November 6 – Day 34 – First line frenzy

Judging by yesterday’s blockbuster three-way trade, I think it’s safe to say we’re starting to get into the meat of the NHL season. If a F Matt Duchene trade is what we get through one month of action, I can’t wait to see what tricks November has up its sleeves.

On today’s menu, the NHL has scheduled a half-dozen games for our viewing pleasure. Of course, the first course of contests drops the puck at 7 p.m. (Minnesota at Boston [TVAS], Vegas at Toronto, Columbus at the New York Rangers and Arizona at Washington), followed by Winnipeg at Dallas 90 minutes later. Finally, Detroit at Vancouver, tonight’s nightcap, closes out the evening at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

Two of the top-three teams in the Central Division are squaring off this evening in the Lone Star State, so it looks like we’re headed off to the American Airlines Center.

 

Somehow, this is the third time in the past nine days that I’ve featured 7-3-3 Winnipeg, the second-best team in the Central. To avoid beating a dead horse, let’s talk about the third place 8-6-0 Stars first.

The first two times Dallas appeared in the DtFR Game of the Day series, I made a point of featuring the top line of LW Jamie Benn, F Tyler Seguin and RW Alexander Radulov – and for good reason. Together, they’ve combined for a whopping 41 points, including 20 of the Stars’ 41 goals. They’re undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and should strike fear into the heart and mind of G Connor Hellebuyck.

If there’s anything new to say about the Stars, it’s that their power play is basically unstoppable. Led by D John Klingberg‘s seven power play points (more on him in a minute), Dallas has converted a whopping 32.5 percent of its extra-man opportunities to lead the NHL by a solid margin.

Unfortunately, focusing on that dynamic trio has lead to G Ben Bishop and the Stars’ defense being overlooked. In fact, Dallas’ 2.79 goals against-per-game ranks 10th-best in the NHL. Compare that to the Stars’ 15th-worst 2.93 goals-per game and it could certainly be argued that the Stars have played better in their own zone.

The Stars are a defensive team. What is the world coming to?

The most obvious improvement has certainly taken place in net. Last season’s starter – and this year’s backup – G Kari Lehtonen managed only a .902 save percentage and 2.85 GAA in 52 starts last campaign. Swap that out with 6-3-0 Bishop’s .913 save percentage and 2.66 GAA so far this season through 11 starts and you have a Stars team that is immediately improved.

Of course, by allowing only 30 shots against-per-game (the fifth-fewest in the league), Dallas’ defense isn’t too shabby either. One player I’ve been especially impressed with is second-year D-man Stephen Johns. The 25-year-old native of Ellwood City, Penn. has been on of the best shot-blockers in Texas, as he averages 1.8 per game. With the opportunity to be Klingberg’s understudy, the future is bright for this young player.

Oh yeah, Johns has also posted 2-3-5 totals in his 11 games so far this season. Though he’s far from the next Brent Burns, he’s managed that contribution from Dallas’ third pair. Add in Klingberg’s 3-11-14 totals for the season, and you have an entire defensive corps that is more than capable of helping their own goaltender with a little bit of scoring touch on the opposite side of the ice.

One of the best indicators of the strength of a defense, in my opinion, is their performance on the penalty kill. Considering the Stars have squelched 87.8 percent of opposing power plays to rank third-best in the league on the kill, I’d say they certainly pass that test.

All that being said, Bishop and his defense could have their hands full tonight with the 12th-best offense in the game coming to town, specifically when the Jets’ first line is on the ice.

Just like Dallas has an imposing top trio, LW Kyle Connor, C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler form an equally deadly platoon for Winnipeg. Together, they combine for 37 points that include 14 of the Jets’ 42 goals.

Though he doesn’t officially occupy the position, Wheeler has operated as this line’s center from his position at right wing. He’s already notched a dozen assists in 13 games played and has helped Scheifele find the back of the net five times.

W Nikolaj Ehlers has also been a commanding presence on the second line. While RW Patrik Laine attracts most of the attention while he’s on the ice, that has left Ehlers the opportunity to create his own opportunities. So far, he’s been extremely successful at that this season, as he’s already managed 8-3-11 totals.

Not to be outdone by Dallas’ offense, the Jets have also had their fair share of success on the power play, as they’ve converted 23.3 percent of their opportunities for the seventh-best mark in the league. This has truly been where Wheeler has shined, as his seven power play points lead the team.

With two high-flying offenses, this game has the potential to be a real thriller of a barn-burner. If that proves to be the case, I favor the Stars to win this game on their special teams and superiority in the defensive zone.


In what proved to be a busy day for General Manager Joe Sakic, the Colorado Avalanche lost 6-4 to the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Islanders didn’t take long to take command of the game. Only 4:05 after the opening puck drop, Third Star of the Game D Scott Mayfield (D Calvin de Haan and F Josh Bailey) scored a tip-in to give New York a 1-0 lead, followed by a RW Jordan Eberle (First Star C Mathew Barzal and D Johnny Boychuk) wrist shot 8:53 later.

Those two goals proved to be the only goals of the first period, but what made Mayfield’s especially notable was that it occurred during Duchene’s final shift as a member of the Avalanche. 53 seconds after he scored, Duchene was pulled from the game to be sent to Ottawa.

The remainder of the contest was a taste of life for the remainder of the season for Colorado. Considering the Avs ended up scoring four goals while he was on his way to the airport (whether he flew to Ottawa or Stockholm, I do not know), life looks like it will continue in Denver.

The first of those four goals was struck only 40 seconds into the second period courtesy of F Nathan MacKinnon (D Erik Johnson and LW Gabriel Landeskog). Colorado was within a goal of the Islanders for 53 seconds before Second Star D Nick Leddy decided to change things with two power play goals. The first, assisted by Barzal and C John Tavares, was struck at the 1:33 mark and followed 2:51 later by his second (Bailey and Barzal) to give New York a 4-1 advantage.

The next goal of the game, struck at the 9:46 mark of the second period, proved to be the game-winner. Scoring on a snap shot from the blue line, Boychuk (Leddy and Barzal) beat G Jonathan Bernier‘s left skate to give the Islanders their fifth goal of the game.

Thanks to Landeskog’s (MacKinnon and D Tyson Barrie) deflection with 6:58 remaining in the period, a total of five goals were struck in the second frame. With most of those tallies belonging to the home Isles, New York held a 5-2 advantage through the second intermission.

Only 83 seconds into the third period, Eberle (Barzal and Mayfield) provided an insurance goal that narrowly avoided becoming the all-important game-winning goal. Just like Leddy went on a goal-scoring rampage in the second, rookie F Alexander Kerfoot did in the third (probably for being responsible for giving New York the power play on Leddy’s second goal) by burying two tallies in the span of 21 seconds. His first was a wrister struck with half-a-minute remaining in regulation following assists from W Sven Andrighetto and Barrie, followed by another wrister assisted by Andrighetto and F Rocco Grimaldi.

Unfortunately for Colorado, Kerfoot’s outburst did not happen early enough for the Avalanche, as they could not score another two goals in the nine seconds remaining in the game, leaving the final score at 6-4.

G Thomas Greiss earned the victory after saving 31-of-35 shots faced (.886 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved 22-of-28 (.786).

New York’s home victory snaps a two-game winning streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, Hosts in the series now have an 18-12-4 record that is six points better than the roadies.

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