February 4 – Day 108 – Saturday in the pahk. I think it was the Fourth of February

So close Chicago, but your Blackhawks and the NHL aren’t exactly active during July, so you’re just going to have to settle for the month we’re in.

This first Saturday of February has more than it’s fair share of action, with 26 teams lacing up their skates today. It all gets started with a couple 1 p.m. matinees (Washington at Montréal [RDS/SN] and Los Angeles at Philadelphia [NHLN]), followed two hours later by Winnipeg at Colorado. Five games (Toronto at Boston [CBC/CITY], Ottawa at Buffalo [SN/TVAS], Anaheim at Tampa Bay, Carolina at the New York Islanders and New Jersey at Columbus) drop the puck at the usual starting time of 7 p.m., with three more (Pittsburgh at St. Louis, Detroit at Nashville and Chicago at Dallas [NHLN]) getting underway an hour later. The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. with Minnesota at Vancouver [CBC/SN], followed half an hour later by tonight’s nightcap: Arizona at San JoseAll times eastern.

Short list:

  • Toronto at Boston: An important installment in the Original Six category takes place this evening in the Atlantic Division.
  • Ottawa at Buffalo: Another rivalry game, but another down season for the Sabres detracts from this contest’s attractiveness.

The Maple Leafs are trying their hardest to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the Bruins beat them in Game 7 en route to a Stanley Cup appearance. What’s the better way to pull within a point of achieving that goal than by beating that same team on it’s home ice almost four years later?

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The comeback kids make their trip to New England with a 23-17-9 record, which is good enough for fifth in the Atlantic Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference even though their riding a three-game losing skid. As I said Thursday when the Leafs were last featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series, even though their main issue is on the defensive end, they’ve only allowed 138 goals against, which ties for 15th-worst.

Of course, preventing an opposing offense from scoring always starts with the goaltender, and 21-11-8 Frederik Andersen has been a good one this season. His .917 save percentage and 2.67 GAA are (t)16th and 22nd best in the league, respectively, among the 38 goaltenders with at least 22 appearances this season.

An okay save percentage paired with a not-so-good GAA usually implies that a netminder is facing more shots than he’d like, and that is certainly the case in Toronto. Even with Nikita Zaitsev‘s team-leading 81 shot blocks, the Maple Leafs still allow the sixth-most shots in the NHL at 32.1 per game.

Fortunately for Toronto, that defense kicks it into high gear on the penalty kill where they tie for third-best in the league with their 84.5% kill rate. It’s obvious Roman Polak has made that a priority of his, as he leads the club with 24 shorthanded blocks.

The power play has also been very powerful for the Leafs. They find the back of the net 23.2% of the time, which ties for third-best rate in the league. It’s a two-headed attack, as both rookie William Nylander and James van Riemsdyk have 15 power play points to their credit, but Nazem Kadri has been the truly unstoppable force: he has 10 man-advantage goals to his credit, which ties for third-most in the league in addition to being the team lead.

Playing host this evening are the 26-22-6 Bruins, the third-best team in the Atlantic Division. If I was a Bostonian, I’d be concerned about the playoff chances for my club, as the defense that has held the team together so far this season is starting to fall apart. The Bruins have allowed 141 goals against in 54 games, only the 11th-best rate in the NHL (only six games ago on January 20, the Bruins tied for seventh-best in this statistic).

Just like with Toronto above, an analysis of keeping the opponent off the scoreboard has to start with the goaltender. Enter 25-13-4 Tuukka Rask. His .914 save percentage and 2.24 GAA are (t)19th and sixth-best in the league, respectively, against that same group of 38 goalies as before.

It’s the exact opposite situation facing Rask as is facing Andersen. Thanks to Zdeno Chara‘s team-leading 93 shot blocks, Rask faces an average of only 26.4 shots-per-game. That’s the second-best rate in the NHL.

He’s lost three of his last six outings (four if you tack on the overtime loss to Detroit on January 24) and has a .87 save percentage since January 3 – the worst in the league in that span among the 28 goalies with eight or more appearances. While I certainly respect Rask and believe him to be one of the better netminders in the league, his decline and that of the Bruins are certainly associated.

That being said, this does not fall entirely on Rask. Many are calling for Claude Julien‘s job, and he could be blamed for starting Rask in all but one game over the past month. He’s exhausted. He is one of two goaltenders with 13 starts in that span of time, the most in the league. Even though the All Star didn’t get his entire break to himself, hopefully his time off helped him recharge the batteries.

One point where the Bruins haven’t struggled has been their penalty kill. Led by Chara’s team-leading 27 shorthanded blocks, Boston refuses to yield a goal on 86.4% of opponent’s power plays, the second-best rate in the league.

Having already played half of their four meetings of the season, Toronto is already owning this series. While their 2-0-0 record against the Bruins is certainly impressive, it’s the fact that they’ve won both games 4-1, regardless of if they were played at the Air Canada Centre (October 15) or the TD Garden (December 10), that should have made the Bruins not sleep easy last night.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Boston’s Brad Marchand (54 points [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] on 23 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]) and Rask (five shutouts [tied for third-most in the NHL] among 25 wins [tied for fifth-most in the league] on 2.24 GAA [seventh-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (three shutouts [tied for seventh-most in the league] among 21 wins [10th-most in the NHL]) and Auston Matthews (23 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]).

It’s not often that I side with a road team on three-game losing skid, but the Leafs are still trending in an upwards direction in comparison to the struggling Bruins. Pair that with the success they’ve had against Boston, and I think we have a safe Toronto victory.

Hockey Birthday

  • Denis Savard (1961-) – Drafted third-overall in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft by Chicago, this center played nearly his entire career with the Blackhawks. While it might be unbelievable with his club’s current success, the seven-time All-Star didn’t win his lone Stanley Cup with the Hawks. Instead, he was a member of Montréal‘s 1993 Cup-winning team. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000.
  • Manny Legace (1973-) – Hartford selected this goaltender in the eighth round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, but he never suited up for the Whalers and ended up playing most of his career in Detroit. His best season was his 2005-’06 campaign when he was named to his only All Star game, four years after he won his lone Stanley Cup.
  • Lee Stempniak (1983-) – The Blues picked this right wing in the fifth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s the team he’s spent most of his days playing for. Then again, it’s tough for the current Hurricane to call St. Louis home when he’s played for 10 different clubs over 12 seasons. He’s the true definition of an NHL journeyman.

They needed overtime, but Pittsburgh was able to pull out the 4-3 victory over the Blue Jackets in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Penguins certainly got off to a hot start, as they accounted for both the tallies in the opening frame. The first belonged to First Star of the Game Phil Kessel (Brian Dumoulin and Trevor Daley), a wrister with 6:23 remaining in the first period. It was followed up 4:51 later by Patric Hornqvist‘s (Matt Cullen and Second Star Kris Letang) wrister to set the score at 2-0 going into the first intermission.

With 4:17 remaining in the second period, Third Star Brandon Dubinsky (Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson) pulled Columbus back within a score of the Pens, but Nick Bonino (Jake Guentzel and Kessel) returned the differential to two scores only 2:40 later. That 3-1 scored held into the second break in the action.

Just like Pittsburgh did in the first, the Blue Jackets absolutely took over the third period. Only 29 seconds after returning to the ice, Alexander Wennberg (Brandon Saad and Seth Jones) pulled them back within a goal with his wrister. Columbus completed the comeback with 8:40 remaining in regulation when Cam Atkinson (Dubinsky and Johnson) buried his wrister to set the score at three-all. Neither team could find the tiebreaker before the horn sounded, which forced three-on-three overtime.

Leave it to a nice guy that tries hard and loves the game to find a game-winner. With 105 seconds separating overtime from a shootout, Kessel (Letang and Justin Schultz) buried his power play wrister to earn the bonus point against the Jackets.

Matthew Murray earns the victory after saving 28-of-31 shot faced (90.3%), leaving the overtime loss to Sergei Bobrovsky, who saved 29-of-33 (87.9%).

You definitely want your favorite team to be at home when featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Pittsburgh‘s victory is the fifth-straight for hosts and improves the home teams’ record to 59-35-16, a dozen points better than the visitors.

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