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Surging Sabres now lead the NHL

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When the Buffalo Sabres started gathering steam, the question was: “Can they finally make the playoffs?”

It might be time for the Sabres to set their sights much higher than merely breaking their postseason drought.

By beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout on Saturday, the Sabres squeezed out their ninth win in a row. That’s mind-blowing enough by itself, but consider this: the Sabres – yes, the Buffalo Sabres – now lead the NHL with 34 standings points.

Yes, it’s been a very, very long time since you could say that outside of one of EA’s NHL video games.

You can already picture cynics trying to punch holes in that, even if it’s an objective fact.

So, sure, there are some “yeah, but” opportunities. It’s true that six of Buffalo’s nine consecutive wins came after regulation, so there were plenty of situations where this run could have instead been downgraded to a not-as-fun “point streak.” Four of those six beyond-regulation victories came via shootouts.

Could the Sabres’ standings lead be a short-lived as Jeff Skinner‘s Maurice Richard edge, which dissolved as Patrik Laine tore his way to a five-goal night on Saturday? Absolutely. The Tampa Bay Lightning are at 33 points with one fewer game played than the Sabres, and the Nashville Predators are in the same boat (both have played 23 versus Buffalo’s 24). It says a lot about the Atlantic Division that the Toronto Maple Leafs are only two points behind, as well, with 32 points in 24 games played.

There’s a chance Buffalo slips to third in the Atlantic, and the Boston Bruins could easily push the Sabres lower if they get healthier.

All of that hand-waving shouldn’t derail the big smiles and hearty fist pumps in Buffalo. For Sabres fans who have been wading through long stretches of darkness, it’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate just like Jack Eichel did following his recent OT winner against the Penguins:

At minimum, it sure feels like the Sabres are a team you have to take seriously again. That’s something we haven’t seen often – if at all – since the days of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.

This might be even prettier, although maybe those golden age memories are merely uglier because of the whole “Buffaslug” thing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Controversy swirls as Hurricanes force Game 7 vs. Capitals

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After Game 5, people wondered what Dougie Hamilton was thinking. Game 6 involved a similar question, but this time the hockey world questioned what the officials were thinking.

The Carolina Hurricanes did a tremendous job battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in Game 6, ultimately winning 5-2. But, no doubt about it, a disallowed 3-3 goal for the Washington Capitals will hover over this game.

Moments after a 3-3 tie instead moved back to a 3-2 lead for the Hurricanes, Justin Williams put the contest out of reach with a 4-2 goal, then Dougie Hamilton got the next laugh with an empty-netter. The two teams will meet in a Game 7 to decide which team will move on to face the New York Islanders.

Judge that call for yourself, even if it ultimately didn’t stand:

One interesting element is the league’s explanation for the non-goal. Many wondered if this was an “intent to blow” the whistle situation where an official lost sight of the puck, yet the NHL’s Situation Room explained that it was determined that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Petr Mrazek‘s attempt to make a stop.

Ovechkin went from mocking Hamilton with a “chicken” gesture to being tossed from Game 6 after losing his cool (and giving it to the officials) late in the contest.

However you feel about the debated would-be 3-3 goal, it’s possible that the Hurricanes might have forced a Game 7, anyway. Overall, it was an exciting, well-played Game 6, with the teams following scripts we expected going into Round 1. Carolina generally dominated “quantity” (though there was some quality) in scoring chances and shot attempts, yet the Capitals sometimes carried the way when quality was concerned.

Carolina kept fighting back in Game 6, as the Hurricanes have during this series, and Jordan Staal‘s eventual game-winner captured that scrappy spirit.

While this series has been a mix of nail-biters and blowouts, it just feels right that this one’s going to Game 7, even if the Capitals probably aren’t happy with how it got there.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday. (Stream here)

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.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
CNBC
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
Series preview
Stream here

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do 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.