Blue Jackets-Canadiens is absolutely gigantic for both teams

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The phrase “must-win game” gets thrown around a lot, even in the NHL, where teams play 82-game regular seasons. Most of the time, big games should get the clunkier (but more accurate) title of “would be really inconvenient to lose” games.

Yet, Thursday’s game between the Canadiens and Blue Jackets in Columbus is about as close as you can get to a literal must-win game, at least in March.

Just consider how each team’s odds would swing with a win or loss. According to Money Puck:

  • Montreal’s would climb to 80 percent if they win in regulation, while they’d drop to 32 percent if the Habs lost in regulation. The Canadiens’ odds are currently at 56.38 percent.
  • If Columbus wins in regulation, their chances would rise to 75 percent. A regulation loss, however, would make the Blue Jackets’ chances drop to 27 percent. They’re currently given a 51.65 percent chance.

Yeah, those are some “Jekyll & Hyde” swings. In case the stakes weren’t obvious, consider that The Athletic’s Marc Antoine-Godin wonders (sub required) if this is the Canadiens’ regular-season game of the decade. That’s especially true if this one is decided in regulation.

Naturally, things would get a little more complicated if the game went into overtime and/or a shootout, so it’s probably helpful to look at where the two teams rank in the standings, and consider if anyone else is in the neighborhood:

With the Atlantic Division teams at 97 points or higher and the Metro teams at 95+, Carolina is the only team that could realistically storm slip out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs … but neither Montreal nor especially Columbus should count on that. The Hurricanes have been hot, and they have three points on Columbus, while Carolina holds a one-point edge and a game in hand on Montreal.

Speaking of games in hand, check out the remaining schedules for each team:

Columbus

Mar. 30: at Nashville
Mar. 31: at Buffalo
Apr. 2: home vs. Boston
Apr. 5: at Rangers
Apr. 6: at Senators

Schedule observations: There are definitely some tough elements here. With just five games remaining after Thursday’s clash with the Canadiens, it’s remarkable that they face two back-to-back sets on the road.

Maybe you can rationalize some of this as a lack of motivation. The Sabres, Rangers, and Senators all will have little to play for by then, and the Bruins might also find themselves so comfortably entrenched in the second seed as to maybe rest some players, too.

Of course … the Senators would certainly love to foil the Blue Jackets, wouldn’t they? And maybe some Rangers fans would love to see John Tortorella fail?

Montreal

Mar. 30: at Winnipeg
Apr. 2: home vs. Tampa Bay
Apr. 4: at Washington
Apr 6: home vs. Toronto

Schedule observations: Boy, April 6 could be such a day of spite, it might actually be a more appropriate April Fool’s Day than April 1 this year. While the Senators could try to end the season for Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel on the same day their season ends, the Maple Leafs could spoil things for their nigh-ancient rivals. Delicious, delicious trolling opportunities.

While the Blue Jackets face a road-heavy schedule with back-to-backs, the Canadiens get better rest opportunities … but face much tougher teams on paper.

The Jets and Capitals are likely to have plenty of motivation, while the Lightning seem compelled to battle history at this point.

[Read the latest Push for the Playoffs for more on how the Capitals might be in quite the joust for the Metropolitan Division title.]

Normally, that Toronto game would be kind of a write-off (the Maple Leafs haven’t batted an eye about saying they’re considering resting players, and they’ll likely will be locked into the third seed), but the rivalry factor could really get the blood pumping.

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If Montreal wins in regulation, they’d open up a four-point lead on Columbus, mitigating much of the advantage that comes from the Blue Jackets’ game-in-hand. If the Blue Jackets won in regulation, the two teams would be tied at 90 standings points, and Columbus would have that extra game.

With so little time remaining in the regular season, this is huge. And the storylines are juicy.

Consider the coaching battle:

  • Torts, who is at risk of seeing a team go all-in only to fall out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Versus Claude Julien, a coach who’s generally been instrumental in helping a team with low expectations overachieve … but is still at risk of following justshort of the postseason in a hockey-mad market.

The goalie battle is huge, too.

  • After seemingly seeing his career fall off the rails – to the point that his contract looked like a cautionary tale regarding investing in Bob – Carey Price has largely had a redemptive season. Even so, has Price ever really had that big, triumphant win? After all, it was Jaroslav Halak who powered that unlikely run many years ago, not Price.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky‘s season has swirled with drama and erratic play. Much like Price, Bobrovsky’s heating up. Also like Price, Bobrovsky hasn’t had those big team wins, mostly standing out with lofty individual stats. Far more so than Price, Bob has inspired rumblings (fair or not) about “choking.” Bobrovsky is also seeking the sort of franchise goalie deal Price already possesses … what better way to prove that Bob deserves one too, then to beat out Price — both on Thursday and during this stretch run?

Throw in the saga of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene’s almost-cursed run of disappointments, and the pressure cooker environment in Montreal, and this is absolutely one of those “grab your popcorn” nights.

At least, it is if you’re a fan of the sport as a whole. If you’re rooting for the Canadiens or Blue Jackets, you’re crossing your fingers, not grabbing popcorn.

(Although we’d all understand nervous snacking at a time like this.)

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: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where 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

The Buzzer: Avalanche keep rolling; Capitals clip Bruins

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Three Stars

1. T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals.

With only one goal in his previous 10 games, Oshie scored two beautiful goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 win against the Bruins on Wednesday Night Hockey. The American forward recorded a power-play goal early in the second period to knot the score 1-1. Oshie rang a shot off the crossbar after a crafty deke and then found the loose puck behind Jaroslav Halak to pick up his 12th of the season. Then, Oshie scored the goal of the night when he avoided Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton and converted a breakaway opportunity to give Washington a 2-1 lead.

2. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche.

In his sixth game back since suffering a lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for 16 games, Rantanen notched two goals to help the Colorado Avalanche earn a 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Finnish forward tapped in a pretty pass from Nathan MacKinnon to extend the Avalanche advantage to 2-0 in the second period. In the third, Rantanen sealed the game after Nazem Kadri delivered a perfect pass. Colorado has kept pace in the competitive Central Division with Rantanen sidelined, but will now look to emerge as the class of the division with the return of its star forward.

3. Cayden Primeau, Montreal Canadiens.

The first NHL win for any goaltender is always a special moment. Primeau made 35 saves as the Montreal Canadiens skated to a 3-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators.  Primeau, 20, was the No. 199 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and is the son of former NHL All-Star forward Keith Primeau. He was recalled from the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate on Tuesday after Montreal placed Keith Kinkaid on waivers.

Highlights of the Night

Oshie performed a nifty deke around a Bruins defender, then converted a breakaway while drawing a penalty.

Carter Hart submitted another candidate for the save of the year with this impressive glove save.

Factoids

  • Carlson (33 GP) required the fewest games by a defenseman to record his 45th point of a season since Al MacInnis in 1990-91 (32 GP w/ CGY). [NHL PR]
  • Carlson’s five game-winning goals (33 GP) are one shy of the Capitals single-season franchise record by defensemen (Kevin Hatcher: 6 in 83 GP, 1992-93). [NHL PR]

  • Only four goaltenders in Canadiens history recorded their first NHL win at a younger age than Primeau. [NHL PR]

  • Primeau is the second goalie in as many seasons to record his first NHL win prior to his 21st birthday. The other: Carter Hart on Dec. 18, 2018 w/ PHI (20 years, 127 days). [NHL PR]
  • Rantanen has collected 20 points in 15 or fewer games for the second time in his career [NHL PR].

Scores

Capitals 3, Bruins 2

Canadiens 3, Senators 2 (OT)

Avalanche 3, Flyers 1

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

Rantanen’s goals help Avalanche defeat Flyers, extend point streak

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Mikko Rantanen scored twice and the Colorado Avalanche extended their point streak to eight games with a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Calvert also scored, and Pavel Francouz made 32 saves in Colorado’s seventh win over the past eight games.

Claude Giroux scored the lone Flyers goal late in the third period and Carter Hart made 25 saves, but the Flyers fell in regulation for only the second time in the previous 10 outings (7-2-1).

Francouz provides boost between the pipes

With Avalanche starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sidelined with a lower-body injury, Francouz made his fourth straight appearance and collected his eighth win of the season with a strong performance against the Flyers.

After a rocky showing against the Flames earlier this week which resulted in a 5-4 overtime loss, Francouz bounced back and was a steadying force in the crease. Claude Giroux ended Francouz’s shutout bid late in the third period, but the Czech goalie held off a late push from Philadelphia.

After a second-round defeat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche have eyes on home-ice advantage in the 2020 postseason. If Francouz can provide consistent goaltending when called upon, they certainly have the star power up front to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Kadri acquisition paying early dividends

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic acquired Nazem Kadri this past summer to help the Avalanche become a deeper team with improved secondary scoring. With 21 points in 28 games this season, Kadri has added another element to Colorado’s dynamic offensive attack.

Early in the third period Wednesday, Kadri patiently waited behind the Flyers’ net until Rantanen skated into position to convert a one-timer to give Colorado a three-goal third-period lead.

The Avalanche’s top line is one of the most lethal trios in the NHL, but Colorado is that much more dangerous if Kadri continues to provide an extra boost.

Looking ahead for Flyers

The Flyers began a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents with a loss against the Avalanche, but cannot let one game ruin the momentum they have generated with strong play in recent weeks. The Flyers will travel to Minnesota and Winnipeg over the weekend and need to continue to secure points to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.

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

Oshie, Carlson lift Capitals over Bruins in mid-season test

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The 82-game regular season is a marathon for NHL teams, but at various points of the season you want to measure yourself up against a top team in your conference.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins 3-2 at Capital One Arena.

John Carlson scored the go-ahead goal 4:42 into the third period to help propel the Capitals. T.J. Oshie scored twice and Braden Holtby made 30 saves as the Capitals collected their seventh win in the previous eight games.

David Pastrnak scored his NHL-leading 26th goal for Boston but the Bruins have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1).

Oshie often overlooked

Whether it’s Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson or Holtby, Oshie is often neglected when listing the Capitals’ star power.

Since being acquired in July of 2015, Oshie has been a consistent offensive threat for the Capitals in the previous four-plus seasons. He has averaged 25.5 goals and added his 12th and 13th of this season in stellar fashion on Wednesday.

Oshie made a quick deke to his forehand before ringing a shot off the crossbar, but then finished his own rebound to even the score early in the second period.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a highlight-reel goal. The American forward danced around Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton before converting a nifty deke 3:30 after his first of the game.

While other players in Washington’s lineup receive credit for the Capitals’ strong play in recent years, Oshie should not be forgotten about as he has proven to be a key piece to the puzzle in Washington.

Pastrnak remains red-hot

The Czech winger has solidified himself as one the best pure goal scorers in the NHL today and recorded his 26th goal of the season on Wednesday. No. 88 is on pace for 67 goals this season and has helped the Boston Bruins secure a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division.

Pastrnak tallied a short-side snipe to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead against the Capitals Wednesday. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was able to complete a cross-ice pass because centerman Patrice Bergeron skated hard to the net in order to create an open passing lane.

If Pastrnak is able to continue this torrid pace, he could be in line to collect a lot of hardware at the NHL Awards show and help the Bruins collect a trophy they fell just short of last season.

Ovechkin’s office

The sign of dominance in any competitive sport is if you can continue to repeat an action while your opponent is aware of what is coming.

For Alex Ovechkin, his presence from the left circle throughout the course of his career has been spectacular. The captain of the Washington Capitals has recorded 299 of his 679 goals (44%) from the left circle or above. And since the 2012-13 season, 54% of his goals have come from that spot on the ice.

NHL teams will continue to game plan and know exactly where No. 8 will be on the ice, especially when Washington is on a power play, but his excellence from that area should be viewed in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky’s operation from behind the net.

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