March 2 – Day 139 – The best versus, Laich, literally the worst

The Minnesota Wild took command of the third period with three goals to beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-3, replacing them as the second wildcard in the process.

It was the road Avalanche who scored the first goal, only 33 seconds into the game on a power play slap shot from Jarome Iginla, who was assisted by Tyson Barrie (his 32nd helper of the season) and Mikkel Boedker.  10:04 later, the Wild leveled the score with a wrister from First Star of the Game Nino Niederreiter (his 13th tally of the season), assisted by Second Star Jason Pominville.  That goal opened the floodgates for Minnesota, as Pominville scored only 1:01 later with a wrister of his own, assisted by Niederreiter (his 19th helper of the season).  The Wild ended the period with a 3-1 lead, as Erik Haula scored with 2:12 remaining, assisted by Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella.

Colorado‘s best period was the second, as they accounted for both goals scored in the frame.  The first of those tallies was Chris Bigras’ first of the season at the 3:25 mark, assisted by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon (his 28th helper of the season).  The Avs leveled the game at three-all at the 12:33 mark with a Cody McLead wrister, assisted by Jack Skille and John Mitchell.

Minnesota‘s game-winner found the back of the net 5:34 after resuming play from the second intermission, courtesy of Charlie Coyle, whose wrister was asssited by Third Star Zach Parise.  Coyle accounted for his own insurance goal, scored with 1:27 remaining in regulation on an empty net.  He was assisted by Ryan Suter (his 35th helper of the season) and Parise.  Niederreiter accounted for the final goal of the game, also an empty netter, with only 44 seconds remaining on the clock, assisted by Pominville (his 22nd helper of the season).

Devan Dubnyk earns the win after saving 30 of 33 (90.9%), while Calvin Pickard takes the loss, saving  15 of 16 (93.8%).  He replaced Semyon Varlamov after a three-goal first period, saving only nine of 12 (75%).

With Minnesota‘s win, the DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 62-34-13, favoring the home squads by 32 points over the roadies.

There’s only three games on the schedule, with the action getting started at 7 p.m. eastern in Washington when Toronto pays the Capitals a visit.  8 p.m. eastern brings with it the Chicago at Detroit (NBCSN) puck drop, which is trailed by two hours by Montréal at Anaheim.

ChicagoDetroit is the only game between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs, but the game that attracts my attention the most is actually Toronto at Washington, due to the return of longtime Capital Brooks Laich.

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Washington Capitals LogoToronto has been featured in the Game of the Day series three times before tonight, with their most recent being a 2-1 overtime loss to the Red Wings on home ice on November 6 to set their series record at 0-2-1.  As you’d expect from the best team in the league, Washington has been featured a dozen times before tonight’s game, and own a 9-3-0 record in such games.  Their most recent in the series was February 18, a 3-2 overtime victory in Brooklyn.

Laich joined the Washington Capitals in a mid-season trade during the 2003-’04 season from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Peter Bondra, himself another longtime member of the Caps‘ organization.  He received his first consistent time with the senior squad in the 2005-’06 season, scoring 21 points in 73 games.  His breakout offensive season came two years later in 2007-’08, when he began his streak of 16+ goals and 16+ assists (31+ points) for five straight seasons.

Although not the squad’s captain, Laich served as the team representative during the 2012 lockout.  This was due to his long career with the organization (in fact, his tenure was the longest active in all of Washington‘s sports teams), which ended up lasting 12 seasons before being traded to the Leafs before the trade deadline due to cap issues.

Laich’s 21-30-10 Toronto Maple Leafs currently rank worst in the NHL, much less the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, and should already be preparing Auston Matthews’ locker for next season.  If you could say the team is being led by anything, it would have to be their defense, which ranks eighth worst in the league, as the offense is third worst.

Although the Maple Leafs haven’t played well overall this season, they have done a relatively decent job of keeping shots off the goalkeepers, as only 1871 pucks have found their way to 7-16-3 Jonathan Bernier and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 91% for 182 goals against, eighth most in the league.  In the grand scheme of things, Toronto‘s penalty kill hasn’t been too bad this season, as their 80.3% kill rate, allowing 40 power play goals against, ranks 13th worst in the league.

The real problem for the Leafs has been their offense.  Led by Nazem Kadri’s 209 shots, the Leafs have fired the puck a solid 1908 times, but only 7.4% have found the back of the net for 147 goals (led by Leo Komarov’s 18 tallies), third fewest in the league.  The Maple Leafs‘ power play almost perfectly reflects that, as their 14.43% success rate, good for only 28 power play goals (led by P.A. Parenteau’s six extra-man tallies), is worst in the league.

Toronto is currently riding a two-game losing skid, with their most recent being a 2-1 loss to the Lightning on Monday.  At this point in the season, the Leafs should not be concerned about what wins do for them, as they should be more worried about bettering their odds for the Matthews sweepstakes.

The 46-12-4 Washington Capitals not only lead the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, but they even lead the league by 13 points.  They’ve made it to that position by playing the best defense in the league, paired with the second best offense.

Led by Karl Alzner’s 153 blocks, the Caps have allowed only 1760 shots to reach 39-7-3 Braden Holtby and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.3% for only 142 goals against, the fewest in the NHL.  That success has only slightly left them on the penalty kill, where their 83.94% kill rate, allowing only 31 power play goals, ranks fifth best.

The offense, led by none other than Captain Alex Ovechkin, is only steps behind the defense.  Led by his 312 shots on goal, the Caps have fired the puck 1869 times, of which a whopping 10.6% have found the back of the net for 202 goals (led by Ovechkin’s 40 tallies), second most in the NHL.  Washington‘s power play is beyond deadly, successful on 23.71% of attempts for 46 extra man tallies (led by Ovechkin’s 16 power play goals), tops in the league.

Washington played the Penguins last night, winning 3-2 on home ice.  With a win tonight, the Caps improve their lead in the division and conference to 18 points, and have the potential to improve their lead for the Presidents’ Trophy to 15 points.

Washington currently leads the season series 2-0-0, but the Leafs did take them to a shootout in their first meeting in early November.  These squads more recently met on November 28 in Toronto, where the Caps earned a 4-2 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on include Toronto‘s Kadri (22 assists and 209 shots [both lead the team]), Komarov (35 points,18 of which are goals, 13 at even strength and one short-handed, and 255 hits [all lead the team]), Parenteau (six power play goals and three game-winners [both lead the team]) and Morgan Rielly (17 even strength assists [leads the team]) & Washington‘s Nicklas Backstrom (41 assists [eighth most in the league]), Holtby (40 wins [leads the league], 2.22 GAA [tied for eighth best in the league] and .923 save percentage [10th best in the league]), Evgeny Kuznetsov (+30 [leads the league], 45 assists [tied for third most in the league] and 65 points [fifth most in the league]) and Ovechkin (40 goals [most in the league], +23 [tied for fifth best in the league] and 58 points [10th most in the league]).

It doesn’t take much to determine that Washington should win this game easily.  The real question is the size of the goal differential.

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