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What to watch for in final days of 2018-19 NHL season

There is only playoff spot still up for grabs in the NHL’s playoff race, and it could be decided as early as Friday night if the Columbus Blue Jackets can beat the New York Rangers. While that would be somewhat disappointing as it relates to drama and excitement for the final day of the regular season, there will still be plenty of big storylines to watch.

What should you be paying attention to? Let’s take a look.

1. Columbus just needs one win. Everything is sitting right there for the Blue Jackets. All they have to do is win one game against either the sixth-worst team in the league (the Rangers on Friday) or the worst team in the league (the Ottawa Senators on Saturday). That is it. That is all they need to do. If they manage to miss the playoffs (which they would do with if they fail to collect two points over those two games and if Montreal beats Toronto) it would probably be one of the most stunning end-of-season collapses in league history. No pressure!

2. Tampa Bay looks to tie the NHL’s single season win record. They can’t break the record, but if the Lightning beat the Boston Bruins they would win their 62nd game of the season, tying them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season. They are currently one of just three teams to have ever won at least 60 in a single season.

3. More Nikita Kucherov milestones. Assuming they do not rest him, Nikita Kucherov would need four points to become the first player since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the 1995-96 season to record at least 130 points in a season. He is also four assists away from 90 for the season. While that seems like a tall order, keep in mind he already has eight four-point games this season, including one four-assist game.

4. Blues try to go from worst to first. In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. With a win on Saturday, combined with losses by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they would finish the season in first place in the Central Division. That is a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

5. Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares shoot for 50. You have to go all the way back to the 2011-12 season to find the last time the NHL had multiple 50-goal scorers in the same season (Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin did it) but we have a chance to see it happen again this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl needs just one to become the first Oilers player since Wayne Gretzky scored 62 during the 1986-87 season (that is, if you exclude Craig Simpson’s 1987-88 season, where he only scored 43 of his goals as a member of the Oilers). His season has been kind of lost in the shadows of another monster year from Connor McDavid and overlooked because of the rest of the team’s struggles, but he has been sensational. Tavares, if he plays in what is a meaningless game for Toronto, would need to score three goals against the Montreal Canadiens to record his first 50-goal season. There have only been seven 50-goal performances since the start of the 2010-11 season, and four of them belong to Alex Ovechkin.

6. Four players are within reach of 100 points. Kucherov, McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand are already at the century mark, and with big games in their regular season finales Sidney Crosby (98 points), Johnny Gaudreau (98 points), Nathan MacKinnon (98 points), and Stamkos (97 points) could also get there. That is, of course, assuming they play. Pittsburgh (Crosby) and Colorado (MacKinnon) are the only players on teams that can improve their place in the standings, so it is possible Gaudreau or Stamkos could be held out. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov is the next closest player with 94 points, but would need an incredible effort to get to 100 on the season.

7. The potential for some finales. While there is no indication that he is going to retire, the reality is that Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40 years old and his future with the team (or in the NHL) could very much be in doubt. With the Wild missing the playoffs and a new general manager in charge, it is possible Bruce Boudreau could be coaching his final game in Minnesota. Jason Pominville, a long-time fan favorite in Buffalo, could be appearing in his final game as a member of the Sabres.

8. The draft lottery watch. The Ottawa Senators are locked in to the NHL’s worst record meaning their first-round pick (which now belongs to the Colorado Avalanche) will have the best odds to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But several other teams could see their odds change depending on the outcome of their remaining games. The big ones to watch are the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Entering play on Friday the Kings have the second worst record in the league, sitting just one point behind the Devils. A Devils regulation loss, combined with one Kings win, would see New Jersey’s lottery odds jump up from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

9. The Nichushkin and Rieder watch. Tobias Rieder has played 66 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season and not scored a goal. Valeri Nichushkin has played 57 games for the Dallas Stars and not scored a goal OR taken a penalty. Will one of them get a goal? At least let Rieder get one after he had to take all of the blame for the Oilers’ struggles this season.

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: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.