March 18 – Day 150 – The previewiest of playoff previews

Saturdays are known for being action-packed, and today does not disappoint with its 10 contests. The first two games (Colorado at Detroit and Columbus at the New York Islanders [NHLN]) are matinees and drop the puck at 1 p.m. They’re just a sampler of excitement to come, as five matchups (the New York Rangers at Minnesota [NHLN], Chicago at Toronto [CBC/CITY], Montréal at Ottawa [SN/TVAS], Washington at Tampa Bay and Nashville at Carolina) get underway at the usual 7 p.m. starting time. St. Louis at Arizona gets green-lit two hours later, followed by Vancouver at Edmonton (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. and Anaheim at San Jose at 10:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Colorado at Detroit: It’s an old-school, former Western Conference rivalry between teams that have seen better days.
  • Chicago at Toronto: For the first time in a long while, the Blackhawks‘ lone visit to the Air Canada Centre should provide a thrilling contest.
  • Montréal at Ottawa: The Atlantic Division lead is on the line in this rivalry tonight, the first half of a home-and-home series this weekend.
  • Anaheim at San Jose: Another rivalry, this one takes place in another competitive division: the Pacific.

I tried to come up with a better reason for any other game, but this weekend’s home-and-home between the top two teams in the Atlantic Division is just too big to ignore. Off to the Canadian capital!

 

Talk about a playoff preview. Not only does tonight’s game offer a look into a potential second round meeting between these two clubs, but the fact that they square off again tomorrow night at the Bell Centre gives a full sense of how that series could play out.

Oh yeah, and these teams aren’t necessarily fond of each other to start with. As if this weekend’s games couldn’t get more exciting, they just found a way too.

Of course, the 39-23-8 Canadiens cast a large, imposing shadow in light of both what they’ve done in their history as well as what they’ve simply done this year. They’ve topped the Atlantic Division for effectively the entire season, and it’s all been on the back of their incredible goaltending which has allowed only 174 goals against, which ties for seventh-fewest in the NHL.

A major reason for that is the fact that 31-17-5 Carey Price calls Montréal home (shh, we’re not talking about how he’s originally from Canucks-country). Joint-winner of the 2015 William M. Jennings Trophy, he has a .922 season save percentage and 2.27 GAA, the seventh and eighth-best rates, respectively, among the 40 goaltenders with at least 27 appearances.

Price is excellent on his own, but it doesn’t hurt to have one of the better defensive corps in the league playing in front of him. Led by Shea Weber and his team-leading 143 shot blocks, that’s exactly what Cluade Julien has at his disposal, as the Habs‘ blueline has allowed only 29.8 shots against per game, which ties for the 10th-best effort in the league.

If you like goaltender matchups, this weekend’s series is the one for you. The 39-23-7 Senators have been stuck in Montréal‘s shadow for most of the season, even though they trail the Habs for first place in the Atlantic by only one point. They are another team that prefer to grind out a victory, as they’ve allowed only 176 goals against – the ninth-fewest in the NHL.

Although 21-8-1 Craig Anderson had resumed his starting responsibilities since rejoining the Sens, he’s been forced to miss the last two games with a lower body injury. With that in mind, I’d guess that 18-12-6 Mike Condon – a former Montréal goaltender – will once again be called into the fray. The second-year player is definitely the second-best netminder Guy Boucher has had at his disposal this season, but he hasn’t been abysmal. In fact, Condon’s .914 season save percentage and 2.49 GAA (those numbers include his short time with Pittsburgh earlier in the year) ranks 25th and 18th-best in the league, respectively, among the 50 other goalies with at least 18 appearances.

Beyond experience, what makes Condon’s task a little more difficult than counterpart Price’s is the fact that Ottawa‘s defense is not on par with that of Montréal‘s. Even with Erik Karlsson‘s league-leading 187 shot blocks, the Senators still allow 30.3 shots to reach their netminder’s crease per game, which is the 15th-highest average in the league.

Another facet of the game where the Sens definitely do not have an advantage over the Canadiens is in the power play. Though led by Karlsson’s 23 power play points, Ottawa has converted only 17.7% of its man-advantages into goals – the 10th-worst rate in the NHL. That being said, Mike Hoffman has been a shining star on the power play, as he has buried a dozen goals with the extra-man, which ties for fourth-most in the league.

It’s been all Ottawa so far this season when these two clubs have met, as the Senators have a three-point advantage in the two-game series. The last time they squared off was on November 22 in Montréal where, thanks to Karlsson’s game-winning third period goal, the Sens won 4-3.

Some players to keep an eye on tonight include Montréal‘s Max Pacioretty (33 goals [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]) and Price (31 wins on a .922 save percentage [both seventh-best in the league] and a 2.27 GAA [eighth-best in the NHL]) & Ottawa‘s Condon (five shutouts [tied for fifth-most in the league]) and Karlsson (50 assists [tied for second-most in the NHL]).

Vegas is favoring a lot of road teams this evening, and Montréal is one of them – Ottawa‘s line reads +100. In light of the previous two meetings between these clubs, it would seem tough to favor the Habs, but the fact that Condon was not involved in those games is enough for me to go with the club wearing white.

Hockey Birthday

  • Stanley Cup (1892-) – You might have heard of this. It’s only the most desired trophy in the sport of hockey, if not all sports. You know, nothing major.
  • Guy Lapointe (1948-) – Speaking of the Stanley Cup, this defenseman hoisted it six times, all with the club he played a majority of his career with: Montréal. The four-time All Star was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993.
  • Guy Carbonneau (1960-) – The Canadiens certainly have an affinity for Guys, as they drafted this center 44th-overall in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. He played in Montréal for most of his 19-year career, and won two of his three Stanley Cups with the club. He also won three Frank J. Selke Trophies.
  • Kimmo Timonen (1975-) – Although selected by Los Angeles in the 10th-round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, this defenseman ended up being a four-time All Star. He spent most of his career in Nashville, but was a member of Chicago‘s 2015 Stanley Cup winning team.
  • Zdeno Chara (1977-) – Although now known most for his 11 seasons with the Bruins, this defenseman was actually selected by the Islanders 56th-overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft. He’s a six-time All Star and hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2011 to go with his 2009 James Norris Memorial Trophy.

A 10-round shootout, decided by Zemgus Girgensons, earned the Sabres the bonus point in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat Anaheim 2-1.

The first goal of the game was struck by Rickard Rakell (Third Star of the Game Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour), a backhanded shot with 8:12 remaining in the first period. It is Rakell’s 31st goal of the year, an total made even more impressive since he missed 11 games this season.

Ryan O’Reilly (Jake McCabe and Second Star Jack Eichel) is the man responsible for leveling the game at one-all. He buried a slap shot with 4:25 remaining in the second period after Eichel’s 29th assist of the season.

Since I’ve already spoiled the surprise of the shootout, let’s jump right there, as none of the 30 combined shots in the third period or overtime found the back of the net.

  1. As the home team, the Ducks had the opportunity to go first in the shootout. They sent out Jakob Silfverberg, who’s shot was saved by Anders Nilsson.
  2. Speaking of saves, that’s exactly what First Star Jonathan Bernier did to Tyler Ennis. The shootout score stayed at 0-0.
  3. Next up was Ryan Getzlaf, who buried his shot for Anaheim.
  4. O’Reilly was quick to hold serve for the Sabres, once again tying the shootout at one-all.
  5. Rakell: saved by Nilsson.
  6. Eichel: saved by Bernier. Shootout still tied at 1-1.
  7. Corey Perry missed the net.
  8. Sam Reinhart: saved by Bernier. Still tied at 1-1.
  9. Patrick Eaves: saved by Nilsson.
  10. Evander Kane missed the net. 1-1 still.
  11. Fowler: saved by Nilsson.
  12. Matt Moulson missed the net. Yup, still 1-1.
  13. Antoine Vermette: saved by Nilsson.
  14. Brian Gionta: saved by Bernier. You know the shootout score by now.
  15. Ryan Kesler: saved by Nilsson.
  16. Evan Rodrigues: saved by Bernier. Still tied at 1-1.
  17. Brandon Montour broke the monotony by beating Nilsson, forcing a miss-and-lose situation for the Sabres.
  18. Under that pressure, Dan Bylsma sent out Rasmus Ristolainen, which proved to be the right choice. The defenseman continued the shootout by tying it at 2-2.
  19. Nick Ritchie: saved by Nilsson.
  20. Girgensons found the game-winner on his stick, pulling the Sabres within eight points of the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Nilsson earned the victory after saving 39-of-40 (97.5%) shots faced in regulation and overtime, leaving the shootout loss to Bernier, who saved 30-of-31 (96.8%).

After all that, the 77-52-22 road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a four-point advantage on home teams, due in part to their three-game winning streak.

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