Friday April 8th, 2016

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The regular season won't conclude until Sunday evening, but the playoffs start now for the Bruins, Red Wings and Flyers.

After Boston's 5–2 win over Detroit on Thursday night, and Philadelphia's 4–3 OT loss to Toronto, the three teams in contention for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs have officially reached the must-win point of the schedule. The Wings and Bruins are tied at 93 points each and currently sit in postseason position with one game remaining on their schedules. One of them will snag third place in the Atlantic Division and a first-round date with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The other faces the possibility of being passed by the Flyers in the race for the final wild card slot. Philadelphia is one point behind, but has two games left to play.

Even after that disheartening loss (the Wings were held to just two shots by the Bruins during the final 33:01), Detroit holds serve thanks to the regulation/overtime wins tie-breaker. If they win their finale on Saturday against the Rangers within 65 minutes, they clinch that third Atlantic bid and their 25th consecutive playoff appearance. Lose, and they need help.

NHL
Bruins coach Claude Julien deserves better than knives

Boston plays its final game at home on Saturday against the Senators (12:30 p.m. ET). They can lose and still claim the wild card, but only if Philly loses both of its remaining games. If they win, they still need Detroit to lose or Philly to claim no more than one point the rest of the way. Philadelphia faces the Penguins at home on Saturday and the Islanders on the road on Sunday. If the Flyers win both, or go 1-0-1, they are in no matter what Boston or Detroit does.

Who has the edge? Thursday's results aside, Detroit has been the best team of late, winning four of its past six games thanks to a strong run by Jimmy Howard, who is certain to start on Saturday at MSG. The Flyers have dropped three straight, but Steve Mason has been largely brilliant in net and could steal either or both games this weekend on his own. Boston is just 3-6-1 in its past 10 and hasn't strung together consecutive wins in a month.

No matter how it plays out, it makes for a terrific end to the regular season.

• There's an exciting race going on in the West as well, with both Dallas and St. Louis battling to finish atop the Central Division, which would mean avoiding a meeting with the defending champion Blackhawks in the first round.

NHL
Blues, Blackhawks get playoffs started early

Both teams have gone 8-2 in their past 10 games to push their totals to 107 points with one regular-season game remaining. Dallas hosts Nashville, a team it beat 5–2 back on March 29, at the AAC on Saturday night. If they win that game in any fashion, they take the title based on a greater number of regulation/overtime wins (47 to 44). The Blues will play the Capitals, a team they blanked 4–0 in Washington back on March 26, on Saturday in St. Louis. They need to earn at least one point more point than the Stars to win the division, meaning a Dallas loss in regulation or overtime/shootout coupled with a win over the Caps gives them the crown.

• Looks like the battle for the Jennings Trophy, which is awarded to "the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it," will go down to the wire. Anaheim (Frederik Andersen, John Gibson) has allowed 189 goals through 80 games, a league-best 2.31 goals per game. Los Angeles (2014 winner Jonathan Quick) is sitting pretty, having allowed 191 goals through 81 games, while Washington (Braden Holtby) has allowed 190 goals through 80 games.

A sign of the decline in scoring: When Rick Wamsley and Denis Herron were honored as the award's first recipients in 1982, their Canadiens allowed 223 goals in what was then an 80-game season, an average of 2.79 goals per game. This year, that would rank them 20th, tied with the defensively-challenged Stars.

• Although he lasted less than a season in Dallas, Jaromir Jagr continues to pay dividends for the Stars.

Signed as a free agent in 2012 to add some scoring punch to a transitioning offense, Jagr ended up leading the team with 14 goals through 34 games before being dealt at the deadline to the Bruins. In exchange, the Stars picked up two prospects (Lane MacDermid and Cody Payne, both of whom are now out of hockey) and a conditional second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft that would become a first-rounder if Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The B's went one better, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Blackhawks in six games. As a result, the B's forfeited the 29th pick in that summer's draft to the Stars, who used it to select Guelph center Jason Dickinson.

Two years later, the 6' 2", 200-pound Dickinson is living up to pre-draft hype that suggested he could mature into a smart, effective, three-zone presence. He's posted 20 goals and 50 points in 69 games as a rookie with AHL Texas this season, sixth most among freshmen and has shown he can elevate his play to meet greater challenges. 

He got one of those on Thursday night with his first NHL call-up. Dickinson replaced Jason Spezza (flu) on Dallas's second line, and picked up his first NHL goal, finishing off a nice sequence by Val Nichushkin by tipping one past Colorado's Calvin Pickard.

Just 20, Dickinson still has work to do on his game—he was returned to the minors on Friday morning—but he looks like he has the tools to be an effective top-nine player for Dallas down the road. And when he finally makes the roster full-time two or three years from now, he might even get a chance to skate against the man he was traded for, who will likely still be going strong.

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• Despite having his schedule cleared by Calgary's playoff DNQ, defenseman Mark Giordano is not expected to join Team Canada for the upcoming World Championships. That's an interesting decision, since the 32-year-old is still in the mix to fill one of the three remaining blueline spots for Canada at the World Cup. And since some of the players who will be competing against him for one of those spots will sign on for duty in Moscow, Giordano might be passing on a critical chance to showcase his skills ... and show he's willing to take one for the team. 

NHL
Flickering Flames have ideal captain in steely Mark Giordano

But all things being equal, there's really nothing left for him to prove to Canadian GM Doug Armstrong and coach Mike Babcock. After a slow start this season (attributable to his recovery from off-season surgery to repair a bicep tear), Giordano has shown what he can bring to the table with a post-Christmas surge. The veteran has scored 14 of his career-high 21 goals since the holiday, a total that ranks second only to Brent Burns (27). His 56 points rank sixth and are a new personal best. And he's hit a new career high with 209 shots, good for seventh among all defensemen and third among Canadian blueliners.

He's also a left-handed shot, which fills a need on a Canadian defense corps that leans heavily to the right. Add in his poise, his skating and his leadership and he's a good bet to make the final cut whether or not he heads to the Worlds.

• Speaking of the Worlds, there's some talk that Team USA will consider taking the University of Michigan's CCM line to the tournament. If that happens, it would serve as one last hurrah for college hockey's most devastating trio.

The M in the line, winger Tyler Motte, chose this week to skip his senior season with the Wolverines in favor of turning pro with the Blackhawks. The 21-year-old was honored as a Hobey Baker finalist after finishing second in the nation with 32 goals and third with 56 points. He also impressed with a strong defensive game. He counted 70 blocked shots this season, tops among NCAA forwards, and was regarded as an elite penalty killer.

NHL
The Quinnipiac Way: How a college hockey power was born

With Motte gone, there's a possibility that his linemates could follow him to the pro ranks. Kyle Connor, the freshman who led the nation in scoring with 71 points and the odds-on favorite to win the Hobey Baker on Friday, is being softly courted by the Jets, who took him in the first round last summer. And junior JT Compher, a second-round selection by the Sabres in 2013, has little to prove at the college level after racking up 61 points, second most in the nation.

Losing all three would be a devastating blow to Michigan's program, as well as to Red Berenson, who just last week confirmed he would return for a 33rd season as the head coach of the Wolverines. But seeing them together wearing the red, white and blue might soften the sting ... and provide a glimpse of the future of Team USA.

• There's no doubt that Canadiens rookie forward Michael McCarron was running out of gas a bit over the past couple weeks, but sending him down to the minors days after coach Michel Therrien said he'd be with the big club the rest of the season was goofy. McCarron was dispatched to St. John's in order to get more ice time. But with Montreal simply playing out the string, there was no reason not to give him that ice time with the Habs. And certainly no reason not to give him more time with the top-six, a role in which he flourished. There's more than one way to develop a prospect, but it's hard to figure out what Montreal was thinking here.

The numbers game

• Two postseason berths, two division crowns (Central, Pacific), one conference title (Western), eight playoff positions and all eight first round match-ups will be decided on the final weekend of the regular season.

​•​ The Bruins are now the second team to have three 30-goal scorers this season (the other being the Stars). Boston last had three 30 men during the same campaign back in 2002-03, when Glen Murray (44), Joe Thornton (36) and Mike Knuble (30) all hit the mark.​

• Kings netminder Jonathan Quick has set a franchise record of 40 wins in a season, making him the fifth U.S.-born goalie in NHL history to reach that total. The others: Tom Barrasso (1992-93 with the Penguins), Mike Richter (1993-94 with the Rangers), Ryan Miller (2006-07 and '09-10 with the Sabres) and Big Ben Bishop (2014-15 with the Lighnting).

Hot links

• A dwindling number of NHLers are skating without a visor. Old habits are tougher to break than noses, apparently.

• Is Patrik Laine worth taking with the No. 1 selection in this year's draft? Watch him score these two goals and you'll see why Auston Matthews isn't necessarily a lock to be taken with the top pick.

NHL
Brooklyn can bring special noise to Rangers-Islanders rivalry

• Former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald and his sons share a behind-the-scenes look at life as a hockey family.

• Martin St. Louis talks Steven Stamkos, his career and coming home to Tampa for the Frozen Four.

• The Stanley Cup was nice and all, but Tyler Seguin's career highlight might be the unveiling of his namesake hamburger.

• At the age of 7, Jaromir Jagr started doing 1,000 squats a day. Find this and other mindblowing anecdotes in a lengthy profile of the ageless wonder.

• Carrie Underwood is looking to get even with her husband, Nashville's Mike Fisher, by playing a little pickup hockey with Wayne Gretzky.

• Hockey Canada is trying to do the math on analytics ahead of major tournaments but the numbers don't always add up.

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