April 8 – Day 171 – Have mercy on the Leafs, Kessel!

All but two teams are in action today, so the playoff situation could be a whole lot clearer at the end of the night.

Not only are 14 games being played, but they’re spaced throughout the day for our viewing pleasure! The action starts with two 12:30 p.m. matinees (the New York Rangers at Ottawa [NHLN/RDS/SN] and Columbus at Philadelphia), followed by Washington at Boston (NBC) at 3 p.m. The evening’s play starts an hour early, as two contests (Chicago at Los Angeles and the New York Islanders at New Jersey) drop the puck at 6 p.m., trailed an hour after by five more (Nashville at Winnipeg [CITY], Pittsburgh at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Montréal at Detroit [SN/TVAS], Buffalo at Florida and St. Louis at Carolina). Colorado at Dallas gets underway at 8 p.m., with Minnesota at Arizona waiting an hour for its green light. Finally, our co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Vancouver [CBC] and Calgary at San Jose [NHLN/SN]) drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the day.

Short list:

  • New York at Ottawa: Before they were members of the Rangers‘ high-flying offense, Matt Puempel and Mika Zibanejad spent a combined eight seasons in Ottawa.
  • Washington at Boston: Another player making his return to his former home is Brett Connolly, who played two seasons with the Bruins.
  • Chicago at Los Angeles: Though the rivalry has died off lately, the Hawks and Kings have played some vicious games in the past.
  • Pittsburgh at Toronto: All the Leafs need to qualify for the playoffs is a lone victory. This is the more winnable of their last two games.
  • Montréal at Detroit: Not only is it an Original Six rivalry and the Habs‘ last trip to Joe Louis Arena, but Steve Ott also makes his first return to Motown since being traded at the deadline.
  • Minnesota at Arizona: After 10 years with the Coyotes, Martin Hanzal will play his first game in Gila River Arena as a visitor.
  • Calgary at San Jose: The Flames want to avoid Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, and San Jose still has a chance at home ice against the Oilers. Only one of those things can happen, and it’s decided tonight.

It may not be the fun answer, but we have to go to Toronto to see if the Maple Leafs can lock up a spot in the playoffs. Sorry Connolly, Hanzal, Ott, Puempel and Zibanejad!

 

The 50-19-11 Penguins have already clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division and will host at least the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This game is not about them.

Instead, all eyes are on 39-26-15 Toronto, the club beloved by many that currently occupies the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

As stated before, it’s a simple win-and-you’re-in situation for the Leafs. A victory tonight would give the Maple Leafs an insurmountable 95 points on the season, more than either the Lightning (92 points, one game remaining) or Islanders (90 points, two games remaining) can surpass.

That’s goal number one: qualification.

Of course, there’s plenty more on the table here if the Leafs can sweep their last two games. Third place is certainly an achievable goal, as it is currently occupied by a Boston team with 95 points and only one game remaining – a dreadfully difficult home contest against the Capitals.

Since that game will be done by the time the Leafs drop the puck tonight, they’ll know if they can surpass the Bruins in the standings or not. Toronto already knows it cannot surpass Boston if it wins this afternoon, as the Leafs could only tie the Bruins at 97 points, but lose the regulation+overtime-wins tiebreaker.

Even second place in the division is still on the board should the Bruins lose today and the Senators (96 points) lose both their remaining games and no more than one require overtime.

But that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Remember, the first goal is qualification.

Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, April’s schedule is not doing them any favors in achieving that goal. After opening the month in Detroit, Toronto has faced or will face five quality opponents – quality offenses, to be exact –  in a row. They beat the Red Wings 5-4 on April Fools’ Day, followed by a strong 4-2 victory against a sneaky-good Sabres team.

Then started the ill-timed losing skid. Though all skids are ill-timed (Unless you’re Colorado, I suppose. Nolan Patrick won’t fall into just anybody’s lap!), one during a playoff push is especially unwanted.

After returning home for the final four games of the regular season, the Leafs fell to the Capitals 4-1 on Tuesday (Eh, they can handle that. Everybody loses to Washington), followed two days later by another 4-1 loss to the Lightning. That’s the one that caused the most damage, as a victory would have clinched the last spot in the postseason and made this game a little less important.

Obviously there have been issues on both sides of the puck. The easy answer is to crucify the defense and goaltending, but I don’t think that’s the right one. 5-6-0 Curtis McElhinney was in net for the Washington game since it was only a night after the Leafs‘ contest in Buffalo, and 33-16-14 Frederik Andersen reclaimed the crease for the Tampa game.

Sure, you want Andersen to beat the Bolts, but he had been on a five-game winning streak (his longest of the year, if my count is correct) and was bound to drop a game eventually, especially when faced with such a potent offense of late.

And though the defense hasn’t played well recently, when has it this year?  They’ve allowed an average of 32.8 shots-per-game to reach Andersen’s crease on the season, the third-worst rate in the NHL. The fact that they allowed a combined total of only 68 (34 per game) shots against both the Caps and Bolts is almost impressive!

If anything, the only major setback in the last two games for Toronto has been its penalty kill. Usually successfully killing 82.6% of opponent’s power plays (ninth-best in the NHL), that rate has dropped to only 60% of late, which is tied for fourth-worst in the league in that time.

But for a team that has averaged 3.04 goals-per-game, the fifth-highest scoring rate in the league, to score only a goal in both games is alarming. Even more concerning is that Tyler Bozak, a third-liner, took credit for both the tallies, meaning the remaining 17 Leafs skaters – including the top two lines – have been held goalless.

And the cherry on top? Those that follow the Leafs know that Bozak and Auston Matthews do not share ice time in any circumstance (even-strength or power play), meaning the rookie wonder has not registered even an assist during this skid.

Scoring is usually the kid’s thing! Matthews has done it all year. Starting with his four-goal effort to begin his NHL career and all throughout the season, he’s found a way to generate offense. He leads Toronto in points (67). He leads Toronto in goals (39).

Yet it’s that exact reason that I’m not too worried about Matthews. Barring a horrid seven-game run to start March and the five-game drought as he was getting adjusted to the league, the youngster has faced only a three-game pointless skid this season (albeit twice). He is the energy in this Leafs team and will not be kept off the scorecard for long.

One way to get Toronto back to scoring is to take advantage of the man-advantage opportunities it is presented with. On the season, the Maple Leafs have been the second-best power play in the league by converting 24.1% of their opponents’ infractions into goals.

This is where fellow rookie William Nylander can shoulder the burden of providing offense with Matthews, as the Albertan has notched a team-leading 25 power play points. Nazem Kadri can also be instrumental from the second power play unit with his squad-leading 12 extra-man goals.

Though they’re riding a four-game winning streak, the Leafs have a great opportunity to get back on track against Pittsburgh. The Pens have allowed 10 goals during this streak, including four to the lowly Devils on Thursday.

The Penguins defense is fourth-worst in the league when measured by shots allowed-per-game this season (32.7), and that’s been an even worse 36.25 in the month of April. Regardless of who’s in net, be it 32-10-4 Matthew Murray or 18-9-7 Marc-Andre Fleury, they should see a lot of shots coming their way.

Those defensive struggles are especially apparent on the penalty kill of late, as the Pens‘ penalty kill rate of 66.7% in the past week ties Detroit for the sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time. Since March 31, Murray has faced 15 power play shots, which ties for eighth-most against the 58 other goaltenders in that time.

Of course, to truly beat the Pens is to stifle slow down their offense. Doing that will require a bit of work, as first liners Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel both have six points to their credit over the past four games. The rookie may actually be more impressive than his captain of late, as four of his points have been goals, a total that leads the club.

Pittsburgh is especially potent on the man-advantage, mostly because each member of both power play units is capable of scoring. Eight players in the past week, almost evenly split between the two special teams, have notched a power play point to lead the Pens to a 36.4% conversion rate (third-best in that time). Lately, the stars of the show have been Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist, both of whom have registered a power play goal and assist.

In the previous two times these clubs have met, the Penguins have had an upper-hand, as they lead the season series 1-0-1. That being said, the last time they met on December 17 (at the Air Canada Centre, in fact) was when Toronto bested the Pens 2-1 thanks to Jake Gardiner‘s overtime goal.

Some players to keep an eye on include Pittsburgh‘s Ian Cole (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the league]), Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 88 points [tied for second-most in the league]), Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for seventh-best in the NHL] for 32 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]) and Justin Schultz (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (33 wins [eighth-most in the league], including four shutouts [10th-most in the NHL]) and Matthews (39 goals [tied for third-most in the league]).

I like the Leafs to win this game tonight mostly due to my faith in Matthews. He knows he’s too important to his club to not be effective on the offensive end, and he should be able to take advantage of a poor, uninspired Penguins defense.


Thanks to First Star of the Game Yanni Gourde‘s two-goal night, the Lightning not only beat the host Canadiens 4-2, but they also kept their slim postseason hopes alive in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though every period of play featured two goals, the difference in this game proved to be the first, as both tallies belonged to the Bolts. Gourde (Second Star Nikita Kucherov and Luke Witkowski) fired an ice-breaking wrist shot with 8:18 remaining in the period to give Tampa Bay the lead, and Kucherov (Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point) followed that up with a wrister of his own 10 seconds before intermission.

Dwight King (Third Star Artturi Lehkonen and Nikita Nesterov) pulled the Habs back within a goal a second before the midway point of the contest with a pure wrister, but Alex Killorn (Cory Conacher) was able to score what ended up being the game-winning wrister only 4:20 later. Tampa took its 3-1 lead into the second intermission.

Only 4:36 into the third frame, Lehkonen took advantage of a Tampa Bay mistake to score a shorthanded backhand shot and pull Montréal back within a tally, but Gourde’s (Conacher and Jake Dotchin) wrister only 21 seconds later put an end to any Habs comeback.

Andrei Vasilevskiy earned the victory after saving 27-of-29 shots faced (93.1%), leaving the loss to Carey Price, who saved 18-of-22 (81.8%).

With their second 4-2 victory in a row, road teams are trying their darnedest to win the DtFR Game of the Day series. They trail the 87-61-25 home teams by only three points with two days remaining in the regular season.

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