Wild-card primer: who makes it and who misses in the East and West?

Loui Eriksson (Andre Ringuette/Getty Images)

When the NHL changed the playoff format to include wild-card teams last season, it’s unlikely even they could have imagined a scenario in which the races for the final playoff berths in each conference would be this tight.

With less than 10 games remaining on the schedules of all playoff hopefuls, only six points separate teams in the Western Conference, while a three-team race separated by five points in the Eastern Conference could come down to the final night.

What’s on the horizon for each of the teams, and who stands the best shot at making it in? Read more

CHL playoffs: The most intriguing first-round matchups

Quebec's Anthony Duclair  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The CHL playoffs begin tonight and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Connor McDavid has one last chance to win it all with the Erie Otters in the Ontario League, but the powerfully-built Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have designs of their own. Out in the Western League, Kelowna and Brandon seem to be on a collision course for the final, while the Quebec League has the added wrinkle of sending two teams to the Memorial Cup – one being the host Quebec Remparts, who won’t want to crawl in through the back door.

Here’s a look at all the first-round matchups in the CHL, with a bit more info on one series per league that has me riveted from the get-go.

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NCAA Frozen Four: Players to watch from every team in the tournament

Minnesota State goalie Stephon Williams (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

College hockey’s Frozen Four kicks off this week with 16 teams gunning for a spot in Boston, where the semifinal and final will be held in April. Regionals spread the squads across four cities and there is a lot of firepower at this year’s installment. But who are the players to watch for? Here’s a primer for every school, with an admitted bias towards NHL prospects.

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Five unsung heroes of the 2014-15 season

Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is having a year for the history books. Almost singlehandedly, with unthinkable saves and stellar play, he’s guiding Montreal to the playoffs.

For his efforts, there’s talk of Price not only taking home the Vezina Trophy as the season’s best goaltender, but the potential for him to earn the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. That Price is being recognized for what he has done this season is only right – if Montreal makes it deep into the playoffs, it might be one of the greatest goaltending seasons in modern hockey history.

But for every Carey Price, there’s a role player who has done their part to perfection, making the difference that doesn’t necessarily show up on the score sheet, but translates to victories in the long run. These are the NHL’s unsung heroes, and here are the top five this season: Read more

Backchecking: Russian star Sergei Makarov speaks (very) softly but carried a huge stick

Sergei Makarov (Allsport /Allsport)

By Denis Gibbons

Terry Crisp bent over backwards to show Sergei Makarov respect when the great Soviet winger came to play in the NHL for Calgary in 1989. One day the Flames coach was drawing up a play on the board, illustrating to Makarov how to position himself. Suddenly, Makarov grabbed the chalk, crossed everything out and started making his own diagrams.

“Tikhonov bad guy, good coach,” he said to Crisp (in reference to the late Soviet bench boss). “You? Good guy, bad coach.”

Crisp, who had led the Flames to a Stanley Cup the year before, said Makarov, who played in the Soviet Union on the KLM line with Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov, probably had more talent than anybody he had ever coached. Read more

Gaudreau’s brilliant rookie campaign only part of Calgary’s bright future

Jared Clinton
Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Johnny Gaudreau’s three points Thursday night for the never-say-die Calgary Flames not only put him in the lead for the rookie scoring title, it kept the Flames in command of their own fate in the Western Conference wild-card race.

As much as Gaudreau has been an incredible story for Calgary by getting himself into Calder Trophy contention when it seemed a lock to be awarded to Nashville’s Filip Forsberg, it’s the Flames’ ability to continue to defy the odds – and the underlying numbers – that has truly been the story.

While the spreadsheets and advanced stats tell us what we can expect of a team as a season wears on, what Calgary’s shot attempts or PDO can’t dictate is what will happen in two or three years. If they could, you would see a Flames team that isn’t considered to be fluking into the playoffs but one with a Stanley Cup in their future. Read more

Bracket busters: which NHL playoff Cinderellas could cause April madness?

Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Why does college basketball get to have all the fun?

There’s something magical about the first four days of the NCAA tournament every year. Are you one of the people who enjoy the rounds of 64 and 32 more than the rest of the bracket and gradually tune in less and less, almost forgetting to watch the national title game? There’s a reason for that. The earlier rounds produce the upsets, the Cinderella stories that steal our hearts.

The home stretch of the NHL season has produced a few exciting Little Teams That Could, too. Which have the best potential to pull insane upsets come April, should they squeak into the bracket? A few come to mind immediately, one of which makes analytics advocates wet themselves, another of which is out to steal your Royale With Cheese.

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Calgary Flames must learn from one-season wonders in Toronto, Colorado

Josh Elliott
Calgary Flames

We’re a few months removed from the NHL holiday break, but the Calgary Flames just encountered two ghosts of Christmas past who can teach them a thing or two about their future.

Those ghosts came in the forms of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, two teams that have fallen off precipitously after seasons very similar to the one Calgary is enjoying right now.

The Calgary Flames are this season’s statistical outlier, defying expectations and analytics as they battle for a playoff berth in a year many expected them to battle for the top pick instead. They’re getting career performances from several players in their lineup and they’re fighting through injuries thanks to a mix of intangibles like leadership, determination, coaching and pure luck.

But they’d be wise not to get too far ahead of themselves, because fortune’s wheel is not kind to teams like the Flames.
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