Down the Frozen River Podcast #53- Nick’s Favorite Episode

Nick and Connor discuss topics from this week in the NHL, including the floundering San Jose Sharks, uprising Carolina Hurricanes and more playoff potential storylines. Also discussed, Randy Moss and the Charlotte Independence. We know that’s soccer, but it’s our podcast so we do what we want.

March 31 – Day 163 – Keeping it in Alberta

Welcome to the penultimate Friday in the NHL’s regular season. Unless you’re a fan of one of the 16 teams heading for the playoffs, there’s not much hockey left to be watched so make sure to catch the rest of this season’s games!

Tonight’s festivities start with Pittsburgh at the New York Rangers (SN) at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by New Jersey at the New York Islanders. 8:30 p.m. marks the puck drop of Columbus at Chicago,  with two more (St. Louis at Colorado and San Jose at Calgary) getting underway at the top of the hour. Two contests – Los Angeles at Vancouver (SN360) and Washington at Arizona – share the role of nightcap and get started at 10 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Pittsburgh at New York: Not only is it a rematch of last year’s Eastern Quarterfinals, but the Blueshirts could pull within four points of third place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • Columbus at Chicago: Two of the three best teams in the league? Yes please.
  • San Jose at Calgary: Thanks to the Sharks‘ loss last night, the Flames are only three points out of third place in the Pacific Division.

I’d love to watch the Hawks and Jackets square off, but it doesn’t have major playoff implications – and that’s what we’re all about this time of year. As much as I dislike repeating teams on back-to-back nights, it looks like we have to catch the Sharks‘ plane to Calgary for another important Pacific tilt.

 

If the Sharks can be happy about anything right now, it’s that today is the final day in what has been a dreadful March for them. Their 6-9-0 mark is tied with Arizona for the sixth-worst record in the month, and being compared to Coyotes in anything is usually a sign of trouble.

What makes the recent struggles an even harder pill to swallow is that it is spoiling an overall solid regular season. When the final game in February was played, San Jose was not only leading the Pacific Division by five points, but also trailed Minnesota by only seven points for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Thirty days later, the 43-27-7 Sharks sit alone in third place in the division, and four teams separate them from home ice throughout the conference playoffs. It leaves a club and fan base that entered the season on a quest to hoist its first Stanley Cup wondering if they can even escape what will be a very trying quarterfinals matchup against the Ducks, Flames, Oilers or possibly even the Blackhawks.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s been an nearly all-inclusive collapse (defense notwithstanding) by the Sharks that has resulted in their horrendous run over the past 15 games.

Since 33-32-6 Martin Jones was in net last night, I’d assume 10-6-1 Aaron Dell will start in goal tonight (of course, I tabbed Dell to start yesterday and I was wrong, so who knows?). Dell has actually been a solid backup all season, as his .928 save percentage and 2.09 GAA are not only better than Jones’ effort, but also rank (t)third and fourth-best in the league among the 56 netminders with at least 16 appearances.

Whether we get that Dell or the Dell that has seen his save percentage drop to .915 in March remains to be seen, but you can plan on Justin Braun and San Jose‘s defense playing as strong as ever.

All season the goal has been to keep pucks off Dell and Jones’ crease as much as possible, and they’ve done an excellent job in achieving just that. All year, they’ve allowed only 27.5 shots-against per game – the third-best rate in the league – and they’ve actually been slightly better of late, allowing only 27.1 per game in March.

No Shark deserves more credit for that than Braun. He’s been the defensive stalwart of the club all year, and it shows in his team-leading 154 shot blocks. Another that has done well defensively is Joe Thornton, but he does his work before the opposition even thinks about firing at the net. He leads the squad in takeaways with 64 (tied for eighth-most in the league), including 13 this month.

The goaltending issues have proven to be especially detrimental to San Jose‘s penalty kill. Since it has been only an average effort on the season as a whole (80.8% kill rate is 15th-worst in the NHL), taking away the luxury of a usually-reliable backstop has dropped the Sharks to ninth-worst in March, neutralizing only 78% of their infractions. Dell has saved only 85% of the power play shots that have come his way this month, the 14th-worst effort among the 38 goalies with at least six March appearances.

Special teams seem to be a struggle for Peter DeBoer’s squad this year, as his power play has actually been worse than his penalty kill. The Sharks rank seventh-worst on the season with their 17.1% success rate with the man-advantage.

It’s surprising that San Jose has been so poor, mostly because they have one weapon few can match: Brent Burns. The offensive-minded blueliner has notched 24 points on the power play this campaign, which ties for 16th-most in the NHL.

Perhaps the Sharks‘ mojo has relocated itself to Cowtown. Currently in possession of a 43-30-4 record and the West’s first wild card, the Flames have earned a 15-4-1 record since February 15. That ties Columbus for the best mark in that time, though I’d argue the Flames have been better with one fewer game played.

I may actually be on to something regarding San Jose‘s mojo, as Brian Elliott has been fantastic during this run. After a rocky start to the season, he’s reclaimed the starting job in Calgary and made it his own. Since mid-February, he’s earned a .933 save percentage and a 1.97 GAA, the fourth and fifth-best marks in the league, respectively, among the 33 goalies with at least nine appearances in that time.

Tonight is the fourth of five games between these clubs this season, and the Flames have the opportunity to clinch the series victory with a win tonight. They’ve gone 2-1-0 so far against San Jose, including the last time they met on January 11. It was a closely contested affair, but Dougie Hamilton scored with 2:19 remaining in regulation to earn a 3-2 win for the Flames in the Saddledome.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Calgary‘s Johnny Gaudreau (42 assists for 59 points [both lead the team]) and Mark Giordano (176 blocks for a+22 [both lead the team]) & San Jose‘s Burns (73 points [eighth-most in the league]) and Jones (33 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]).

It’s hard to argue with recent success. Vegas has marked the Flames a -130 favorite to win tonight. Just like I said yesterday, the Sharks‘ rebound has to start in the crease. While Calgary certainly doesn’t pose the offensive threat the Oilers did a night ago, the Flames‘ confidence should be enough to get past whichever goaltender DeBoer decides to go with.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bud MacPherson (1927-1988) – For seven seasons MacPherson roamed along Montréal‘s blueline, and he was rewarded with one All-Star Game and the 1953 Stanley Cup.
  • Gordie Howe (1928-2016) – There’s no discussion: this right wing is one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. Named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 – seven years before his last season in the league – he played in 23 All-Star Games over 26 NHL seasons (all but one with Detroit) and won both the Hart Memorial and Art Ross Trophies six times apiece, not to mention his four Stanley Cups.
  • Bob Pulford (1936-) – Another Hall of Famer, this left wing played all but two seasons of his 16-year career in Toronto. He won four Stanley Cups in the process, including three-straight from 1962-’64.
  • Bill Hicke (1938-2005) – Spending most of his time in Montréal, this right wing played 13 seasons in the NHL. The three-time All-Star was good for almost as many penalty minutes as points contributed, but that didn’t stop him from being a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
  • Gilles Gilbert (1949-) – Selected by the North Stars 25th-overall in the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft, this goaltender played 416 games over his 14-year career. Spending most of his time in Boston, he earned a 192-143-60 record before hanging up his pads.
  • Tom Barrasso (1965-) – Buffalo selected this goaltender fifth-overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, but he played a majority of his career for the Penguins. He played well for both clubs, as he earned the 1984 Calder Memorial and Vezina Trophies and the 1985 William M. Jennings Trophy with the Sabres and back-to-back Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh.
  • Pavel Bure (1971-) – Though only selected in the sixth round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by Vancouver (his longest-tenured club), this right wing had a highly successful career. In addition to six All-Star Game appearances, he won two Maurice Richard Trophies and the 1992 Calder. All of that added up to a Hall of Fame induction in 2012.
  • Michael Ryder (1980-) – Montréal selected this right wing in the eighth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he played most of his 11 seasons. That being said, he was wearing the crest of the arch-rival Bruins when he hoisted his lone Stanley Cup.
  • David Clarkson (1984-) – A longtime right wing for the Devils, this Toronto-native played 10 seasons in the NHL. He could’ve been playing his 11th this year with Columbus, but he was denied the opportunity to practice with the club due to failing his physical.
  • Steve Bernier (1985-) – The 16th-overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by San Jose, this right wing has played 633 games over 11 seasons in the league. His longest -tenured club is New Jersey, with whom he scored 28 goals for 65 points.
  • Jakob Chychrun (1998-) – This rookie defenseman was the 16th-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by Arizona. He shows promise on the offensive end of the ice, as he’s provided 19 points already this year, the third-most among Coyotes blueliners.

Thanks to Second Star of the Game Cam Talbot‘s 38-save effort, Edmonton was able to best the Sharks 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to improve into second place in the Pacific Division.

Though Talbot had a strong night, it didn’t start off the best way. He allowed Jannik Hansen (Paul Martin) to score only his eighth goal of the season 1:01 into play to allow the Sharks to take an early lead. Fortunately for him, Third Star Patrick Maroon (First Star Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) provided a game-tying goal 9:21 later. Though Zack Kassian was sent off the ice for hooking birthday boy Marc-Edouard Vlasic with 3:24 remaining in the period, McDavid (Oscar Klefbom and Drake Caggiula) was able to score a shorthanded backhander only 52 seconds later to give the Oil a 2-1 lead it would not yield.

Maroon (Kris Russell) provided what proved to be the game-winning goal 7:51 into the third period with a tip-in. It became the winner with 6:01 remaining in regulation when Joe Pavelski (Vlasic and Hansen) scored a tip-in of his own, but the Sharks were unable to find another tally before the final horn.

Talbot earned the victory after saving 38-of-40 shots faced (95%), leaving the loss to Jones, who saved 19-of-22 (86.4%).

We’re all squared up once again in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as both home and away teams in the series have an identical 189 points. Road sides still have more wins with their 83-59-23 record.

Stuff from the week (so far): It’s on!

Some of the biggest news and notes (and bad takes) from this week in hockey.

Wednesday was full of surprises as most people probably were distracted by hockey games on TV or at their local rink on Tuesday night.

First, if you didn’t see the news late Tuesday night, then you probably woke up delighted to hear that USA Hockey and the US women’s national team came to an agreement that will 1) pay women’s players more, 2) established a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group to help oversee and assist USA Hockey with fundraising and promoting girls and women’s hockey at all levels to help grow the game and 3) sends the original Team USA members to the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship being held in Plymouth, Michigan (which starts on Friday, by the way).

To summarize, it’s a four-year contract that’s a step forward, but ultimately, probably still not enough to be perfectly ideal and equal. We’ll all keep working on that, right?

I mean, let’s not forget the foolishness of USA Hockey to have contacted members of the U16 team to play against professionals before this agreement was made. Absurd!

US games will be carried on NHL Network and streamed on NHL.com, so check your local listings for times and more– I’ll be busy watching USA vs Canada on Friday night, thank you very much.

Charlie McAvoy joined the Providence Bruins (AHL) on an ATO for the rest of the season, thereby forgoing his remaining career at Boston University, much to the dismay of Terriers fans (okay, maybe not). Boston Bruins general manager, Don Sweeney, was smart not to burn a year off an entry level contract while trying to get McAvoy up to speed in the professional game.

In fact, this is something most general managers have been doing at this point of the season, with the exception of University of North Dakota product and Colorado Avalanche prospect, Tyson Jost’s signing with the Avalanche. Colorado GM Joe Sakic indicated that Jost will be inserted immediately in the lineup– for the remainder of the regular season– in the midst of a season to forget for the Av’s.

As noted by Mike Kelly (NHL Network, TSN, LeafsTV), the Avalanche are really, really bad. Like, really, really, really bad this year.

In other news, Los Angeles Kings forward, Jarome Iginla picked up the game winning goal (his 100th of his career) and the Gordie Howe Hat Trick in a 4-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.

Good for him, though I’m sure Flames fans felt uneasy for their favorite adopted son knowing that their team is probably going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs instead of the Kings. Just like everyone predicted back in October.

Not so long after everyone was gleaming about the US national women’s team agreement with USA Hockey, University of North Dakota cut their women’s hockey program on Wednesday.

In addition to women’s ice hockey, UND also got rid of their swimming and diving team (both men’s and women’s). SB Nation’s Joe Barbito (per The Ice Garden), reported that the team was already on the ice preparing for next season as news about the program’s demise began circulating. Even a recruit was on campus for an official visit, only to find out about the disappointing news from one of the most competitive programs in the country.

Several former UND hockey players have spoken out and expressed their displeasure with the university.

Also making waves on Wednesday was the miracle that nobody expected from a league otherwise known for secrecy.

The NHL announced that the Expansion Draft lists for protected and available players for the Vegas Golden Knights’s choosing will be made available to the public around June 18th. This is good. This is what fans like. Fans also like salary cap information and stuff like CapFriendly, but we’ll see if the league will ever make more of a shift towards being more open and informative than what’s already surprised many with the Expansion Draft lists announcement.

Wednesday’s surprise announcement wasn’t the only thing from the league, as NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman was on hand along with members from the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks for the official announcement of the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G. Packaging that will be played at Mercedes-Benz Arena and the Huaxi LIVE Wukesong’s Le Sports Center in Shanghai on September 21st and September 23rd, respectively.

Expanding the game, good. The whole Kings and Canucks matchup, not as good. I mean, Vancouver is destined for a turnaround, but it just seems like they won’t be competitive enough for Los Angeles, even for preseason games. Then again, the Canucks are quietly gaining ground (on a developmental level).

Last week the league announced the 2017 SAP Global Series matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and the Ottawa Senators to take place in Stockholm, Sweden in November. Those regular season games make sense, as long as the Avalanche don’t trade Gabriel Landeskog before then.

But if anything, think of the huge draw for Erik Karlsson fans in his homeland alone.

Both global preseason and regular season games will be the first of their kind since the last regular season games played in Europe in 2011.

And so far through Thursday, looking past matchups and injuries, we’ve been reminded that on this day 38 years ago, the NHL voted on the merger of four World Hockey Association (WHA) teams to begin play in the league for the 1979-1980 season.

Only the playoff bound-for-the-first-time-since 2006, Edmonton Oilers remain in the same location since the merger, as the Winnipeg Jets jettisoned for Arizona, Québec Nordiques left for Colorado and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes 20 years ago.

March 30 – Day 162 – The Oilers have surpassed the Jones

Thursdays are fantastic, aren’t they? There’s only one day of work left, the weekend is on its way and the cherry on top is that there’s tons of hockey to watch in the meantime.

Nine games will be played in all this evening, starting with two (the New York Islanders at Philadelphia [SN1] and Columbus at Carolina) at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by three more (Dallas at Boston [NBCSN/TVAS], Florida at Montréal [RDS] and Detroit at Tampa Bay). Another trio of contests (Toronto at Nashville, Ottawa at Minnesota [RDS2] and Anaheim at Winnipeg) drop the puck at the top of the hour and San Jose at Edmonton – tonight’s nightcap – gets the green light at 9 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Detroit at Tampa Bay: In light of the Red Wings not qualifying for the postseason for the first time in 26 years, I present to you their final rematch of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

  • San Jose at Edmonton: Currently tied at 93 points, this is the first of two meetings in eight days between the Oilers and Sharks, who could meet up in the Western Quarterfinals.

Sorry Wings, but you got some love already this week. It’s off to Alberta with us for the biggest game of the night.

 

Nothing makes for more exciting hockey this late in the season than two divisional rivals tied on points and games-played scrapping for home ice in the playoffs. The cherry on top? They very well could be fighting to host tonight’s opponent in that first round.

Thanks to the NHL’s rule book, the tie is broken by regulation+ overtime wins. Tonight’s hosts – the Oilers – have 38 to their credit. The Sharks have 41, so they’d be hosting that playoff series if it started right now.

Of course, that may or may not be the case following tonight’s events. No matter how this contest ends, we will have a clear cut third-place team in the Pacific Division with five games remaining to be played by Anaheim, Edmonton and San Jose.

Things have been better for the 43-26-7 Sharks than they are right now. Although they beat the Rangers 5-4 in overtime Tuesday night, those are the only two points they have to show for their past seven games.

Nothing has gone right for the Sharks in the last two weeks. San Jose has been outscored 27-12 since March 16, showing that the struggles are equal parts offensive and in goal.

You’ll notice I didn’t say defensive. I slightly over-exaggerated before, as the defense has actually remained consistent with their entire campaign. They’ve allowed only 201 shots (28.7 per game) to reach 33-20-6 Martin Jones‘ crease, which is pretty close to their 27.6 season average.

Instead, the issue has been Jones and backup 10-6-1 Aaron Dell. Peter DeBoer has been almost religious in alternating his goaltenders in the month of March, as Jones has made only two pairs of consecutive starts.

What has resting his backstops done for him? Dell has an .881 save percentage and 3.4 GAA. Ouch. Unfortunately, that’s good in comparison to Jones’ .862 and 4.04 GAA.

Jones’ recent struggles continue on the penalty kill, where he’s managed only an .8 save percentage against opponents’ power plays. That is the ninth-worst mark in the league among the 40 netminders with at least three appearances and has resulted in a 64.7% kill rate, the second-worst in the NHL since mid-March.

As of publication of this article, no word has been released from the Sharks whether Dell or Jones will be in net. Since Jones started his second-straight game two nights ago, I’m going to guess Dell will get the nod tonight. I do not know whether that’s the right or wrong choice, but I do know Dell has been the 11th-worst goaltender in the league since March 16, meaning Jones has been… worse.

But the issues aren’t simply limited to DeBoer’s goaltending situation. The Sharks‘ offense has been abysmal too, averaging only 1.7 goals per game. The lone standout over this stretch has been Patrick Marleau, who has buried three of San Jose‘s dozen goals in the past two weeks, not to mention tacking on two more assists.

My biggest concern is that Joel Ward, the man who has notched the sixth-most points (27) and goals (t19) all season for San Jose, did not register a point during the recently-ended skid. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but I think it is no accident that his most recent assist was on March 14 in a victory against the Sabres. The sooner he returns to form, the sooner the Sharks become the team we’ve come to expect.

All that being said about the offense as whole, the power play has actually been solid of late. Not only is a 23.5% conversion rate 10th-best in the league since mid-March, but it also well exceeds the Sharks‘ 17.2% season rate.

It’s been all about the first power play unit – specifically Brent Burns, Marleau and Joe Thornton. Each have a goal and two assists on the man-advantage since the 16th to lead the squad.

While the third month of the year has not gone so well for the Sharks, it’s been splendid for the 42-25-9 Oilers. They’ve taken advantage of playing only two of their 12 games away from Rogers Place to earn an 8-3-1 record in March.

Just like you’d expect from a team led by Connor McDavid, offense has been the driver to Edmonton‘s success. The Oilers have scored 42 goals since March 4, the second-highest total in the league in that time.

In addition to the stellar play of McDavid, line mate Leon Draisaitl has also been exceptional as both have 17 points to their credit this month, which ties for fourth-most in the league in that time. Don’t get confused though; the captain is still in charge of this attack, as he’s scored six of his 27 goals this month, two more than his partner in crime.

As you might expect, Draisaitl and McDavid continue their chemistry on the power play. Since March 4, the Oil has successfully converted 27% of its opponents’ penalties into goals, the fourth-best mark in the league.

The man-advantage seems to be Draisaitl’s forte, as he’s set up five power play goals in March to lead the team in extra-man points. Of course, someone has to score those assists…

That’s where Mark Letestu and Milan Lucic come into play. They are the other two forwards on Draisaitl and McDavid’s power play unit, and they’ve both buried two goals apiece in that situation this month to lead the team.

The Oilers have been just as good of late on the penalty kill with their 88.5% kill rate, so the Sharks will have their work cut out for them this evening. My advice: avoid Andrej Sekera at all costs. He’s blocked nine shots on the penalty kill to not only lead the team, but tie for fourth-most in the league in that time-span.

Thanks to forcing overtime the first time these clubs met, Edmonton trails the Sharks by only a point in the season series between them. The last time they met was January 26, the Oilers‘ lone win against San Jose this season. They traveled to The Tank and emerged with a 4-1 victory thanks to Sekera’s two goals and Cam Talbot‘s 32 saves.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Edmonton‘s Draisaitl (71 points [10th-most in the NHL]), McDavid (89 points on 62 assists [both lead the league]) and Talbot (seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the NHL] among 38 wins [third-most in the league]) & San Jose‘s Burns (73 points [eighth-most in the NHL] on 45 assists [tied for ninth-most in the league]) and Jones (33 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked Edmonton a -126 favorite tonight, a line I think the Oilers are more than capable of upholding. Unless the Sharks get their goaltending under control, the hot Oilers should get their fans screaming at full-throat and even more excited for their return to the playoffs.

Hockey Birthday

  • Doug Wickenheiser (1961-1999) – Montréal selected this center with the top pick in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, but he actually spent more of his 10-year career in St. Louis. Hockey fans truly in the know remember Wickenheiser for completing the Blues‘ “Monday Night Miracle” with an overtime goal against Calgary to force a Game 7 in the 1986 Campbell Conference Finals.
  • Ty Conklin (1976-) – Some guys just seem to be born unlucky. This goaltender, who has nine years of NHL experience with six different teams (mostly with Edmonton), was a member of the 2008 Penguins team that lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to Detroit. So he could get his hands on the hardware, he joined the Red Wings the following season, who ended up losing the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh.
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic (1987-) – This defenseman was selected 35th-overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by San Jose, and that’s where he’s played ever since. Even though this is his 11th season, tonight’s game is only the fifth he’s ever played on his birthday in the NHL. His last was in 2013, and it was a special one: he notched his first birthday goal.

With four goals in the opening period, the Blackhawks easily beat Pittsburgh 5-1 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though the scoring started quickly thanks to First Star of the Game Artemi Panarin‘s (Third Star Patrick Kane and Second Star Tanner Kero) wrist shot 3:23 after the opening puck drop, the Hawks truly took command of the game in the final six minutes of the first frame. With what proved to be the game-winning goal, Richard Panik (Nick Schmaltz and Jonathan Toews) buried a snap shot with 5:21 remaining, followed by Marcus Kruger (Kane and Panarin) and Marian Hossa (Ryan Hartman) in the closing minute of the period to set Chicago‘s advantage at four goals.

Kero tacked on an additional goal 3:32 into the third period, followed 2:14 later by an shutout-snapping backhanded shot from Bryan Rust (Ian Cole and Matt Cullen).

Corey Crawford earned the victory after saving 31-of-32 shots faced (96.875%), leaving the loss to Marc-Andre Fleury, who saved 31-of-36 (86.1%).

A win by the road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series was an important one yesterday, as it set the visitors’ record at 83-58-23 and gave them a two-point advantage on the hosts.

March 29 – Day 161 – Bird is the word

Though there’s only four games on today’s schedule, there’s at least two that should provide some captivating play.

The action starts a little later this evening as Chicago at Pittsburgh (NBCSN/TVAS) doesn’t drop the puck until 8 p.m., followed an hour later by Los Angeles at Calgary (SN). 10 p.m. marks the beginning of Washington at Colorado, preceding tonight’s nightcap – St. Louis at Arizona (SN360) – by half an hour. All times eastern.

Since the Kings‘ playoff chances took a significant hit last night with their loss in Edmonton, let’s catch the action in the Steel City.

 

Quick, tell me the best team in the NHL since the beginning of February. Calgary? Nope. Pittsburgh? Nada. Washington? Guess again.

You’ve probably figured it out, but the correct answer is the best team in the Western Conference, the 48-21-7 Blackhawks. In the past two months, Chicago has earned an impressive 18-4-2 record on the back of its elite offense.

On the season as a whole, the Hawks rank seventh-best in goals-per-game, but February and March have been an absolute clinic. Led by Patrick Kane‘s 33 points (the fourth-most in the league over that stretch), Chicago has buried 84 goals in that time, trailing only Nashville for most in the NHL.

Kane has been absolutely magnificent of late. 19 of his 34 goals on the season have been struck since the beginning of February, and both totals are tops in the Windy City. But the main reason Chicago is playing so well is they’ve stayed extremely healthy. Only 25 different skaters have donned a Blackhawks sweater in their past 24 games, an extremely impressive total that perfectly explains the club’s synergy.

That compatibility is most evidenced when the Hawks take to the power play. Though they actually rank 14th-worst on the season as a whole, Chicago has converted 22.4% of its man-advantages in the past month – the 10th-best effort in that time.

Captain Jonathan Toews gets to take a lot of credit for that success. Though he’s only registered one power play point in his past six games, Toews has nine on his resume since February to lead the club. Most of those have been assists to the other star of the first power play unit: Kane. He’s buried five power play goals in the past two months to headline the team and tie for fourth-most in the NHL.

If there’s one spot the Hawks are still trying to improve, it has to be their penalty kill. Stopping only 77.4% of opponents’ power plays all season, they rank fifth-worst in the league. The issue is not 30-16-3 Corey Crawford, but the defense playing in front of him. Crawford has faced the 12th-most power play shots against in the league (among netminders with 30 or more appearances) due to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook being the only two players with more than 22 shorthanded shot blocks.

Though two games ended in a shootout, the last three games have been tough for the 46-18-11 Penguins, the third-best team in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.

The reason for Pittsburgh‘s struggles is not on the ice, but off it. Nine players were listed on the Penguins‘ most recent injury report, though Jake Guentzel (concussion), Ron Hainsey (upper body) and Conor Sheary (lower body) skated yesterday. If any are cleared before tonight’s game, I’d bet on Sheary since Guentzel and Hainsey wore non-contact sweaters.

Usually one of the elite squads in the game, the holes in the lineup has most effected Pittsburgh‘s offense. Usually averaging a league-high 3.4 goals-per-game, the Pens have scored only six goals in their past three games, which ironically ties with Chicago for fifth-fewest since Thursday.

If able, Sheary will be a welcome addition to the lineup to rejuvenate the offense. He’s averaged .91 points-per-game this season, which is the third-best average in Pittsburgh. Of course, he’s no Evgeni Malkin, another member of the club spending more time in the training room than he’d like. His 33 goals are second-most on the team (and 10th-most in the league) behind Sidney Crosby‘s 42, as is his 1.16 points-per-game average (good for the ninth-most points in the NHL).

One thing that hasn’t suffered is the power play. Scoring on a third of its attempts, Pittsburgh is tied for sixth-best in the league since March 23 – well above its 22.4% success rate on the season. What’s most impressive about this effort is that the power play scoring has come from five different players, and none of them were drafted first overall.

Instead, the special team that has taken a step back is the one that was already poor to begin with. The Pens‘ penalty kill has blocked only one power play shot (courtesy of Tom Kuhnhackl) en route to only a 75% kill rate, which ties for eighth-worst in the league in the last week.

When the Penguins visited the United Center four weeks ago, they seemed to forget about one major detail: Kane.

Not Kahn, Captain Kirk; Kane. Notching his second hat trick in three games, the right wing teamed with Scott Darling and his 36-save effort to lead Chicago to a 4-1 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Chicago‘s Crawford (30 wins [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]) and Kane (82 points [tied for second-most in the league] on 34 goals and 48 assists [both tied for sixth-most in the NHL]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (42 goals [leads the league] for 82 points [tied for second-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.923 save percentage [seventh-best in the league]), Justin Schultz (+27 [eighth-best in the NHL]) and Sheary (+26 [tied for ninth-best in the league]).

No matter how busy Chris Stewart – the Penguins‘ head athletic trainer –  is, Vegas still favors Pittsburgh to win with a -125 line. Unfortunately, I don’t feel quite so optimistic for the home team. Chicago has been on an absolute tear over the past 56 days and doesn’t look like its stopping now.

Hockey Birthday

  • Brad McCrimmon (1959-2011) – Selected 15th-overall by the Bruins in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, this defenseman spent most of his 18 seasons in Philadelphia. The late 80s were an incredible year for this Saskatchewanian, as he not only made his lone All-Star Game appearance in ’88, but also hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Flames a year later.
  • Maxim Lapierre (1985-) – Though currently playing in Switzerland, this center has 10 seasons of NHL experience. Due to being selected 61st-overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the local Canadiens, most of his playing time came in Montréal. A consistent enforcer, he spent 130 minutes in the penalty box in 2011-’12 as a Canuck.

Three of Boston‘s four lines found the back of the net to lead the Bruins to a 4-1 victory over the Predators in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Patrice Bergeron (Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand) got the scoring started early with a wrist shot 2:28 into the game to give the Bruins an early lead. With 6:08 remaining in the first period, Second Star of the Game David Krejci (David Pastrnak and Drew Stafford) doubled that lead with a wrister of his own, the score that proved to be the game-winner.

The visiting Preds finally got on the scoreboard with 8:44 remaining in regulation when Craig Smith (Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis) tipped the puck into Tuukka Rask‘s net, but Third Star Noel Acciari (Riley Nash) neutralized that tally 4:31 later with the first goal of his NHL career. David Backes (Dominic Moore) took advantage of an empty net in the waning moments of the contest to set the final 4-1 score.

Rask earned the victory after saving 24-of-25 shots faced (96%), leaving Pekka Rinne with the loss, who saved 27-of-30 (90%).

Boston‘s home victory was a big one in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as road and home teams in the series have both earned an equal 187 points. Visitors do have the most wins though at 82-58-23, compared to the hosts’ 81-57-25.

March 28 – Day 160 – The golden touch

Tuesday is one of those moving days in the NHL when the standings can look vastly different after all the games have been played.

Eleven contests in total will be held this evening, starting with five (Winnipeg at New Jersey, Nashville at Boston [SN1/TVAS], Ottawa at Philadelphia [RDS2], Detroit at Carolina and Buffalo at Columbus) at 7 p.m., followed by two more (Florida at Toronto and Dallas at Montréal [RDS]) half an hour later. Washington at Minnesota (NHLN) drops the puck at 8 p.m., and Los Angeles at Edmonton follows at 9 p.m. The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. when Anaheim visits Vancouver, and tonight’s nightcap – the New York Rangers at San Jose – drops the puck 30 minutes after. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Winnipeg at New Jersey: Thanks to the Nor’easter that blew through earlier this month, this game is being played two weeks late.
  • Nashville at Boston: You have to fall to get back up. Matt Irwin fell while playing for the Bruins organization, but has gotten up in Nashville.
  • Los Angeles at Edmonton: The Kings‘ postseason hopes are hanging by a thread, but an old-timey rivalry might be just the trick to get a playoff push started.

Given the vast playoff implications a win or loss could have for the Bruins or Predators, let’s catch tonight’s activity at the TD Garden.

 

For starters, let’s tackle Irwin’s story real quick.

Undrafted out of the University of Massachusetts, the defenseman began his professional hockey career in 2010 in nearby Worcester with the Sharks‘ AHL affiliate.

He scored 73 points over his first two seasons of AHL play, which prompted an NHL contract from the parent club after injuries to Brent Burns and Jason Demers.

Irwin finally got his opportunity to play in the big league in 2013, and he made the most of his opportunity. Though he did return to Worcester for most of February 2013, he quickly rejoined the Sharks by the end of the month. He never returned to the DCU Center.

Instead, he spent the remainder of the 2012-’13 season in San Jose, as well as the following two campaigns. In all, he played 153 games for the Sharks, earning 50 points on 16 goals. Additionally, he also appeared in 13 playoff games, registering two points.

Though originally from British Columbia, Bay Staters seemed to have fallen in love with the blueliner – or so Don Sweeney thought. The Bruins general manager signed Irwin to a one-year, two-way deal last season, yet it only felt like a one-way since he played only two games for Boston before being sent down to Providence for the remainder of the year. The biggest reason? He registered a -5 goal-differential over those two games, an absolutely horrid mark for a defender.

Some would not have taken the demotion well. Instead, Irwin seemed to retool his game while in Rhode Island. Fortunately for him, someone took notice.

That someone would be David Poile (okay, it was probably a Predators scout; but that’s not quite as fun a story, now is it?). Irwin has been an effective addition this season, as he’s claimed 14 points on three goals and a +14 goal differential in 66 games played.

What remains to be seen is if his 39-25-11 Predators can continue this impressive run they’re on. Currently occupying third place in the Central Division, the Preds have won their last four games and are 7-1-2 since March 7.

Just like it has been all season, offense has been the name of the game over this stretch. Tied for seventh-most goals on the season, Smashville has scored 33 goals in their last 10 games to tie for fourth-most in that time-span. The culprit? None other than Viktor Arvidsson, who has nine points since early March, including six goals – a top-10 effort over that stretch.

That success shouldn’t come as a surprise. He and Filip Forsberg have been the dominant strikers for the Preds all season, as both have 29 tallies to their credit to co-lead the club.

After beating the Islanders on Saturday to end their four-game losing skid, the 39-30-6 Bruins will get back to work defending their playoff position tonight. When Boston has found success this season, it’s usually been on the offensive end of the ice, as its 212 goals is the 12th-highest total in the NHL.

If you haven’t heard, Brad Marchand is pretty good. Actually, he’s an offensive machine with his team-leading (and fourth-best in the league) 80 points. 37 of those points have been goals, which – you guessed it – also leads the team.

To put things in perspective, since you flipped your calendar to March, Marchand has struck nine goals. Nine! That’s tied for third-most in the league this month, better than scorers of the likes of Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, T.J. Oshie, Joe Pavelski and Vladimir Tarasenko – just to name a few.

Playing into that, the Bruins‘ power play has also been playing very well. Though only the third-best effort in the Atlantic Division, David Pastrnak has led Boston to a 26.5% conversion rate in March with his three power play goals this month.

The penalty kill has been extremely solid for the entire season. Boston is third-best in the league with its 84.9% kill rate, led by 33-20-4 Tuukka Rask. Though he’s faced the 10th-most power play shots among the 39 goaltenders with at least 30 appearances, he’s saved .884 percent of them –  the 14th-best effort of the group.

The Bruins‘ visit to Bridgestone Arena on January 12 did not go the way they wanted to. Though they fired 36 shots on Juuse Saros‘ net, he saved all but Torey Krug‘s second period power play goal to lead Nashville to a 2-1 victory.

Should a Boston win be paired with regulation loss by the Maple Leafs, the Bruins will jump into third place in the Atlantic if only for a day.

As for the Predators, they are also in a fight for third place in their division with St. Louis. Since the Blues are inactive tonight, Nashville is giving them a game-in-hand by playing tonight. A win puts the pressure on the Notes to hold serve, while a loss would put the Preds in limbo until St. Louis plays the extra contest.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Boston‘s Marchand (37 goals [third-most in the NHL] for 80 points [fourth-most in the league]) and Rask (six shutouts [fifth-most in the NHL] among 33 wins [sixth-most in the league]) & Nashville‘s Pekka Rinne (30 wins [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]).

As much as I want to pick the Bruins since they’re playing at home, I like the Predators‘ offense too much to pick against them. Boston has not been playing well on the defensive end of late, and I think Smashville will be able to take advantage.

Hockey Birthday

  • Keith Tkachuk (1972-) – A longtime member of the Jets/Coyotes franchise (though his longest-tenured city was St. Louis), this 18-year NHL veteran was selected 19th-overall by Winnipeg in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. The five-time All Star scored 1065 points before calling it quits, including 538 goals. His son, Matthew Tkachuk, is a rookie with the Flames this season.

The storm rages on in Carolina, as a 4-3 overtime loss to the Red Wings in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day extends its point streak to 11 games.

The Hurricanes found the ice-breaking goal relatively quickly with Jeff Skinner (Jaccob Slavin and Lee Stempniak) scoring a slap shot only 5:15 into the game to give them an early lead. The 1-0 score held to the intermission.

At Carolina‘s 10:30 a.m. practice today, I expect Bill Peters to be harping on his guys about limiting the opposition’s breakaway opportunities, because the Red Wings – specifically First Star of the Game Anthony Mantha – absolutely torched them in that situation. Mantha scored twice in 70 seconds (Third Star Andreas Athanasiou and Danny DeKeyser assisted on the second tally) to give Detroit the lead. But it didn’t end the period with that lead. Instead, Second Star Justin Faulk (Slavin and Derek Ryan) tied the game with a snap shot 58 seconds before heading to the dressing room for the second intermission.

Tomas Tatar (Gustav Nyquist and Henrik Zetterberg) buried a power play snapper 8:30 into the third period to reclaim the lead for the Red Wings, and they nearly held it to the end of regulation. Once again: “instead, Faulk.” With six skaters on the ice and only 52 seconds remaining in regulation, he scored a snapper (Noah Hanifin and Victor Rask) to force three-on-three overtime.

After 1:59 of overtime play, Athanasiou (Nyquist) scored a backhanded shot to win the game, but that quickly became of lesser importance. As the center dove towards Eddie Lack‘s crease, he made contact with the netminder in the head and neck area.

Lack remained nearly motionless on the ice, moving only his legs. He had to be stretchered off the ice and transported to the hospital for further evaluation. Fortunately, he tweeted around midnight that he was discharged with a clean bill of health.

Petr Mrazek earned the victory after saving 39-of-42 shots faced (92.9%), forcing Lack to take the overtime loss after saving 23-of-27 (85.2%).

Within the DtFR Game of the Day series, the Wings‘ victory has expanded the 82-57-23 road teams’ lead over the hosts to two points.

March 27 – Day 159 – Red hot

It happened again. The very day we detest the most: Monday.

Fortunately, the NHL is a true pal and hooked us up with a half-dozen hockey games to make it better. The action starts with three contests (Detroit at Carolina, Florida at Buffalo and Nashville at the New York Islanders [SN]) at 7 p.m., followed by Chicago at Tampa Bay (NBCSN/TVAS) half an hour later. 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Arizona at St. Louis, trailed an hour later by Colorado at Calgary, tonight’s nightcap. All times eastern.

A game of note this evening is the Red Wings‘ first of two straight visits to PNC Arena, as this is the game that had to be postponed in mid-December due to an issue with the arena’s surface cooling equipment.

Since we haven’t featured the Hurricanes all season and they’re quietly in contention for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, let’s make a trip to Raleigh!

 

You may not believe me, but it’s true: 33-27-13 Carolina is still in the playoff conversation with nine games left in their regular season. It may not look like it at quick glance since the Hurricanes have only 79 points, but that’s due in part to the reason they are active tonight.

Eleventh-place Carolina has two games-in-hand on 39-30-6 Boston (84 points) because of its rescheduled contest against Detroit. Should the Canes have played that game and lost, they’d be in much worse shape. Instead, they’ll trail the Bruins by only a point if they win both their games-in-hand and could be in prime position to end their seven-season playoff drought.

Of course, that ignores what the ninth and 10th place Islanders and Lightning do, but I don’t see them featured today!

Much of the reason the Canes are in the position they’re in right now is due to their three-game winning streak and their 7-0-3 record in their last 10 games. Carolina has been an offensive juggernaut since March 9, as their 37 goals for is the highest total in the league since then.

Though Jeff Skinner and his 54 points have been the Hurricanes‘ offensive leader for the entirety of the season, he’s been joined of late by rookie Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm, who both have 11 points during this recent streak.

Don’t read too much into that last graf though. Skinner is still the primary threat for 16-20-8 Petr Mrazek to focus on tonight. 10 of the left wing’s dozen points since March 9 have been goals, doubling Aho’s five and tying Nikita Kucherov for most in the league over that stretch.

To focus on Aho for a minute, the Fin has made a living on the power play with his five man-advantage points during this run – a top-five effort in that time-frame. That success has led the Canes to a 28% success rate with the extra man since earlier this month, the eighth-best mark in the NHL in that time and second-best in a dominant Metropolitan Division that features some elite offenses.

This offensive prowess is a change from what has been Carolina‘s priority all season: defense. In fact, the Canes have allowed only 203 goals against this year, which ties for the 16th-best mark in the NHL.

Nothing tells this story better than Carolina‘s 85.3% season penalty kill rate, the second-best mark in the league. The PK has been a major point of focus for second-year defenseman Jaccob Slavin. The Hurricanes selected him from Colorado College in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and all he’s done is lead the team with 37 shorthanded shot blocks this year. Not bad, kid (he’s almost exactly three months younger than me, I get to call him kid).

In fact, Slavin and Co. has been so good, 24-20-11 Cam Ward has faced only 155 shots against while his club is shorthanded, the lowest total among the 30 netminders with at least 39 appearances.

Other than Joe Louis Arena’s farewell season, the biggest story about the 30-32-12 Red Wings this season has been the prediction-turned-reality that they’ll miss the postseason for the first time in 25 years.

But that doesn’t mean the Wings are entirely incapable of good hockey. Though not as impressive as the Canes‘, Detroit is also riding a three-game streak of earning at least a point, and has a 4-1-1 record since March 16.

All but one of those six contests have been one-goal affairs, and it’s been a resurgent 9-8-1 Jimmy Howard, who just celebrated his 33rd birthday yesterday, that has led the charge. Sidelined for much of the season with a knee injury, he’s earned a .953 save percentage and 1.29 GAA since mid-March, the sixth and seventh-best marks in the league, respectively, during that stretch.

Howard has been especially exceptional when faced with an opposing power play. Though he’s faced 12 man-advantages since March 16, he has yet to allow a power play goal after saving all 12 shots he’s faced while his club is shorthanded.

As of publication of this article, it remains to be seen if Jeff Blashill will continue alternating goaltenders this evening. It’d be an odd time to stop the recent practice since the Wings played – and won – an overtime game yesterday before traveling from Michigan to North Carolina. I’d bank on seeing Mrazek in net this evening.

Offensively, nothing paints a picture like a 14% season success rate on the power play. It’s the second-worst rate in the NHL that still features Thomas Vanek – a current member of the Florida Panthers – as the third-best point-earner. Frans Nielsen and Henrik Zetterberg have been able to create symmetry at times this year, but now is not one of those moments. They’ve earned a combined three power play points since March 16. Three.

Thanks to the postponement of what became today’s game, these clubs have only met once this season. In what was the Canes‘ final visit to The Joe, Dylan Larkin scored two of Detroit‘s goals to lead the Wings to a 4-2 victory on October 25.

These teams will complete their three-game season series tomorrow night on the same surface, which adds even a bit more intrigue to tonight’s game.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Carolina‘s Skinner (30 goals for 54 points [both lead the team]) and Slavin (149 blocks for +19 [both lead the team]) & Detroit‘s Zetterberg (46 assists [eighth-most in the league]).

There’s not few, if any, hotter than the Hurricanes right now, and they’re doing it at the right time of the year. Especially given the fact that the Wings were involved in an overtime game yesterday, I like Carolina to continue its playoff push with a win today.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bryan Campbell (1944-) – Though this center spent most of his career in the WHA, he began his professional hockey career in the NHL. He played five seasons in the league, and spent most of that time in Chicago. He scored 106 points over 260 games, including a decent 1970-’71 season with 17 goals for 54 points.
  • Dustin Byfuglien (1985-) – It’s hard to believe, but this season marks this defenseman’s seventh season with the Thrashers/Jets organization. It seems just yesterday he was hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head with the 2010 Blackhawks.

Last night’s 6-3 DtFR Game of the Day Duck victory over the Rangers was a big one, as they converted a game-in-hand on their fellow competitors for the Pacific Division title for two points to create a two-point lead with seven games remaining to be played.

The busiest period was the first, as it featured four goals. The icebreaker belonged to Rick Nash (Marc Staal and Mika Zibanejad) and New York on a wrist shot 5:54 after the initial puck drop. That lead didn’t last too long though, as Third Star of the Game Patrick Eaves (Second Star Cam Fowler and First Star Ryan Getzlaf) pulled Anaheim even 3:01 later on a wrister. Once again the Blueshirts took a lead, this time off a Derek Stepan (Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello) slap shot, but the Ducks had another answer. Ryan Kesler (Getzlaf and Fowler) scored a power play tip-in with two minutes remaining in the frame to tie the game at two-all, which held into the first intermission.

At the 9:39 mark of the second period, Anaheim finally claimed its first lead of the game when Josh Manson (Getzlaf) scored a wrister. Making that goal even more impressive, the Ducks were shorthanded. That didn’t seem to phase New York though, as Brady Skjei (Jimmy Vesey and Zibanejad) buried only his fifth goal of the season 3:31 later to pull the Rangers even at three-all. That score held into the second intermission.

Whatever Randy Carlyle said in the dressing room, it worked because Anaheim buried three tallies and held the Rangers scoreless for the final 20 minutes. Andrew Cogliano (Kesler) takes credit for the game-winner 2:19 after the beginning of the final frame, followed only 2:04 later by an insurance tally from Eaves (Rickard Rakell and Getzlaf). To ensure the Rangers could not stage a late comeback, Nick Ritchie (Corey Perry) scored a wrister on an empty net with 98 ticks remaining on the clock to clinch the win.

Jonathan Bernier earned the victory after saving 25-of-28 shots faced (89.3%), leaving the loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 28-of-33 (84.8%).

Thanks to the Ducks defending home ice, hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series now trial the 81-57-23 road teams by only a lone point.

March 26 – Day 158 – Mats point

There’s only one more day before you have to go back to work. Make it worth it.

I assume that doing so requires hockey, so you have five games to choose from. Today’s action starts at 12:30 p.m. with Minnesota at Detroit (NBC), followed by Dallas at New Jersey at 5 p.m. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it Philadelphia at Pittsburgh (NBCSN), followed an hour later by Vancouver at Winnipeg (SN). Finally, tonight’s nightcap drops the puck at 9 p.m. with the New York Rangers at AnaheimAll times eastern.

Short list:

  • Philadelphia at Pittsburgh: If anything can spark a late playoff push for the Flyers, it’d be a victory in the Battle for the Keystone State.
  • New York at Anaheim: Seeing as Brandon Pirri only played nine regular season games with the Ducks last year, it’s hardly a momentous return. Yet, this contest promises to be the best of the day.

Since the FlyersPenguins rivalry’s zest is diminishing outside the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, let’s feature the Big Apple for the third-straight day.

 

Games between Eastern and Western Conference opponents are always weird this time of year. Sometimes both teams can be fighting for their playoff lives or scrapping for a better seed, while other teams are simply playing one of the remaining fixtures on their increasingly unimportant schedule.

Of course, the weirdest situation of all is the one we have tonight, when one club has little to nothing to gain from an inter-conference matchup since they are effectively locked into their playoff position, while the other is still fighting for the best of four spots available.

Tonight, the 46-25-4 Rangers own the role of the “little to gain, little to lose” character. They trail Pittsburgh by seven points for third place in the Metropolitan Division, and a dozen points separate them from the second wildcard.

This may be a weird metaphor, but I imagine New York as a retired elderly gentleman, sitting in a rocker in his screened-in porch. He does not care if it is hot and the bugs are out – he has a fan and the screen keeps the bugs away. He does not care if it rains – he will stay dry and appreciate the ambiance of the rain shower. He does as he wishes and prepares for the next thing he knows he has on his to-do list.

If that doesn’t give away that I live in the South, I don’t know what does.

For those wondering, the next thing for the Rangers to do is gel in anticipation of the playoffs. Of course, they’ve shown they can do that already this year – especially on offense, as their 235 goals is tied with Minnesota for the third-highest total in the NHL.

Mats Zuccarello has been on an absolute tear of late. If it weren’t for his pointless effort at New Jersey on Tuesday, the wing would be riding a seven-game point streak, including two games with two points. In fact, he’s been so impressive that he’s taken over New York‘s clubhouse points lead from J.T. Miller.

Of course, it would be unwise to ignore Michael Grabner. Though he hasn’t buried a goal since March 13, he still leads the squad with his 27 tallies. His lead has certainly slimmed during his dry spell, as he has only one more marker than Chris Kreider.

Much of the reason for Zuccarello’s surge has been his success on the power play. Since his hot streak has began, the Rangers‘ 29.4% power play ranks third-best in the NHL, and he’s been at the forefront of it all. The wing has earned four of his points with the man-advantage in this run, including two goals (both are the highest totals on the team during this stretch).

The one thing the Blueshirts have not been able to figure out all season has been their penalty kill. No matter what Alain Vigneault does, he cannot get his club to do any better than its 79.6% season kill rate – the eighth-worst in the league, and second-worst among clubs currently in playoff position.

Meanwhile, any result from tonight’s game can drastically effect 40-23-11 Anaheim‘s postseason. Currently, the Ducks are in a three-way tie with both Edmonton and San Jose atop the Pacific Division, and the Ducks win the games-played tiebreaker with their game-in-hand.

Since the Oilers and Sharks are both inactive this evening, that un-played contest takes place tonight and provides the opportunity to either take a true lead or drop the Anaheim to second place in the Pacific behind San Jose (the Ducks lead the season series against Edmonton 2-1-1, but have fewer regulation+overtime victories than the Sharks).

Defense is the name of the game on The Pond, as the Ducks have allowed only 179 goals against, which ties for third-fewest in the league. Usually, the crease has belonged to 23-16-8 John Gibson, but he’s been fighting a lower body injury for two weeks.

Instead, it’s presumed the Ducks will turn to 17-7-3 Jonathan Bernier, who currently has them riding a three-game winning streak. Since Gibson went down, Bernier has been in net for all of Anaheim‘s games and has allowed only nine goals against – tied for the fewest in the league in that time among the 14 goaltenders with six or more appearances. In addition, his .947 save percentage and 1.48 GAA over that stretch is second-best and tops in the NHL, respectively, among those 14 aforementioned netminders.

Part of the reason Bernier has been able to find such success is because his defense has stepped up to make his job easier on him. While Anaheim‘s blueline has been good for the entire season (their 29.5 shots-against-average is ninth-best in the NHL), they’ve allowed only 169 total shots to reach Bernier since Gibson went down, the lowest mark in the league.

Hampus Lindholm is certainly deserving of much praise for those solid results, but he’s joined by an unlikely aide: center Ryan Getzlaf. Both skaters have blocked 13 shots apiece since Gibson’s injury, and they’re joined by six others that have blocked at least five or more shots in that time. The entire squad is buying in and sacrificing their bodies for the greater good of the club, and their efforts are paying off in the win column.

More on Getzlaf: he actually has blocked the most shots all season among Western Conference forwards, and the third-most overall. Add in the fact that he has 55 takeaways this year, and we just might have ourselves a Frank J. Selke Trophy candidate.

Making the defense’s performance even more impressive, it has been put under additional strain to perform by the Ducks‘ power play. Instead of taking advantage of teams when they’re shorthanded, Anaheim has scored only one power play goal in the past two weeks for a 4.8% success rate – the second-worst mark in the NHL.

Though he leads the club in power play goals (seven) and co-leads in power play points (18, tied with Corey Perry), Ryan Kesler has not buried a goal with the man-advantage since December 4. That’s almost four months ago! If the Ducks are not careful, this man-advantage slump will, not can, bite them in the butt.

The Ducks made their annual trip to Madison Square Garden on February 7, but it was a visit they’d sooner forget. Between Grabner’s two-goal third period performance and Henrik Lundqvist‘s 43-save effort, it was all Anaheim could to do avoid a four-goal shutout by notching only one tally.

Some players to keep an eye on during tonight’s game include Anaheim‘s Getzlaf (48 assists [tied for fourth-most in the league]) and New York‘s Lundqvist (30 wins [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]).

Anaheim is marked as a -140 favorite to win tonight, which is actually the narrowest line I’ve found in a quick search. The matchup tonight is simple: can the Ducks‘ defense shut down Zuccarello? If they can, they’re on their way to two points. If not, their remaining seven games just got even more important than they already were.

Hockey Birthday

  • Roger Leger (1919-1965) – A Quebec-native is never happier than when he’s playing for the Canadiens. That’s what this defenseman got to do for four of his five seasons in the league, though he must be one of the few Habs during the Original Six Era to retire without winning a Stanley Cup.
  • Ulf Samuelsson (1964-) – In comparison, this longtime Whalers defenseman played in the NHL for 16 seasons and twice hoisted the most coveted trophy in sports – though not with Hartford, of course. Instead, he was a member of both Penguins squads that etched their names into the Stanley Cup in the early 90s.
  • Michael Peca (1974-) – Selected by Vancouver 40th-overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, this center is similar to Samuelsson in the sense that he won one trophy twice, but it was the Selke Trophy instead of the Stanley Cup. Playing most of his 14-year career with Buffalo, he notched 217 points while wearing the blue-and-gold.
  • Jimmy Howard (1984-) – This goaltender was selected by Detroit with the 64th-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he’s played each and every one of his 396 career games in the league. In total, he’s earned a 197-121-54 record and made one All-Star Game appearance.

Every once in a while, a player refuses to lose a particular game. In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, that player was First Star of the Game Riley Nash, who scored both Bruins goals to lead them to a 2-1 victory over the Islanders.

What seemed to spur Nash was Third Star John Tavares‘ (Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson) snap shot with 9:55 remaining in the first period. It proved to be New York‘s lone goal of the game, but that was all the spark Nash needed. He buried an unassisted wrist shot only 36 seconds later to tie the game at one-all.

The draw held until the 4:12 mark of the third period when Nash (Dominic Moore) scored only his seventh tally of the season and sixth game-winner of his NHL career on a snapper.

Not all heroes wear capes, as Nash’s solid effort ended Boston‘s four-game losing skid and moved it into the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Second Star Anton Khudobin earned the victory after saving 18-of-19 shots faced (94.7%), leaving the loss to Thomas Greiss, who saved 16-of-18 (88.9%).

It’s a perplexing situation, but road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a combined 81-56-23 record, which is three points better than the series’ hosts.

March 25 – Day 157 – Seeing circles

A dozen games are on the schedule today, so let’s hop right in with our list!

A pair of games (Vancouver at Minnesota and Philadelphia at Columbus [NHLN/SN1]) get the action underway at 2 p.m., followed by seven (Calgary at St. Louis [CITY], Toronto at Buffalo [CBC], Ottawa at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Chicago at Florida [NHLN], Carolina at New Jersey, Boston at the New York Islanders and Arizona at Washington) at the usual 7 p.m. starting time. San Jose at Nashville drops the puck an hour later, followed by Colorado at Edmonton (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. Finally, the New York Rangers at Los Angeles – tonight’s nightcap – drops the puck at 10:30 p.m. to close out the day’s action. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Toronto at Buffalo: Only two more editions of the Battle of the QEW go down this season, and one is tonight.
  • Ottawa at Montréal: Speaking of rivalries, this one is kind of important since it could determine who raises an Atlantic Division banner.
  • Chicago at Florida: For five seasons, Brian Campbell was a member of the Panthers‘ blueline. This offseason, he decided to return to the Windy City.
  • Boston at New York: These clubs are currently tied for the second wildcard, but they won’t be after tonight.
  • San Jose at Nashville: Remember last year’s Western Semifinals? The Predators would probably like to exact some revenge tonight.

Since both the Canadiens and Senators are all but locks to for this year’s postseason, let’s head back to Brooklyn with the Islanders for their wildly important matchup with Boston.

 

The 38-30-6 Bruins have been in the playoff picture – or right outside it – for almost the entire season. A mistimed four-game losing skid (then again, when does a four-game losing skid ever come at an appropriate time?) has felled them to the second of those two categories.

Of course, this is not the first position Boston has lost in the last month. For a long while, the Bruins actually had command of third place in the Atlantic Division, but they ceded that too to a Maple Leafs team that has won seven of its last 10 games.

The main reason for this fall from grace? I’d argue sub-par play in net by 33-20-4 Tuukka Rask. He’s been in net for all four of these contests, and the Bruins have allowed an average of five goals against. In fact, his .842 save percentage and 4.53 GAA from March 16 through last night’s action is the fifth and second-worst efforts in the NHL, respectively, in that time span.

“But Rask is a great goaltender!” said Bruins fans.

And I agree; yes, he is great. He’s also no spring chicken anymore. Rask just celebrated his 30th birthday not too long ago, which makes him older than the average goaltender throughout the 2000s (per Quant Hockey), whether by mean (28.81) or median (28.3).

Whether you’re in the camp of believing Bruce Cassidy needs to play 5-5-1 Anton Khudobin more often or Don Sweeney needs to provide a better backup than a nearly 31-year-old Russian is inconsequential to the fact that Rask needs more breaks. With 59 starts, Rask has played the third-most games in a NHL crease this season, and the other two goalies with more starts are younger than him (though not by much in Cam Talbot‘s case).

Making the exhausted netminder’s demise even more troublesome is that the defense playing in front of him is one of the better – and improving – corps in the league. Over this sour stretch, they’ve allowed only 117 shots to reach his net (29.25 per game), which is barely worse than their 25.6 average allowed per game for the entire season that ranks second-best in the league.

He doesn’t wear the Bruins‘ “C” for nothing. Captain Zdeno Chara has been at the forefront of that effort with his team-leading 124 shot blocks, followed closely behind by Adam McQuaid‘s 122. Center Patrice Bergeron has also been very impressive on the defensive front, as his 59 takeaways are second-most on the club. Brad Marchand has one more for the squad lead, but he also tops (Or would it be bottoms?) the team in the opposite statistic with his 74 turnovers.

When looking at the season as a whole, Boston usually finds more than enough success on the penalty kill, as their 84.5% kill rate is sixth-best in the league. Of course, this rough patch hasn’t been so kind. The Bruins have allowed seven power play goals against (you guessed it, most in the league in this time-span) for a measly 63.1% kill rate.

One thing that has gone Boston‘s way over the past 10 days has been their power play. Co-led by Torey Krug and Ryan Spooner‘s three man-advantage points, as well as David Krejci and David Pastrnak‘s two man-advantage goals, the Bruins have scored on 35.7% of their opponents’ penalties – the best mark in the league in that span. That’s not exactly a surprise though. Boston has been successful on 21.2% of their power plays all year, the eighth-best rate in the league.

First it was the Leafs taking advantage of the Bruins‘ fall from grace. Now it’s the 35-26-12 Islanders, a team riding a two-game winning streak.

This success is a far cry from where New York was before Doug Weight took command of the ship. Former head coach Jack Capuano had only managed a 17-17-8 record – the worst mark in the Eastern Conference. But since then, the Isles have gone on an 18-9-4 run to climb back into the eighth place in the East. In fact, that’s the fifth-best record in the league since Capuano’s firing, better even than teams like Columbus and Nashville.

The main reason for that improvement is New York‘s potent offense. The Islanders have buried 96 goals under Weight, which ties for the fourth-highest total in the league since January 17. Behind that effort is none other than John Tavares, who’s registered 32 of his 64 points on the campaign. Anders Lee also came alive, as he’s registered 13 goals to lead the team during the Weight-era.

Ready to be even more impressed by the Islanders‘ resurgent offense? They do it almost exclusively at even-strength. In fact, New York‘s power play is borderline atrocious, as they only convert 15.8% of their opportunities – the fifth-worst rate in the league.

If recent history is any indicator, it looks like the Bruins are on their way to their fifth-straight loss, as they have yet to beat New York this year in their previous two meetings. The last time these clubs ran into each other was January 16 in Boston. Between Nikolai Kulemin‘s two-goal night (one-sixth of his season total!) and Thomas Greiss‘ 32-save shutout, the Islanders walked out of the TD Garden with a 4-0 victory.

Ironically, that was Capuano’s last game as head coach of the Isles. My, how the story has come full circle.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Boston‘s Marchand (37 goals [third-most in the NHL] for 80 points [fourth-most in the league]) and Rask (six shutouts [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] among 33 wins [tied for fifth-most in the league]) & New York‘s Josh Bailey (38 assists [leads the team]) and Cal Clutterbuck (199 hits [leads the team]).

Though they might be a little tired from their shootout victory in Pittsburgh last night, I’m inclined to pick the Islanders right now. Something tells me that only one day off is not enough for Rask, and everything seems to be going New York‘s way right now.

Hockey Birthday

  • Ken Wregget (1964-) – Toronto selected this goaltender 45th-overall in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, but he spent most of his career with the Penguins. By the time his career was through, he’d earned a 225-248-53 record and hoisted the 1992 Stanley Cup.
  • Ladislav Benysek (1975-) – This defensemen was selected in the 11th round by Edmonton in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, but he spent most of his four-year career in the league with Minnesota. Over 161 games in the NHL, he accumulated only 15 points for a -28 rating.

With their 4-3 shootout victory against Pittsburgh in the DtFR Game of the Day, the Islanders have improved to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

With six goals in regulation, you’d figure there’d be two a period, right? Not last night. Instead, five were struck in the second frame, and another in the third.

The scoring started 1:54 after beginning the second period when Third Star of the Game Cameron Gaunce (Matt Cullen and Phil Kessel) buried a slap shot for the second goal of his career. 2:54 later, Second Star Brock Nelson (Joshua Ho-Sang and Alan Quine) tied the game at one-all, the score that held until Lee (Bailey and First Star Tavares) scored a wrist shot to give New York the lead 4:30 later. Now it was Pittsburgh‘s turn to pull even, and Sidney Crosby (Chad Ruhwedel and Conor Sheary) was up to the task with 6:19 remaining in the frame. With five seconds remaining before the second intermission, Casey Cizikas (Tavares) found the back of the net to send the Isles to the dressing room with a 3-2 lead.

After all that action, the final goal of regulation wasn’t struck until 6:10 remained in regulation. Cullen (Gaunce and Kessel) scored his wrister to tie the game at three-all, the score that held through the remainder of regulation and the five minute three-on-three overtime period.

Looks like this one will have to be decided in the shootout. The Pens elected to go second…

  1. …meaning Anthony Beauvillier was up first. He scored on Marc-Andre Fleury, giving New York an early shootout lead.
  2. Kessel had the chance to tie the shootout, but Jaroslav Halak was up to the task and made the save.
  3. Weight called Tavares’ number next as if he knew the captain would score him another goal. With a 2-0 shootout lead, the Pens were in a miss-and-lose situation.
  4. Speaking of captains, that’s exactly who took Pittsburgh‘s next shootout attempt. Crosby had better luck than Kessel and scored his shot to keep the Penguins alive.
  5. Andrew Ladd took what proved to be the Islanders‘ final shootout attempt, but was unable to beat Fleury to win the game.
  6. Instead, Halak provided the victory by saving Nick Bonino‘s shot.

Halak saved 37-of-40 shots faced (92.5%) for the victory, leaving the shootout loss to Fleury after he stopped 43-of-46 (93.5%).

It was the second-straight DtFR Game of the Day to be decided by shootout, but the fact that this one was decided by the 80-56-23 visitors gives them a one-point advantage over the road teams in the series.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #52- The Penguin Flavored Podcast

In a surprisingly Pittsburgh filled edition of the DTFR Podcast, Nick and Connor discuss Sidney Crosby’s antics, wild card situations, Bruins stuff and more. *Does not actually contain any natural or artificial flavors of penguin.