March 11 – Day 143 – Governor’s Cup

As we get closer to the conclusion of the regular season, every Saturday gets more intense.

Of course, Saturdays are some of the busiest days in the league schedule, and today is no different. 11 games will be played today, starting with Philadelphia at Boston (NHLN/SN360) at 1 p.m. The other afternoon matinee drops the puck three hours later with Nashville at San Jose (SN). With both of those contests out of the way, five matchups (Ottawa at Colorado [CITY/TVAS], Calgary at Winnipeg [SN], Columbus at Buffalo, Florida at Tampa Bay and Toronto at Carolina [CBC]) get started at the usual 7 p.m., followed an hour later by two more (New Jersey at Arizona and the New York Islanders at St. Louis [NHLN]). Today’s festivities start wrapping up at 10 p.m. with Pittsburgh at Vancouver (CBC/SN), and that sets up tonight’s 10:30 p.m. nightcap – Washington at Los AngelesAll times eastern.

Short list:

  • Nashville at San Jose: It’s a rematch of one of last season’s Western Semifinals, and it seems like the streaky Predators are on one of their down-swings.
  • Calgary at Winnipeg: Rivalry night in Manitoba should be jumping since the Jets are still in the playoff fight.
  • Florida at Tampa Bay: Speaking of playoff implications, the Governor’s Cup should be an exciting game too, hearkening back to the last season’s Sunshine State series.
  • Pittsburgh at Vancouver: Tom Sestito could have made his first return to Rogers Arena tonight after three seasons of service to the Canucks, but a boarding suspension will delay that until at least next season.

Neither may currently be qualifying for the postseason right now, but I expect the Governor’s Cup to provide one of the best games of the night. To Amalie Arena we go!

 

Things looked dire at one point this season, yet both the Sunshine State-based clubs have fought back within range of playoff contention. Even if Florida, the worse of these two clubs in the standings, trails the Islanders by six points for eighth in the Eastern Conference, things were far worse at one point this season.

At the midway point of their season, the Panthers had a 17-16-8 record. Since then, they’ve improved to 29-26-11  – good enough for sixth in the Atlantic Division and 12th in the Eastern Conference. It sounds bad, but Florida did break into a playoff spot for a day or two, yet was unable to maintain that spot due to its anemic offense – which is also the reason for its three-game losing skid.

The Panthers have scored only 162 goals in 66 games, which ties for the sixth-worst scoring rate in the NHL. Vincent Trocheck has tried to pull his club along with his team-leading 47 points, but to no avail. That’s part of the reason his 22 goals leads the squad: nobody else on the team has had much success burying the puck. Only three skaters have more than 14 goals, an alarming number for a team that considered itself a buyer at the trade deadline.

The Panthers‘ offensive inefficiencies are no more apparent than when they’re on the power play. Successful on only 17% of attempts, Florida is the sixth-worst in the league with the man-advantage. When Florida does manage to convert an opponent’s penalty into a goal, Jon Marchessault is usually involved in the play. Normally a third-liner, he gets promoted to the first power play unit where he’s been involved in 16 scores to lead the team. Similar to Trocheck, Marchessault does a lot of his own work, as he also leads the squad in power play goals with seven.

Where the Panthers fail on the power play, they more than make up for it on the penalty kill. Led by Mark Pysyk‘s 17 shorthanded shot blocks, Florida properly defends 86.6% of their penalties – the best mark in the league.

Florida‘s comeback has been good, but Tampa‘s has been better. After their 41st game, the Lightning had a 19-18-4 record. Nowadays, they’re 31-26-9, which is good enough for fifth in the Atlantic and 10th in the East.

The similarities continue when we analyze the weakness of Tampa Bay‘s team: it’s their offense. The Bolts have managed only 179 goals so far this season, the 13th-fewest in the NHL. That’s what happens when both Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos – who combined for 46 goals and 92 points a season ago – have been sidelined for almost the entire year.

Nikita Kucherov has tried to take responsibility of the team during Stamkos’ absence, and he’s done a good job of it. He leads the side with 30 goals and 66 points, but has struggled to find a consistent dance partner. The injured Tyler Johnson has the second-most goals on the squad, but his total of 19 tallies is indicative of what the rest of the offense behind him provides.

No matter how good the Panthers are at defending against the extra attacker, they’d be wise not to push their luck with Tampa‘s power play. Headlined by Victor Hedman‘s 26 power play points, the Bolts have scored on 22.3% of their man-advantages – the fourth-best rate in the NHL. Per the usual, Kucherov has been the one scoring most the goals: he’s buried 13 power play markers.

Although they trail in the standings, the Panthers actually have the lead in the race for the 2016-’17 Governor’s Cup, as they have a 2-0-1 record against Tampa Bay. These clubs last met on January 26 and played to a 2-1 overtime game decided by Florida‘s Marchessault.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Florida‘s Michael Matheson (91 blocks [leads the team]), Trocheck (22 goals for 47 points [both lead the team]) and Keith Yandle (30 assists [leads the team]) & Tampa Bay‘s Peter Budaj (seven shutouts [second-most in the NHL] and a 2.16 GAA [fifth-best in the league] for 27 wins [ninth-most in the NHL]), Hedman (44 assists [tied for fourth-most in the league]) and Kucherov (30 goals [tied for seventh-most in the NHL] for 66 points [10th-most in the league]).

I don’t know about you, but everything’s coming up Tampa Bay for me. While not exactly a model offense, it is better than Florida‘s, and the addition of Budaj has been fantastic in bolstering their defensive team. I think  the Bolts win by at least two goals.

Hockey Birthday

  • Martin Rucinsky (1971-) – Although selected 20th-overall by Edmonton in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, this left wing played most of his career in Montréal. A journeyman that wore eight crests with seven organizations (he moved with the Nordiques to Colorado), he earned one All-Star appearance over his 16 seasons.
  • Paul Bissonnette (1985-) – A fourth-round pick by Pittsburgh in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, this left wing played all but 15 of his 202 career games with the Coyotes. Currently playing for Los Angeles‘ AHL team, he hasn’t made an NHL appearance since the 2013-’14 season.
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani (1987-) – This defenseman was selected 87th-overall by Buffalo in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he’s spent most of his career. Currently playing in the KHL, his best NHL season was in 2011-’12 when he notched 15 points between the Sabres and Canucks.

They may have needed a shootout to get it done, but the Penguins earned a 3-2 victory in Edmonton in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Both of Pittsburgh‘s goals were struck in the first period. Nick Bonino (Scott Wilson and Justin Schultz) takes credit for the first, a wrist shot 5:42 into the game. Evgeni Malkin doubled the Pens‘ differential to two by burying his shot 2:35 before the end of the period.

The Oilers‘ comeback began 4:55 into the second period when David Desharnais (Zack Kassian and Kris Russell) scored his fifth goal of the season, a wrister. That was the only tally of the frame, leaving the score at 2-1 going into the second intermission.

Edmonton finally pulled even with 7:15 remaining in regulation, and it’s partially Chad Ruhwedel‘s fault. He committed a hooking penalty to end up in the sin bin, setting up First Star of the Game Connor McDavid (Milan Lucic and Leon Draisaitl) for a power play snap shot to force a scoreless three-on-three overtime period.

That left us with only one way to determine a winner: the shootout.

  1. As the home team, Edmonton‘s Draisaitl took the first shot. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t find the back of Second Star Marc-Andre Fleury‘s net.
  2. Of course, his effort was a little better than Malkin’s. The Penguins didn’t even test Third Star Cam Talbot as his shot bounced off the post.
  3. Mark Letestu was next up for the Oil, but his attempt found the same fate as his teammates.
  4. Sidney Crosby was the first to score in the shootout, beating Talbot. That forced a miss-and-lose situation for Edmonton.
  5. He may only be an NHL sophomore, but McDavid doesn’t shy away from pressure. He found the back of Fleury’s net to prolong the shootout.
  6. The shootout turned out to last only one more shot, as Phil Kessel provided the game-winner.

Fleury earned the victory after saving 40-of-42 shots faced (95.2%), leaving the shootout loss to Talbot, who saved 28-of-30 (93.3%).

Pittsburgh‘s victory is yet another for the 73-50-22 road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Due to that, visitors in the series now have a three-point lead on the hosts.

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