Push for the Playoffs: Predators, Jets play for first in Central

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The top spot in the NHL’s Central Division has been a back-and-forth race between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, and on Saturday evening the two teams will be meeting head-to-head for the final time this season in what could be a pivotal game in who ends up taking the top spot.

Winnipeg enters the day holding a two-point lead over the Predators in the standings, while also still owning a game in hand the rest of the way and the first tiebreaker (42 regulation wins for the Jets, to 38 for the Predators). All of that together makes this an absolutely massive game for both teams, but especially for the Predators if they have any hope of winning the division.

Failing to gain a point on Saturday would put them in a four-point hole, and because they don’t own the tiebreaker, would need to gain five points on the Jets to pass them over their remaining six games. That would not be an easy thing to do and would not only require a lot of help in the form of the Jets losing a handful of games down the stretch, but also leave Nashville without almost no margin for error in its remaining games.

So while it remains a huge game for both teams, it takes on even more importance for the Predators because of how much ground they would have to make up with a loss.

Even if the Predators win in regulation on Saturday, the Jets would still technically own the top spot in the Division by having played in one fewer game and also having more regulation and overtime wins.

The Jets have won two of the previous head-to-head games this season.

Elsewhere in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames can take control of the Pacific Division with a win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Thanks to San Jose’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night, the Flames enter Saturday with a four-point lead in the Pacific Division race and can open that up to a six-point lead with a win.

That would not yet clinch the division, but it would be a massive cushion to have this late in the season.

The Flames have only won their division one time (the 2005-06 season) since 1994-95 and can take a big step toward claiming the Pacific on Saturday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Wild
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Coyotes vs. Devils (1 p.m. ET)
Islanders vs. Flyers (1 p.m. ET)
Blackhawks vs. Avalanche (3 p.m. ET)
Predators vs. Jets (7 p.m. ET)
Rangers vs. Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET)
Sabres vs. Canadiens (7 p.m. ET)
Bruins vs. Panthers (7 p.m. ET)
Wild vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Lightning vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Stars (8 p.m. ET)
Red Wings vs. Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET)
Flames vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS

The Bruins will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Panthers in any fashion…

OR

• If they get one point against Florida AND the Canadiens lose to the Sabres in any fashion or defeats Buffalo in a shootout

The Winnipeg Jets will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they get at least one point against Nashville OR if any of the following occurs:

• Avalanche lose in regulation to the Blackhawks AND either the Coyotes lose in any fashion to the Devils or the Wild lose in any fashion to the Hurricanes.
• The Coyotes lose in regulation AND the Wild lose in any fashion
• The Coyotes, Avalanche and Wild each lose in any fashion

The Nashville Predators will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Jets in regulation or overtime AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in any fashion
• The Avalanche lose in any fashion
• The Wild lose in regulation

OR

If they defeat the Jets in a shootout AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in regulation
• The Avalanche lose in regulation
• The Wild lose in regulation

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Penguins — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99 percent
Hurricanes — 92.1 percent
Canadiens — 56.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 50.2 percent
Flyers — 3 percent
Panthers — 0.1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 91.2 percent
Avalanche — 40.1 percent
Coyotes — 35 percent
Wild — 25 percent
Blackhawks — 6.6 percent
Canucks — 1.1 percent
Oilers — 1 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Rangers — 8.5 percent
Ducks — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Panthers — 3 percent
Coyotes — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**

(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 120 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 107 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 94 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 39 goals

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.