March 26 – Day 166 – Potential playoff preview?

If you’re a fan of a team outside the Eastern playoff picture, your club is in action tonight.

Get excited.

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with a trio of tilts (Buffalo at Toronto, Florida at the New York Islanders and Ottawa at Carolina [RDS2]), followed half an hour later by three more (Washington at the New York Rangers [NBCSN], Detroit at Montréal [RDS/TSN2] and Arizona at Tampa Bay). San Jose at Chicago drops the puck at 8:30 p.m., while Colorado at Vegas (SN1) waits until 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s nightcap – Calgary at Los Angeles – gets underway at 10:30 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few games I was looking to at the beginning of the season on today’s schedule, including…

  • Buffalo at Toronto: With the regular season series tied at 1-1-0, Game 3 of the Battle of the QEW goes down tonight!
  • Washington at New York: Another rivalry involving a club from the Empire State, this one takes place in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
  • Detroit at Montréal: Original Six. Need I say more?

If I had to choose one game out of that group of three, the Washington-New York game certainly has the best chance of being a real thriller. However, that tilt should pale in comparison to what’s going down in The Silver State tonight!

 

 

 

 

 

What makes this matchup exciting is that, as the playoff picture currently stands, this tilt is operating as a first round preview between the Pacific Division’s top team and the Western Conference’s first wild card.

But the playoff allusions don’t stop with simply the matchup, though. The Avalanche and Golden Knights tangled only two days ago in Denver to an extremely competitive result headlined by 23-15-6 G Semyon Varlamov, who saved 39-of-40 shots faced (.975 save percentage) – plus three more in the shootout – to earn the Avs a narrow 2-1 victory.

With neither team playing yesterday, emotions from Saturdays meeting will surely spill into the back half of this home-and-home series. The Golden Knights will surely want to find more success against Varlamov with their home fans behind them, and the Avs are no doubt trying to keep the pressure on Minnesota for third place in the Central Division (more on that later).

Since the 41-26-8 Avalanche won Saturday, let’s start with them. Colorado has been playing some excellent hockey this March, as it has posted an impressive 7-2-3 record since March 2.

No matter how you slice it, offense is the resounding name of the game in the Avalanche dressing room. Since March 2, the Avs have averaged an impressive 3.58 goals per game, the fifth-best performance in the NHL in that time.

F Nathan MacKinnon has been dominating all hockey-related headlines out of Colorado all season (well, at least since that trade), and that’s been no different this month with his dominating 9-12-21 totals in 12 games played to improve his season marks to 38-54-92. Currently (t)third in the league in points and (t)eighth in goals, MacKinnon will be among the top vote-receivers for the Hart Memorial Trophy – it just remains to be seen if he can actually bring the award back to Denver for the first time since C Peter Forsberg did just that in 2003.

Joining MacKinnon in averaging more than a point per game are the severely underrated RW Mikko Rantanen (7-14-21 totals since March 2, 27-53-80 overall) and D Tyson Barrie (5-8-13 since March 2, 12-40-52 overall). Since February 10, every single one of Barrie’s 23 points have been recorded with either MacKinnon or Rantanen (often both) also registering a point, so his chemistry with Colorado’s first line is not to be taken lightly.

As made evident by Saturday’s game, another major component to Colorado’s turnaround this season and success over the past month has been Varlamov. Despite the lackluster effort by his defense (he’s faced an average of 35.58 shots per game since March 2, the third-highest mark in the NHL in that time), Varlamov has kept opposing offenses under his thumb by posting an impressive .935 save percentage and 2.31 GAA in his last 11 starts. In total, the 2.5 goals per game the Avalanche have allowed since March 2 is (t)eighth-fewest in the NHL in that time.

On the season, Varlamov now has a .919 save percentage and 2.73 GAA, the ninth and 16th-best efforts in the NHL, respectively, among the 34 goalies with at least 30 starts.

However, the Avalanche aren’t the only team March has treated nicely. 47-21-7 Vegas has also had its share of success this month, posting a 5-2-2 record since March 8.

As important as Varlamov has been for Colorado, 27-11-4 G Marc-Andre Fleury has been even bigger for the Golden Knights lately. Allowing 33.78 shots against per game since March 8, the Knights’ defense has below average lately to rank 12th-worst in the NHL in that time.

However, you wouldn’t know that by looking at Vegas’ last nine scores, as the Knights have allowed an average of only 2.11 goals against per game over this run, the (t)fewest in the league since March 8.

That success is due entirely to Fleury, who has posted an impressive .95 save percentage and 1.61 GAA in his last eight starts. With a .93 save percentage and 2.15 GAA on the season (both second-best in the league among qualified goaltenders), Fleury should certainly be in the running for this season’s Vezina Trophy. While I worry he’ll be passed over due to missing so much time this season with injuries, it would be his first individual award should he get enough votes to win the award.

If Fleury does win the Vezina, does that and his three Stanley Cups make him a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame? At 33-years-old, these sorts of conversations about Fleury are going to become more and more common.

Just like I stated in Saturday’s preview, there’s very little the Golden Knights have left to achieve this regular season. The top seed in the Western Conference is virtually out of reach since the Predators have a six-point advantage, and Vegas has effectively locked up its first Pacific Division title in its debut season with its six-point lead on San Jose. The Knights’ focus now is getting healthy, conserving energy and preparing for the postseason.

If only life were so easy for Colorado.

The reemergence of the Blues, who trail Colorado by one point from their spot in the second wildcard, paired with the steady pressure from Los Angeles (tied with St. Louis in points, but with one more game played) has put the Avs in a fistfight to not only qualify for the postseason, but also avoid Nashville in the first round.

Obviously, a win tonight is a step in the right direction for the Avs putting those troubles behind them, but they’re also within range of knocking Minnesota out of third place in the Central (why they’d want to is beyond me – I’d rather stay as far away from Nashville and Winnipeg as possible this postseason). The Wild have 93 points – three more than Colorado – in just as many games played, so that will be a race worth keeping an eye on over the next two weeks.

One thing the Golden Knights have in their back pocket today is an impressive home ice advantage. Colorado has already fallen victim to that once this season, falling 7-0 on October 27 (G Oscar Dansk led the way with his 32-save effort). However, the Avalanche coming to town tonight are playing approximately one million percent better now than they were at the beginning of the season, so I wouldn’t expect such a lopsided result in the finale of this regular-season series.

With two hot goalies squaring off for the second time in three days, this game is going to boil down to which offense has the upper hand. Since MacKinnon is leading his red-hot Avalanche attack, its hard to pick against Colorado. However, the Knights have averaged 3.62 goals per game at home this season, so I’d expect a better result by them tonight compared to Saturday’s one-goal performance.


With a 5-4 overtime win at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Pittsburgh Penguins completed the season sweep of their arch-rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

As made evident by the necessity of extra time, that victory did not come without its challenges. In fact, the Flyers led after the first period thanks to goals from D Travis Sanheim (Third Star of the Game F Jordan Weal and W Wayne Simmonds) and D Brandon Manning (Weal and F Valtteri Filppula), though it was only by one tally due to C Derick Brassard‘s (W Conor Sheary and RW Phil Kessel) wrist shot registered in between the Flyers’ markers.

Another three-goal frame was in store in the second period, but the score read 3-3 by the time the Flyers and Penguins retreated to their dressing rooms for the second intermission. RW Patric Hornqvist (Kessel and First Star D Justin Schultz) scored a power play wrister only 37 seconds into the period to level the game at 2-2, followed exactly two minutes later by F Evgeni Malkin (Schultz and D Brian Dumoulin) scoring a snap shot to give Pittsburgh its first lead of the game. However, with 2:50 remaining in the frame, Weal (D Shayne Gostisbehere and LW Oskar Lindblom) managed only his eighth goal of the season to tie the game for the Flyers.

Second Star C Sidney Crosby (Schultz and F Jake Guentzel) was apparently motivated to outdo Hornqvist, because he returned a one-goal advantage to Pittsburgh only 17 seconds into the third period. That 4-3 score held for exactly 19 minutes before C Sean Couturier (Gostisbehere and F Claude Giroux) scored a wrister with the extra attacker to level the score at 4-4 and force three-on-three overtime.

The five-minute overtime period nearly reached its midway point before disaster befell the visitors, as W Bryan Rust (Crosby and D Kris Letang) scored a tip-in at the 2:25 mark to register his third game-winning goal of the season.

Crosby started the play by advancing the puck into the offensive zone, but all three Philadelphia skaters were already in front of him to slow his offensive charge. Surprisingly, Crosby’s usually sure stick-handling skills failed him in his charge towards G Petr Mrazek‘s net, as Gostisbehere never physically influenced the reigning Richard Trophy-winner before the puck ended up in the left corner. The Captain was able to recollect his error, though, and reset the play to Letang at the blue line, who ripped a centering pass for Rust that he was unable to score due to Mrazek’s left pad.

If at first you don’t succeed, try an try again – just ask Rust. Crosby collected the rebound and fired another quick centering pass, and Rust tucked this puck where Mama hides the cookies to earn Pittsburgh the bonus point.

G Matt Murray earned the victory after saving 41-of-45 shots faced (.911 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Mrazek, who saved 19-of-21 (.905). Mrazek entered the game at the 2:37 mark of the second period following Malkin’s goal that set the score at 3-2. G Alex Lyon saved eight-of-11 (.727) for no decision.

That is the third-straight match in the DtFR Game of the Day series to require extra time, and the second in a row to end as a home winner. As such, the 92-53-21 hosts in the series have reclaimed a 36-point lead on the roadies.