NHL week ahead: Playoff race storylines to watch
A battle of the past two Stanley Cup champions, a renewal of one of the league's best rivalries, and several matchups with playoff implications highlight this week's NHL schedule.
• Monday, March 14: Kings at Blackhawks (8:00 PM ET; CSN-CH+, NBCSN)
Two of the NHL's best meet up in a potential preview of the Western Conference Final. But neither team can take a berth in that series for granted. Both the Kings and Hawks are locked in tight divisional races in which they've lost ground over the past two weeks, and both need to find some traction as the season heads into the final month. Chicago has dropped five of its past eight, including road losses to both the Stars and Blues. The Kings have lost four of five on the road and are just 3-10-1 in their past 14 visits to the United Center. Playing each other seems to bring out their best, though. The Kings took their last meeting, a 3–2 OT decision, back on Nov. 28. Expect a bruising, playoff-style contest.
• Tuesday, March 15: Islanders at Penguins (7:00 PM ET; MSG+, ROOT)
The Penguins came up big in their first test after learning they'd be without center Evgeni Malkin for the next six to eight weeks, dropping the Rangers 5–3 on Sunday. This one has more profound implications. Pittsburgh enters the week trailing the Islanders by two points in the battle for third place in the Metropolitan Division, but New York has two games in hand. A loss here might not drive a stake through the hearts of the Pens, but with less than a month to go, it definitely puts them in a deep hole. They'll be counting on Marc-André Fleury, who was excellent against the Blueshirts, and Sidney Crosby to lead the way. The captain had a goal and an assist against the Rangers to extend his point streak to eight games (4-9-13). The Isles will be playing the second half of a back-to-back after hosting the Panthers on Monday, but they're looking ahead, not behind. They enter the week trailing the Rangers by three points with three games in hand. Wins in these two games could boost them into second spot.
• Wednesday, March 16: Rangers at Ducks (10:30 PM ET; MSG+, FS-W)
The Rangers begin the week having suffered two consecutive losses, their first losing streak since mid-December. Their record looks good on paper, but the quality of their play has been deteriorating for a while now. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is being hung out to dry by the desultory efforts of his teammates, a level of effort that was a problem earlier this season ... and one that could crush the Blueshirts as they kick off a three-game swing through California. Chris Krieder, who has five goals in his past eight games, is the one player the Ducks will have to watch carefully. Anaheim has issues of its own to correct. It's dropped three in a row, including road losses in regulation to Colorado and St. Louis, and needs to rediscover its focus and intensity on this three-game homestand.
• Thursday, March 17: Hurricanes at Penguins (7:00 PM ET; FS-CR, ROOT)
The loss of Malkin puts the Pens in a vulnerable position heading down the stretch ... and it could be the 'Canes who benefit. Carolina enters the week having played one more game than Pittsburgh and sits six points back, so this is one the Canes simply cannot afford to lose if they hope to keep their slim playoff chances alive. They took three points over the weekend, but missed picking up a fourth in an OT loss to a Sabres team they should have beaten. And with just three wins in their past eight, they're running out of track fast.
• Friday, March 18: Predators at Capitals (7:00 PM ET; FS-TN, CSN-DC)
The Predators have lost only twice in regulation during their past 16 games. One of those losses was their last outing, in Vancouver. The other: their previous meeting with the Caps back on Feb. 9. They'll be looking to avenge those defeats, and get a shot in at former coach Barry Trotz, when they head to Verizon on Friday night. The road's been kind to Nashville of late. Before dropping that decision to the Canucks last week, the Preds had won a franchise-record 13 straight away from home. Colton Sissons is one to watch. The rookie forward has two goals and three points in three games since being recalled from AHL Milwaukee last week. The Caps meanwhile are looking to get their game back on track after dropping back-to-back games in California. They haven't held a lead in any of their past five games, and are struggling to elevate their intensity with nothing on the line. Pushing the right buttons will be the biggest challenge Trotz has faced this season.
• Saturday, March 19: Bruins at Kings (10:30 PM ET; NESN, FS-W)
So many sub-plots for this one. A pair of division leaders facing off. Milan Lucic meeting up with his old buddies. And then there's the matter of that 9–2 beating the Kings laid on the Bruins the last time these two teams met on Feb. 8. Should be no lack of intensity in this one. David Pastrnak has the hot hand for the Bruins. The second-year winger has four goals in his past four games, including a pair in Boston's 3–1 win over the Isles on Saturday. The Kings will look to ride their smothering defense. They've allowed just 18 goals while going 7-2-1 over their past 10.
• Sunday, March 20: Capitals at Penguins (6:00 PM ET; NBCSN)
When these two arch-rivals get together, it's always Must-See TV. The Caps won their previous meeting 3–2 back on March 1 on the strength of a T.J. Oshie power play marker with 6:22 remaining in the third period. Braden Holtby made 28 saves to collect his 40th win of the season in that contest. He has just one win since then.
The numbers game
• Since Dec. 18, Sidney Crosby has scored more points (50) than any other NHL player.
• On Saturday, rookie Jack Eichel became the first player in Sabres history in to score in the final minute of an overtime period.
• Steven Stamkos is now the third player in Lightning franchise history to have at least five 30-goal seasons with Tampa Bay/ The others: Martin St. Louis (6) and Vincent Lecavalier (5).Hot links
• All-Star Game MVP John Scott talks about loving his new life in Newfoundland and his plans to get "screeched in."
• John Tortorella and Don Cherry have joined forces in an effort to save a group of rescued pit bulls from euthanization.
• Charlie Coyle says that learning to rely on Dr. Shot is the reason for his breakthrough offensive season.
• Seeing Rick Jeanneret call Jack Eichel's OT winner on Saturday is even better than hearing it.
• Mike Condon and Scott Darling prove that the ECHL is a valuable training ground for NHL goaltenders.
• Winning the Jean Béliveau Award would be an honor for any player, but it's especially meaningful for P.K. Subban.
• Former enforcer Kevin Westgarth talks about his new NHL front office job promoting the growth of hockey in China.
• Dave Hodge offers a thumbs up to Henrik Lundqvist and a thumbs down to playoff change ... sort of.