Both the Rangers and Islanders are in the playoffs. The question remains who each will draw in the first round. By virtue of the Rangers defeating the Red Wings 3-2 and the Islanders losing to the Sabres 4-3 in overtime, we still don’t know who each will play.
However, we do know that with the Bruins completing a collapse for a second consecutive year and the Flyers beating the Pens, the playoff picture is set. Despite losing their final two games, the Red Wings are in the postseason for a 25th consecutive season- extending sports’ longest active streak. They will face the battered Lightning in Round One. Already without Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan and Ben Bishop, they lost Tyler Johnson to an “upper body” injury in the first period of a 5-2 loss to the Canadiens.
The other first round match-up in the Eastern Conference that’s set is the top seeded Capitals facing the second wild card Flyers. Considering how tough they played Washington recently, it should be an emotionally charged series between old Patrick Division rivals. Whether or not the underdog Flyers can push the heavily favored Caps is another story. Washington is the deepest team in the league and are relatively healthy. We’ll have more on that in a playoff preview.
As for the Rangers, they rebounded from a 4-1 home loss to the Islanders by edging the Red Wings 3-2 in a Saturday matinee at MSG. Playing without starters Mats Zuccarello, Viktor Stalberg, Dan Girardi and Henrik Lundqvist, they had enough to defeat a more desperate Detroit club who didn’t know if they were in until the final few minutes. The Bruins were busy getting eliminated in awful fashion 6-1 to the Senators on home ice.
Dan Boyle scored his 10th goal in the first period. The 39-year old elder statesman beat Detroit starter Jimmy Howard with a nice wrist shot off a rush on a feed from Chris Kreider for the only goal of the first. Astonishingly, Boyle led all Ranger defensemen with 10 markers. Not bad for a guy who might be in his final season. He still has some sweet hands.
Antti Raanta was the story of the second. The Rangers’ backup played very well making some big stops en route to his 11th victory in his first season on Broadway. After a flat first, the Red Wings were much better in the second firing 16 shots on Raanta, who only let in one goal. It was a fortunate bounce for Detroit after Pavel Datsyuk fired a shot that caromed off Riley Sheahan and over Raanta for a game-tying power play goal.
As Boston imploded in the second falling behind 4-1, the Wings and Rangers were still battling in a tightly played third. A Dylan McIlrath point shot was redirected by Kevin Hayes for his 14th to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead with 5:38 left. Oscar Lindberg added an assist. Remember him? He and Hartford call up Marek Hrivik played.
With Detroit pulling Howard early with it not mattering, Lindberg scored into an open net with 2:34 remaining. Ironically, the Wings got one back from Justin Abdelkader at 18:26 for the game’s final margin. Old friend Brad Richards set it up.
There really wasn’t much to take out of this game. Other than stong performances from McIlrath and Brady Skjei, it was the 82nd and final game of the regular season. Raanta certainly played well and had a good season. He’s extremely likable and also a great interview. I hope they bring him back for next season.
The only concern is the injury to Eric Staal. He left the contest after teammate Jesper Fast accidentally collided with him making head contact. Of course, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he was kept out of the third for precautionary reasons and “should be fine.” He better be.
With the Rangers sitting at 101 points along with the first tiebreaker of 43 ROW, they watched a funny game between the Islanders and Sabres. Buffalo prevailed on Brian Gionta’s overtime winner at Barclays Center. The old veteran scored twice as the Sabres finished the season strong with four wins in their last five to end with 81 points.
A rebuild highlighted by 2015 second overall pick Jack Eichel and 2014 first round pick Sam Reinhart concluded with promise. Eichel led the Sabres with 24 goals. He finished his rookie season with 56 points including his 32nd assist on a goal from former Islander Matt Moulson that tied the game in the second. Reinhart added his 19th assist to go with 23 goals. That duo will be heard from in the future.
The Isles sure didn’t dress a full roster. Scott Mayfield scored his first NHL goal when his point shot squeaked through Sabres’ rookie Linus Ullmark for the game’s opening tally. After Moulson evened it for his jaw dropping fifth against the Isles this season (he only totaled eight), the Sabres retook the lead on Evan Rodrigues’ first career NHL goal. A linemate of Eichel’s at Boston University, he took a feed from team scoring leader Ryan O’Reilly and whistled a wrist shot past Isles’ fourth stringer Christopher Gibson.
But with Mayfield in the box early in the third, another Islanders’ no-name Alan Quine recorded his first shorthanded from Bracken Kearns. Another player I’ve never heard of. This was a game that also had vet Eric Boulton dressed. Adam Pelech also played.
I don’t think the Isles were too concerned with winning. But the lineup of 18 skaters gave an honest effort. Following Gionta’s first from another first-year NHLer Hudson Fasching, who also should be heard from in Buffalo’s future, Isles’ captain John Tavares won a battle in front to steer in a Calvin de Haan rebound for his team-leading 33rd with 6:26 to go in regulation.
Tavares has been on a major roll scoring for a fourth consecutive game. He has six goals and five helpers over the last six. With 14 points (7-7-14) in the last 10, Tavares will enter the postseason on fire. Whoever the Isles draw, they need their captain to be at his absolute pinnacle to finally advance past the first round for the first time since ’93.
With another injury to a key forward, the Islanders won’t be at full strength next week. They lost Anders Lee to a fractured left fibula. The injury occurred in the first period of Thursday’s win over the Rangers. Shutdown defenseman Travis Hamonic (lower-body) hasn’t played since Mar. 31. If he misses the first round, it would be the second straight year the Isles didn’t have one of their top blue liners. Key grinders Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin remain out with injuries. Mikhail Grabovski hasn’t played since Mar. 15 due to a concussion.
The shorthanded Isles were still able to earn their 100th point. They lost when a coverage breakdown allowed Rodrigues and Mark Pysyk to set up Gionta for the winner at 2:46 of the OT.
In a game that has no real significance other than playoff seeding, the Islanders host the Flyers later today. With the Flyers locked into a first round meeting with the Caps, it’s quite simple. An Islanders win in any form would leapfrog them over the Rangers for third in the Metropolitan Division. Any loss including overtime or shootout would mean the second wildcard and a first round date with the Atlantic Division champion Panthers.
It’s all in the Isles’ hands. They will determine two first round match-ups. Who do they prefer? A red hot Pens that sat out Sidney Crosby for just their second loss in the last 15. Or the Panthers, who they stunned last month with three unanswered goals in a stirring third period comeback.
Even with another injury to the Pens with rookie goalie Matt Murray leaving Saturday’s contest, the choice seems clear. Avoid Pittsburgh at all costs. Reliever Jeff Zatkoff appeared in his first game since Feb. 20, allowing a goal on the first shot he saw. He was solid afterwards allowing two goals on 24 shots. Wayne Simmonds scored twice and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored into an empty net to seal the Flyers’ 3-1 victory before a sea of orange who celebrated their team’s playoff clincher.
Why not? They weren’t expected to make it. Full credit to first-year coach Dave Hakstol, who should be a Jack Adams candidate. Washington coach Barry Trotz, who led the President’s Trophy is the favorite. Caps’ netminder Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur for the most wins in a single season with his 48th in a Washington 5-1 victory over St. Louis. Will he really play in their final game with nothing on the line? I wouldn’t. He tied the legendary Martin Brodeur. I’ll leave this one for our Devils’ residents.
As far as the West, it’s been set for a while. All eight teams are in including the two wildcards Nashville and Minnesota. With a 3-2 win over the Predators combined with a Blues’ loss, the Stars wrapped up the Western Conference’s first seed with 109 points. They will draw the Wild in an intriguing first round that pits the former Minnesota North Stars against their rival Minnesota Wild.
Another first round match-up will have the Blues trying to exorcise their demons against the defending champion Blackhawks. Chicago hasn’t had as good a season finishing third in a loaded Central Division. But they have the star talent led by Hart favorite Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews. In all honesty, I think St. Louis is better this time and should prevail. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with starting Hawks’ netminder Corey Crawford along with Duncan Keith, who will serve the final game of his suspension in Game One for his irresponsible stick-swinging incident.
Similar to the East, there are two match-ups that haven’t been decided. With the Kings blowing a three-goal lead to the pesky Winnipeg Jets, who played their asses off for coach Paul Maurice, the winner of the Pacific Division hasn’t been determined. The Kings lost in a shootout to the Jets. They have 102 points and hold the first tiebreaker with 46 ROW to the Ducks’ 42. In their 82nd game which could be a Stanley Cup preview, Anaheim visits Washington. They must earn two points to beat out the Kings for the division.
The Sharks are locked into the third seed awaiting the result of Ducks/Caps. If the Ducks only get a point, San Jose would play Anaheim. But if Anaheim wins, the Sharks would have a chance at revenge against their biggest rival Los Angeles. I would sign up for Sharks/Kings and watch them beat the hell out of each other.
Finally, Alexander Ovechkin again proved he can explode at any moment. Needing three goals to reach 50, the Great Eight did it in epic fashion recording a hat trick in the Caps’ 81st game. Not even league scoring leader Kane made 50 goals. He did score his 46th and recorded his 60th assist to set up expected Calder winner Artemi Panarin for one of his two goals allowing the electrifying Russian to hit 30. Kane will win the Art Ross with 106 points (46-60-106). The Stars’ Jamie Benn is second with 89 (41-48-89) and Crosby rounds it out with 85 (36-49-85).
Ageless wonder Joe Thornton will finish fourth with 82 including an astounding 62 assists. He and Ottawa wunderkind Erik Karlsson will share fourth with 82. Karlsson led the league with 66 assists. Just unreal.
As far as the Norris goes, there’s no way the two-time Norris winner won’t be included. Even on a Senators team that wasn’t that good, he put up 82 points (16-66-82) going a point-per-game in a full 82. The question is who joins him. Is it Brent Burns, who paced all D in goals (27) while adding 48 helpers for 75 points? Would you really put Drew Doughty (14-37-51 +24) over Kris Letang (16-51-67 in 71 GP)? I love Doughty as much as anyone and he’s going to be nominated. So, who gets left out? Burns or Letang. I would have Letang in. What he did with that Pittsburgh blue line is remarkable. Especially all the ice-time Adams darkhorse Mike Sullivan gave him.
The Calder will be Panarin. How do you deny him? Sure. He’s not a classic rookie due to playing professionally in the KHL. But there’s nothing in the rules that makes him ineligible. Should he be punished for playing with Kane and Artem Anisimov on the best line? No. In 80 games, Panarin paced all rookies in goals (30), assists (47), points (77) and game-winners (7). Eichel finished second with 56 followed by Max Domi (52). Oilers’ 2015 number one overall pick Connor McDavid was over a point-per-game tallying 48 points (16-32-48) in 45 contests to finish fourth.
My rookie ballot would be in this order:
1.Artemi Panarin, Blackhawks 30-47-77
2.Shayne Gostisbehere, Flyers 16-29-45 in 63 GP 7 PPG 5 GW
3.John Gibson, Ducks 40 GP 38 GS 21 W 2.07 .920 4 SHO