October 30 – Day 24 – Western Conference Semifinal Rematch

Head Coach Dan Bylsma’s return to the Consol Energy Center ended poorly, as his Buffalo Sabres fell 4-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Pens opened the scoring only 56 seconds into the game, as Sidney Crosby and First Star of the Game Ben Lovejoy assisted Pascal Dupuis to his first goal of the season.  Pittsburgh followed up that early goal with another at the 7:16 mark, when Crosby and Olli Maatta provided the helpers to Second Star Patric Hornqvist.  The two-goal lead held until the 14:25 mark, when Jamie McGinn, assisted by Tim Schaller and Rasmus Ristolainen, fired a shot past backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, followed 2:15 later by a Nicolas Deslauriers goal, assisted by Third Star Ryan O’Reilly and Ristolainen, to set the score a two-all, which held into intermission.

It was all Pittsburgh in the second period.  Lovejoy broke the tie at the 8:18 mark, assisted by Evgeni Malkin.  Malkin’s line had only just begun, as he is responsible for the game-winner 6:39 later, assisted by Hornqvist and Phil Kessel.

Just as Pittsburgh controlled the second, Buffalo dominated the third.  In fact, the Sabres put 24 shots on goal in the final period, compared to a lowly four for Pittsburgh.  One of those shots, this one fired by Matt Moulson and assisted by O’Reilly and David Legwand, broke through in the 18th minute to set the final 4-3 score.

Chad Johnson’s record fell to 3-6-0 with tonight’s loss.  He saved 25 of 29 shots (86.2%), while Zatkoff saved 50 of 53 (94.3%) to earn his first win in his first start of the season.

After tonight’s game, the DtFR Game of the Day series stands at 14-6-3, favoring the home squad by 11 points.

Tonight’s schedule is another busy one, as there are nine games on the Friday schedule.  Four of those games get started at 7 p.m. eastern (Philadelphia at Buffalo [Bell TV], Toronto at the New York Rangers [SN360], Columbus at Washington and Colorado at Carolina), followed half an hour later by two more (Ottawa at Detroit [RDSI] and Boston at Florida).  Chicago and Minnesota drop the opening puck at 8 p.m. eastern, followed an hour later by Montréal at Calgary (RDS).  The final game gets started at 10 p.m. eastern between Vancouver and Arizona.

Five of the nine games tonight are divisional rivalries (Columbus at Washington, Ottawa at Detroit, Boston at Florida, Chicago at Minnesota and Vancouver at Arizona), and only one is between teams qualifying for the playoffs (Vancouver at Arizona).  But, only one is a rematch from last season’s playoffs: the ChicagoMinnesota matchup.  Since it’s also a divisional matchup, we’ll look a little further into that one.

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The 6-3-0 Chicago Blackhawks have relied on their defense to find their early success.  Led by 5-2-0 Corey Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson (23 blocks), the Hawks have only allowed 246 shots on goal, saving 93.5% of those attempts.  That converts into only 16 goals so far this season, eight below the league average.  Even when down a man, Chicago has still found a way to keep the opposition off the board, as they’ve only given up three power play goals on 25 attempts for a 88% penalty kill rate, 7.35% above the league average.

The offense, on the other hand, has not been quite as stellar. as they’ve only notched 19 goals so far, five below the league average.  That being said, the power play has scored just as many as the rest of the league (six), albeit on six more opportunities.  Therefore, Chicago‘s 16.67% power play trails the league average by 1.68%.

Turning our attention to the 6-2-1 home squad, we find a Minnesota team that leans on their offense for success.  They’ve scored 28 goals so far this season, seven of which are a result of the power play (one above the league average).  On 30 attempts, their 23.33% power play percentage leads the league average by 4.98%.  The most exciting facet of this offense has been their two shorties scored this season.  While not something the team can rely on, these tallies can certainly sway the momentum of a game in their favor, and it is beneficial to the squad to know they have that capability going forward.

While the defense hasn’t been as successful as the offense, it still has been fairly stout.  The squad has only given up one more goal than league average, of which only five have been on the power play.  This stat is slightly misleading though, as the team has only defended 23 power plays, giving them a 78.26% kill rate (3.39% below league average).

Probably the biggest shortcoming of this Wild team is their lack of shots.  Minnesota has only notched 245 shots on goal this season, 23 below the NHL average.  Fortunately for them, they’ve scored 11.4% of those shots (2.3% over the league average), but it may not be wise to rely on that percentage for long without increasing their shot count.

Last season, Chicago won the regular season series against the Wild 3-2-0 before sweeping them in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Some players to watch in tonight’s game include Chicago‘s Crawford (two shutouts [tied for league lead], five wins [tied for fourth in the league], 1.76 GAA [tied for sixth in the league] and .938 save percentage [tied for eighth in the leauge]) & Patrick Kane (13 points [fourth in the league] on six goals [tied for sixth in the league]) and Minnesota‘s Devan Dubunyk (six wins [tied for second in the league] and one shutout [tied for sixth in the league]) & Zach Parise (seven goals [tied for second in the leauge]).

The line for tonight’s game reads -145 in favor of Minnesota, but given Chicago‘s success against Minnesota last year, I am weary of siding with Vegas in this one.

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