Five things to watch: Eastern playoff race tightens

The Hockey News
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By Brian O’Neill, Josh Elliott and Gareth Bush
With a relatively light three games on the NHL schedule tonight, THN gets you prepared with our five things to watch. From a tightening playoff race in the East, to Nathan MacKinnon’s surge in the Calder Trophy race, here are tonight’s major talking points…

Up for Grabs
A bad December for the Maple Leafs and Red Wings – captured in glorious high definition by HBO – has shrunk the gap between the two Eastern Conference wild card teams and the rest of the pack. Tonight, that gap could all but disappear. If one or both of the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers win tonight, they can tie the Leafs for the final wild card slot. Toronto will still have played one fewer game, but it will mark the first time the Sens or Rangers have caught up to the once-comfy Leafs. The Wings, meanwhile, are only one point ahead of Toronto and in just as much of a swoon. The Senators are 6-3-1 in their past 10, while the Rangers are 5-3-2, though they both face strong opponents in the Avalanche and Blackhawks, respectively. Two points tonight for either team would leave Toronto and Detroit feeling mighty nervous.

Nash-onal Pride
The Olympics begin early tonight – well maybe not quite – when the Chicago Blackhawks welcome the New York Rangers into Chi-town. The Blackhawks are tied with the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues for the most players going to Sochi with 10. The Rangers aren’t far behind sending seven to compete in the Games. Hawks winger Patrick Sharp has shown why he made his first Olympic squad, tearing it up with three goals and two assists in his past three games and 22 points over his past 15. Rick Nash, one of Canada’s more surprising Sochi-bound players, just came off his first multi-point game of the year Monday and looks to add to that and support Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman’s faith in the 6-foot-4 winger.

Proceed with Caution
The Ottawa Senators just might get their captain back in the lineup for tonight’s road game against the Colorado Avalanche. Jason Spezza has missed the past four games due to a hip injury, but participated in a full practice yesterday and skated between Zack Smith and Mark Stone. Spezza said he felt good after practice, though the Sens are in no rush to bring him back, as they went 4-0 over that span. He has 30 points in 39 games this season, but the team will be careful with his progress, as he has missed 92 games since the 2009-10 campaign due to various injuries.

Makin’ a Case for MacKinnon
Step aside, Tomas Hertl: Nathan MacKinnon is coming for you. Last year’s first overall pick in the draft has been lighting it up offensively for the Colorado Avalanche, with seven goals in his past seven games. That’s vaulted him to the top of rookie scoring with 28 points and his next goal will tie him with the injured Hertl for goals by a freshman. MacKinnon is coming off consecutive two-goal games, three of which he scored on the power play. He suffered a foot injury in Monday’s loss to Calgary, but is expected to be in the lineup tonight. If the injury doesn’t slow him down, look for him to keep making his case for the Calder Trophy.

Flying High
After starting the season with a 3-8 record in October and placing themselves in the basement of the Metropolitan Division, the Philadelphia Flyers have roared back into contention. Since then they’ve gone 19-11-4 and will look to win their 10th straight home game tonight against the Montreal Canadiens. A victory would give the Flyers their first 10-game home win streak since Keith Primeau and company led the team on an 11-game run in 2003. Team captain and Olympic snub Claude Giroux has been a big part of Philly’s recent success, tallying 32 points in his past 28 games. Philadelphia currently sits second in their division behind Pittsburgh with 48 points.