It’s time for me to keep the promise I made Tuesday.
We have a relatively busy schedule today, as there’s nine of a maximum 15 games to be played. Like it does almost every night, the action begins at 7 p.m. with two contests (Arizona at Boston and the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh [SN/TVAS]), followed by three more (Calgary at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Colorado at Tampa Bay and Winnipeg at Florida) half an hour later. Dallas at St. Louis is the only tilt to drop the puck at 8 p.m., and the next game, Philadelphia at Vancouver, doesn’t get underway until 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Ottawa at Los Angeles [RDS] and Carolina at San Jose) get started at 10:30 pm. to close out the evening. All time Eastern.
I hinted Tuesday that this was a big week for the Metropolitan Division. Phase two of that claim occurs tonight in the Steel City.
Making this relatively important matchup even more exciting is knowing how much these teams don’t get along. Whenever this series comes up on the calendar, I remember the first time I saw the fights between these organizations in February 2011 that led to 346 PIM, including 16 major penalties and 21 misconducts.
With that in mind, it almost makes the record between these clubs moot – except for the fact that playoff position is not determined by most or least penalties.
While this series has been relatively evenly matched since it began in 1973 (Pittsburgh owns only a 116-106-22 record against the Isles all-time), the Pens has absolutely dominated the New York since the 2004-’05 lockout. Over the past 12 seasons, the Penguins have won 10 of the past 12 season series, including winning seven-straight series from 2007-’08 to 2013-’14.
Of note, last year’s series between these clubs did end in a 2-1-1 tie, but the Penguins won the series based on the regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker 2-1.
This rivalry has also extended into the postseason four times. This is where New York has really put its foot on Pittsburgh’s throat, as the Islanders have advanced to the next round three of the four times they’ve run into the Penguins.
Playoff series between these teams have been an absolute thrill in the past. The first time they squared off was in the 1975 Quarterfinals. This series was dominated by the Penguins early, as they jumped out to a 3-0 advantage. But RW Ed Westfall wasn’t interested in losing to the higher seeded Pens, so he scored three goals, including the series clincher in at Civic Arena, to lead New York to four-straight wins arrange a date with the other Pennsylvanian team, with which they played another seven-game series.
Another incredible series occurred between these sides in the 1993 Patrick Division Finals. With neither team able to take control of the back-and-forth series (even though the road team won both Game 1 and Game 3), they required a deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh to settle the matter.
Further stressing how evenly matched these clubs were, regulation was not enough to determine which side was to advance to the Prince of Wales Conference Finals against Montréal. 5:16 into the first overtime period, W David Volek, who had scored only eight goals during the regular season, snapped the 3-3 tie to eliminate the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions.
Even in the series they lost, the Islanders were still a tough out for Pittsburgh. During the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the top-seeded Penguins needed six games to beat the Islanders, due in large part to the combined efforts of C John Tavares (3-2-5 totals) and future Penguin D Mark Streit (2-3-5).
Anyways, enough talk about the past. It’s time to figure out who has the upper-hand in the opening meeting of the four-game series between these clubs this year.
Let’s start with the 16-9-2 Islanders, who currently occupy the East’s top wildcard spot and are winners of eight of their past 11 games.
For both the entire season as a whole as well as this recent run of success, offense has been the name of the game in Brooklyn. Only one team – the Tampa Bay Lightning – can claim an offensive proficiency better than the Isles’ 3.66 goals-per-game, and New York has posted an even better 4.09 goals-per-game since November 11.
The man leading this vaunted attack is none other than Captain Tavares, who has managed 17-14-31 totals to position himself in third place in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.
Of course, he also has the luxury of playing the role of misunderstood fruit on everyone’s favorite line in hockey: New York’s Sandwich Line. Named after the classic BLT, F Josh Bailey (5-26-31 totals) and F Anders Lee (16-12-28) join with Tavares to form the unstoppable trifecta at the top of the Islanders’ roster.
Add in the solid efforts of rookie C Mathew Barzal (7-19-26 totals) on the second line and you have a scary good group of forwards, even without mentioning RW Jordan Eberle (11-9-20) and F Joshua Ho-Sang (2-10-12).
The second wild card 15-11-3 Penguins are another team that likes to do their work on the offensive end, but they’ll need a little bit of help from the Isles’ D Scott Mayfield and his team-leading 23 penalty minutes to get the opportunity to employ their fourth-ranked power play.
What makes Pittsburgh so successful with the man-advantage is that it is so unpredictable. Led by RW Phil Kessel‘s 3-14-17 effort on the power play, five players have at least 10 extra-man points to help the Pens convert 25.68 percent of their man-advantage opportunities into goals. Of that group, C Sidney Crosby and RW Patric Hornqvist have been stellar, scoring six power play goals apiece.
Unfortunately, that success hasn’t translated into even-strength play. For the entire season, Pittsburgh averages only 2.96 goals-per-game to rank 15th-best in the NHL, well below last season’s league-leading 3.39 goals-per-game.
That’s why I feel like RW Ryan Reaves might be one of the bigger keys to the game for the Penguins this evening. With his team-leading 88 hits, perhaps he can find a way to get under Mayfield’s skin to earn the Pens a power play opportunity. If the Pens can get to the man-advantage, they should be able to convert given New York’s (t)second-worst 75 percent kill rate.
Since the Islanders are shorthanded 3.26 times-per-game (the 12th-fewest in the NHL), I think they’ll be able to keep their cool this evening and earn two points on the road.
Though they needed a shutout, the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Air Canada Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
Calgary’s lone regulation goal was struck in the first period. Thanks to W Matt Martin getting caught holding RW Garnet Hathaway at the 9:27 mark, D Mark Giordano (C Sean Monahan and W Troy Brouwer) was able to take advantage of the ensuing power play to bury a wrist shot 1:10 later.
The Maple Leafs leveled the game in the waning minutes of the second frame courtesy of D Morgan Rielly‘s unassisted snap shot with 1:13 remaining before the second intermission. It was Rielly’s fourth goal of the season.
The Flames especially tried to end the game in regulation, as they fired 17 shots at First Star of the Game G Frederik Andersen, but neither they nor the Leafs could break the tie in either regulation or the five minute three-on-three overtime period.
As the home team, Head Coach Mike Babcock had the option to shoot first or second in the shootout.
- He chose first and sent out C Auston Matthews. As you’d expect from a player of his caliber, he beat Third Star G Mike Smith to give the Leafs an early 1-0 lead.
- Head Coach Glen Gulutzan called on Monahan to level the shootout score. After converting his first two opportunities of the season, he was unable to make his third as fired his shot over the net.
- Next up for Toronto was F Mitch Marner, who had the opportunity to force a miss-and-lose situation for the Flames if he could get a shot past Smith. The netminder knew the situation as well, because he was able to save the snapper.
- With the opportunity to make yet another headline, LW Matthew Tkachuk was tapped as the Flames’ next shooter. He didn’t disappoint and leveled the shootout at one-all.
- With the opportunity to win the game against his old Pacific Division rivals, F Patrick Marleau did what I’d probably do in that situation: he sailed his attempt over the net.
- Now it was LW Johnny Gaudreau‘s turn to end the game. He did a little better than Marleau by putting his shot on frame, but Andersen was able to save the wrister.
- Second Star F William Nylander went two NHL seasons without scoring a shootout goal, but last night ended the skid. He set the shootout score at 2-1, setting up a miss-and-lose situation for Calgary.
- Looking at the stats, it’s a wonder C Mikael Backlund represented the Flames’ best opportunity to continue the game. Last night marked the sixth shootout opportunity of his career, and Backlund has missed all six.
Andersen saved 47-of-48 shots faced (.979 save percentage) to earn the victory, leaving the shootout loss to Smith, who saved 28-of-29 (.966).
For the seventh consecutive day, home and road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have exchanged victories (it must be everyone’s holiday spirit). With yesterday being the home team’s turn, they’ve improved their record to 36-22-6, 15 points better than the visitors’.