NHL week ahead: Preds, Penguins will impact playoff races
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, every night is pregnant with playoff implications. Here are this week's must-watch games.
Monday, March 28: Avalanche at Predators (8:00 PM ET; ALT, FS-TN)
Colorado all but choked away its playoff chances with a 4–0 loss to the Wild on Saturday, digging itself a five-point hole that leaves little margin for error as the Avs head into a merciless seven-game stretch to end the regular season. They will get the Preds twice in that span, which doesn't bode well for their chances. Neither does the continued absence of forwards Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, both of whom are confirmed out for at least the next two games. The offense has struggled to create much of anything with its top two performers sidelined. Time for someone to step up—maybe deadline acquisition Mikkel Boedker, who has just three goals in 11 games since coming over from Arizona.
The Preds meanwhile have won five of six to pull within two points of Chicago for third place in the Central Division and can clinch a playoff berth with a regulation win. Roman Josi is red hot with seven points in his past five games. His three assists in a 5–1 win over Columbus on Saturday gave him 44 for the season, a new single-season franchise record for a defenseman.
Tuesday, March 29: Bruins at Devils (7:00 PM ET; NESN, MSG, TVAS, SNO, SNW, SNP)
The B's finally got back in the win column with Saturday's hard-fought 3–1 victory over the Maple Leafs. Now they need to put some bad habits behind them while attempting to secure their place in the postseason.
Boston has struggled with slow starts of late and hasn't been particularly sharp in the defensive zone. Against Toronto though the B's managed to limit their hosts to a single five-on-five shot in the second period, arguably their best frame during the past two weeks. That kind of intensity and commitment to system will be key as they move on from New Jersey to St. Louis and Chicago later this week.
The Devils haven't yet been eliminated, but a 3-3-1 mark in their past seven has pretty much wasted whatever margin of error they had left. Whatever happens, it'll be fun to watch Scott Wedgewood. The rookie netminder has been sensational since taking over between the pipes, and while he allowed a career high three goals to Carolina on Sunday, that still might have been his best performance yet.
Wednesday, March 30: Capitals at Flyers (8:00 PM ET; NBCSN, SN360)
The Caps may be just a point away from clinching the Presidents' Trophy, but there's plenty of work to be done as they gear up for the playoffs. Washington's five-on-five game is a mess—the Caps haven't scored at even strength in their past two games—and they've been guilty of sloppy play in their own zone. Fortunately Braden Holtby has been there to clean up the mess. The starter is 4-1 in his past five outings, allowing just nine goals. He earned his 45th win of the year over the weekend, leaving him just three shy of tying Martin Brodeur's single-season record.
The Flyers come into this one desperate to secure a hold on a wild-card berth. They've set themselves up well with a solid 2-1-1 mark on their just-completed four-game road trip. Claude Giroux led the way with three goals, including the game-winner in a comeback win in Colorado, while Steve Mason compiled a 1.74 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Both players will be front and center against Washington.
Thursday, March 31: Predators at Penguins (7:00 PM ET; FS-TN, ROOT, NHLN-US, TVAS, SNO, SNW, SNP)
The NHL's two hottest teams clash in a game that sets up as measuring-stick contest ahead of the playoffs. The Preds have just two regulation losses in their past 21 games (14-2-5). The Penguins meanwhile have won eight of nine to shake up the heirarchy in the Metro.
Phil Kessel picked an opportune time to begin earning his keep with the Pens. The much-maligned winger posted two goals and seven points over the weekend, including a five-point effort in a 7–2 thrashing of the Red Wings. Before that outburst, he'd scored just twice in his previous 15 games. If he gets rolling, he could be a difference maker in the postseason.
The Preds will be led by a pair of 30-goal scorers for the first time in a decade. James Neal joined Filip Forsberg in the exclusive club over the weekend, notching the milestone marker in a 5–1 win over Columbus. Both players are closing in on Nashville's single-season goal-scoring record of 33, set by Jason Arnott in 2008-09.
Friday, April 1: Wild at Red Wings (7:30 ET; FS-N, FS-D+, NHLN-US)
The Wild enter the week looking to secure their hold on a wild-card berth in the West. The Red Wings come in hoping to regain the ground they lost last week.
Of the six games remaining for the Wild, this could be their toughest challenge. Just two of their opponents are currently in a playoff position, but this one is the second of a back-to-back. And it features a Wings team that is desperate to make the playoffs for a 25th straight season.
Zach Parise is one to watch. After scoring just two goals in a 25-game stretch, he's tallied five times in the past two games. Devan Dubnyk is hot as well. Since being pulled from a game in New Jersey back on March 17, Dubnyk is 5-0 with a 1.36 GAA and .958 save percentage.
Detroit could use something from Dylan Larkin. The rookie forward has hit the wall, scoring just two goals and four points in his past 16 games.
Saturday, April 2: Penguins at Islanders (1:00 PM ET; ROOT, MSG+, SN)
Two weeks ago, the Isles had their sights set on the Rangers and second place in the Metro. Now, with two weeks to go, they're trying to hold off the Flyers and Wings in the battle for a wild-card spot. With just three wins in their past 10 New York is in free-fall, and while there's blame enough for everyone, the most pressing problem is inconsistency between the pipes. Thomas Greiss has struggled to step up as the starter since Jaroslav Halak was injured, and rookie J.F. Berube lacks the experience to match the moment, as evidenced by his soft performance in Saturday's 4–3 OT win over Carolina. If that's the best they can get, the Isles are vulnerable.
Still, the Pens can't afford to take them for granted. Coming into the week they hold just a three-point lead on New York. They'd like to disabuse them of the notion that third place in the Metro is still up for grabs and push closer to the Rangers in the battle for second and the home-ice advantage that comes with it.
Sunday, April 3: Flyers at Penguins (5:00 PM ET; CSN-PH, ROOT)
Forget what it would mean for their own position: There's nothing the Pens would love more than to bury the playoff chances of their most hated rivals on Sunday. Pittsburgh has won each of their two previous meetings this season, including a 4–1 decision on March 19 that saw the Flyers held to just 17 shots on goal—a season low allowed by Pittsburgh and taken by Philadelphia.
This one could come down to a duel between two of the league's most prolific defenders. Kris Letang has scored 44 points in his past 40 games to move into consideration for the Norris Trophy. At the other end of the ice, Shayne Gostisbehere has six points in his past 10, but needs a strong finish to secure a spot among the Calder finalists.
The numbers game
• Andrew Ladd is 6-3-9 in 13 games since rejoining the Blackhawks in a trade from the Jets. His six goals lead the Chicago during that span, and his nine points are tied for second on the team behind only Patrick Kane (4-6-10).
• The Blues are now the ninth different team in NHL history to shut out opponents in four consecutive games during a single season. The others since the 1967-68 expansion: Coyotes (5, Dec. 31, 2003 to Jan. 9, 2004), Flyers (4, Jan. 7-13, 1999 and Dec. 14-21, 1996).
• Jaromir Jagr has scored 25 goals in a season for the first time since 2007-08, and the 18th time in his career. He's now passed Mike Gartner (17) for the second-most such seasons in NHL history after Gordie Howe (20). At 44, Jagr is the oldest player in league history to hit 25 goals, breaking the mark Howe set at 41 (less than two weeks before his 42nd birthday) in 1969-70.
• Predators center Ryan Johansen raised eyebrows when he revealed he wishes he was still a member of the Blue Jackets.
• The Coyotes would love to acquire hometown sensation Auston Matthews, but they aren't willing to trade this player to get him.
• Cam Cole says it's time for someone to write down the NHL's unwritten rules so that we all can keep up.
• A Red Wings assistant is about to take on one of the most coveted head coaching jobs in college hockey.
• The Blues committed millions of dollars to developing the game at the grassroots level in St. Louis. Finally, their efforts are paying NHL-caliber dividends.
• Here's why this could be the year Team Canada finally breaks through and beats Team USA for gold at the Womens World Championship.
• The hockey world is rallying around a young player who suffered a severe spinal injury.
• Forty years after his debut, a pioneer of the game received the tribute he deserved.