March 10 – Day 142 – PETA made me change this title

Now that the week’s work is done, it’s time to settle in for a little hockey action. Tonight’s festivities start at 7 p.m. with Buffalo at Columbus, followed half an hour later by two more games (Chicago at Detroit [NHLN/SN] and Minnesota at Florida). Anaheim at St. Louis drops the puck at 8 p.m., with tonight’s nightcap – Pittsburgh at Edmonton (TVAS) – dropping the puck an hour after. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Chicago at Detroit: Everybody loves a little bit of Original Six action, right?
  • Pittsburgh at Edmonton: Justin Schultz joined the Penguins at last season’s trade deadline after four seasons with the Oilers.

Not only is Schultz’ return to northern Alberta worthy of watching, this should be an exemplary contest. To Rogers Place we go!

 

A University of Wisconsin product, this defenseman was selected 43rd-overall by Anaheim in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but the two parties were unable to reach a contract after he decided to forgo his senior year.

Similar to Jimmy Vesey this offseason, Schultz was able to be courted as a free agent by the entire league and, well, when Wayne Gretzky shows up at your door asking you to don the blue-and-orange of Edmonton, you usually do what he says.

I mean, I would.

If the 2012-’13 lockout helped anybody as far as their playing ability is concerned, it would have to be the rookies. Shultz happened to be one of those youngsters to begin his professional career during that time, so he was assigned to the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton‘s AHL affiliate) where he was able to acclimate his game to that of the pros without holding back the Oil – as if they needed help in that department those days. In fact, he was so impressive during his time playing AAA hockey that he won the Eddie Shore Award, which is awarded annually to the AHL’s top defenseman.

Whether it was the initial plan before the lockout or not, that has been the only time Schultz has spent in the AHL during his career. When the Oilers opened their season on January 20, 2013, he experienced his first career NHL game and played nearly 21 minutes.

That was the beginning of a 248 game-career in Edmonton that spanned four seasons. Known for his offensive contributions from the blueline, Schultz truly shined brightest for the Oil during his sophomore season when he scored 11 goals for 33 points.

He could not maintain that success though, and his numbers dipped from 2014-’16. That prompted Peter Chiarelli to ship the defenseman to Pittsburgh for a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (the Oilers selected Filip Berglund, who has yet to depart for the NHL from Sweden).

To put it simply, whichever scout suggested to Jim Rutherford to make that trade deserves a hefty raise if he hasn’t received one already. Schultz scored eight points in his 18 regular season games with the Penguins, only two short of his total over 45 games in Edmonton in 2015-16. He added on another four assists en route to the Stanley Cup, including three on the road in San Jose and Tampa Bay.

After considering free agency over the offseason, he returned to the Steel City for this season – and the Penguins are glad to have him. He’s having a career year, already notching 12 goals (career high) for 45 points (career high by a dozen points) and notching his first positive +/- since entering the NHL. In fact, that +28 is seventh-best in the league.

He only signed a one-year contract with the Pens this year, so he’ll once again be a free agent this offseason. Something tells me he’ll be making more than $1.4 million on his next contract regardless of if he’s wearing black-and-gold or any other colors.

Pittsburgh will probably be very interested in retaining him. It may be simply coincidence, but Schultz is riding a three-game goal streak while the Pens are also enjoying a three-game winning streak. While Pittsburgh is not undefeated when he buries the puck, it’s pretty close – the Penguins are 11-2-0 when the blueliner finds the back of the net, and 11-1-0 on his multi-point nights.

Speaking of goal-scoring, that’s beyond a shadow of a doubt the way Pittsburgh has earned their 41-16-8 record – and that’s not intended to be a Maddenism. The Pens have managed 228 goals this year, the most in the league.

Just like it’s been since the 2006-’07 season, the offensive juggernaut that is the Pittsburgh Penguins has been headlined by the dynamic duo of Captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom have 70 points to their credit. Arguably, Malkin has had the better season given the fact that he’s achieved that total on one-fewer game than Crosby, but Sid the Kid (he’s still under 30-years-old, he keeps the nickname a little longer) has the goals –  34, in fact – three more than Malkin to pace the squad.

As you’d expect from an offense of that caliber, Pittsburgh‘s power play cannot be taken lightly. Led by Phil Kessel‘s 27 man-advantage points, the Pens have converted 23.1% of their power plays – the third-best mark in the NHL. Crosby is still the one completing most of those plays though, as his 11 power play goals is one more than Malkin’s total to lead the club.

It’s a battle of strength vs. strength tonight, as the 35-23-8 Oilers are building a reputation for being one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. Edmonton ties for ninth-fewest in goals allowed, with only 170 pucks sneaking past Cam Talbot.

Remember last season when we though Chiarelli was an idiot for trading for Talbot? Yeah, that seems to be working out now for Edmonton, as he has a 33-19-7 record on a .919 save percentage and 2.4 GAA – the (t)eighth and 10th-best marks, respectively, in the league among the 35 netminders with at least 30 appearances this year.

Those numbers aren’t a major step up from last season, but the reason the Oil is finding so much more success is because the defense playing in front of Talbot has vastly improved. Last year, Edmonton‘s defense allowed 31.1 shots to reach his crease per game, the (t)fourth-highest rate in the league. This year, that number is down to 29.6, the (t)ninth-lowest. The addition of Kris Russell, who has really focused on his defensive play this season, has played a huge part in that improvement, as he leads the team with 153 shot blocks.

When the Oilers have everything under control, they’re a solid team. Put a skater in the penalty box, and all heck breaks loose. The youth on the blueline truly shows when Edmonton is forced to the penalty kill, as the Oilers‘ 79.2% penalty kill rate is eighth-worst in the NHL. Old Man Russell (he’s older than eight of the 11 defenseman that have skated for the Oilers this season) has tried his hardest with his 28 shorthanded shot blocks, but he could use more help from other experienced defensemen like Andrej Sekera.

What Edmonton gives up on the penalty kill, it gets back on the power play. Successful on 21.1% of attempts, the Oilers tie for the eighth-best attack in the NHL with the man-advantage. Leon Draisaitl has been the star of that effort with 20 power play points, as he also leads the team with his 10 extra-man goals.

As is the case with most East-West matchups this late into the season, tonight’s host has already made it’s annual visit to the opposite arena. It was not a good trip for the Oilers though, as they fell 4-3 on November 8 due to a Conor Sheary winner with 102 seconds remaining in regulation.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Edmonton‘s Connor McDavid (52 assists for 74 points [both most in the NHL]) and Talbot (33 wins [fourth-most in the league], including five shutouts [tied for fifth-most in the NHL]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (34 goals [most in the league] for 70 points [tied for second-most in the NHL]), Malkin (70 points [tied for second-most in the league] on 31 goals [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the league]) and Schultz (+28 [seventh-best in the NHL]).

Vegas has given Edmonton a +100 line for tonight’s game, which means they favor the Penguins. I have to agree with them, as Pittsburgh‘s strength is stronger than Edmonton‘s, and I think the Pens‘ penalty kill will be able to keep the Oil‘s power play in check.

As far as Schultz is concerned, he may not receive a special welcome from Edmontonians, but I get the impression he’ll want to prove Chiarelli and the Oilers made a poor decision trading him a season ago.

Hockey Birthday

  • Tuukka Rask (1987-) – Although selected 21st-overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, this goaltender has played each and every one of his 383 career games with the Bruins. Winner of the 2014 Vezina Trophy, he has a career 198-119-47 record on a .923 save percentage and 2.24 GAA, both of which tie with Cory Schneider for best in the NHL among goalies with at least 200 appearances since the 2007-’08 season.

Led by First Star of the Game Tyler Bozak‘s two-point contribution, Toronto bested the Flyers 4-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

It goes down as a come-from-behind victory for the Maple Leafs, as Wayne Simmonds (Second Star Shayne Gostisbehere and Claude Giroux) scored a power play slap shot 6:09 into the contest to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead. William Nylander (Jake Gardiner and Connor Brown) pulled Toronto even with a power play goal of his own, a wrist shot 7:48 later. The one-all score held into the first intermission.

Only one goal was struck in the second frame, and that’s where the First Star comes into play. Bozak buried his unassisted snap shot 9:28 into the period to give the Leafs a lead they would not yield the rest of the night.

With 6:16 remaining in regulation, Mitch Marner (Morgan Rielly and Bozak) scored a power play wrister for an insurance goal-turned-winner. Gostisbehere (Valtteri Filppula and Jakub Voracek) pulled Philly back within a goal 3:48 later, but an unassisted Nazem Kadri wrister on an empty net with a minute remaining in regulation ended any chance of the Flyers completing a comeback.

Third Star Frederik Andersen earned the victory after saving 36-of-38 shots faced (94.7%), leaving the loss to Michal Neuvirth, who saved 29-of-32 (90.625%).

Toronto‘s home victory is the second-straight by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, and pulls hosts within two points of the series’ 72-50-22 visitors.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s