March 3 – Day 143 – You can put your mind at ease

If Saturdays are good for nothing else, the joy of having hockey on for almost 12-straight hours makes a week at work almost worth it.

Almost.

Today’s action starts at 1 p.m. when Philadelphia visits Tampa Bay, followed an hour later by St. Louis at Dallas. The next matinee is a 4 p.m. tilt featuring Chicago at Los Angeles (NHLN), trailed by a pair of games (Montréal at Boston [SN/TVAS] and the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh) 60 minutes after. The evening’s festivities get underway at 8 p.m. with two matchups (Ottawa at Arizona [CITY] and Toronto at Washington [CBC/NBC/TVAS]), while the New York Rangers at Edmonton (CBC/SN/SN1) close out the night at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few important games on today’s schedule…

  • Chicago at Los Angeles: This rivalry was important when the Blackhawks were competitive.
  • Montréal at Boston: If you’re looking for a rivalry, this one…
  • New York at Pittsburgh: …and this one are the important ones on today’s schedule. You’re free to decide which should take precedence.
  • Toronto at Washington: Not only is this the much anticipated outdoor game being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but it’s also a rematch of an Eastern Conference first round matchup from a season ago.

I suppose we can get into the spirit of things and see how the outdoor game goes. After all, it’s expected to be the evening’s most competitive match.

 

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first:

  • Capitals fans: Your organization is honoring the days of the mid-to-late ’90s when it was having an identity crisis. Instead of donning the customary red we’ve come to know Washington for, the Caps have elected to bust out blue threads this evening. Who cares that Toronto usually wears blue and red and white are also American colors ? This game is at the Naval Academy and – gosh darn it! – the hosts from the nation’s capital are going to wear navy blue!
  • Maple Leafs fans: Yes, we know your team is usually the blue one. Not tonight. Treat it like a game in Tampa – your team is the one clad in white. Blue is bad. White is winners.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can jump into the hockey.

39-20-7 Toronto ended February with a bang, as the Leafs are currently riding a six-game point streak and have posted a 9-1-2 record in their past 12 games.

The reason the the Maple Leafs’ recent winning ways is easily their offense, which has managed a fifth-best 3.67 goals per game since February 5. Mitch Marner has been nothing short of incredible over this run, as he’s posted 8-9-17 totals in 12 games to improve his season marks to 17-36-53. Joining him in averaging at least a point per game during this run is Nazem Kadri (6-7-13 in 12 games) and Auston Matthews (5-5-10 in nine games), who’s currently on injured reserve.

Kadri has managed to make himself right at home filling in for Matthews on the top line, and he’s become best friends with Marner. They’ve combined on nine scoring plays since early February, six of which were at even-strength. Mix in some Patrick Marleau (20-14-34 totals in 66 games) magic, and the Leafs employ one heck of a top line.

Defensively, the only person worth talking about for the Leafs is G Frederik Andersen, because his defense has been abysmal for the last month by allowing 37.08 shots per game – the second-most in the NHL since February 5.

Even with that onslaught, 32-16-5 Andersen has been phenomenal. Having started 10 of the Leafs’ last 12 games, he’s posted a .924 save percentage and 2.87 GAA to earn 15 points in the standings. On the season, he now has a .922 save percentage and 2.67 GAA.

Meanwhile, the 36-21-7 Capitals have struggled to find much consistency lately, alternating wins and losses to post a 4-4-0 record over their last eight games.

As might be indicated by such a mark in recent games, Washington has been little better than average since February 15. With 6-4-10 totals in the past eight games, Alex Ovechkin has been the only consistent presence on the offensive end, and the Caps’ resulting 2.75 goals per game in that time is only (t)15th-best in the league.

That puts pressure on the defensive end to perform well, but that’s only partially happened. The defensive skaters have played decently lately, as Brooks Orpik (2.8 blocks per game since February 15) and Tom Wilson (3.1 hits per game over this run) have led the way to limit the opposition to 32.25 shots against per game over the Caps’ past eight games, the (t)13th-best mark in the NHL in that time.

However, neither 28-14-4 G Braden Holtby nor 8-7-3 G Philipp Grubauer have held up their end of the bargain, as they’ve allowed 3.25 goals per game since February 15. In fact, Holtby – tonight’s starter – has actually been outplayed by his understudy, as his .832 save percentage and 5.77 GAA have been eclipsed by Grubauer’s .949 save percentage and 1.61 GAA.

Considering Grubauer can take credit for all four of the Caps’ most recent wins, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holtby – a former Vezina winner, mind you – is on a short leash this evening.

We’re getting to the part of the season when we can bust out the words “rubber match,” and this tilt definitely qualifies. In the first two games between Toronto and Washington, the Maple Leafs took an impressive 2-0 victory at Capital One Arena way back on October 17 (Andersen took First Star honors with his 30-save shutout), followed by the Caps besting the Leafs 4-2 on November 25 at Air Canada Centre (Ovechkin registered a hat trick to lead Washington’s attack) to level the season series at 1-1-0.

It would seem both of these teams are all but ensured playoff spots given how they’ve played this season, so they’re more interested in improving seeding tonight.

Washington currently leads the Metropolitan Division by one point over Philadelphia, which has two tilts this weekend to result in the Capitals having a game in hand by Monday morning. A win is obviously important in a division where the top six clubs are separated by only 10 points, but the Caps won’t be too disappointed if they end the weekend in second place in the division.

Meanwhile, Toronto is in a full-fledged war against Boston for the all-important second position in the Atlantic Division, as the team with home ice in their likely first round series will surely have the better chance of advancing to the Eastern Semifinals. The Leafs currently trail the Bruins by one point, but the fact that Boston has four games in hand on Toronto puts a major dent in Head Coach Mike Babcock’s plans.

If Washington is going to continue its run of alternating wins and losses, it’s probably not a good thing it beat the Senators in its last showing on Tuesday. Pair that with Toronto’s stellar offense and the road team winning the first two meetings between these clubs, and I’m leaning towards the Maple Leafs earning two points tonight.


Yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was a grind-it-out, defensive affair. Those are just the types of games the Carolina Hurricanes excel at, as they beat the New Jersey Devils 3-1 at PNC Arena.

With the exception of Carolina’s second period (13 shots on goal) and New Jersey’s third (12 SOG), neither offense was able to apply much pressure on its opposing goaltenders in terms of volume considering the remaining shot totals for either team in the remaining periods were all under 10. In particular, the Hurricanes’ defense played marvelously in the first period to limit the Devils to only six shots on goal.

That put a premium on precision scoring, and that was on full display when Third Star of the Game C Derek Ryan (F Victor Rask and D Noah Hanifin) scored the game’s opening goal with 8:10 remaining in the second period. Officially marked as a deflection scored by the center, he actually banked his shot off D Damon Severson‘s left skate to beat G Keith Kinkaid.

Another skilled scorer struck late in the second frame to tie the game at 1-1. With Ryan in the penalty box for holding him 27 seconds before and a measly 33 ticks on the clock separating him from the second intermission, F Taylor Hall (D Sami Vatanen and W Kyle Palmieri) scored a power play tip-in to extend his point streak to 24 appearances.

First Star F Teuvo Teravainen (D Brett Pesce and F Elias Lindholm) takes credit for the game-winning goal at the 9:37 mark of the final frame. Those guilty of blinking at the wrong time – like I was when watching this game live – likely missed this goal.

The play started when Lindholm slid a pass to Pesce at the center of the blue line from the right face-off circle. The defenseman one-timed a killer slap shot just wide of Kinkaid’s net that would have set up a juicy rebound off the boards, but that bounce proved unnecessary as the Finn was waiting in the corner of the slot to redirect the shot through the crease and into the goal, setting the score at 2-1.

With Jersey trailing by one and Kinkaid pulled for the extra attacker, RW Justin Williams (F Jordan Staal) scored an empty netter 22 seconds before the end of regulation to seal the Canes’ 29th victory of the season.

Second Star G Cam Ward earned the victory after saving 25-of-26 shots faced (.962 save percentage), leaving the loss to Kinkaid, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are rolling once again. After allowing road teams to go on a four-game streak of earning at least a point, the 77-47-19 hosts have won three in a row to take a commanding 24-point advantage in the series.