It’s Thursday once again, my favorite day of the week. There’s a dozen games taking place tonight, starting with five (Philadelphia at New Jersey [TVAS], Winnipeg at the New York Islanders, Nashville at Washington [NHLN], Minnesota at Carolina and Florida at Columbus [TVAS]) at 7 p.m. Another pair of contests (Chicago at Ottawa [RDS] and Toronto at Tampa Bay) drop the puck half an hour later, followed by Boston at Edmonton at 9 p.m. The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. with two matches (Dallas at Vancouver and Detroit at Arizona), followed half an hour later by tonight’s co-nightcaps: Buffalo at Los Angeles and St. Louis at San Jose. All times eastern.
- Philadelphia at New Jersey: It’s the second rivalry game in as many nights for the Flyers.
- Toronto at Tampa Bay: Not only is it the return of Brian Boyle to Amalie Arena, but it’s also an important game in the race for the Eastern Conference’s second wildcard.
- St. Louis at San Jose: These teams combined to create a thrilling six-game series for the Campbell Bowl last postseason.
To put things simply, there’s a lot on the line in the Toronto–Tampa game that we just can’t miss.
Although Philadelphia‘s victory over the Penguins last night gave the Flyers a bit of playoff hope, it’s really a three-team race for the Eastern Conference’s second wild card going into the final 14-ish games of the season.
After last night’s action, the Isles have a one-point lead on 10th-place Toronto, and win the regulation+overtime victories tiebreaker against ninth-place Tampa Bay.
To keep math simple in regards to how tonight’s featured matchup effects the standings, know this: As long as the Islanders don’t beat Winnipeg tonight, the winner of this game will move into the second wild card in the Eastern Conference – at least for a day.
Even if all three clubs finish the night with 78 points (that happens if the Isles and Lightning both fall in overtime), Toronto takes over eighth-place with a game in-hand. In that situation, New York and Tampa Bay would remain in the order they’re in right now, but fall a step in the standings.
Clear as mud? Good.
With the most to gain this evening, the Maple Leafs enter tonight’s game with a 31-23-14 record, which is already the most wins they’ve had since their 38-36-8 season in 2013-’14 (man, the East was stacked that year too). The main reason Toronto is having to work so hard for a playoff spot is due to its lackluster defense, which has allowed 198 goals against in 68 games – the seventh-worst rate in the NHL.
More often than not, 27-15-13 Frederik Andersen has been the man between the pipes for the Leafs, and he’s done a better job than his .916 season save percentage and 2.73 GAA indicate. Although those statistics rank only (t)13th and (t)29th in the league, respectively, among the 37 goalies with at least 28 appearances, he’s performed well under the circumstances.
Those circumstances being, of course, a defense that allows 32.7 shots against per game, the third-highest rate in the entire NHL and worst among playoff hopefuls.
If there’s anything to get excited about regarding Toronto‘s defensive corps, its that Nikita Zaitsev, one of the seven rookies on the roster that gets regular playing time, is the leading shot blocker on the team, having registered 117 already this season. Not only will the 25-year-old continue to develop, but more high-class free agents will be attracted to Toronto this offseason to better bolster the blueline.
That being said, the Leafs‘ defense repeatedly shows they’re potential when they’re forced into a shorthanded situation. By rejecting 82.9% of opposing power plays, Toronto ranks eighth-best in the league on the penalty kill. Much of that credit belongs to Roman Polak, who leads the team with 31 shorthanded blocks.
Given the fact that the Maple Leafs drafted potentially the next greatest player in hockey (or at least the next greatest forward), it’s no surprise that they’re really, really good on the power play. What is surprising, though, is that it’s not Auston Matthews heading that attack. Instead, it’s fellow rookie William Nylander, whose team-leading 22 power play points have sparked a 23.5% penalty-conversion rate, the second-best mark in the NHL. Nazem Kadri has been responsible for a bunch of those goals – 11, to be accurate, which is the most in Toronto.
With arguably the most to lose tonight, Tampa Bay plays host this evening with a 34-26-9 record. Just like with Toronto, there is one main reason Tampa finds itself on the outside of playoff picture looking in – but it’s on the opposite end of the ice (or the same end, depending on how you look at it). Winners of their last four, the Lightning‘s biggest worry is offense, as they have managed only 187 goals this season – the 13th-fewest in the league.
No matter how hard Nikita Kucherov tries, he just can’t seem to pull the Bolts along. He’s having a solid season with his team-leading 69 points and 31 goals (both totals already career highs with 13 games to go), but his team simply will not follow him.
The fact that Tyler Johnson is the second-best forward on the team is all the proof I need: behind Kucherov, his 44 points and 19 goals are most in Tampa Bay. Those totals do not even break into the top-50 in the NHL. Simply put, more than one player needs to provide offense for a club to find true success, and I don’t trust Johnson to truly step up to fill that secondary role.
Of course, I can rail against the Bolts‘ offense all I want, but it’s hard to argue with a power play that is successful on 22.4% of attempts (fourth-best in the league). Kucherov is at the head of that attack too with his 14 goals, but it’s actually Victor Hedman who leads the team in power play points with 27 to his credit.
For division rivals (we’re using that term loosely right now), it’s surprising this is only the third meeting of the season between these two clubs. With both teams beating the other once this season, the Bolts have a slight edge in the series due to forcing overtime in their 3-2 loss on December 29 – the last time they met the Leafs.
Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Tampa Bay‘s Peter Budaj (seven shutouts [second-most in the league] and a 2.15 GAA [fifth-best in the NHL] for 28 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]), Hedman (45 assists [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]) and Kucherov (31 goals for 69 points [both tied for eighth-most in the league]) & Toronto‘s Jake Gardiner (+25 [leads the team]), Mitch Marner (37 assists [leads the team]) and Matt Martin (254 hits [leads the team]).
With a -128 line, Vegas seems reasonably confident that the Lightning will pull out a victory this evening with home ice. I don’t feel as confident in that pick, since I believe Toronto‘s offense is superior to Tampa‘s defense. It’ll be a good contest, but I like to Leafs to earn the victory.
- Roger Crozier (1942-1996) – The first two years of this goaltender’s 14-year career were phenomenal. Making his debut in Detroit in the 1963-’64 season, he won the 1965 Calder Trophy on a 2.42 GAA, followed a year later by hoisting the Conn Smythe with seven shutouts.
- Duane Sutter (1960-) – Players selected 17th-overall are expected to produce. By winning four Stanley Cups in a row for the Islanders, this right wing did just that. He marked 45 points in those four Cup runs, including 20 goals.
- Riley Cote (1982-) – This right wing appeared in four NHL seasons – all with the Flyers. An enforcer by trade, he now earns his paycheck as an assistant coach with Philadelaphia‘s AHL farm team.
- Brandon Prust (1984-) – Calgary selected this left wing 70th-overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, but his longest tenured team is the Rangers. He is still playing hockey professionally, but with Nürnberg in the DEL.
Scoring a goal every 10 minutes is usually a good way to earn a victory. That’s what the Bruins did for the final two periods to beat Calgary 5-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day. That loss snaps Calgary‘s 10-game winning streak.
It was actually the Flames that opened the scoring, courtesy of an Alex Chiasson (Lance Bouma and Matt Stajan) wrist shot 9:23 into the game. Third Star of the Game David Pastrnak (Zdeno Chara) pulled Boston even 2:24 later with a wrister that proved to be the final tally of the opening frame.
6:04 after returning from the break, the score read 2-1 in favor of the visitors. First Star Brad Marchand continued his impressive season by scoring his 36th goal of the year, an unassisted backhanded shot. 70 seconds later, Dougie Hamilton scored an unassisted marker of his own, a wrister, to once again tie the score. Yet it proved to be Calgary‘s final goal of the night, meaning David Backes‘ (David Krejci) wrister with 8:57 remaining in the second period proved to be the winning-tally.
The back-and-forth between home and away teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series continues. After tonight’s victory by the club in white, the 75-53-22 road teams now have a one-point lead over the hosts in the series.