Saturday, April 11, 2015

Five reasons Penguins clinched playoff berth

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season.

They stumbled to the finish line, but the Penguins gave themselves a chance to see the real impact of the organizational overhaul undergone since elimination from the playoffs last season in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

General manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston have their fingerprints all over a team that under former GM Ray Shero and ex-coach Dan Bylsma followed a Stanley Cup championship in 2009 by being a perennial playoff disappointment.

The Penguins never made it back to the Stanley Cup Final during the stewardship of Shero and Bylsma; never won a game beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Now Rutherford and Johnston get their first chance to win in the spring with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. At least they hope to have each player. If there is one thing that's for certain this season, it's to never take a healthy player for granted.

The Penguins are in the playoffs despite another injury-ravaged season. A playoff run will potentially be undertaken without three of the top four defensemen in Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff. Letang has reportedly been ruled out for the season with a concussion.

Regardless of the injuries and the Penguins late-season slump, expectations remain high and anything short of a trip to the Cup Final likely would be seen as a disappointment.

The Penguins took their first step toward reaching the Cup Final by clinching a playoff berth on Saturday.

Here are five reasons the Penguins clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

1. Flower power

The one constant throughout the season was goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He had been constant throughout most of his recent injury plagued seasons, but Fleury was never as good as he was this season.

He had a career-high and League-best 10 shutouts, and finished with a career-high save percentage of .920. He had a 2.32 goals-against average.

Fleury was Pittsburgh's best penalty killer and is the biggest reason why it was among the League's best penalty-killing teams. He had a .912 save percentage on the PK, which was second in the League among goalies with 40 appearances behind Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche.

A key to the Penguins' success was their strong start because it gave them breathing room as they began to accumulate injuries. Fleury was a big reason, going 20-6-3 with six shutouts, a .928 save percentage and 2.12 GAA in 30 appearances before Jan. 1.

2. Letang's bid for the Norris Trophy

The odds of winning in the playoffs are considerably worse because Letang reportedly will not play because of a concussion. With due respect to Crosby and Malkin, Letang was arguably the most valuable skater this season. He could be a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and was a huge reason for the playoff berth.

Letang had 54 points and a plus-12 rating while playing 25:29 per game in 69 games. He had a 55.71 shot attempts percentage (SAT%), which was eighth in the League among defensemen who played at least 50 games. That means the Penguins took 55.71 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when Letang was on the ice. That number went to 59.18 SAT% when Letang was on the ice and the Penguins were trailing.

Simply put, Letang was a possession driver for the Penguins because of his ability to limit opportunities in the defensive end and convert them into sustained possession on a consistent basis in the offensive end. He can't be replaced.

3. 87 and 71

This list couldn't go on any further without mentioning the importance of Crosby and Malkin. Obvious as it may be, the Penguins are nowhere without these two superstars, still the best 1-2 punch at center for any team in the NHL.

Crosby had a subpar regular season by his statistical standards, but he stayed at the top relative to the League's scoring pace, which is down this season.

Crosby finished with 84 points and 28 goals in 77 games, third in the League. He won the Art Ross Trophy last season with 104 points in 80 games and won it in 2006-07 with 120 points in 79 games.

Malkin finished with 70 points in 69 games. He missed time with various injuries, but tied for the team lead with 28 goals. He won the Art Ross Trophy in 2011-12 with 109 points.

4. Rutherford's role players

Rutherford identified the need for depth at the forward position when he was hired as Shero's replacement in June. He thought the Penguins' lineup was too top heavy and susceptible to scoring droughts. Last season, the Penguins lost Games 5-7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Rangers scoring three goals.

Rutherford traded James Neal (61 points in 59 games last season) and didn't re-sign Jussi Jokinen (57 points in 81 games last season), but his acquisitions of Blake Comeau, Patric Hornqvist, David Perron, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Daniel Winnik and Maxim Lapierre made the Penguins deeper up front despite not having the potential for Neal's 30 goals and Jokinen's 60 points.

The new acquisitions accounted for 170 points (78 goals and 92 assists). Hornqvist, Comeau, Perron and Downie have accounted for 132 points, 14 more than Neal and Jokinen combined for last season, but the Penguins were able to spread that scoring across three lines.

Hornqvist's 25 goals likely would have been higher if he didn't miss 18 games with injuries. Comeau's 16 goals could have been higher if he didn't miss 20 games.

In addition, Perron, who had 12 goals in 43 games, would have been on pace for more than 20 goals if he played in Pittsburgh and with Crosby from the start of the season.

Downie brought an edge to the lineup, as evidenced by his League-high 238 penalty minutes, but also had 14 goals and 28 points mostly playing in a third-line role with Spaling and Brandon Sutter.

Spaling was acquired with Hornqvist in a trade for Neal at the draft last June. He doesn't do anything flashy, but he does a lot of things well. Spaling is a third-line wing who finished with 27 points in 82 games.

5. Penalty kill

The Penguins dealt with discipline issues all season, losing their composure in some games while being the most penalized team in the NHL. It didn't affect their bottom line as much as it could have because they have one of the best penalty kills in the League.

Pittsburgh had the best PK in the Eastern Conference at 84.8 percent despite being shorthanded 277 times. Only the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets were shorthanded more than the Penguins, who led the NHL with 18 misconducts and four game misconducts.

Sutter was tied for second in the NHL with four of Pittsburgh's six shorthanded goals. They have spread out the PK duties; 10 current roster players are averaging at least 1:50 of shorthanded ice time per game.


Five reasons Senators clinched a playoff berth

The 2012 Los Angeles Kings proved that all a team needs to do is get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs; from there, anything can happen. Los Angeles caught fire after the 2012 Trade Deadline, sneaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed, and then eventually winning the 2012 Stanley Cup.

The Ottawa Senators have followed that blueprint to the letter so far.

On Feb. 10, the Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot. Five teams stood in the way of a postseason berth.

Playoff hockey is all about "what have you done for me lately?" and of late, the Senators have been the hottest team in hockey. Ottawa is 23-4-4 since Feb. 10, and 32-16-7 since coach Dave Cameron took over on Dec. 11. Th Senators, the one led recently by a first-year goaltender and timely goal-scoring, now have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

Here are five reasons the Senators clinched a playoff berth:

1. Goaltending magic

If rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond continues to play the way he has been, he's going to make Ottawa very difficult to defeat. Even looking past Hammond's win-loss record of 20-1-2, he has a .941 save percentage, and a 1.79 goals-against average. In his 23 starts, Hammond has allowed two or fewer goals 18 times; he's allowed more than three goals twice. He has three shutouts during that stretch, and has eight games in which he's allowed one goal. Hammond has been difficult for shooters to beat, and if that continues in the playoffs, Ottawa will find itself in most games it plays.

2. Youth movement

A pair of rookie forwards is also helping to lead the way for the Senators. Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone have been two of the better offensive rookies this season. Hoffman has scored 27 goals (first among rookies), and has been one of the most productive even-strength scorers this season.

Stone has 26 goals and 64 points, tied for both second-most points on the Senators and most among rookies with Johnny Gadreau of the Calgary Flames. He also had six goals in the final five games of the season, including two in the playoff-clinching victory against the the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

Hoffman and Stone have combined to score 10 of the 37 game-winning goals for the Senators. These rookies have no problem stepping up in the big moment, and have been playing meaningful hockey games for the past few months.

3. Veteran forward depth

Forward Bobby Ryan has playoff experience, and is also providing Ottawa with key offensive contributions. Though he hasn't scored as many goals as he did his first season as a Senator, his 54 points are more than what he recorded last season. Playing on a line with Hoffman has given Ryan another legitimate goal-scorer with which to play.

The Senators are able to roll two effective scoring lines, with Kyle Turris, Stone, and Clarke McArthur making up their other unit. Turris is tied with Stone with 64 points, and is tied for the team-lead with six game-winning goals.

4. Dominant D

No player though is more critical to Ottawa's success and paces the team than captain Erik Karlsson, who is perhaps the most dominant defenseman in the League.

Since the All-Star Game, Karlsson's play has completely taken off; he leads all defensemen with 33 points.

His ability to make a play in the defensive zone, and quickly transition from defense-to-offense is a difficult thing for other teams to stop. Karlsson is also fast enough that when he takes risks at one end of the ice, he has the recovery speed to get back and make a defensive play.

5. A new voice

Ottawa's overall game has been much better since Cameron was named coach, replacing Paul MacLean on Dec. 8. He's turned the Senators into a positive possession team, and one which plays with much more structure in the neutral zone. This isn't simply a the story of catching fire at the right time; Ottawa has been trending in the right direction since Cameron became the coach, and though key players have had great stretches to help guide the Senators into the playoffs, Ottawa has put more attention into the process, which has shown in Cameron's 55 games.

Follow Evan Sporer on Twitter: @ev_sporer

Friday, April 10, 2015

Five reasons the Kings didn't make the playoffs

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The water bottles were lined up on the bench and the ice was fresh at the Los Angeles Kings practice facility, but the players never put on their skates Friday. Later, a manager came out to pack up the bottles, and the lights were turned off.

The scene summed up the past three days for the Kings: a flicker of light for the Stanley Cup Playoffs that was extinguished Thursday when a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames made Los Angeles the first defending Cup champion to miss the postseason since the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006-07.

“Obviously it’s disappointing,” Kings center Jarret Stoll said. “There’s a lot of words to describe this season but, yeah, I think it’s maybe too fresh right now. It’s a weird, weird feeling. It’s a feeling we don’t like. We don’t want to relive this. You have a feeling of winning, and then you have a feeling of this. It’s pretty disappointing.”

Here are five reasons the Kings missed the playoffs:

1. Road problems

Los Angeles began the season 1-4-4 away from Staples Center and never got much better, finishing 15-18-8 on the road. It was a problem that was difficult to understand considering the Kings have been a good road team in the playoffs the past three seasons.

Forward Anze Kopitar was representative of the Kings' home-road split. At Staples Center, he had 10 goals, 39 points and a plus-8 rating through 40 games; on the road, he had six goals, 25 points and a minus-10 rating.

2. Overtime/shootout woes

Getting the extra point in games that went past regulation was an extremely difficult task for the Kings, who were 1-7 in overtime and 2-8 in shootouts. They scored five times in 35 shootout attempts.

The Kings went 6-9 in shootouts before winning the Cup in 2012, but it was a moot point once they snuck in the postseason that year. This season, it’s largely why they didn’t sneak in.

3. Key players missing

Alec Martinez

Defense - LAK

GOALS: 6 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 22

SOG: 102 | +/-: 8

The Kings, who did not retain veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell in the offseason, tried to fill holes on defense. Alec Martinez missed 25 games because of injury and Robyn Regehr missed 15 games. Andrej Sekera was an ideal addition at the NHL Trade Deadline but didn’t play after a lower-body injury March 30. Slava Voynov played six games before being suspended by the NHL after being charged with felony domestic violence.

Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb helped fill out the rotation, but the Kings did not have enough depth to compensate adequately.

The loss of forward Tanner Pearson to a leg injury Jan. 10 contributed to a lack of offense. Pearson was prone to dry spells but his speed and instincts were missed. Los Angeles scored 16 goals in 14 losses from Feb. 3 to April 7.

4. Overuse of Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick

The lack of defensive depth forced coach Darryl Sutter to ride Doughty, whose 29:02 average ice time is his career-high by 2:38. He played 30 or more minutes 29 times, and Sutter admitted the workload was too much for the 25-year-old. The sight of Doughty singlehandedly trying to take on the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, in the second game of a back-to-back, was a microcosm of the defense.

Quick played 71 games, the most since he played 72 in 2009-10. Sutter had no choice but to stick with Quick, who had six shutouts but could only do so much.

The Kings’ 2.42 goals-against average is seventh in the NHL but a significant drop from the League -best 2.05 they had last season.

5. Fatigue

Sutter frequently referenced the Kings being tired or lacking energy, and it’s easy to surmise that’s related to the 64 playoff games they played during the previous three seasons, and the participation of several players in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Los Angeles was in good shape after an eight-game winning streak in February but went 2-3-1 in its next six games.

The Kings were able to have lackluster regular seasons in the past, but it finally caught up to them, especially in the tight Western Conference.

“It’s a battle down right to the end, and we just weren’t consistent enough throughout the course of the season,” Stoll said. “We were chasing that wild card, chasing the eighth spot, chasing third in our division. It just felt like we were chasing it all year, and we couldn’t finish it off.”

Bruins struggles a group failure, GM says

Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli is more than a little bit disappointed with their performance this season.

“I consider it a failure and it’s a failure on everybody’s part,” Chiarelli said Friday in Tampa on an off day for players and coaches. “But being a failure doesn’t mean there has to be a complete overhaul of everything. Guys fail, teams fail, and they get back on their horse. And so again, I consider it a failure, but you don't always succeed in this business. You don’t always hit the ball out of the park all the time, and you’ve got to get back and do your job, and we’ve shown we can do that. But right now it’s very disappointing.”

Chiarelli’s comments were surprising considering the Bruins have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth straight season. Boston will play its regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NESN, SN1), and there’s a chance it won’t be the Bruins' last game of the season.

They need the Pittsburgh Penguins to get no more than one point in their final two games, or the Ottawa Senators to lose in regulation to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday afternoon, to have a chance to make the playoffs. Boston would have to defeat Tampa Bay, which will be playing for a chance to win the Atlantic Division.

As recently as March 10, the Bruins held a seven-point lead on the Senators for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference. At the start of this week, Boston was riding a five-game winning streak and controlled its fate. But the Bruins lost 3-0 at the Washington Capitals on Wednesday and 4-1 at the Florida Panthers on Thursday, dropping them behind the Senators in the standings.

“Up until these last two games, we had a stretch where we had some luck and we had a good push and we got some results,” Chiarelli said. “Prior to that, we squandered some opportunities. I look at that a little bit like, we’ve squandered more than we’ve had the luck go our way, which is on us, and usually that evens out. Usually you win some you don’t deserve to and you lose some that you should’ve won. But to me the ledger is on the other side this time.

“We had a pretty good push, and these last two games have been disappointing. Obviously we’re having trouble scoring. Not generating chances, but we’re having trouble scoring. That came back to bite us the other night in Washington. And [Thursday] night we had a real strong start. If we score on all those chances in the first period, it’s a different game. So [I'm] really, really disappointed. We’re still mathematically alive; things can happen. But we’ve put ourselves in this position.”

The Bruins have been in the bottom third of the NHL in goals per game all season. Forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand share the team lead with 23 goals; Marchand ended a 15-game goal drought against the Panthers.

Goal production from several other players has dropped. Forward Reilly Smith had 20 goals last season; he has 13 this season. Center Carl Soderberg has 13 goals after scoring 16 last season. Forward Chris Kelly’s seven goals are a career-low for a full season.

“There’s the actual getting the chance, which we’ve had an abundance of. There’s the quality of chance. The quality of chance is judged by the location, right? But then there’s the actual executing the chance, and I think we’ve fallen short in that regard,” Chiarelli said. “And that to me is a number of things. It’s actually executing, wanting to bury it. So that speaks to focus. There’s a will that is involved in trying to put the puck through the back of the net. There’s that killer instinct and we haven’t had it.

"I know we’ve lost a couple players from last year, but we’ve done a preliminary look at our chances and we’re almost at the same number of chances. In or around the same number of, we call them, 5 percent chances. And we’re remarkably short of executing those chances. There’s reasons behind it and there’s ways to fix it and we’ll have to look at that. But that’s been a frustrating part.”

The Bruins are ninth in goals allowed per game at 2.46, and goaltender Tuukka Rask has a 2.31 goals-against average. Chiarelli said chances against are up from past years.

“Our game is predicated on strong defensive play and strong breakout,” Chiarelli said. “One thing has to happen first before the next thing. So there’s been a weak spot in the first part, the strong defensive play, so subsequently the breakout hasn’t been the same. We’ve historically, I think, been one of the best breaking-out teams in the League, and we haven’t had that."

Bruins coach Claude Julien has been taking some heat lately for his lineup decisions and the line combinations he created earlier in the week. Chiarelli said he had no problems with Julien's performance.

“I think he’s done fine,” Chiarelli said. “And I look at him, I look at a couple things. I think he’s mixed and matched with the lines. I think he’s integrated some youth into the forward lines. I think he’s done well in mixing and matching on the defensive pairs. None of us lately have been used to these types of circumstances, myself included. So I think he’s done fine."

Though the Bruins can make the playoffs, Chiarelli said they haven't played up to expectations.

"I don’t want to get into a postmortem discussion yet," he said. "We’ll have a chance. But it’s been disappointing and obviously it’s not acceptable. There’s a level of high standard in our city and market and we haven’t reached it right now.”

Avalanche's Pickard thriving under heavy workload

Goaltender Calvin Pickard's ability to handle a heavy workload is starting to pay off.

Making his NHL debut, doing so under the watchful eye of one of his childhood idols and earning the top spot in ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays are all things the 22-year-old can check off his to-do list. Between the Colorado Avalanche and their American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, Pickard has appeared in 61 games this season. That includes his first appearance and victory in the NHL.

“It seems like both places I've been in, I've been able to play a lot of games,” said Pickard, Colorado's third-round pick (No. 49) in the 2010 NHL Draft. “That’s how you develop, and I've been earning a lot of experience this year, playing at both levels and in different situations. It’s been a big year for me, for sure.”

Pickard started showing he could handle a lot of work during his junior career with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. He led the WHL in minutes played in each of his final three seasons, appearing in 194 of his team’s 216 games.

Lake Erie Monsters goaltender Calvi Pickard is 19-16-9 with a 2.59 GAA and a .916 save percentage in 45 games. (Photo: John Saraya)

In Lake Erie, Pickard has been sharing the crease with fellow 2010 draft pick Sami Aittokallio, but 2014-15 is his third straight season of playing in 40 or more AHL games. Pickard is 19-16-9 with a 2.59 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage in 45 games with Lake Erie this season. He also got his first chance to play in the NHL and is 6-7-3, with a 2.35 GAA and a .932 save percentage in 16 appearances.

That's a lot of hockey. But If Pickard is fatigued, it doesn't show.

“He has a tremendous work ethic as it is, from his practice habits to how hard he competes in the games,” Monsters coach Dean Chynoweth said. “This year with Calvin, he kind of took a step forward and obviously is the guy that we've had play the majority of the games. He hasn't wavered. He takes that as a challenge to be the guy, to be able to play night in and night out.”

Pickard admits he's fortunate to have stayed healthy during his career. In fact, it was an injury to Colorado starter Semyon Varlamov that got Pickard to Denver for the first time, and an injury to backup Reto Berra that got Pickard into his first NHL action, against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 16, 2014.

Pickard said he's learned a lot playing and working with the Avalanche's three non-North American goaltenders.

“They’re all European-born goalies, and they’re all from different countries, so it’s nice getting a taste of all three,” Pickard said. “When I’m up top, [Varlamov] and Reto are such good people. They’re so nice to me and make me feel comfortable. Down here, Sami and I have been together for three years now. We get along well, and we feed off each other.”

Pickard has also benefitted from the guidance of Avalanche coach and Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who is in his second season behind the bench in Colorado.

“It’s such an honor to play for him. He treats his players so well and is so passionate about the game,” Pickard said. “He’s definitely intense, and cares so much about winning and about everyone around him -- players, staff, fans. We feed off that, and you can tell every single night, everybody is giving it their all and putting forth a good effort and playing passionate hockey. That comes straight from him.”

Though Pickard admits to breaking the stereotypical goalie personality of having superstitions and specific game-day routines, and despite his whirlwind of a season, he still fits the mold of a young goaltender struggling to adapt before finally breaking through.

“We had a change after the first year with our management, which brought in Francois Allaire and Jean-Ian Filiatrault,” Chynoweth said. “Calvin had a little trouble the first year adapting to the style they were teaching, and he went over to Europe in the summer to train with them. [Now] you see a noticeable difference in his composure in the net, in his rebound control, handling the puck, all those things that have coincided with his improved play.”

Pickard credits Allaire and Filiatrault for shaping his technique, but also tips his hat to his former junior goalie coach, Paul Fricker.

“[Fricker] was good in all aspects, but mostly he was good with preparation and mental techniques. He taught me a lot,” Pickard said. “As a young kid, I would always get frustrated after a goal, or just start pouting on the ice, and he taught me a lot of good lessons.”

Those lessons and the work Pickard has put in with Colorado’s staff have more than paid off. Chynoweth acknowledges that next year’s training camp will be a competitive one, and while Pickard is still learning what it takes to be an NHL goaltender, his attitude and mindset are already exactly where they need to be.

“It wasn't until I went back [to Colorado] the second time and had a few games under my belt that I started to get comfortable and the coaching staff and my teammates had the confidence in me to go out there and get the job done,” he said. “When you have the confidence from them, it makes you feel way more comfortable in the net.

“There’s definitely nights where you’re not feeling 100 percent, but you have to find a way,” he added. “That's part of being a pro.”

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

Sakic says Avalanche better than record

DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic had an inkling that this could be a difficult season as early as training camp.

Yet he didn't anticipate the Avalanche missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs one season after they won the Central Division with 112 points under first-year coach and former teammate Patrick Roy.

The Avalanche are in last place in the division with a 38-31-12 record and 88 points with one game remaining, Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks at Pepsi Center.

"We expect to win," Sakic said. "We didn't come here to be hovering and missing the playoffs. Last year, for sure, 112 points ... we know we weren't as good as 112 points. This year, I think we're better than what we've performed. This year, the big thing is what happened the first half of the year. We weren't ready for (it)."

The Avalanche struggled to score in the preseason when they lost eight of nine games and opened regular-season play with two consecutive shutout losses to the Minnesota Wild. They had four wins in the first 17 games and never climbed into playoff contention despite a 25-16-4 record in 2015.

"With so much success and smooth sailing the year before ... I won't say it was a letdown, but we weren't expecting how other teams were going to play against us," Sakic said. "The pressures, the expectations, they were up there this year whereas last year we created that with how we played. Just not being ready for what that took, we had a tough start, faced a lot of adversity and it took some time for our core guys to learn to deal with that.

"I will say I'm pretty proud of the way the guys dealt with it. I know it took longer than we were hoping, but you could see the smiles, the excitement the last couple of months, where we played much better as a team, more confident, kind of learning to deal with what it's going to take to get to that next level."

Sakic said the Avalanche's mediocre home record (22-15-3) was a major factor for missing the playoffs, along with an ineffective power play (29th in the NHL), losing 23 of 43 one-goal games in regulation or overtime, injuries (486 man games lost) that cut into team depth, and inconsistent play by too many young forwards, including Matt Duchene and Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, who sustained a season-ending broken foot March 4.

Roy has said that game management and puck possession are other areas that need improvement.

The Avalanche's second-half play has given Sakic cause for optimism, but they need help on defense and better depth on the third and fourth lines. A priority is to sign center Ryan O'Reilly to a contract extension. He is in the first year of a two-year, $12 million contract and previous negotiations have been difficult.

"We like Ryan a lot, he's very valuable, he's one of our core guys," Sakic said. "He doesn't need it, we don't need it, no one needs the distractions of him going through the season (as a possible unrestricted free agent in July 2016) so we're going to try to get it done."

Would the Avalanche attempt to trade O'Reilly if he isn't signed to an extension?

"I'm not going to give you a deadline, but I want him signed before next season starts, let's put it that way," Sakic said.

The Avalanche are high on several defense prospects in the organization, among them 2013 NHL Draft picks Chris Bigras and Mason Geertsen. Adding to the mix won't be easy because six defensemen are under contract for next season: Tyson Barrie, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Erik Johnson, Zach Redmond and Brad Stuart.

"There's areas we need improvement, we didn't make the playoffs," Sakic said. "You got to look at your entire roster and see where you can get better."

The Avalanche have a proven No. 1 goalie in Semyon Varlamov, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season. But backup Reto Berra struggled and sat behind minor-league call-up Calvin Pickard when Varlamov was out because of groin injuries.

Berra has slowly regained the organization's trust with better work habits and play; he made 41 saves Thursday in the Avalanche's 1-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets for his first NHL shutout. The backup position is probably his to lose next season, but Pickard will compete with him in camp.

"What I like here in the last two months, we got the mindset back where the expectations are there," Sakic said. "We expect to win, we expect to be in the playoffs and we know and the players know what's expected of them next year. Going into training camp it's going to be different. We're in the toughest (conference) so you can't afford a slow start. We have to be ready to play right from the start."

Perseverance propels Senators to playoff brink

NEW YORK -- Sometimes it really is about the process and sticking with routines. The Ottawa Senators have proved in the past two months that believing in both eventually can yield positive results.

Ottawa will clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by gaining one point Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot Feb. 10 before they faced the Buffalo Sabres.

The Senators have gone 22-4-4 since, and the key is they haven't done much differently in the past 30 games than they did in their first 24 under coach Dave Cameron, who coached his first game Dec. 11 after taking over for Paul MacLean.

"We went through a stretch where we thought we were playing reasonably well but we weren't able to get on that roll," Cameron said following Ottawa's 3-0 win against the New York Rangers on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. "We'd win one and we'd lose one and we'd sit down and analyze the game, look around at other teams in the League that were getting on rolls, and we'd say, 'Why isn't that happening to us?' We didn't have the answer for it other than the fact that we just have to trust that if you put in the work and you do it everyday eventually good things will happen. I don't care how good your team is you never sit back and say you know you're going on a roll like this, but we knew we put in the work and right now things are going good for us."

The Senators knew they were close to turning their season around before this 30-game run started. They were 3-5-4 in their first 12 one-goal games under Cameron after going 7-7-5 in 19 one-goal games under MacLean.

Ottawa is 11-0-4 in its past 15 one-goal games. Seven of those wins have come in overtime/shootout games.

There are several reasons for the turnaround, particularly in the one-goal games.

For starters, there's goalie Andrew Hammond, who Senators players give credit to for boosting the team's confidence early in this run. He went 14-0-1 with a .946 save percentage in his first 15 starts.

Defenseman Marc Methot's return from injury in early January has made a huge impact on captain Erik Karlsson, who has 38 points in the 42 games he has played with Methot since Jan. 8. Karlsson is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.

Rookie forward Mark Stone has 12 goals and 33 points in the past 30 games to put himself in the Calder Trophy race. Center Kyle Turris has 18 points in the past 15 games and Forward Clarke MacArthur has nine points in eight games since returning from injury.

All that has added up to the extra goal here and there that have enabled the Senators to be a potential playoff team and instead of a lottery team.

"[Cameron] has come in and done a great job with us," Turris said. "We felt like we were playing a much better style of hockey early on, and we just weren't getting the results from it. It feels like it all came together at once, where we started playing real good hockey but we were also getting the bounces. We just kept going, the ball kept getting bigger and bigger, and we just kept carrying the momentum."

A perfect example of getting a bounce that counts occurred late in the second period Thursday night.

Rangers center Kevin Hayes had the puck on his stick and an open net to shoot at after Hammond got his skate caught in a rut and fell down as he attempted to get back across his crease. The problem for Hayes is he couldn't settle the puck in time. Once he did, Hammond got back across with just enough of his body to absorb the shot and make the save.

"In that situation you never want to give up on a puck and it's kind of just about keeping your eyes on it and trying to get whatever you can in front of it," Hammond said. "Fortunately I was able get I'm not really sure what, but a piece of my body in front of it."

Kyle Turris

Center - OTT

GOALS: 24 | ASST: 39 | PTS: 63

SOG: 213 | +/-: 4

Twenty seconds later it was 1-0 Ottawa on MacArthur's 16th goal of the season. Sixty-four seconds after that Turris scored his 24th to make it 2-0.

The Rangers offered little in the way of pressure in the third period before Jean-Gabriel Pageau iced the game with an empty-net goal with 1:39 to play.

"It's part of it, catching the breaks," Turris said. "It feels like we weren't getting those three months ago. Then two months ago we were playing the right way and we started to get those bounces. That can change a game."

Or, in the case of the Senators, a season.

"You put in your work everyday, you buy into the system that you think gives you the best chance, and when it comes time for the game then the only pressure you should feel is what you put on yourself," Cameron said. "It's no different from being in school at exam time. If you go to class and you do all the work exams shouldn't overwhelm you. That's the approach we're taking."

Five reasons Jets clinched playoff berth

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff preached that patience and prospect development would anchor his management philosophy from his first day on the job in June 2011.

Nearly four years later, Cheveldayoff's patience combined with strong work at this season's NHL Trade Deadline to send the Jets to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The franchise will make its first playoff appearance since 2007, when it played as the Atlanta Thrashers, and Winnipeg fans will see playoff hockey live in their city for the first time since 1996, when the original Jets left the city for Arizona.

Here are five reasons the Jets clinched a playoff berth:

1. Improved depth at forward

Even before Cheveldayoff's work at the trade deadline, Winnipeg's depth had improved. The offseason addition of speedy forward Mathieu Perreault in free agency gave the Jets bona fide top-nine depth and sparked the power play, which had been a significant issue the past two seasons.

Young center Mark Scheifele continued his progress in his second full NHL season, providing Winnipeg with the legitimate No. 2 center that it long had been lacking. Rookie Adam Lowry made the Jets out of training camp and quickly took over a key role centering the third line.

Cheveldayoff went to work at the deadline, adding veteran forwards Drew Stafford, Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak. Stafford clicked with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on a new line in mid-March and has eight goals in 25 games since arriving from the Buffalo Sabres.

2. Goaltending

Goaltending was an issue for the Jets for several seasons. Ondrej Pavelec had never lived up to the promise that earned him a five-year contract in the summer of 2012. Pavelec teaming with rookie Michael Hutchinson looked like a risk at the start of the season.

After losing the starting job he had held since the 2009-10 season to Hutchinson in February, Pavelec reclaimed it and went 9-2-1 down the stretch to lead the Jets' push to the playoffs. His .920 save percentage is the best of his career; in the final week of the season, Pavelec had three shutouts on a Central Division road trip in which the Jets earned five of a possible six points to clinch a playoff berth.

3. Home ice

After winning 23 of 41 home games in their first season in Winnipeg, the Jets failed to take advantage of MTS Centre's loud, cramped atmosphere for the next two seasons.

This season, the Jets made MTS Centre a tough venue for visiting teams. Their 12-2-2 run on home ice in the second half of the season powered their run to the playoffs and featured key wins against the likes of the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals down the stretch.

The Jets' physical style meshes very well with the loud, rowdy Winnipeg fans and makes MTS Centre a problem for any visiting team.

4. Structure

One of coach Paul Maurice's first tasks after taking over in January 2014 was to retool Winnipeg's systems play. The Jets never had grown comfortable with former coach Claude Noel's system.

Maurice's emphasis on puck possession, speed and physical play matched his players' skill sets. He stressed a commitment to responsible defensive play, but he also allowed his forwards to play a more creative offensive game.

Winnipeg's offensive production increased slightly this season, from 2.67 goals per game last season to 2.69; however, they have reduced their shots-against per game from 30.1 to 28.7 and decreased their goals-against per game from 2.82 to 2.51.

5. Maurice

Maurice inherited a team beset by years of losing and a lack of identity. Along with going to work to rebuild Winnipeg's system and fitness levels, he also began restructuring the mood of his dressing room.

Confident in his system and philosophies, Maurice never panicked after a loss or two, and he never allowed himself to become content during a winning streak. Winnipeg's practices became much more intense, and he drilled his players on defensive play until it became second nature to them.

Maurice set a tone that built a close-knit dressing room that soon mimicked his mindset and welcomed Cheveldayoff's deadline additions for a seamless transition.

Malkin looking to lead Penguins back to playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' offense has lived and died by center Evgeni Malkin.

Sidney Crosby has returned to form with seven goals and 17 points in his past 14 games, his most productive stretch since scoring 23 points in the first 13 games of the season.

But that hasn't led to team success. In those 14 games, the Penguins went 4-8-3, not including a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins with Crosby injured.

Malkin fully played in five of the 14 games, the first three ending with a win before losing two straight when he returned April 5 from an undisclosed injury. In the nine games Malkin was injured, including the shutout loss to Boston on March 14 when he sustained a lower-body injury on his first shift, Pittsburgh won once, putting the Stanley Cup Playoffs in some doubt.

"There are a lot of good hockey teams that have had good years that are in the exact same position as us," Crosby said. "It's going to be about who handles it the best and who plays the best at the right time."

Pittsburgh would like to embrace that with Malkin in its lineup, and playing at his peak, beginning with their home finale against the New York Islanders on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, SN360, TVA2, MSG+, ROOT).

The Penguins need their other star center to return to form if they hope to earn a ninth consecutive playoff berth. After getting two assists in wins against the Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks coming off of his previous lower-body injury, Malkin was scratched from losses to the Philadelphia Flyers on April 1 and Columbus Blue Jackets on April 4.

He returned for the Penguins' rematch against the Flyers on April 5 but couldn't help Pittsburgh avoid a second consecutive 4-1 loss and season sweep by their cross-state rival.

"It's a tough situation, but we're still in it," Malkin said. "We're still in the playoffs. I've played here for a long time. It's the first time [we've been in this situation], but we need to work and just win the next two games. Forget that situation and start to play in the playoffs. It's 0-0 and we start a new game.

"[Our slump] is happening and it's fine, but we're still in it. Each team tries to beat us. Philly worked hard against us, but I believe this group has so much. Every player here, we work hard every practice … I still believe we will play in the playoffs."

But the playoffs aren't a certainty for Pittsburgh as they've been in years past.

Without Malkin, the Penguins have become reliant on their top line of Crosby centering right wing Patric Hornqvist and left wing Daniel Winnik. It has done its job, as has goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but Pittsburgh has continued to trudge through its most lackluster span of the season.

The Penguins are deeper than they were a year ago. General manager Jim Rutherford successfully fixed what was once their most glaring weakness. Forwards Steve Downie, Nick Spaling, Maxim Lapierre and Winnik, before ascending to the top line, joined third-line center Brandon Sutter and forward Beau Bennett in the bottom six.

The bottom half of the forward lines can now be realistically expected to produce timely scoring when needed. But if Malkin is taken out of the equation, the lines revert to being top-heavy.

Sutter moved to second-line center during Malkin's absence between forward Chris Kunitz and Downie, or forward Blake Comeau on occasion. This shifted Spaling, who normally plays third-line left wing, to center on that line next to Comeau and David Perron.

Forward Craig Adams, a scratch with a healthy lineup, was inserted onto the fourth line to the right of Lapierre and Bennett, who has scored four goals in 47 games this season after many expected him thrive in a top-six role.

Pittsburgh's defense has affected the forward group. With injuries to Kris Letang (concussion) and Christian Ehrhoff (upper body), the Penguins were down to five defensemen before recalling Taylor Chorney from the American Hockey League on April 3. That caused Winnik to serve as an emergency sixth defenseman in addition to playing left wing alongside Crosby.

All of this has led to too many minutes for too many players. The Penguins gave several high-minutes players, including Crosby, Hornqvist, Fleury, and defenseman Ian Cole a day off April 2 while the remaining four defensemen, who each played more than 20 minutes in the first of their two recent 4-1 losses to the Flyers, were permitted to leave that practice early.

With Malkin plugged back into the lineup, some, although not all, of those issues could be fixed.

The Penguins remain in a bind regarding their defense. An upper-body injury to rookie Derrick Pouliot has him listed as day-to-day and could further thin the blue line. With that, there seems to be no end in sight for the heavy load that has been put upon the defense since Letang sustained a concussion against the Coyotes on March 28.

The obvious bright side to Malkin returning is the Penguins have inserted one of their top two goal-scorers back into their lineup. Malkin hasn't yet played to his standard, but his presence adds depth Pittsburgh was lacking.

"I think anytime you can have [Malkin] in the lineup, you want [Malkin] in the lineup," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said.

Experimentation is not something a team wants to use during the first two weeks of April, but the Penguins' hand has been forced. The state of their lines has been inconsistent, which was made clear again in practice Thursday.

The top line remained steady. Crosby between Winnik and Hornqvist can be expected with Perron struggling five games into a return from an undisclosed illness. Perron has spent some time in the bottom six but was the second-line right wing alongside Malkin and Kunitz.

Evgeni Malkin

Center - PIT

GOALS: 28 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 70

SOG: 203 | +/-: 1

A week ago, Johnston said he had no interest in playing Perron with Malkin. After back-to-back losses with Malkin in the lineup, that sentiment seems to have changed.

"I haven't played with him. He's a new guy for me," Malkin said. "But he's a good, skilled player. He can pass. He's a great shooter. He's a skilled guy. … We're not confident right now, but we just have to support each other and play 60 minutes."

The added depth hasn't been enough for Pittsburgh to end its recent slump. After scoring one goal against the Flyers, the Penguins scored three first-period goals against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday before allowing three goals and losing 4-3 in overtime, when a regulation win would have secured a playoff berth.

The Senators, who trailed the Penguins by 15 points on March 13, were one point behind them entering their game against the New York Rangers on Thursday. There is a possibility the Penguins could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.

Malkin, if he plays the way he is capable of through the final two games of the season, including against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, could quickly change that.

"I would assume we do [play differently without Malkin]," Kunitz said following Pittsburgh's loss to Philadelphia on April 1. "Geno's a guy who drives the puck and forces it places. … It doesn't matter who's on the ice, we have to play in the offensive zone with the puck."

Having Malkin in the locker room seems to make a difference in a similar way to his presence on the ice. Johnston named Malkin and Crosby as Pittsburgh's two clear leaders Thursday.

Following a three-game losing streak from Feb. 15-19, Malkin told his teammates to relax. The Penguins went on to win six of their next seven games. With Pittsburgh in a worse predicament, Malkin had a new message Thursday: "Have fun."

Stamkos needs little space to create big offense

When Steven Stamkos is on the ice, he is the focus. Not only of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but of their opponents.

Stamkos is one of the best goal-scorers on the planet, meaning not only are the Lightning constantly looking to get him the puck, but other teams are game-planning to deny him possession.

It's a chess match, and one that requires coach Jon Cooper to create ways to get Stamkos the time and space he needs to be successful.


Creating offense with minimal risk

By Evan Sporer - Staff Writer

Blackhawks, Blues generate offense from their blue lines, but do so without jeopardizing themselves defensively. READ MORE ›

The Boston Bruins see plenty of the Lightning as an Atlantic Division rival. When the teams play Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, NESN) with serious playoff implications at stake, the Bruins will use forward Patrice Bergeron and defenseman Zdeno Chara to try to slow Stamkos. Tampa Bay, as it always does, will do its best to eliminate those speed bumps.

Stamkos has played the majority of this season at even-strength with right wing Ryan Callahan. At left wing he's seen time with Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula. Lately, rookie Jonathan Drouin has been playing with Stamkos. The constant is that Stamkos' linemates make it a point to get him the puck. That comes as no surprise; it's the process of getting it to him and allowing him to create scoring chances that is more difficult.

"When you have a guy like Stamkos, who's a world-class scorer and one of the best if not the best, it takes a lot of pressure off you," said forward Tyler Johnson, who plays on Tampa Bay's second line. "Some coaches might match up against us, but most coaches go against Stamkos."

Stamkos and his line see many top defense pairings on a nightly basis. Callahan excels at winning puck battles along the wall. Drouin, a fast skater with the puck on his stick, can draw attention with his speed. Together their skills complement Stamkos in the sense of the space it allows him. On this goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, Stamkos is able to find an opening and Filppula is able to find Stamkos.

As Stamkos carries the puck into the zone he draws two skaters toward him. Four Flyers are in the same half of the ice as Stamkos, so he sends the puck across to Filppula and then proceeds to go to the net.

Part of what Stamkos does to find space is go into the areas where the puck isn't. That sounds simple, but as Filppula carries the puck below the goal line, almost like a wheel play, Stamkos rotates out toward the opposite circle.

As Filppula brings the puck above the goal line, Stamkos is in the middle of five Flyers. Identifying Philadelphia has to shade toward Filppula, Stamkos glides into the soft spot of the zone, distancing himself from the puck and the play, and creating space.

On the power play things are a bit different. Stamkos has a bit of Ovechkin in him in that you always wonder how he gets so open and in position to take a shot.

"The biggest thing is Stamkos has such a great shot and such a quick release that he's able to find those soft areas," Johnson said.

On this power-play goal against the Florida Panthers, Johnson is able to find an uncovered Stamkos for a one-timer.

Stamkos again finds himself in the middle of the defense. A right-handed shot, Stamkos makes his way to the left side of the zone while Tampa Bay keeps the puck on the right side.

Johnson has possession of the puck with time and space, and Florida is denying him a passing lane to Stamkos. But by attacking the teeth of the defense, which forces the Panthers to break their posture, and Stamkos drifting higher in the circle, Tampa Bay creates a new passing lane.

Now Stamkos is alone in a dangerous shooting position with all four Florida penalty killers on the opposite side.

"If he gets that extra inch away from a defender and they're able to get him the puck, it's usually in the back of the net," Johnson said.

The margin for error when defending against Stamkos is incredibly small. Tampa Bay does things specifically to get Stamkos his time and space, and the most difficult part for the opposition is that he doesn't need much of it to turn a play into a goal.


Bond helped Suter, Parise navigate difficult season

Ryan Suter can finally smile and even allow himself to laugh about what will always be an odd coincidence, because he can laugh about a lot of things now.

Time heals, winning helps, and friendship goes a long way toward turning your world right side up again after feeling like everything was falling apart.

Suter and Minnesota Wild teammate Zach Parise know this all too well.

"It's kind of weird actually if you think about that, how it's everything we've gone through together," Suter said. "But what are the odds of something like this last year happening? That's how I feel when I think about it, like, really, this is just weird."

Suter and Parise created a lasting link when they signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4, 2012; they formed a bond only they can understand this season because each lost his father in a tragic way.

Bob Suter, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team, died of a heart attack that came without any warning signs on Sept. 9, 2014. J.P. Parise, a former NHL player and veteran of the 1972 Summit Series, lost his battle with lung cancer on Jan. 7.

"It was really important to have someone to talk to who literally just went through it," Parise said. "I know it was a different situation but it's the same result, and someone who just went through the exact same thing can help. Ryan had a similar relationship with his dad that I did with mine, so he knew exactly the feelings I was dealing with. To have someone you're a friend with going through the same thing was important."

Holding each other up

Suter and Parise have been two of the rocks that have helped Minnesota surge to a Wild-best third straight Stanley Cup Playoff berth with a strong second half following a brutal first half. The fact is they had to lean on each other more than ever to help push the team forward, out of what Parise called the dark days and into the brightness of spring.

It actually started last season, after Parise and Suter got home from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where they played together for the United States. That's when Parise found out his father had stage 4 lung cancer, which meant he didn't have long to live.

"It started with me talking to him then saying, 'You know, it's going to be all right, he's lived a good life,'" Suter said. "That's how it started, but then my dad passed away kind of suddenly and he came to me and was trying to help me through that."

Parise has vivid memories of sitting at Bob Suter's funeral in Wisconsin. As much as he was there for his friend and teammate, he was thinking about himself and his dad.

"I don't know if irony is the word, but I remember being at his dad's funeral, which was so unexpected and tragic, just before our training camp, and just thinking to myself and the situation that my dad was in," Parise said. "I kept thinking, 'This could be reality for us pretty soon and I don't know how I'm going to handle this.'"

Parise tried to help Suter the way he would have wanted Suter to help him, by just being there for his friend if he needed someone to talk to.

"If you know Ryan, you know private is an understatement," Parise said. "He's a very private person, but you make yourself available to try to talk to him a little bit about it without making it uncomfortable. You do as much as you can as a friend to let him know that if you need anything, we're here, my wife is here, we live a mile away, and just let us know if you need anything."

He remembers being impressed with how Suter handled the situation. It's almost as if he took mental notes.

"I'm a believer that people grieve in their own way because people are different," Parise said, "but I thought personally that he handled it very well."

Suter felt his bond with Parise grow after his father's death. Four months later, when J.P. Parise succumbed to cancer, the roles were reversed and Suter's experience helped Parise get through his grieving period.

"You don't want to put that burden on someone else," Parise said. "I know everyone volunteers and everyone was fantastic in reaching out and saying, 'I'm here to talk,' or, 'Just let me know if you need anything.' But we had that link between us. We went through the same thing, so you feel more comfortable talking to that person about it."

Suter said he and Parise are closer now than before each lost his father.

"We were already pretty close, but having that to talk about with each other is another thing that you can have and relate to," Suter said. "Has it helped? I don't know if it's helped. I think it's just brought us closer than we already were."

Happy times again

Suter wanted the rink to be his safe haven after his dad's death. Parise wanted the same thing during the early months of the season, when his father's situation was deteriorating.

They wanted to be able to come to practice and play in games without the burden of negative thoughts. Instead, it felt like their worlds were colliding and collapsing in one giant heap.

The Wild were last in the Central Division at 18-19-5 after losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-2 on Jan. 13, which was Parise's third game back after burying his father.

"For a while there it seemed that everything was going wrong," Suter said. "We couldn't buy a win. Things were just bad. Every night you're looking at the scoreboard thinking, 'What the heck do we have to do to figure this out?' Then you start thinking all the negative thoughts with your personal life. When you go to the rink you're supposed to be able to get away from all that, but we would go to the rink and it was more negativity on top of that. It wasn't a good place to be for us with what we were going through."

Suter remembers taking the negativity home with him and allowing it to invade his family life. Parise felt the same way. It was brutal.

"When things are going well you leave it at the rink and you come home and you deal with your family and you're happy to be with your family and you don't think about that stuff," Suter said. "But when it was bad, definitely you bring it home and it affects your whole family. That's not what you want as a dad."

Goalie Devan Dubnyk's arrival following a mid-January trade with the Arizona Coyotes changed everything for the Wild and brought Parise, Suter and the team out of the darkness. All of a sudden, Minnesota had quality goaltending, and the wins started to pile up.

"It's funny how winning makes everything else kind of go away," Suter said.

Minnesota is 28-8-3 since Dubnyk took over as the No. 1 goalie on Jan. 15. He started every game before getting a rest Thursday and has a 1.73 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

The Wild clinched a playoff berth on Tuesday, when they defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 at United Center. They close the regular season Saturday against the St. Louis Blues (3 p.m. ET; NBC).

"Now we have that confidence back and Devan has been a huge part of us getting that confidence back," Suter said. "He brought a confidence into the room when he came. Things were down, everything was negative, and he brought that positivity back. We've built off of that, and that's why we are where we are today, because of that change."

Parise has scored 18 of his Wild-high 32 goals in the past 39 games. Suter has 15 points and has played 25 or more minutes in 35 of his past 37 games (he missed Dubnyk's first two games Jan. 15 and 17), including 10 games with 30 or more minutes.

More importantly, Parise and Suter are smiling again and laughing while still leaning on each other; only now they're doing it as much on the ice as they are off, just like normal.

Time has healed. Winning has helped. Their friendship has grown stronger.

"A couple months ago things were all negative, the team was losing, and all those bad thoughts go through your mind," Suter said. "Now that the team is winning it's easier to focus on the good things in life, and that's what you have to focus on."


Price focused on winning Cup, not individual honors

MONTREAL -- The history of the Montreal Canadiens can be suffocating at times for the players trying to live up to it.

The franchise’s NHL-record 24 Stanley Cup banners watch over each of their home games,as do the banners commemorating the 18 players who have had their numbers retired,each of them a member of the Hall of Fame.

In the dressing room,the photos of the 44 players in team history who are in the Hall of Fame watch over them as well,their photos lined above the players’ lockers.

That history can be a burden when things are not going well.

But it also makes becoming a part of that storied history that much sweeter.

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price did that Thursday in a 4-3 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings. It was his 43rd victory of the season setting a franchise record on a team that takes records more seriously than most.

Price broke the record of 42 wins set twice by Jacques Plante and once by Ken Dryden,two players Price can literally look up to on the wall of the dressing room and who,in a way,he can now consider to be his peers.

"I’ve been looking at them for quite a while," Price said of the photos in the dressing room. "Obviously I have a lot of respect for what it takes to get up there and what they accomplished in their careers.

"It’s definitely special playing here."

Price made 24 saves against the Red Wings,a relatively light workload for him this season. But what followed after Lars Eller’s overtime goal secured victory No. 43 will stick in his memory for some time.

As the Canadiens gathered at center ice for their traditional post-victory salute to the fans,all of Price’s teammates mugged him to congratulate him for setting the record. After being named the game’s first star,Price went to do an in-arena interview,but the Bell Centre crowd barely let him speak as they roared their appreciation for his historic season and rained down chants of "MVP! MVP!" to drown out his answers.

Carey Price

Goalie - MTL

RECORD: 43-16-6

GAA: 1.95 | SVP: .934

Then, as Price was exiting the ice,his teammates were returning from the dressing room to give some fans their jerseys,as is customary following the final home game of the season. Defenseman Alexei Emelin smothered Price’s face with a towel full of shaving cream,followed by defenseman P.K. Subban screaming something at Price immediately afterwards.

"It’s definitely nice to be appreciated like that," Price said. "But at the end of the day I’m just looking forward to starting the playoffs. I’m not the guy that takes those types of awards or whatever. I’m just focused on trying to do what I need to do to stop pucks."

Thursday was likely Price’s final start of the regular season; Dustin Tokarski will probably get the nod for the season finale at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

If that's the case,Price will finish with a 43-16-6 record,a 1.95 goals against average,a .934 save percentage and nine shutouts. He either leads or shares the League lead in each of those four categories. Thursday marked the 21st time in 65 starts this season Price allowed more than two goals,and just the ninth time he has done so in his past 42 starts.

"He’s been unbelievable,I don’t know what to say," center Tomas Plekanec said. "He's the biggest reason we are where we are. Hopefully we can help him out a little bit more than we did so far."

Price knows the biggest test for him and his teammates awaits when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin next week, and that's all he wants to think about right now. He is not ready to reflect on the historic significance of the season he put together,nor the individual trophies he might receive as a reward.

"You want to reflect on it,but you don’t want to get too caught up in looking back," Price said. "It’s been working all season long,the goal-setting looking forward. I don’t want to start resting on a good season yet."

It’s normal that Price doesn’t want to feed his own campaign to win the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player,one that appears to have gathered enough momentum to make him the winner at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in June. But his coach,Michel Therrien,has no such inhibitions,and he made it quite clear who he thinks should win that trophy two months from now.

"He deserves the Hart," Therrien said of Price. "As far as I’m concerned he’s the best player in the League right now,he’s the player that’s got the most impact on games. There’s a lot of good players in this League that had some good seasons,but Carey Price deserves that trophy."

For now, Price is thinking about another trophy,and the pursuit of the Stanley Cup begins next week. Price’s value to the Canadiens may win him the Hart Trophy,but from now on it will have to be higher than it has all season.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Five reasons Islanders clinched playoff berth

After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the New York Islanders led the Metropolitan Division for a large portion of 2014-15 and clinched a berth in the postseason on Thursday.

Additions in goal and on defense, and a captain who is a Hart Trophy candidate are reasons the Islanders' last season at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island was a memorable one. New York's 43-year run there will come to an end this season.

Here are five reasons the Islanders clinched a playoff berth:

1. Upgrades on defense

New York allowed the third-most goals in the NHL last season, so defense was an area that needed to improve. General manager Garth Snow took care of that by trading for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk in separate deals days before the season began.

The two have become the Islanders' top defensive pair, playing against the opponent's top line. New York has allowed two regulation goals or fewer in 38 games this season. Each has added offense too; Boychuk set career highs with eight goals and 35 points, and Leddy has a career-high 10 goals.

Boychuk and Leddy each signed a seven-year contract this season, solidifying the Islanders' blue line going forward.

2. Early season success

New York won 19 of its first 26 games (19-7-0) and began the season 17-4-0 at the Coliseum. Winning at home was problematic in recent seasons; the Islanders had a losing home record in each of the previous four seasons and five of the past six. The 25 home wins are their most since they won 26 in 1984-85.

Home ice in the first round of the playoffs is next on the Islanders' checklist.

"We know what an advantage that could bring for our team with how great our fans have been," captain John Tavares told the Islanders website. "It would be a pretty special atmosphere."

The Islanders have won 13 of 19 games that have gone past regulation. They are 6-1 in overtime and 7-5 in shootouts.

3. John Tavares

His 2013-14 season was cut short after sustaining a knee injury at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. This season, he is in the running for the NHL scoring title and is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate as League MVP.

The former No. 1 draft pick is having the best offensive season of his career, with a career-high in goals (36) and points (83).

4. 'The Kid Line'

Coach Jack Capuano made a line early in the season of forwards Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome with rookie Anders Lee, and the three have played together virtually all season.

Lee, 24, has 25 goals, which ranks second in the League among rookies. Nelson, 23, increased his goal and point output from a year ago; he has 20 goals and 42 points, with half of those goals coming on the power play. Strome, 21, has 17 goals, 50 points and leads the Islanders with a plus-24 rating.

5. Goaltending

It's long been an issue, but this season it was one of their biggest strengths. Jaroslav Halak set an Islanders record for wins in a season and his 37 wins are a career-high.

Halak (37-17-3, 2.44 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, six shutouts) was acquired in May and signed a four-year contract. He’s been the stabilizing force the Islanders knew he could be. Halak won 11 straight decisions in November and December.


Fantasy top 30 goalies: Ranks entering offseason

Every Thursday during the season, staff writer Evan Sporer has provided you with in-depth fantasy goalie analysis. From updated weekly top 30 rankings to trending players and more, Sporer has been your go-to guy for fantasy goalie advice. We appreciate you sticking with's coverage all season long and hope our advice helped you bring home fantasy hardware in your league(s).

It was an unpredictable season for goaltending in the NHL.

There were some big names who, as expected, put up impressive numbers. Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators and Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils each had Vezina Trophy-caliber seasons.

There were also players like Devan Dubnyk, Cam Talbot, Michael Hutchinson and Andrew Hammond, who at one point or another became must-own fantasy assets.

There were even some known commodities that made major improvements this season. Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals had a career year and Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers put up stellar numbers. Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks made major strides.

If the season ended today, 11 goalies would have finished with a save-percentage of .922 or higher (minimum 30 games). That has never happened in the history of the League. The most goalies in a single season to put up those numbers were eight last season and in 2012-13.

If you're noticing a trend here, it's that these seasons occurred recently. Goal scoring continues to go down and goalies continue to reap the benefits.

Yet still, simply put, goaltending is very difficult to predict.


Carey Price


RECORD: 42-16-6

GAA: 1.93 | SVP: .935

Price is putting up historically good numbers despite playing for a bad possession team, so there's no reason to unseat him as the top dog. Behind Price, it's much of the same. Henrik Lundqvist, when healthy, has been one of the League's best yet again. In what's a down year by his own standards, Tuukka Rask will still finish near the top of the League in every relevant goaltending statistic. Rinne, with a clean bill of health, has put his name back into the conversation among the League's elite.

The one surprise near the top of the list for some might be Schneider. In his first season as a true No. 1, Schneider struggled early, possibly because he was starting nearly every game for the Devils. But Schneider has since figured things out. And like Price, Schneider does it behind a team that struggles in puck possession.

Sergei Bobrovsky


RECORD: 29-17-3

GAA: 2.70 | SVP: .918


Sergei Bobrovsky -- The Columbus Blue Jackets have looked like the Stanley Cup Playoff team many expected them to be. With a healthy roster, Columbus recently set a record by winning nine consecutive games and eight straight road games. Bobrovsky missed extended time because of a groin injury, but has looked great, especially during the Blue Jackets' winning streak.

Steve Mason -- A full season of performing at a high level should elevate Mason's stock. He's been good for the Philadelphia Flyers and seems to have figured out whatever wasn't working for him toward the end of his tenure in Columbus.

Craig Anderson -- Forget everything you know and has you infatuated with Hammond and remember this: Anderson has a .923 save percentage, almost 10 points above the League average. In his five seasons playing for the Ottawa Senators, he has a .920 save percentage, meaning this season is no fluke. Not to say what Hammond is doing is, but Anderson is a very good goaltender who people are forgetting about because of Hammond's historic run.

John Gibson


RECORD: 13-8-0

GAA: 2.60 | SVP: .914


John Gibson -- An early-season injury and the hot play of Frederik Andersen pushed Gibson out of the picture for the Anaheim Ducks. Gibson and Andersen have been battling to be the Ducks' starter in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round, and Gibson, who turns 22 in July, will have a great chance to come in next season and be the starter for a good Anaheim team.

Antti Niemi -- It's strange to consider Niemi a bounce-back candidate given he has a higher save-percentage this season (.914) than last season (.913) when he won a career-high 39 games. An unrestricted free agent, a fresh start in a new city might do Niemi some good.

Jimmy Howard -- It seems like the problem every season with Howard is as soon as he starts to build momentum, he gets injured, derailing his progress. After playing 63 games in each of his first two seasons, Howard has not played 60 in a single season since. There are times when Howard looks like a top goaltender, but again, it seems like the question is always whether or not he'll stay healthy.


Devan Dubnyk


RECORD: 36-13-4

GAA: 2.04 | SVP: .930

Free agency: It's not a deep free-agent market when it comes to goaltenders and no goalie will be more coveted than Dubnyk, a pending unrestricted free agent. He has been lights out for the Minnesota Wild since he was acquired in January and carried them into the postseason. Niemi will also be unrestricted, and with Alex Stalock and Troy Grosenick waiting in the wings, the Sharks may be willing to part ways with Niemi.

Hammond and Jonas Gustavsson are two intriguing pending unrestricted free agents. The former is lighting the world on fire right now, but will regress to some level, how far being the unknown. Gustavsson missed extended time for the Red Wings this season, but could land a starting job in the right situation or become a very quality backup.

Trade watch: If the New York Rangers are ever going to trade Cam Talbot, there won't ever be a better time than the offseason. Coming off an incredibly efficient stretch of hockey playing for the injured Lundqvist, Talbot has one year remaining on his contract at a reasonable cap charge, and has maintained a high level in each of his first two seasons while being given more starts.


Connor Hellebuyck

Let's complicate an already complicated situation that is the Winnipeg Jets crease. Ondrej Pavelec and Hutchinson have gone through stretches this season as the apparent starter. Pavelec is having one of his best seasons with a .919 save-percentage that is 12 points above his career average. Hutchinson, seeing the most time in the NHL in his professional career, has had hot stretches, but has a below-average save-percentage of .913.

Hellebuyck has spent the season in St. John's of the American Hockey League, where he has a .921 save percentage in 58 games. He was one of the top goaltenders in college hockey when he played two seasons at UMass Lowell, and could be the surprise starter for Winnipeg next season.


These are the final fantasy goalie rankings for the 2014-15 NHL season, including players that are or were injured. These rankings are based on how players performed this season, but also take into account expectations for next season. Use these rankings as a basis for deciding which players you should retain in keeper leagues from this season to next. Factors taken into account include potential changes in scenery (trade or free agency), injury history, breakout potential, regression, age, etc.

1Carey Price, MTL16Brian Elliott, STL
2Henrik Lundqvist, NYR17Corey Crawford, CHI
3Cory Schneider, NJD18Jonathan Quick, LAK
4Tuukka Rask, BOS19Semyon Varlamov, COL
5Pekka Rinne, NSH20Ryan Miller, VAN
6Roberto Luongo, FLA21Cam Talbot, NYR
7Braden Holtby, WSH (RFA) 22John Gibson, ANA
8Ben Bishop, TBL23Cam Ward, CAR
9Marc-Andre Fleury, PIT24Jonas Hiller, CGY
10Sergei Bobrovsky, CBJ25Connor Hellebuyck, WPG
11Steve Mason, PHI26Antti Niemi, SJS (UFA)
12Craig Anderson, OTT27Alex Stalock, SJS
13Devan Dubnyk, MIN (UFA) 28Jake Allen, STL (RFA)
14Jimmy Howard, DET29Scott Darling, CHI
15Jaroslav Halak, NYI30Martin Jones, LAK (RFA)

In the mix: Frederik Andersen (ANA), Kari Lehtonen (DAL), Andrew Hammond (OTT; UFA), Andrei Vasilevskiy (TBL), Petr Mrazek (DET), Michael Hutchinson (WPG), Ondrej Pavelec (WPG), Jonas Gustavsson (DET), Karri Ramo (CGY; UFA), Jon Gillies (CGY)