Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

The Buzzer: McDavid, Crawford should’ve given spoiler alerts

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Three Stars

1. Corey Crawford leads a group of spoiler goalies

Quite a few goalies made life miserable for teams in desperate situations, and Crawford topped the list. He generated an impressive (and, for the Canadiens, deeply annoying) 48-save shutout on Saturday, absolutely stealing a win for the Blackhawks. Even with Chicago now on a five-game winning streak, it would be surprising if we look back at that shutout as anything more than the Blackhawks spoiling a chance for Montreal to improve its playoff chances.

Again, that was in the air on Saturday.

Red Wings fans are likely reading through prospect rankings and wondering who will run the team in the future right now, but getting wins at this time of year? They might be rooting for the opposite, at least those who cross their fingers for higher draft lottery odds.

With that in mind, Jonathan Bernier wasn’t just a spoiler for the Islanders in making 41 out of 42 saves; he was, to an extent, a spoiler for his own team … depending upon how you look at things.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington is doing the opposite of spoiling the Blues’ season, but he certainly robbed the Penguins often, making 40 of 41 saves. (Also of note: Anders Nilsson generated 35 saves as the Senators upset the Maple Leafs.)

2. Alex Killorn

It’s difficult to differentiate some strong three-point performances from Saturday, except one stands out as pretty tough to deny. Killorn generated a hat trick as the Lightning beat the Capitals in a testy game.

Killorn now has 16 goals in 2018-19, leaving him three behind his career-high of 19.

If you want to bring it back to playing spoiler again: the Lightning have basically everything locked up right now, so they messed up the Capitals’ chances of fattening their lead for the Metropolitan Division title.

3. Connor McDavid

Again, this is tough. Among other candidates, two Panthers (Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov) enjoyed three-point games.

Like Dadonov, McDavid generated two goals and one assist for his three points (Barkov had thre assists).

McDavid gets the edge in some ways, and no, it’s not just that he’s Connor McDavid. For one thing, McDavid nabbed a game-winning goal with his overtime-winner. For another, McDavid scored this way for his other goal, generating arguably the highlight of the night:

So, slight advantage: number 97.

(Oh yeah, and the Oilers beat the Coyotes in OT, spoiling Arizona’s efforts to get a full two points.)

Highlight of the Night

Actually, I’m call it: that McDavid goal was the highlight of the night. So, with that, enjoy a bonus: the latest Hurricanes win celebration goes the “curling” route.

Question: does this mean they’re only getting more ingenious with their celes, or are they running out of ideas?

Factoids

  • McDavid now has multiple points in seven-consecutive games. Only two other Oilers have done that: Wayne Gretzky (15 times!) and Mark Messier (once). McDavid’s seven-game streak ties two other players for the longest run in 2018-19: Nikita Kucherov and Auston Matthews.
  • Connor Hellebuyck hits the 30-win mark once again. This makes for a nice feat for him, and quite the indictment on those who came before him, as he’s the only Thrashers/Jets goalie to post consecutive 30-win seasons.
  • Jordan Staal scored his 500th point, allowing him to join his brother Eric Staal on a select list of siblings:

Scores

STL 5 – PIT 1
DET 2 – NYI 1
FLA 4 – LAK 3
WIN 2 – CGY 1
BOS 2 – CBJ 1 (OT)
CHI 2 – MTL 0
OTT 6 – TOR 2
TBL 6 – WSH 3
CAR 4 – BUF 2
MIN 5 – NYR 2
EDM 3 – ARI 2 (OT)
NSH 4 – SJS 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.

Wild aren’t going away, despite injuries and trades

You’re to be forgiven if you had already written off the Minnesota Wild this season because, well, it was a pretty easy thing to do.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were in the middle of a stretch where they had lost nine out of 10 games, were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and surrounded by a pile of teams that all seemed to be in a better position to make a run at a playoff spot than they were, and the roster was in the process of being torn apart by trades and injuries.

Already playing without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba, they also lost their captain, Mikko Koivu, for the remainder of the season.

As if those two injuries were not enough, there were the trades that saw Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund all get shipped off in exchange for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala. Those trades allowed the Wild to get younger and a little cheaper, but it didn’t seem to make the team much better in the short-term (or even the long-term where a couple of those trades are still questionable moves).

There was every reason to believe the season was teetering on the edge of collapse not long after coach Bruce Boudreau all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

Somehow, even with all of that adversity and roster upheaval, the Wild have managed to collect a point in seven consecutive games (winning five of them) and still have a hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference, sitting two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and only two games back of the St. Louis Blues for the third spot in the Central Division.

Their past five games alone have been against Calgary, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Nashville (twice) and they managed to come out of that stretch with eight out of a possible 10 points. That is three of the top teams in the Western Conference and a fourth (St. Louis) that is one of the hottest teams in the league. And they came out way better than could have reasonably been expected going in.

What is driving that recent success?

For one, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk deserves a lot of credit for playing some outstanding hockey over that stretch, posting a .935 save percentage and a 5-0-1 record. If you get a .935 save percentage (and let’s not forget backup Alex Stalock posted a .953 mark in his one appearance during that stretch, too)  you are going to have a chance to win a lot of hockey games no matter what the rest of your roster looks like or who you are playing on any given night.

They have also received some big contributions from some of their newest acquisitions.

Since arriving from Boston in the Coyle trade Donato has been one of the team’s best offensive players with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Fiala also had a big game on Tuesday night with a pair of goals against his former team to help the Wild secure at least a point in the standings.

Eric Staal has also been on a role as of late with nine points over the past seven games.

[Related: Zach Parise having sneaky good season for Wild]

Put all of that together and suddenly the playoffs don’t just seem to be a possibility for the Wild, they seem to have a great chance to punch their ticket even with all of the chaos that has happened within.

It certainly helped that they caught Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville when they did, because while all three are the top teams in the West, none of them have really played their best hockey as of late.

It has also helped that the competition for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference has thinned out dramatically.

Vancouver, Chicago, Edmonton, and Anaheim — teams that were all within a point or two of a playoff spot just a couple of weeks ago — have fallen back out of the race and now sit as many as seven points back. None of them, realistically speaking, are a serious threat to the Wild (or anyone else in the playoff race, for that matter).

The two biggest threats on the outside remain Colorado and Arizona, while Minnesota still has a head-to-head game remaining with each.

A couple of weeks ago the Wild were a battered team whose roster was in the process of being broken apart and were one of nine teams fighting for what would only be three playoff spots.

Today that potential playoff race has been whittled down to just five teams fighting for the same three spots.

The Wild are not only one of the five teams still in it, they are probably sitting in a better position and playing better than at least three of them. That might be all they need to get in the postseason and give themselves a chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Wild visit Predators on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Tuesday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second half of a home-and-home series after the Predators defeated the Wild 3-2 in a shootout on Sunday in Minnesota. This is the third of four regular season meetings this season after Nashville won the first two. They will meet a final time on March 25 in Minnesota.

It was a momentous win for the Predators, who had lost three of their previous four games in regulation, all of them to Central Division opponents. The Predators are just one point behind the Jets for first in the Central, but Winnipeg has three games in hand.

After the loss on Sunday, Minnesota still has a six-game point streak (5-0-1) and occupies the second Wild Card spot in the West. Still, they do not have much breathing room with Arizona (two points back) and Colorado (three points back) nipping at their heels.

The Wild are tied with the Ducks for the second longest active playoff streak in the league. Right now, it is highly unlikely Anaheim makes the postseason and Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes, the only team ahead of them, are still in doubt in the East.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Minnesota Wild at Nashville Predators
Where: Bridgestone Arena
When: Tuesday, March 5, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Wild-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoWayne Simmonds
Frederick Gaudreau / Brian BoyleColton SissonsCalle Jarnkrok

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt Donovan – Matt Irwin

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jordan GreenwayEric StaalJason Zucker
Zach PariseLuke KuninKevin Fiala
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerAnthony Bitetto

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and Nashville Predators fan Josef Newgarden will be an ‘Inside-the-Glass’ guest tonight during the first period of Wild-Predators. He will join Pierre McGuire and John Walton (play-by-play), who will have the call from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

* * *

NBC Sports will take fans inside the sounds and passion of hockey with a one-hour special – “Wired: Stadium Series – Penguins vs. Flyers” – that will utilize audio from players, coaches and referees from the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on NBC. It airs March 5 at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN here.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nashville has lost two straight in regulation after dropping a 5-3 affair at Winnipeg on Friday. The Preds come in having lost three of their last four (1-3-0) but very much look headed towards their fifth straight playoff appearance. They are currently one point back of the Jets for first in the Central Division as Nashville could win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history – a year after winning its first division crown and the club’s first Presidents’ Trophy.

The Preds rank fifth in the league in goals against/game (2.64) and have the second-most points by defenseman (172) this season, behind San Jose. Roman Josi leads this charge with 51 points (second on team), followed by Matthias Ekholm (42 – third on team).

The Wild will return home to play the Preds and then head back out for a three-game road trip (Nashville, Tampa, Florida). Minnesota beat the Blues in its most recent home game snapping a six-game home losing streak. The Wild have not won two straight home games since Dec. 11 and 13.

It’s been the youngsters coming through for the Wild recently. Newly acquired Ryan Donato (age 22) scored a goal last night against Calgary. Donato has recorded a point in each of his first five games with the Wild (2G-5A). Only one player in franchise history has posted a longer such streak: Pavol Demitra (six GP in 2006-07). Donato had just nine points (6G-3A) in 34 games with Boston this season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Sunday, March 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Mikael GranlundKyle TurrisCalle Jarnkrok
Brian BoyleNick BoninoColton Sissons
Rocco GrimaldiFrederick GaudreauWayne Simmonds

Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
Kevin FialaLuke KuninZach Parise
Ryan Donato – Joel Eriksson EkPontus Aberg
Marcus FolignoEric Fehr – J.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinNick Seeler
Anthony BitettoBrad Hunt

Starting goalie: Alex Stalock

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.