March 1 – Day 133 – Birds of prey

There’s only two games on Wednesday’s schedule, but don’t let that distract from the quality of at least one of the matchups. The action starts at 7 p.m. with Carolina at Tampa Bay, followed an hour later by Pittsburgh at Chicago (NBCSN/SN/TVAS).

Although the Lightning are fighting valiantly to break into the playoff discussion, there’s no way we’re passing up the opportunity to witness a potential Stanley Cup Finals preview.

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The Penguins make their yearly trip to the United Center with a 38-15-8 record, the third-best mark in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. As you’d expect from a club that has one of the all-time best players at the helm, offense is the name of the game for the Pens, as they’ve accounted for 211 goals this year – the most in the NHL.

That player hinted at above is, of course, Captain Sidney Crosby. He’s scored 34 goals for 67 points, both the best marks on the squad. On pace for 93 points by season’s end, it’ll be his best campaign since 2013-’14 when he broke the 100-point mark for the fifth time of his career.

With an offense like that, it’s hard to struggle on the power play. Considered, is a 21.6% conversion rate – ninth-best in the league – struggling? Regardless of the answer (I’d argue yes, but I’m also a little biased), Phil Kessel has been an absolute machine when his club has the man-advantage. He’s registered 26 points on the power play this season, which ties for the best mark in the league. Most of those have been helpers though, as he’s preferred to set up Crosby, who has a team-high 11 extra-man goals.

Playing host this evening are the 39-18-5 Blackhawks, the second-best team in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. As you’d expect from a club that has won its last four games and has such a position in the conference table, Chicago plays very well on both ends of the ice, yet it’s their offense that has been powering this team this season, as they’ve accounted for 185 goals in 62 games – the seventh-best rate in the league.

It’s nowhere near last year’s Hart, Lindsay and Ross-winning 106- point performance, but Patrick Kane is still the man making the Blackhawks machine run. He leads the club with 65 points and 24 goals.

What is probably the biggest surprise for a team of this caliber is how much Chicago has struggled on the penalty kill. Successfully neutralizing only 76.4% of opposing power plays, the Blackhawks rank third-worst in the NHL. The injured Niklas Hjalmarsson has tried his hardest to resolve this issue with his 34 shorthanded shot blocks, but he’s the only member of the club to have more than 25 to his credit.

Only one other team currently qualifying for the playoffs – the Montréal Canadiens – can claim one of the bottom-10 penalty kills in the league. They’ve already made an effort to resolve that issue by trading for Johnny Oduya, who’s 22 shorthanded blocks on the season already rank second-most for the Hawks without him even playing a game in a red sweater.

Both clubs have a lot to gain from a victory tonight. If the visiting Penguins come away with victory (heck, even if they only force the game beyond regulation), they’ll improve to second-place in the Metropolitan Division – though they don’t really clear Columbus, as the Jackets will trail by only two points and have a game in hand. Pittsburgh also has the most to lose from a regulation loss for that exact same reason, as well as the Rangers trailing them by only two points.

Less pressure is on the Hawks as far as losing is concerned, but winning provides a valuable prize. Since the Wild, who lead Chicago by five points, are inactive tonight, the Blackhawks would pull within three points of the Western Conference lead.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.929 save percentage [tied for second-best in the NHL] for a 2.18 GAA [tied for fourth-best in the league]) and Kane (41 assists [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] for 65 points [tied for fifth-most in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (34 goals [most in the NHL] for 67 points [second-most in the league]), Evgeni Malkin (62 points [eighth-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.926 save percentage [tied for fifth-best in the league] for a 2.29 GAA [ninth-best in the NHL]) and Justin Schultz (+30 [tied for fifth-best in the league]).

Chicago is absolutely rolling right now. In their last 10 games, they’ve only lost one contest. One. Of course, the Penguins are a more than worthy adversary, but I don’t see the Blackhawks getting pushed around too much at the United Center.

Hockey Birthday

  • Max Bentley (1920-1984) – The most successful of the three Bentley brothers, this Hall-of-Fame center played a dozen seasons in the NHL – most of which in Toronto. In his six campaigns with the Maple Leafs, he hoisted the Stanley Cup three times. The four-time All-Star also won the 1943 Lady Byng and 1946 Hart Memorial Trophies.
  • Allan Stanley (1926-2013) – This defenseman also had a knack for hoisting the Cup, as he did it four times over his 21-season career – all with Toronto, his longest tenured club. Named to the Hall of Fame in 1981, he played in seven All-Star games.
  • Ron Francis (1963-) – Greatness must have been created on this date, as this Hall of Fame center was also born on March 1. Selected by Hartford fourth-overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, Francis played almost his entire 23-year career with the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise. Two of the years he was absent from the organization were spent in Pittsburgh, where he won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The four-time All-Star won the Byng Trophy three times, as well as the 1995 Frank Selke and the 2002 King Clancy Memorial Trophies.
  • Brad Winchester (1981-) – Known most for his St. Louis days, this left wing was selected 35th-overall by Edmonton in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. He officially retired from the NHL in 2015, three years after his final appearance in the league.
  • Alex Steen (1984-) – Picked 24th-overall by Toronto in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, this center is playing his ninth season in St. Louis this year. He’s scored 520 points during his career, 209 of which are goals.

Washington took the Rangers to the woodshed in yesterday’s DtFR Game of they Day, as they won 4-1 at the Madison Square Garden.

New York‘s lone tally was struck only 5:08 into the game, belonging to Brady Skjei (Adam Clendening and J.T. Miller) on a tip-in. The Blueshirts‘ 1-0 lead held into the first intermission.

The Capitals finally got on the board at the 27:28 mark of regulation with a snap shot from First Star of the Game Marcus Johansson (Dmitry Orlov and Second Star Evgeny Kuznetsov), followed 8:58 later by Brett Connolly‘s (Third Star Matt Niskanen and Lars Eller) wrist shot that proved to be the game-winner. No other scores were struck in the second period, leaving the score at 2-1 going into the second intermission.

Johansson (Kuznetsov and Niskanen) and Nicklas Backstrom (Johansson and John Carlson) provided the two insurance goals in the final frame to put the final nails in New York‘s coffin.

Braden Holtby earned the victory by saving 29-of-30 shots faced (96.7%), leaving the loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 34-of-38 (89.5%).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have earned points in each and every one of the past 12 games to earn a 70-43-22 record – a dozen points better than hosts in the series.

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