November 18 – Day 46 – Path to the playoffs

Saturdays like this are the best. Not only are there a whopping 13 NHL games on the schedule, but there’s also five matinees on the day meaning it’s possible to watch hockey for *busts out calculator* 12.5 hours.

And they say miracles don’t happen anymore.

The first of those matinees is scheduled for 1 p.m. and features Calgary at Philadelphia (SN1), followed by two more (Edmonton at Dallas and Arizona at Ottawa [TVAS]) an hour later. 3 p.m. marks the puck drop of New Jersey at Winnipeg, and the last early game of the day – Florida at Los Angeles – will commence an hour after. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it a collection of four tilts (Carolina at Buffalo, Toronto at Montréal [CBC/CITY/SN/TVAS], the New York Islanders at Tampa Bay and Chicago at Pittsburgh [NHLN]), with Minnesota at Washington waiting half an hour before getting a green light. Colorado at Nashville is next up at 8 p.m., followed by St. Louis at Vancouver (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. and Boston at San Jose – tonight’s nightcap – 30 minutes after. All times Eastern.

If you can watch all those games, you are certainly worthy of the “hockey fan” title.

As usual with a day featuring this much activity, there’s usually more than a few good story lines to keep track of. Today’s list includes:

  • Toronto at Montréal: An Original Six rivalry game featuring the two Canadian teams? Yes, please.
  • Minnesota at Washington: For 117 total regular season and playoff games, F Daniel Winnik called Capital One Arena home. Tonight, he’s a member of the visiting team.

Though those games will be fun, I’m far more interested in the action taking place in Manitoba between two 11-4-3 clubs.

 

Don’t tell anybody, but after missing the playoffs for at least the past two seasons, both these teams have climbed into third place or better in their respective conferences.

If that’s not improvement, I don’t know what is.

In particular, the Jets have been especially exceptional of late, as they’ve won seven of their last 10 games and are currently riding a three-game winning streak.

What makes this winning streak even more significant for Winnipeg is – though the offense is performing slightly above it’s 3.22 goals-per-game mark for the season – the defensive end of the ice seems like it has turned a significant corner.

Over the past three games, Winnipeg has allowed only four goals against – the (t)fifth-fewest in the NHL in the past week – and much of that effort has been the direct result of 10-1-2 G Connor Hellebuyck‘s solid play in net. Undoubtedly having the best season of his three-year career, Hellebuyck has managed a .93 save percentage and 2.29 GAA for the campaign that has been only elevated by allowing just three goals in his past two appearances.

Hellebuyck has needed to play at this high level for most of this season because of his defense allowing a (t)fifth-worst 33.7 shots against-per-game, and that’s been no different over this three-game run. I can only assume Head Coach Paul Maurice’s next step in returning the Jets to the glory days of the 70s will be to improve the play of the blue line. Himself a former OHL defenseman, he’ll undoubtedly lean on the already strong play of young defensemen Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba – both averaging 2.2 blocks-per-game – as well as F Brandon Tanev (2.7 hits-per-game) to set a solid example for others to follow.

Considering they’re playing a Devils offense that has averaged the seventh-best goals-per-game this season, I don’t doubt that we’ll hear Hellebuyck, Morrissey, Tanev and Trouba’s names often this afternoon.

What makes New Jersey’s offense fun to watch is – just like @nlanciani53 and I discussed on yesterday’s podcast – it is very selective about what shots it takes. The Devils are earning their 2.38 goals-per-game on only 30.4 shots-per-game, a rate that is eighth-lowest in the NHL.

Perhaps its no surprise then that F Brian Gibbons has found such success this year from the fourth line. Although he trails F Taylor Hall‘s 6-13-19 totals for the team-lead in points, his eight goals are the highest total in Newark.

How is this possible? It’s inconceivable that a fourth-liner should be besting one of the better forwards in the game!

It’s all because he’s being ultra-selective about the opportunities he’s taking. He’s fired only 25 shots so far this year (1.39 per game) compared to Hall’s 63, but Gibbons claims a team-leading .32 shooting percentage.

Perhaps no other stat is more telling about Gibbons – and arguably the Devils as a whole – than his performance on the penalty kill. He’s already scored two shorthanded goals this season, which is one fewer than the league-leading and more likely goalscorer LW Evander Kane. “Taking what the defense is giving you” seems to be a message Head Coach John Hynes is preaching to his players, and they’re buying in and executing with even more success than he probably imagined at the start of this season.

As for who’s going to win this game, this one may very well be a toss up. I’m leaning towards the Jets taking two points in this game not only because they’re playing at home, but also because I feel their offense is a little bit better than Jersey’s defense.


In our second shutout in as many nights, yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was won 2-0 by the Columbus Blue Jackets over the New York Rangers at Nationwide Arena.

First Star of the Game G Sergei Bobrovsky saved all 36 shots he faced to earn his second clean sheet of the season. Not to be outdone too much, Third Star G Henrik Lundqvist also played spectacularly, as he saved 40-of-42 shots faced (.952 save percentage).

Thirty-three of the Jackets’ shots on goal were registered in the first two periods, so it’s a surprise they didn’t have better than a one-goal advantage heading into the second intermission. However, Lundqvist only let by Second Star D Zach Werenski‘s (F Brandon Dubinsky and F Boone Jenner) snap shot with 6:26 remaining in the second frame.

Though it will do little to console King Henrik, Werenski’s goal was the result of some absolutely brilliant passing by the Jackets. The play started above the right offensive face-off circle with Werenski tapping the puck to Jenner, who proceeded to move to the center of the zone before dishing to Dubinsky. The forward started driving towards the net, pulling C David Desharnais out of the slot to attempt a sliding block. Dubinsky made a quick move around him and continued his assault on Lundqvist, but instead of firing a close-range wrist shot, he slid a pass behind two Rangers to Werenski on the edge of the right face-off circle, where he ripped his snapper high cheese over Lundqvist’s right shoulder.

Columbus tacked on its insurance goal at the 7:14 mark of the third period thanks in large part to W Pavel Buchnevich earning a seat in the penalty box for interfering with Jenner 19 seconds earlier. LW Artemi Panarin (RW Oliver Bjorkstrand) took advantage of the odd-man situation to score a slap shot for his fourth goal of the season.

The Blue Jackets’ victory is the fourth in the past five days by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, the 24-17-5 hosts have exploded to a six-point advantage over the visitors after the series was tied Sunday.

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