April 2 – Day 173 – King of the mountain

Today marks the final Monday of regular season NHL action. Do with it what you will, but I’d strongly recommend watching hockey.

Buffalo at Toronto gets the evening underway at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by a pair of tilts (Winnipeg at Ottawa [RDS] and Carolina at Florida). Two more puck drops (Washington at St. Louis [NHLN/TVAS] and Edmonton at Minnesota) are scheduled for 8 p.m., while tonight’s nightcap – Colorado at Los Angeles (SN/SN1) – waits until 10:30 before getting started. All times Eastern.

I’d originally marked today’s DtFR Game of the Day as the Battle of the QEW, but Buffalo extending its streak of missing the postseason to a seventh season puts a damper on that option. Instead, let’s make the trip to Hollywood to see if Colorado can keep its playoff hopes alive.

 

 

 

 

 

There were major concerns surrounding 42-28-9 Colorado’s playoff chances when 24-16-6 G Semyon Varlamov was shut down with a lower-body injury, but 18-11-3 G Jonathan Bernier put a damper on that last night with a 38-save performance against the Ducks.

Bernier’s performance in Anaheim, albeit an overtime loss, shouldn’t have really been all that much of a surprise. After all, Varlamov missed the entire month of January due to injury, and Bernier posted a 9-2-1 record in his stead with a .936 save percentage and 2.17 GAA – both marks that are even better than the solid .913 save percentage and 2.86 GAA that he has to show for the entire season.

Bernier seems to relish at the opportunity to be the starter, and he’ll be relied upon this week to once again prove his worth and complete Colorado’s playoff push.

However, since he was in action last night, it remains to be seen if he’ll man the pipes this evening or if 0-1-0 G Andrew Hammond – yes, the Hamburglar from the Senators’ 2015 playoff push – will be called into action for only his second NHL start of the season. Hammond commanded the Avalanche’s crease on March 28, posting a .939 save percentage in a 2-1 home loss to the Flyers.

Of course, part of what makes the Avs so great is not even what they have to offer on the defensive end, but instead their solid attack. Colorado has averaged four goals per game in its last two games, with seven different players averaging at least a point per game in that span.

Of those seven, no player has shone quite as bright as F Tyson Jost. People that don’t regularly watch Colorado might think I misspelled F Nathan MacKinnon (MacKinnon does, after all, rank fifth in the NHL in points and 10th in goals and assists), but Jost has scored three goals in these last two games to improve the second-liner’s season totals to 12-10-22.

Joining Jost in posting at least a point per game in Colorado’s last two outings include D Tyson Barrie (1-2-3 totals since March 30, 13-42-55 overall), F Alexander Kerfoot (1-2-3 since March 30, 18-24-42 overall), W Sven Andrighetto (2-0-2 since March 30, 8-13-21 overall), RW Mikko Rantanen (1-1-2 since March 30, 28-54-82 overall), MacKinnon (0-2-2 since March 30, 38-56-94 overall) and LW Gabriel Landeskog (0-2-2 since March 30, 24-35-59 overall).

The 43-28-8 Kings enter tonight’s tilt as the Western Conference’s first wild card and riding a three-game point streak. As has been a characteristic of Los Angeles and the three California teams for years now, the Kings have found that success by playing some spectacular and physical defense.

Since March 26, Los Angeles has allowed only 26 shots against per game. That’s the second-best mark in the NHL in that time, bested only by Edmonton allowing one fewer shot in its last three games. D Derek Forbort (3.3 blocks per game since March 26) and C Anze Kopitar (five takeaways in his last three games) have led that defensive charge, but the Kings have also had the luxury of four players (LW Kyle Clifford, Forbort, F Trevor Lewis and LW Tanner Pearson) imposing their wills along the boards and averaging two hits per game during this run.

This defensive success has kept 31-27-3 G Jonathan Quick‘s workload light, and that’s just fine by him as he’s managed a .964 save percentage and .96 GAA in his last two starts to lead the Kings to allowing only 1.33 goals against per game since March 26 – the lowest mark in the league in that time.

Quick, the (t)ninth-most winningest goaltender on the season, has a .923 save percentage and a 10th-best 2.37 GAA for this campaign, not to mention a (t)fourth-best five shutouts.

The Kings have certainly had the upper hand in their last two meetings with the Avs, as they’ve earned four points in comparison to Colorado’s one. Just like tonight’s tilt, December 21’s contest took place at Staples Center, where Los Angeles earned a 2-1 overtime victory (W Dustin Brown provided the game-winner). Meanwhile, the March 22 matchup in Denver was a much more lopsided affair, as the Kings posted a dominating 7-1 score (Kopitar earned First Star honors with his four-goal performance).

Should that winning trend continue tonight, the Kings will jump back into third place in the Pacific Division, but they’ll be giving a game-in-hand to Anaheim in the process that – should it convert it into a win of its own – could return the table to how it currently stands.

Meanwhile, as the Western Conference’s second wild card, Colorado has much to gain by pulling off the road upset tonight. A regulation win would propel the Avalanche over Los Angeles into the first wildcard spot, a much more certain position that also has the luxury of avoiding the dreaded Predators in the first round of the playoffs.

However, similar to Los Angeles’ situation with Anaheim, the Blues still have a game-in-hand on Colorado even though they’re also in action tonight at home against the Capitals. If the Avs are lucky, they can expand their lead on St. Louis to three points with a win and a Notes regulation loss, but it’s possible that Colorado could end the night further from playoff qualification than it started – that happens if the Avs lose in regulation and St. Louis earns at least one point, as the Blues would jump into the second wildcard in that situation due to the aforementioned game in hand.

With the top two lines playing remarkably well for Colorado, the Avs are going to be a tough out tonight regardless of who they have in net. However, Los Angeles’ success against against the Avalanche so far this season has me thinking it will be the Kings that come away with two points tonight.


In a penalty-riddled meeting that is just begging for a follow up in the postseason, the Washington Capitals clinched their third-consecutive Metropolitan Division title by downing the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

A whopping 38 combined penalty minutes were distributed in this game, with the hosts taking 10 more than Washington due in large part to F Evgeni Malkin and Assistant Coach Mark Recchi both getting called for misconducts with 61 seconds remaining in regulation. Surprisingly, neither side could capitalize on its five power play opportunities.

One player that went unaffected by all this commotion was First Star of the Game G Philipp Grubauer. Though a late goal by Third Star RW Patric Hornqvist (Malkin and LW Carl Hagelin) cut his dreams of a career-high fourth shutout 3:45 short, his 36-of-37 performance (.973 save percentage) was more than enough to earn the victory.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an offense scoring a goal per period in support. Washington registered all three of its tallies before Hornqvist got the Penguins on the scoreboard, starting with F T.J. Oshie‘s (W Andre Burakovsky and D John Carlson) wrist shot 6:25 into the first period.

Second Star D Dmitry Orlov (F Evgeny Kuznetsov) provided the game-winner on a wrister with 6:14 remaining in the second period. After the Pens had dumped the puck into their offensive zone at the end of a power play to get an even-strength line on the ice, Orlov ended up with possession and began driving through the center of the ice towards G Matt Murray. With D Olli Maatta left to beat, Orlov decided to use him as a screen and fire his wrister through the Finn’s legs, beating Murray’s blocker.

While Orlov does get credit for his second game-winner of the season, the biggest goal in this contest just might have been RW Tom Wilson‘s (D Matt Niskanen) tip-in only 23 seconds into the third period. The Toronto native’s 14th marker of the season set the score at 3-0, meaning Pittsburgh needed far more than a relatively late goal from Hornqvist to seriously cast doubt into the hearts and minds of the Capitals.

Murray took his 16th regulation loss of the season after saving only 31-of-34 shots faced (.912 save percentage).

In addition to clinching their third-consecutive division title, the Capitals’ road win also snapped an eight-game winning streak and 10-game point streak by the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts in the series now have a 98-54-21 record that is 44 points superior to the roadies.