March 5 – Day 145 – Tastes like chicken

It’s another fun-filled Monday in the NHL, as five games are on tonight’s schedule.

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with Calgary at Pittsburgh (SN/TVAS), followed half an hour later by Toronto at Buffalo (NBCSN). Next up is Ottawa at Dallas (RDS) at 8:30 p.m., with Arizona at Edmonton waiting 30 minutes before dropping the puck. Finally, the New York Islanders visit Vancouver at 10 p.m. as tonight’s nightcap. All times Eastern.

I’d marked the Battle of the QEW on my calendar before the season started, but the Sabres have been just too disappointing this season to merit our honing in on that game.

Instead, let’s see what the Flames have to offer against the two-time defending champions.

 

After enjoying the thrills of an eight-game point streak and six-game winning streak, the last four tilts have not been a pleasurable experience for the 37-25-4 Penguins. Since February 24, Pittsburgh has earned a lowly 1-3-0 record, with that lone victory being a 3-2 overtime win over the defensively-inept Islanders on Saturday.

For those wondering, the problem has not been the Penguins’ offense. In fact, even through three loss, Pittsburgh’s offense is still managing 3.5 goals per game since February 24, the (t)11th-best attack in the NHL in that time. F Evgeni Malkin (2-4-6 totals in his last four games) and RW Phil Kessel (1-4-5 in that same time) have both been brilliant to average more than a point per game in spite of the team’s struggles, and their efforts are made only more impressive by the fact that they rarely share time on the same line except on the power play.

Instead, the issues have clearly been in net, which makes sense considering 23-13-2 G Matt Murray sustained a concussion (yes, Pens fans: another one) after taking a puck to the head in practice on February 26.

Assuming Murray will be unable to play today, a flip of a coin might be the best way to figure out if 3-4-0 G Casey DeSmith or 11-5-2 G Tristan Jarry is going to earn the nod tonight considering they’ve effectively alternated during this run (if that trend continues, expect DeSmith tonight since Jarry was in net for the overtime win on Saturday).

Statistically speaking, neither has given Head Coach Mike Sullivan a compelling reason to start either lately, as DeSmith has posted an .86 save percentage and 5.65 GAA in his last two starts while Jarry has only an .855 save percentage and 4.5 GAA to his credit in his last three appearances. Comparing them for the entire season, both have posted identical .913 save percentages, but Jarry’s 2.68 GAA is slightly better than DeSmith’s 2.73.

Fortunately for the Pens, 32-25-9 Calgary does not come to the Steel City in their top form – largely facing the same troubles currently harassing the Penguins: an injury to its starting goaltender.

23-16-6 G Mike Smith has been on injured reserve with a strained groin since February 11, which has forced 2-2-0 G Jon Gillies and 6-5-3 G David Rittich into the spotlight. Given the circumstances, they’ve performed moderately well, as Gillies has managed a .906 save percentage and 2.61 GAA in his two most recent starts, while Rittich posted an .879 save percentage and 4.13 GAA last Wednesday in Colorado.

With both netminders having fewer than 15 NHL starts under their belts, it makes sense that the skaters are doing all they can to lighten the workload for their patchwork goaltending tandem that has been put in a tough spot. Their defensive work has certainly paid off in these last few games, as D Travis Hamonic (1.7 blocks per game since February 27) and RW Garnet Hathaway (2.3 hits per game in the last three games) have led the way to allowing an average of only 29 shots against per game since February 27, the sixth-fewest in the league.

However, that attention to detail in the defensive end has come at a major cost to Calgary’s attack. In their past three games, the Flames have scored only three goals, or one per game – the fewest in the league since February 27 and an average that requires a shutout effort from those inexperienced goaltenders. Currently riding a four-game pointless skid due to focusing on defense while playing on the opposite wing, W Johnny Gaudreau‘s scoring touch is desperately needed for this Flames team.

Calgary has already hosted its half of the annual home-and-home series between these inter-conference foes. The score read 1-1 at the end of regulation, but overtime lasted only 2:19 before D Mark Giordano scored the overtime game-winner for the Flames to earn them the bonus point.

It goes without saying that both teams can benefit from earning two points this evening. Should the Pens add another win to their record, they’d advance into second place in the Metropolitan Division – one point ahead of Philadelphia (Philly will have a game in hand) and one point behind Washington (the Caps will have two games in hand).

It seems all but certain that Pittsburgh will be in the Stanley Cup playoffs this April, but the same cannot be said of the Flames, who currently trail second wild card Los Angeles by four points. With Colorado and St. Louis both ahead of Calgary in the standings, it will be a heated race between those four teams for the West’s eighth seed, meaning the Flames can’t afford to drop many points in their remaining 16 fixtures if they want to play more than 82 games this season.

In games like this one, its going to boil down to which goaltender can make the most saves, as I’m fully confident in both offenses when they put the pedal to the medal. If that proves to be the case, this game favors the Penguins heavily, as it will be tough for either Gillies or Rittich to completely shutdown Pittsburgh’s mighty attack.


The Florida Panthers’ winning ways continued in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 at BB&T Center.

It took only 2:41 of action for the Panthers to find their first goal, and it was largely due to D Radko Gudas‘ interference penalty against W Jamie McGinn. With the Flyer in the penalty box, Second Star of the Game C Aleksander Barkov (D Keith Yandle and First Star G Roberto Luongo) scored a power play backhanded shot to set the score at 1-0. 12:08 later, Third Star W Evgeni Dadonov (F Nick Bjugstad and D Aaron Ekblad) provided what proved to be the game-winning goal.

The play started in Florida’s defensive zone with Ekblad and F Travis Konecny scrapping for possession in the corner to Luongo’s left. While they were preoccupied with roughing each other up, Bjugstad sneaked into the play to take control of the puck and sling it towards center ice for Dadonov, who had read the play perfectly to set up a one-on-one situation with G Petr Mrazek. Once he was inside the left face-off circle, Dadonov used a snap shot to beat the goaltender glove side.

Only one tally was registered in the second period, and it belonged to Florida to set the score at 3-0. With 1:54 remaining before the second intermission, Dadonov (Barkov and D Alexander Petrovic) scored his second goal of the game with a snapper.

F Jonathan Huberdeau (McGinn and D Mark Pysyk) provided the Panthers their final goal of the game with a backhander at the 2:47 mark of the third period. Though Konecny (D Brandon Manning and F Claude Giroux) was able to help Philadelphia escape being shutout by scoring a wrist shot with 3:21 remaining in regulation, his marker did little to influence the final result of this afternoon tilt.

Luongo earned the victory after saving 39-of-40 shots faced (.975 save percentage), leaving the loss to Mrazek, who saved 22-of-26 (.846).

Not only are the Panthers rolling, but so too are the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Yesterday’s victory was the fifth-straight by the 79-47-19 hosts, who now own a dominant 28-point lead over the roadies.