March 16 – Day 156 – If defense wins championships…

There’s a couple gems tucked within this evening’s half-dozen games!

The New York Islanders visit Washington (NHLN/SN1/TVAS) at 7 p.m. to open the evening’s events, followed by Dallas at Ottawa (RDS) half an hour later. The next two tilts (Nashville at Colorado and San Jose at Calgary) don’t drop the puck until 9 p.m., with Detroit at Anaheim (SN1) waiting another hour before getting underway. Finally, Minnesota at Vegas closes out the night with their 10:30 matchup. All times Eastern.

I’d marked half of tonight’s games as potentially important at the start of the season…

  • New York at Washington: The second half of the home-and-home between these clubs goes down tonight!
  • Dallas at Ottawa: D Marc Methot was scheduled to return to his home arena of five years tonight, but a cut on his hand kept him out of Wednesday’s tilt in Toronto. Odds are the Canadian Tire Centre crowd will have to wait another year.
  • Detroit at Anaheim: When the Red Wings were in the Western Conference, this was quite the rivalry. Considering the Ducks need every point they can get right now, this game has a chance of turning nasty in a hurry.

…but none of those rivalries have quite the significance of the Pacific Division showdown in Alberta!

 

Let’s start with the 38-23-9 San Jose Sharks, the team that currently occupies second place in the Pacific Division. San Jose has been playing relatively well lately, as it has posted a 3-1-0 record over its last four games.

Just like other points in the season when the Sharks have been finding wins left and right, defense has been the biggest key to their recent success. Led by the efforts of LW Evander Kane (3.8 hits per game since March 8) and D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (two blocks per game over this run), San Jose has limited its opposition to only 24 shots against per game since March 8, the best mark in the league in that time.

As might be expected, 24-18-6 G Martin Jones has looked really, really good considering how few pucks have come his way lately. Having started each and every one of the Sharks’ last four games, he’s posted a .926 save percentage and 1.75 GAA to elevate his season marks to a .917 save percentage and 2.48 GAA.

Between San Jose’s stellar defense and the solid play of Jones, the Sharks have allowed only two goals against per game during this four-game run, the (t)third-lowest mark in the NHL since March 8.

Defense seems to be the theme of tonight’s game, as 35-26-10 Calgary – which currently occupies 10th place in the Western Conference – has also posted a 3-1-0 record over its last four games on the back of its blueline.

Behind the exemplary play of F Sam Bennett (2.8 hits per game since March 7), D Mark Giordano (1.5 blocks per game during this four-game run) and D Travis Hamonic (five takeaways in his last four showings), the Flames have done a good job of keeping scoring threats to a minimum, as they’ve allowed only 27.75 shots against per game since March 7, the fifth-best mark in the NHL in that time.

A major reason for Calgary’s return to form has been the return to health for 24-17-6 G Mike Smith, tonight’s probable starter. Smith has split his two starts since returning to action which is largely why his .926 save percentage and 2.05 GAA doesn’t seem that impressive. However, his most recent showing against the Oilers was a good one, as he posted a 28-save shutout to improve his season marks to a .922 save percentage and 2.51 GAA.

If the Pacific Division is going to send four teams to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flames definitely need to win this game. They’re currently three points behind current second wildcard Dallas, which is playing a lowly Senators team tonight. Of course, that ignores the current ninth-place Ducks, who have two points on Calgary and is also playing a weak Red Wings team tonight.

But this isn’t college sports with confusing conference and division loyalties (It’ll never make sense to me how fans of a team want to see the same opponents they pull against almost every other day of the year all of a sudden perform well. You didn’t like them yesterday, why should you today?), so don’t expect San Jose to be spotting Calgary any points tonight. Besides, this is the Sharks’ game in hand on Los Angeles, the very club they lead for second place in the Pacific by only one point. A win tonight would go a long way in ensuring San Jose would host a potential Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

The Sharks have definitely had the upper hand through the first half of the season series between these clubs, as they won both December meetings. Their first contest was on December 14 at the Saddledome where San Jose took a 3-2 victory (RW Joonas Donskoi provided the game-winning goal), followed only 14 days later by a tilt in The Tank that also ended 3-2 in favor of the Sharks – though they needed a shootout to pull off the victory (D Brent Burns earned First Star honors).

Compared to the 2.5 goals per game the Flames have managed over their last four showings, San Jose’s 2.75 goals per game over their last four tilts is slightly better. With that in mind, I’m led to believe the Sharks are in line for another tight victory tonight just like in their two previous meetings with Calgary.


With a hat trick from First Star of the Game RW Cam Atkinson, the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-3 at Wells Fargo Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

With eight goals being struck in the entire contest, half of the game’s scoring occurred in the first period. RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (D Seth Jones and F Sonny Milano) got on the scoreboard first with a slap shot at the 9:41 mark, and he was followed only 11 seconds later by F Boone Jenner (D Jack Johnson and W Thomas Vanek) to give the Jackets a two-goal advantage. With 8:26 remaining in the period, F Claude Giroux (F Travis Konecny and Second Star D Andrew MacDonald) buried a clapper to pull the Flyers back within a goal, but Atkinson (D Zach Werenski and LW Artemi Panarin) scored his first of the game 6:34 later to reestablish Columbus’ two-goal lead.

If Columbus dominated the first period, Philadelphia owned the second – but not without allowing what proved to be the game-winning goal to slip under its nose. Only 14 seconds into the frame, D Shayne Gostisbehere (D Ivan Provorov and C Sean Couturier) set the score at 3-2 with a power play snap shot. 3:09 later, Atkinson (D David Savard) provided the Jackets’ all-important fourth goal.

Some plays confuse the opposing goaltender, and others just straight beat him. This is one of the latter, as Savard created a breakaway opportunity by slinging a pass from the left face-off dot in his own zone to Atkinson waiting at the far blue line. After that, all Atkinson had to do was advance towards the right face-off dot before ripping a clapper through G Petr Mrazek to the far post.

Facing a 4-2 deficit, MacDonald (D Travis Sanheim and Konecny) scored a clapper with 7:37 remaining in the frame to pull the Flyers back within a goal of the Jackets.

The third period almost escaped without the scoreboard operator needing to lift a finger (no penalties occurred in the frame either), but Atkinson wasn’t about to depart the City of Brotherly Love without some black-and-orange caps. With Third Star G Alex Lyon pulled for the extra attacker, Atkinson (Panarin and Savard) skated down the ice and completed the fourth hat trick of his NHL career with only a second to spare.

G Sergei Bobrovsky earned the victory after saving 27-of-30 shots faced (.9 save percentage), leaving the loss to Mrazek, who saved six-of-10 (.6). Mrazek was lifted following Atkinson’s eventual game-winner in favor of Lyon, who saved all 18 shots he faced for no decision.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are on quite a run lately, as they’ve earned points in six-consecutive tilts. As such, the 87-50-19 hosts now have only a 36-point lead in the season series.