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Which teams will win the West wild-card races?

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For quite some time, the Eastern Conference’s bubble races seemed confined to a few good teams, while the West wild-card skirmishes felt like they might come down to who would mess up the least.

As March begins, the West’s battles look a little more like those out East, even if the West teams are behind their bubble brothers by about four of five points.

With all due respect to the scrappiness of the Chicago Blackhawks (63 points, 64 games played) and Vancouver Canucks (63 points, 65 GP), the West’s two wild-card spots look like they’re going to come down to two of four teams, in order of their standings positions: the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Arizona Coyotes.

In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to parse out who will win out, to the point that you’d probably be best wagering on the standings remaining in this order … mainly because it’s just that close.

All four teams have played 64 games. There’s not a huge disparity in home/road splits, as only the Wild have one extra road game (and thus one fewer home game).

Take a look at snapshots of each team to get an idea of how snug everything is. Again, teams are listed in order of their standings placement heading into Friday’s games.

WC1: Dallas Stars: 32-27-5, 69 points, 64 GP, 32 regulation/overtime wins.

Split: 10 homes remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 4-6-0 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: Tragic, as Mats Zuccarello broke his arm 40 minutes into his first game as a Dallas Star.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Zero left against Coyotes.
  • Two remaining against Wild: @Min on March 14, close season home vs. MIN on April 6.
  • Two home games left against Avalanche: March 7 and 21.

Key stretch(es): From March 5-23, the Stars play eight of 10 games at home.

WC2: Minnesota Wild: 31-27-6, 68 points, 64 GP, 30 ROW

Split: Nine games left at home and on the road

Recent play: Four-game winning streak, 5-4-1 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: On paper, you’d  think they’d be minuses, as they shipped out more established veterans in Mikael Granlund (for Kevin Fiala) and Charlie Coyle (for Ryan Donato). Yet, Donato’s off to such a hot start for his Wild career (six points in 4 games, one overtime game-winning goal) that those moves don’t seem like such subtractions at this moment. Shipping away Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask a little further out, though? Not much is polishing that one.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two remaining against Stars: Home on March 14, season-closer in Dallas on April 6.
  • One left against Coyotes: At Arizona on March 31.
  • One left against Avs: Home on March 19.

Key stretch(es): Five-game homestand from March 11-19.

Ninth: Avalanche: 28-24-12, 68 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 6-2-2 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Pretty quiet, as the Avs settled for a modest addition in oft-traded forward Derick Brassard. Then again, the Senators selling off means that Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder figures to be quite the future “upgrade.”

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two road games against Stars: March 7 and 21.
  • One road game against Wild: March 19.
  • One home game versus Coyotes: March 29

Key stretch(es): After they get through a run that includes three of four road games starting on Friday, the Avs’ schedule is pretty home-heavy, including a four-game homestand from March 9-17.

Tenth: Coyotes: 31-28-5, 67 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Five-game winning streak, 8-2-0 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Not much.

Considering how hot the Coyotes have been – they’re basically the West’s version of the Carolina Hurricanes – you’d think the ‘Yotes added a big name that “galvanized the locker room.” Sorry, Michael Chaput, but improvements seem to be internal, rather than external.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • One road game versus Avs: March 29
  • One home game against Wild: March 31.
  • No games left against Stars.

Key stretch(es): The Coyotes are three games in (all wins) to a seven-game homestand, so they have four home games left from March 2-9. They play six of their next eight games at home from March 2-16. After that, they’ll go on a four-game road trip (March 18-24), which puts them at six of eight games on the road from March 11-24.

So, taking advantage of the upcoming opportunities (while mitigating the challenges that follow) will be key.

***

Again, if there are advantages, they are subtle. The Coyotes get the least amount of say, in that they only face the other three wild-card teams two times total, while the other three get four games to “control their destinies.”

Which two teams do you expect to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Could a team like the Blackhawks or Canucks defy considerable odds by leapfrogging into position? Can any of these teams threaten the Flames, Predators, or Jets in a potential first-round series?

There are quite a few questions to answer over the next five weeks (or so) of hockey, so expect a fascinating finish.

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.

Penguins tie series with Canadiens despite Carey Price’s brilliance

Penguins tie series win Game 2 vs. Canadiens
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Some people nodded their heads at the “Carey Price could steal a series against the Penguins” talking points; others rolled their eyes. During much of Game 2 of the Penguins – Canadiens 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier, most people were just shaking their heads in disbelief at how great Price was. Even so, the Penguins did just enough to tie the series 1-1 via a 3-1 win.

Price was righteous; Penguins’ power play needs serious work

Carey Price and the Canadiens penalty kill already impressed in Game 1, keeping an on-paper-potent power play to an inefficient 1-for-7. Price & Co. were even stingier in Game 2, keeping the Penguins off the board (0-for-5) despite a steady stream of early opportunities.

In both games, the Penguins failed to score on 5-on-3 power play opportunities.

As with a lot of these situations, special teams successes and failures come down to a mix of factors. On one hand, the Canadiens performed admirably on the PK, and Price was brilliant whenever that structure broke down. But the Penguins’ power play looked flat, and almost cost Pittsburgh Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Crosby’s goal proved crucial; Penguins dominated Canadiens at even strength in Game 2

When Sidney Crosby scored the 1-0 goal just 4:25 into Game 2, it seemed like it would merely be a prelude to a busy game. Instead, it served as the only goal of Game 2 for significant chunk of the night.

Crosby made some history with that goal, his second in two games. By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.

Late in the third period, Jason Zucker connected on a nice 2-0 goal, while Conor Sheary collected his second assist of Game 2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi then broke Matt Murray‘s shutout attempt to make it 2-1, but that goal came far too late for Montreal to push Game 2 into OT. Like Crosby, Kotkaniemi has two goals in as many games in this best-of-five series. Jake Guentzel‘s empty-netter ended any hint of late-building drama in Game 2.

Overall, the Penguins find themselves breathing a sigh of relief, and maybe catching their breath. Meanwhile, the Canadiens must feel decent about having this series tied 1-1, although they’ll need to give Price more support to advance. For all of the criticism the Penguins’ power play may receive, the Canadiens likely need to work beyond a “bend but don’t break” approach.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1/Habs lead series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 2 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored 2:34 into the game to give Edmonton the early lead before Chicago scored four straight goals – two by captain Jonathan Toews – to take a 4-1 lead after the first period. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was the story the rest of the way.

While Toews, Patrick Kane, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all found the score sheet, it was Kubalik who made the headlines. The Calder Trophy finalist, who led all rookies with 30 goals during the regular season, set an NHL record for most points (5) in a playoff debut.

Mike Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots before being pulled in the second for Mikko Koskinen.

“We’ll talk about where we are with our goaltenders, and I thought Mikko was fine in net,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have confidence in both our guys, we had long discussions about it. We think we’ll use both in the [postseason]… We started the season 5-0 (with) Smitty. We thought we wanted to start the postseason the same way. We were very confident in Smitty. Other than the giveaway that went off his back, he was kind of left on his own out there.”

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has been suspended for Game 2 following an illegal check to the head of Tyler Ennis.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Reaves, Seguin, Lehner, Dickinson kneel during anthem before Stars – Golden Knights

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Two Golden Knights (Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner) and two Stars (Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson) decided to kneel during both anthems before the teams’ round-robin game on Monday.

This comes after other noteworthy moments where NHL players made statements against racism, particularly Wild defenseman Matt Dumba.

After the Golden Knights’ 5-3 win against the Stars, Seguin explained his decision to kneel.

“I was giving it a lot of thought in the last 24 hours about what to do. I talked to Reaves during warmups. He said he saw what I was doing in Dallas, and that him and Lehner were going to kneel, and asked if I’d like to join them. So I told them I’d join them,” Seguin said, via ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski. “Before the game, I went into the dressing room and told everyone what I was doing. Told them there was absolutely no pressure to do anything. Dickinson grabbed me and said he’d like to be a part of it, and support his beliefs and my beliefs.”

Reaves and Lehner added their own thoughts after the contest:

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

More on Stars, Golden Knights, and Dumba kneeling during anthems

Wild defenseman Matt Dumba made a passionate speech before Game 1 of Blackhawks – Oilers on Saturday, then kneeled during the U.S. national anthem. Dumba also raised his fist during the national anthem before his own Wild’s win against the Canucks on Sunday.

As you can read more about here, Dumba said that he regretted only kneeling for the U.S. national anthem, rather than both anthems. In this latest case, Reaves, Lehner, Seguin, and Dickinson kneeled for both anthems before Stars – Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights also tweeted about their players kneeling:

While the Stars shared a similar (if shorter) sentiment:

Along with Dumba, Lehner, Reaves, Seguin, and Dickinson, other teams made statements of their own. Members of the Nashville Predators wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts before Game 1 against the Coyotes on Sunday.

Members of the Bruins wore a variety of shirts along similar lines, while Maple Leafs players made similar gestures early in the NHL Return to Play.

During the end of his passionate speech, Dumba hoped that the Hockey Diversity Alliance and other measures might inspire others in the future.

“I hope this inspires a new generation of hockey players and hockey fans,” Dumba said. “Because Black Lives Matter. Breonna Taylor’s life matters. Hockey is a great game. But it could be a whole lot greater. And it starts with all of us.”

It seems like Dumba and others managed to inspire peers, including Reaves and Lehner of the Golden Knights and Seguin and Dickinson of the Stars.

Read more about the Hockey Diversity Alliance here, and at their website. The NHL also recently announced its #WeSkateFor initiative, which you can learn more about 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.

Kucherov leads Lightning past Capitals in round-robin play

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Shootout goals from Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point helped the Lightning beat the Capitals 3-2 in round-robin play Monday.

The first half of the game belonged to Tampa, who lead in possession and on the scoreboard until late in the second period. The Lightning controlled over 60% of shot attempts (per Natural Stat Trick) for most of the opening 40 minutes and built up a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Kucherov and Mitchell Stevens.

Kucherov’s first of the postseason was the result of strong neutral zone play by the Lightning. They won the middle of the ice, and a Capitals turnover allowed Point to dance into the offensive zone and lay a pass off to Kucherov, who then proceeded to wire a shot by Braden Holtby.

Washington flipped the game to their side with a pair of goals 2:08 apart late in the second. First, Richard Panik put home a rebound that squeaked through Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s pads. Evgeny Kuznetsov then followed that up tapping home another puck that the Tampa netminder had trouble with.

No goals in the third period meant bonus hockey. Round-robin games will feature regular-season overtime rules, but 3-on-3 didn’t solve anything, so a shootout was needed.

Current Eastern Conference round-robin standings

Now that each team has played once, here’s where things stand:

• Lightning – 2 pts.
• Flyers – 2 pts.
• Capitals – 1 pt.
• Bruins – 0 pts.

Reminder that these games will determine seeding for Round 1. Any ties will be broken by regular-season points percentage.

Carlson remains out

Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson did not play Monday. The defenseman remained out after suffering an injury during the Capitals’ exhibition game last week against Carolina. He has practiced with the team since the weekend, but head coach Todd Reirden wanted to play it safe.

“We’re not going to put them in a situation where, if something were to go wrong or re-aggravate any injury or anything that’s going on that would potentially cause a chance for him to miss part of Round 1,” Reirden said on Sunday. “So we’ll do the thing that’s right for the player and obviously right for the team. We obviously wouldn’t put him out there in a situation where anything could become worse because he’s such a large part of our team and obviously a guy that had a tremendous year and is a huge part of our blue line.”

Bogosian makes postseason debut

Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian has played 644 NHL games since breaking into the league with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008-09. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft is with his third franchise and finally took part in the postseason for the first time in his career on Monday.

The last time Bogosian was in any sort of postseason? The 2008 Ontario Hockey League playoffs when he was with the Peterborough Petes. They lost their opening round series in five games to P.K Subban’s Belleville Bulls.

Eastern Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Capitals vs. Flyers, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.