March 12 – Day 144 – Wild-Hawks: not a biker gang

Every Sunday is Sunday Funday during hockey season.

I’m going to consider that my application for the NHL’s marketing department. Feel free to tweet me (@connorzkeith) to set up an interview. That’s what professionals do, right? Tweet people important things?

Anyways, while they’re composing their tweet, let’s watch some hockey. There’s lots to watch today, starting with the Minnesota at Chicago (NBC/TVAS) matinee at 12:30 p.m. The usual 7 p.m. starting time marks the beginning of two contests (Montréal at Edmonton [RDS/SN] and the New York Rangers at Detroit [NBCSN]), followed two-and-a-half hours later by Washington at Anaheim (NHLN). Finally, Dallas at San Jose drops the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the day’s action. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Minnesota at Chicago: A rivalry game between the top-two teams in the Western Conference? Yes, please.
  • New York at Detroit: Original Six? Check. Return of Brendan Smith to Motown? Check.

It’s been hard to ignore a game between the Blackhawks and Wild all season, so we can’t stop today. Off to the United Center!

 

This is the fourth time these teams have met this season, and the fourth time the matchup has been featured as the DtFR Game of the Day.

In other words, I’m really committed to this rivalry.

But I should be! Today’s game features two of the top-five teams in the league and, should Chicago win, could leave the Wild with only a one-point lead in the Central Division with under 16 games remaining in the regular season.

As they’ve been for a majority of the season, the 43-17-6 Wild enter tonight’s game as the best team in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. The reason for that success? Their incredible offense, which has managed 218 goals – the second-most in the NHL.

Speaking of topping the charts, Mikael Granlund has been doing just that within Minnesota‘s offense on his team-leading 62 points. In only the fifth year of his NHL career, he continues to raise the bar regarding his abilities and contributions, as he sets a new career-high in all scoring statistics each year. Another of those stats is his 22 goals, another way he paces Minnesota. Four Wild skaters have 20 or more tallies, an incredible total.

While I would argue Minnesota is better when facing a full-strength defense compared to a short-handed opponent, that’s not to say its power play is poor. Led by – you guessed it – Granlund and his 18 extra-man points, the Wild have successfully converted 21.2% of their power plays – the eighth-best rate in the league. Granlund transitions into more of a passing role in Bruce Boudreau‘s offensive special team, instead opting to set up Nino Niederreiter, who has the club-lead in power play goals with eight.

Oh, and the penalty kill? Minnesota is pretty good at that, too. Thanks in large part to Jared Spurgeon‘s squad-leading 18 shorthanded shot blocks, the Wild have properly defended 83.7% of their undermanned situations, the seventh-best rate in the NHL.

Playing host this evening are the 42-20-5 Blackhawks, the second-best team in both the Central and the West. In a surprising turn of events, the facet of Chicago‘s game that I’ve been most impressed with has been their goaltending. While the offense is still as imposing as ever, the Hawks have allowed only 168 goals so far this year – the sixth-fewest in the NHL.

Of course, that effort always starts with the goaltender, and the Blackhawks have a good one in 26-15-3 Corey Crawford. He’s earned a .918 season save percentage for a 2.55 GAA, the 12th and (t)18th-best marks, respectively, among the 46 goalies with at least 22 appearances.

If the netminder is good and the offense is good, why does he have 15 regulation losses? You’ll notice defense is left out of that list, mostly because the Hawks‘ blueline has been… forgettable this year. Even though Niklas Hjalmarsson has an impressive 157 shot blocks to lead the team (he’s also tied for fourth-most in the league), his defense still allows 31.1 shots-against-per-game, the 10th-worst rate in the league.

But since the trade deadline, things are slowly improving in the Windy City. The Hawks‘ big add on the last day of February was Johnny Oduya. While not influencing shots the way he did two or three years ago, he does add experience along the blueline that has dropped to eighth-fewest shots-against since his arrival.

No matter how good the goaltender is, a bad defense usually yields a poor penalty kill. That’s the biggest pitfall for the Hawks this year, as they’ve neutralized only 77.6% of their shorthanded situations, the fourth-worst rate in the league. Just like he does the rest of the time, Hjalmarsson is the primary defenseman in this situation with his team-leading 34 shorthanded shot blocks. He’s not the problem.

Instead, he and Brent Seabrook are the only two blueliners with at least 15 shorthanded blocks to their credit this season, a lousy, too-small group. If this club has any intentions of winning four-straight even-numbered year Stanley Cups, more defensemen will need to get involved in the penalty kill.

If previous meetings are any indication, Chicago should win tonight’s game, albeit narrowly. Against the Wild this season, the Hawks have gone 2-1-0, including a 5-3 victory in the Xcel Energy Center in their most previous meeting on February 21.

Some players to keep an eye on this afternoon include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.931 save percentage [second-best in the league] for a 2.13 GAA [fourth-best in the NHL]) and Patrick Kane (71 points [tied for third-most in the league] with 42 assists [seventh-most in the NHL]) & Minnesota‘s Devan Dubnyk (36 wins on a .932 save percentage [both best in the league] and a 2.03 GAA [second-best in the NHL], including five shutouts [tied for fifth-most in the league]), Granlund (+28 [eighth-best in the NHL]), Mikko Koivu (+31 [tied for fourth-best in the league]), Spurgeon (+33 [tied for second-best in the NHL]), Ryan Suter (+35 [best in the league]) and Jason Zucker (+33 [tied for second-best in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked Chicago a -130 favorite to win this afternoon’s contest. While I am concerned about the Hawks‘ penalty kill against the Wild‘s solid power play, I’ll stick with the experts. This should be a fantastic game, but I’ll give the home team the advantage.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bronco Horvath (1930-) – A two-time All Star, this center spent most of his nine-season NHL career in Boston. His best campaign was easily his 1959-’60 effort when he buried 39 goals for 80 points.
  • Douglas Murray (1980-) – San Jose selected this defenseman in the eighth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he spent almost his entire nine-year career in the league. In 2007-’08 he managed a +20 with 10 points, but he was never able to replicate that defensive prowess over the remainder of his playing days.

After spotting the Panthers two first period goals, Tampa Bay notched three unanswered goals to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day 3-2.

Florida didn’t score its first tally until 3:28 remained in the opening frame. The Ageless Wonder Jaromir Jagr (Aleksander Barkov and Jon Marchessault) takes credit for his 14th of the season with a wrist shot to beat Second Star of the Game Andrei Vasilevskiy. Mark Pysyk (Reilly Smith and Barkov) provided the Panthers‘ second tally only 2:41 later, setting the score at 2-0 going into the first intermission.

Jon Cooper must have had some choice words for the Lightning during the break, because the team that emerged from the dressing room was not the one that entered it. 3:43 after retaking the ice, Nikita Kucherov (Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin) buried a power play slap shot to pull the Bolts back within a goal of the Panthers. Third Star Yanni Gourde completed the comeback with 9:49 remaining in the period with an unassisted shorthanded goal, the first tally of his young career.

The game-winner waited a long time to present itself, but First Star Ondrej Palat (Andrej Sustr) forced it to present itself with 2:23 remaining in regulation. He sneaked his tip-in past James Reimer to earn the victory.

Vasilevskiy saved 32-of-34 shots faced (94.1%) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Reimer, who saved 31-of-34 (91.2%).

The third win in four days by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day has pulled series hosts  within a point of the 73-51-22 visitors.

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