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After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

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: Flyers, Canadiens looking to keep playoff hopes alive

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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 Philadelphia Flyers kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Sunday night when they stormed back against the Pittsburgh Penguins, stealing two points with two stunning late goals. It was a game they absolutely had to have if they are going to make up this ground in the Eastern Conference, and they have another game just like that on Tuesday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens.

This one might really be a win-or-be-done type of game for them when it comes to their playoff chances.

They do not just need a win, either.

They need to win in regulation.

The Flyers open the day still six points back of a playoff spot, and trail the Canadiens (who are the first team on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture) by three points. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within a point of the Canadiens, and depending on what happens with the Columbus Blue Jackets in their game against the Calgary Flames, could close the playoff gap to as little as four points.

A loss could be devastating for what is left of their chances, especially if Columbus manages to win in Calgary.

The Canadiens can pull to within a point of the Blue Jackets with a win and a Columbus loss, while it would also pretty much leave the Flyers in their rear-view mirror the rest of the way.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, the Penguins and Hurricanes meet in a pivotal game in the Metropolitan Division race as they both look to stay out of a wild card spot and what could be a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders (vs. the Bruins) and Capitals (vs. the Devils) are also both in action as they continue to fight for the top spot in the Division.

In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild have a chance to jump back over the Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot, while the Calgary Flames can extend their lead in the Pacific Division over the San Jose Sharks after they were blown out on Monday night.

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
Bruins vs. Islanders (7 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Flyers (7 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Capitals vs. Devils (7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN- livestream link)
Oilers vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Maple Leafs vs. Predators (8 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Wild (8 p.m. ET)
Panthers vs. Stars (8:30 p.m. ET)
Blue Jackets vs. Flames (9 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIO
• The Sharks can clinch a playoff berth should the Wild lose to Colorado in any fashion.

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Islanders — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.8 percent
Penguins — 98.2 percent
Hurricanes — 93.5 percent
Canadiens — 20.5 percent
Flyers — 4 percent
Panthers — 0.9 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — 100 percent
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 98.2 percent
Stars — 91.3 percent
Coyotes 48.6 percent
Wild — 29.4 percent
Avalanche — 17.6 percent
Blackhawks — 12.3 percent
Canucks — 1.2 percent
Oilers — 1.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

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
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Avalanche — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Wild — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 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

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.

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.

Penguins will be without Malkin on ‘week-to-week’ basis

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PITTSBURGH — Not only did the Pittsburgh Penguins drop what could prove to be an important point against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday night, but they also found out they will be without one of their top players for an extended period of time.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan announced after their 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that superstar center Evgeni Malkin will be out of the lineup on a “week-to-week” basis with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Malkin did not play in Sunday’s game after he appeared to be injured in Saturday’s loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The injury seemingly occurred when he was cross-checked away from the play by Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo. There was no penalty called on the play. Malkin was down on the ice in obvious pain for several moments but remained in the game. He was replaced on the second line on Sunday night by Teddy Blueger, who skated between Phil Kessel and Bryan Rust.

Malkin’s absence on Sunday coincided with the return of Rust, continuing what has been a frustrating run of injury luck for the team as they can not quite seem to get everyone healthy at the same time. The Penguins are already playing without two of their top defenders — including their top defender — as Kris Letang and Olli Maatta remained sidelined.

Malkin just recorded his 1,000th career point on Tuesday night in a come-from-behind win against the Washington Capitals, and in 66 games this season has 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) and is the team’s second-leading scorer, trailing only captain Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins currently sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division, sitting three points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes who still have two games in hand. The two teams meet two more times this season, including on Tuesday night in Raleigh. They are still seven points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, the first team currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The Penguins have nine games remaining in the regular season and are set to begin a tough four-game road trip that will feature games against Carolina, the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and New York Rangers.

Related: Hart, Flyers steal two points with late surge against Penguins

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.

Hart, Flyers steal two points with late surge against Penguins

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The Philadelphia Flyers looked like they were less than 20 seconds away from having what was left of their playoff chances completely erased. Somehow, though, there remains some small amount of hope thanks to their stunning 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins that looked to be a carbon copy of their Stadium Series win over their cross-state rivals just a few weeks earlier.

James van Riemsdyk scored the game-tying goal with just 19 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime, where Sean Couturier would tally the game-winner with just three seconds to play after he skated around Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in the neutral zone.

The Flyers are still six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, so the odds are still overwhelmingly stacked against them, but coming away with zero points on Sunday would have probably been enough to completely end their chances.

When these two teams met in late February in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field the Flyers trailed by two goals with less than four minutes to play and needed a last-minute game-tying goal to force overtime, only to win it early in the extra period.

They did nearly the same thing on Sunday.

The other big development that stood out in this game for the Flyers was the sensational play of goalie Carter Hart.

Appearing in just his second game since returning from injury, Hart played one of the best games of his young career by turning around 41 of the 42 shots he faced, including several dangerous scoring chances in the second period to help keep the game scoreless.

This is the type of performance that has to give Flyers fans — and the Flyers themselves — hope for the immediate future.

Nothing can change the direction of a team more than a franchise goalie, and after decades of searching the Flyers may have finally found somebody that can actually claim that title. Yes, it has only been 24 games at this point, but the early returns have been everything the Flyers could have hoped for from their top prospect. His arrival has been one of the biggest factors in their second half turnaround that has allowed them to at least get somewhat closer to a playoff spot.

Teddy Blueger was the only Penguin to beat him on Sunday night, pouncing on a rebound in front of the net early in the third period.

Blueger was skating on the Penguins’ second line on Sunday night in place of Evgeni Malkin who missed the game due to an upper-body injury suffered on Saturday.

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.