It’s your favorite day to head to your local rink! It’s Thirsty Thursday! May all of our readers – of legal age, of course – enjoy a responsibly fun-filled night at the game!
Alright, I’ll stop impersonating your dad now.
With seven games on the schedule this evening, there’s a decent selection of NHL action to choose from. Two of those contests (Edmonton at New Jersey and Chicago at Philadelphia [TVAS]) drop the puck at 7 p.m., half an hour before Minnesota at Montréal (RDS/TSN2). 8 p.m. marks the start of Arizona at St. Louis, followed by Detroit at Calgary an hour later. Finally, the West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. when Vancouver pays a visit to Anaheim, followed 30 minutes later by tonight’s nightcap: Tampa Bay at Los Angeles (SN). All times Eastern.
Before the season started, I had the Lightning’s annual trip to Hollywood circled for the simple fact that G Peter Budaj could be squaring off against the team he started 51 games for last season. Backup Budaj is in fact starting this evening, but it’s because both clubs hold solid early season leads in their divisions that this a must-watch matchup.
The 12-2-2 Lightning have been the talk of the town since many pundits have pinned them as Stanley Cup favorites, and they haven’t disappointed. In that same strain, they face a tough task this weekend as they tour the Golden State, but the trip is already off to a great start after Tampa beat the Sharks 5-1 in The Tank last night.
Since G Andrei Vasilevskiy earned his 12th victory of the season last night, Budaj is in line for his third start of the season. With only a 0-1-1 record, he’s still looking for his 2016-’17 groove.
Perhaps he’ll find it tonight in the Staples Center, as he hasn’t been the same since departing the Kings organization. Last season in Los Angeles after being called up from the AHL following G Jonathan Quick‘s lower-body injury that had him sidelined for four-and-a-half months, Budaj managed an impressive .917 save percentage and 2.12 GAA to keep the Kings within reach of the playoffs. Though Los Angeles failed to qualify, it was certainly no fault of Budaj’s.
Considering how well Budaj had performed, the Kings elected to “sell high” and trade him to Tampa Bay for G Ben Bishop (now with the Stars) and a 2017 fifth-round pick on February 26, just in time for last season’s trade deadline. In his six starts since then, he’s managed only an .885 save percentage and 3.16 GAA, an effort far inferior to how he performed in La-La-Land.
Though I suppose it’s possible he left his mojo in his Staples Center locker, it’s more likely he’s a goaltender that simply needs regular playing time to maintain his rhythm. Unfortunately for him, he plays behind a 23-year-old netminder that has posted a .928 save percentage and 2.41 GAA to be among the league’s top-10 goalies. Until Vasilevskiy’s performance drops (which isn’t all that likely), Budaj will simply need to adjust to riding the pine more than he’d like unless he’d prefer to earn ice time with another team after being traded, waived or – in a worst-case scenario – in Syracuse.
Of course, all this talk about who’s in goal is borderline ridiculous considering how good Tampa Bay’s offense is. Sure, the Bolts allow a sixth-fewest 2.63 goals against-per-game, but that effort is more than eclipsed by an offense that is the best in the NHL by scoring 3.94 goals-per-game.
There’s no doubt that a large majority of this attack is coming from the Bolts’ top line of Vladislav Namestnikov (7-10-17 totals), Steven Stamkos (7-21-28) and Nikita Kucherov (15-11-26). Tampa has already buried 63 goals this season, and over 46 percent of those tallies have come off the sticks of these three players.
Making Kucherov’s goal total even more impressive is he’s not doing it by peppering his opposing goaltender. Instead he’s being selective with his opportunities, and he’s been rewarded with a 24.2 shooting percentage on 62 attempts that is the best in the NHL among players who have fired the puck at least 40 times.
Before we move on to the Kings, don’t think for a minute that Namestnikov is included on this line simply to feed pucks to Stamkos and Kucherov. He’s just as potent with the puck on his stick, and that was no more apparent than last night when he scored the last two goals of the game.
If any team poses a threat to the Lightning attack, it’s the 11-2-2 Kings. Led by 9-2-1 Quick, Los Angeles has played the best defensive hockey in the NHL by allowing only 2.27 goals against-per-game.
Considering the Kings’ defense allows a 13th-most 32.5 shots against-per-game, almost all of Los Angeles’ success is the result of stellar play by Quick. The 31-year-old has been nearly unbeatable this year in 12 starts, as he’s stopped 93.7 percent of the nearly 400 shots he’s faced this season for a 2.06 GAA. Only Chicago’s G Corey Crawford can claim better numbers in net, but Quick has a superior record – and at the end of the day, those three numbers are the ones that matter most.
Choosing a winner in this game is tough, because even though I’m more than convinced that the Lightning are the superior team, the Kings do have the benefit of having yesterday off and not having to travel from Northern California. That being said, I have faith that Tampa Bay’s defense can find a way to slow down the Kings’ eighth-best offense to extends its winning streak to three games.
With three goals in the first period, the New York Rangers beat the Boston Bruins 4-2 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
A total of four goals were struck in the first period before an empty second frame. W Pavel Buchnevich (D Ryan McDonagh and W Michael Grabner) got the scoring started 9:53 into the contest with a high-cheese wrist shot, but the Rangers’ lead lasted only 21 seconds before a RW David Pastrnak (Third Star of the Game C Patrice Bergeron and F Anders Bjork) wrister through First Star G Henrik Lundqvist‘s five-hole leveled the game.
It’s remarkable enough that the Blueshirts’ next two goals were struck within 29 seconds of each other, but the fact that they were both scored by Second Star LW Jimmy Vesey is truly extraordinary. Assisted by Buchnevich and C Mika Zibanejad, Vesey buried a wrister with 5:19 remaining in the frame to reclaim the lead for New York.
Vesey’s second goal proved to be the game-winner. The goal-scoring sequence started when C David Desharnais reset the play from below the goal line to D Kevin Shattenkirk at the top of the right face-off circle. Shattenkirk slung his wrister just wide of the net, but Vesey was able to clean up the mess and beat G Tuukka Rask‘s left skate to the near post.
Though they fired 13 shots at Lundqvist in the second period, the Bruins could not make a dent in
New York’s Vesey’s two-goal lead. Instead, Boston couldn’t find its second goal until the 6:44 mark of the final frame when Bergeron (Pastrnak and D Torey Krug) scored a wrister. The Bruins continued to apply the pressure for the remainder of frame by duplicating their second period 13-shot attack, but they couldn’t sneak another goal past King Henrik. They eventually had to pull Rask for an extra attacker, and that’s when W Rick Nash (McDonagh) registered the final goal of the game with eight seconds before the final horn.
Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to Rask, who saved 29-of-32 (.906).
The Rangers’ home victory snaps a two-game winning streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, hosts in the series now have a 19-14-4 record that is four points better than the visitors’.