April 3 – Day 174 – Five days later…

For those wondering: yes, the title was supposed to be read in the SpongeBob SquarePants time card voice.

A trio of games (the New York Rangers at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders and Detroit at Columbus) get the honor of getting the night underway at 7 p.m., and they’re followed by another three showdowns (Winnipeg at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Tampa Bay [NBCSN/SN1/TVAS] and Nashville at Florida) half an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the puck drop of Arizona at Calgary, while Vegas at Vancouver waits an hour before starting. Finally, Dallas at San Jose (SN1) closes out the night with a 10:30 p.m. tilt. All times Eastern.

Previously in the season, I’d marked the Battle of the Hudson River as a potential featured matchup. And, even though the Rangers fell off this season, it is still an important rivalry considering it very well could be the game that clinches a playoff spot for the Devils.

However, the fixture that draws my attention for the second time in five days has to be the Bruins-Bolts showdown atop the Eastern Conference.

 

Having climbed all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 49-17-12 record, the Bruins have more than earned the right to be discussed first in today’s preview. Boston is currently on a solid nine-game run, boasting a 5-0-4 record to close the second-half of March with 14 more points.

During this run, no team in the East has been playing defense quite like the Bruins. Led in large part by D Kevan Miller, who has averaged 2.1 blocks per game and managed a team-high seven takeaways since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.78 shots against per game – a mark that’s well better than Detroit’s 29.38 shots allowed per game since March 17 that claims second-best in the conference and is just behind St. Louis’ 27 shots against per game that tops the NHL in that time.

Head Coach Bruce Cassidy can try to claim that he’s the happiest person in the organization about his club’s defensive success, but that gent would actually be 34-11-5 G Tuukka Rask, who’s been confirmed to be starting tonight’s game to the surprise of no one.

With a .919 save percentage and 2.28 GAA (fifth-best in the league among qualified goaltenders) for the entire season, Rask has been having his best campaign since the 2014-15 season. However, when we take a closer look at his last six starts, Rask boasts an even more impressive .937 save percentage and 1.82 GAA – due in large part to that incredible defensive effort.

Regardless of where they finish this regular season in the standings, a defensive zone as bolstered as the Bruins’ will be a tough egg to crack for any opposition. Over their past nine games, Boston has yielded only 2.33 goals against per game, the fourth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.

As for trying to crack that egg tonight, we turn to the 52-23-4 Lightning. Tampa Bay might be experiencing its worst point of the season right now, as it has only a lowly 1-4-0 record to show for its last five games.

Unfortunately for the Bolts, their biggest struggle of late has been on the offensive end. Even with D Victor Hedman averaging a point per game over this run with 1-4-5 totals (15-45-60 overall), the Lightning have averaged only 2.4 goals per game since March 24, the (t)sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time.

The two gaping holes in the Lightning’s last five scorecards involve some longtime members of the club: C Tyler Johnson and C Steven Stamkos. With 21-28-49 totals on the season, Johnson is riding a five-game pointless skid and has managed only one goal in his last 10 outings.

Of course, Stamkos’ struggles are the most surprising of the two. The captain claims 27-59-86 totals on the season to rank second on the team in points, but he’s failed to find the scoreboard in his last four games. He missed the tilt against Arizona on March 26 with a lower-body injury, and that ailment is surely the leading cause of this skid – to the point that he’s being held out of tonight’s game in hopes that he can recover for a deep playoff run.

Even though the Lightning spent almost the entire season atop the NHL, they’re still looking for their first victory against Boston in their fourth try.

The Bruins claimed a 3-2 victory at TD Garden on November 29 (D Torey Krug provided the game-winner at the 5:59 mark of the second period, then setting the score at 3-0) which they only improved upon March 17, winning 3-0 at Amalie Arena (Rask earned the shutout, thanks in large part to his defense limiting the Lightning to only 23 shots on goal). Most recently, Boston claimed another home victory at TD Garden, this time besting the Bolts 4-2 only five days ago on March 29 (C Patrice Bergeron managed a three-point night that included the game-winning goal).

With Toronto already locked into third place in the Atlantic Division, both Boston and Tampa Bay have clinched home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs. Of course, there’s a vast difference between hosting those Maple Leafs and the East’s second wild card in the first round, and that’s what tonight’s game is all about.

Currently trailing the Bruins by two points, the Lightning are currently slated to be hosting those Leafs when the playoffs begin next week. While a win tonight would go a long way towards resolving that issue, Tampa will not see an immediate change in the standings due to the Bruins’ game in hand. In other words, a Bruins loss tonight could be inconsequential if they win their remaining three games this week.

Beyond the Eastern Conference, both the Lightning and Bruins are both still eligible for this season’s Presidents’ Trophy. However, odds of ripping that award out of Nashville’s clutch are growing slim, as the Preds have 113 points coming into tonight’s tilt with Florida. A Predators win tonight – regardless of how Tampa performs – eliminates the Bolts from the competition for that trophy. Meanwhile, a Bruins win paired with a Nashville regulation loss puts Boston in control of its own destiny for claiming its first regular season championship since 2014.

A struggling offense without its fearless leader is no form to assume when squaring off with the Bruins. Because of that, I think Boston cruises to the season sweep of the Bolts tonight.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 at Staples Center.

This was a win the Avalanche desperately needed, but Los Angeles squelched those hopes with two first period goals. F Torrey Mitchell (F Nate Thompson and D Drew Doughty) provided the Kings’ first tally on a wrist shot 9:29 into the game, followed by a shorthanded wrister by Second Star of the Game W Dustin Brown (C Anze Kopitar and First Star D Alec Martinez) that proved to be the game-winner.

Shorthanded goals are almost always a result of a turnover by the team on the power play, and this tally is no exception. RW Mikko Rantanen fed an unwise pass to F Tyson Jost between Kopitar and Martinez, but Jost’s botched attempt to reset the play to D Tyson Barrie at the point resulted in Brown ending up with possession and screaming down the ice. Using Barrie as a screen, Brown ripped his wrister through the defenseman’s legs and over G Jonathan Bernier‘s glove.

With Mitchell in the penalty box for tripping D Samuel Girard, F Alexander Kerfoot (W Sven Andrighetto and F Colin Wilson) buried a power play wrister at the 4:31 mark of the second frame to pull Colorado back within a goal, but the fact that the Avs couldn’t muster up another goal – paired with LW Kyle Clifford‘s (F Trevor Lewis and F Adrian Kempe) backhanded shot two minutes into the third period – left the Kings with a relatively stress-free win.

Third Star G Jonathan Quick earned the victory after saving 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved 22-of-25 (.88).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a 99-54-21 record that is 46 points superior to that of the roadies.