December 14 – Day 71 – No sushi here

It’s another Thursday in the NHL packed with action, as all but seven teams will be lacing them up this evening.

Like they do most nights, the festivities find their start at 7 p.m. with the puck drop of three games (Washington at Boston [SN360], Buffalo at Philadelphia and the New York Islanders at Columbus), followed half an hour later by New Jersey at Montréal (RDS/TSN2). Three more puck drops (Anaheim at St. Louis, Toronto at Minnesota and Chicago at Winnipeg) are scheduled for 8 p.m., while a four-pack (Florida at Colorado, San Jose at Calgary, Nashville at Edmonton [TVAS] and Tampa Bay at Arizona) waits until 9 p.m. to get underway. Finally, Pittsburgh makes its first-ever visit to Vegas (NHLN/SN/SN360) at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

For those that know me, or at least keep track of this column, you probably know which two teams I call my own (I know, I’m cheating by having two. That’s what you get when your dad pulls for a team far from where you live.). So, you’re probably guessing I’m leaning towards the Penguins-Golden Knights game to see the reunion of G Marc-Andre Fleury and his old Pens pals.

However, I’m far more interested in Fleury’s return to the Steel City when he gets greeted by his former home fans and receives his 2017 Stanley Cup ring (hint: look forward to my February 6 column).

In the meantime, let’s head to southern Alberta where there’s an important Pacific Division game taking place.

 

Tell me if you’ve read this as recently as yesterday’s column: these two teams are fortunate they play in the division they do, or their playoff hopes could already be in the trash.

While the Pacific Division has been full of surprises this season (the dominance of the Kings, the Golden Knights being way better than an expansion team should and the Oilers’ fall from incredible to dumpster fire), the middle of the pack has been nothing more than… well, average.

Take for example tonight’s visitors, the 16-10-3 Sharks. San Jose is average in a very special way, because it pairs one of the best defenses in the game with an offense that can’t seem to figure out why there’s goals at both ends of the rink.

Let’s start with the good: led by the impressive efforts of defensemen Justin Braun (team-leading 1.96 blocks per game), Brent Burns (33 takeaways) and Brenden Dillon (2.85 hits per game), the Sharks allow an average of only 29.13 shots to reach 5-3-1 G Aaron Dell – tonight’s probable starter, per Curtis Pashelka of Bay Area News Group due to the Sharks traveling to Vancouver for a game tomorrow night.

Though his eight starts and 11 appearances are a fairly small sample size at this point of the season, Dell has technically outperformed 11-7-2 G Martin Jones so far, posting a superior .939 save percentage and 1.72 GAA. In fact, of the 50 goaltenders in the league with at least eight starts, Dell has been the class of the NHL and led both statistical categories.

Of course, he’s also faced the fourth-fewest shots of any of those netminders, so maybe that’s a better reflection of his defense’s effort. Either way, the Sharks have allowed only 2.34 goals against per game this season, the second fewest in the league.

But with all that good comes an equal share of bad; specifically, an offense that averages only 2.68 goals per game, the seventh-fewest in the league. I wrote about why I think the Sharks’ attack isn’t working here (hint: looking at you, Burns), but one player that doesn’t deserve a nightly tongue lashing from Head Coach Peter DeBoer is F Logan Couture. He’s been a solid player this season on an unspectacular offense, posting 15-10-25 totals that puts even the likes of C Jack Eichel, W James Neal and F T.J. Oshie behind him on the league leader board.

The longer Burns and that offense struggles, the more opportunities it gives teams like the 16-12-3 Flames to climb into playoff position. Calgary currently occupies fourth place in the Pacific Division, but only 10th in the Western Conference, which means it is not even next in line for the second wild card.

That puts a big emphasis on these division games, and there’s no time like the present to play one for these Flames. They may have only won two of their last four games, but they’re riding a four-game point streak that includes three road contests, including visits to the Air Canada Centre and Bell Centre.

Over this decent run, 13-9-3 G Mike Smith has buckled down and put on some solid performances in the crease. Starting three of the four games, he’s posted a .947 save percentage and 1.26 GAA to go 1-0-2 and improve his season numbers to a .919 save percentage and 2.6 GAA.

Due to Calgary’s defense allowing an average of 31.8 shots per game (15th-most in the league), Smith needs to be on his game most nights to give his team a chance to win. That’s especially true considering the Flames’ offense averages only 2.8 goals per game – the 11th-fewest in the NHL – even though LW Johnny Gaudreau (12-26-38 points) and C Sean Monahan (17-13-30) have been putting on a show this season.

The Flames’ struggle this year had been depth scoring, but its no surprise that’s exactly what they’ve gotten during this little run they’re on. 14 different players have found the scorecard in the past four games, including Travis Hamonic (1-3-4 season totals) and Brett Kulak (0-4-4), defensemen not usually known for their offensive contributions. If this trend can continue, maybe – just maybe – Calgary can shape up into a decent team.

If nothing else can be said about the bottom five teams in the Pacific Division, it will certainly make for an exciting trade deadline and playoff push this March if all these teams are fighting for third place. We may not know who will square off in Vegas’ playoff debut until the last day of the regular season.

As for who will get two points closer to that goal this evening, I’m leaning towards the Flames. Smith has been playing spectacularly this season and should be able to quell the Sharks’ anemic offense, and I think Calgary’s depth can keep up its scoring streak.


Though they had to pull Second Star of the Game G Tuukka Rask for an extra attacker just to force overtime, the Boston Bruins were able to get past the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 at Little Caesars Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The first goal of this contest wasn’t struck until the 9:15 mark of the second period. That’s when F Tomas Tatar (D Niklas Kronwall and F Henrik Zetterberg) buried a power play wrist shot to give the Wings a 1-0 lead that would last into the second intermission.

Thanks to F Noel Acciari‘s (F Tim Schaller) second goal of the season, the Bruins leveled the game at the 3:02 mark of the third period, but Detroit once again took the lead 8:32 later on a special teams goal. Third Star F Dylan Larkin (F Darren Helm and D Trevor Daley) took advantage of RW David Pastrnak‘s indecisiveness to score a breakaway shorthanded backhanded shot. Pastrnak (First Star LW Brad Marchand and D Torey Krug) was provided the opportunity to redeem himself though, and he leveled the game at two-all with 86 seconds remaining in regulation with Rask pulled for the extra attacker.

Even though the Bruins never led in this game, Marchand (Krug) gave the Bruins their 15th win of the season with what our in-house Bruins expert @nlanciani53 is calling nothing more than “a typical Marchand breakaway backhander.”

We’ll take his word at it.

Rask earned the victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to G Jimmy Howard, who saved 29-of-32 (.906).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have now won two-straight contests. As such, they’ve pulled within 14 points of the 39-23-9 hosts.

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