March 7 – Day 147 – The Pennsylvania Cold War

There may not be many games on tonight, but the quality of at least one matchup more than makes up for that.

Only three games are on the schedule tonight, starting with Calgary at Buffalo (SN) at 7:30 p.m. Next up is Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (NBCSN/TVAS) half an hour later, followed by Arizona at Vancouver (SN1) at 10 p.m. as tonight’s nightcap. All times Eastern.

There’s only one clear option for tonight’s featured matchup, so let’s get to Pennsylvania!

 

 

 

 

What makes today’s rivalry interesting is that neither team enters the game in what is necessarily their top form.

That may seem incorrect for the 38-25-4 Penguins considering they make the trip east riding a two-game winning streak, but that mark can be deceiving. Before those two wins (both of which were against teams currently outside the playoffs), Pittsburgh had lost three-straight games by a combined 17-11 score.

As evidenced by that composite score, offense is no problem for these Pens lately. F Evgeni Malkin (3-6-9 totals since February 24) and RW Phil Kessel (1-6-7 in his last five games) have been unstoppable lately, as they are both averaging well over a point per game on separate lines. In all, Pittsburgh has managed 3.6 goals per game since February 24, the (t)ninth-best mark in the NHL in that time.

Instead, Pittsburgh is struggling mightily in its own zone. Even with the solid efforts of D Brian Dumoulin (2.2 blocks per game since February 24), Malkin (averaging one takeaway per game during this run) and D Jamie Oleksiak (three hits per game in his last five games), the Pens have allowed an abysmal 34.2 shots against per game over their last five tilts, the eighth-most in the NHL since February 24.

That defensive lapse is made all the more of an issue when we take into account 23-13-2 G Matt Murray‘s concussion that has kept him off the ice since February 24. Young 12-5-2 G Tristan Jarry has tried his best, but managed to post only an .877 save percentage and 4.02 GAA in his last four showings, meaning Pittsburgh has allowed a league-worst 4.4 goals against per game since February 24.

To beat the Flyers tonight, Jarry will need to perform closer to his .913 season save percentage and 2.69 GAA, but that isn’t likely without an improvement in Pittsburgh’s defensive play.

Fans of the 34-21-11 Flyers shouldn’t get too excited about their rivals’ struggles though, as Philadelphia hasn’t been playing all that spectacularly lately either. Since posting a six-game winning streak from February 16-26, Philly has posted only an 0-2-1 record.

Unlike Pittsburgh’s Jarry, who can point to an anemic defense as the reason he’s been struggling, 11-9-4 G Petr Mrazek has no one to blame but himself for his play in the month of March. Even though he’s faced only 32 shots per game in his last three starts (16th in the league since March 1), Mrazek has managed only an .854 save percentage and 4.54 GAA, well off his .906 and 2.9 marks for the season.

His struggles in the crease has made the Flyers’ production on the offensive end even more important, but the forwards simply haven’t been able to answer the call in these last three games. Beyond the usual dominance of F Claude Giroux (1-3-4 totals since March 1) and D Ivan Provorov (1-2-3 in his last three games), only 10 other Flyers have found the scorecard, of which only five have scored a goal. Those numbers needs to increase for the Flyers to have a shot at winning tonight.

The icing on the cake in any rivalry is when it has the potential to dramatically impact the standings. With the top three teams in the Metropolitan Division separated by only two points, this game definitely qualifies.

Since the Capitals have played only 65 games compared to Philly’s 66 and Pittsburgh’s 67, they automatically win any tie that may occur after tonight’s game. That means the only way the Penguins, who trail Washington by a point, can take the division lead is with a victory.

As for the Flyers, they can’t take the Metropolitan lead with a victory, but they can advance into second place over Pittsburgh. Should Philadelphia require extra time to knock off the Pens, that would mean all three teams would be tied at 81 points. Should that happen, Washington would keep first, Philadelphia would climb to second and Pittsburgh fall to third.

The Penguins already have a firm lead on Philadelphia in their season series, as they’ve already beaten their bitter rivals twice in as many meetings this season. Pittsburgh claimed a 5-4 overtime home victory on November 27 (C Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner) and followed it up with a dominating 5-1 win at Wells Fargo Center – the site of tonight’s game – on January 2 (RW Ryan Reaves took First Star honors with a one-goal, two-point and four-hit effort).

Playing at home against a rival can cure many ails for a team that hasn’t found the win column in a while. With that and the Pens’ defensive issues in mind, I have no doubt the Flyers’ offense can come back to life tonight – but can they outscore Pittsburgh in what is sure to be a barn burner?

I’m leaning towards Philly earning two points tonight, but this game very well may boil down to which team scores the last goal.


Behind the stellar performance of First Star of the Game G Joonas Korpisalo, the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 at Nationwide Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Korpisalo performed phenomenally, as he managed to save 37-of-38 shots faced (.974 save percentage) to snap his personal three-game losing skid.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the offensive support he had either. It took only 16 seconds of action before Columbus had the lead, courtesy of a wrist shot from Second Star LW Artemi Panarin (RW Cam Atkinson and Third Star F Pierre-Luc Dubois).

The Golden Knights had an early goal of their own, as F Erik Haula (W David Perron and RW Alex Tuch) scored a wrister 90 seconds into the second period to level the game at 1-1. However, Korpisalo’s play ensured that was Vegas’ last tally of the night, setting up D Zach Werenski‘s (Panarin and Dubois) slap shot at the 8:01 mark of the frame as the game-winner.

Not only did Werenski score the game-winning goal, but he’s also entirely responsible for creating his scoring opportunity, as without him sealing the blue line, the puck would have escaped Columbus’ offensive zone. Instead, he slung the puck back to Panarin in the left face-off circle, who of course drew the attention of Vegas’ defense. With all eyes trained on the Breadman, he shoved a pass back towards the top of the zone to Werenski, who one-timed his clapper past G Marc-Andre Fleury‘s right shoulder.

Only 1:46 after the cannon was fired, it was reloaded and fired again when D Ian Cole (D David Savard and C Alexander Wennberg) buried a wrister to set the score at 3-1, the same mark that held through the second intermission.

With 2:21 remaining in regulation and Fleury out of his net for the extra attacker, Dubois (Panarin) set the 4-1 final score with a wrister.

Fleury took the loss after saving 17-of-20 (.85 save percentage).

It’s been a week since a road team has won in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but the 81-47-19 hosts aren’t complaining. They now have a 31-point advantage on the roadies in the series.