Flames vs. Sharks: Who wins Pacific, avoiding Vegas in Round 1?

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Generally speaking, the most exciting parts of the Push for the Playoffs comes in watching teams scratch and claw for postseason survival. There’s a natural draw to do-or-die moments in sports, and jobs could very well be on the line depending upon where teams end up in the wild-card races.

But, for all we know, those teams are merely battling it out to get booted out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the juggernauts at the top of the NHL.

Also, it’s definitely worthwhile to win your division, and thus avoid tough No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchups in the first round. (Hot take: the complaints aren’t going to die down from fans of such teams, including the Maple Leafs.)

That contrast is pretty stark in the Pacific Division, actually.

Avoiding a gamble against Vegas

The Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks are currently in quite a battle for that division title. Calgary’s up a point, but San Jose has a game in hand. The two teams meet just one more time this season (March 31, in San Jose), and it could be so close that it might come down to that contest.

And there’s quite a lot at stake.

With all due respect to the scrappiness of the Wild and other bubble teams (the Pacific Division will most likely draw the second wild-card team), facing Minnesota is a lot more comfortable a thought than trying to get beyond Vegas.

The Golden Knights have often been better than their solid record has indicated for much of this season, and that was before they traded for a true star in Mark Stone. For all we know, the Golden Knights could once again be a force in the games that matter the most, so Calgary and San Jose have some serious incentive to put off such a matchup.

Naturally, winning the division also confers home-ice advantage, likely for the West’s bracket of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So, there’s quite a bit on the line. Let’s break down the future for each team to get an idea of what’s ahead.

Pacific 1: Flames: 41-20-7, 89 points, 68 games played, 41 regulation/OT wins

20-7-5 at home; 21-13-2 away

Games remaining split: nine home, five road

Recent play: Calgary’s been very streaky lately. They’re currently on a four-game losing streak, and they’re usually-explosive offense has been bottled up, with just five goals combined during that stretch.

Before the four-game losing streak, the Flames had won seven games in a row. The streakiness stretches back further than that, too (they had four in a row from Feb. 7-14 after winning four of five from Jan. 18 – Feb. 3). So maybe this team is just going to be hot and cold, which would be especially good news for people who want to talk about the Flames being on fire/getting “doused” when they’re losing.

Remaining schedule, with head-to-head matchup bolded:

Sun., Mar. 10: vs. Vegas
Tue., Mar. 12: vs. New Jersey
Fri., Mar. 15: vs. Rangers
Sat., Mar. 16: @ Winnipeg
Tue., Mar. 19: vs. Columbus
Thu., Mar. 21: vs. Ottawa
Sat., Mar. 23: @ Vancouver
Mon., Mar. 25: vs. Los Angeles
Wed., Mar. 27: vs. Dallas
Fri., Mar. 29: vs. Anaheim
Sun., Mar. 31: @ San Jose
Mon., Apr 1: @ Los Angeles
Wed., Apr 3: @ Anaheim
Sat., Apr 6: vs. Edmonton

Some thoughts on that schedule: The rest of March is full of opportunities. The Flames play their next three games at home, but it goes beyond that, with five of six and eight of their next 10 games at home.

With both the Flames and Sharks, it figures to be interesting to see how “checked out” some of their lesser opponents end up being. Calgary faces the lowly Kings and Ducks twice, then finish out against an Oilers team that might not be as hot on April 6 as it is today.

Pacific 2: Sharks: 40-19-8, 88 points, 67 GP, 40 ROW

22-5-5 at home; 18-14-3 away

Games remaining split: nine home, six road

Recent play: The Sharks are currently on a three-game winning streak, and they’ve generally been on an upward trajectory. Going back to a 7-6 OT win against the Capitals on Jan. 22, the Sharks are on an impressive 12-3-1 run in their last 16 games.

One thing to consider is that San Jose is wisely playing it safe with Erik Karlsson‘s injury issues. That’s a smart big-picture move, but it might hurt their chances of winning this race.

Remaining schedule, with head-to-head matchup bolded:

Sat., Mar. 9: vs. St. Louis
Mon., Mar. 11: @ Minnesota
Tue., Mar. 12: @ Winnipeg
Thu., Mar. 14: vs. Florida
Sat., Mar. 16: vs. Nashville
Mon., Mar. 18: vs. Vegas
Thu., Mar. 21: @ Los Angeles
Fri., Mar. 22: @ Anaheim
Mon., Mar. 25: vs.Detroit
Thu., Mar. 28: vs. Chicago
Sat., Mar. 30: vs. Vegas
Sun., Mar. 31: vs. Calgary
Tue., Apr. 2: @ Vancouver
Thu., Apr. 4: @ Edmonton
Sat., Apr. 6: vs. Colorado

Some thoughts on that schedule: Broadly and subjectively speaking, the Sharks’ schedule might be a little bit tougher than Calgary’s remaining slate.

They face some challenges in their next six games, as they face five teams currently positioned in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, plus a Panthers team that’s been pesky. That said, the Sharks could get a nice break to end their regular season, as it’s quite possible that all of the Canucks, Oilers, and Avalanche might have little to play for by April.

It’s worth noting that the Sharks face the Golden Knights twice, while Calgary only draws Vegas one more time before the postseason.

***

Overall, it’s pretty tough to pick a favorite to win the Pacific. Again, it might come down to who wins on March 31, particularly if that game ends in regulation.

As important as it is to be as fresh and healthy as possible come playoff time, the threat of the Golden Knights as a first-round opponent definitely makes it easier to understand why the Flames and Sharks might really step on the gas to win this race.

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 prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”