This article is part of our The Daily Puck series.
Around the League
The Western Conference is a pretty big mess. The Ducks will likely cruise to their third straight Pacific Division title and the Central Division will have the Blues and Predators in either of the top two spots, but that aslo means there are five playoff spots remaining with six, maybe seven, teams in the hunt.
Even though the Blackhawks are a deep team and considered one of the league's elite, losing Patrick Kane to a fractured collarbone was a big blow. With 84 points, the Blackhawks are seven points behind the Blues and Predators and just three points ahead of the Wild, which means it's more likely the Wild will catch up to the Blackhawks rather than see the Blackhawks overtake the Blues and Predators. With a few more wins they'll be considered a shoo-in for the playoffs, but their foothold isn't very secure and with 15 games left to go, a lot can still happen.
Assuming the Blackhawks make it, that still leaves four spots up for grabs between the Canucks, Flames, Kings, Jets, Sharks and the aforementioned Wild. If the betting man had to pick now, the Jets and Sharks would be the odd teams out. Why?
1. The Kings shut out the Canucks 4-0 in Vancouver and are now winners in four of their past five games. There's a drought in California, but whatever Darryl Sutter keeps putting in the Kings' water bottles seems to be working. They're the only team that never seems quit. Even the Predators, who lead the West with 26 home wins, would face the Kings at home with some trepidation. Marian Gaborik is getting hot at the right time with four goals in his past four games, while clutch winger Justin Williams chipped in with two assists last night. This is a Kings team that truly seems to skate to the beat of their own drum. Their slow starts, occasional offensive droughts and late surges in the season to ride a wave of momentum into the playoffs has become something of a trademark. They're fatigued, but they won't be bow out before making the playoffs.
2. Tyler Myers exited last night's game with an injury and did not return. The extent of his injury isn't known, but this is a blue line that is already missing Dustin Byfuglien (upper body). The loss of their biggest and best defensemen is going to hurt, not to mention Michael Hutchinson seems to be cracking, allowing seven goals in his past two appearances. Ondrej Pavelec is mediocre, so the Jets are hoping Hutchinson can return to form. Otherwise, the Jets really are going to fizzle down the stretch. Kevin Cheveldayoff made a few depth moves at the deadline, but even when healthy the Jets are considered the fifth-best team in the division, at best.
3. Even though the Jets may finish with more points than the Flames, the Flames have a better chance of making the playoffs. The Jets are one point behind the Flames but sit fifth in the Central, while the Flames could move into second in the Pacific with a win tonight. Of course, this also means that the Flames will have to fend off the Kings. Both teams are tied with 79 points, but the Flames have the tiebreaker in wins, 37 to 33. It's true the Flames are without Mark Giordano and rotate goalies in net, but Kris Russell (more below) is playing out of his mind and they have a much easier schedule ahead. Over their next 10 games, the Flames play teams currently outside the playoff picture seven times, including the Maple Leafs tonight and the Stars and Avalanche twice each. Those are all very winnable games. Meanwhile, the Jets' next 10 opponents include the Lightning, Blues, Capitals, Canadiens, Blackhawks and Rangers, with the only break coming on March 23 against the Oilers, but even that game is the first of a back-to-back.
4. The Sharks could go on a little run and make things interesting, but they embark on a seven-game road trip soon and sit three points out of a playoff spot. If this were a Hollywood movie, the Sharks would bond on their road trip and tear through the league (and maybe name an actual captain?!), but they have lost too much ground already and made their run too late. Defensively, they're average, and there's not much confidence in Antti Niemi, not to mention the decline of Patrick Marleau, who is scoring at his lowest rate in seven seasons, and an overall lack of depth across the board. Tomas Hertl has 11 goals and Matt Nieto has seven. If the Sharks miss the playoffs, it would be a surprise if Todd McLellan is retained as head coach.
Friday game notes:
- Andrew Hammond outdueled Carey Price for the win last night and made 27 saves, which isn't a significant workload, which further means there's a chance he starts again tonight against the Islanders. Dave Cameron has not named a starter but Craig Anderson has allowed three goals in each of his past five starts, which is something to think about. Why ruin a good thing? The Sens should start Hammond.
- Braden Holtby has won three of five games in March and stopped 131 of 140 shots for a .936 save percentage. Those are really good numbers going against an offensive team like the Stars. Also, Alex Ovechkin should make quick work of Kari Lehtonen. The Caps are playing very well of late, even though the results may not always show.
- The Blue Jackets are banged up but shouldn't have a problem against the Oilers, even if they do start Curtis McElhinney. Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off a 42-save win over Detroit last night and with a playoff spot likely out of reach, the smart move would be to start the backup against a weak team and rest a starter that has had two separate stints on the injured reserve this season. After Ben Scrivens was pulled last night, the Oilers may opt to go with Richard Bachman but the result will likely remain the same.
- The Wild and Devan Dubnyk should get the advantage against a struggling Ducks team, but it'll be difficult to keep them off the score sheet with their offense, especially with Matt Beleskey potentially returning. Frederik Andersen and John Gibson have not fared well recently so the Wild offense shouldn't be intimidated. The Wild should be more desperate, since a win will propel them within one point of Chicago while the Ducks already have a firm grip on the Pacific Division lead.
- Jonas Hiller will get the start against Toronto after the Flames offense bailed Karri Ramo out against Anaheim after he allowed two goals in the first 2:51 of the game. The Flames are playing back-to-back, so Ramo will start Saturday in Denver while Hiller draws the easier matchup. The Leafs should be hungry with both Nazem Kadri (team-imposed two-game suspension) and Joffrey Lupul (benching) looking to prove something. It won't be an easy win for Hiller but the Flames have the advantage. Jonathan Bernier has allowed 14 goals in his past four games so he's only an option for desperate poolies.
Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid
Ottawa Senators (Craig Anderson) at New York Islanders (Jaroslav Halak), 7:00 PM
Dallas Stars (Kari Lehtonen) at Washington Capitals (Braden Holtby), 7:00 PM
Edmonton Oilers (Richard Bachman) at Columbus Blue Jackets (Curtis McElhinney), 7:00 PM
Anaheim Ducks (Frederik Andersen) at Minnesota Wild (Devan Dubnyk), 8:00 PM
Toronto Maple Leafs (Jonathan Bernier) at Calgary Flames (Jonas Hiller*), 8:00 PM
Injury News For Teams Playing Friday
Chris Phillips, D (undisclosed) – no timetable for return.
Robin Lehner, G (concussion) – no timetable for return.
Chris Neil, RW (left thumb) – no return date set.
Clarke MacArthur, LW (concussion) – no return date set.
Zack Smith, C (wrist) – practicing but no return date set.
John Klingberg, D (upper body) – did not play Thursday; questionable.
Valeri Nichushkin, LW (hip) – out one week.
Trevor Daley, D (lower body) out 2-4 weeks.
Travis Moen, LW (upper body) – no timetable for return.
Rich Peverley, C (heart) – no timetable for return.
John Erskine, D (neck) - skated Thursday; no return date set.
Brooks Orpik, D (lower body) – will not play.
Jay Beagle, C (upper body) – game-time decision; doubtful.
Michael Latta, C (upper body) – game-time decision; questionable.
Mike Green, D (upper body) – game-time decision; probable.
Viktor Fasth, G (knee) – out indefinitely.
Taylor Hall, LW (leg) – out six weeks.
Iiro Pakarinen, RW (knee) – out until April.
Tyler Pitlick, RW (spleen) – practiced Monday; no return date set.
Nikita Nikitin, D (shoulder) – game-time decision; probable.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Jack Skille, RW (shoulder surgery) – out for the season.
David Clarkson, RW (torn oblique) – out 4-6 weeks.
Matt Calvert, LW (concussion) – no return date set.
Boone Jenner, LW (back) – skated Monday; no return date set.
Jeremy Morin, LW (upper body) – practicing; no return date set.
Brandon Dubinsky, C (illness) – did not play Thursday; questionable.
Sheldon Souray, D (wrist) – out for the season.
Korbinian Holzer, D (concussion) – did not play Monday; no return date set
Tim Jackman, RW (lower body) – out 4-6 weeks.
Sami Vatanen, D (lower body) – will not play.
Matt Beleskey, LW (shoulder) – game-time decision; probable.
Josh Harding, G (illness) – out indefinitely.
Keith Ballard, D (concussion) – out for the season.
Ryan Carter, C (shoulder) – no timetable for return.
Matt Cooke, LW (hernia) – no timetable for return.
Jason Zucker, LW (shoulder) – out until the playoffs.
Marco Scandella, D (upper body) – will not play.
Mark Giordano, D (torn bicep) – out for the season.
Joni Ortio, G (lower body) – out 6-8 weeks.
Paul Byron, C (lower body) – resumed skating; no return date set.
Ladislav Smid, D (upper body) – resumed skating; no return date set.
Drew Shore, C (undisclosed) – did not play Wednesday; questionable.
Cam Talbot, G, Rangers – In the words of the Hound, Sandor Clegane: "Puck the King." (Or something like that.) Through Talbot's first few starts it looked the Rangers offense would have to bail him out, but in his past five games he has become a brick wall, winning four games and allowing only five goals. The Rangers are one of the best teams in the East, so keep rolling with Talbot. Unfortunately, no matter how well Talbot continues to play, Henrik Lundqvist (neck) will reclaim the throne upon his return to Broadway. It does provide for some interesting goalie drama, however, if the Rangers have a poor start in the playoffs.
Kris Russell, D, Flames – The Flames have a gem of a defenseman in Russell, a shot-blocking machine who is playing out of his mind offensively. The former Medicine Hat Tiger standout is on a four-game point streak with two goals and six assists, giving him 28 points on the season, just one shy of tying a career-high set last year. The league's leading shot blocker also has 47 more blocked shots than the next player, Roman Josi.
Frederik Andersen, G, Ducks – After rattling off four straight wins the Ducks have lost three straight and allowed 13 goals in that span. It's a good thing John Gibson laid an egg in a 6-3 loss to the Flames because it means Andersen will be back in goal. The Ducks face the Wild, Predators and Kings next, so Andersen may find it tough to get back on track.
Alex Galchenyuk, LW, Canadiens – The Habs are having trouble scoring goals and no doubt Galchenyuk's recent drought has something to do with that. He has just one goal in his past eight games and the Habs have managed just four goals in their past three games. With young players there's no telling when they'll starting scoring in bunches again, but the Habs really need Galchenyuk to produce to go deep into the playoffs. Upcoming games on Long Island and in Tampa Bay may extend his cold spell.
Jori Lehtera, C, Blues – Lehtera was forgotten briefly after going down with an injury, but the STL line is back and tearing it up. Lehtera has five points in his past three games, snapping a five-game pointless drought. As long as the 27-year-old continues to play with elite talents Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, Lehtera is a valuable fantasy player. He's owned in less than half the fantasy leagues.