NHL Push for the Playoffs: One question for every playoff team

NHL Push for the Playoffs: One question for every playoff team
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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.

With each passing day, there’s less and less to be settled for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even teams who don’t yet know their playoff opponent have a good idea who it will be. Of course, all 16 NHL playoff teams have already been determined.

As the 2021-22 season all-but-ends on Friday (there’s an explosively irrelevant makeup game Sunday between the Jets and Kraken), let’s ponder a question of all 16 NHL playoff teams.

Let’s mix the order of things up by starting with the West.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

NHL playoff questions: one for each of the 8 teams in the Western Conference

Avalanche: Should there be any concern about a (relatively) sluggish finish?

From April 18-24, the Avalanche endured a four-game losing streak, with each loss in regulation. The Oilers were the only playoff team in that bunch.

It prompted some to wonder if something’s wrong with the Avalanche. The best guess is that they were meandering through the end of a schedule where the West was already won. Still, you always want to enter the playoffs on a positive note, instead of stumbling — by admittedly high standards.

Blues: How long is the leash for Ville Husso?

As much as NHL teams want to win, political pressures can pull on a team when it comes to picking starting goalies.

In what could be a close series against the Wild, the Blues may feel pressure to turn to Jordan Binnington if Ville Husso suffers a bad start. After all, Binnington has that Stanley Cup win on his resume, he’s getting paid $6M per year through 2026-27, and Ville Husso’s NHL resume is small. (Husso hasn’t played a playoff game, and only has 56 NHL contests to his name.)

It sounds like Husso will start for the Blues in Game 1 vs. the Wild, but fair or not, the “tie” goes to the holdover.

It really needs to be noted just how strong of a season Husso’s put together for the Blues.

Husso is 25-6-6 with a .921 save percentage and 16.7 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). Binnington, meanwhile, is 18-14-4 with a .901 save percentage and a -6.6 GSAA.

That disparity should earn Husso some benefit of the doubt, but we’ll see what actually happens.

Wild: Would they waver from Marc-Andre Fleury?

While the Blues risk being too impatient with Ville Husso, the Wild have an interesting goalie situation to watch, too. They may end up presenting a flip: if they need to change goalies, will they identify the problem fast enough?

Naturally, they acquired Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline in hopes that he’d be a difference-maker. While Fleury and Cam Talbot give the Wild a steady duo, Dean Evason still must choose who to start and who to sit.

So far with the Wild, Fleury’s put up very similar stats to those of Cam Talbot. Minnesota might be open-minded, especially if the Blues and Wild end up scoring a ton of goals.

Flames: Will Johnny Gaudreau‘s sensational season translate to the playoffs?

Ah, NHL playoff time. When people wildly overreact to a couple weeks or a month of games that are simply more random than the more controlled play of, say, the NBA.

To some, Johnny Gaudreau is someone who can’t deliver in the playoffs. After all, he only managed an assist in five postseason games in 2018-19, and also went without a goal in four games in 2016-17. If it seems like Gaudreau goes cold after a season that thrust him back into the Hart Trophy conversation, then people will get weird, fast.

While the Flames provide more support for Gaudreau than ever, there’s still a huge gulf in production between Gaudreau’s line with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk vs. everyone else. A strong playoff run is the final piece of the puzzle for Gaudreau (who could really up his earning power, either with the Flames, or in free agency.)

Oilers: Is Edmonton a truly elite team under Jay Woodcroft?

Under Dave Tippett, the Oilers were a modest 23-18-3. Since Jay Woodcroft took over, the Oilers are 24-9-3. It doesn’t look like it’s beginner’s luck, alone, either.

That said, the Kings figure to challenge the Oilers’ structure, and maybe frustrate Connor McDavid by getting away with penalties. The narrative around Edmonton can change in a heartbeat — like a toilet seat going up and down.

Kings: Does Jonathan Quick have another strong playoff run in him?

The most likely path for the Kings to beat the Oilers is fairly simple. Contain that Oilers star power at 5-on-5, avoid taking too many penalties, and then win the goaltending battle.

Luckily, Jonathan Quick’s enjoyed a (fairly shocking) season of redemption. For the first time since 2017-18, Quick’s produced a positive GSAA, with a 3.3 mark heading into Thursday. They’ll need the veteran goalie to be sharp, and maybe hope for the opposite from Mike Smith at the other end.

Predators: Connor Ingram or David Rittich?

The Predators defied expectations by making the NHL playoff mix. With Juuse Saros most likely out, they’ll face even bigger odds in trying to win a series. It’s up to John Hynes to make the right call between journeyman backup David Rittich or largely untested Connor Ingram (or someone else, even?).

Stars: Can they replicate that 2020 Stanley Cup Final run?

From different goalies to an overwhelming emphasis on the Roope HintzJason RobertsonJoe Pavelski line, this Stars team isn’t the same as the one who made a surprise run. The formula is similar, though: stifle opponents, and hope to score enough to grind out wins.

It hasn’t always been pretty this season for the Stars, but it’s the sort of formula that can power a run every now and then.

NHL Scores
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NHL playoff questions: one for each of the 8 teams in the Eastern Conference

Panthers: Can their style work in the playoffs?

Look, I don’t like asking that question. It would be a shame if the Panthers fall short, and then deviate from a high-octane style that produced easily their best-ever playoff results. But dusty folks will be eager to doubt them if the Panthers stumble.

Maple Leafs: Will they crack under the pressure?

Most likely drawing the Lightning is just so cruel and just so Maple Leafs. For all we know, the Lightning could be primed for a “three-peat.” For many, it doesn’t matter: the Maple Leafs are failures if they fall in the first round again. It’s an unenviable situation, but also makes for great theater.

Lightning: Could they run out of gas?

Repeating is already tough enough in the modern NHL. But stringing three straight Stanley Cup runs together? Audacious. The Lightning haven’t exactly let up on their workhorses, sending Victor Hedman out for more than 25 minutes per game, and squeezing another heavy workload out of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Don’t be shocked if they hit a wall.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Hurricanes: Will goaltending undo them again?

After boldly revamping their goaltending in the offseason, the Carolina Hurricanes were vindicated. Frederik Andersen deserves to be a Vezina finalist, and teams might kick themselves for not giving Antti Raanta a longer look. Yet, both goalies suffered late-season injuries. Even if they’re both good to go, are we certain they’ll be at full-strength for the Hurricanes?

Rangers: Will they get a healthy Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp?

Speaking of late-season injuries, the Rangers lost Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp in a game where the Hurricanes clinched the Atlantic Division. Remove those two — or deploy them with physical limitations — and the Rangers may lose some of the gains they’ve made since the trade deadline.

Penguins: Did Pittsburgh miss its best window to truly compete?

At times this season, the Penguins looked like they could be dangerous. That hasn’t been the case as often down the stretch, particularly with Tristan Jarry suffering an injury. Don’t count this team out … but they could be on the verge of five straight seasons without a series win.

Bruins: Can they get enough goaltending to win with a low margin for error?

Even before trading for Hampus Lindholm, the Bruins provided arguably the best defensive structure of any team in the NHL. Combine that defense with an offense that’s found more balance at times, and the Bruins are about as fearsome as a wild-card team can get.

Chances are, though, the Bruins are going to hope for low-scoring games, and that means their goalies (Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman) need to deliver.

Capitals: Will Alex Ovechkin be available, and healthy?

The Russian Machine didn’t necessarily break, but it took some damage. It’s unclear if Alex Ovechkin will be available early in a playoff series, and if he’ll be close to full-strength even if he’s in the lineup. Ovechkin scored 50 goals and 90 points in 77 games this season, so yeah, this is pretty big for a Capitals team hoping to pull off some upsets.

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

Blue Jackets vs. Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals vs. Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning vs. Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche vs. Wild, 8 p.m. ET
Ducks vs. Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

FRIDAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

Tampa Bay will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division (and an A2-A3 First Round matchup vs. Toronto) and Boston will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and an M1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Carolina):

* If Tampa Bay defeats NY Islanders in any fashion

OR

* If Tampa Bay gets one point vs. NY Islanders AND Toronto defeats Boston in any fashion

OR

* If Toronto defeats Boston in regulation.

Boston will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division (and an A2-A3 First Round matchup vs. Toronto) and Tampa Bay will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and an M1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Carolina):

* If Boston defeats Toronto in any fashion AND NY Islanders defeat Tampa Bay in any fashion

OR

* If Boston gets one point vs. Toronto AND NY Islanders defeat Tampa Bay in regulation.

Pittsburgh will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division (and an M2-M3 First Round matchup vs. NY Rangers) and Washington will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and an A1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Florida):

* If Pittsburgh gets at least one point vs. Columbus

OR

* If NY Rangers defeat Washington in any fashion.

Washington will clinch the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division (and an M2-M3 First Round matchup vs. NY Rangers) and Pittsburgh will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and an A1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Florida):

* If Washington defeats NY Rangers in any fashion AND Columbus defeats Pittsburgh in regulation.

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

Minnesota will clinch the No. 2 seed in the Central Division (and home-ice advantage in the C2-C3 First Round matchup vs. St. Louis):

* If Minnesota gets at least one point vs. Colorado

OR

* If Vegas defeats St. Louis in any fashion.

St. Louis will clinch the No. 2 seed in the Central Division (and home-ice advantage in the C2-C3 First Round matchup vs. Minnesota):

* If St. Louis defeats Vegas in any fashion AND Colorado defeats Minnesota in regulation.

Nashville will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and a P1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Calgary) and Dallas will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and a C1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Colorado):

* If Nashville gets at least one point vs. Arizona

OR

* If Anaheim defeats Dallas in any fashion.

Dallas will clinch the Wild Card 1 seed (and a P1-WC1 First Round matchup vs. Calgary) and Nashville will clinch the Wild Card 2 seed (and a C1-WC2 First Round matchup vs. Colorado):

* If Dallas defeats Anaheim in any fashion AND Arizona defeats Nashville in regulation.

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES

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

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

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES

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

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES

Flames – clinched Pacific Division
Oilers – clinched
Kings – clinched
Golden Knights – eliminated
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 – 123 points
Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers – 115
Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – 115
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 110
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 106
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 106

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 60 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 55
Chris Kreider, Rangers – 52
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 50
Kyle Connor, Jets – 46
Kirill Kaprizov, Wild – 46
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 44

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.