Red Wings, Ducks making surprising playoff push: Will they get in?

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Every year there is always at least one or two teams that make the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the previous season. Sometimes it is a bounce back from an unexpected down year, sometimes it is rebuilding team that has finally taken enough steps, and sometimes it just a team that randomly comes out of nowhere to make a shocking run.

Two of the biggest surprise teams making a playoff push this season are the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, neither of which were expected to be in this position at this point in the season.

In Detroit, the Red Wings open the week sitting in the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are right in the thick of the playoff race. That comes after five straight years of missing the playoffs and not really even being competitive in the race.

Anaheim has been an even bigger success so far and is actually tied for first place in the Pacific Division and actually sitting very comfortably in a playoff position. Prior to this season the Ducks looked like a team with a grim short-term outlook and a questionable long-term outlook after years of not fully committing to a rebuild. They had missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.

Young talent driving playoff push for both teams

The one common denominator for both teams is they both have multiple rookies making significant contributions.

In Detroit, it is forward Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider. Raymond, 19, is an early season Calder Trophy front runner having already tallied 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists) in 31 games, while Seider has burst onto the scene and is already the top defenseman in Detroit and logging more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game. He is the type of all situations, big-minute, impact defender that every contending team needs. The fact he is already making this sort of impact in his first taste of NHL action at age 20 is a very encouraging sign for the future. The Red Wings needed young cornerstones to build around, and they now have them.

The Ducks have their own standout forward-defender duo in rookies Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale.

Not only is Zegras one of the Ducks’ top players and point producers, he has also been a one-man highlight reel this season and brought a level of excitement the team has not seen in years. Like Seider in Detroit, Drysdale has already taken on a significant role as one of the team’s top defenders.

The Ducks have the inside track

The good news for the Ducks is that they have built themselves a really strong cushion in the Western Conference race, and at least given themselves some margin for error. They are currently seven points clear of the first non-playoff team in the Western Conference and are on a 103 point pace for the season. The first non-playoff team in the West (Dallas, by points percentage) is currently on a 90-point pace. They are obviously not locked into anything, but this is a good position to be in. Assuming it takes 95 points to make the playoffs, they would only need 55 points over their remaining 50 games. That is manageable and very doable.

Along with the emergence of Zegras and Drysdale, they have also been lifted by breakout offensive seasons from Troy Terry and Sonny Milano and a nice little bounce back season from starting goalie John Gibson, who has his best numbers in three years.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Looking Stanley Cup Contenders And Pretenders]

Whether they make it or not the most important development thing for the Ducks this season has been the progress of Zegras, Drysdale, and Terry. The one big thing holding the Ducks back in recent years was not so much the lack of short-term success, but rather the lack of any long-term optimism. Some of the young prospects they had counted on before had not shown much progress or made much of an impact in the NHL, while Gibson seemed to be rapidly declining.

But this season Gibson has shown with the right talent in front of him he can still be a quality goalie and they actually have real cornerstone pieces whose best days are still ahead of them that they know they can build around.

Red Wings have a tougher path, but have help on the way

The problem for the Red Wings is going to be the fact that even though they are currently in a playoff spot now, they only have a three-point cushion over the Boston Bruins while Boston still has five games in hand. Based on points percentage, the Bruins are actually ahead of the Red Wings for the second Wild Card spot. Boston is currently on a 94-point pace while Detroit is on an 88-point pace.

The good news for the Red Wings, though, is that they should have some help on the way in the second half of the season with the hopeful return of forward Jakub Vrana. Vrana was one of the centerpieces of the Anthony Mantha trade at the deadline a year ago was going to be one of their top players this season. But offseason surgery sidelined him for at least the first four months of the season and robbed the Red Wings of what should have been a key contributor. His initial debut with the Red Wings was stellar (eight goals and three assists for 11 total points in 11 games) and he looked like he was ready to thrive with an increased role as a go-to player in an offense.

[Related: Top NHL Players From 2021 Year In Review]

Like the Ducks, while making the playoffs would be an unexpected surprise given the preseason expectations, the most important thing for the Red Wings this season is the fact they have not only made significant progress, but have actual long-term building blocks in place with Raymond, Seider, Vrana, and Dylan Larkin. What makes the Red Wings’ situation even more intriguing is they have nearly $38 million in salary cap space to work with this offseason, which could make them major players at both this trade deadline and the offseason to add significant players to their core.

The playoffs may not happen this season, but the progress is obvious and they are starting to get into a position where the playoffs are going to be an expectation in Detroit again.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.