April 1 – Day 164 – Ducks dominance or Oilers ownage?

Eight games will be played this penultimate Saturday of the NHL regular season, starting with Florida at Boston (SN) at 1 p.m. The other matinee of the day drops the puck an hour later and features Minnesota at Nashville. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. marks the beginning of five contests (Ottawa at Winnipeg [SN], Toronto at Detroit [CBC/NHLN], Montréal at Tampa Bay [CITY/TVAS], New Jersey at Philadelphia and Dallas at Carolina), and tonight’s nightcap – Anaheim at Edmonton (CBC/SN) – gets underway at 10 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Toronto at Detroit: Not only is this one of the more historical rivalries in the game, but Alexey Marchenko also makes his first – and last – trip to Joe Louis Arena as a visitor.
  • New Jersey at Philadelphia: The Battle of the Jersey Turnpike rages on tonight on Broad Street.
  • Anaheim at Edmonton: Oh, you know, there’s nothing major on the line in this game. Just the lead in the Pacific Division, that’s all.

There’s no joking about it, tonight’s festivities in Edmonton are going to have a significant impact on the race for the Pacific championship. Though we were just there a couple days ago, it’s off to Edmonton with us!

 

The best way to complete our three-day stop in Alberta is by featuring the best two teams in the Pacific Division. Only a point separates the Ducks and Oilers from each other with five fixtures left on the schedule.

What makes this game even more important is this is the last time they’ll run into each other this year – barring a postseason meeting. The reason for Anaheim‘s advantage can be found in their second run-in with Oilers of the year. On December 3 – ironically at Rogers Place, the same surface on which they’ll square off tonight – Edmonton needed overtime to best the Ducks 3-2.

That overtime loss is the differential in the season series between these clubs. Since both have won two of the previous four meetings, Anaheim has a one-point advantage on the Oilers in both the series and the standings as a whole.

The 42-23-12 Ducks have been playing some fantastic hockey since mid-March. They’re riding a nine-game point streak that has seen them go 7-0-2 and climb to the top of the Pacific Division.

As has been the case all year, Anaheim has made this surge on the back of its defense and goaltending. The Ducks have allowed only 17 goals in their past nine games, which is the second-fewest in the league since March 12.

Though normally bearing the title of backup, a main reason for the Ducks‘ surge is 19-7-4 Jonathan Bernier, who has been the only goaltender to take to the crease during this run. He’s played remarkably, as his .938 save percentage and 1.86 GAA over this stretch are (t)fifth and (t)seventh-best among the 42 goalies who’ve made at least four appearances since mid-March.

What makes Bernier’s play even more impressive is he hasn’t had quite the defense that he and 23-16-8 John Gibson have grown accustomed to this season. Though not by much, Anaheim‘s blueline is under-performing by their standards as they’ve allowed 30.3 shots-per-game to reach Bernier’s crease in the past nine games, which is actually sixth-tenths more than their season average.

That slight decrease in performance can’t be blamed on Hampus Lindholm or Sami Vatanen though. They’ve been playing out of their minds of late, as they both have 18 shot blocks to their credit since March 12.

Perhaps the reason for the Ducks‘ almost indiscernible drop in defensive production is due to Cam Fowler‘s recent play.  Though he averages 1.7 shot blocks per game for the entire season, that rate has dropped to 1.3 in the last nine games.

Like I said, almost indiscernible. We’re splitting hairs here; Fowler has still been excellent, as have Lindholm and Vatanen. The Ducks still have a defense to be reckoned with, not to mention the red-hot Bernier playing in net. In short, scoring against the Ducks is not an easy thing to do.

The true mark of a good defense is a solid penalty kill, and Anaheim has one of those. It ranks fifth-best on the season and stops 85.1% of opponents’ power plays. As you’d expect, the reason for the Ducks‘ success is twofold – as in two fantastic goalies. Both Bernier and Gibson save over 90% of power play shots against. Of the 28 netminders who’ve faced 175 or more man-advantage shots this season, they’re the only two goaltenders in the league who can make that claim.

Of course, every team has a hole. For the Ducks, that issue this year is the power play, and that’s especially been the case over the last 20 days. The Ducks have found the back of the net with the man-advantage only three times in the past nine games for a horrendous success rate of 10%. Only three teams in the NHL have been worse since March 12.

43-25-9 Edmonton has also been playing incredible hockey since mid-March, especially when it has the puck on its stick. Since March 14, the Oilers have buried 37 goals – five more than Carolina, Chicago and Washington (incredible offenses in their own rights) to lead the NHL. That offensive explosion has led the Oil to a 8-1-0 mark in that time, which ties for second-best in the league.

Just like it’s been all year, Todd McLellan‘s club has utilized a two-headed attack of none other than Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Both have 16 points apiece since the 14th to co-lead the league.

Since both play a solid, unselfish game, they get credit for a lot of helpers. Patrick Maroon, the final third of Edmonton‘s top line, has been the man taking advantage of that of late, as he’s potted six beauties in the past 18 days to lead the squad.

An offense of this caliber does not mess around. Since March 14, Edmonton has taken advantage of 29% of its man-advantage situations to score nine power play goals. Four of those have been a direct result of Draisaitl’s play, though they’ve all been apples. Half of those assists have gone to Mark Letestu and the other half to Milan Lucic, both of whom join Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with two power play goals apiece to headline the Oil‘s extra-man attack of late.

Maybe the most impressive part of Edmonton‘s game during this impressive run is its effort on the penalty kill. Only two tallies have resulted due to an Oilers penalty for a 91.3% kill rate, the second-best in the league in that time frame.

While 39-21-8 Cam Talbot has been good over the stretch, the real reason for Edmonton‘s success is McLellan’s leadership. The best way to succeed at the penalty kill is to avoid it, and the Oilers have been shorthanded only 23 times in their past nine games, which ties for sixth-fewest in the NHL.

The last time these squads met was only 10 days ago on March 22 at The Pond. Both Ryan Getzlaf and Lindholm added three points to their season totals to lead Anaheim to a narrow 4-3 victory over the visiting Oilers.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Anaheim‘s Getzlaf (52 assists [fifth-most in the NHL]) and Gibson (five shutouts [tied for sixth-most in the league] and a 2.28 GAA [seventh-best in the NHL] on a .921 save percentage [10th-best in the league]) & Edmonton‘s Draisaitl (72 points [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), McDavid (63 assists for 91 points [both lead the league] for a +26 [tied for eighth-best in the NHL]) and Talbot (seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the league] among 39 wins [third-most in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked the Oilers a -125 favorite to win tonight’s game. I’m going to side with the odds-makers this evening, as I trust Talbot and Edmonton‘s defense more than the Ducks‘ offense. That being said, this should be an absolutely thrilling matchup.

Hockey Birthday

  • Ken Reardon (1921-2008) – This Winnipeg-born defenseman played all of his seven-year NHL career in Montréal. Though a short career, the Hall of Famer played in three All-Star Games and hoisted the 1946 Stanley Cup.
  • Guy Trottier (1941-2014) – This right wing played only three season in the NHL, and another three in the WHA. His longest tenured NHL team was Toronto, with whom he notched 45 points in 113 games.
  • Darren McCarty (1972-) – Detroit selected this right wing 46th-overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he spent all but two of his 15 seasons in the NHL. As you’d expect from a tenured Wing, McCarty is the proud owner of four Stanley Cup Champion rings.
  • J.P. Dumont (1978-) – Selected third-overall by the Islanders in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing played most of his 12 seasons in Nashville. He found his game with the Predators, as he provided a defensive presence and focused his offensive efforts on assists, earning 174.

Scoring three goals in a period is usually a formula for success. That’s the strategy Calgary employed in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to beat the Sharks 5-2 at the Saddledome.

Third Star of the Game Johnny Gaudreau (Second Star Sam Bennett) provided a sample of what was to come after the intermission by scoring a tip-in with 7:34 remaining in the first period. That was the lone goal of the frame, giving Calgary a 1-0 lead with 40 minutes remaining.

Sean Monahan (Matthew Tkachuk and Kris Versteeg) provided Calgary‘s first tally of the second with a power play wrist shot. That goal was answered 4:46 later by Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Michael Haley and Marcus Sorensen), but there was no Sharks response for what the Flames did next. Matt Stajan (Michael Stone) scored what came to be a game-winning snap shot with 7:22 remaining in the period, followed 5:31 later by an Alex Chiasson (Versteeg and T.J. Brodie) backhander. After having a one-goal lead for much of the game, Calgary entered the second intermission with a 4-1 advantage.

Melker Karlsson (Joe Pavelski and Paul Martin) pulled San Jose back within two tallies with 6:54 remaining in regulation, but even that tally was erased by Bennett’s (Chiasson and Brodie) wrister on an empty net with 34 seconds remaining in the game.

First Star Brian Elliott saved 36-of-38 shots faced (94.7%) to earn the victory. That left the loss to Martin Jones, who saved 18-of-22 (81.8%) before being pulled after Chiasson’s tally. Aaron Dell saved all 12 shots he faced for no decision.

Currently riding a two-game winning streak, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have an 83-58-25 record, which is two points better than the visitors.

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