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The Buzzer: Avalanche land last spot in West

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Three Stars

1. Phil Kessel

This is actually a dual Penguins three-point scorer award, as both Kessel and Sidney Crosby (one goal, two assists) enjoyed three-point nights as Pittsburgh clinched a playoff spot.

Kessel gets the edge for a couple reasons, though. For one thing, he had more goals than Crosby, as Kessel’s points came via two goals and one assist. One of the winger’s goals ended up standing as the game-winner, too.

With 82 points in 81 games, this ties Kessel’s 2011-12 as his second-best output, behind only last year’s 92. While Kessel seems to find his name mentioned far too often in trade rumors, the guy just keeps delivering. In particular, he probably deserves more credit for being “clutch,” as he’s been dynamite for the Penguins in postseason situations, and also important regular season moments like these.

Also, he once filled the Stanley Cup with hot dogs for trolling purposes. Pretty good final tiebreaker, actually.

2. Alexander Steen

As An Increasingly Old, I can relate to Steen slowing down, as the Blues forward has done at 35.

It’s nice to see strong outbursts like these from Steen, then, unless you’re a part of the Central Division jumble where three spots still haven’t been decided. Then you’d probably prefer the Blues to be a one-line team, thank you very much.

Steen scored two goals and one assist on Thursday, with one of those tallies coming shorthanded. His 27 points are more solid when you realize he’s been limited to 64 games played, so maybe he can heat up for the postseason?

3. Petr Mrazek

It was tempting to go for Jack Eichel (one goal and two assists, and you’ll see that one of those helpers ended up being special) or Jaroslav Halak, who pitched a 26-save shutout. There were other nice performances, too.

With the Sabres eliminated and the Bruins already locked in place, the Hurricanes “needed” more out of Mrazek, at least for a while. The complications of clinching scenarios called for some changes, but the bottom line is that Mrazek played well enough to make the process more straightforward for Carolina, as the clinched a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending a decade-long postseason drought.

Highlights of the Night

Two moments of great passing really took the cake on Thursday. First, check out this sweet no-look pass by almost-third-star Jack Eichel to Sam Reinhart:

If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for fantastic breakout passes, and Dougie Hamilton provided exactly that to Warren Foegele:

Factoids

  • There will be greater detail on this later, but in the East, the Capitals clinched the Metropolitan Division title, while the Penguins and Hurricanes locked down playoff berths. Out West, the Avalanche clinched their spot, punctuated by this goal from Nathan MacKinnon to Erik Johnson, thus knocking off the Coyotes. The West’s eight is set, while positioning is still to be determined in certain situations.

(Technically, this goal really secured the spot, but the Johnson goal was more fun.)

Scores

BUF 5 – OTT 2
TBL 3 – TOR 1
NYI 2 – FLA 1 (SO)
PIT 4 – DET 1
WSH 2 – MTL 1
CAR 3 – NJD 1
STL 7 – PHI 3
NSH 3 – VAN 2
BOS 3 – MIN 0
COL 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
SJS 3 – EDM 2
ARI 4 – VGK 1

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.

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

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.

Sabres’ rebuild is still going nowhere

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For about three weeks back in November the Buffalo Sabres had their fans fooled.

It was then that they went on an improbable 10-game win streak to record their best start in years and finally show some signs that their perpetual rebuild was going to produce a positive result.

This was going to be the year that all of the waiting, losing, and disappointment was going to be worth it.

Even if you were of the belief that the win streak was the product of some good luck and an unsustainable run of overtime/shootout and one-goal victories (which almost all of the wins were) it still seemed like they had done enough to give themselves a decent cushion to cover for whatever inevitable regression might follow.

The only thing that could undo it at that point was an epic failure on behalf of the entire team.

More than three months later it has become abundantly clear that the epic failure has happened. Given where the Sabres are coming from, should any of it be a surprise?

The whole thing was a mirage, a total fluke, and nothing more than a temporary and all too brief break from the miserable run of irrelevance that has plagued the Sabres organization for the better part of a decade.

The low point of the season probably came over the weekend when they played a Colorado Avalanche team that has been equally disappointing in the second half and was also playing without one of its best players in Gabriel Landeskog. In that game the Sabres put forth one of the sorriest efforts of the season by any team when they were outshot by a 43-18 margin in a 3-0 loss that was way more one-sided than the final score would have you believe. Keep in mind that with just under two minutes remaining in the game the shot clock had the Avalanche with a 42-12 advantage. It wasn’t until the Sabres pulled their goalie for an extra attacker in a last ditch effort to do something that they were able to register even the smallest threat of offense.

What is worse is that it is hard to see why there should be much hope for better results in the immediate future with this organization.

We have spent a lot of time this season (and rightfully so, I might add) marveling at the incompetence of the Edmonton Oilers to build a successful team around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (and it truly is stunning), but keep something in mind about the Oilers — they at least made the playoffs once so far with McDavid, won a playoff series, and were a Game 7 loss away from being in the Western Conference Final.

Sure, everything that has been sandwiched around that makes that one season look like an outlier, but the Sabres don’t even have that.

In a lot of ways this team is worse than the team that is widely regarded to be the most inept team in the league.

That is not good!

[Related: Sabres’ captain Eichel disagrees with two-game suspension]

You might counter that by arguing that the Oilers have more high-end talent with McDavid and Draisaitl, and were also starting from a better place with a boatload of literal No. 1 overall draft picks. That would be a fair point. Sort of. But it’s not like the Sabres haven’t had a run of great draft picks in recent years.

When the Sabres tore their organization to the ground back in 2013 the intent was to stock up on premium draft picks (hopefully one that would land them Connor McDavid), rebuild the organization around the type of impact talent you can find at the top of the draft, and go from there.

The lottery balls were not always in their favor, but they were still in a good position to load the organization with talent.

They have not picked lower than eighth in draft since 2012.

They have had two No. 2 overall picks and a No. 1 overall pick.

One of those No. 2 overall picks produced Jack Eichel, and while he may not be on McDavid’s level he is still a bonafide star and a player that should, by year four in the NHL, be the centerpiece of a playoff team.

The other one was used on Sam Reinhart, who was taken one spot ahead of Draisaitl.

The result of all of those top-10 picks and a full-scale rebuild is a team that is headed for its eight consecutive non-playoff season (and 10th in the past 12 years) and has not won a playoff series since 2007.

Things have been so bad this decade that if they maintain their current pace and reach 83 points it would be their best finish since 2012. Based on the current Eastern Conference playoff projections, that would keep them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot and 24 points behind the third place team in their own division.

Again, this is a team that two months into the season they had the best record in the league thanks in large part to that 10-game winning streak!

That is where the problems really start to show.

In the 58 games independent of that fluke run they playing at a 69 point pace over 82 games, which is just about on par with what every Sabres team has done over the past few years. And remember the context of that winning streak: Nothing about it was sustainable. Seven of those 10 games were won in overtime or a shootout, while nine of them were decided by a single goal. If even two or three of those games go in the other direction (which can easily happen when you rely on that many overtimes and shootouts) the season easily gets even worse.

And that is pretty much the point here. Six years into this process and the Sabres are on their third head coach (probably soon-to-be fourth), their second general manager, and are only marginally better than they were when the whole thing started. And that is after getting the franchise player, who has been just as good as advertised, that they so desperately needed to start the rebuild.

Once you get beyond Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and top pick Rasmus Dahlin the remainder of the roster is just so painfully bland that it is almost impossible to see where any short-term improvement can come from within, and that is before you consider the fact that Skinner is a free agent after this season. He very easily could — and probably should — test the open market this summer where he would probably the second-best player available. He could pick his team and name his price given the season he has had.

If he goes? Well … there is probably not another 40-goal winger that is a perfect fit alongside your franchise center that is going to be walking through that door.

For things to get dramatically better they need to keep Skinner. They need Dahlin to become a superstar (not just a good player, but an actual superstar on defense). They need Casey Mittelstadt to live up to the hype. They need Tage Thompson to just simply be passable or decent (and 12 points in 58 games isn’t passable) to make it look like the Ryan O'Reilly trade wasn’t a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Even if all of that happens — and when you are talking about multiple young players it almost never works out exactly as you plan or hope with all of them — they still probably need five or six more quality pieces just to get back to wild card contention, let alone catch up to the powerhouse teams at the top of the Atlantic Division.

It is almost as if they need a rebuild from the rebuild.

That is not where anybody in Buffalo hoped, or expected, this team to be when the whole thing started five years ago. The whole thing has been a failure.

More: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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: Flyers host Sabres on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game figures to be crucial as both teams chase the Hurricanes and Penguins, who are tied with 72 points for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. Though the Sabres (10th in East) sit one point ahead of the Flyers (11th), their recent play has them going in opposite directions.

Philadelphia is 13-3-1 in its last 17 games and are coming off dramatic 4-3 overtime win vs. the Penguins in Saturday’s Stadium Series game. Meanwhile, the Buffalo is 1-4-1 in its last 6 games, including Monday night’s 5-3 defeat at Toronto. The Sabres have not won two in a row in over two months.

After snapping a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Washington, and then taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission yesterday against Toronto, it appeared that the Sabres were building some momentum. However, Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period, saw Carter Hutton get pulled, and ultimately lost 5-3.

The Flyers have had a couple days off since their improbable comeback victory in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field. Trailing 3-1 with just over three minutes to play, Philly rallied to tie the game before Claude Giroux – in his 800th career game – scored the OT winner.

Just when it appeared that Carter Hart was finally providing some stability in net, he was pulled in back-to-back starts last week before getting ruled out for at least 10 days with a lower-body injury in advance of the Stadium Series game. In stepped Brian Elliott, who made 40 saves to defeat the Penguins in his first start since November 15 (he did appear twice in relief of Hart earlier in the week). Elliott will start again in this game.

Since winning their 10th straight game on Nov. 27 to claim 1st place in the entire NHL, Buffalo has been a very below-average team. They have a 12-19-6 record over that span and have dropped from first in the NHL in 17th.

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

What: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelEvan Rodrigues
Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtSam Reinhart
Scott Wilson – Vladimir Sobotka – Jason Pominville
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Marco ScandellaBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Nolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Corban Knight – Ryan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRadko Gudas
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Phil Myers

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.