Rangers face good test against Lightning, Connor Bedard, wildcard race heats up, Oilers hot, Mercer gets hat trick

With a little over a week left in the regular season, the playoffs are right around the corner. The wildcard race is heating up. The picture is becoming clearer by the day. Big games are on tap in both conferences.

There’s also the latest highlight reel from Connor Bedard. The consensus top pick is the big prize of the 2023 Draft Lottery. The teen sensation was at it again last night during Game Three of the Regina Pats’ WHL first round series against the Saskatoon Blades.

Having already recorded a playoff hat trick for the Pats in their first postseason since 2018 to help them take the first two games on the road, the 17-year old center scored a breathtaking goal. He split two players with the puck to get a breakaway and finished with a forehand deke to give the Pats a 3-1 lead.

The Blades rallied back from a two-goal deficit to win the crucial game 4-3 in overtime. The road team has won all three games. Regina leads the series two games to one.

It’ll be interesting to see if Bedard can lead the Pats to a first round upset. He’s had a memorable season, scoring 71 goals with 72 assists for 143 points to lead the WHL in scoring. He also was front and center tallying nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in Canada’s gold medal at the WJC.

Of course, the battle for Bedard remains high for the NHL doormats. That includes the Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Ducks, and Sharks. They have the best odds of winning the lottery, which takes place on May 8 during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’ll also include the Canadiens, Coyotes, Flyers, Canucks, Capitals, along with the remaining teams who get eliminated.

While some fans focus on that, whoever winds up in the top three should get a good player. Michigan standout Adam Fantilli looks to be a future power forward. He dominated the NCAA with 64 points (29-35-64) as a freshman. He’s up for the Hobey Baker. Russian scoring forward Matvei Michkov and Swedish center Leo Carlson project in the top four.

Meanwhile, the Rangers are back in action tonight when they host the Lightning at 33rd and 7th. They’re coming off a 5-2 win over the Capitals this past weekend.

A game where both Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko scored their 16th goals of the season. Playing with Filip Chytil during the second half has helped revitalize their game. Familiarity with one another is noticeable.

Gerard Gallant praised the work of the Kid Line. He likes how they play. They’ll no doubt be counted on again for secondary scoring this postseason. With all three young players achieving new career highs in points, they’re becoming more reliable. They’ve even seen an increase in ice time due to their effectiveness on the cycle.

In Sunday’s win, Gallant kept the top six the same as he finished the Sabres game. Mika Zibanejad played with Chris Kreider and Patrick Kane. He scored his team-leading 39th on the power play from Kane and Artemi Panarin. Zibanejad’s 20 power play goals pace the team. He won’t quite get to Kreider’s record of 26 that was set last year.

Vincent Trocheck centered Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko. The trio were involved in two even strength goals, including K’Andre Miller getting his ninth by following up the play started by Panarin and Trocheck. Miller also set up Kakko’s 16th to reach a career best 41 points. He’s been more active recently, even throwing his weight around.

Tarasenko scored his seventh goal as a Ranger. A lethal wrist shot off the passing of Trocheck and Panarin. The changes to the first two lines worked. It provided a spark. Figure Gallant to keep those lines intact for tonight.

One other positive is the return of Ryan Lindgren. He’ll be in the lineup after missing the last six games. He’ll be back alongside partner Adam Fox on the blue line. That means Ben Harpur comes out. Keeping Lindgren fresh for the playoffs is crucial. He’s the glue of the defense.

Niko Mikkola will slide back down to the third pair with Braden Schneider. Miller and Jacob Trouba comprise the second pair, which usually draws tough assignments. They’ll likely face a tough challenge against Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov. They’re all playing well. Point is two goals shy of 50. Kucherov ranks third in scoring with 106 points. Stamkos has 33 goals.

The goalie match-up features two of the game’s best. It’s an all Russian duel when Igor Shesterkin faces Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even though neither has had their best season statistically, they are still considered by many to be the game’s top goalies. Throw Islanders’ netminder Ilya Sorokin in there, along with Juuse Saros. That’s your top four. Even if Linus Ullmark wins the Vezina playing behind a remarkable Bruins team chasing history.

In action last night, the Devils kept some distance between second place by pasting the Penguins 5-1. The game was highlighted by Dawson Mercer, recording his first career hat trick. He’s up to 27 goals and 55 points in his second season.

Selected 18th in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft, Mercer ranks third in goals (44) and third in points (98). Lafreniere, who went first overall, is second in goals with 47 and fourth in points with 90. He’s played the most games (211) from that draft class. Tim Stutzle leads in goals (71), assists (100), and points (171). He is a rising star in Ottawa.

With the Devils handing the Pens a bad loss, they are currently out of a playoff spot entering Wednesday’s slate. The Panthers held on to beat the Sabres 2-1 yesterday. They are tied with the Islanders for the wildcard with 87 points. By virtue of one more regulation win (34), they hold the first wildcard. Each team has four games remaining.

The Pens also have four left. They have 86 points but only have 29 regulation wins. The first tiebreaker. Both the Sabres and Senators each have 81 points. However, Buffalo has six games left. As tough a loss as last night was, they can still hang around. They can’t afford any more slip-ups. They’re at Detroit tomorrow night.

Every team will be playing on Thursday. Buffalo fans will be rooting for the rival Senators to beat the Panthers and hope for help from the Wild and Lightning. Minnesota visits Pittsburgh while Tampa invades Long Island.

Out West, the big game is Calgary at Winnipeg. The Flames suffered a costly defeat on home ice when they lost to the Blackhawks 4-3 on Tuesday night. They trail the Jets by two points for the final wildcard. A Jets’ win in regulation could be the final nail in the coffin for Calgary. They only have four games left, including tonight’s showdown. Winnipeg has five to go.

The Predators are still in it. They defeated the Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime on Cody Glass’ winner. He’s become a player for Nashville after Vegas gave up on him. Nolan Patrick may never play in the NHL again due to injuries. Patience paid off for the Preds with Glass. Given all their key stars who are out, I wonder if they regret waiving Eeli Tolvanen. He’s done well in Seattle, who is closing in on the postseason. They have 94 points.

Nashville has 86 points with five left. They play very hard. It’s hard to see them finding a way in without Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, and Matt Duchene. But their effort is admirable.

The hottest team out West is the Oilers. They out-grinded the Kings to earn a 3-1 win in LA. Leon Draisaitl scored the game-winner on the power play. Connor McDavid drew the penalty following Viktor Arvidsson tying the game. His extra effort paid off when he set up Draisaitl for his 51st with 7:20 left in regulation.

McDavid is three points shy of reaching 150 for the season. His remarkable play undoubtedly will make him MVP. With a league best 62 goals and 85 assists, he’s truly at the peak of his brilliant career. Draisaitl is no slouch with his 123 points (51-72-123) trailing only his teammate.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can join them as the third Edmonton player to reach the century mark. With a goal and assist last night, he has 99 points. It’s unbelievable what they’ve done. Even Zach Hyman has 34 goals and 80 points.

Interestingly, the Oilers are still third in the Pacific with 100 points. The Kings are one up on them for second. Vegas leads the division with 104. All three teams have four games left. Edmonton has the easiest schedule with two games against the Sharks and one coming up against Anaheim.

The one tough game is at Colorado. The defending champs clinched the playoffs last night with Nathan MacKinnon scoring in overtime to hit 100 points for the first time. Who knows. Perhaps that game on April 11 could be a possible Western Conference Finals preview. The teams met in that round last year. Colorado swept Edmonton. Something tells me this Oilers team is capable of doing better.

That’s going to do it for my potpourri of hockey news and notes. I’ll have more on the Rangers/Lightning. A real match-up. It should be fun.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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