NHL Push for the Playoffs: Pondering paths for Panthers, Avalanche

NHL Push for the Playoffs: Pondering paths for Panthers, Avalanche
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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2021-22 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

After a busy Tuesday in the NHL, it’s not yet clear if the Colorado Avalanche or Florida Panthers will end up winning the Presidents’ Trophy. There’s also room — not much, but some room — for the Golden Knights to wrestle the final remaining playoff spot from the Stars.

Yet we already know that the Avalanche clinched the West and the Panthers locked down the East. However the Presidents’ Trophy race goes, both the Panthers and Avalanche will hold home-ice advantages for at least three rounds of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The only way the Presidents’ Trophy really matters is if it’s Avalanche vs. Panthers in a series that would feel a whole lot different than the last time the franchises met in a Stanley Cup Final.

So, we know enough to plot out possible playoff paths for the Panthers and Avalanche. Let’s take a look for each team.

The playoff path ahead for the Panthers

By beating the Panthers on Wednesday, the Bruins distanced themselves from a first-round matchup vs. Florida. Right now, the Panthers will instead face whoever falls short of the third seed in the Metropolitan Division: the Penguins (currently third) or the Capitals (second Wild Card spot now, too far to pass the Bruins).

During the regular season, the Panthers followed similar patterns against both the Capitals and Penguins. Florida began with an OT win, lost a close game, then won by a single goal. The Panthers wouldn’t admit this either way, but maybe the preference would boil down to Tristan Jarry‘s availability? Or maybe Alex Ovechkin‘s murky injury situation would swing it?

One interesting nugget is home/road records. The Panthers have been a beast at home, now 34-7-0. Interestingly, the Capitals have been road warriors, going 25-8-6 away from home (where they’re just 19-16-6).

On one hand, it seems cruel to run away with your conference (and maybe win the Presidents’ Trophy) and then have to face Sidney Crosby and a solid Penguins team or Ovechkin (if healthy) and a solid Capitals team. But it could have been worse — possibly starting with the Bruins.

Things get spicier if the Panthers advance. There’s a “pick your poison” element to facing either the official second seed Maple Leafs and likely third seed Lightning. Again, this may come down to health in net. Few would put more faith in Jack Campbell and/or Petr Mrazek (even if they were healthy) instead of Andrei Vasilevskiy, mileage or not.

If the Panthers made it to the third round, then the Metro bracket could spit out all sorts of scary opponents. The Hurricanes rank as one of the few teams deep enough to counter Florida’s war chest on offense. The Rangers are already better than they previously looked, but even if the Panthers hog the puck, Igor Shesterkin could steal a series.

All things being equal, a second round matchup seems likely the steepest hurdle. But strange things happen in the playoffs.

Avalanche begin with a chance for revenge, also should expect trouble in second round

For those who still view the Avalanche as a fairly new juggernaut, this may seem strange. But they’re highly likely to get a chance to exact previous playoff revenge in the first round.

Most likely, the Avalanche will draw either the Stars (who stunned them in the Second Round in 2020) or the Golden Knights (who spurned them in last year’s Second Round showdown).

Not long ago, the Golden Knights loomed as a potential nightmare first-round opponent. They’ve been their own nightmare as much as anything else lately. While that collection of talent could put it together, goalie issues and general dysfunction likely make the Golden Knights look far-from-imposing to the Avalanche.

In the broadest ways, the Stars present a similar challenge to the Avalanche as they did during those odd bubble playoffs. Dallas plays stingy defense, and while the name recognition isn’t there with goalies, they’ve been getting solid-enough work. Most importantly, even the Avalanche might struggle to either stop or outscore the trio of Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski, and Jason Robertson.

Overall, those strike as reasonably manageable matchups for the Avalanche, and the Predators qualify as such too. (They could be quite vulnerable if they slip to the second wild card and Juuse Saros isn’t healthy.)

If the Avalanche advanced, they’d feel some of the Panthers’ pain in drawing a tough second-round opponent either way. Both the Blues and Wild are ending the season on hot notes. Smart team-building has each team presenting more scoring options than before, and their goaltending duos look palatable-to-strong. The Avalanche can’t be thrilled to ponder that both the Wild and Blues have the sort of players who can frustrated Nathan MacKinnon, such as former Selke Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly.

In the Pacific, the Flames present the biggest threat (they even have a +88 goal differential, slightly ahead of the Avalanche’s +80). Calgary’s put together in a way that just screams “playoff form.”

It’s one thing to play defensive hockey and hold on for your life, as the Stars and Predators likely would hope to do against the Avalanche. It’s another thing to actually be able to hog the puck on your own. The Flames rank as one of the teams most likely to pull that off.

If the Avalanche were to get to the third round and not face the Flames, then an improving Oilers squad could also be an interesting threat.

From what we know right now, it seems like the path is slightly clearer for the Avalanche than it looks for the Panthers. Of course, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so it’s probably safest just to assume that everything we assume is actually wrong.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY (sorted by points percentage)

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Panthers vs. Capitals
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

METROPOLITAN DIVISION
Hurricanes vs. Bruins
Rangers vs. Penguins

CENTRAL DIVISION
Avalanche vs. Stars
Wild vs. Blues

PACIFIC DIVISION
Flames vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Kings

TODAY’S KEY GAMES

Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Coyotes vs. Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIO

• The Stars can clinch the final NHL playoff spot if they either 1) earn one point vs. Arizona or 2) if Chicago beats Vegas in any fashion.

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Panthers – clinched No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference
Maple Leafs – clinched
Lightning – clinched
Bruins – clinched
Red Wings – eliminated
Sabres – eliminated
Senators – eliminated
Canadiens – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Hurricanes – clinched Metropolitan Division title
Rangers – clinched
Penguins – clinched
Capitals – clinched
Islanders – eliminated
Blue Jackets – eliminated
Flyers – eliminated
Devils – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Avalanche – clinched No. 1 seed in Western Conference
Wild – clinched
Blues – clinched
Predators – clinched
Stars – 98.7%
Jets – eliminated
Blackhawks – eliminated
Coyotes – eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via MoneyPuck)

Flames – clinched Pacific Division
Oilers – clinched
Kings – clinched
Golden Knights – 1.3%
Canucks – eliminated
Ducks – eliminated
Sharks – eliminated
Kraken – eliminated

draft lottery
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DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE (via Tankathon)

18.5% – Canadiens
13.5% – Coyotes
11.5% – Kraken
9.5% – Flyers
8.5% – Devils
7.5% – Blackhawks (*conditional)
6.5% – Senators
6.0% – Red Wings
5.0% – Sabres
3.5% – Ducks
3.0% – Sharks
2.5% – Blue Jackets
2.0% – Islanders
1.5% – Jets
0.5% – Canucks
0.5% – Golden Knights (*conditional)

“Beginning this season there will be a limit on the total number of selections (10) a team participating in the lottery can move up in the event it wins one of the lottery draws, a change announced by the NHL on March 23, 2021. Only the top 11 seeds will be eligible to receive the No. 1 selection in the 2022 draft.”

The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery drawing will be held May 10

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE

Connor McDavid, Oilers – 122 points
Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers – 115
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 113
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 109
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 106
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 105

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 60 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 55
Chris Kreider, Rangers – 52
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 50
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 45
Kyle Connor, Jets – 45
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 44

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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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.