January 14 – Day 91 – Battle of Ontario

For those that love days full of hockey, your wish is fulfilled today with a whopping 12 games. The action starts at 1 p.m. with Philadelphia at Boston (NHLN/SN), followed a couple hours later by Nashville at Colorado. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it five contests (the New York Rangers at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Toronto at Ottawa [CBC/CITY], Pittsburgh at Detroit [NHLN], Columbus at Florida and the New York Islanders at Carolina), with two more games dropping the puck an hour later (Anaheim at Arizona and Minnesota at Dallas). 10 p.m. marks the beginning of two matchups (Winnipeg at Los Angeles [SN] and Calgary at Edmonton [CBC]), with St. Louis at San Jose – tonight’s nightcap – waiting half an hour before getting underway.

Short list:

  • Nashville at Colorado: Yesterday, Cody McLeod was wearing the burgundy sweater he had for the last 10 years. Tonight, he’ll probably don new colors for the first time in his old home arena.
  • New York at Montréal: It’s an Original Six rivalry that could also serve as a preview of a Eastern Quarterfinals matchup.
  • Toronto at Ottawa: The Battle of Ontario is waged for the second time this season.
  • Pittsburgh at Detroit: Thanks to two-straight meetings in the Stanley Cup Finals, these fanbases may always have a slight disdain for each other.
  • Anaheim at Arizona: For five seasons in his career, Antoine Vermette made his home in the desert. After playing for the Coyotes last season, he makes his first return to Arizona tonight.
  • Minnesota at Dallas: The Wild scrapped and clawed, but the Stars eliminated them in six games in last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals.
  • Calgary at Edmonton: The Battle of Alberta rages on in Edmonton this evening.
  • St. Louis at San Jose: Speaking of last year’s playoffs, the Blues and Sharks met up and played six games in the Western Finals before San Jose played in the Stanley Cup Finals.

As you can see from the list of games to choose from, it’s hard to go wrong with almost every matchup listed today. I would love to feature Nashville at Colorado, but I don’t think McLeod is going to bring the same physicality when playing against his ex-team only a day removed from being traded.

Instead, let’s head to Ottawa. It’s been exactly a month since we’ve featured the Senators, and a Leafs regulation win would push them into playoff position.

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Yes Leafs fans, you read me correctly. Although it is only by the third tiebreaker regarding the season series between tonight’s featured clubs, Toronto could improve into third place in the Atlantic Division. I hate featuring teams on back-to-back days, but the fact that this is an important and potentially productive weekend for the Leafs was too much to ignore.

But there’s also an added layer to this contest that makes it even more exciting. The Battle of Ontario recalls the days of the original Senators franchise, as well as the rivalry between Ottawa and Toronto. Since making their return to the NHL, the Sens and Leafs have met four times in the playoffs, with Ottawa winning all four series. They also have the recent success, winning the last five regular season meetings – including the 5-4 overtime thriller on Opening Day.

As stated before, the 19-13-8 Leafs come to the Canadian Tire Centre with a lot on the line. What has gotten them within two points of third place in the Atlantic Division has been their impressive offense that has notched 123 goals in 40 games – the fifth-best scoring rate in the league.

Have you heard of Auston Matthews? It seems like Toronto selecting him with the first-overall pick in this season’s draft just might pan out. He’s already notched 36 points this season, including 21 goals – both the best on the squad.

Where the Maple Leafs have been most dangerous is on the power play, where their 23.3% success rate is third-best in the league. Fellow rookie William Nylander has made this his specialty, as his 15 power play points are tops in Toronto, but two-thirds of those points are assists. That’s where Nazem Kadri comes in with his club-leading eight power play goals.

The penalty kill has been nearly as good for the Leafs, as their 84.3% kill rate is seventh-best in the NHL. Roman Polak deserves a lot credit for that effort with his team-leading 19 shorthanded blocks.

Currently in possession of third place in the Atlantic, 22-14-4 Ottawa are currently riding a two-game winning streak. Where they’ve found their success has been on the defensive end, where they’ve allowed only 102 goals, the fifth-fewest in the league.

It looks likely that 10-6-3 Mike Condon will be the man between the pipes tonight, and most of the time that hasn’t been a problem for the Senators. His .921 save percentage and 2.29 GAA are both top-20 among the 52 netminders with at least nine appearances this season.

Those numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, but much be analyzed in light of the pressure he faces on a nightly basis. Ottawa‘s defense allows an average of 30.4 shots-per-game to reach Condon’s crease, the 12th-most in the league. Of course, the man at the center of that effort is Mr. Senator himself, Erik Karlsson. The defenseman has notched an impressive 103 blocks this season, the fifth-most in the league. Unfortunately, he’s one of only three blueliners with over 80 blocks, which is where the true issue lies in Ottawa‘s defense.

Surprisingly, that hasn’t been an issue on the penalty kill, where the Sens rank ninth-best by neutralizing 83.3% of their infractions. Dion Phaneuf has taken up the charge here with his team-leading 24 shorthanded blocks.

Some players to keep an eye on include Ottawa‘s Condon (2.25 GAA [tied for eighth-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Frederik Andersen (18 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]) and Matthews (21 goals [tied for third-most in the NHL]).

Beating New York last night was a big win for the Leafs, and I expect them to carry that energy into tonight’s rivalry game. Ottawa does have the advantage of rest, but Toronto‘s momentum might be too much for them to handle.

Hockey Birthday

  • Babe Siebert  (1904-1939) – This Hall of Famer played 14 seasons in the NHL, most of which with the Montreal Maroons. In addition to hoisting the Stanley Cup twice, he also won the Hart Trophy in 1937. He met an early death after drowning in Lake Huron, only three months before he was expected to make his coaching debut with the Canadiens.
  • Bob Essensa (1965-) – Drafted in the fourth round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft by Winnipeg, this goaltender played most of his dozen seasons with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise. By the time he hung up his pads, he’d accrued a 173-176-47 record.

Sparked by two first period goals, the Maple Leafs were able to upset the Rangers 4-2 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Leafs got right to business after puck drop, and were rewarded with a goal at the 4:49 mark courtesy of a Nylander (Kadri and Matt Hunwick) wrister. That lead doubled to two with 2:32 remaining in the period when James van Riemsdyk‘s (Third Star of the Game Marner and Second Star Tyler Bozak) power play wrister found the back of New York‘s net. Toronto took their 2-0 lead into the first intermission.

9:05 after returning to the ice, Chris Kreider (Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello) pulled the Rangers back within a goal with a successful backhander, but Toronto regained their two-goal differential on Connor Brown‘s (Matthews and Jake Gardiner) wrister, the tally that proved to be the game-winner.

The Leafs had one more goal in them, an insurance power play score from Connor Carrick (Bozak and Marner) with 6:40 remaining in regulation. The Blueshirts tried their hardest to stage a comeback, but J.T. Miller‘s (Pavel Buchnevich and Adam Clendening) snap shot with 1:25 remaining was too little, too late.

First Star Andersen earned the victory after saving 34-of-36 shots faced (94.4%), leaving loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 23-of-27 (85.2%).

The Maple Leafs‘ victory was the fifth in seven games in the DtFR Game of the Day series for the visiting clubs. That sets the series record at 49-30-14 for the hosts, only eight points better than the roadies.

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