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Flames, Sharks meet as battle for Pacific heats up

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks offers plenty of intrigue. They are the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and they are also the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference. And after their most recent meeting on December 31 – an 8-5 Flames win – the scoreboard might not be the only place we see fireworks this evening.

In the final 41 seconds of that game, the two teams combined for 66 penalty minutes, including a match penalty for Sam Bennett after he concussed Sharks defenseman Radim Simek with a questionable hit. There was no supplemental discipline for the play, which the Sharks called “gutless” and “predatory” afterwards, so one wonders whether there will be any retribution sought by the Sharks on Bennett.

Close watch should also be kept on Evander Kane and Matthew Tkachuk, who each picked up 10-minute misconducts in a brawl just prior to the Bennett hit. There are fewer Kanes and Tkachuks in today’s NHL – both in terms of their style on the ice and their unfiltered remarks off the ice – which makes the build up to this game even more interesting. However, neither would fully take the bait when asked about things carrying over from December:

“I know what you’re asking, I know what you’re trying to get me to say. We’ll see,” Kane said via The Mercury News. “It’s something that, hopefully, everybody in this room remembers because it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a skill guy, a big guy, a tough guy or a small guy, it’s on each and every person in this room to stick up for one another. We’ll see.”

Said Tkachuk: “I’m don’t think I’m going to be the guy who’s going to give you what you want on that quote. Those games are fun to play in. I love those games. Our whole team’s thriving in those games this year. We have guys that can play that style, too. (Kane) is a good player. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a great game.”

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was much more definitive in downplaying the revenge factor, telling reporters yesterday, “We know where everybody is in the standings, so that’s first and foremost. This isn’t about settling scores. This is about trying to close the gap on these guys in the division. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. It’s going to be physical. That stuff takes care of itself.”

He is right about the importance of this game in the standings. Since that New Year’s Eve meeting, the Flames have not lost to a Western Conference opponent, and they now have an opportunity to create a six-point cushion over the Sharks. Considering these teams play only once more during the regular season – and not until March 31 – this may be San Jose’s best opportunity to chip away at that deficit.

It would be an even bigger boost for the Sharks considering they will be without Erik Karlsson (lower body) for a sixth straight game, however he could return on the team’s current road trip. It should be noted that in the middle of this absence, Karlsson did participate in the NHL All-Star Game.

Regardless of the outcome tonight though, it is safe to say these are two of the most complete teams in the conference. Bill Peters is a Jack Adams candidate in his first year behind the bench for the Flames, and fellow former Hurricane Elias Lindholm has joined with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to form one of the most potent lines in hockey. The Sharks are dangerous up and down their lineup, with a pair of Norris Trophy caliber defensemen, as well as five different forwards with 19+ goals – the most such players in the league.

San Jose and Calgary have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2008, but if they keep up their play from the first four months of the season, this could wind up being a high-scoring, hard-hitting, and headline-grabbing second round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

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.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

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Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

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: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators and Wild wrap up their season series to start the penultimate week of the regular season. Both teams come in off blowout losses on Saturday that had major impacts on their respective playoff races.

Nashville lost 5-0 in Winnipeg, putting a major dent into the Predators’ quest to win a second straight Central Division title. A win would have moved the Preds even on points with the Jets atop the division, but instead Nashville suffered one of their worst losses of the season.

The Wild were handed a much more crucial defeat, falling 5-1 at Carolina. Minnesota came into Saturday’s game on a high after winning 2-1 at Washington the day prior. Devan Dubnyk started a second straight night as the Wild looked to take control of the second Wild Card spot in the West.

The Predators’ loss to the Jets on Saturday not only hampered their hopes to win the division, but it also allowed the Blues to pull closer to Nashville for second in the Central. What was a six-point lead just over a week ago has now dwindled to a two-point advantage, with St. Louis having a game in hand.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Monday, March 25, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiKyle TurrisMikael Granlund
Brian BoyleNick BoninoWayne Simmonds

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayLuke KuninRyan Donato
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskJoel Eriksson Ek
Matt ReadEric FehrJ.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jones and Patrick Sharp.