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Thursday Daily Puck: Every Game Counts

Neil Parker

A loyal Leafs, Cubs and Cowboys fan for decades, Neil has contributed to RotoWire since 2014. He previously worked for USA Today Fantasy Sports and founded TheFakeHockey.com.

Curious how tight the NHL playoff race is in the Eastern Conference?

After Tuesday's loss, the Maple Leafs' postseason chances dropped from 53 to 38 percent with wins from the Islanders, Lightning and Panthers, according to HockeyViz.com.

The Western Conference isn't as close, as the Kings are currently four points back and have won just four of their past 17 games in regulation. HockeyViz has Los Angeles' playoff chances at 36 percent.

Buckle up. The stretch drive is yielding important games night in, night out. It's the most wonderful time of the year for puck heads.

Featured Matchups

Predators (PP: 10, PK: 21) at Capitals (PP: 8, PK: 7), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Pekka Rinne (26-16-8, 2.58, .914), Braden Holtby (35-11-5, 2.03, .926)
Key Injuries: Andre Burakovsky (hand), Kevin Shattenkirk (suspension)

Nashville has collected 17 of a possible 24 points over its past 12 games and has surrendered the second-fewest high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes for the campaign (9.1). Amazingly, during that 12-game stretch, the Predators have succeeded with Rinne allowing four goals or more in six of his eight starts. A road date against the high-powered Capitals isn't exactly the matchup to trust the 34-year-old Finn in, either. Shifting to a long-term question, Ryan Johansen has 14 points through his past 11 games and 54 points for the campaign. What will the salary and term be for his next contract? The 24-year-old center is still a restricted free agent, but he's also in the final season of a $4 million bridge deal.
After being outscored 17-8 during a four-game losing streak, Washington bounced back with a sound 4-2 win over Minnesota on Tuesday. Losing three straight road games in California was mildly concerning, especially since the Capitals allowed 13 goals during the skid, but it's difficult to finds holes in their lineup. Plus, Washington still paces the league with a plus-58 goal differential, and Holtby is turning in another Vezina-calibre campaign.
Considering Holtby's play and Nashville's knack for limiting their opponent's high-quality scoring chances, this might not be the most favorable fantasy matchup of the night for either club. It might also be a Stanley Cup preview.

Maple Leafs (PP: 2, PK: 9) at Lightning (PP: 4, PK: 15), 7:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Frederik Andersen (27-15-13, 2.73, .916), Andrei Vasilevskiy (17-13-6, 2.53, .919)
Key Injuries: Ryan Callahan (hip), Jake Dotchin (arm), Tyler Johnson (lower body), Vladislav Namestnikov (lower body), Cedric Paquette (lower body), Steven Stamkos (knee), Connor Carrick (upper body)

This Eastern Conference showdown has significant playoff implications, and the climb up the standings by the Lightning has been impressive. Nikita Kucherov has put the club on his back with 10 goals and 20 points through his past 11 games, which has him up to a third-ranked 3.48 points per 60 minutes among all skaters with at least 500 minutes this season. Vasilevskiy has also gone 6-0-1 with a .958 save percentage and 1.38 GAA since Ben Bishop was traded to the Kings. The writing has been on the wall, too. Tampa Bay has the fourth-highest Corsi For percentage (52.7) and fourth-fewest expected goals against (2.35) at five-on-five since Christmas.
Toronto is a completely different animal, and the buzz of late is Zach Hyman's lack of offensive production and whether it is dragging down Austin Matthews. There was concern over a fishing trip that a number of Maple Leafs went on the day before Tuesday's 7-2 slaughtering at the hands of the Panthers. There is a legitimate chance Toronto has overachieved for much of the season, and the playoffs should have always been considered a long shot. Additionally, with Chicago, Boston and Columbus on tap after the Bolts, Leafs Nation might soon be wishing the club was in the lottery discussion and not the postseason one.

Blackhawks (PP: 16, PK: 26) at Senators (PP: 21, PK: 12), 7:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Corey Crawford (28-15-3, 2.53, .920), Mike Condon (18-11-6, 2.53, .913)
Key Injuries: Artem Anisimov (lower body), Craig Anderson (lower body), Mark Borowiecki (lower body), Clarke MacArthur (concussion), Chris Neil (finger), Mark Stone (lower body)

Ottawa can climb into the top spot in the Atlantic Division with a win, whereas Chicago might need the win to hold its lead in the Central Division. The Senators haven't lost consecutive games since Feb. 7, and since, they've gone an impressive 12-4-1 while holding opponents to a fourth-lowest 1.99 goals per 60 minutes. The forward corps for Ottawa has been banged up and missing several key cogs, but the wins continue to pile on. It's been an impressive season, and while it's difficult to forecast any realistic postseason success, the Senators are a scary first-round matchup as long as Anderson is healthy. He's posted a 9-2 record, .941 save percentage and 1.82 GAA since returning from his personal leave.
The Blackhawks have consecutive tape-measuring wins over Minnesota and Montreal, and Thursday's date stands as another tough test. Chicago has morphed itself into a dominant club once again around its aging core, but with 14-3 record since Feb. 1, it doesn't appear to be the time to doubt the Hawks. Patrick Kane has 16 goals and 27 points and Jonathan Toews has nine goals and 21 points during the 17-game surge, as the one-two punch looks to play deep into the spring again this year. Chicago receives a slight fantasy boost with Condon (2.95 GAA and .909 save percentage over his past four starts) filling in for the injured Anderson.

Other Matchups

Flyers (PP: 11, PK: 23) at Devils (PP: 20, PK: 19), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Michal Neuvirth (10-10-1, 2.91, .888), Keith Kinkaid (6-9-2, 2.67, .917)
Key Injuries: Michael Cammalleri (shoulder), Jacob Josefson (upper body) Devante Smith-Pelly (lower body),Travis Zajac (personal), Brandon Manning (shoulder), Michael Raffl (lower body), Jordan Weal (upper body)

With the playoffs all but officially out of reach for both clubs, this outing lacks March dramatics. Philadelphia is coming off an impressive 4-0 shutout over Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and in particular, a new-look trio of Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise played particularly well with two even-strength goals. The Devils have lost 10 consecutive games and now sit in the basement of the Eastern Conference. That also means Taylor Hall -- and his elite 8.4 relative Corsi For percentage -- is playing for another lottery team.

Jets (PP: 22, PK: 28) at Islanders (PP: 26, PK: 16), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Connor Hellebuyck (22-18-4, 2.88, .907), Thomas Greiss (24-15-4, 2.65, .914)
Key Injuries: Johnny Boychuk (lower body), Casey Cizikas (upper body), Brock Nelson (upper body),Shane Prince (lower body), Toby Enstrom (concussion), Shawn Matthias (undisclosed), Tyler Myers (lower body), Ondrej Pavelec (knee), Jacob Trouba (upper body)

With a four-game losing streak, the Jets have been grounded and are out of the playoff picture. The offense is still soaring for Winnipeg, though. Dustin Byfuglien has been particularly impressive with five goals, 21 points, 84 shots, 41 blocked shots, 39 PIM and 61 hits while averaging 27:38 of ice time (3:07 on the power play) over his past 25 games. Once again, the veteran rearguard has proven to be a high-end cross-category contributor. While his track record is much shorter, Islander freshman Josh Ho-Sang has a three-game point streak with consecutive multi-point efforts. Don't underestimate the significance of Ho-Sang joining John Tavares for the three-on-three overtime period Tuesday, especially since the duo connected for the game-winning goal.

Wild (PP: 9, PK: 8) at Hurricanes (PP: 23, PK: 5), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Darcy Kuemper (7-4-3, 3.21, .904), Cam Ward (23-20-10, 2.69, .904)
Key Injuries: Phil Di Giuseppe (upper body), Jay McClement (lower body), Brock McGinn (upper body), Valentin Zykov (upper body), Martin Hanzal (illness)

Last week in this space, I questioned whether Minnesota may have peaked too early. The Wild are 2-5 in March, and Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund are their only players with at least five points for the month. Despite his underwhelming play for the season and of late (.896 save percentage and 3.34 GAA over his past five outings), this sets up as a bounce-back spot for Minnesota, so Kuemper is a solid dice roll in all fantasy settings. With an active 4-7-5 record and nothing to play for, Carolina could help the Minnesota offense kick its funk as well, especially with the Hurricanes sporting a league-worst .906 team save percentage at five-on-five.

Panthers (PP: 24, PK: 2) at Blue Jackets (PP: 6, PK: 10), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: James Reimer (13-12-5, 2.60, .918), Sergei Bobrovsky (37-13-4, 2.08, .929)
Key Injuries: Nick Foligno (illness), Ryan Murray (hand), Aaron Ekblad (concussion), Roberto Luongo (lower body)

Don't overreact to Florida's seven-goal outburst against Toronto on Tuesday. The Maple Leafs were awful, and the Panthers had lost eight of their previous nine games and scored just 19 goals during that span. Additionally, Columbus sports an active 9-3-1 stretch and an admirable 25-9-1 home-ice record. However, it's worth noting that over the past 25 games the Blue Jackets have allowed the third-most high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes (12.45). During that stretch, Bobrovsky sports an incredible .925 save percentage and 2.29 GAA, which has covered up some of Columbus' poor play.

Bruins (PP: 12, PK: 1) at Oilers (PP: 7, PK: 22), 9:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Tuukka Rask (33-16-4, 2.24, .914), Cam Talbot (34-20-8, 2.36, .920)
Key Injuries: Andrew Ference (hip), Tyler Pitlick (knee)

The Bruins enter on the wrong end of back-to-back road games after an impressive 4-2 win at Calgary on Wednesday. Brad Marchand pulled into the goals lead with his 36th tally of the campaign, and the winger is up to 26 goals, 44 points and 89 shots through his past 29 games. Amazingly, Edmonton scored six times against Dallas on Tuesday before Connor McDavid finally found the scoresheet with his 24th goal and 76th point of the year. With Rask rested for this matchup, and Boston sporting an active 12-3 run, this should prove to be one of the better games of the evening.

Stars (PP: 19, PK: 30) at Canucks (PP: 28, PK: 25), 10:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Kari Lehtonen (16-21-6, 2.97, .901), Ryan Miller (17-21-6, 2.73, .916)
Key Injuries: Mattias Janmark (knee), Antoine Roussel (hand), Derek Dorsett (neck), Loui Eriksson (lower body), Brendan Gaunce (undisclosed), Nikolay Goldobin (illness), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Jacob Markstrom (lower body), Anton Rodin (knee), Jack Skille (groin), Chris Tanev (illness)

An underwhelming bout with two teams already looking ahead to 2017-18, Dallas owns a 9-20-4 road record and has allowed 17 goals through its past three outings. This obviously sets up nicely for the Canucks, but Vancouver has lost the first four contests of its current five-game home stand. Markus Granlund is concluding the season strong with seven goals and 11 points while averaging 18:34 of ice time (2:16 on the power play) over his past 15 outings. It's unlikely to prove to be anything more than a fleeting run, but the 23-year-old forward checks out as a low-priced flier in daily contests or potential grab in deep seasonal settings.

Red Wings (PP: 30, PK: 13) at Coyotes (PP: 27, PK: 27), 10:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Petr Mrazek (15-19-7, 3.02, .900), Mike Smith (18-20-7, 2.93, .914)
Key Injuries: Alex Burmistrov (upper body), Kevin Connauton (upper body), Brad Richardson (leg), Jonathan Ericsson (wrist)

Considering the status of these two clubs, it's worth turning our attention to Jakob Chychrun's impressive 1.14 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five this season, which rank 12th among all defensemen with at least 750 minutes. For comparison, Chychrun's mark is tied with Dustin Byfuglien and Roman Josi. It's worth noting that young defensemen often see their offensive numbers decline as they are tasked with tougher defensive matchups, but Chychrun's upside is clear, and he's likely undervalued in plenty of keeper/dynasty circles.

Sabres (PP: 1, PK: 29) at Kings (PP: 15, PK: 4), 10:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Robin Lehner (19-21-8, 2.69, .920), Jonathan Quick (4-1-1, 2.33, .917)
Key Injuries: Dmitry Kulikov (upper body), Johan Larsson (wrist), Kyle Okposo (ribs), Matt Greene (undisclosed), Jordan Nolan (leg), Nick Shore (upper body)

It's fitting to highlight Jack Eichel's recent play. His active 19-game heater (eight goals and 17 assists) has him up to 20 tallies, 48 points and an impressive 2.92 points per 60 minutes for the campaign. Equally noteworthy is his game-to-game consistency, as the sophomore has marked the scoresheet in 16 of those 19 outings. Buffalo's power-play has also scored a league-high 8.99 goals per 60 minutes since Eichel returned from his ankle injury. This is as close to a must-win game as Los Angeles has played this season because the schedule isn't ideal through the end of the month. The Kings have two road dates with the Oilers and Flames and home dates against the Jets and Rangers before finishing March on the road in Vancouver.

Blues (PP: 5, PK: 6) at Sharks (PP: 25, PK: 11), 10:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Carter Hutton (10-8-2, 2.47, .910), Martin Jones (32-17-6, 2.25, .916)
Key Injuries: Melker Karlsson (lower body), David Schlemko (lower body), Robby Fabbri (knee), Dmitrij Jaskin (upper body), Jori Lehtera (upper body)

With Kevin Shattenkirk out of the way, Alex Pietrangelo has seen an uptick in minutes and fantasy production. The St. Louis captain has six helpers, 18 shots, 16 blocked shots and an average of 27:23 of ice time (3:04 on the power play) through the past eight outings. The Blues have also fared well with a 5-3 record. However, this stands as rematch of the 2016 Western Conference, and it's also a road back-to-back spot for the Blues after losing 2-1 to Anaheim on Wednesday. San Jose has rattled off a 25-9-6 record over its past 40 games and has home-ice advantage through the playoffs in sight. Additionally, the big scorers for the Sharks are heating up. Logan Couture (four goals and nine points), Joe Pavelski (seven goals and eight points) and Joe Thornton (one goal and seven points) are all having a strong offensive month.

Recommended Pickup
Nick Schmaltz, F, CHI: With Artem Anisimov out three to four weeks with a lower-body injury, Schmaltz is expected to center Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin going forward. The 21-year-old rookie hit the scoresheet with an assist against Montreal on Tuesday, and he has three goals, 13 points, 17 shots and a plus-13 rating through his past 13 outings. The upside isn't through the roof because he won't see top-unit time on the power play, but considering Kane and Panarin have combined for a rock-solid 2.97 goals per 60 minutes over the past two seasons, Schmaltz lands in a cushy fantasy spot during five-on-five situations.