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Push for the Playoffs: Jets looking to add some cushion to Central Division lead

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 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.

The lead for the Central Division has flip-flopped back and forth lately, but the Winnipeg Jets can begin to distance themselves from the Nashville Predators with a win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday.

Winnipeg holds three games in hand over the Predators and a one-point lead in the Central. With Nashville dropping a 5-3 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday (a team the Jets walloped 8-1 the night before), the Jets can add a bit of cushioning to their lead with a win.

Neither team has looked like it’s wanted to take the bull by the horns. Winnipeg has just four wins in their past 10 games and Nashville has only done one better. St. Louis, whose charge has put them in third place, have also cooled off (although they have two games in hand on the Predators and are four points back of Nashville, with both teams level on ROWs).

Winnipeg’s offensive onslaught on Friday night in Raleigh was a game Jets fans were wondering had gone. The once dominant Jets have hit a snag recent weeks, but are now winners of three of their past four games. Patrik Laine has found his game again and Blake Wheeler has traded his assist stick in for a goalscorer’s one.

Winnipeg’s strength of schedule is one of the worst down the stretch. This week alone, the Jets play Washington today, San Jose Tuesday, Boston on Thursday and Calgary Saturday. Every one of those teams is in a high-ranked playoff position.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Eastern Conference
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Penguins
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Western Conference
Sharks vs. Wild
Jets vs. Stars
Flames vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Red Wings vs. Panthers (5 p.m. ET)
Jets vs. Capitals (7 p.m. ET)
Bruins vs. Penguins (7:30 p.m. ET — WATCH LIVE on NBCSN)
Golden Knights vs. Flames (9:30 p.m. ET)
Kings vs. Ducks (10 p.m. ET — WATCH LIVE on NBCSN)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Tampa Bay Lightning — Clinched
Boston Bruins — 100 percent
Toronto Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Washington Capitals — 99.4 percent
New York Islanders — 98.9 percent
Pittsburgh Penguins — 94.2 percent
Carolina Hurricanes — 88.7 percent
Columbus Blue Jackets — 68.1 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 44.1 percent
Philadelphia Flyers — 5.8 percent
Florida Panthers — 0.6 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 0.3 percent
New York Rangers — 0.0 percent
Detroit Red Wings — 0.0 percent
New Jersey Devils — Out
Ottawa Senators — Out

Western Conference

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Calgary Flames — 100 percent
San Jose Sharks — 100 percent
Winnipeg Jets — 100 percent
Nashville Predators — 99.5 percent
Vegas Golden Knights — 98.9 percent
St. Louis Blues — 98.6 percent
Dallas Stars — 80.2 percent
Arizona Coyotes — 44.5 percent
Minnesota Wild — 40.2 percent
Colorado Avalanche — 34.3 percent
Edmonton Oilers — 2 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 1.7 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 0.2 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 0.0 percent
Los Angeles Kings — 0.0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Ottawa Senators — 18.5 percent*
Los Angeles Kings — 13.5 percent
Detroit Red Wings — 11.5 percent
New Jersey Devils — 9.5 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 8.5 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 7.5 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 6.5 percent
Edmonton Oilers — 6 percent
New York Rangers — 5 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 3.5 percent
Florida Panthers — 3 percent
Colorado Avalanche — 2.5 percent
Minnesota Wild — 2 percent
Philadelphia Flyers — 1.5 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 1 percent

(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 110 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 97 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 96 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 87 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — 87 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 40 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 38 goals


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Eberle fights Konecny; Cole’s questionable hit

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

The Blue Jackets put forth a nice effort on Sunday, but they couldn’t stop Blake Wheeler. He scored four goals (a hat trick plus an empty-netter), including the game-winner as Winnipeg greatly impeded Columbus’ push toward a playoff spot.

Wheeler extended his point streak to six games (five goals, seven assists for 12 points), and he’s been especially hot lately, as he combined Sunday’s four goals with three points (one goal, two assists) from Friday.

The 32-year-old now has 80 points in 65 games this season, the second-best total of his career. He has a strong chance of meeting or passing his career-high of 91 points in 81 games from 2017-18.

2. Mark Scheifele

Wheeler was the only player to manage four points on Sunday, while Scheifele stood ahead of everyone beyond his winger with three (everyone else scored two or fewer).

Scheifele generated his three points via assists, finishing that win against Columbus with a +4 rating. The 25-year-old center now has 75 points in 65 games during the 2018-19 campaign, seven behind his career-high of 82 back in 2016-17.

3. Claude Giroux

Among the many changes over the years in Philly, there seems to be one constant when things are going well: Claude Giroux turning it up a notch.

Sure, they’ve received great goaltending from Carter Hart, and are now getting sneaky-good work from Brian Elliott after the veteran healed up from injuries, but Giroux still drives the bus.

Giroux generated two assists as the Flyers beat the Islanders on Sunday, pushing his point streak to five consecutive games (two goals, seven assists). Remarkably, Giroux’s generated multiple points in four of those five games.

Overall, the 31-year-old forward has 70 points in 66 games.

Unlikely fight

You wouldn’t expect to see a fight between Jordan Eberle and Travis Konecny, but that’s what happened on Sunday, and it was a pretty spirited affair:

Suspension coming for Ian Cole?

The Colorado Avalanche defenseman was ejected for this ugly knee-to-knee on Devin Shore:

Highlights

Filip Chytil‘s no-look assist is probably the best moment from these Caps-Rangers highlights, but you’d likely also be entertained by the way things finished (in Alex Ovechkin‘s favor):

Jakob Silfverberg has an argument for Three Stars inclusion with a goal and an assist, especially if you factor in cool points. What a great way to score his 100th goal:

Factoids

Scores

WSH 3 – NYR 2 (SO)
PHI 4 – NYI 1
VGK 3 – VAN 0
ANA 2 – COL 1
OTT 3 – FLA 2
WPG 5 – CBJ 2
NSH 3 – MIN 2 (SO)
SJS 5 – CHI 2

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.

It was a really bad weekend for the Blue Jackets

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Allow me to summarize the good things that happened for the Columbus Blue Jackets this weekend: at least the Canadiens didn’t pry a standings point in losing to the Penguins on Saturday.

Yep, that’s about it.

After falling 4-0 to the struggling Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, the Blue Jackets fell 5-2 to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. In a time where every game really counts, Columbus managed zero of a possible four points during those two games.

And, really, after going all-in at the trade deadline, things have basically been going all-wrong.

They’ve now lost three of four games since deciding to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, while also loading up on players, most notably Matt Duchene. (Columbus also only managed four points out of a five-game homestand, going 2-3-0.)

Generally speaking, the Penguins, Hurricanes, and Canadiens have been taking care of their business while Columbus is fighting it — the Penguins even beat Columbus in regulation (5-2) the day after the deadline.

With the Hurricanes winning dramatically on Saturday, and the Penguins beating Montreal, the standings look troubling for Columbus:

Metro 3 – Hurricanes: 36-23-6: 78 points, 65 games played, 35 regulation/OT wins

Wild card 1 – Penguins: 34-22-9: 77 points, 65 GP, 33 ROW
WC 2 – Canadiens: 35-24-7: 77 points, 66 GP, 33 ROW

Ninth: Blue Jackets: 36-26-3, 75 points, 65 GP, 36 ROW

Of course, this weekend doesn’t totally submarine the Blue Jackets’ dreams. They still have 17 games remaining in the regular season, including crucial back-to-back games against the Penguins (March 7 and 9) coming up next week.

But the pall that went over the crowd in Columbus on Sunday really hammered home the fears that the Blue Jackets won’t just fall frustratingly short of a deep run like years past — there’s legitimate concern about making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at all.

It’s not like the Blue Jackets played terribly on Sunday, even though they were wrapping up a back-to-back set.

They generated a 42-26 shots on goal advantage against the Jets, and you can’t explain it away as “score effects” alone, as the game was tied 2-2 going into the third period. Artemi Panarin did his part with two assists, but Blake Wheeler‘s four-goal output ended up making the difference.

It’s silly to say Columbus isn’t trying, or to throw Panarin under the bus, but one legitimate worry – beyond the Blue Jackets’ place in the standings – is the play of Sergei Bobrovsky.

He allowed four goals in each of the past two games, even though Bob only played in two of three periods on Saturday. After generating back-to-back shutouts heading into the trade deadline, Bobrovsky’s allowed an ugly 15 goals in his last four appearances.

Whether it’s a coincidence, Bobrovsky faltering in a clutch, almost playoff-like situation once again, or this being a matter of an unhappy goalie who wanted out of Columbus, the Blue Jackets must think long and hard about how much they should count on Bobrovsky instead of, say, Joonas Korpisalo or Keith Kinkaid down the stretch.

Because, frankly, they can’t really survive many more weekends – or even days – like these.

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.

The Buzzer: Pavelski hits 35; Kuemper wins fourth straight

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Three stars

1. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

Pavelski cares little about being 34, he’s just going to score and score and score some more.

Pavelski notched his first hat trick of the season, and goals No. 33, 34 and 35 in a 5-3 win for the San Jose Sharks at the Detroit Red Wings.

With 19 games remaining for the Sharks in the regular season, it appears that Pavelski will reach his career-high mark of 41 sent during the 2013-14 season. The way he’s been scoring this season, he might just set a new career mark.

This is a dirty tip, by the way:

2. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

Kuemper was solid against the Winnipeg Jets in a 4-1 win, allowing a single, unstoppable shot from Patrik Laine as he stopped 34 of 35 shots.

The Coyotes took advantage of the Jets, and Kuemper made sure they had all the confidence on the back end, stopping 11 shots on the power play, including a couple from Laine, who has returned to picking his spots again.

The win was huge for the Coyotes, who are now three points back of the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference. They’re right there, along with several other teams in a remarkably tight race.

Kuemper has won his past four starts now, allowing two goals or fewer in each of them.

3. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild 

Dubnyk had some pretty atrocious outings prior to his current three-game heater.

But the formidable Devan Dubnyk appears to be back between the pipes in Minnesota, and not a moment too soon.

Dubnyk turned aside 27 shots in a 2-1 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues, giving the Wild their third-straight win (and first on home ice in six tries). The Wild are in the thick of it in the race for a wildcard spot in the Western Conference, so Minnesota is going to need a lot more of this down the stretch drive. Dubnyk is capable of playing this week, and for extended periods. This will need to be one of those.

Highlights of the night

Sure, it was an empty-net goal, but that’s as good as those get off a backhand from behind the center line:

Well-deserved:

Here’s the tribute video for Doan:

Behind many of Patrik Laine’s goals is an elite pass from Blake Wheeler:

Donato’d

Sweet hands:

Factoids

Scores

Capitals 6, Rangers 5 (OT)
Stars 4, Blackhawks 3
Sharks 5, Red Wings 3
Wild 2, Blues 1 (OT)
Flames 2, Senators 1
Coyotes 4, Jets 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck