March 29 – Day 169 – To the top of the East

It’s Thursday in the NHL, so you know what that means: games galore!

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [SN/TVAS], Detroit at Buffalo and Pittsburgh at New Jersey), followed half an hour later by Florida at Ottawa (RDS). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two tilts (San Jose at Nashville and Dallas at Minnesota [NBCSN]), while Winnipeg at Chicago waits 30 minutes before following suit. Columbus at Calgary is next up at 9 p.m., with Edmonton at Vancouver (SN1) waiting until 10 p.m. and Arizona at Los Angeles closing up shop at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

I’d love to beat around the bush and act like I considered every game for tonight’s distinct honor of being the DtFR Game of the Day, but there’s only one game the entire hockey world should be focusing on this evening.

 

A lot of people outside of New England may not want to hear this, but this looks like another one of those magical runs by a Boston-based sports team.

Oh wait, and the Celtics are good too?

Accurate representation of DtFR meetings when @nlanciani53 shares Boston sports news.

The 47-17-11 Bruins’ current run is an excellent example. After managing only 22 points by Thanksgiving – the NHL’s cutoff, at least statistically speaking, playoff qualification – to claim 11th place in the conference, Boston has posted a league-best 38-10-7 record to climb all the way into second place in the East.

But second place is not good enough for these Bruins, as evidenced by the six-game point streak they’re currently riding that has pulled them within one point of top spot in the East.

While the Bruins’ offense has been their strongest weapon all year (Boston’s 3.28 goals per game for the entire season is fifth-best in the NHL), it has taken a major blow in production lately due to the numerous injuries plaguing the roster. In fact, the 2.83 goals per game the Bruins have averaged over their past six showings is (t)13th-worst in the league since March 17.

So how are the Bruins winning?

The answer can be found in some incredible defensive play. Since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.83 shots against per game – the fifth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time. D Kevan Miller (three hits per game and 2.5 blocks per game since March 17) and F Riley Nash (five takeaways in his past six showings) have been the brightest stars in that effort, but holding the opposition under 30 shots against is usually an indicator of the entire club’s effort and not just the results of two or three stellar players.

Of course, there’s nothing that makes a goaltender happier than a solid defense in front of him, even if it is one that likes to listen to Finnish death metal. 32-11-5 G Tuukka Rask has thrived with the limited work load coming his way, posting an impressive .93 save percentage and 1.97 GAA over his past four starts. This solid run has improved his season stats to a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA that is fifth-best among qualified goaltenders – numbers befitting the goalie with the (t)sixth-most wins this season.

Between Rask and his defense, the Bruins have allowed only 2.33 goals against per game since March 17, the eighth-fewest in the league in that time.

Boston’s point streak is bad news for the 51-21-4 Lightning, because their last two outings at New Jersey and at home against the Coyotes haven’t exactly been confidence builders, as they lost both by a combined score of 6-2.

As evidenced by only averaging a goal per game, Tampa’s offense over its past two showings is a major issue, especially since it has averaged a league-leading 3.51 goals per game all season.

The Lightning are hoping that the return of C Steven Stamkos to action should be just the fix for these offensive ails. The captain was held out of Monday’s game against the Coyotes with a lower body injury, but Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times has indicated that Stamkos – as well as D Victor Hedman, who took a nasty hit late against Arizona – should be available for tonight’s important tilt.

With no disrespect to Hedman and his 14-42-56 totals in 71 games played this season, Stamkos will certainly be the most anticipated injection into the lineup tonight. Having posted 27-59-86 marks in his first 75 games of the season, Stamkos has already ensured his second-straight season of averaging more than a point per game. If that trend continues this evening, the Bolts should be able to hang at least two goals on the Bruins in this game, right?

With the average team in the NHL having only five games remaining on its schedule, it’s baffling that the season series between these clubs has only reached its halfway point. In the same turn, it just makes today and April 3’s meetings all the more dramatic!

So far, the Bruins have looked like the better of these squads in their previous two meetings, as they’ve earned four points at the expense of Tampa. They earned their first victory against the Bolts on November 29 with a 3-2 score (D Charlie McAvoy earned First Star honors with a one-goal, two-point effort) at home and followed it up with an impressive 3-0 win (Rask made 23 saves in the shutout) on March 17 at Amalie Arena.

With these teams separated by only one point at the top of the conference, a regulation win by either is a major step towards clinching home ice throughout the Eastern playoffs.

However, the Bruins can do far more damage this evening by earning two points as compared to Tampa Bay, due in large part to Boston’s game in hand. Because of the game against the Panthers that had to be postponed until the day after the originally scheduled regular season finale, the Bruins can claim first place in the conference with any variety of win tonight.

Of course, the Lightning have grown quite fond of their spot on top of the mountain, so don’t expect them to give it up easily. The Bolts cannot afford to allow Boston to earn even one point tonight, or else they risk blowing the window through which the Bruins can surpass them even wider than they have with their two-game losing skid.

Tampa has chosen a very inopportune time to struggle on offense, because Boston isn’t planning on allowing many goals by tonight. Fortunately for the Bolts, the Bruins’ offensive injuries should slow them down enough to keep this game manageable for the Lightning’s defense. However, I still feel like Boston comes away with the victory tonight in this extremely important contest.


The Florida Panthers showed great resolve in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre, but they couldn’t complete their comeback and fell 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The biggest reason Toronto was able to win this game was because it completely caught the Panthers off guard by scoring three goals in the first period. First Star of the Game F Mitch Marner (D Morgan Rielly and C Tomas Plekanec) began the onslaught with a wrist shot 3:05 into the frame, and C Auston Matthews (F William Nylander and D Jake Gardiner) followed suit only 6:19 later with a snap shot to set the score at 2-0. With 6:05 remaining in the period, F Patrick Marleau (Marner) completed the Maple Leafs’ blitz with a tip-in, giving the hosts a 3-0 advantage.

While the net result of the first period was the domination of the Leafs, the entire frame didn’t belong to the club in blue. In fact, Second Star F Jonathan Huberdeau (F Denis Malgin) was able to score a snapper 2:11 before the first intermission to pull the Panthers back within two goals.

That positive energy paid massive dividends for the visitors, as the Leafs’ lead was trimmed to one by the second intermission. Huberdeau (F Vincent Trocheck and D Mark Pysyk) once again provided the important play for Florida, scoring a snapper with 4:52 remaining in the second period to set the score at 3-2.

If only the Panthers would stop waiting until the waning moments of the frame to score, they just might have won this game. Instead, their struggles early in frames led to their downfall, as Third Star LW James van Riemsdyk (C Tyler Bozak and RW Connor Brown) was able to score what proved to be the game-winning goal with 8:12 remaining in regulation.

Somewhere in New Jersey, there might still be a midget hockey coach grinning from ear-to-ear after van Riemsdyk scored, as the ninth-year pro earned every bit of his 200th regular season NHL marker after exhibiting some serious commitment and sticktoitiveness. After receiving Bozak’s pass from below the goal line in the slot, van Riemsdyk one-timed a snapper towards the gaping cage to G Roberto Luongo‘s glove side. The netminder was able to block the initial attempt with his glove, but the rebound fell right back to van Riemsdyk’s stick, and he backhanded a successful shot into the back of the net while he was getting pushed from behind by F Maxim Mamin and tripping over Luongo’s glove.

However, the Panthers weren’t ready to give up hope yet, as W Evgeni Dadonov (D Keith Yandle and D Aaron Ekblad) buried a backhander 6:46 after van Riemsdyk’s marker to pull Florida back within a tally. However, that left only 1:26 remaining in the game for the Panthers to level the game, and they weren’t able to do so.

G Frederik Andersen earned the victory after saving 30-of-33 shots faced (.909 save percentage), leaving the loss to Luongo, who saved 31-of-35 (.886).

Can home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series do no wrong? The 95-53-21 hosts have now won five-consecutive tilts in the series, not to mention riding a seven-game point streak. As such, they now have a 41-point advantage on the roadies in the series.