February 28 – Day 132 – Shattenkirk welcome tour

Tuesdays are absolutely fantastic, aren’t they? Anything is better than Monday, and the NHL makes that even better by usually scheduling a wide slate of games that night. That action gets a strong start at 7 p.m. with four games (Washington at the New York Rangers [SN1/TVAS], Nashville at Buffalo, Colorado at Philadelphia [NBCSN] and Arizona at Boston), followed half an hour later by another pair of contests (Carolina at Florida and Columbus at Montréal [RDS]). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two matchups (Edmonton at St. Louis and Minnesota at Winnipeg), with Pittsburgh at Dallas trailing 30 minutes after. Los Angeles at Calgary (SN1) gets green-lit at 9 p.m., followed an hour later by Detroit at Vancouver. Finally, Toronto at San Jose – tonight’s nightcap – gets underway at 10:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Rivalry nights mean only more with the ultra-competitive nature of the Metropolitan Division this season. Looks like we’re headed to Madison Square Garden.

Washington Capitals LogoNew York Rangers Logo

 

It seems impossible to believe, but this is the first time this season Down the Frozen River has featured a CapitalsRangers matchup. In our defense, we’ve only had two previous opportunities, but that’s no excuse given the incredible hockey being played by both clubs this season.

While this rivalry has technically existed since the 1980s, it’s really heated up since 2009 with the clubs meeting in the playoffs five times from ’09-’15. Mix in the fact that they’ve played in the same division since 2014, and you get one of the better matchups of the season.

So far, it’s been all New York when these teams compete, as they’ve won both games by a combined 6-3 score. They last met only Sundays ago on February 19 at the World’s Most Famous Arena, where the Blueshirts won 2-1 in front of their usual 18,006 fans.

Before hopping into Washington‘s preview, I’d be remiss to ignore the fact that the Capitals came away with the big shiny prize of the 2017 trade deadline: defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, formerly of the Blues. Shatty, as he was affectionately known in St. Louis, had the second most points (42) on the club this season, including seven power play goals. His move reunites him with the injured T.J. Oshie, another former fan-favorite in the Gateway to the West.

In comparison, the Capitals‘ best offensive blueliner before Shattenkirk’s arrival was the injured Matt Niskanen, who had 32 points and only one tally on the man-advantage. As if Washington needed help scoring the puck, this move certainly puts them in an even better position in those regards. Shattenkirk also has the added luxury of leaving one solid defensive corps and joining another. This is important, as his offensive contributions can often cause a negligence on the defensive end, made evident by his -11 mark – the second-worst in St. Louis among all players.

As for the Caps as a whole, they’re just the best team in hockey getting better. To put it simply, their 41-13-7 record gives them a three-point lead over Minnesota for the Presidents’ Trophy, and with that comes a lead in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. As imposing a reputation as Washington‘s offense has, it’s actually been the defense and goaltending leading the charge this year, as the Capitals have allowed only 128 goals against – the fewest in the NHL.

It is truly an understatement to say that 31-8-5 Braden Holtby is good at his job. Not only are his .928 save percentage and 1.97 GAA the best marks in Washington, they’re also fourth and tops, respectively, in the league. Vezinas don’t win themselves, you know.

As stated before, Holtby also has the added luxury of one of the top defensive units playing in front of him. Led by Karl Alzner‘s 122 shot blocks, Washington‘s blueline-corps has allowed only 28 shots-per-game to reach Holtby’s crease, which ties for the fifth-best rate – with St. Louis, ironically – in the league.

That success carries right over into the penalty kill, where the Capitals rank seventh-best after stopping 83.8% of opposing power plays. Just as he is at even-strength, Alzner is a brick wall of a shot blocker, as his 32 rejections are most in Washington.

What should be alarming to the Rangers is that the Caps‘ power play is even better than their penalty kill. Successful on 21.8% of attempts, Washington is sixth-best with an extra-man at their disposal. Nicklas Backstrom headlines the power play with his 23 man-advantage points, but we all know who’s scoring all the goals in these situations. It’s none other than Alex Ovechkin, who has a dozen goals on the power play – almost all of them probably from his spot in the left face-off circle.

Their the scary monsters of the league, but it seems the 40-20-2 Rangers are unfazed by the daunting task of taking down the Caps as they’ve already bested them twice this season. Currently occupying fourth place in both the Metropolitan and the East, the Blueshirts are most known for their offense, which has managed a whopping 203 tallies this year – the second-most in the NHL.

How many third lines can you think of that are as intimidating as this one? The Rangers have found scoring magic this season, specifically with J.T. Miller, whose 47 points are tops on the club. Most of Miller’s points are assists, as he prefers to set up fellow wing Michael Grabner, who does a great job of finishing plays. He has 26 goals to his credit – all but one at even-strength – to lay claim to the squad’s scoring title.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include New York‘s Grabner (+28 [eighth-best in the league]) and Henrik Lundqvist (28 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]) or Antti Raanta (.92 save percentage [10th-best in the league]) & Washington‘s Backstrom (45 assists [tied for second-most in the NHL] for 63 points [sixth-most in the league]), Holtby (1.97 GAA [best in the NHL], including seven shutouts [tied for most in the league], on a .928 save percentage [fourth-best in the NHL] for 31 wins [tied for third-most in the league]), Dmitry Orlov (+28 [tied for eighth-best in the NHL]) and Ovechkin (27 goals [tied for eighth-most in the league]).

You know what a -110 line in Vegas says to me tonight? “We’re going to favor the Rangers on home ice, but we don’t feel very confident that they can hold their own against Washington.” It’s rarely wise to bet against the Caps, and I wouldn’t advise it this evening.

Hockey Birthday

  • Eric Lindros (1973-) – One of the most recent Hall of Fame inductees, this center was selected first-overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by Quebec. Playing most of his 13-season career in Philadelphia, the six-time All-Star was the recipient of the Hart and Pearson Trophies in 1995.

In a back-and-forth match like we witnessed in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, it almost always boils down who scores last. That proved to be First Star of the Game Mikael Granlund, who’s tally a dozen seconds into overtime secured Minnesota a 5-4 victory over the visiting Kings.

The Wild actually never led yesterday’s contest until the 60:12 mark, as it was Nick Shore (Marian Gaborik and Jake Muzzin) who struck the first goal, a snap shot 8:15 into play. Nino Niederreiter (Third Star Jared Spurgeon and Second Star Ryan White) pulled Minnesota even 4:45 later, but an unassisted Tanner Pearson deflection with 4:59 remaining in the first frame set the score at 2-1, the count that held to the first intermission.

Once again the Wild tied the game, this time on a Jordan Schroeder (Chris Stewart) deflection 4:23 into the second period. That 2-2 draw held until 8:30 remained in the frame. That’s when Muzzin (Nic Dowd and Dwight King) scored a deflection to once again give Los Angeles a one-goal lead. 1:35 later, Minnesota‘s White (Eric Staal) pulled the Wild into a tie – again. The three-all score held into the second intermission.

Minnesota scored last, so… Cue Gaborik (Shore and Trevor Lewis), who buried a wrist shot 1:57 after returning from the break. The pattern struck one more time only 5:07 later, as Jason Zucker (Tyler Graovac and Schroeder) buried a wicked turn-around wrister to tie the game. It was so good, in fact, that you need to see it for yourself.

Overtime lasted only 12 seconds before Granlund (Spurgeon and Mikko Koivu) powered his way through two Kings before burying a wrister past Jonathan Quick to secure the bonus point for the Wild.

Devan Dubnyk earned the victory after saving 26-of-30 shots faced (86.7%), leaving the overtime loss to Quick, who saved 30-of-35 (85.7%).

For the first time in 10 days, a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series has finally held serve and earned two points on its own ice. Minnesota‘s victory pulls hosts within 10 points of the 69-43-22 roadies.

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