January 11 – Day 88 – Top offense and defense collide

You heard the camel, it’s Hump Day!

Like most, there’s not many teams in action today, and ones that are playing are scheduled for a shotgun start. Florida at the New York Islanders starts the festivities at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by Montréal at Winnipeg (RDS/SN). 8 p.m. brings with it the Pittsburgh at Washington (NBCSN/TVAS) contest, with tonight’s nightcap – San Jose at Calgary (SN/SN1) – dropping the puck at 9:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Florida at New York: The Isles ended the Panthers‘ season last year in six games in their Eastern Quarterfinals matchup.
  • Pittsburgh at Washington: The same goes for these clubs in the Eastern Semifinals, but a game between these two is about more than a single playoff series.

One of these matchups is a rivalry; one isn’t. One is between teams qualifying for the playoffs; one isn’t. Guess which game we’re watching.

pittsburgh_penguins_logoWashington Capitals Logo

It’s the third time these squads have played this season, and the third time we’ve featured the matchup. The stories of their rivalry have been told before, with yet another chapter added last May when the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in six games. There’s no point in delving into them further other than to say that these clubs simply do not like each other.

In a sense, it is a special rivalry. The Nationals and Pirates have no animosity towards one another. Neither do the Redskins or the Steelers. It has nothing to do with the cities, only the clubs. Maybe it’s the fact that this rivalry doesn’t face a weird sort of peer pressure from the city brethren that makes it so intense. These teams just don’t like each other.

Making the visit to the nation’s capital this evening are the 26-8-5 Penguins, winners of their last five games and the second-best team in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. As one might expect , they’ve found that success by being very good at scoring the puck, already notching 137 goals in 39 games this season – the highest scoring-rate in the NHL.

Leading that charge has been the one and only Sidney Crosby with 44 points – one more than Evgeni Malkin. He’s been most impressive when he’s the last one to touch the puck, lighting the lamp a club-leading 26 times. Good for .79 goals per game, Crosby could be in line for a record year. His career-high came in the 2009-10 season when he buried the puck 51 times. At the pace he’s at right now, he could exceed that tally by nine goals if my math is correct.

One of the reasons Pittsburgh has been so good offensively has been due to their explosive power play, converting 22.6% of their opportunities – tied for the fourth-best mark in the league.  Phil Kessel, who could miss tonight’s game due to illness, has led the charge in this department with his 16 man-advantage points, but once again Crosby takes the clubhouse scoring title, notching nine power play goals.

What could hold the Penguins back from reclaiming the Stanley Cup this season might be their penalty kill, which ties for ninth-worst after stopping opposing power plays only 79.8% of the time. Although Ian Cole has been effective with his team-leading 16 shorthanded blocks (tied for 33rd most in the league), he’s been let down by Marc-Andre Fleury, whose .852 save percentage on the penalty kill ranks 15th-worst among the 50 goalies with 11 or more appearances.

Hosting the Pens this evening are the 26-9-5 Capitals, winners of their last six games and the third-best team in both the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. They’ve found that success by playing a brick wall of a defense, allowing only 80 goals against – the fewest in the league.

As mentioned Monday, 19-8-4 Braden Holtby is having himself a whale of a season, saving .931 percent of shots faced for a 1.9 GAA – the third and second-best marks in the league, respectively. For those wondering, he earned the Vezina Trophy last season with a .922 save percentage and 2.2 GAA. In other words, there’s no telling yet how good this guy can be.

He hasn’t done it alone, though. Thanks to Karl Alzner‘s 76 blocks and the rest of the blueline, he’s faced only 27.9 shots-per-game, which ties for the fiffh-lowest average in the league.

Where that defense has been especially helpful has been on the penalty kill. Washington ranks third-best in this situation, nullifying 86.8% of their penalties. Just like he does in even-strength situations, Alzner has headed the charge for the special teams too, notching a team-leading 20 shorthanded blocks.

Currently, the season series favors the Capitals thanks to Andre Burakovsky forcing overtime during these clubs’ first game of the season on October 13. Although the Pens won that game in a shootout, they fell 7-1 a month later on this surface.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (26 goals [most in the league] among 44 points [third-most in the NHL]), Kessel (26 assists [tied for seventh-most in the league]), Malkin (43 points [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] on 27 assists [tied for fifth-most in the league]) and Justin Schultz (+24 [tied for best in the NHL]) & Washington‘s Holtby (five shutouts [tied for most in the league] on a 1.9 GAA [second-best in the NHL] and a .931 save percentage [tied for third-best in the league] for 19 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]) and Alex Ovechkin (19 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]).

I’m somewhat surprised that Washington is favored -121 by Vegas, but they claim to be the experts.

Then again, what do I know? I miss my picks more often than not.

In my opinion, the Caps are more than capable of neutralizing Pittsburgh‘s offense, so the game could come down to if the action on the other end of the surface. Given the Penguins‘ inability to keep pucks off their own crease, I’m giving the edge to Ovechkin and the Capitals.

Hockey Birthday

  • Rob Ramage (1959-) – The first pick in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Rockies, this defenseman played 1044 games in the NHL, most of which in St. Louis. He won two Stanley Cups and was a four-time All Star.
  • Rory Fitzpatrick (1975-) – The 47th-overall pick by Montréal in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, this blueliner played 287 games over 10 seasons in the NHL, spending most of that time in Buffalo. He was not a very good defenseman, ending his career with a -48 and only 35 points scored. But, he owns the distinction of being the only Rory to play a game in the NHL, so he’s got that going for him – which is nice.

Led by Brad Marchand‘s two-goal night, the Bruins leveled the season series against the Blues to 1-1-0 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Boston didn’t waste much time getting to work, as First Star of the Game Frank Vatrano (Second Star Torey Krug and David Pastrnak) scored his power play wrister only 8:19 after the initial puck drop. With 4:40 remaining in the opening period, Brandon Carlo (Vatrano and David Krejci) doubled the Bruins‘ score, followed 2:32 later by Marchand’s (Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron) first goal of the night. Boston took the 3-0 lead into the first intermission.

Only 1:31 after returning to the ice for the second period, it was more of the same. Krug (Ryan Spooner and Marchand) takes credit for the power play wrister that proved to be the game-winner, but Colton Parayko (David Perron and Jaden Schwartz) pulled the Blues back to 4-1 only 2:26 later with his first goal of the season. That differential that held to the second intermission.

St. Louis tried to make a game out of the evening with a power play wrister from Patrik Berglund (Perron and Alex Pietrangelo) with 9:46 remaining in regulation, but was unable to truly get anything else going. Marchand (Pastrnak and Bergeron) took advantage of an empty net with 77 seconds remaining to ensure that Kyle Brodziak‘s (Scottie Upshall) goal with 25 seconds to go wouldn’t affect the outcome of the contest.

Tuukka Rask earns the victory after saving 14-of-17 shots faced (82.4%), leaving the loss to Third Star Carter Hutton, saving 26-of-27 (96.3%). The reason he was named a star is because he came into the game as relief for Jake Allen, who saved only eight-of-11 (72.7%) before being lifted after the three-goal first period.

Boston‘s victory was the fourth-straight by the road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, pulling the visitors within seven points of the hosts and their 47-29-14 record.

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