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Will streaky Calgary stay hot or flame out in playoffs?

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The Calgary Flames know they’re in the playoffs. Now comes the hard part.

Despite being idle on Sunday, the Flames became the first Western Conference team to clinch a postseason berth due to the New York Islanders’ win over the Minnesota Wild. But the Flames know better than most teams that nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, Calgary has won just one postseason series. A Canadian team has not won the Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. The Flames won their only championship 30 years ago. Will this finally be the year that the C of Red celebrates into the summer?

Even the Flames would have to admit they’ve been inconsistent over the last month. After winning seven straight games from February 16 to 27, Calgary dropped their next four in regulation, followed by another three-game winning streak with a jaw dropping 20 total goals during that three-game stretch. Obviously, no team can afford a prolonged lull in the playoffs.

Calgary’s chances to make a run deep into spring begin between the pipes, as both David Rittich and Mike Smith have been up and down this year. While Rittich is enjoying a career season (his third in the NHL) with 25 wins, he owns just a .910 save percentage, which ranks tied for 24th in the NHL among qualified goaltenders (21 or more games played). The veteran Smith has just an .896 save percentage on the year and has dropped three consecutive starts in March. While he once brought the Phoenix Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012, Smith has not been back to the postseason since. The Flames boast the fourth best offense in the NHL this season (3.56 goals per game), but when scoring inevitably dries up in the playoffs, a reliable netminder is vital in the march toward the Cup.

Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm is one of the best trios in the league. Gaudreau is a Hart Trophy candidate this season with a career-best 91 points, Monahan has already secured his third career 30-goal season and Lindholm has been a rousing success story in Calgary, blowing past any of his previous five seasons with Carolina. It’s also easy to forget just how good Monahan was the last time the Flames were in the playoffs. Though Calgary was quickly swept in four games by the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, Monahan scored a power play goal in all four games. He is one of eight players in League history to tally a power play goal in four consecutive postseason games.

Aside from the top line, Calgary does have depth with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (73 points), Norris Trophy-hopeful Mark Giordano (67 points) and Mikael Backlund (44 points). They could also get a boost if James Neal returns to form. Neal is getting closer to returning from a lower body injury that has kept him out over a month. The 31-year-old signed a 5-year, $28.75 million deal this off-season, but has been a disappointment with just 15 points in 55 games. Still, Neal has shown the ability to be a big-time player throughout his career and has loads of experience, having played in the postseason each of the last eight years.

Several other statistics from this season bode well for the Flames entering the playoffs. They have a whopping plus-49 goal differential in the third period and lead the NHL with 105 goals in the third period. They are also 21-14-2 on the road and need just two road wins to set a single-season franchise record.

Despite their success away from Alberta, clinching home ice advantage would be huge for Calgary’s chances. There is little doubt that the Scotiabank Saddledome will be rocking come playoff time, but even more importantly, winning the Pacific Division would ensure that the Flames avoid playing the reigning Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights in the First Round. Giordano, however, took the diplomatic approach, saying the opponent won’t matter.

“Well…the team that gets in as the wildcard is going to be playing really well and playing really hard,” Giordano told the Calgary Sun. “I’ve never been a fan of trying to pick and choose who you want to playoffs because the league’s so tight. The team that’s usually in the wildcard is feeling good and playing well. And if you want to go all the way, you’re going to have to go through a lot of great teams.”

To this point, Calgary has proven to be great in the regular season. But they’ll need to find more consistency to end their – and Canada’s – Stanley Cup drought.

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.

Golden Knights, Capitals quietly on another crash course for Stanley Cup Final

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Everyone is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their record-pace. The Boston Bruins are riding high with an 18-game point streak. The St. Louis Blues started from the bottom and are now in third in the Central. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are all battling for their respective divisional supremacy.

Meanwhile, quietly in the nation’s capital, the Washington Capitals have won five consecutive games and are tied with the New York Islanders in points atop the Metropolitan Division. Even more quietly out in the desert, the Vegas Golden Knights have also won five straight. Does anybody remember that these were the last two teams standing last season? Because that’s what could very well happen again.

The Caps won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs both years to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Last season, they won the Metropolitan again but finished third in the East before going on to win their first Cup in franchise history. They’re in a similar position this year, just two points behind Toronto for third in the conference. Perhaps being a bit under the radar is where they thrive.

Washington has also shown the ability to flip a switch and turn back into the defending champions at a moment’s notice. Take last week’s game against Ottawa for example. The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 before they could blink against the lowly Senators early in the first period. But by the time the period was over, the score was tied. By the final buzzer, Washington had won 7-2.

With a league-leading 46 goals, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the offensive load for Washington once again this season. But the Capitals’ recent 5-game winning streak has been a demonstration of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year, as 13 different players have scored a goal and 18 players have registered a point in that span. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan did well to bolster that depth by adding defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Carl Hagelin, who have both already made contributions during their brief time in D.C.

Of course, the biggest difference between this Washington team and the one that hoisted the Cup is behind the bench. At the moment, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his Islanders seem to be the only thing standing between Todd Reirden and the franchise winning a fourth straight division title.

Out west, while Calgary and San Jose jockey for first place in the Pacific, Vegas has a stranglehold on third in the division. That means they’ll play whichever team finishes second between the Flames and the Sharks in the First Round, a tough match up for whichever team comes up short. Vegas has not lost since the trade deadline, Mark Stone seems to be gelling nicely with the now-healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like the Fleury of last postseason, stopping 109 of the 111 shots he faced during his four straight wins.

Very few expected last year’s expansion Vegas team to make a run to the Cup Final, if not for their lack of star power, then certainly for their lack of postseason experience. Well, they now have that star power and after coming three wins away from the Cup last season, there is no lack of playoff wisdom on this Golden Knights roster. Even their new pieces like Stone (2017 with Ottawa), Pacioretty (2014 with Montreal) and Stastny (2016 with St. Louis & 2018 with Winnipeg) have all played in a Conference Final.

Given the Capitals’ previous failures in the playoffs and the Golden Knights’ infancy as a franchise, it was a bit of a shock to see them both facing off for the Stanley Cup last season. Don’t be so surprised if it happens again this year.

Inside the Bruins’ 18-game point streak

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The Boston Bruins train kept rolling on Thursday night, even in the face of what appeared to be sure defeat. Boston trailed Florida 3-2 with under a minute to play, when Matt Grzelcyk tied the game with a power play goal from the point. Moments later, Patrice Bergeron scored with 6.7 ticks left on the clock. Two goals. Thirty seconds. Points in 18 straight games.

It’s so nice to see a Boston sports team doing so well.

The Bruins have not lost a game in regulation since January 19, a 3-2 defeat to the Rangers at TD Garden. Since then, they’ve been the hottest team in the league at 14-0-4, but remarkably have only made up two points on NHL-leading Tampa Bay, since the Lightning has gone 14-3-2 during the same span. Still, no team is playing with more confidence than Boston heading into the stretch run of the season.

As one would expect, especially with David Pastrnak (thumb) out of the lineup, Brad Marchand (27 points) and Bergeron (21 points) have led the way as the top two scorers on the team during the streak. After never scoring more than 61 points during the first seven years of his career, Marchand has now hit 80 points in each of the last three seasons. He is on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 85. Bergeron has been his Selke Trophy self, leading the team with a plus-17 rating over the past 18 contests while also winning 59.2 percent of his faceoffs. He also became just the fifth Bruins player in the last 30 years to score short-handed goals in back-to-back games and the first since Brian Rolston (Oct. 13-16, 2001). Only seven times in NHL history has a player had a short-handed goal in three or more consecutive games, the last being Mike Richards in 2009 with Philadelphia.

David Krejci (18 points) and Jake DeBrusk (16 points) have been the team’s two biggest X-factors. After this current tear – which included a goal against the Panthers – Krejci is flirting with a career season. He is on pace for 70 points, which would be three behind his career-high of 73 set in 2008-09. DeBrusk, meanwhile, did not play Thursday against Florida due to a lower-body injury. Bruce Cassidy said Friday he didn’t believe it was anything major. The Bruins will certainly hope not, since the 22-year-old has lit the lamp eight times in his past 10 games.

Boston’s power play has also gotten hot. They’ve scored at a 25 percent clip during their 18-game streak (13-for-52) and done so without Pastrnak, who still leads the team with 15 power play goals despite being out nearly a month.

Then there’s the last line of defense in Tuukka Rask, who does not have a regulation loss since the calendar turned to 2019. For the second straight season, Rask has been challenged by a backup at the start of the year. Last season there were calls for Anton Khudobin to take over the net for good. This year, there was more of the same for Jaroslav Halak. But Rask has once again proved doubters wrong with a big second half. Since the Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year’s Day, Rask is 14-0-3 with a .931 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average. Halak hasn’t been so bad himself, going 5-0-2 with a .941 save percentage and 1.77 goals against average over his past seven games.

Remember, the last three Stanley Cup champions needed contributions from two goaltenders. The Penguins’ repeat in 2016 and 2017 with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury is well documented. But the Capitals also needed backup Philipp Grubauer to be clutch last March to assure Washington the top spot in the division. Braden Holtby would re-take the reins at the start of the playoffs and lead the Caps to the Cup.

The Red Sox are the reigning World Series champions in spring training and the Patriots have entered yet another offseason atop the NFL. There’s no reason to believe the Bruins can’t contend for the Stanley Cup this season and, especially with no LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics could win the East in the NBA as well. What a time to be a Boston sports fan.

Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?