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NHL Games of the Week, March 28-April 3


Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks

Two parts of the triple-headed California monster that make up the top of the Pacific Division will tangle at the SAP Center on Monday night, and even though first place is not up for grabs due to the Kings having a seven-point lead on the third-place Sharks, this game should still be a hotly contested affair between two rivals.  Los Angeles was the first team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot, and with seven games left, they’ll look to extend their three-point lead on the second-place Anaheim Ducks.  Following a four-game winning streak, the Kings went on a three-game road trip to begin last week against the Predators, Wild, and Jets and proceeded to lose all three games.  With the lottery-bound Edmonton Oilers in town on Saturday night, L.A. bounced back with a 6-4 win, getting two goals each from Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter and a trio of assists from Milan Lucic.  This will be the fifth and final meeting between the Kings and Sharks, with the teams splitting the first four games.  This will be the last game of a six-game homestand for San Jose, who had been 8-3-0 in 11 games before losing three straight last week.  After beating the Rangers and Coyotes in the first two games of the homestand, the Sharks were shut out 1-0 by the red-hot Blues, then dropped a 6-3 decision to the Oilers before falling to the Dallas Stars 4-2 on Saturday afternoon.  San Jose trailed the Stars 3-0 in the third period before mounting a comeback attempt thanks to goals by Joel Ward and Tomas Hertl.  An empty net goal by Jamie Benn ended up putting the game out of reach for San Jose, who blew their third straight chance to clinch a playoff spot.



Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild

On Sunday night, the Chicago Blackhawks became the fifth team in the Western Conference to lock down a playoff spot when they edged the Vancouver Canucks 3-2, their second straight win after a rough stretch in which they had won just six out of 18 games.  The Blackhawks began last week with a 3-2 shootout loss at the United Center to the Minnesota Wild, and then bottomed out with a 6-2 loss on home-ice to the Dallas Stars, a game in which they allowed four goals in the span of seven minutes in the first period and were serenaded by a chorus of boos from the home crowd.  Chicago rebounded by winning in Calgary 4-1 before beating the Canucks on Sunday in what turned out to be the first time the Hawks have won consecutive games since February 28 and March 2.  Andrew Ladd picked up the game-winning goal with just 2:27 left in the third period and Scott Darling turned aside 26 shots in the victory, as he made his sixth consecutive start since Corey Crawford went down with a lower-body injury.  He remains day-to-day.  Chicago is currently in third place in the Central Division with 95 points, four behind Dallas and St. Louis, and four ahead of Nashville, who holds the first wild card spot.  On the other hand, the Wild have been on a roll, winning their last five and distancing themselves from Colorado for the last wild card spot in the Western Conference.  After picking up consecutive shootout wins against the Hurricanes and Blackhawks, the Wild beat the Pacific Division-leading Kings at home 2-1, blasted the Calgary Flames on home-ice 6-2 in a game in which Zach Parise tallied a hat trick in the first period, and then crushed the Avalanche 4-0 in Denver on Saturday afternoon in a game that had crucial playoff implications.  Parise tacked on another two goals against the Avs, while Devan Dubnyk picked up his fifth shutout of the season by making 29 saves.  The Wild are 14-6-1 since interim head coach John Torchetti took over from the fired Mike Yeo in mid-February, and are five points ahead of Colorado heading into this week’s action.

Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues

Just as the Wild were getting hot at the right time, the Avalanche lost a pair of important home games last week in their pursuit of the final wild card spot out West, a 4-2 setback to the Flyers and a 4-0 whitewashing at the hands of Minnesota that put them five points behind the Wild for that last playoff berth with one game in hand.  Right before the Avalanche hit the most crucial stretch of the season, they lost their two leading scorers, 25-year-old Matt Duchene and 20-year-old Nathan MacKinnon, to knee injuries.  Duchene has missed the past four games, while MacKinnon has missed the last three, and the team announced they will miss at least the next two games, a back-to-back set on the road in Nashville on Monday and in St. Louis on Tuesday.  Colorado’s remaining schedule includes either teams that have already clinched a playoff spot or are on the verge of doing so.  After visiting the Predators and Blues, the rest of the Avs’ schedule looks like this:  Washington and St. Louis at home, Nashville on the road again, Dallas on the road, and Anaheim at home.  The odds of Colorado reaching the postseason aren’t looking good at this point.  On the other hand, the St. Louis Blues have been on an absolute tear lately, winning 10 of their last 12 and are currently on a four-game winning streak.  What’s more impressive is that they’ve collected shutouts in all four of those games, becoming the 11th team in NHL history to earn shutouts in four consecutive games and the first since the Coyotes picked up five straight shutouts during the 2003-04 season.  Brian Elliot picked up the first three goose eggs, shutting out the Canucks twice by 3-0 and 4-0 scores and earning a 1-0 clean sheet against the Sharks.  Jake Allen then got in on the fun and blanked the NHL-leading Washington Capitals 4-0 at the Verizon Center.  The Blues’ current shutout streak of 240:18 is the longest in franchise history.  This will be the fourth of five meetings this season between St. Louis and Colorado, with the Avs leading the series 3-0-0, winning once in regulation, once in overtime, and once in a shootout.

Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars

One of the hottest teams over the course of the second half of the season has been the Nashville Predators, who not only enter this week on a three-game winning streak, but are 14-2-5 in their last 21 games.  That run has vaulted them into the first wild card spot, where they’re six points ahead of Minnesota with seven games left while also remaining just four points behind Chicago for third place in the Central Division.  Last week, the Predators won all three games on their homestand, toppling the Kings 5-2 and coming from behind to beat Vancouver 3-2 in a shootout before pounding the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-1 on Saturday.  Five different Predators notched goals in that game, while defenseman Roman Josi chipped in three assists as the Preds thoroughly dominated Columbus in all facets of the game while outshooting them 48-19.  Nashville set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a period when they fired 27 shots on Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo in the opening period, besting the previous team record of 24, which they had accomplished twice.  Pekka Rinne is now 12-1-2 in his last 15 starts.  This will be the second of back-to-back games for the Preds, who can clinch a playoff spot if they beat Colorado at home on Monday night.  On the other side, the Dallas Stars have won four of their last five games and are in a fight to the finish with the St. Louis Blues for the top spot in the Central Division, as the two teams are tied with 99 points, while Chicago is just four points behind at 95 points.  Dallas began last week in dominant fashion, going to the United Center and laying a 6-2 beating on the defending Cup champion Blackhawks that clinched a playoff spot.  Two nights later, Dallas suffered a brief setback in Arizona when they lost 3-1 to the Coyotes, but bounced back on Saturday with a 4-2 victory in San Jose, as they were led by Mattias Janmark’s two goals and Antti Niemi’s 34 saves.  Janmark had missed the previous six games with an upper-body injury.  The Stars haven’t missed much of a beat without star center Tyler Seguin, going 3-1-0 in his absence as he recovers a from a severe cut to his Achilles tendon.  This will be the third meeting between Nashville and Dallas, as the Stars have won two of those contests.  They will face each other again in the regular season finale on April 9 in Dallas.



New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

The Devils are five points behind the Flyers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but with the Hurricanes and Red Wings in front of them, New Jersey’s playoff odds are extremely slim with just six games remaining.  After winning three out of four games, including a 3-0 win over the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, the Devils have dropped back-to-back contests.  One of them was a 1-0 overtime heartbreaker on home-ice to Washington, and the other a 3-2 loss on Sunday to Carolina on the road in which they fell behind 3-0 before getting goals from Bobby Farnham and Travis Zajac in the loss.  Since losing All-Star goalie Corey Schneider during a loss in Dallas on March 4, New Jersey has gone 5-5-0 in his absence, as goalies Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood have played very well.  However, offense continues to be a problem for the Devils, who are tied with Vancouver with the fewest goals in the NHL at 171.  New Jersey will host Boston on Tuesday before traveling to Sunrise, and they’ll look to play the spoiler role against a Panthers team that enters this week with a two-point advantage over the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.  Following a tough loss at home to the Red Wings in which they blew a 3-1 lead in a 5-3 loss, the Panthers went on the road for three games, starting off with a 4-2 defeat to the New York Rangers last Tuesday.  However, they would bounce back strongly over the final two games of the trip.  They ended a nine-game losing streak in Boston by toppling the Bruins 4-1 and handing them their fifth straight loss.  On Saturday night, they traveled to Tampa Bay with first place in the Atlantic Division on the line and came away with a convincing 5-2 victory that put them back on top of the division and gave them a 4-1-0 record against their in-state foes in the season series.  Jaromir Jagr scored his 25th goal of the season on Saturday, marking the 18th time in his illustrious career that he has topped the 25-goal mark.  Vincent Trocheck added a goal in the victory, giving him 25 for the season in just his second season in the NHL, while Roberto Luongo stopped 33 shots.  Florida will host Toronto on Tuesday night before the Devils come to town.  This will be the third and final meeting between New Jersey and Florida, as they split the first two contests earlier this season.  They haven’t met since December 17, when the Panthers came away with a 5-1 victory.



Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins

This will be the third of fourth meetings between these two bitter Metropolitan Division rivals, who will meet one more time on April 9 in Philadelphia.  The Flyers have dropped the first two meetings of this season with the Penguins, and will look to maintain their hold on the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games to go as of this writing.  They are tied with the Red Wings for that last playoff spot with 85 points, but have a game in hand on Detroit.  In Philadelphia’s last game, a 2-1 loss in Arizona on Saturday, captain Claude Giroux left with a head injury after being hit from behind into the boards by the Coyotes’ Martin Hanzal, who was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for boarding.  Giroux went through the league’s concussion protocol and is expected to play in Monday’s contest against the Winnipeg Jets.  The Flyers outshot the Coyotes 35-17, but were denied repeatedly by Mike Smith, who made 34 saves.  Earlier in the week, Philadelphia suffered an improbable loss in Columbus when they blew a 2-0 lead with under two minutes remaining in the third period before losing 3-2 in a shootout.  They followed it up with 4-2 win in Colorado before losing in Arizona.  The Flyers have lost just three times in regulation in their last 16 games (10-3-3), and will host Winnipeg, Washington, and Ottawa this week before traveling to Pittsburgh.  The Penguins will also have a busy week before the Flyers arrive, as they’ll host Buffalo and Nashville and travel to Brooklyn for a game with the Islanders before Sunday’s contest with Philly.  Pittsburgh started the week by getting shut out on home ice by New Jersey 3-0 before rebounding with a 7-2 demolition of the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday afternoon.  The Penguins then ended the week on a high note with a 3-2 overtime win in Madison Square Garden against a Rangers team they’re chasing for second place in the Metro Division.  Pittsburgh is currently in third place, three points behind the Rangers and three ahead of the New York Islanders.  On Sunday, Sidney Crosby’s deflection of a Kris Letang shot with 29.5 seconds left in overtime, his 32nd goal of the season, gave the Pens the win over the Rangers.  Crosby has picked up points in 14 of Pittsburgh’s last 15 games, and the Penguins are 11-4-0 over that stretch.  After going pointless in a stretch of five out of six games, Penguins winger Phil Kessel has seven points in the team’s last two games, collecting a goal and an assist on Sunday in New York and a goal and four assists on Saturday in Detroit.

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