Thursday April 2nd, 2015

• There are heavy playoff implications tonight as the Canadiens host the Capitals tonight at the Bell Centre (7:30 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, RDS, SNE). Montreal, just 1-2-1 in its past four games, is desperate to get back on track and put some space between it and Tampa Bay in the race for the Atlantic Division crown. Washington has won three of its past four to pull within a single point of the Islanders and third place in the Metropolitan.

But the real hook here is the final regular season meeting between the two clear favorites to win the Hart Memorial Trophy: Carey Price and Alex Ovechkin.

Players and teams that fooled us, Kings comeback, playoff anticipation

In any other year, Price would be considered the long shot. Just two netminders, Dominik Hasek (1997, 1998) and Jose Theodore (2002), have earned the MVP honor during the past 50 years because the voters tend to devalue players at that position. But this hasn’t been simply a great year for Price. This has been one for the ages. Currently leading the league in wins (41), goals-against average (1.92), save percentage (.936) and shutouts (9), he stands to become the first goalie to top the charts in all four categories in more than 30 years.

And there’s no denying his impact. Price’s play has been the primary reason why the Canadiens are in contention for a playoff berth, let alone the Presidents’ Trophy. Montreal’s offense ranks 24th in the league, by far the worst of any team above the cut-off line. Without him, the Habs are battling the Bruins and Senators for a wild-card spot.

Then there’s this: A win tonight for Price would tie the single-season franchise record set by Hall of Famers Jacques Plante (1961-62) and Ken Dryden (’75-76). Asterisk or not—both men set their marks in shorter campaigns that included tie games—it’s an accomplishment that would be impossible for voters to ignore.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz: I was wrong about Alex Ovechkin

But there’s a decent case to be made for Ovechkin as well. With three goals and four points in his past two games, he’s topped the 50-goal plateau for the third consecutive season and the sixth time in his career—a standard topped only by Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy, who had nine apiece. And with 77 points, he trails Sidney Crosby by two in the race for the Art Ross Trophy. That would be a tough combo for voters to overlook. In the 10 years since the lockout that snuffed the 2004-05 season, the Hart Trophy winner has been either the leading scorer or the leading goal scorer. Ovechkin in 2007-08 was the last to win both titles, and he skated off with the first Hart of his career.

But Ovechkin’s ace is the change in perception that he engineered under Barry Trotz. No longer viewed as a selfish, defense-adverse coach killer, Ovi has been re-cast as someone who has bought into a team-first system and still managed to thrive as the game’s most potent offensive force.

His commitment won’t be overlooked, but he’s likely still lagging behind Price. Maybe an exceptional performance tonight is exactly what he needs to change that perception as well.

• Minnesota Gophers star Adam Wilcox has established himself as one of college hockey’s best goalies during the past couple of seasons. The Lightning draft pick (sixth round, 2011) was named both the Big Ten Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year in 2014 after posting a 26-6-6 record with a 1.97 GAA and .932 save percentage while leading the Gophers to the NCAA final.

NHL teams eyeing cream of college hockey's 2015 free agent class

Things didn’t go quite as well for him this season though. He struggled with his mechanics during a two month stretch and while he still managed to win 22 games, his GAA ballooned to 2.42 and his save percentage dropped to .912. 

Though troubling, that may have been a blessing for the Lightning. Wilcox could have elected to become an unrestricted free agent upon leaving school because it’s been four years since he was drafted by the Bolts. Instead, he chose to sign with an organization where he’s all but certain to be buried for years behind Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilievskiy.

On the surface, it’s a curious decision by a player who has real options and need not limit his path in that way, but Wilcox understands that he has to work on his game before he’s NHL-ready. Some scouts loved the flashy, aggressive style of play that inspired his teammates, but others expressed concern over his lack of size (he’s listed at 6' 0”, 185 pounds) and over-reliance on reflexes that might lower his ceiling. No telling yet what he might become, but by making this call the 22-year-old has bought himself plenty of time to explore his potential.

• Someone needs to tell Daniel Tosh about Corey Simms. If anyone’s ever needed a Tosh.0 web redemption it would be this self-described hockey heckler who might actually be one of the sorriest humans ever. Simms, a supporter of the St. James Minor Hockey Association’s Saint John’s Caps in New Brunswick, has become such a distraction at local Junior B games that one opposing team chose to forfeit a game rather than deal with him. Simms’ response to the criticism of his taunts and jeers? “If the hockey moms can’t handle me, yelling and heckling at the rinks, they should stick to crosswords and knitting.” You have to see this guy to believe him.

The numbers game

NHL Playoff Race: Projected matchups if season ended today

• There are 10 days left in the regular season and 11 of the 16 playoff spots are still open.

​• The Blues can clinch a berth if they get at least one point against the Flames or the Kings lose to the Oilers in regulation. The Blackhawks are in if they beat the Canucks or secure one point while both the Flames and Kings lose or either Calgary or Los Angeles loses in regulation. If the Rangers win tonight, they win the Metro crown.

•  Sidney Crosby is now the seventh player to score at least 300 goals since debuting in the NHL in 2005-06. The others are Alex Ovechkin (472), Jarome Iginla (336), Rick Nash (318), Ilya Kovalchuk (309), Patrick Marleau (301) and Eric Staal (300). 

Hot links

• The Halifax Mooseheads’ promotional video is hockey perfection. Check it out.

• This pair of sisters might be the most hardcore hockey fans in America.

• A TV show from the twisted mind of Dennis Leary that follows a beer league hockey team ? Count us in.

• Are playoff-bound teams actually playing not to win?

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