The NHL's Western Conference playoff race is getting wilder by the day as the surging L.A. Kings get back into the fray; Capitals-Penguins meet in major Metropolitan Division showdown; more news, notes, highlights.
Off The Draw
How much fun is the race for the playoffs in the Western Conference? Here we are in mid-February and scoreboard watching is already a nail-biting thrill.
Consider Monday night: A win or an overtime loss to the Canucks in Vancouver would have made it 11 straight games with at least one point earned for the Wild, a new franchise record. More importantly, a Minnesota victory combined with a Flames loss to the visiting Bruins in regulation would have vaulted the Wild past Calgary and into a playoff spot for the first time since Nov. 24.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way.
Around 10:30 p.m. EST, Minnesota held an early 1–0 advantage on Nino Niederreiter's 17th goal of the season. Around the same time, the Flames were in danger of being swamped by Boston. Calgary goalie Karri Ramo was pulled 50 seconds into the middle frame after giving up a goal—the third in the 11 shots he had faced—to Torey Krug that gave the Bruins a 3–0 lead. He was replaced by Jonas Hiller, who had been yanked from his previous start after allowing five goals to the Kings on Thursday night.
That’s pretty much when it all fell apart for the Wild. They allowed Daniel Sedin to tie the score less than a minute into the second period, and then fell behind for good two minutes into the third when Vancouver center Bo Horvat scored his seventh goal of the season. Niederreiter scored again to make it 3–2 midway through the final frame, but that was as close as Minnesota could get. The loss was the Wild’s first in regulation since Jan. 19 (highlights).
Meanwhile in Calgary, Boston inexplicably settled into playing satisfied hockey, opening the door wide enough for the NHL’s top third-period team to stage another miraculous comeback. The Flames’ 4–3 victory was their 10th of the season when trailing after two periods. Jiri Hudler scored twice in the final frame to send the game to OT, when a T.J. Brodie flip shot from the corner sailed over the top of the Bruins’ net, off the back of goalie Tuukka Rask and into the cage for the winner with just two seconds left.
“It’s almost like you go out there and everybody knows we’re going to win,” Hiller told the Calgary Herald. “It’s tough to describe. You go out there, even as a goalie, and go ‘Oh, we’re probably going to score now.’ I think that confidence does a lot. At the end, if you win the extra points over the whole season it might make the difference between making the playoffs or not.”
Meanwhile in Winnipeg, the wild-card Jets rallied from three one-goal deficits, including two in the third period, to knock off the pesky Oilers 5–4 in a shootout. The win was Winnipeg’s second straight, and the fourth in five games since Evander Kane was traded on Feb. 11, and it moved the Jets into fifth in the conference and fourth in the Central Division, just four points behind the Blackhawks.
The victory also increased Winnipeg’s lead to four points over the idle Sharks, who saw their grasp on the second wild card berth become more tenuous when Los Angeles scored three consecutive goals to knock off the visiting Lightning 3–2.
“Things are coming together for us,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. “We’re playing with more desperation. We should have before, but now it’s clicking for us. We’re getting some breaks too, that certainly doesn’t hurt. We’ve just got to keep on going. We’re still in a hole. We know that.”
L.A. is indeed still in a hole, but not a very deep one. The win, the Kings’ fifth-straight, allowed them to keep pace with the Flames and the Canucks, and pulled the defending Stanley Cup champs to within two points of San Jose. Los Angeles has two games in hand on the Sharks, which gives the Stadium Series showdown between the two teams on Saturday some legitimate urgency.
All told, it was a disastrous night for Minnesota, which entered the evening with hopes of moving into eighth place in the West, but which ended up falling into 10th.
As of now just three points separating eighth-place San Jose from the tenth-place Wild. And things are only going to get tighter as we get closer to the wire.
The numbers game
• While beating the Islanders 6–5 on Monday night, the surging Rangers did something they hadn’t done since they beat the Red Wings on Oct. 26, 1980: They overcame two multigoal deficits to win in regulation. New York also tied the NHL record for consecutive wins on the road while scoring at least five goals in each victory (4).
• Canadiens netminder Carey Price earned his 30th career shutout, passing Patrick Roy (29) for fifth place in the franchise’s storied history. Price now trails George Hainsworth (75), Jacques Plante (58), Ken Dryden (46) and Bill Durnan (34) on Montreal’s alltime list. Price also became the first Canadiens goalie to post a shutout at Joe Louis Arena. The last Montreal keeper to blank Detroit on the road was Michel (Bunny) Larocque at Olympia Stadium on March 27, 1977.
• The revived Kings have set a franchise record for most points (44) in their first 31 home games of a season, breaking the old mark set in 1974–75 and tied in 2005–06.
• Hayley Wickenheiser’s Facebook tribute to the late Steve Montador is a sad, beautiful read.
• Let’s all light a candle to the hockey gods and pray we get seven more games like this.
• When St. Mary’s coach Bob Boucher sent these three Huskies over the boards, he made hockey history.
• No details yet for this story, but it bears watching.
• Always nice to hear about a guy who pays some heavy dues getting his first NHL goal. That it was the winner in his first NHL game makes it even better.