Analyzing the remaining NHL Playoff races

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We are down to the final days of the 2018-19 regular season and as of Thursday there are still four playoff spots up for grabs, two divisions that need to be won, and seedings to be set.

So let’s take a closer look at who is still in it, what they have ahead of them, and what all can happen over the next four days.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The Playoff Spots Up For Grabs

In the Eastern Conference there are four teams fighting for three remaining playoff spots as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens compete.

The Penguins and Hurricanes could claim two of those spots on Thursday night.

The Penguins have three potential paths to clinching a playoff spot: A win against the Detroit Red Wings; an overtime or shootout loss combined with either a Montreal loss in any fashion OR a Carolina loss in regulation; A Montreal loss in regulation.

The Hurricanes are in on Thursday if they win in regulation and Montreal loses in any fashion, or if they win in a shootout and Montreal loses in regulation.

The Canadiens can not clinch a playoff spot on Thursday, while Columbus has the night off.

Remaining Schedules For All Four Teams

Pittsburgh Penguins: Detroit Red Wings (H), New York Rangers (H)
Carolina Hurricanes: New Jersey Devils (H), Philadelphia Flyers (A)
Columbus Blue Jackets: New York Rangers (A), Ottawa Senators (A)
Montreal Canadiens: Washington Capitals (A), Toronto Maple Leafs (H)

While the Penguins, Hurricanes, and Blue Jackets all wrap up their regular season schedules with teams on the outside of the playoff picture, the Canadiens have to play a team fighting for a division championship and their biggest rival in the regular season finale. They are not only on the outside of the playoff picture entering Thursday, they have what is by the toughest road in terms of the remaining schedule.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Everything is clinched. The Tampa Bay Lightning have secured the top spot and will play the second wild card team in the first round, while the 2-3 matchup is locked in with the Boston Bruins facing the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Bruins will have home ice advantage.

The winner of that series will play the winner of the Tampa Bay-WC2 in Round 2.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Who can still win it: Washington Capitals, New York Islanders

The Capitals enter Thursday night with a three-point lead over the Islanders, and can clinch it in one of three ways. If they win, if they get one point and the Islanders lose in any fashion, or if the Islanders lose in regulation. If the Capitals fail to secure the division title on Thursday night it sets up a winner-take-all regular season finale in Washington on Saturday, when the Capitals will host the Islanders.

Given the circumstances (Barry Trotz returning to Washington one year after leading the Capitals to a Stanley Cup and trying to steal the division away on the final day of the regular season?!) it would probably be the game of the year.

Remaining schedules for both teams

Washington Capitals: Montreal Canadiens (H), New York Islanders (H)
New York Islanders: Florida Panthers (A), Washington Capitals (A)

Potential seeding still up for grabs

This is the division that has the potential for the most chaos.

While only the Capitals and Islanders can still claim the top spot, every spot after first place is up for grabs. The Islanders, Penguins, and Hurricanes could all still finish as high as second place and get home-ice advantage Round 1, while the Blue Jackets can finish no higher than third. The Capitals can finish no lower than second. All of that means the 2 vs. 3 matchup could feature anything from Penguins-Capitals, to Islanders-Penguins, to Islanders-Blue Jackets, to Capitals-Hurricanes, to Capitals-Blue Jackets.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

The playoff spot up for grabs

There is only one playoff spot still open, and it is coming down to the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes.

The Avalanche clinch with at least one point in the standings or any loss by the Coyotes.

The situation is very simple: The only way Arizona can take the second Wild Card spot is if the Avalanche lose their remaining two games in regulation and the Coyotes win their remaining two games in regulation or overtime. Basically, the Coyotes need a small miracle. It seems like a long shot, yes, but the very fact they are still even in the race given all of the injuries they have dealt with this season and where they were coming from a year ago is something of a small miracle on its own.

Neither team has a favorable schedule, and that definitely favors the Avalanche.

Remaining schedules for both teams

Colorado Avalanche: Winnipeg Jets (H), San Jose Sharks (A)
Arizona Coyotes: Vegas Golden Knights (A), Winnipeg Jets (H)

CENTRAL DIVISION

Who can still win it: Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues

The Jets can clinch the division on Thursday if they win AND Nashville loses in regulation and the Blues lose in any fashion.

Remaining schedules for all three teams

Winnipeg Jets: Colorado Avalanche (A), Arizona Coyotes (A)
Nashville Predators: Vancouver Canucks (H), Chicago Blackhawks (H)
St. Louis Blues: Philadelphia Flyers (H), Vancouver Canucks (H)

Seedings still up for grabs

All of them. The Jets, Predators, and Blues could all finish anywhere from first to third, while the Blues could also drop down to fourth as the Dallas Stars still have a very slim chance to move up to the third spot if they win out and the Blues lose out. Like the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference, there are an insane number of potential Round 1 matchups still in play here.

If Dallas loses its remaining two games and the Avalanche win their remaining two games, the Stars could also fall down to the second Wild Card spot and have to face the top-seed Calgary Flames.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Everything is clinched.

The Calgary Flames have locked up the division and the top spot in the Western Conference, giving them a Round 1 meeting with the second Wild Card team (Dallas, Colorado, or Arizona).

Meanwhile the 2 vs. 3 matchup is locked in between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, with San Jose claiming home-ice advantage.

Related: Avalanche on verge of playoff berth

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.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

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.

Jack Hughes scores first NHL goal in first game against brother (Video)

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Jack Hughes had to wait until his eighth game to score his first NHL goal, and the timing of it could not have been any better.

Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, scored on the power play at the 14:04 mark of the first period to give the New Jersey Devils the lead over the Vancouver Canucks, finishing a play that was set up by the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.

It turned out to be the only goal in a 1-0 Devils win, their second in a row.

Here is a look at the play.

Why was the timing so perfect for Hughes?

Because his older brother, Quinn, is also playing in his rookie season for the Canucks and is in the lineup on Saturday afternoon. And since this was the first regular season matchup in the NHL between the two brothers the entire Hughes family was in attendance In Newark to see the big moment.

Both players players figure to be contenders for Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

Jack’s goal on Saturday comes one game after he recorded his first career point, an assist in the Devils’ win over the New York Rangers  — and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko — on Thursday night.

Quinn entered Saturday’s game with a goal and two assists in six games for the Canucks. He scored his first goal in a win over the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season. He was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft class.

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.

The Buzzer: Caps’ Carlson is on fire; James Neal keeps scoring

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When you’re trying to split hairs and choose the best of the best on a night of strong performances, sometimes you have to break the tie by looking at the larger body of work.

You could make a strong argument that Capitals defenseman John Carlson is on the hottest start of any player. Not just of any defenseman in the NHL — of any skater.

Carlson generated three assists in Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Friday. That gives him six points (one goal, five assists) in his last two games, and 17 points through nine games overall in 2019-20.

If you haven’t clued into just how impressive that start is yet, consider this: Carlson is tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead with 17 points after McDavid finally went pointless in Edmonton’s tight win against the Red Wings on Friday. Yes, McDavid’s gotten to eight games compared to Carlson’s nine, but this is still some resounding stuff. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is the only other blueliner in double digits so far in 2019-20, as he reached 10 points after scoring two goals against the struggling Stars.

Carlson’s building quite the early lead in the Norris Trophy race.

Anyone who thinks point totals don’t matter to at least some Norris voters is naive, but Carlson hasn’t just been a points machine. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, he’s logging significant ice time, and Carlson’s continuing his recent upswing in possession stats. The cherry on top is that Carlson’s underlying stats are up a bit from 2018-19’s impressive jump even though he’s not seeing the same cushy situations (50.9 of his shifts started in the offensive zone heading into Friday, versus of an average of 56.6 percent last season; maybe the stemming from Matt Niskanen being traded away?).

Carlson’s certain to slow down, but has a strong chance to reach a new peak from last year’s career-high of 70 points.

2. Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

A former Capitals player might have enjoyed the superior overall Friday, though.

Burakovsky generated two goals and one assist in Colorado’s 5-4 OT win against the Panthers, and his points were significant. Burakovsky scored Colorado’s final two goals of regulation, including the tally that sent the contest into overtime, and then nabbed the primary assist on a Nathan MacKinnon OT-winner that looked way too easy, even by 3-on-3 standards.

Could this be the breakout many expected to see in Washington? He’s riding high percentages, yet it’s promising that Burakovsky’s off to a strong start in Colorado (eight points in seven games). If Burakovsky can help the Avalanche generate secondary scoring, that team could get scary, arguably sooner than many expected/feared.

3. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

During the same week that Hornqvist made plenty of enemies in Colorado thanks to a questionable hit on MacKinnon, Hornqvist was a disruptive force on the scoreboard, scoring one goal and two assists as the Penguins added to Dallas’ miseries.

Hornqvist ended up with a +3 rating, game-winning goal, four SOG, and one blocked shot. The only upset is that the sandpaper-y winger didn’t get credited with a hit.

(Considering Pittsburgh’s injury woes, maybe that’s the wisest path.)

Highlight of the Night

After scoring a goal in a video game where you hammered the deke button, you might feel some emptiness — that this never would have happened in “real life.” Then again, were you scoring that goal with Kris Letang?

Factoids

Scores

COL 5 – FLA 4 (OT)
PIT 4 – DAL 2
WSH 5 – NYR 2
CHI 3 – CBJ 2 (OT)
EDM 2 – DET 1
ANA 4 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.