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NHL gears up for playoffs

West seeds set on season’s final day

NHL scoring champ Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins will have home ice against Philadelphia.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
NHL scoring champ Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins will have home ice against Philadelphia. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Most of the late-season NHL drama was gone before the curtain closed Sunday on the regular season.

That didn’t make it any less special for the 16 teams that still have a whole lot more left on the line once the postseason kicks off Wednesday night.

All the playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference were locked into place after a busy Saturday. The only mystery that remained there Sunday – with four games on the league schedule – was which club would own home-ice advantage in the Battle of Pennsylvania between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Penguins, the defending East champions, could only watch as the Flyers wrapped up the season at home. But Pittsburgh got some good news when the New York Rangers rallied in the third period for a 4-3 win. So, the Penguins earned the No. 4 seed and will start the series against the Flyers at home.

Philadelphia needed to get only one point in the finale to claim the fourth seed and have at least that edge against the Penguins, who knocked the Flyers out in the conference finals last year, but failed.

The Rangers had nothing on the line as they already knew they were seeded No. 7 and would face the upstart Washington Capitals in the first round.

Boston (53-19-10), the No. 1 seed in the East, finished its season on the road with a solid 6-2 win against the New York Islanders (26-47-9), who had already clinched the NHL’s worst record.

While the Bruins tuned up for the playoffs with a victory, the Islanders played out the string. New York will find out in the draft lottery Tuesday night whether it will own the first or second pick in the June draft.

The Bruins will face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the 32nd postseason meeting between the Original Six clubs. Boston and Montreal also squared off last year in the first round in a 1 vs. 8 matchup, with the Canadiens winning in seven games, but the seedings were reversed.

“The only thing you take out of it is that it’s Montreal-Boston,” Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward said of the series led by the Canadiens 24-7. “There is history, there is emotion, but there is irrelevance to the positioning in the regular season.”

The third-seeded New Jersey Devils will face the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in the other East series.

Out West, there were still some playoff matchups to be settled – and postseason newcomer St. Louis held all the cards. After three seasons out of the playoffs, following 25 consecutive appearances, the Blues jumped up into sixth place with a 1-0 win Sunday over Colorado (32-45-5), the last place team in the West.

That gave them the right to play the Vancouver Canucks, who were seeded third after winning the Northwest Division. A loss would have left St. Louis in eighth place and in a matchup with the top-seeded San Jose Sharks.

“You are supposed to finish as high up in the standings as you can,” Blues coach Andy Murray said. “That is why you play the game. We wanted to win today. Not because we felt any differently about playing against Vancouver. It is our job as a team to finish as high in the standings.”

Colorado missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, when the franchise was the Quebec Nordiques.

Heading into the final day, the only known Western pairing had the fourth-seeded Chicago Blackhawks – back in the postseason for the first time since 2002 – taking on the No. 5 Calgary Flames and former coach Mike Keenan.

The Blackhawks finished their successful resurgent season with a 3-0 win over defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit on Sunday. The Red Wings had a shot at finishing with the best record for the second straight season and third in four, but faltered at the end.

Detroit will take on first-time playoff contender Columbus in the first round. San Jose (53-18-11) clinched the NHL’s best record for the first time in club history, despite a loss at Los Angeles on Saturday when Boston was beaten at Buffalo, and will face the No. 8 Anaheim Ducks.

“We had a pretty good season, and going into the playoffs with home-ice advantage for the first two rounds,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.

Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, in his third NHL season, won the scoring title with 113 points. He edged fellow Russian star Alex Ovechkin, who had 110 – including an NHL-best 56 goals. Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter was second with 46 goals, including one Sunday in the Flyers’ win over the Rangers.

Malkin scored 35 goals and led the league with 78 assists while playing all 82 games this season. He had at least one point in all but 18 games and didn’t go two straight without scoring. It is the 13th time since 1988 that a Penguins player won the Art Ross Trophy that goes to the points champion.

Thomas and his Bruins backup Manny Fernandez earned the William Jennings Trophy as the goalies for the club finishing the season having surrendered the fewest goals (196).

Thomas posted a 2.10 goals-against average in 54 games, and Fernandez had a 2.59 GAA in 28 appearances. Boston edged Minnesota, which allowed 200 goals. Fernandez also won the Jennings Trophy during the 2006-07 when he was with Minnesota.

 
Tags: hockey, NHL

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