Saturday, April 4, 2015

Playoff Countdown: Capitals, Islanders can clinch


Saturday, April 11, marks the conclusion to the 2014-15 regular season. Yet, much remains to be decided in the frantic run to the finish line, including playoff positioning and numerous individual accomplishments and milestones. To celebrate the countdown to the end of the season and the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 15, NHL.com will provide a piece of playoff-related content each day.


The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders can join the field for the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.


The Capitals (43-25-10) don't need help from anyone. If they defeat the Ottawa Senators in regulation at Canadian Tire Centre, they'll be back in the playoffs after a one-year absence. The Capitals have won three in a row, including a 5-4 shootout victory at the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday that moved them past the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins into second place in the Metropolitan Division.


But for one night, the Islanders (45-27-6) will be rooting for the Capitals. A regulation victory by Washington in Ottawa and a win by New York against the visiting Buffalo Sabres at Nassau Coliseum will put the Islanders into the playoffs for the second time in three years.


Beating the Senators (39-26-12) won't be easy. Ottawa begins the night three points behind the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings, who are even in the race for third place in the Atlantic Division; the teams are also battling for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Senators have won their past two games, including a 2-1 overtime victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.


The Red Wings (40-24-13) and Bruins (40-25-13) each play Saturday. Detroit visits the Minnesota Wild; Boston hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs.


In the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators (47-22-9) can move back into undisputed possession of first place in the Central Division by getting at least one point against the visiting Dallas Stars. The St. Louis Blues (48-23-7) pulled even with the Predators at 103 points by outscoring the Stars 7-5 in Dallas on Friday.


The Los Angeles Kings (38-25-14) and Winnipeg Jets (39-26-12), who are battling for the second wild card in the West, each are home Saturday. The Kings will know the result of the Jets' afternoon game against the Vancouver Canucks (45-28-5) at MTS Centre well before they step on the ice for their game against the Colorado Avalanche (36-30-12).


The Kings are one point behind the Calgary Flames for third place in the Pacific Division; the Flames (42-29-7) visit the Edmonton Oilers, who the Kings defeated 8-2 on Thursday in Los Angeles.


Here's a closer look at the action Saturday:


Philadelphia Flyers at Carolina Hurricanes (1 p.m. ET; CSN-PH, FS-CR)


Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets (2 p.m. ET; SN360, ROOT, FS-O)


Vancouver Canucks at Winnipeg Jets (3 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SNP, TSN3)


Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET; CBC, NESN)


Washington Capitals at Ottawa Senators (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN, TVA Sports, CSN-DC)


Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers (7 p.m. ET; SUN, FS-F)


Buffalo Sabres at New York Islanders (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, MSG+)


New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers (7 p.m. ET; MSG+2, MSG)


Detroit Red Wings at Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. ET; CITY, FS-D+, FS-N)


Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators (8 p.m. ET; FS-SW+, FS-TN)


San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes (9 p.m. ET; CSN-CA+, FS-A+)


Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers (10 p.m. ET; CBC)


Colorado Avalanche at Los Angeles Kings (10 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, ALT, FS-W)


The top three teams in each division will make up the first 12 teams in the playoffs. The remaining four spots are filled by the next two highest-placed finishers in each conference, based on regular-season points and regardless of division. It is possible for one division to send five teams to the postseason while the other sends three.


Seeding of the wild-card teams within each divisional playoff will be determined on the basis of regular-season points. The division winner with the most points in the conference will be matched against the wild-card team with the fewest points; the division winner with the second-most points in the conference will play the wild-card team with the second-fewest points.


The teams finishing second and third in each division will play in the first round of the playoffs. There is no reseeding as the tournament moves to the second round and winners of that series advance to the conference championship series and the right to play in the Stanley Cup Final.



Friday, April 3, 2015

Stone contributing to Senators late-season surge


OTTAWA -- There are several key reasons why the Ottawa Senators have been one of the great stories in the NHL for the past couple months.


Backed by goaltender Andrew Hammond, "The Hamburglar," they have been on a potentially record-setting roll as they try to overcome a 14-point deficit on Feb. 10 and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.


That would be the biggest deficit a team has overcome since the NHL went to an East-West conference format in 1993-94.


Hammond is 16-1-1 as a starter in the NHL as the Senators have pulled to within three points of the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division.


One of those three teams is also likely to earn the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.


Then there’s defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has forced himself into the group in consideration for the Norris Trophy. He has been one of the League’s hottest offensive players (27 points in his past 26 games) and his defensive game has been the best it’s been since he broke into the League six seasons ago.


Perhaps slightly overshadowed in the Senators surge has been the contribution of a number of young players and leading the way has been rookie wing Mark Stone.


The 22-year-old, selected by Ottawa in the sixth round of the 2010 NHL Draft (No. 178), is third on the Senators in scoring with 56 points. He’s played most of the time on the top line with center Kyle Turris.


He scored his 20th goal of the season in the Senators 2-1 overtime win Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and set up defenseman Patrick Wiercioch for the winner.


That comes on the heels of scoring the shootout winner Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings, a game in which Stone was the best player on the ice.


“I think we felt very strongly that he was going to be a good player,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said. “He showed some real good signs. He’s got real good hockey sense. He’s got great hands. We knew that.


“The issue with Mark was his skating a little bit. I think he made a commitment last summer to stay in Ottawa and get stronger. To do more skating and put time into it and that’s been a big difference in his game, there’s no doubt about that.”


After a couple of 15-goal seasons with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League, Stone’s attention to his skating has been paying off. He’s taken a huge stride forward this season.


Stone’s strengths are always going to be his head and hands. As Murray pointed out, he’s not the strongest skater, but those two other qualities make up for it. They are the reasons why he is tied for the League lead in takeaways with John Tavares of the New York Islanders with 91 after the games Thursday.


When asked what’s impressed him about his linemate, Turris said: “How smart he is. I feel like we like to work the give and go game and he’s so smart at finding seams and holes to get the puck through as well as putting himself in a position where it’s easy to make a pass to him.


“His hockey sense is really advanced. Little things. Stripping guys of pucks. He’s intense. He’s good defensively. He’s a very good all-round hockey player.”


That’s a good point about finding seams. That’s what Stone did against the Lightning, threading a pass across the ice to Wiercioch in the far circle from where the defenseman scored.


Stone is remarkably adept at taking the puck away from opponents. He reads the play, anticipates where an opponent is going and gets himself in position. A flick of his stick and the puck has changed hands.


“I’ve always been good at it,” Stone said of the takeaways. “I was never a great skater and I kind of learned little tricks to make up for that. Takeaways was one of them. I feel like I read the play pretty well. I look to see what they’re guy is going to do and try and make the steal.”


Like Karlsson, who has been a latecomer to the Norris conversation, Stone has forced himself into the League’s rookie of the year picture.


Stone is third in rookie scoring. While rookies will often fade in the second half of the season, Stone has been playing his best hockey down the stretch.


He has 40 points in 42 games since Dec. 29. He’s three points behind Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and five behind leading rooke scorer Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. In that same timeframe, Gaudreau has 30 points and Forsberg has 25.


“He’s very savvy,” Turris said. “I feel like he’s grown and when most rookies start to taper off because of the 82 game season and it’s difficult to sustain a good pace, he’s revved it up and it’s been at the right time to help our team.”


“He’s been good for a long time,” Senators coach Dave Cameron said. “He’s been good right from the get go, and he’s really started getting rewarded for it in the last while.


“Just real good hockey IQ, sees the ice, unbelievable stick. Wants the puck, wants to be a difference maker. Whatever line he’s been on has been real good. He’s driving us a little bit.”


On a retooling team, there was opportunity for young players like Stone, forwards Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Curtis Lazar and defensemen Cody Ceci, Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki.


Stone has come a long way in a short time.


“Early in the season I was more worried about being in the League,” he said. “I had only played like 20 games before coming in here. As the season went on, my role increased and that’s when I started to put pressure on myself to produce in certain roles. It’s just one of those things that now I’m in the top six, it’s just a given that I know I have to produce on a night-to-night basis.”


During Ottawa’s great run in February and March, the Senators young players have had the chance to get valuable experience in the heat of what has been an unexpected playoff race.


“This last month and a half has been outstanding for them,” Murray said. “I think the growth of every one of our kids will benefit from this, there’s no question. There is pressure you have to face every night. These are real growing experiences for them. Long term, you never take anything for granted, but you got to hope and think this is going to be a real plus for them.”



Blues, Blackhawks create offense with minimal risk


The distance from the blue line to the boards behind the goal is 75 feet; from side-to-side, another 85 feet of ice. Managed properly in an attacking situation, the offensive zone can become a dangerous place to spend time for any team. But managed improperly, offensive possession -- even nearly 200 feet away from a team's own goal -- can create a dangerous turnover and a quick opportunity against.



CLOSER LOOK



Riding shotgun with Crosby, Thornton


By Evan Sporer - NHL.com Staff Writer

Sidney Crosby and Joe Thornton make their linemates better. Evan Sporer breaks down what they do, specifically. READ MORE ›



It's one thing to play conservative hockey. It's another entirely to play efficient hockey within a system that can mitigate the danger of making mistakes. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are two teams that can generate offense from their blue lines, but do so in a way that should they turn the puck over they're not at risk of becoming the victim of a quick counterpunch.


When the Blues play the Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), it won't be safe hockey that limits odd-man opportunities in transition, simply structured hockey.


Taking advantage of the vertical space on an offensive zone possession is a good way to neutralize any potential threats against. When gaining the zone, by going low-to-high-to-low, it can distend the defending team's spacing, creating more open ice, and thus making it more difficult to counter-attack.


With puck-moving defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, David Rundblad, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, Chicago and St. Louis are able to use their blue lines as launching pads or firing posts when sustaining pressure in the offensive zone. How they go about doing it also ensures that, more often than not, those defensemen aren't caught on the wrong end of a turnover turned transition.


On this Alex Steen goal against the Anaheim Ducks earlier in the season, St. Louis turns an offensive zone faceoff win into a goal by recouping its attack through the point.



St. Louis wins the faceoff, and attempts a shot toward the goal. As the puck goes wide and rims around the boards, Carl Gunnarsson and Shattenkirk each hold his position at the point. It looks like Anaheim will get a chance to gain possession and clear, but forward Jori Lehtera wins a footrace to a loose puck. Part of properly spacing the zone and playing within this structure requires forwards to know when to make plays closer to the blue line that could be perceived as a defenseman's responsibility.


From there, Lehtera takes the puck into the teeth of the defense. That creates more space for him to pass back to Shattenkirk, who won't be immediately met by a Ducks skater.



With St. Louis having already been in Anaheim's zone for 13 seconds, the Ducks have left some space to operate by the blue line. Shattenkirk is able to complete a D-to-D pass, and puts enough pace on it to make sure he doesn't turn it over and trigger an opportunity against.



Now comes quite possibly the most important part of this sequence. The vertical distance between Gunnarsson and the closest Duck is going to force him to close that space. Gunnarsson though changes his angle, and makes sure that, first and foremost, the puck is getting deep and St. Louis isn't caught defending an odd-man rush. The play happens to result in a goal for the Blues.



The Blackhawks similarly excel at creating offense from the point without shooting themselves in the foot. On this Andrew Shaw goal, the puck ends up at the blue line twice before Chicago scores.



After Chicago gains the zone, Patrick Sharp takes a shot on goal. Immediately, Chicago is changing the field position of the play, getting the puck to the goal line and, at the very least, forcing the Nashville Predators to go 200 feet.


As the puck gets worked back up to Keith, he wastes no time sending it down low, identifying Nashville has a chance to go the other way should possession change above the circles.



Now Chicago can go back to work. With the puck moved low-to-high-to-low, the Predators are chasing. Their defensive posture is beginning to slump and passing lanes are being opened up. Shaw has the Predators' attention, and a pretty wide-open passing lane to hit Seabrook.



As Seabrook steps into this shot, it's much like what Gunnarsson did. Shooting the puck wide and escaping to live another day is better than attempting the perfect shot that gets blocked and turns into a goal against. With enough to worry about in front of him, Seabrook intentionally shoots wide, and Chicago ends up scoring seconds later.



There's something about this brand of hockey that may not come across as sexy. Sure, Seabrook or Gunnarsson could have attempted to stickhandle past a forward, walk in, and pick out a top corner of the goal. But playing within these finely tuned systems, the Blues and Blackhawks each get results from orchestrating play through their blue lines, and do so without setting themselves up to get scored against.


---



No Bull Moments: Ducks' Gibson, Wings' Nyquist


Blue Jackets pick Tynan leading charge in Springfield


Before the season began, Jared Bednar's biggest concern with TJ Tynan was his size.


The rookie is listed at 5-foot-8 -- the smallest on a Springfield Falcons roster made up of mainly players 6-foot-plus -- and plays a defensively demanding, two-way position in center.


But now, after almost a full American Hockey League season, the Falcons coach's concerns have been completely alleviated.


"I think at first when you see a smaller, undersized guy that has some skill, you wonder as a coach, 'How is this guy going to play in traffic against bigger opponents every night for the course of a really long season?'" Bednar said. "The worries I had as a coach have really dissipated over the course of the season. He's proven to me that he has the ability to be a top player every night on both sides of the puck."


After finishing his collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame with 161 points in 164 games, Tynan, a third-round pick (No. 66) of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2011 NHL Draft, made his professional debut with Springfield last April.


Though he was scoreless in those three games with the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate, Tynan's familiarity with the club helped the 23-year-old jump right in at the start of the 2014-15 season.


"I think your first year you're just learning, because obviously I've never been a part of anything like this," Tynan said. "It's my first experience, but coming in this year already knowing some of the guys and the coaches really helped a lot."


The grind of the 76-game AHL schedule almost always becomes any rookie's biggest adjustment, with the long bus trips and the three-in-three sets on the weekends. Players coming out of college feel this the hardest, usually having played the equivalent of two full NCAA seasons by the end of one AHL regular-season calendar.


"It's definitely been different. Playing three games in a weekend is not something I'm used to," Tynan said. "But I think talking to the other guys, they help you out. You just have to listen to your body and get the proper rest and hydration and nutrition and things like that. The people around me have definitely made it easier."


Tynan has missed only one of the Falcons' first 70 games, a note that has not gone unnoticed by Springfield brass.


"He's a durable player," Bednar said. "To be able to take that physical play against players every night is something that's really impressed me. He's earned my respect and his teammates' respect. He's a player that we lean on every night."


A native of the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Ill., Tynan leads the Falcons in assists (32) and points (42), and heads into the weekend riding a four-game point streak. He has pieced together an impressive rookie season as Springfield continues to battle for a Calder Cup Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.


As a freshman with the Fighting Irish in 2010-11, Tynan led the team in scoring with 54 points in 44 games and was named the CCHA conference's rookie of the year, joining a list of winners that includes the Montreal Canadiens' Max Pacioretty, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Mark Letestu and the Philadelphia Flyers' R.J. Umberger.


Tynan majored in business marketing, completing all four years at Notre Dame before turning pro last season. The decision to stay in school was never in question, nor was the decision to be a hockey player.


"Getting my degree and staying four years was really important to me, but I never really thought about what I wanted to get into," he said. "I just always wanted to be a hockey player, and that's what I was always working towards. I was lucky enough to be signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and it's been a great experience so far."


After Tynan had 10 points in 15 games in the month of November, Bednar saw a slight decline in his energy. But like clockwork, the coach's worries were eased as quick as they arose.


"It was short-lived. He's really done a good job at being one of our most consistent players all season," Bednar said. "For a young guy, his compete level and his will and want to make a difference every single night is exceptional. He holds himself to a high standard and wants to be a go-to guy every night, and I think that is what makes him a successful player."


For a team that has seen four of its players make their NHL debuts this season with the Blue Jackets and 10 more spend significant time on recall, Tynan's durability and consistency has been a mainstay on the Falcons' offensive front. His number is bound to be called soon.


But for now, Tynan, like most players, knows that call is out of his hands.


"I'm happy to see guys go up and a lot of them do really well. Hopefully that happens, but it's out of my control and I know that," he said. "I'm just worried right now about the Springfield Falcons and making the playoffs."


For more news, scores, and stats from around the American Hockey League, follow @TheAHL on Twitter and visit theahl.com.



Five reasons Blues clinched playoff berth


The St. Louis Blues are headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth consecutive season after a 4-1 win against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.


The Blues have earned 100 or more points in each of the past three full seasons, and they are three wins shy of reaching 50 for the second straight.


A six-game losing streak to end last season cost St. Louis the Central Division title; the Blues were then eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round after holding a 2-0 series lead.


The Blues are again struggling down the stretch, and their leading scorer, forward Vladimir Tarasenko, is day-to-day with a lower-body injury, but if they can get back to full strength, they are built for a long postseason run.


Here are five reasons the Blues clinched a playoff berth:


1. Top of the line


Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera were already a natural match after they played two seasons together for Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. In early November, the Blues put them with Jaden Schwartz to form the prolific "STL Line." They have combined for 79 points when on the ice together at even strength, according to DobberHockey.com, making them one of the most productive trios in the NHL.



Jaden Schwartz



Left Wing - STL


GOALS: 25 | ASST: 33 | PTS: 58

SOG: 171 | +/-: 13



Injuries to Schwartz (foot) and Lehtera (concussion), and now Tarasenko, kept the trio apart at times, but they have formed one of the most dangerous lines in the League when at full strength. Tarasenko is the first Blues player with more than 50 even-strength points since Pavol Demitra (57) in 2002-03, and he's enjoyed a breakout season with career highs in goals (36), assists (35), points (71), power-play points (18) and plus-minus (plus-26). Signed to a two-year, $4.7 million contract last September, Schwartz's 58 points are a career high.

St. Louis' top line of Alexander Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie has also been productive; the trio was tied for fifth in March with 21 even-strength points when on the ice together. Steen's 38 assists lead the Blues, and he is tied with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk for most power-play points (24).


2. Depth on defense


Shattenkirk is the engine that drives the defense, and his 25-game absence following abdominal surgery caused a ripple effect. The Blues scored 2.52 goals per game (20th in the League) without Shattenkirk compared to 3.14 (third) from Oct. 9-Feb. 1. At the time of his injury, Shattenkirk's 40 points were second among defensemen, and St. Louis was on a 10-0-1 run, averaging 4.3 goals per game over that span.



Kevin Shattenkirk



Defense - STL


GOALS: 8 | ASST: 32 | PTS: 40

SOG: 126 | +/-: 16



The Blues went 14-8-3 without Shattenkirk before he returned Saturday, keeping them in the race for the division title. The back end was fortified with the acquisitions of Robert Bortuzzo and Zybnek Michalek prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, and the returns of Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson have the St. Louis defense better equipped compared to seasons past.

3. Goaltending


Given an opportunity to be the No. 1 goaltender, Brian Elliott set a Blues record March 17 with his 21st career shutout, and his 2.20 goals-against average is tied for fourth in the League. Elliott and Jake Allen (20-6-4, 2.40 GAA, .907 save percentage) have combined for 10 shutouts, second behind the New York Rangers (11), and their six road shutouts has matched the Blues record set by Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (1968-69).


Coach Ken Hitchcock said last week that Elliott is the No. 1 goalie heading into the playoffs, a great opportunity for Elliott to improve on his six wins in 18 postseason games.


4. Killer instinct


At the end of December, the Blues were 24th in the League in penalty killing at 78.4 percent. They've since risen to 10th (83.0 percent) after killing 42 of 46 chances in March, including a season-high six kills in a 3-0 victory against the Dallas Stars on March 15. St. Louis is 28-11-5 when not allowing a power-play goal.


5. The 700 Club


In his 18th season as an NHL coach, Hitchcock remains among the elite and set two milestones this season. With his 693rd regular-season win, he passed Dick Irvin for fourth place on the all-time coaching wins list, and he later became the fourth coach in League history to win 700 games.


The Blues have made the playoffs in each of Hitchcock's four seasons, but have yet to advance beyond the second round. This may be Hitchcock's best chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since he did so with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2003-04.


---



Five reasons Blackhawks clinched playoff berth


After some concerns down the stretch as they played without injured right wing Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks assured themselves of a berth in 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-1 victory against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.


The Blackhawks, who have 47 wins and 100 points, are third in the Central Division of the Western Conference and still have a chance to pass St. Louis Blues (101) and Nashville Predators (103). Chicago is 11-4-1 since Kane sustained a broken left clavicle on Feb. 24.


Here are five reasons the Blackhawks have qualified for the playoffs for a seventh straight season:


1. Defense-first formula


Chicago is quietly the League's second-best defensive team, averaging 2.26 goals-against per game. That number is even more impressive when you consider the Blackhawks are 21st in the NHL in shots allowed per game (30.2), further proving their ability to buckle down after the opposition enters their zone.


A big part in the defensive success has been their ability to win faceoffs (52.0 percent, fifth in the League) and the play of goaltenders Corey Crawford (2.28 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) and Scott Darling (1.77 GAA, .941 save percentage). Prior to being returned to Rockford of the American Hockey League in February, Antti Raanta was 7-4-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .936 save percentage.


There was certainly a concerted effort to pay attention to detail in the defensive zone, and the acquisition of Kimmo Timonen before the NHL Trade Deadline provided added leadership on and off the ice. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has split up the usually effective pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at times, instead putting Keith with Michal Rozsival and Seabrook with Timonen. For the most part, the defense made certain most shots were generated from the perimeter while clearing the crease.


"I think the difference for us defensively is offensive-zone awareness or where we leave pucks," Quenneville said. "Sometimes we got in trouble trying to score and where we left the puck when we didn't score. In the end it could be a higher quality chance the other way so I think playing to score and playing tighter this time of the year is almost necessary."


2. Pick your poison


The Blackhawks have been a team that can succeed playing any style you throw at them, whether it be free-wheeling, tight-checking or hard-hitting. That's been the case during the past six seasons; Chicago has reached the Western Conference Final four times in that span and won the Cup twice.


The Blackhawks have won almost as many games on the road (23) as they have at United Center (24) and are in a three-way tie for the NHL lead with nine shootout victories. They are the only team in the League with a perfect record (24-0-0) when leading after two periods. Chicago has a good blend of playoff-tested veterans and youthful exuberance, as well as a coach who seems to get the most out of them in tight situations.


3. No shortage of talent


Chicago's depth down the middle is evident by the fact center Brad Richards is averaging less than 15 minutes per game while skating between Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp for much of the season. The acquisition of Antoine Vermette at the NHL Trade Deadline gave Quenneville a third-line center capable of taking critical faceoffs in the defensive end if needed. More than anything, Vermette has helped give Richards, 34, a breather every so often.



Marian Hossa



Right Wing - CHI


GOALS: 22 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 58

SOG: 235 | +/-: 16



Marian Hossa, 36, continues to defy the odds as a 200-foot force on a line with captain Jonathan Toews. Saad is in the midst of a career year and Sharp has reached 40 points for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.

While Quenneville has made plenty of line adjustments throughout the season, Toews with Hossa and Sharp, and Vermette with Teuvo Teravainen and Saad have been effective when they play together. Bryan Bickell always picks up his play at this time of year, and Andrew Shaw is traditionally considered a nightmare for the opposition as a fourth-line wing.


4. Terrific Toews


The Blackhawks' captain can score when needed, of course, but his teammates and coaches also know the other benefits he brings to a contending team at this time of year.



Jonathan Toews



Center - CHI


GOALS: 26 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 64

SOG: 186 | +/-: 29



Toews logs more than 19 minutes a game, pays special attention to his defensive responsibilities, wins faceoffs and, win or lose, is always the face of the franchise in the locker room during the postgame scrums with the media. He can score from the perimeter or get greasy in front. He ranks first on the team in faceoff winning percentage (56.3) and shot attempts/60 minutes (35.86), and second in shooting percentage (14.0).

The bottom line with Toews, and probably the most important factor at playoff time, is that when No. 19 is on the ice the Blackhawks are rarely in their defensive zone.


5. With or without you


The Blackhawks will play the final 21 regular-season games and will start the playoffs without Kane, who still leads the team in goals (27) and power-play points (22), and is tied with Toews for the lead in points (64). When the odds seem to work against the Blackhawks, that's when their true character comes through and what makes the team something special to watch every postseason.


This is the second straight year that Kane sustained an injury during Chicago’s playoff push. He missed the final 12 games of the 2013-14 regular season with a knee injury; the Blackhawks went 6-6-0 before he returned for the playoffs. Quenneville believes the Blackhawks have paid more attention to detail on both sides of the puck in the absence of Kane. Chicago has outscored the opposition 39-31 since he was injured.


"We know if we're going to win, we have to win tight games and have a check-first mentality," he said.


Kane had surgery and isn't expected to be ready until late May; if that's the case, he'd likely miss the first two rounds of the playoffs. Chicago lost more than two straight games once this season, and that was prior to Kane's injury; a three-game skid against the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Boston Bruins in February. It speaks to the depth and determination of each player that the Blackhawks can still prevail without the services of their All-Star forward.


---



Andersen, Gibson push for playoff call in Ducks net


ANAHEIM -- The competition is intense, to hear Frederik Andersen tell it. There's not much separation between him and teammate John Gibson, and it often gets tight.


The thing is, Andersen isn't talking about their dual goaltending dynamic for the Anaheim Ducks but their latest head-to-head showdown in an NBA video game.


"It was actually a good series," Andersen said. "We had a best-of-7 series. I've got to win the Game 7 next time."


Frederik Andersen and John Gibson are friends, teammates and young goalies that have propelled Anaheim to the best record in the NHL going into Friday. (Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI)


Andersen and Gibson are friends, teammates and young goalies who have propelled Anaheim to the best record in the NHL going into Friday against the Colorado Avalanche at Honda Center (10 p.m. ET; SN1, ALT, PRIME). The competition between them for the No. 1 job is more of a media and fan curiosity, but there's no denying each is making it a tough decision for coach Bruce Boudreau with the Stanley Cup Playoffs ahead.


"I think they both want the starting role," Boudreau said. "We had a tough game in New York and Columbus [last month] and when [Andersen] played two really good games, it was like [Gibson] said, 'Oh, yeah? OK,' and he came in and played great. I think they both would like to have it.


"If we go far they're both going to play, and if we don't go far, they're both going to play, because if we're losing, we're going to make switches. That's the way I think of it right now. We're not married to thinking one is better than the other. When they're on top of their game, they're as good as there is."


Andersen, 25, is the incumbent starter with 34 wins this season, two shy of Jean-Sebastien Giguere's Ducks single-season record. On Wednesday, Andersen became the second-fastest goalie to 54 NHL wins, getting there in 75 decisions.


Gibson, 21, made nine starts in March and was 6-3-0 with a .918 save percentage. He has 10 wins in his past 13 decisions and is 13-7-0 with a 2.58 goals-against average.


Andersen and Gibson downplay the competition between them, but Andersen doesn't hide that he wants to be the guy.


"Personally I like to start every night," Andersen said. "At this point it's not really anything I've got to worry about. I've just got to worry about playing when I'm in there. … Right now we're a team that pushes to be the best we can be, and every single night we've got to have the best lineup, and no matter who it is, whoever's called upon has to be ready. That's how championships are won, with a deep roster."


Andersen is prideful after he emerged last season, only to have his playoffs cut short by injury. He is still seen as Anaheim's starter for Game 1 of the playoffs, although Boudreau won't hesitate to change it up, much like he did last season with Andersen, Gibson and Jonas Hiller.


"It's evident to me that, in a seven-game series, if one is struggling you certainly have no qualms about putting the other guy in," Boudreau said.


Gibson is a goalie of few words and a lot of swagger. He was forgotten about at the beginning of the season because of a groin injury that kept him out six weeks, but he reaffirmed the hype surrounding him after he was recalled from the American Hockey League in February.


This is the first time he's been able to string together starts for an extended period of time in the NHL, an important step in his development.


"You get more comfortable the more you play, and [with] different buildings, different teams," Gibson said. "I think now I'm starting to get more comfortable and I'm just trying to focus on little things."


A two-goalie system is atypical, particularly in the playoffs. The Ducks have fed off the dynamic without analyzing it too much.


"I think it helps just to know that if one guy struggles one night the next guy is there to pick him up and play well," forward Andrew Cogliano said. "It helps having two guys that really could go every night. I don't know how it is for them being goalies. But we're confident in both of them. I think both have different styles, and who knows? I think there are some teams they play really well against that they can switch off. I think they've done well as a team. They're good guys and I think it's worked well for both of them."


The more traditional model is for a team to have a veteran goalie mentor a young goalie. Anaheim had Jason LaBarbera briefly play that role at the start of the season before it became clear Gibson was ready to return full-time.


Andersen doesn't really fit the mold of fresh-faced kid, given his international experience prior to the NHL, having represented Denmark in four World Championships. He said having a veteran to guide them is beneficial to a point.


"I think it can be good, but you have to be able to grow up yourself," Andersen said. "You can't just learn having a veteran that can teach you everything. You've got to take it upon yourself. It's not like I'm an 18-year-old kid right out of juniors. I have experience myself, and I try to use that as best as I can.


"Me and [Gibson] are here to work together and learn from each other like that, so it's exciting to have these experiences early in our careers together, which is pretty unique. There's not too many (teams) with two young goalies that get to play together like we do now."


Andersen remembers going through some developmental and training camps with Gibson. The two got to know each other some through their video games. It's a relationship of respect and a friendly push of each other, despite what might be perceived from the outside.


"We got along quite well," Andersen said of first meeting Gibson. "I remember right away (that) he's a good kid. There's no controversy here. I know you guys are loving that."



Super 16: Little clarity on favorite as playoffs beckon


By the end of the 2013-14 season, the top teams in the NHL had distinguished themselves.


The top of the West was pretty clearly a group of five teams: the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. The top teams in the East was a smaller group, with the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers leading the way.


Save for the Bruins losing to the Montreal Canadiens, those other five teams that didn't win the Stanley Cup had their season ended by the Kings or the Blackhawks.


Two seasons ago, the Blackhawks went wire-to-wire but Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston were the three best puck possession teams to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs and all reached the final four. Even the Detroit Red Wings, a No. 7 seed facing the team with the second-most points (Anaheim), was tied for fourth among playoff teams in score-adjusted shot attempts percentage (SAT%) and they were the de facto fifth-place finishers, taking the eventual champs to seven games in the second round.


There doesn't seem to be nearly as much clarity at this point in the 2014-15 season. As discussed last week, three of the top teams in the League, according to the standings, have not been great in areas that have proven to be critical in the postseason of late.


Some of the teams that have been great in those areas have slipped in recent weeks. A couple of elite teams are missing key players and their return dates are murky.


It is entirely possible that three of the top five teams in the NHL in scored-adjusted SAT% since Feb. 1, a span of close to 30 games, will not make the playoffs. Two, the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes, won't for sure and it's possible that either the Kings or Winnipeg Jets will miss as well.












October-November Team SAT%

(Click image to enlarge)



December-January Team SAT%

(Click image to enlarge)



February-March Team SAT%

(Click image to enlarge)




Check out the accompanying bar graphs. They show the top 12 teams in the NHL by score-adjusted SAT%, according to www.war-on-ice.com with the season divided into three two-month sections.


Only one team, the New York Islanders, is in the top seven in each of the three chunks. The Tampa Bay Lightning came close, finishing February-March in a tie for eighth.


The Blackhawks, Red Wings and Nashville Predators are going the wrong way. The Ducks, Rangers and Canadiens are not on any of the three lists. If the Kings make it, are they the favorites?


It's hard to make much sense of what has been a strange season. It could make for a wild postseason, or the Kings will play the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final and, from an analytics standpoint at least, it will have all made sense.


Given all of the uncertainty, this week the Super 16 is going to make the case for why each of the teams on this list could win the Stanley Cup … or not win the four games required to advance to the second round of the tournament.


DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.


1. St. Louis Blues


PLAN A PARADE: If everyone is healthy (that's going to be a running theme), the Blues might have the deepest team in the NHL. Vladimir Tarasenko is a star, and the evolution of he, Jaden Schwartz and Dmitrij Jaskin, along with the additions of Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera, have added talent and depth and game-breaking ability to the offense. In-season additions Marcel Goc, Robert Bortuzzo and Milan Michalek have all performed better than the player they replaced. One of those two defensemen might not crack a full lineup.


ONE AND DONE: Tarasenko is injured and his return date is uncertain. The team has slumped of late, and neither goaltender looks at a "ready to win 16 times in two months" level of sharpness right now. And of course the Blues are likely to face a great team in the first round, and considering they've lost to the Kings, Kings and Blackhawks in the past three postseasons, another early date with Chicago might not end well.


2. Tampa Bay Lightning


PLAN A PARADE: They can attack and score as well as anyone. A superstar anchors the first line and three young, emerging stars comprise one of the top second lines in the League. The defense corps is deep, and the Lightning potentially have multiple great options in net. They've been a top-10 possession team all season.


ONE AND DONE: Four of those defensemen, including Victor Hedman, and No. 2 center Tyler Johnson, are currently injured. It is possible all but Braydon Coburn will be fine by the start of the playoffs. Ben Bishop has no playoff experience after missing the 2014 postseason. They're third in shot attempts against per 60 minutes at even strength for the season, but ninth since Feb. 1.


3. Los Angeles Kings


PLAN A PARADE: They've been the NHL's dominant possession team after a slow start to the season. Los Angeles is third in shot attempts for and first in shot attempts against per 60 minutes since Dec. 1. The gap between the Kings and second place in score-adjusted SAT% since then is bigger than the divide between second and ninth. The Kings are not quite as deep as last season, but still among the deepest teams in the League, led by a top-three center and a top-three defenseman.


ONE AND DONE: Well, there is that minor detail of actually securing an invitation to the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The schedule sets up for them to make it, but losing defenseman Andrej Sekera for an undetermined period of time doesn't help. They've played more hockey than anyone the past four seasons. If they get in, even if it is as the last team on the last day, the Kings would probably be one of the biggest favorites in the opening round.


4. Anaheim Ducks


PLAN A PARADE: The overall numbers aren't great, but the Ducks are third in the League in score-adjusted SAT% since the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. If that type of late-season surge carries over into the playoffs, this might finally be the year for Bruce Boudreau. Anaheim is deep down the middle with the addition of Ryan Kesler and the maturation of Rickard Rakell, and that defense corps looks even better with some additions (and some veteran subtractions).


ONE AND DONE: They are not an elite team at any one particular thing. Anaheim is tied for ninth in goals per game, but outside the top 10 in goals against per game, power play, penalty kill, shots for per game and shots against per game. The Ducks also don't know who their goaltender is going to be. They tend to rely too much on Nate Thompson and not enough on Rakell in close games. There is a scenario where they get the Kings in the first round.


5. New York Rangers


PLAN A PARADE: They're young and they're fast with a lot of guys who can score. The defense corps is a mixed bag, but one of the best goaltenders in the League is behind them. The Rangers have won 37 of 51 games since starting 11-10-4, and can still claim the Presidents' Trophy, despite Henrik Lundqvist missing a large chunk of that torrid stretch with a throat injury. Alain Vigneault deserves Jack Adams Award consideration, and has coached multiple teams deep into the playoffs.


ONE AND DONE: A big part of the Rangers' success was a relatively untested goalie at the NHL level suddenly producing Carey Price-like numbers while the offense slowly dried up in front of him. Having Lundqvist back means they are more likely to receive great goaltending moving forward, but the Rangers remain one of the worst puck possession teams expected to qualify for the playoffs. Keith Yandle has scuffled since arriving in a marquee trade, but he could still have a positive impact on the possession issue.


6. Chicago Blackhawks


PLAN A PARADE: Before the injury to Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks were the favorites to win the Cup. Since Kane's injury, they've still been pretty successful and if they can play long enough for him to return, they probably become the favorites again. Even without Kane, there is plenty of talent and depth and experience and coaching prowess to reach that point when he can play again.


ONE AND DONE: Regardless of the possession numbers, Chicago has struggled to score for much of the season and it would only take a few games of that against a great team like the Blues or Predators to be out. The possession numbers aren't nearly as gaudy as they were earlier in the season, and the deadline additions (Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette) have struggled.


7. New York Islanders


PLAN A PARADE: As mentioned above, this has been the most consistent puck possession team in a very inconsistent season, League-wide. There is plenty of depth up front around superstar John Tavares, and the defense corps matches up well with anyone in the East. This is also the last dance at Nassau Coliseum, and it might be the best home-ice advantage in the 2015 playoffs (it says might, calm down Winnipeg Jets fans).


ONE AND DONE: While Jaroslav Halak has been a big improvement compared to recent goaltenders, the Islanders are in a division with three goaltenders boasting a save percentage better than .920 while their guy is at .913. Also, the Rangers and the Canadiens are the only two teams expected to make the playoffs in the East who yield more shot attempts against per 60 minutes. That offensive depth has taken a bit of a hit with Mikhail Grabovski out indefinitely because of a concussion.


8. Pittsburgh Penguins


PLAN A PARADE: Having two of the best centers in the world, a Norris Trophy contender on defense, a goaltender having his best season since the team reached back-to-back Cup Finals and a coach who has improved the team's puck possession and shot suppression numbers dramatically seems like a pretty good recipe for being a contender.


ONE AND DONE: The Penguins have not won and not scored goals this season like people have come to expect in Pittsburgh. There are a lot of media members and fans who think something is amiss, and doom is pending. If Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang aren't healthy, that is almost certainly accurate because while general manager Jim Rutherford has made some moves to improve the team's depth, other transactions have not and that's still a big weakness for this team.


9. Minnesota Wild


PLAN A PARADE: Since Devan Dubnyk arrived, the Wild have racked up points like a contender and saved a previously sinking season. A couple of nice additions up front have bolstered the forward depth, and a couple of young defensemen have improved to bolster the depth on the back end.


ONE AND DONE: The most obvious potential issue is Dubnyk's crazy workload, but the other is Minnesota's possession numbers. The Wild began the season looking like the NHL's new analytics juggernaut. When the possession numbers dipped, the idea that poor goaltending forced alterations to the system and strategy made sense, but now they're getting great goaltending and the puck possession has not perked back up.


10. Washington Capitals


PLAN A PARADE: This is the best edition of the Capitals in several seasons. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are as formidable a duo as any, and they are supported by a strong defense corps and elite goaltender, neither of which they had in their younger days. The Metropolitan Division is so tight on paper that any of those four teams could survive. This team does more right than wrong, and if the bracket does get busted, don't be surprised if there are a lot of "the Capitals have finally put it all together for Barry Trotz" articles in late May.


ONE AND DONE: The Metro is so tight on paper that any of those four teams could be out before the calendar reaches May. There is better depth up front than in recent seasons, but it isn't at the level of most of the other contenders in the East.


11. Detroit Red Wings


PLAN A PARADE: They have complemented two of the best all-around forwards in the League with a bevy of young talents, because the Detroit draft-and-develop assembly line is still purring. The defense corps doesn't have a star, but it is probably better than its reputation. Mike Babcock is the best coach in the League, and this is his best roster since Nicklas Lidstrom retired.


ONE AND DONE: The goaltending quandary could be a big problem. The Red Wings were the best shot suppression team in the NHL earlier in the season, but now they're not. For a large part of this season, the Lightning and Red Wings were the two highest-rated teams in the East in this space, but they are likely to see each other in the first round.


12. Montreal Canadiens


PLAN A PARADE: Carey Price … OK, there's more than just "have the best goalie in the world win 16 games." P.K. Subban has been fantastic and will probably play a ton in the postseason. The top guys up front, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, could carry the offense with help from Subban.


ONE AND DONE: If Price doesn't play like the best goalie in the world, the Canadiens are in serious trouble. Even if he does, it will be hard for a team to lean on the goalie so much for two months. If the Flames don't make the playoffs, Montreal is the worst puck possession team in the tournament. If they do, the Canadiens are still the worst in the East.


13. Nashville Predators


PLAN A PARADE: A new coaching staff and aggressive system, a revitalized Pekka Rinne, a deep defense corps and better depth and talent up front than any season in team history save for maybe 2011-12 are all reasons for optimism in Nashville.


ONE AND DONE: Most of the numbers suggest the Predators have faded in the second half of the season, and the 8-10-3 record since mid-February supports that. Maybe it is just a malaise that can be snapped out of once the postseason begins. The biggest weakness on the roster remains at center.


14. Winnipeg Jets


PLAN A PARADE: Put Dustin Byfuglien on defense, leave him there, add a couple depth forwards to bolster an underrated group, get some decent goaltending and become a great puck possession team and solid dark horse in the Western Conference. Add in the idea of playoff hockey at MTS Centre, and maybe everything is in place for a deep playoff run.


ONE AND DONE: Like the Kings, the Jets have to actually get to the starting line first. It could end up being one or the other, depending on what happens with the Flames. Not having Byfuglien for the next four games is not going to help, nor is the tough schedule. The goaltending could absolutely still let them down.


15. Boston Bruins


PLAN A PARADE: With David Krejci back and rookies Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak producing, the Bruins' offensive woes from earlier in the season have subsided. Trying to beat a team with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask is still not going to be easy for anyone, and if they get the Canadiens or Rangers in the first round, being the underdog in a rivalry could be to their advantage.


ONE AND DONE: Dougie Hamilton has to be available, or the Bruins won't last long without him. He's become that valuable, probably rivaling Chara for third on Boston's most indispensable list.


16. Vancouver Canucks


PLAN A PARADE: The Sedins have reminded everyone they are still great, the defense corps is deep and underrated and the team likes its new coach a lot. Radim Vrbata and Nick Bonino have been nice additions, and Eddie Lack has a better save percentage this season than Jonathan Quick, Frederik Andersen and Jonas Hiller.


ONE AND DONE: If they have to play the Kings in the first round, the Canucks will probably be the least-picked higher seed in the League. Will Ryan Miller be ready, and will the Canucks put Lack on the bench in favor of him? Lack has a better save percentage (.919 to .913) than Miller too.