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Stanley Cup Playoffs Buzz: Penguins eye return to first place

Stars look to rebound against tough Maple Leafs; Predators hitting on all cylinders @NHLdotcom

Welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs Buzz, a daily look at the races for the 2018 NHL postseason.

There are 26 days left in the regular season and the races in each conference are wide open. 
Here is a look at the NHL standings and everything else that could impact the playoff picture.


What's on tap

There are five games on the schedule Wednesday and each could have an impact on the race for positioning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Dallas Stars at Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVAS, FS-SW, NHL.TV) -- The Stars seek to rebound from a 4-2 loss at the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday that dropped them into the second wild card from the Western Conference. They are tied in points with the Colorado Avalanche, who hold the first wild card because they have played one fewer game and also have more regulation and overtime wins (36-34), the first two tiebreakers. They are two points ahead of the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames. The Maple Leafs, who are in third place in the Atlantic Division, nine points behind the second-place Boston Bruins, have won a team-record 10 in a row at home.

Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV) -- The Penguins can climb one point ahead of the Washington Capitals and back into first place in the Metropolitan Division with a win in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game. The Rangers are nine points behind the New Jersey Devils for the second wild card in the East, but are 4-2-1 in their past seven games.

San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers (9:30 p.m. ET; SN1, SNW, NBCSCA, NHL.TV) --The Sharks begin a three-game road trip second in the Pacific Division, one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings. They'll have to slow down Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who has 30 points (18 goals, 12 assists) in his past 20 games.

New Jersey Devils at Vegas Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET; ATTSN-RM, MSG+, NHL. TV) -- The Devils play the second game of a difficult stretch of six in a row on the road. They hold the second wild card in the East, three points ahead of the Florida Panthers. Back from a 4-1-0 road trip, the Golden Knights begin a four-game homestand first in the Pacific Division, 12 points ahead of the Sharks and five behind the Predators for first place in the Western Conference and League standings.
Vancouver Canucks at Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET; PRIME, SNP, NHL.TV) -- The Ducks look to end a three-game losing streak that's dropped them two points behind the third-place Kings in the Pacific Division and two points behind the Stars for the second wild card in the West. The Canucks are eliminated from playoff contention with a loss.

Need to know

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs have many reasons to feel confident about the approaching postseason. Mike Zeisberger says the return of Auston Matthews, which could come soon, is perhaps the biggest one yet.

New Jersey Devils: A goaltending conundrum has developed for the Devils. Should incumbent No. 1 Cory Schneider, coming back from injury, get starts to get sharp or should red-hot backup Keith Kinkaid get the call more often? Dan Rosen answers that questIon and many others in his weekly mailbag.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Should Evgeni Malkin be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy? Absolutely, according his teammates.

Penguins: Malkin's MVP candidacy, Sidney Crosby's propensity to produce points against the Rangers and the goaltending of rookie Casey DeSmith are among the reasons, according to John Kreiser, to watch the Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV).

Dallas Stars: The return of forward Alexander Radulov to Montreal to face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday did not go as the Russian would have liked. Dave Stubbs explains why.


If playoffs started Wednesday

Here is a look at the matchups for the first round as they stand entering games Wednesday:

Eastern Conference

(1A) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (WC2) New Jersey Devils 
(1M) Washington Capitals vs. (WC1) Columbus Blue Jackets 
(2M) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3M) Philadelphia Flyers
(2A) Boston Bruins vs. (3A) Toronto Maple Leafs

Western Conference

(1C) Nashville Predators vs. (WC2) Dallas Stars 
(1P) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (WC1) Colorado Avalanche
(2C) Winnipeg Jets vs. (3C) Minnesota Wild
(2P) San Jose Sharks vs. (3P) Los Angeles Kings


Thought of the day

The Nashville Predators appear ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin after a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday that all but locked up first place in the Central Division.

The Predators are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games and reached the 100-point mark in the fewest games in their history (69). They moved eight points ahead of the second-place Jets in the division race and into a tie in points with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. They also seemed to send a message to the Jets by storming to a 3-0 lead in the opening 8:49, including shorthanded goals 34 seconds apart from Austin Watson and Viktor Arvidsson, and outshooting them 24-6 in the first period.

Credit to the Jets, who were tired after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Monday and depleted by a host of injuries, for battling during the final two periods to make a game of it. They'll get one more shot at the Predators, in Winnipeg, on March 25 (7 p.m. ET; SN360, SNE, SNO, SNW, FS-TN, NHL.TV) and maybe will send a message of their own prior to a potential playoff meeting, likely in the Western Conference Second Round if each team can advance.

But the Predators are running on all cylinders and look primed to make another run at the Stanley Cup after losing to the Penguins in six games in the Stanley Cup Final last season. Their only question with 13 regular-season games remaining is, are they peaking too soon? -- Tom Gulitti, Staff Writer


About last night

There were seven games and plenty of movement in the playoff races on Tuesday: 

Boston Bruins 6, Carolina Hurricanes 4 -- The Bruins staged an improbable comeback with five goals in the third period and moved within four points of the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division. Boston's David Pastrnak had his first NHL hat trick and added an assist. The Hurricanes, who led 4-1 in the third period, remain seven points behind the New Jersey Devils for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

Montreal Canadiens 4, Dallas Stars 2 -- Dallas allowed three power-play goals to fall into the second wild card in the West and remain three points behind the third-place Minnesota Wild in the Central Division.

Ottawa Senators 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 4 -- The Lightning lost for the first time in regulation since Feb. 17, and had their lead in the Atlantic over second-place Boston cut to four points. The Bruins have two games in hand.

Nashville Predators 3, Winnipeg Jets 1 -- The Predators extended their lead in the Central to eight points over the Jets, scoring two shorthanded goals in a 34-second span on the same penalty kill in the first period.

Colorado Avalanche 5, Minnesota Wild 1 -- The Avalanche moved into the first wild card in the West and within three points of the third-place Wild in the Central. Minnesota trails second-place Winnipeg by seven points in the Central Division.

Calgary Flames 1, Edmonton Oilers 0 -- The Flames moved within two points of a wild-card spot in the West behind Mike Smith, who made 28 saves for his third shutout this season. Calgary is two points behind the Los Angeles Kings for third place in the Pacific Division and two points behind the Stars for the second wild card. 

Arizona Coyotes 4, Los Angeles Kings 3 (SO) -- The Kings trailed 3-0, but rallied to get a point and moved within one point of the second-place San Jose Sharks in the Pacific. The Kings have a two-point lead for third over the Anaheim Ducks and Flames.

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