February 12 – Day 120 – Wild card showdown

Even though they gave up two goals in the third period, the Dallas Stars‘ four-goal first period was enough for two points in yesterday’s Game of the Day in Chicago.

Only 3:19 into the game, First Star of the Game Patrick Eaves scored the first goal of the Stars‘ night with a slap shot, assisted by Jamie Benn (his 34th helper of the season) and Patrik Nemeth.  6:25 later, Second Star John Klingberg backhanded a nasty goal, basically from the goal line, assisted by Ales Hemsky (his 13th helper of the season).  Eaves scored his second of the night at the 16:26 mark with a wrister, assisted by Tyler Seguin (his 31st helper of the season), followed 3:18 later by Eaves’ third and final tally of the evening, assisted by Seguin and Klingberg (his 36th helper of the season).  Dallas‘ 4-0 lead held to the first intermission, and continued through the second period.

Chicago finally got on the board 32 seconds after resuming play in the third period when Duncan Keith fired a slap shot, assisted by Third Star Jonathan Toews (his 18th helper of the season) and Andrew Shaw.  The Hawks continued the comeback at the 7:48 mark when Patrick Kane slap shot found the back of the net for his 33rd tally of the season, assisted by Toews, but Chicago could not score another goal and fell 4-2.

Kari Lehtonen earns the win after saving 44 of 46 (95.7%), while Corey Crawford takes the loss after saving only 14 of 18 (77.8%).  He was replaced after only one period of play by Scott Darling, who saved all 14 shots he faced.

The DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 53-27-10, favoring the home squads by 34 points over the roadies.

A busy Thursday yields to a busy Friday, which is just the way we like it.  The action begins at the usual starting time of 7 p.m. eastern with three games (Montréal at Buffalo, Los Angeles at the New York Rangers [NHLN] and Pittsburgh at Carolina), followed half an hour later by another set of three (Colorado at Detroit, Nashville at Tampa Bay and St. Louis at Florida).  Finally, Calgary at Arizona, this evening’s nightcap, drops the puck at 9 p.m. eastern this evening.

Almost half of tonight’s games are divisional rivalries (Montréal at Buffalo, Pittsburgh at Carolina and Calgary at Arizona), with four games being contested between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Los Angeles at New York, Colorado at Detroit, Nashville at Tampa Bay and St. Louis at Florida).

The game that attracts my attention the most is the PredatorsLightning game, as both squads are currently only wildcard qualifiers that especially need to solidify and/or improve their position in the standings.

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This will be Nashville‘s sixth appearance in the Game of the Day series, where they own a 2-3-0 record.  Their most recent showing in the series was February 2, a 1-0 loss on home ice to the Blues.  Tampa Bay has been featured nine times before this evening’s game, and own a 5-3-1 record in such games.  Their most recent was a 6-3 victory over the Penguins last Friday.

The 25-21-8 Nashville Predators currently sit in fifth in the Central Division and eighth in the Western Conference, good enough to qualify them for the second wild card position.  Even though they are qualifying for the playoffs, they play only an average game that slightly favors those offensive end.

Led by James Neal’s 169 shots, the Preds have fired a solid 1650 shots, of which 8.4% have found the back of the net for 141 goals (led by Neal’s 19 tallies), 14th-most in the league.  Part of the reason for Nashville‘s mediocre offense has been the equally mediocre power play, which ranks only 12th-best in the league.  The special team has connected on 19.44% of attempts for 35 extra man tallies (led by Shea Weber’s 10 power play goals).  Fortunately, Nashville has only allowed one short-handed goal this season, so at least they aren’t giving up goals when they aren’t cashing in on prime opportunities.

Led by Roman Josi’s 127 blocks, the Preds have allowed only 1420 shots to reach 20-18-7 Pekka Rinne and co., of which they’ve collectively saved only 90.4% for 145 goals against. 14th-most in the league.  Again, that ranking is a reflection of the Predators‘ lack of success on the penalty kill, which is seventh-worst in the league, killing only 78.44% of opposing attempts for 36 extra man goals against.  Those special teams numbers are slightly improved, though, when taking Nashville‘s five shorties into account, one more than the league average.

Nashville‘s most recent game was a 5-3 loss to the Capitals on Tuesday.  A win today paired with a Colorado loss propels the Predators into the first wildcard position, which is preferable to playing the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.

The 29-20-4 Tampa Bay Lightning currently sit in fourth in the Atlantic Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference, good enough for the first wildcard position.  They play one of the best defenses in the league, but it is paired with only an average offense.

Victor Hedman may have only 92 blocks to his credit to lead the team, but only 1483 shots have found their way to 21-15-3 Ben Bishop and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.1% for only 130 goals against.  That success has continued on the penalty kill, where Tampa ranks 11th-best in the league, killing 81.99% for only 29 power play goals against.

Steven Stamkos leads the charge with 149 shots to help lead the team to their 1543 total attempts, of which 9.1% have found the back of the net for 142 tallies, 13th-most in the league.  The power play is almost a direct mirror of that, as they’ve scored on 18.68% of attempts for 34 power play tallies (led by Stamkos’ 10 extra man goals).

The Lightning have lost their last two games, with their most recent being a 4-2 loss in Montréal on Tuesday.  A win tonight propels the Bolts past Boston for third in the division and, should Detroit lose, all the way into second.

As these teams represent opposing conferences, this is the second and final meeting between them this regular season.  The Lightning visited Nashville on October 20 to fall 5-4 in a shootout.  Judging from that score and both teams’ positions in the standings, this should hopefully be a competitive game.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Nashville‘s Josi (38 points, including 12 power play assists, and  127 blocks [all lead the team]) and Tampa Bay‘s Bishop (2.07 GAA [tied for third-best in the league] and 21 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]).

Not only will Tampa Bay be at home for this evening’s game, I believe that they are easily a better team than the Predators, and I expect them to get the win.

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