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Push for the Playoffs: Time is now for Blue Jackets

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team interested in making the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

In fact, they look like a rather sad bunch who’ve lost their way in a three-team battle for two spots in the postseason. A western road swing has been a disaster for the Blue Jackets, who dropped a 4-2 decision to the Calgary Flames before putting in a worse effort against the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them 4-1.

So Columbus, who spent big at the trade deadline, find themselves three points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they have a game in hand, but that, alone, won’t do it. If this team is going to avoid all the embarrassment that comes with being the biggest spenders at the end of February and having nothing to show for it, they need to essentially win out at this point.

That begins with a test against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has nothing to play for other than pride and who were on a three-game heater before getting beat 3-1 by the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

Despite the three-point gap, the game in hand on Montreal and an uber-important matchup between themselves and the Habs this coming Thursday means Columbus still holds their destiny in their own hands. Columbus will be hoping the Carolina Hurricanes do them a solid and beat the Canadiens in regulation on Sunday.

That all might be a small consolation given the week that lays ahead. After Sunday’s game in Vancouver, they’ll fly across the continent home for two games on Tuesday and then again Thursday against Montreal. From there, they’ll head to Nashville on Saturday night and play back to back 22 hours later on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.

The fun times don’t end there, either.

They then head home for one game against Boston, get two days rest, and then finish the season with games against the New York Rangers on Friday and the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Yes, a back-to-back to close out the regular season where they might need wins in both to make the playoffs.

It’s a brutal haul, and they have no choice but to find success or polish up the Taylor Mades.

The good news is Sergei Bobrovsky could play Sunday after a nagging injury has kept him out of action. They need his heroics, and they’ll need more from the rest of their lineup, too.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

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

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

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Flyers vs. Capitals (12:30 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBC)
Coyotes vs. Islanders (3 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBCSN)
Blue Jackets vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.7 percent
Penguins — 99.8 percent
Islanders — 99.3 percent
Hurricanes — 96 percent
Canadiens — 62.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 42.8 percent
Flyers — 0.3 percent
Panthers — Out
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 86 percent
Avalanche — 59.2 percent
Coyotes — 32.4 percent
Wild — 19.1 percent
Blackhawks — 1.8 percent
Oilers — 0.9 percent
Canucks — 0.6 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
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Canucks — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Coyotes — 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 — 108 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 102 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 95 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 — 40 goals


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

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