December 14 – Day 68 – Trial by Fire

Yesterday’s Game of the Day was a Metropolitan beat-down, as the New York Islanders absolutely took it to the New Jersey Devils, winning on a four-goal shutout.

The game-winning goal belongs to First Star of the Game Marek Zidlicky, scored at the 7:43 mark of the opening period after being assisted by Mikhail Grabovski and Josh Bailey.  Third Star John Tavares notched the lone insurance goal of the first period at the 11:53 mark after being assisted by Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson.

It was another two-goal period for the Isles in the second, with Matt Martin notching the first one at the 7:28 mark, with assists going to Casey Cizikas and Calvin de Haan.  Zidlicky snuck his second goal of the game, and the final tally of the night, at the 19:17 mark, with assists belonging to Thomas Hickey and Steve Bernier.  The 4-0 lead held not only  into the second intermission, but to the final horn.

Second Star Thomas Greiss (9-3-2) earned the shutout victory on 27 shots faced, while Cory Schneider (13-8-4) earns the loss after saving only 15 of 18 (83.3%).  He was pulled from the game after 27:28 (the third goal of the game), with Keith Kinkaid finishing up the remaining 32:32, saving 11 of 12 (91.7%).

Tomorrow’s schedule consists of five games, and the action gets started at 7 p.m. eastern when three of them drop the opening puck (Edmonton at Boston [TVAS], Washington at Pittsburgh [NHLN] and Tampa Bay at Columbus), with the other two following only half an hour later (Los Angeles at Ottawa [RDS] and Buffalo at Detroit [Bell TV]).

Two of tonight’s games are between divisional rivals (Washington at Pittsburgh and Buffalo at Detroit), and only one is between two teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Los Angeles at Ottawa).  Then again, this information really doesn’t matter that much, as you probably knew which matchup is our Game of the Day today.

Washington Capitals LogoPittsburgh Penguins Logo

 

 

 

 

 

When Pittsburgh fired Head Coach Mike Johnston Saturday morning, you saw this one coming.  Johnston led the club to a 15-10-3 record so far this season (58-37-15 during his 110-game tenure), which has the Pens in fifth place in the division and ninth in the conference.

Even though Jim Rutherford went out and traded for Phil Kessel (nine goals [second-most on team]) as well as ascertained a few other offensive skaters, Johnston’s Penguins simply did not produce, which should take most of the blame for him being relieved of his duties.  So far this season, they’ve only scored 66 goals (led by Evgeni Malkin’s 13), but even more distressing is the 858 shots (led by Kessel’s 90) they’ve put on goal (trails the league average by 13).  While the number isn’t terribly under the league average, their 7.7% shot percentage speaks volumes, as it trails the league average by 1.2%.

Probably the biggest issue of Pittsburgh‘s game has been the power play.  They’ve scored only 15 goals (led by Malkin’s six) on 96 opportunities, for a 15.63% success rate that trails the league average by 3.49%.  One saving grace about the Pens‘ man-advantage has been that they have yet to give up a shorty all season.

What has kept Pittsburgh in the midst of the playoff hunt this season has been Marc-Andre Fleury (13-9-2) and the defense.  They’ve only given up 65 goals so far this season, a number that makes most teams jealous.  Not only have Fleury and co. saved 92.9% of the 887 shots they’ve faced this season, but they’ve also had Ian Cole’s team-leading 60 blocks to keep even more from reaching the net.

Even when a man-down, the Pens have still done well in keeping the opposition off the board.  They’ve only given up 15 power play goals on 95 attempts, saving a strong 84.21% of attempts.

Johnston’s replacement was found within the organization, albeit four hours up the road in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  Mike Sullivan had only been the head coach of the Baby Pens for this season, but he had led his AHL squad to a 19-5-0 record (best winning percentage in the league) and the top of the Atlantic Division.  In addition to playing 12 years of professional hockey (including part or all of 11 seasons in the NHL) he was head coach of the Boston Bruins for two seasons from 2003-’06 (04-’05 was the lockout) where he amassed a total record of 70-56-15-23.  He also coached the Vancouver Canucks for six games during the ’13-’14 season when John Tortorella was suspended, earning a 2-4-0 record.

Another indicator that management is expecting more goals scored is Wilkes-Barre/Scranton‘s offensive strength.  The Baby Penguins have scored 89 goals so far this season, a total that is second in the conference and third in the league, while being backed by the second-best defense and goaltending in the league.  Sullivan will be expected to enact that same game plan with the senior squad, especially since the defense is already present.

It will be trial by fire for Sullivan’s first game though, as he is going up against the division-leading and second-best in conference 20-6-2 Washington Capitals.  Washington plays a tough game on both ends of the ice, but their defense and goaltending has been their strongest asset this season and will be a good test for Sullivan’s new system.

So far this season, Washington has given up only 62 goals, thanks in part to Karl Alzner’s 62 blocks and Braden Holtby (18-4-1) and co.’s incredible play.  Of the 766 shots that have made their way to the net (102 fewer than the league average, but on two-less games), Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have saved 92.4%.  Even when down a man, the Caps have still kept the opposition off the board 83.54% of the time, giving up only 13 tallies.

The offense has been no joke either, as they’ve put 854 shots (led by Alex Ovechkin’s 138) on goal so far this season for 83 tallies (9.7%), led by Ovechkin’s 14.  Probably the scariest facet of Washington‘s game is the power play, as they’ve scored on 21 of 90 opportunities (23.33%), led by Ovechkin’s four.

Some players to watch in tonight’s game include Pittsburgh‘s Fleury (13 wins [tied for fifth in the league], two shutouts [tied for seventh in the league] and .927 save percentage [eighth in the league]) and Washington‘s Holtby (18 wins [leads the league], 1.9 GAA [leads the league] and .93 save percentage [tied for sixth in the league]), Evgeny Kuznetsov (+15 [tied for second in the league]) and Ovechkin (14 goals [tied for seventh in the league]).

Based on the stats alone, Pittsburgh‘s weak offense should not be able to keep up with Washington‘s, but it is always hard to tell how a team will react to a new coach.  Unlike the first coaching change of the year in Columbus (which, interestingly, involved the coach he replaced in Vancouver), I think this one was a good move by management that will hopefully yield positive results for an organization that intends to be a part of the playoff discussion.

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