little unlucky at this point. And not to make too big of an excuse here, but their early schedule was about as brutal as it could have possibly been playing three games, in three different countries, in three different time zones (going from Switzerland, to Philadelphia, to Vancouver for a three-game Western Canadian road trip) across the stretch of one week.

Hart hasn’t been all that good (yet) — This was always the big wild card for this Flyers team. He is supposed to be the savior of the position and the one to finally stabilize the position long-term. His rookie season was extremely promising and expectations were high entering the season. Through his first five starts, he hasn’t yet found his game yet with an .890 save percentage. The fact the Flyers are still 2-2-1 in those games is kind of accomplishment. He can be better, he needs to better, and there is every reason to believe that he will be better. Once that happens, and if the Flyers are still able to play in front of him the way they have, this could be an interesting team.

Some of their top forwards have been unlucky. There are three forwards in the NHL this season that have recorded at least 24 shots on goal and failed to score — two of them (Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk) play for the Flyers. Add Jakob Voracek (two goals on 17 shots) and three of the team’s top offensive players have scored on two of their first 76 shots on goal this season. That is a shooting percentage of just 2.6 percent. All three may be on the wrong side of 30, but none of them have completely fallen off a cliff yet as players and are still capable of producing like first-liners (as they did as recently as a year ago).

Basically, everything that could have gone for the Flyers right now has gone wrong. Their travel schedule has brutal, their starting goalie and arguably their most important player has struggled, and their best forwards have been unable to find the back of the net. Through all of that they have still managed to collect points in four of their first seven games and continue to tread water.

In the end, it still leaves the Flyers right where they were when the season started — a team that has given us plenty of reason to buy into them, yet one that we still don’t fully know anything about with a lot of “ifs” following them around.

Such is life with the Flyers.

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.

Bruins place David Krejci on injured reserve

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BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins have placed forward David Krejci on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Krejci has missed the past two games since he was hurt in the first period of a 4-2 win over Anaheim on Oct. 14. He has one assist this season.

General manager Don Sweeney also said Tuesday the team has recalled forward Anders Bjork from Providence on an emergency basis. Bjork leads Providence of the AHL with three goals and five assists.

Boston (5-1-1) hosts Toronto (5-3-2) Tuesday night.

Space Needle time capsule includes NHL Seattle’s final five name choices

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Seattle NHL’s expansion franchise will have an official name sometime in 2020, but as of Monday the team is down to five choices ahead of their entry to the league for the 2021-22 season.

On Monday, a time capsule that was sealed and won’t be opened until the famed Seattle Space Needle’s 100th birthday included items such as Nirvana records, Twinkies, one share of Amazon stock, and signed baseballs from Seattle Mariners legends.

The stainless steel and aluminum capsule stands over three feet tall and weighs more than 160 pounds. It will hold over 100 items, including one hockey-related inside.

While we’ll know what the NHL Seattle franchise will be called some time next year, come April 21, 2062, when the time capsule is opened, inside will be an envelope featuring the final five options for the team’s nickname. The odds are low, but we may have a long wait to learn what choices were debated before the ownership group landed on something like Emeralds, Sockeyes, Cougars, Kraken, Rainiers, Totems, or something else.

“Every name has a nuance,” NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke told the team’s website in August. “Our job is to think through the nuances. Sometimes the best intended names can mean one thing to one group and another thing to another group. It is important the name reflects the values of the Pacific Northwest.”

“Those who think we are sitting on a predetermined name, nope,” Leiweke added. “We work on this every day. We are right on time with the naming process. We are still on a journey of self-identity but also on a journey to understand not just what we are but what we aren’t. Names that might have made sense a year ago, today don’t make as much sense.”

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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.