December 7 -Day 56 – If bears could vote…

There’s only four games occurring tonight, but they all look to be good ones. The action starts at 7:30 p.m. with Minnesota at Toronto (SN), followed half an hour later by Boston at Washington (NBCSN/TVAS). Later, the co-nightcaps drop the puck at 10:30 p.m. (Carolina at Anaheim and Ottawa at San Jose [RDS]). All times eastern.

I know we’ve been in the Eastern Conference for the last four days, but the game I’m most interested in is going down in the Verizon Center. Off to the capital we go!

Unknown-7Washington Capitals Logo

 

Jumping right in, 15-10-1 Boston – currently riding a three-game winning streak – is the third-best team in the Atlantic Division, thanks in most part to a defense and goaltending that has allowed only 57 goals so far this season, the fifth-fewest in the league. That stat is made only more impressive by the fact that the Bruins allowed 228 goals a season ago, the tying for 11th-most.

Much of that improvement can be attributed to the 14-4-1 Tuukka Rask, whose .939 save percentage and 1.68 GAA – which rank fourth and second-best in the league, respectively, among goalies with 10 or more appearances – are vastly better than his efforts a season ago (.915 and 2.56) that rank among the worst campaigns of his 10-season career.

Rask doesn’t get to take all the credit though. Last season, his defense allowed 30.4 shots-per-game to reach his crease, the 13th-most in the league. Nowadays, that number is down to 27.7, the fifth-best. Taking responsibility for that change is rookie Brandon Carlo, who’s 45 blocks is a greater total than even the likes of Captain Zdeno Chara (43), Adam McQuaid (37) and John-Michael Liles (28).

That success has followed the Bruins to the penalty kill, where their 86.4% kill rate is the third-best in the league. Carlo has led that charge as well, with 15 shorthanded blocks on his young NHL resume.

Boston‘s Achilles heel continues to be their power play, which ranks fourth-worst at 13.8%. Two of the Davids (David Krejci and David Pastrnak, to be exact) have five power play points to co-lead the team, but I’d argue Pastrnak has been the most vital with four extra-man goals.

*Seriously, count up how many Davids are on the Bruins‘ roster. Last I checked, there’s three active right now.*

Hosting Boston this evening are the 14-7-3 Capitals, who currently occupy fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. Just like the Bruins, Washington has found most of their success by being a strong defensive team, allowing only 53 goals – the fourth-fewest in the NHL.

Last year’s Vezina Trophy-winning Braden Holtby currently has an 11-6-2 record on a .923 save percentage and 2.14 GAA – the 16th and 10th-best efforts among netminders with 10 or more appearances.

Much of the reason Holtby has been able to maintain his stellar play from a season ago has been due to the impressive defense playing in front of him that has allowed only 28.2 shots-per-game to reach his crease – effectively identical to last season’s Presidents’ Trophy-clinching effort.  Brooks Orpik has led the blueline with 39 blocks, but four total defensemen (Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Orpik) already have more than 30 shot blocks on the year.

Surprisingly, the power play has let Washington down thus far into the season. Even with Nicklas Backstrom‘s nine power play points and Alex Ovechkin‘s four power play goals, the Caps‘ 15.2% success rate is ninth-worst in the NHL. Part of the reason for that decline might be due to T.J. Oshie being sidelined since November 19 with an upper body-injury, one would expect a potent Capitals offense to overcome that setback.

Some players to keep an eye on tonight include Boston‘s Pastrnak (+15 on 15 goals [both tied for third-most in the league]) and Rask (14 wins [tied for most in the NHL], including three shutouts [tied for second-most in the league], on a 1.68 GAA [second-best in the NHL] and a .939 save percentage [fourth-best in the league]) & Washington‘s Holtby (2.14 GAA [10th-best in the NHL]) and Ovechkin (12 goals [10th-most in the league]).

Vegas thinks Washington is the favorite tonight, marking them with a -145. Since the Capitals are on home ice, I also like Washington to pull out the victory in what should be a good game.

Hockey Birthday

  • Gerry Cheevers (1940-) – How funny we’d feature the Bruins on 12-year Bostonian goaltender Cheevers’ birthday! Up until the 2011 championship, this netminder had been responsible for the Bruins‘ previous two Stanley Cup titles.
  • Garry Unger (1947-) –  A long-time Blue, this center was an seven-time All-Star and notched 804 points over his 16-season career.
  • Peter Laviolette (1964-) – Currently the head coach in Nashville, this skipper’s crowning achievement of his 15-season coaching career is still the Stanley Cup he won in 2006 with Carolina.
  • Georges Laraque (1976-) – The 31st-overall selection in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing spent most of his time with Edmonton, the club that drafted him. Twice he made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but both times his club failed to hoist the Cup.
  • Milan Michalek (1984) – This left wing was the sixth-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by San Jose, but he played most of his days in Ottawa.

It’s the games I’m most confident in that are getting the best of me. I assumed the Rangers would have no problem beating the Islanders, but once again a good rivalry game turned the tables as the home Isles bested the Blueshirts 4-2.

The first goal of the night was a special one for the Islanders. Struck 7:03 into the game, Third Star of the Game Scott Mayfield‘s (Cal Clutterbuck and Anders Lee) slap shot was his first goal of the season, and only the second of his 14-game NHL career. Jason Chimera (Brock Nelson) backed that tally up with one of his own with 2:36 remaining in the frame to give the Islanders a two-goal lead going into the first intermission.

The Rangers‘ incredible offense finally got on the board 56 seconds into the second period with a Jimmy Vesey (Rick Nash) wrister, but Andrew Ladd (Shane Prince) notched the eventual game-winner only 1:22 later with a snap shot. The Rangers fought back within a goal at the 8:54 mark via a Marc Staal (J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider) wrister, but it was the last tally they could manage, both in the second period and regulation.

Second Star John Tavares (Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy) scored an insurance goal with 8:47 remaining in the game to seal the Islanders’ victory in the Battle of New York.

First Star Jaroslav Halak earns the victory after saving 36-of-38 shots faced (94.7%), forcing Henrik Lundqvist to take the loss, saving 28-of-32 (87.5%).

The second straight win by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series has improved their record to 31-19-8 and expended their lead over the roadies to six points.

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