NHL Rink Wrap: Avalanche clinch West; Kings win, Golden Knights lose

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Saturday’s top NHL players

Mike Smith, Oilers

Look at the final score (4-0 for the Oilers), and you might charge the Golden Knights with a no-show in a big game.

While the Golden Knights certainly wished they would’ve produced, Mike Smith played a significant role in the Oilers locking up two more points. The veteran goalie pitched a 39-save shutout, his second goose egg of an up-and-down season.

After this shutout, Mike Smith’s save percentage climbed to .911 this season, just a shade under his career average of .912.

Nikita Kucherov/Victor Hedman, Lightning

At one point, the Jets held a 4-2 lead over the Lightning. Tampa Bay ended up winning (wait for it) 7-4. Yeah.

No big surprise here, but Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman played a big part in that win. Kucherov collected two goals and two assists, pushing his season total to 51 points in 40 games. Kucherov’s two points away from reaching 600 points, leaving him comfortably above the per-game mark (598 points in 555 career games).

With four assists, Victor Hedman reached 72 points in 75 games this season. One more, and he’ll set a new career-high. He’s been overshadowed by even more explosive defensemen in 2021-22, yet it’s worth noting that his underlying stats are improved from last year’s relative struggles.

Judging by his career xSPAR (expected standings points above replacement) chart from Evolving Hockey, this might not just be a rebound season for Victor Hedman. This could be, in some ways, his best year yet:

Stunningly, Cale Makar‘s xSPAR is above 10 this season. (via Evolving Hockey)

Anthony Mantha/Dmitry Orlov, Capitals

Like Kucherov and Hedman, the Capitals created a lot of offense thanks to four-point games for a forward (Anthony Mantha) and a defenseman (Dmitry Orlov).

Mantha, like Kucherov, got there with two goals and two assists. This leaves Mantha with 21 points in 30 games this season. If Mantha can give the Capitals more scoring balance, then … well, the East is already ridiculously loaded? Why not just keep pouring it on?

With a goal and three assists, Orlov’s set a new career-high with 34 points in 69 games this season. His previous career-high was 33 points, set in 2016-17.

Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk, Flames

Hey, yet another duo of teammates scoring four points. Both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk scored two goals and two assists as the Flames left the Coyotes in ashes. Just another day at the office?

Saturday NHL highlights

Brayden Schenn scored in overtime to help the Blues clinch a playoff spot:

Alexis Lafrenière made a tremendous, video game deke button-style move to score this backhand goal in a Rangers win:

Matty Beniers, second pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, scored his first NHL goal:

The Capitals scored a ton during Saturday’s NHL action, and this Evgeny Kuznetsov assist to Alex Ovechkin was probably the most tantalizing tally:

Not far removed from NCAA competition, Ben Meyers scored his first NHL goal in a high-scoring Hurricanes – Avalanche game.

Saturday NHL Takeaways

Blues, Flames, Bruins clinch playoff spots; Avalanche clinch top spot in the West

In the grand scheme of things, the final Western Conference playoff spots are the only ones really in doubt. Other than that, playoff pushes are mainly about positioning.

Still, if teams fear counting chickens until they hatch, then a few eggs crackled around the NHL on Saturday.

  • It wasn’t the biggest story in the Oilers beating the Golden Knights, but that Vegas loss confirmed that the Calgary Flames clinched a playoff spot.
  • By beating the Wild in OT, the Blues clinched their playoff spot.
  • After squeezing by the Penguins, the Bruins also clinched a playoff spot during Saturday’s NHL games.
  • Finally, the Avalanche are your Western Conference champions. The only scenario where they wouldn’t own home-ice advantage in any series is a) if it’s the 2022 Stanley Cup Final and b) if the Panthers wrestled the Presidents’ Trophy from the Avalanche. Catch up on a recent Presidents’ Trophy race breakdown here.

Kings widen lead over Golden Knights in key West playoff race

The Golden Knights had a chance to gain an edge on the Kings in the race for the third spot in the Pacific Division. (Increasingly, that’s looking like Vegas’ main route to a playoff spot, period.)

Things were looking better than they had in a while for the Golden Knights compared to the Kings heading into the NHL action on Saturday. That flipped again with the latest results.

First, the Oilers beat the Golden Knights 4-0. Then, the Blue Jackets put up a decent fight vs. the Kings, but Los Angeles won in regulation.

With that, the Kings now have a three-point standings advantage (90 to 87) over the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights aren’t out of it, mind you, as they have a game in hand (six games remaining for Vegas, five left for the Kings).

The Kings and Golden Knights don’t face each other again in the regular season, so this final stretch comes down to a mixture of winning their own games, and doing some scoreboard watching. During the NHL games on Saturday, both of those elements went the way of L.A.

Rangers – Hurricanes battle for Metro title is very much alive

Following the NHL games on Saturday, the Rangers and Hurricanes are now tied at 104 standings points, each with six games remaining on their schedules. While the Hurricanes hold the advantage in regulation/overtime wins (47 to 45), the Rangers have a real chance to win the Metropolitan Division title.

Your mileage may vary regarding how important it is to seek given matchups. There’s room for the Penguins and Capitals to jostle for position, with one ending up the Metro’s third seed, and another grabbing a wild-card spot. The Bruins could sputter and fall to the second instead of the first wild card.

With the Panthers looking almost certain to take the top spot in the East, the Metropolitan Division champ would draw the higher wild-card team. Right now, that would be the Bruins. Not an easy task.

But beyond the natural drive to compete, winning the division means locking down at least two rounds of home-ice advantage. While both the Rangers and Hurricanes travel well (New York’s only won one more game at home [25] than on the road [24]), that’s not a bad thing to chase.

Side note: the Hurricanes have to hope that Frederik Andersen avoids a significant injury. He looked shaken up when he left Saturday’s loss to Colorado.

More on how the NHLPA handled Kyle Beach’s allegations toward Brad Aldrich

You can read up on the NHLPA investigation here, but it’s worth watching this segment from Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman.

Tough injury news for Penguins (Jarry) and Canucks (Horvat)

Dropping a game to the Bruins may not have been the biggest bummer for the Penguins. Coach Mike Sullivan announced that Tristan Jarry is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury. Week-to-week definitely leaves things cloudy for Jarry’s playoff availability, possibly leaving net duties to Casey DeSmith.

Honestly, it’s tough to imagine the Canucks actually remaining in the mix, but Bo Horvat‘s also expected to miss at least two weeks.

A big story for Sunday

Panthers aim for 10 in a row, and to stay close to Avalanche in Presidents’ Trophy race

It’s interesting, really, that this season’s developing a “rich get richer” theme. (At least, in hockey terms, it’s all based on merit.)

That thought often gravitates toward individual performances. Connor McDavid, Roman Josi, Cale Makar, Auston Matthews, Igor Shesterkin, and plenty of other superstars are putting up bonkers, sometimes-historic numbers.

The absolute best teams are fitting with that theme, too. Some might look at the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff sets being all but set for a while now as one sign. But it’s also extreme with the best of the best.

With their ninth consecutive win, the Avalanche overpowered a strong Hurricanes team. The Blues are on an eight-game winning streak, while the Maple Leafs are 8-1-1 in their last 10. The Oilers might just be knocking on that elite door, having gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, too.

So maybe that’s why the Panthers’ powerful run must compete for the limelight. Going into Sunday, the Panthers are on a nine-game winning streak. They’ll be strong favorites to beat the Red Wings for a 10th in a row, especially since Detroit played on Saturday.

If the Panthers extend that winning streak to 10 games, they’ll remain two points behind the Avalanche for the Presidents’ Trophy. The upper-crust of the NHL truly look like the undisputed elite.

Saturday NHL scores

Bruins 2, Penguins 1
Rangers 4, Red Wings 0
Predators 4, Blackhawks 3
Blues 6, Wild 5 (OT)
Oilers 4, Golden Knights 0
Sabres 4, Flyers 3
Capitals 8, Canadiens 4
Maple Leafs 5, Senators 4 (OT)
Lightning 7, Jets 4
Stars 2, Sharks 1
Avalanche 7, Hurricanes 4
Flames 9, Coyotes 1
Kraken 4, Devils 3 (SO)
Kings 2, Blue Jackets 1

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.

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