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Push for the Playoffs: Coyotes look to continue impressive stretch

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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 Arizona Coyotes have overcome several hurdles this season. They’ve been hit hard by injuries, but that hasn’t stopped them from being in a playoff spot during the final stretch. Heading into tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the ‘Yotes have a one-point lead and a game in hand on the Minnesota Wild in the race for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

They could have given up when they lost their starting goalie, Antti Raanta, back in late-November, but they didn’t. They also traded away Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago earlier this season for Nick Schamltz, who has been out since the start of 2019, and only recently has Jason Demers returned to their lineup from a knee injury.

The Coyotes are 10-2-1 in their last 13 contests, which has increased their odds of making the playoffs by a wide margin. As well as they’ve played lately, they’re going to have to sustain that during a tough upcoming road trip that will see them travel to Tampa, Florida, New Jersey and New York (Islanders).

“McDavid is an elite player, and anything can happen 3-on-3. I’m proud of the guys, with five games in the last (eight) nights,” head coach Rick Tocchet said after Saturday’s OT loss to Edmonton, per NHL.com. “I thought the guys gave us juice (on Saturday). We’re fine. We got a point. We’re OK.”

They’ll have their work cut out for them tonight, but they’ve been playing so well that it’s difficult to count them out, even against the best team in the league.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Canucks at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Jets at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET
Golden Knights at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
• The Lightning (55-13-4, 114 points) will clinch the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and Presidents’ Trophy if they defeat the Coyotes in any fashion.

• The Sharks (43-21-8, 94 points) will clinch a playoff berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Golden Knights.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Capitals — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99.6 percent
Penguins — 98.5 percent
Hurricanes — 92.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 81 percent
Canadiens — 23 percent
Flyers — 4.6 percent
Panthers — 1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey-Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Sharks — 100 percent
Predators — 99.8 percent
Golden Knights — 99.7 percent
Blues — 98.1 percent
Stars — 87.3 percent
Coyotes — 61.2 percent
Wild — 25..9 percent
Avalanche — 14.7 percent
Blackhawks — 11.7 percent
Oilers — 1.2 percent
Canucks — 0.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Out

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Canucks — 6.5 percent
Sabres — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Avalanche — 3.5 percent
Blackhawks — 3 percent
Wild — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*Senators pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lighting — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 103 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 99 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 91 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — 91 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Draisaitl’s season shows Oilers’ hope goes beyond McDavid

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If you scan a list of the NHL’s leading scorers, one name might surprise you: Leon Draisaitl.

Heading into Friday’s games, the Edmonton Oilers forward ranks sixth with 89 points, and his 42 goals leave him second only to Alex Ovechkin.

When you hear people express disbelief that the Oilers can fail this hard with Connor McDavid on their roster, perhaps that shock should be adapted to also include Draisaitl.

To some extent, that only makes the Oilers’ mismanagement more damning. They’ve landed a superstar in McDavid, someone between a star and a superstar in Draisaitl (depending upon your taste), and oodles and noodles of draft lottery luck, yet they find themselves in this profoundly sad state.

That’s grim in the present, yet the “they have McDavid and Draisaitl” talking point should at least provide Oilers fans with at least some faint hope for the future.

Now, no doubt, Oilers fans are probably jaded. They’ve heard one too many times about an alleged light at the end of the tunnel.

Well … sorry. Let’s try to squint to see some light.

More on Draisaitl’s year

Before I delve a little deeper, it’s fair to provide some qualifiers regarding Draisaitl’s 42 goals and 89 points in just 70 games.

For one thing, there’s no denying that Draisaitl’s numbers are buoyed by the time he’s spent with McDavid. Anyone with a pulse would see their production improve alongside number 97, and Draisaitl is no different.

That said, it’s not like Draisaitl is wholly tethered to McDavid in the way that, say, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon barely ever play a shift without each other. As Natural Stat Trick’s listings show, McDavid is Draisaitl’s most common even-strength partner (648:10 with), yet Draisaitl’s also spent 435:24 without him.

The Oilers can wrestle with the loading up versus spreading the wealth question for years, but either way, it seems pretty clear that Draistail is for real.

This season’s numbers won’t be easy to match, though. Before 2018-19, Draisaitl showed some goal scoring ability, generating 29 in 2016-17 and 25 last season. His 42 goals come on an inflated 21.4 shooting percentage, much higher than his-already-fairly high career percentage of 15.7.

That number’s almost certain to go down, although maybe not catastrophically so if Draisaitl sticks with McDavid more often than not. (McDavid’s really that special.)

The best other pieces

Whether Draisaitl slides in on McDavid’s wing or serves as the 2C, the Oilers have two pieces just about anyone would clamor for at forward. So, what else?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Somehow, he’s only 25; it feels like he’s been suffering in Edmonton for our natural-born lives.

Maybe RNH won’t ever dazzle quite at the level that you’d want from a top overall pick, but he’s a steady scorer, generating 22 goals already this season (two short of his career-high), and already set a new career-high with 58 points.

Nugent-Hopkins seems like a perennial trade rumor target, but Edmonton would be smart just to keep him. Much like with Draisaitl, RNH gives Edmonton some versatility. He can be a center, or also give McDavid a more talented winger than the Oilers have normally been able to furnish. At this prime-age and at an affordable $6M cap hit through 2020-21, RNH is a nice asset.

(You could argue that maybe there could be actual value in trading RNH but … *gets interrupted by Oilers fans shrieking at the mention of another risky trade*)

Oscar Klefbom – A very good, very affordable, defenseman in his prime at 25. Even more than RNH, thank goodness the Oilers didn’t recklessly trade Klefbom for peanuts.

Varied value

Jesse Puljujärvi – Look, for all we know, he really might be a lost cause.

But even if he is, and the Oilers decide to part ways with Puljujärvi, they likely wouldn’t have sold lower than if they moved him during this fraught, lost season.

And there’s a possibility that things could go very right. Maybe a new coach would give the 20-year-old a clean slate? Perhaps he’s just a guy, but one who might sign a team-friendly contract as an RFA this summer?

His development could be key in the Oilers giving their top guys crucial support. There’s plenty of room for growth, and it’s not that outrageous to picture Puljujärvi actually figuring things out.

Kailer Yamamoto, Evan Bouchard – For Peter Chiarelli’s many many many foibles, he seemed to fall in line with conventional wisdom in recent drafts, which feels like a good thing. That can always change, as prospects are tough to project, but players like Yamamoto and Bouchard might be able to provide future boosts. That’s important if the Oilers remain cap-crunched thanks to lousy contracts like those of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell.

Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse – We can go back and forth about how valuable these two defensemen are. Opinions likely range based on the ups and downs of their seasons. But, really, both have reasonable-enough contracts, and can probably help a team win. They sure beat many of the Oilers’ other options, whether they are in the system or free agency.

(Maybe a trade would actually make sen—*interrupted by another shriek*)

Andrej Sekera – It’s been a lost season for the veteran defenseman, but maybe he’s not as “done” as he seemed?

The 32-year-old’s been limited to 12 games played so far, and hasn’t scored much (two assists) or logged big minutes (16:33 TOI average), yet Sekera’s possession numbers are strong enough to prompt some positive thinking. If nothing else, maybe Sekera could take minutes from lesser defensemen, like Russell?

***

The Oilers have some fantastic pieces (McDavid, Draisaitl), and some undeniable problems (bad contracts, executive who still might not “get it”).

Ultimately, there’s no downplaying how important it is to hire the right GM, and to make sure that no one gets in the way, bungling things like always. It would be convenient if this was just a matter of Chiarelli messing things up, but Edmonton’s issues extend well beyond Chiarelli’s era of errors.

The thing is, if a new GM hit the right notes, the Oilers could actually become a team worthy of McDavid’s and Draisatil’s time — and maybe turn things around pretty quickly.

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Hurricanes look to keep climbing standings

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 Carolina Hurricanes have been on a roll over the last few weeks. Outside of an embarrassing 8-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, the ‘Canes have done a great job of collecting points in the standings. That loss to the Jets is the only one they’ve suffered in regulation since Feb. 21. You’d think that this recent surge would put them in a secure spot when it comes to the playoffs, but they haven’t locked anything up just yet.

As of right now, the Hurricanes are sitting in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to their 81 points. They’re two points up on Columbus, who owns the second Wild Card spot, and two points up on Montreal, who is out of the postseason picture (Carolina has a game in hand).

Even though tonight’s matchup against Colorado is a non-conference game, it still looms large for both teams. The Avs have their own playoff battle going on, which means they need the points just as much as Carolina does.

Instead of looking behind them, the Hurricanes can also look ahead. Pittsburgh is simply two points ahead. A Carolina win in regulation or overtime would allow them to move in front of the Pens for third in the Metropolitan Division.

“It’s been the story of the year,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Saturday’s win over Nashville, per the News & Observer. “We’re a battling team. We’re working hard, but we’re making mistakes just like everyone else. We need big saves at key times, and that’s what we’ve been getting.”

Can the Hurricanes finally get back into the playoffs?

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Lightning at Maple Leafs, 7:00 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Islanders , 7:00 p.m. ET
Senators at Flyers, 7:00 p.m. ET
Sharks at Wild, 8:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN, live stream)
Coyotes at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Hurricanes at Avalanche, 9:00 p.m. ET
Rangers at Oilers, 9:00 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Lightning – In
Bruins – 100 percent
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Capitals – 99.7 percent
Islanders – 98.8 percent
Penguins – 96.7 percent
Hurricanes – 88.1 percent
Blue Jackets – 67.5 percent
Canadiens – 42.6 percent
Flyers – 5.4 percent
Panthers – 0.9 percent
Sabres – 0.3 percent
Rangers – 0 percent
Devils – Out
Red Wings – Out
Senators – Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Sharks – 100 percent
Flames – 100 percent
Jets – 100 percent
Predators – 99.5 percent
Golden Knights – 99 percent
Blues – 98.6 percent
Stars – 80 percent
Coyotes 44.3 percent
Wild – 40.3 percent
Avalanche – 34.6 percent
Oilers – 2 percent
Blackhawks – 1.7 percent
Canucks – 0.2 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent*
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Canucks – 7.5 percent
Blackhawks – 6.5 percent
Oilers – 6 percent
Rangers – 5 percent
Sabres – 3.5 percent
Panthers – 3 percent
Avalanche – 2.5 percent
Wild – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Canadiens – 1 percent
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 110 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 97 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 96 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 88 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 87 points
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 86 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 40 goals
Cam Atkinson, Blue Jackets – 38 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Blackhawks 37 goals

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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: Niederreiter keeps scoring; Atkinson lifts Blue Jackets into wildcard spot

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Three stars

1. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes were going to need a hell of a performance against the Nashville Predators to beat them a night after the Canes dropped an 8-1 decision against the Winnipeg Jets.

Playing the top two teams in the Central Division on consecutive days seems like an unfair lot in life, but the Hurricanes swept aside their embarrassing loss on Friday and putting together a fine display in a 5-3 win on Saturday, helping them stay in third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Niederreiter led the way, scoring twice in the first period to declare Carolina’s intent. ‘El Nino’ has been lights out since he was traded to Raleigh from Minnesota. He has 11 goals and 10 assists in 22 games since the move.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

With the Blue Jackets struggling recently, Atkinson used a four-letter word to explain that the team needed to screw it on straight and start winning again. After losing to the Penguins on Thursday, Columbus needed a bounceback to climb back into a playoff spot and they got just that, with Atkinson scoring twice in a 4-1 win as the Blue Jackets moved into the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference, level on points with the Montreal Canadiens (who lost on Saturday), who have an inferior number of ROWs.

3. Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche

The Avs needed this one, if only to lift their spirits after the loss of Gabriel Landeskog for the remainder of the regular season.

Grubauer stood tall, making the 18 saves required of him in a 3-0 shutout of the Buffalo Sabres. The win moved the Avalanche to within two points of the final wildcard in the Western Conference.

It’s a long shot, especially with their captain lost to injury, but Nathan MacKinnon picked up the slack in this one, putting up points on all three goals to make sure Grubauer had the run support.

Highlights of the night

One of two incredible paddles saves by Matt Murray in Pittsburgh’s loss:

Scott Hartnell ceremonial faceoffs are the best ceremonial faceoffs:

When you get knocked down, always get back up:

Dirty pass, filthy goal:

So close…

Factoids

Scores

Avalanche 3, Sabres 0
Sharks 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Maple Leafs 3, Oilers 2
Bruins 3, Senators 2
Lightning 3, Red Wings 2
Flyers 5, Islanders 2
Rangers 4, Devils 2
Blue Jackets 4, Penguins 1
Coyotes 4, Kings 2
Hurricanes 5, Predators 3
Blackhawks 2, Stars 1
Golden Knights 6, Canucks 2


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