Game of the week: March 4-10

It’s hard to believe, but there’s less than one month remaining in the regular season. 16 clubs are none too concerned about that, but with the exception of Tampa Bay, we don’t officially know yet which teams those are.

Take a look at this week’s schedule that got us a little closer to figuring out the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

NHL SCHEDULE: March 4-10
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, March 4
7 p.m. Edmonton Buffalo 4-3
9 p.m. Toronto Calgary 6-2
Tuesday, March 5
7 p.m. Carolina Boston 3-4 (OT)
7 p.m. Columbus New Jersey 2-1 (SO)
7 p.m. Ottawa Senators New York Islanders 4-5 (SO)
7 p.m. Florida Pittsburgh 2-3 (OT)
7:30 p.m. Winnipeg Tampa Bay 2-5
8 p.m. Minnesota Nashville 4-5 (SO)
8:30 p.m. New York Rangers Dallas Stars 0-1
9 p.m. Detroit Colorado 3-4 (OT)
9 p.m. Anaheim Arizona 3-1
10:30 p.m. Montréal Los Angeles 3-1
Wednesday, March 6
7:30 p.m. Washington Philadelphia 5-3
9 p.m. Toronto Vancouver 2-3 (OT)
10 p.m. St. Louis Anaheim 5-4
10:30 p.m. Calgary Vegas 1-2
Thursday, March 7
7 p.m. Florida Boston 3-4
7 p.m. Columbus Pittsburgh 0-3
7:30 p.m. New York Islanders Ottawa Senators 4-2
7:30 p.m. New York Rangers Detroit Red Wings 2-3 (SO)
7:30 p.m. Minnesota Tampa Bay 3-0
8:30 p.m. Buffalo Chicago 4-5 (SO)
8:30 p.m. Colorado Dallas 0-4
9 p.m. Vancouver Edmonton 2-3
9 p.m. Calgary Arizona 0-2
10:30 p.m. St. Louis Los Angeles 4-0
10:30 p.m. Montréal San Jose 2-5
Friday, March 8
7 p.m. Minnesota Florida 2-6
7 p.m. New Jersey Washington 0-3
7:30 p.m. Winnipeg Carolina 8-1
10 p.m. Montréal Anaheim 2-8
Saturday, March 9
3 p.m. Buffalo Colorado  
4 p.m. St. Louis San Jose NHLN
7 p.m. Toronto Edmonton CBC, NHLN, SN
7 p.m. Ottawa Boston CITY, SN1, TVAS
7 p.m. Detroit Tampa Bay  
7 p.m. Philadelphia Flyers New York Islanders  
7 p.m. New Jersey Devils New York Rangers  
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Columbus  
8 p.m. Los Angeles Arizona  
8 p.m. Carolina Nashville  
8 p.m. Chicago Dallas  
10 p.m. Vegas Vancouver CBC, CITY, SN, SN1
Sunday, March 10
5 p.m. Detroit Florida  
7 p.m. Winnipeg Washington SN
7:30 p.m. Boston Pittsburgh NBCSN, TVAS
9:30 p.m. Vegas Calgary SN1
10 p.m. Los Angeles Anaheim NBCSN

As always, this week’s NHL schedule did not disappoint. We were given our regular serving of rivalries, starting with a throwback in Denver when Detroit visited Colorado on Tuesday. Wednesday also featured a derby, this one involving the Capitals heading to the City of Brotherly Love.

Columbus and Pittsburgh will square off twice this week, with the Pens taking Game 1 on Thursday before heading to Ohio for Game 2 this evening. Speaking of Thursday, the Rangers and Red Wings also matched up and honored Ted Lindsay with an extremely competitive game.

Finally, this weekend also features the previously-mentioned Penguins-Blue Jackets tilt and the Battle of the Hudson River today followed by the Freeway Face-Off tomorrow night.

In regards to momentous homecomings this week, there weren’t any. By my estimation, the most important was Kevin Fiala‘s return to Nashville. Fiala played 204 games with the Predators since being drafted by the organization in 2014 before being traded to Minnesota at this year’s deadline.

As to which game takes our attention this week, I’ve been drawn to the Columbus-Pittsburgh series. With six teams (Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Capitals, Hurricanes, Islanders and Penguins) fighting for five spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, one good side is going to see its season end at 82 games.

While not a season-ender, this series is a major step for both Columbus and Pittsburgh in determining their postseason fates. With two points already in the Pens’ pockets, how will tonight’s tilt go down?

Coming into tonight’s game with a 36-22-9 record, the Pittsburgh Penguins are currently holding down third place in the Metropolitan Division.

While that is certainly an improvement from where this team was just a few weeks ago, the Pens’ job is still not finished as they only have a four-point cushion separating them from ending their season at 82 games.

Pittsburgh isn’t looking back these days, though. It’s riding a solid six-game point streak (4-0-2) that includes two wins against tonight’s opponent (more on that later) and a 5-1 victory in Québec.

Pittsburgh fans will know that this string of games started with the Stadium Series overtime loss in Philadelphia. That was a game that cost the Penguins two defensemen (D Brian Dumoulin has since returned to action on Tuesday) and has forced them to reexamine their defensive game, involving each and every skater on the ice.

While this new strategy has certainly paid major dividends for Head Coach Mike Sullivan‘s side, there is one player who has still shined brighter than the rest: 22-10-3 G Matt Murray.

Despite the new defensive strategies, Pittsburgh is still yielding an average of 31 shots per game during this run – the NHL’s middle-of-the-road since February 23. Despite that, the Penguins are also yielding an average of only 2.17 goals against per game, the fifth-best mark in that time.

Murray has been in net for all of the Penguins’ last six games and claims a commanding .93 save percentage and associated 2.12 GAA for those outings (both eighth-best in the league among the 28 netminders with at least four starts since February 23). Those outstanding numbers boost his season statistics to a .916 save percentage and 2.79 GAA, the 10th and 19th-best marks in the league, respectively, among the 43 goaltenders with at least 24 starts to their credit.

With a home game against the Bruins tomorrow night, it remains to be seen which goaltender Sullivan starts this evening. If I had my druthers, Murray would be in action this evening considering the importance of beating a division rival in a tightly contested playoff race. With 12 points (and two games-in-hand against the Habs) separating Boston from the a wildcard spot, Pittsburgh cannot worry about the Bruins until it runs into them in a potential playoff matchup (whether that would be the Conference Semifinals or Final remains to be seen).

Of course, it would be highly irresponsible to talk about the Penguins and not mention their potent offense. Averaging 3.45 goals per game for the season, Pittsburgh has been operating at a slightly higher level lately, as it has averaged 3.67 goals per game during this six-game run (again, I emphasize slightly) – the (t)sixth-best mark in the league since February 23.

Pittsburgh’s top line has carried most of that charge, which of course means C Sidney Crosby has been the star of the show. In his past six games, the captain has managed an outstanding 6-8-14 effort to lead the league in scoring in that time (well, he’s technically tied with Florida’s F Jonathan Huberdeau on points, but Crosby has played fewer games and scored more goals to take the title in my book).

Joining Crosby in averaging a point per game for the Pens during this run are linemates F Jake Guentzel (5-3-8 totals) and F Jared McCann (3-3-6).

Since all of 37-27-3 Columbus’ moves at the trade deadline, everything it has done from then until the end of the season has taken on a new life.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, that new light isn’t all that positive, as they’ve gone on a 2-4-0 run since then to find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, trailing Montréal by two points for the East’s second wild card.

Though Columbus has struggled to keep opponents off the board during this six-game run (the Jackets have allowed 3.5 goals against per game since February 26, the eighth-worst mark in the NHL in that time), an even bigger problem has been its offense.

With the exception of fellow Metropolitan member New Jersey, no team has struggled more on the attack since the trade deadline than Columbus. The Blue Jackets are averaging only 1.5 goals per game in their last six outings, compared to the 11th-best 3.04 they’ve averaged for the season.

Surely, much of this can be attributed to all of the Jackets’ deadline additions. In fact, the second line has been entirely revamped and now features Oliver Bjorkstrand and former-Senators Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel (who’s celebrating his 27th birthday today). Fortunately for Columbus, Duchene and Dzingel regularly played together in Ottawa, so it is just a matter of Head Coach John Tortorella finding the right person to complete their line.

However, a lack of familiarity cannot be the excuse for Columbus’ top line, as Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Artemi Panarin have spent the entire season together. Instead, all three combine for only 3-6-9 totals in the past six games.

Dubois in particular is struggling the most. He’s only registered one assist since the trade deadline, well off the .81 points per game average he’s managed for the entire season. As his club’s top center, Dubois’ performance can often dictate his team’s success. The sooner he breaks out of his funk, the sooner, Columbus will begin finding success once again.

In addition to cleaning up Columbus and Pittsburgh’s home-and-home, tonight’s game also concludes the four-game regular season series between the two clubs. The Penguins have won the first three meetings 4-2 on November 24, 5-2 on February 26 and 3-0 on Thursday.

Unfortunately for Columbus, I don’t see that script changing tonight. The Penguins have been playing incredibly well lately now that they’ve bought into their new strategy, and that doesn’t pair well with the Blue Jackets’ offensive struggles.

I don’t think the Jackets will be shutout for the second game in a row, but I do think the Pens will win 3-1.