April 7 – Day 170 – Selections are Slim, Vol. III

Here’s tonight’s listings.

  • Tampa Bay Lightning at Montréal Canadiens – 7:30 p.m. eastern – NBCSN
  • Hawaii Five-0 – 9 p.m. eastern – CBS
  • Blue Bloods – 10 p.m. eastern – CBS

Have you realized when I make this joke (not just today, but all season) just how many of those shows are on CBS? They crank out some good TV.

*This post not sponsored by Columbia Broadcasting System*

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This will be only Tampa Bay‘s fifth time being featured in the Game of the Day, while Montréal is making its 19th appearance. Within the DtFR series, the teams have 2-1-1 and 11-5-2 records, respectively.

By going on the road to the Air Canada Centre and beating current wild card Toronto 4-1 yesterday, the 40-30-10 Bolts amazingly still have playoff life. No matter the injuries and no matter the goaltending struggles, they’ve continued to find ways to get the job done.

If I asked you to name the best offense in the NHL since March 23, I’d assume you’d give me an answer like Washington or the Predators. While both are good guesses, one attack has been better: the Lightning‘s.

Tampa has struck 29 goals in the past 16 days for a 3.625 goals-per-game average. That impressive scoring ability has propelled the Bolts to a 6-1-1 record and within three points of eighth-place in the East. They may still need the Leafs to lose out, but the fact that there’s still a chance to dance is reason enough for the surge.

Regardless of how daunting or unpredictable a task playoff qualification is, Tampa doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Only a season ago, Philadelphia climbed from fourth-worst in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break into the second wild card.

Though Nikita Kucherov has headed the Lightning‘s offense throughout this season during Steven Stamkos‘ absence, it has been Ondrej Palat and his league-leading 13 points leading the Bolts‘ attack in the past eight games. He closed March on a six-game point streak and already has two multi-point games this month.

Playing left wing on Tampa‘s top line, Palat is very adept at passing the puck. This has remained the case during his recent scoring spurt, as he’s set up fellow wing Kucherov for five tallies, the highest mark on the team since late-March.

Tampa has been especially deadly on the power play. as it has converted 38.1% of opponents’ penalties into tallies – the third-best mark in the NHL since March 23.

The man behind this surge is neither Kucherov nor Palat, but defenseman Victor Hedman – just as it’s been all year. Of his season-total 33 power play points, six have been struck in the past two weeks. All of those have been assists to a stellar first PP unit that includes Jonathan Drouin, Kucherov and Palat; each of whom has buried two man-advantage tallies since late-March.

Maybe the most significant improvement during this late-season run has been Tampa‘s penalty kill. On the season, the Bolts have only successfully defended 81% of their infractions, which is tied for 13th-best in the league. Lately, that kill rate is up to 85.7%, which ties for ninth-best in the NHL. 21-17-7 Andrei Vasilevskiy has been absolutely spectacular over this run, as his .935 shorthanded save percentage ties for third-best in the NHL since March 23 among netminders with at least five games played.

While one team is fighting for its playoff life, the other has been sitting around with nothing to play for since Monday night. That was when 46-25-9 Montréal beat the Panthers to clinch the Atlantic Division.

Montréal‘s overall defensive effort this season has been spectacular, and that’s been especially true since March 25. Over the past six games, the Habs have allowed only eight tallies, and that’s led them to a 5-1-0 record that ties for fifth-best in the league in that time.

Of course, that all starts with 37-19-5 Carey Price, who’s been in net for this entire run except for the division-clincher in Florida. He’s posted a .951 save percentage and 1.4 GAA over the past two weeks, which is the sixth and fifth-best marks, respectively, among the 42 goalies with at least three appearances since March 25.

Maybe even more impressive than Price’s effort has been that of his blueline. Co-led by Nathan Beaulieu and Andrei Markov and their 11 shot blocks apiece, the Canadiens‘ defense has allowed only 175 shots to reach its goaltender since late-March, the second-lowest total in the NHL.

If there’s three indicators to a strong defensive club, Montréal has them all. The goaltender? Solid. The defense? Excellent. The penalty kill? Unstoppable, at least of late. The Canadiens PK has not allowed a power play goal in its past six games, thanks in large part to Alexei Emelin‘s three shorthanded shot blocks.

That penalty kill will face a stiff test this evening, and may prove to be the deciding factor in this game. Of course, predicting anything about Montréal is difficult since it has nothing to play for. Head coach Claude Julien could take advantage of the fact that the Lightning are treating this like a playoff game to give his club a “playoff practice” of sorts, or he could keep his best players off the ice to keep them safe from a team willing to do anything for a win.

Tonight’s game is the final contest of the four-game regular season series between these clubs. They last met six days ago in Tampa, where Price led the Habs to a  2-1 overtime victory over the Bolts. That victory extended Montréal‘s record against the Lightning to 2-0-1 this year.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Montréal‘s Max Pacioretty (35 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]) and Price (2.2 GAA [fifth-best in the NHL] on a .924 save percentage for 37 wins [both tied for fifth-best in the league]) & Tampa Bay‘s Peter Budaj (seven shutouts [tied for third-most in the NHL] and a 2.18 GAA [fourth-best in the league]), Hedman (55 assists [tied for third-most in the NHL]) and Kucherov (39 goals [tied for second-most in the league] for 82 points [sixth-most in the NHL]).

This is a tough game to predict since we have no idea what Julien will do. Due to that I offer my pick to win this way: if the Habs play this game to win, I believe they can do just that. If not, Tampa should have no trouble finding two points.

Hockey Birthday:

  • Pascal Dupuis (1979-) – The left winger enjoyed 871 games over 14 NHL seasons before being forced to retire last December due to blood clots. He was most known for his nine seasons with the Penguins, playing in 452 games and twice hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Between Second Star of the Game Oscar Klefbom‘s four-point night and First Star Milan Lucic‘s hat trick, the Oilers were able to best San Jose 4-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to all but lock up home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

The Sharks were actually the first club to score, as Joel Ward (David Schlemko and Marc-Edouard Vlasic) scored off a deflection at the 6:08 mark of the first period. It was the lone tally of the frame.

Third Star Connor McDavid (Klefbom and Adam Larsson) pulled the Oil back even 4:40 into the second period, but Edmonton couldn’t maintain a tied game into the second intermission. Brent Burns (Tomas Hertl) was the cause of that, as he scored a wrist shot with 7:30 remaining in the period.

I assume you’ve quickly realized that Lucic dominated the third period. He was most imposing in the first half of the frame, as he’s scored two of his tallies before eight minutes had ticked off the clock. His first tally, assisted by Klefbom and McDavid, was a power play deflection 4:26 into the third period to tie the game. 3:31 later, Klefbom and Jordan Eberle assisted him to another goal, a wrister that proved to be the game-winner. He added on his own insurance marker with 3:29 remaining in regulation on a power play wrister.

Even more than the offense, what might have been most impressive about Edmonton‘s play is the fact that the blueline yielded exactly five shots per period to reach Cam Talbot. He saved 13 of them (86.7%) for the victory, leaving the loss to Martin Jones, who saved 28-of-32 (87.5%).

A road victory is important in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as it means the visitors have not lost the season series. The 87-60-25 home teams lead the visitors by five points with three days remaining on the schedule.

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