April 2 – Day 165 – Gigantic goalies

After the final game is complete this evening, we will be officially in the final week of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. It is officially crunch time.

This Sunday’s action gets started at 12:30 p.m. with Boston at Chicago (NBC/TVAS). After that, we have staggered starts every hour, on the hour. 3 p.m. marks the puck drop of the New York Islanders at Buffalo (SN), followed an hour later by Nashville at St. Louis. Carolina at Pittsburgh (NHLN) gets underway at 5 p.m., and a trio of games (Colorado at Minnesota, Dallas at Tampa Bay and Washington at Columbus) follows suit 60 minutes later. 7 p.m. marks the puck drop of San Jose at Vancouver (SN), half an hour before Philadelphia at the New York Rangers (NBCSN). More of the West Coast gets involved at 9:30 p.m. with Anaheim at Calgary (SN1), an hour before tonight’s nightcap: Arizona at Los Angeles.

Short list:

  • Boston at Chicago: For those that love Original Six battles, this is, if my count is correct, the second-to-last one of the year.
  • Nashville at St. Louis: The difference between third in the Central Division and the second wild card is nonexistent.
  • San Jose at Vancouver: A 10-year veteran of the Canucks, Jannik Hansen now makes his home in San Jose.
  • Philadelphia at New York: The Flyers are still hanging around in the playoff hunt, but they’ll need to beat another rival to stay alive.

Call me biased, but there’s no way we’re not heading to Scottrade Center for this important Central Division matchup.

 

8-3-2. That’s the 40-27-11 Predators‘ record since March 7. Though it’s not the best run in that stretch of time, it’s still been more than enough to all but punch Nashville‘s third-straight ticket into the playoffs. Currently occupying the second wild card, it has a 10-point advantage on the Kings.

In fact, all the Preds need to do is avoid a regulation loss and they will be among the 16 teams playing after next Sunday’s regular season finale.

Of course, Smashville has bigger ideas in mind than simply eliminating Los Angeles. Third place in the Central Division is held by their opponent this afternoon, who leads the Predators with only one-fewer game played.

To surge past the Notes, the Predators will probably employ the same tactic that has been the backbone of their recent winning ways: goaltending.

Wait, I thought Nashville was an offensive team… Well, that’s true. On the season as a whole, the Predators have notched 2.92 tallies-per-game, the ninth-best scoring rate in the NHL. Yet since early March, the Preds have allowed only 28 goals against, which #ties for sixth-fewest in that time.

In short, 31-18-8 Pekka Rinne has been excellent of late. Already among the league’s better goaltenders on a normal day, his .931 save percentage and 1.97 GAA of late are far superior to his season-long averages of .917 and 2.44. In fact, since March 7, he’s posted the eighth and (t)sixth-best marks, respectively, among the 32 goalies with at least seven appearances in that time.

Rinne can’t save everything though. That becomes brutally apparent when a Predator takes a seat in the penalty box. Over the past month, Rinne has saved only 32-of-41 power play shots against (78%), which ties for the 11th-worst power play save percentage in that time span.

But take notice of how many shots he’s faced. 41 is a lot. In fact, it’s tied for 14th-most in the league since early March. Therein lies Smashville‘s penalty kill problem. P.K. Subban leads the team with five shorthanded shot blocks, especially when paired with his two shorthanded takeaways.

But yes, only five blocks on the penalty kill in his last 13 games. And yes, he leads the team with that measly total over this stretch.

The penalty kill needs to be a bigger priority for this team, and it needs to see improvements in a hurry. Over the past month, Nashville is sixth-worst in the NHL when down a man, neutralizing only 74.3% of its infractions.

Special teams seem to be a struggle for David Poile’s club this season, because the power play actually manages to be worse than the penalty kill. The Predators tie with Colorado (remember, being compared to the Avalanche in any way this season is a recipe for disaster) for the second-worst man-advantage in the NHL since March 7, converting only 11.4% of opportunities.

Of that limited success, much of it has been off James Neal‘s stick. He’s scored three of Nashville‘s four power play goals in the past month, an impressive effort given the mire he’s been surrounded by.

Can you pick the best team in the league since March 5? Here’s a hint: they’ll be wearing blue today.

That’s right, it’s the 42-28-7 Blues. Having gone 11-1-2 since then, the Notes tie Carolina with 24 points in that time – on two fewer games.

Similar to Nashville‘s surge over the past month, this streak is a direct result of improved play in the crease by Jake Allen. He’s gone 30-19-5 all season, but 8-1-2 of that has come in the past 29 days.

Among goalies with at least four appearances in the past month, Allen is second only to Sergei Bobrovsky in his play. In the month of March, Allen posted an excellent .953 save percentage and 1.35 GAA, making him almost impenetrable to opposing offenses.

What definitely sets him apart from Rinne is the Blues‘ success on the penalty kill. While the Predators are prone to giving up power play goals, St. Louis has successfully neutralized 86.5% of their infractions in the past month, the fifth-best rate in the NHL.

St. Louis‘ power play has also been having a run of success this month. Led by Alex Pietrangelo and his five power play points, the Notes have converted 21.2% of their power plays since March 5, the 10th-best mark in the league.

As you’d might guess, Vladimir Tarasenko has potted a couple of those tallies, but what makes the Blues truly dangerous is the fact that six different players have scored a power play goal in the past month. Unpredictability is a dangerous weapon, and St. Louis has employed it well.

As far as the season series is concerned, this game is meaningless since the Predators have already won three of the previous four meetings. The last time they met was December 30, and it was Nashville‘s most dominant victory in the series. Jusse Saros led the way by saving all 25 shots he faced for a 4-0 shutout at Scottrade Center, the site of today’s matchup.

Some players to keep an eye on during today’s game include Nashville‘s Ryan Johansen (47 assists [ninth-most in the league]) and Rinne (31 wins [10th-most in the NHL]) & St. Louis‘ Allen (four shutouts [tied for ninth-most in the league]) or Carter Hutton (2.34 GAA [10th-best in the NHL]) and Tarasenko (36 goals [fifth-most in the league]).

According to the odds-makers in the desert, St. Louis is a -135 favorite to win this afternoon. I have to agree. Where the Blues will truly dominate today is in special teams situations. The Predators‘ best shot at pulling off the upset is keeping both penalty boxes empty.


It needed overtime, but Edmonton was able to hold home ice and best the Ducks 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to improve into first place in the Pacific Division.

The first period nearly escaped scoreless, but First Star of the Game Connor McDavid (Patrick Maroon and Adam Larsson) had other plans. He buried a wrist shot with 49 seconds remaining in the frame to give the Oilers a 1-0 going into the first intermission.

That didn’t seem to sit well with Ryan Getzlaf (Jakob Silfverberg and Cam Fowler) over the break, as he took advantage of Matt Hendricks being sent to the sin bin by scoring a power play slap shot 3:27 into the second period. That tied the game at one-all, the same score that read going into the second intermission.

8:53 into the final frame, Patrick Eaves (Antoine Vermette and Silfverberg) provided Anaheim its first lead of the night. It was the result of another power play, this time a slashing penalty by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But what goes around, comes around. With 1:58 remaining in regulation, Third Star Milan Lucic (Leon Draisaitl and McDavid) scored a power play tally of his own to level the game at two-all and force overtime.

Three-on-three play didn’t last long before Draisaitl (McDavid) ended it. After only 1:26 of overtime play, the third-year pro buried a wrister to win the game for Edmonton.

Cam Talbot took the victory after saving 16-of-18 shots faced (88.9%), leaving the overtime loss to Second Star John Gibson, who saved 34-of-37 (91.9%).

The 84-58-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a three-game winning streak. That’s important as the series comes to a close, as it gives them a three-point advantage on the roadies.

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