March 21 – Day 161 – Fallin’ for Dahlin

It’s a Wednesday, so the NHL doesn’t have too many games on today’s schedule.

Like most nights, this evening’s action finds its start at 7 p.m. with two tilts (Arizona at Buffalo and Montréal at Pittsburgh [RDS/SN]), followed an hour later by Boston at St. Louis (NBCSN/TVAS). Finally, Anaheim at Calgary (SN360) closes the night out with their fixture at 9:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Throughout the season, I’ve jotted down some notes about a couple of tonight’s games.

  • Montréal at Pittsburgh: It’s rare that a player can be so remembered in only three games with a club, but every Pens fan can tell you about G Antti Niemi‘s short three-game tenure with the squad to start the season.
  • Anaheim at Calgary: Playoff rematches from a year ago aren’t so important at this point in the season, but this is the Flames’ last chance to exact any revenge against the Ducks this campaign.

Now, there’s certainly important games in terms of playoff implications being played tonight (looking at you St. Louis and, to a lesser extent, Calgary). However, for the last few days, my eyes have been drawn to the bottom of the league standings to what should be a better game between the Coyotes and Sabres than meets the eye, even if both clubs have a good chance at snagging the first-overall draft pick.

 

While the 24-37-11 Coyotes are still a ways off of challenging Vegas for the top of the Pacific Division, they have not been playing as poorly as their position as second-to-last in the Western Conference would indicate. In fact, Arizona has posted a 6-3-1 record in its 10 games this March.

The biggest reason for the Yotes’ most recent success goes by the name 16-16-6 G Antti Raanta. Even in the face of a defense that has allowed 31.3 shots against per game this calendar month (the 14th-fewest in the league in that time), Raanta has posted an impressive .941 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. This solid run has improved his season marks to a .925 save percentage and 2.41 GAA.

Even with the Coyotes traveling to Raleigh after tonight’s game for a tilt against the Hurricanes tomorrow, it appears Raanta will man the pipes tonight as Joe Yerdon reported he was in the starter’s crease at this morning’s skate.

Similar to Arizona, 23-37-12 Buffalo also hasn’t been as bad as last in the league would indicate lately. Not only have the Sabres posted a 3-4-1 record since March 2, but they’ve done it in light of facing a tough schedule (at Florida, vs. Toronto, vs. Calgary, vs. Vegas, vs. Toronto and vs. Nashville) that even the best of teams would struggle with.

That being said, the biggest reason Buffalo still has a losing record over this eight-game run has to be its struggling defense. Even with F Ryan O’Reilly (10 takeaways in his last eight games) and D Rasmus Ristolainen (three hits per game and 1.8 blocks per game since March 2) pouring their hearts out on the defensive end, the Sabres are still allowing 36.75 shots against per game since March 2, the third-worst mark in the NHL in that time.

As would be expected when faced with that kind of assault, the Sabres’ goaltenders have struggled to keep up. In his last three starts, 8-11-3 G Chad Johnson – tonight’s starter – has managed only a .9 save percentage and 4.11 GAA. While that save percentage is slightly better than the .897 he’s managed for the entire season, the sheer quantity of shots faced means his recent GAA is well over his 3.27 season mark.

It’s at this point where we turn this preview on its head. I’m almost always of the opinion that players have little to no interest in tanking or improving draft odds, hence my struggle with the idea of tanking. Unless they’ve given up on their teammates, players and coaches are always going to put 100 percent effort into their play.

However, I’m very certain General Managers Jason Botterill and John Chayka are keeping a close eye on this game and hoping that things go their clubs’ way… by things not going their clubs’ way. With that in mind, let’s discuss how much winning this game can do to impair either team’s chance at drafting first overall.

As things currently stand, the Sabres are 31st in the league and have the best shot at the first overall pick (in other words, they have an 18 percent chance of drafting Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov or Brady Tkachuk whomever they think is the best fit for their organization). However, it’s still a tight race at the bottom of the NHL, as the last three teams are separated by only one point. Should Buffalo win this game, it will vault Arizona and Vancouver into 29th in the league. Third-to-last has a 10.5 percent chance of drafting first overall.

Speaking of 29th-place, that is exactly where the Coyotes currently reside since they’re winning (or losing, depending on how you look at it) a games-played tiebreaker with Vancouver. Should Arizona win tonight’s tilt, it will pull within two points of 28th-place Ottawa, the team that has a 9.5 percent chance of drafting first overall.

The last time these teams squared off was November 2 at Gila River Arena, and it was an incredibly entertaining affair. Even though First Star LW Benoit Pouliot had scored two goals and tacked on another assist to give Buffalo a comfortable 5-1 lead, the Sabres allowed Arizona to score three third period goals. Buffalo was saved by the final horn and escaped the Grand Canyon State with a 5-4 victory.

Based simply on defense, it looks like the Coyotes have the upper hand in this game. Mix in the fact that their offense has averaged 2.6 goals per game in March to Buffalo’s 2.25, and it becomes a no-brainer.


In desperate need of two points, the Dallas Stars still sit on the outside of the playoff picture after losing yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day against the Washington Capitals 4-3 at Capital One Arena.

The game started exactly how the Stars would have liked, as they entered the first intermission with a 1-0 advantage. With 3:56 remaining in the first frame, F Tyler Seguin (RW Alexander Radulov and Third Star of the Game D John Klingberg) took advantage of C Nicklas Backstrom getting thrown into the penalty box for tripping Klingberg to score a power play snap shot.

However, it didn’t take long after the start of the second period for the Capitals to take a lead of their own. F T.J. Oshie (C Lars Eller and Second Star W Alex Ovechkin) got Washington on the scoreboard at the 4:07 mark of the frame with a wrist shot, and D Matt Niskanen followed him with an unassisted wrister only 1:25 later to give the Caps a 2-1 lead.

Scoring subsided until 8:12 remained in the period when Radulov (Klingberg and LW Jamie Benn) leveled the game with a snapper, but Ovechkin (First Star D John Carlson and Oshie) regained a one-goal advantage for the Caps on a power play slap shot only 1:53 later. Benn completed the period’s scoring with a wrister, tying the score at 3-3 1:45 before the second intermission.

As would be expected from a a tie entering the final 20 minutes of regulation, there was tons of action at both ends of the ice. In total, 21 shots on goal were registered between the two teams in the third frame – split as evenly as possible. Unfortunately for Dallas, the Capitals take credit for the remaining shot on goal, and it proved to be the game-winner.

With 4:59 remaining in regulation and the teams playing under four-on-four conditions (C Radek Faksa and D Brooks Orpik were in the penalty box for respective slashing and roughing infractions against one another), Ovechkin collected a centering pass to nobody by Eller in the left corner. After advancing towards the trapezoid, the captain returned the puck to Eller waiting in the opposite corner, who saw Carlson wide open above the right face-off circle and delivered him a perfect setup pass. The defenseman one-timed a nasty clapper over G Kari Lehtonen‘s glove shoulder to set the 4-3 final score.

G Braden Holtby earned the victory after saving 24-of-27 shots faced (.889 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lehtonen, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

Home teams are trying to reclaim their dominance in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as they’ve now earned points in three-consecutive games. As such, the 89-52-20 hosts now have a 35-point advantage over the roadies.