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NHL Playoff Push: Eastern Conference playoff field could be set tonight

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It is entirely possible that when Tuesday’s schedule of games is completed all eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference will be set.

At the moment there are still three spots up for grabs with four teams competing for them. All four teams are in action on Tuesday night and if the Florida Panthers are unable to defeat the Nashville Predators it opens the door for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and New Jersey Devils to all clinch spots in the playoffs.

Here is a look at the Eastern Conference standings entering the day.

So here is what is at stake for Tuesday.

  • If Columbus beats the Detroit Red Wings and the Panthers lose to the Predators then the Blue Jackets are in. If Columbus loses to Detroit in overtime or a shootout and the Panthers lose to the Predators in regulation that will also clinch a spot for the Blue Jackets. A Columbus win would also move it into a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Flyers are facing the exact same scenario as the Blue Jackets. A win over the New York Islanders, combined with a Panthers loss, puts them in the playoffs. An overtime or shootout loss combined with a regulation Panthers loss does the same thing. A Flyers win combined with a Blue Jackets loss (or a Flyers point and the Blue Jackets getting no points) would also move them into a tie with Pittsburgh for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division.
  • The Devils need to beat the New York Rangers and get a loss from the Panthers in regulation.

The other big game in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night is of course the one in Tampa Bay where the Bruins have a chance to open up a four-point lead over the Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and for the top spot in the conference.

You can catch that game on NBCSN.

The big news for the Bruins on Tuesday is that they are getting Charlie McAvoy, one of their top defenseman, back in the lineup as they continue to get all of their top players back at just the right time of the season. Without him and Zdeno Chara over the past couple of weeks the Bruins still found a way to keep collecting points. With them in the lineup they have been nearly unstoppable.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the only clinching scenario in play relates to the Predators and their quest to wrap up the Central Division and the No. 1 seed in the West.

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

Here are the standings entering the night.

The Predators have three different paths to clinching the division.

A regulation win over the Panthers, or a regulation loss by the Winnipeg Jets to the Montreal Canadiens, or the Predators losing in overtime or a shootout combined with a Jets regulation loss would all produce the same result: A division title for the Predators.

A win will also clinch the top spot in the West. If they lose in regulation a Jets regulation loss combined with a Vegas Golden Knights loss to the Vancouver Canucks would also do the trick.

When it comes to the other playoff races in the Western Conference none of the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings or Anaheim Ducks are in action on Tuesday night.

The San Jose Sharks, however, could take another step toward securing home-ice advantage in the first-round with a win over the Dallas Stars. The Sharks enter the day two points ahead of the Kings and three points ahead of the Ducks.

If the Playoffs Started Today

Tuesday’s Important Games

New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Detroit Red Wings vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Montreal Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Florida Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET
Dallas Stars vs. San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Tank Watch!

The Canucks and Red Wings have been trending in the wrong direction over the past week or so as it relates to improving their draft lottery odds. The Canucks enter Tuesday’s game against Vegas having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Red Wings are taking a three-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game against Columbus. The Canucks are currently sitting in 27th place in the NHL, two points back of the Red Wings. Montreal, hosting Winnipeg on Tuesday, is just behind them.

The other team that has been slowly climbing the standings recently has been the Arizona Coyotes, a team that has jumped out of the basement with a strong fourth quarter of the season. It is possible that they could find themselves tied with Vancouver after Tuesday’s game. The Coyotes are in Calgary on Tuesday night to play a Flames team that  has been tumbling down the standings for a couple of weeks now. That has been great news for the New York Islanders who own their first-and second-round picks as a result of the past summer’s Travis Hamonic trade.

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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.

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Bruins hope trade deadline additions get going vs. Stars

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Despite holding the NHL’s best record, the Bruins added some nice pieces at the trade deadline. They weren’t big-budget blockbusters, but Nick Ritchie and especially Ondrej Kase could serve as “sleeper hits.”

Now they just need to stop hitting the snooze button.

Ritchie faced some growing pains in first Bruins game after trade deadline

Ritchie (traded for Danton Heinen) and the Bruins didn’t exactly earn rave reviews from Bruce Cassidy as they fell 5-2 to the Flames on Tuesday.

“[It was] clearly not good enough. I thought some guys came to play and some guys didn’t. [Some guys] didn’t break a sweat, some of them it looked like,” Cassidy said following that loss, via NBC Sports Boston. “I’m sure there was effort [and that] they were trying. They were just in-between, couldn’t execute or whatever. At the end of the day, it wasn’t good enough.”

A challenging upcoming schedule won’t make it easier to acclimate, either.

The Bruins host the Stars in Boston on Thursday, but then things get bumpy. They play three in a row and five of their next six on the road. Actually, there’s almost a month of road-heavy play, with eight of 11 away from home from Feb. 29 through March 21.

Ritchie noted that everything’s new when you get traded to a new team, and that’s a fair point for any trade deadline addition.

Actually … that concept might be where the Bruins hold a leg up. After all, the Bruins got both Ritchie and Kase from the Ducks, so they have familiarity with each other. (Kase didn’t get to debut yet, but may play on Thursday.)

That familiarity could benefit Ritchie, in particular.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Adding Kase to Bruins is a cause for excitement

If you’re a bit of a “fancy stats” nerd (raises hand), then you’ve looked at Kase as a hidden gem for quite some time. Pick your chart, and Kase will probably come out looking great.

With that in mind, a possible line of Kase, Ritchie, and David Krejci strikes as quite interesting. Especially in tandem with that buzzsaw Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak line, and getting depth from the likes of Charlie Coyle.

Krejci provided some insight into playing with Kase a few days ago, noting that Kase is “fast and can score.”

“You kind of have to adjust your game a little bit, but you have to get a feel for each other,” Krejci said, via NBC Sports Boston’s Nick Goss. “You’ve got to be on the same page with the breakouts, neutral zone. He’s a right-handed shot, so — I’m not sure what’s going to happen (Tuesday vs. the Flames) — but it’s always nice to have a right-handed shot on your line.”

There might be some room for frustration, mind you. Ritchie may create some groans with an ill-timed penalty. Kase’s a player to get excited about, although he might not always get the bounces. The Ducks traded Kase as his shooting percentage was mired at a career-low 5.2 percent, and his career average is modest at 9.5.

But … overall, the possibilities are exciting. Maybe Jake DeBrusk will end up being a better option than Ritchie, but we’ll see.

If they can score against the stingy Stars, that would present one heck of a first (or for Ritchie, second) impression.

John Forslund, Pierre McGuire and analyst Mike Milbury will have the call from TD Garden. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

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.

Coronavirus could hinder NHL plans for China preseason games

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The NHL has not announced plans to hold preseason games in China this fall as they continue to keep an eye on the spread of coronavirus.

“We’re monitoring,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Daly this week, via NHL.com. “It’s hard not to monitor it. It seems to be coming closer to us every time, every day that goes by. Certainly, it impacts what our plans will be in China in the future and in the relatively near future.”

According to NBC News, China’s National Health Commission reported on Thursday 29 new deaths linked to coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths on the mainland to 2,744. The Centers for Disease Control has said the the outbreak has been found in 37 locations around the world, including the U.S.

The NHL last went to China in 2018 when the Flames and Bruins played games in Shenzhen and Beijing. Due to celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, the NHL did not send teams there this past fall. In August, Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals visited Beijing as an ambassador for the league.

Player stick supplies have been affected and a planned PWHPA tour has been canceled due to coronavirus. Two Friday games in Switzerland will be played in front of empty arenas in order to prevent spreading.

As the NHL continues to plan for the 2020-21 season, the longer a lack of an announcement takes, the less of a hope the league returns to China this coming fall for preseason games.

“Obviously we haven’t announced any games there for next year,” Daly sad. “I think there was certainly a hope that we would be able to play preseason games there next year. I would say that hope probably continues to exist, but as time goes on, it becomes far more problematic.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

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.