Every team’s bye has come and gone, so let’s get back to playing some hockey!
There’s four matinees on the schedule today: one pair (Dallas at Buffalo and New Jersey at Philadelphia) drop the puck at 1 p.m., and the other two (the New York Rangers at Colorado and Winnipeg at Calgary [CBC/NHLN/SN]) will follow suit two hours later. The next three tilts (Boston at Montréal [NHLN/SN/TVAS], Toronto at Ottawa [CBC/CITY/TVAS2] and Carolina at Detroit) drop the puck at the usual 7 p.m. starting time, followed by three more (Pittsburgh at San Jose, Arizona at St. Louis and Florida at Nashville) an hour later. 8:30 p.m. marks the beginning of the New York Islanders at Chicago, while Tampa Bay at Minnesota waits until the top of the hour to get underway. Finally, Vancouver visits Edmonton (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. to close out the evening’s festivities. All times Eastern.
It’s so nice having the whole gang back together again. With so many games, I’m back to having at least four rivalry games that stand out above the rest.
- New Jersey at Philadelphia: The Battle of the Turnpikes is never a dull affair, and tensions will only be heightened by the Flyers’ current hot streak.
- Winnipeg at Calgary: Back in the 1980s, this was one of the best rivalries in the Western Conference. Perhaps more sparks will fly today.
- Boston at Montréal: For the third time in basically one week, these historic rivals will tangle. This could get nasty.
- Toronto at Ottawa: The Battle of Ontario rages on between Canada’s capital and its biggest city.
Somehow, the Jets have not been featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series since the holiday break. Let’s resolve that by seeing how they handle a red-hot Calgary club.
The streaky 25-16-4 Flames have jumped in and out of playoff position all season, and this seven-game winning streak they were riding before their five-day bye has propelled them all the way into third place in the Pacific Division.
Calgary has been dominant on both ends of the ice during this run. Since New Year’s Eve, the Flames have employed the league’s third-best offense – averaging 3.86 goals per game – and the (t)fourth-best defense – averaging only two goals against per game.
On the defensive end, the answer is simple: 20-13-3 G Mike Smith. The (t)eighth-most winningest goaltender of the season started all but one of the Flames’ past seven games, posting an impressive .941 save percentage and 1.99 GAA. Those numbers are already good in comparison to his season marks of .924 (the [t]eighth-best mark in the league) and 2.46, but what makes his effort in his last six starts really stand out is the fact that his defense is allowing a fifth-worst 35.43 shots against per game during this winning streak. Without Smith playing at the top of his game, this Flames team is a totally different – and far uglier – product.
However, it’s not just Smith that is performing above expectations. With the offense managing only 2.87 goals per game for the entire season, Calgary is producing a full goal better thanks to the positive energy of its goaltender.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the Flames’ leader during this surge has been none other than LW Johnny Gaudreau. The very player that has 39 assists ([t]third-most in the league) and 54 points ([t]fourth-most in the league) to his credit has continued his play-making ways to post 2-11-13 totals during this seven-game winning streak, averaging almost two points per game.
Gaudreau makes everyone around him better, which makes sense why linemates W Micheal Ferland (19-10-29 totals) and C Sean Monahan (21-21-42) have both posted four goals since New Year’s Eve. However, the scorer that really takes the cake during this run is sophomore LW Matthew Tkachuk (13-18-31). The 20-year-old has already matched his goal total from his rookie season, and that’s due in large part to his team-leading five tallies in the last seven games.
As Calgary is proving, when both the top lines are firing on all cylinders, this club is a very tough out. After all, the Flames just handled the Lightning in Tampa Bay on January 11, winning 5-1.
Of course, one of the toughest outs all season has been 26-13-7 Winnipeg, the second-best team in the Central Division. Today marks the Jets’ first game after their six-day bye week, and they’ll be looking to get back to their winning ways.
Though Winnipeg was technically riding a two-game losing skid going into the bye, the Jets are actually 6-2-1 in their last nine games. A major reason for that success is Winnipeg’s offense, which has averaged 3.56 goals per game since December 27.
Just like Gaudreau has led his team both during its winning streak and the overall season, the same can be said for F Blake Wheeler. The captain has posted impressive 5-7-12 totals in the last five games to improve his season marks to 14-39-53, the (t)third-most assists and (t)seventh-most points in the NHL.
Making Wheeler’s performance even more impressive, he’s been able to maintain his performance even while C Mark Scheifele (15-23-38 totals) has been on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Of course, what should we expect when the captain has linemates like RW Patrik Laine (20-17-37), who’s filling in for Wheeler as the top-line right wing while he slides into Scheifele’s vacated center position, and LW Kyle Connor (15-13-28)? Both Connor and Laine have provided eight points over the last nine games, and Wheeler has provided six primary assists since December 27.
On the defensive end, no name is greater in Manitoba than G Connor Hellebuyck. He’s posted a 23-6-6 record this season (the third-most wins in the league) that includes three shutouts – the (t)fourth-mots in the NHL. He’s started all but one of the past nine games, posting a .93 save percentage and 2.24 GAA in the process to raise his season numbers to .922 and 2.4 (the ninth-best GAA in the league).
Calgary and Winnipeg have tangled only once before this season, and it was at the Saddledome – the site of today’s matchup – way back on October 7. The Flames performed perfectly to defend home ice, as D T.J. Brodie registered a 2-2-4 night to lead Calgary to a 6-3 victory after it had trailed 3-1 through the first period.
With both teams coming into this game well-rested, it’s hard to tell which will have the upper hand. Since the Flames have home ice, I’m leaning towards Calgary taking this one, but I truly believe its anyone’s guess.
Thanks to First Star of the Game D Aaron Ekblad‘s overtime game-winner, the Florida Panthers beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 at BB&T Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
W Jamie McGinn (F Nick Bjugstad) opened the scoring for the Panthers, burying a backhanded shot only 3:15 into the contest. That 1-0 advantage lasted 11:07 before W David Perron (D Brad Hunt and F Erik Haula) leveled the game with a snap shot, but Second Star C Aleksander Barkov (F Vincent Trocheck) would return the lead to Florida with 4:05 remaining in the frame on a shorthanded backhander.
Vegas would once again tie the game, but C William Karlsson (D Shea Theodore and W Reilly Smith) would not score his tip-in until the 6:54 mark of the second period. That tally proved to be the lone marker of the middle frame, meaning the score read 2-2 through the second intermission.
Staying true to the pattern, the Panthers were next up to tickle the twine. W Evgeni Dadonov (Barkov and D Keith Yandle) was the guilty party, burying a wrist shot 3:35 into the third period. Third Star W James Neal (Haula) waited until 2:09 remained in regulation to score his wrister and level the game at three-all. As neither the Golden Knights nor Panthers could level the game in the remaining time, their final tilt of the regular season advanced into three-on-three overtime.
As stated before, Ekblad (Barkov and F Jonathan Huberdeau) provided the game-winner (his first winner of the season), but it’s arguably more notable that he needed only 40 seconds to score it. The Panthers dominated the overtime frame to out-shoot Vegas 2-0, and that was no more noticeable than when Ekblad fought off D Nate Schmidt in his own defensive zone to eventually set up Huberdeau for a breakaway opportunity. The forward raced into the offensive zone, passing around Smith to Barkov. Barkov’s backhander couldn’t beat G Malcolm Subban, but the puck flew into the air and eventually ended up in the high slot – perfectly centered for Ekblad. The defenseman one-timed a slap shot over Subban’s glove, earning the bonus point for the Panthers.
G James Reimer earned the victory after saving 33-of-36 shots faced (.917 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Subban, who saved 22-of-26 (.846).
There’s no stopping the 59-34-12 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series lately. They’ve won four-straight contests to reclaim a 24-point advantage over the roadies in the series.