I don’t know about you, but yesterday’s Game of the Day did not end as I expected, as the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 3-1 at the Verizon Center. Phil Kessel, assisted by Evgeni Malkin and David Perron, notched the game winner at the 3:49 mark of the third period.
Washington waited to open the scoring until the 1:28 mark of the final period. Karl Alzner assisted Evgeny Kuznetsov to his fourth goal of the season to give the Caps a one-goal lead, but it was short lived – only 24 seconds, in fact, as Nick Bonino and Olli Maatta assisted Beau Bennett to the game-tying goal. Bonino also scored an empty netter with under two minutes remaining in the game.
Marc-Andre Fleury earned his fifth win of the season by stopping 33 of 34 shots (97.1%) to set his record at 5-4-0, while Braden Holtby takes the loss, his second of the season, after allowing two of 24 shots faced (91.7%).
The DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 13-6-3, favoring the home team by nine points.
Tonight’s schedule is another full one, with a total of eight games on the night. The action gets started at 7 p.m. eastern when three games get started (Carolina at the New York Islanders, New Jersey at Philadelphia and Buffalo at Pittsburgh [Bell TV]), followed half an hour later by Colorado at Tampa Bay. Beginning at 8 p.m. eastern are two games (Anaheim at St. Louis and Chicago at Winnipeg), followed half an hour later by Vancouver at Dallas. Finally, the night begins to see its end at 9 p.m. eastern when Montréal visits Edmonton (SN, SN360, RDS).
Of tonight’s matchups, three are divisional rivalries (Carolina at the Isles, New Jersey at Philadelphia and Chicago at Winnipeg) and only one game featuring two teams currently in playoff position (Vancouver at Dallas).
Those games being noted, there is another matchup that strikes my fancy, as it is the first return of an ex-coach to play against his ex-team. That man is none other than Dan Bylsma, who is featured in the Buffalo–Pittsburgh matchup.
I know, we watched Pittsburgh yesterday, but this is a significant return. Although under slightly bizarre circumstances, Bylsma is the last coach to lead the Pens to the Stanley Cup. Plus, it’s Game of the Day’s first opportunity to see Jack Eichel in action, so I shouldn’t hear any complainers.
Coach Bylsma returns to the home arena of the team he led to the 2009 Stanley Cup with only 25 regular season games coached after replacing Michel Therrien mid-season. Winner of the 2010-’11 Jack Adams Award, Bylsma is the winningest coach in team history (252 wins, 20 more than Eddie Johnston), as well as the coach with the highest win percentage (67%).
As we all know, the reason for Bylsma’s departure from the Triangle was not his regular season success, but his post-season letdowns. Under his direction, the Penguins improved every regular season until the 2013-’14 season, beginning in his first full season with a .616 point percentage that grew to .75 by the time of his release. However, his postseason win-loss percentage is a different story. During his tenure the team won the Cup, then fell in the conference semifinals, followed by falling in the conference quarterfinals twice in a row, improving to the conference finals, then finally the semifinals. While some teams would love to make the playoffs on a consistent basis and make it past the first round most of the time, the Pittsburgh teams he coached were built to win, and only one cup did not satisfy ownership.
The Buffalo Sabres are currently 3-6-0 coming off a 4-3 win over Philadelphia on Tuesday. While folks in Upstate New York may be excited to usher in the Eichel Era, there have been some growing pains so far this season. The team has scored four goals less and given up five over the league average. The offensive production may be more due to bad luck though, as the Sabres have put 283 shots on goal so far this season, 21 over the league average, but only 6.7% of those attempts are finding the back of the net.
Probably the most exciting part about this Sabres team is their power play. The special teams have accounted for nine goals so far this season (three over the league average) on 36 opportunities, giving them a 25% success rate that exceeds the league average by 6.39%.
Sadly, this positive comes with its own negative, as the penalty kill is vastly inferior to the rest of the NHL. Buffalo has given up seven power play goals so far on only 23 opportunities (seven under the league average), giving them an atrocious penalty kill percentage of 69.57%, 11.82% under the league average. Fortunately for the Sabres, they have been limiting penalties to a minimum to avoid man-down situations as much as possible, but penalties do happen and this statistic may be a monkey that hangs on the squad’s back for the entire season.
As explained yesterday, Bylsma’s old team is leaning heavily on Fleury and the defense, and there has been no indication that Jeff Zatkoff will see his first playing time tonight, although I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he did, given that Fleury has played every minute of all nine games this season.
Some players to watch in this one include Buffalo‘s Jake McCabe (two even strength goals [leads team] and 40% shot percentage [leads team]), Ryan O’Reilly (eight points [leads team], five assists [leads team], four power play assists [leads team]) & Sam Reinhart (+2 Corsi rating [leads team] and three even-strength assists [leads team]) and Pittsburgh‘s Malkin (seven points [leads team], four assists [leads team], three even-strength assists [leads team], two game-winners [leads team] and 13.6% shot percentage [leads team]) and, should he play, Fleury (five wins [tied for third in league], one shutout [tied for sixth in the league], 1.9 GAA [eighth in the league] and .936 save percentage [ninth in the league]).
Conventional wisdom points to the Penguins being favored in this one, but I think Pittsburgh‘s poor power play provides the Sabres a way to keep this one closer than expected.