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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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.