As we inch ever closer to Decision Day, every game takes on even more importance. Whether clubs are battling for seeding or their playoff lives, there’s been much excitement to be had this week.
Speaking of, here’s the NHL’s slate of games for this week:
|NHL SCHEDULE: March 18-24|
|TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN)||VISITOR||HOST||NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
|Monday, March 18|
|7:30 p.m.||Arizona||Tampa Bay||1-4|
|8:30 p.m.||Vancouver||Chicago||3-2 (OT)|
|10:30 p.m.||Winnipeg||Los Angeles||3-2|
|10:30 p.m.||Vegas||San Jose||7-3|
|Tuesday, March 19|
|7 p.m.||Boston Bruins||New York Islanders||5-0|
|7 p.m.||Detroit Red Wings||New York Rangers||3-2|
|7 p.m.||Pittsburgh||Carolina||2-3 (SO)|
|7:30 p.m.||Washington||New Jersey||4-1|
|8 p.m.||Edmonton||St. Louis||2-7|
|Wednesday, March 20|
|7:30 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Washington||5-4 (OT)|
|Thursday, March 21|
|7 p.m.||Boston||New Jersey||5-1|
|7 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Carolina||6-3|
|7:30 p.m.||New York Islanders||Montréal Canadiens||0-4|
|8 p.m.||Detroit||St. Louis||2-5|
|8 p.m.||Pittsburgh||Nashville||2-1 (SO)|
|10:30 p.m.||San Jose||Los Angeles||2-4|
|Friday, March 22|
|10 p.m.||San Jose||Anaheim||3-4 (OT)|
|Saturday, March 23|
|1 p.m.||Arizona||New Jersey|
|1 p.m.||New York Islanders||Philadelphia Flyers||NHLN|
|3 p.m.||Chicago||Colorado||ESPN+, SN1|
|7 p.m.||Nashville||Winnipeg||ESPN+, SN360|
|7 p.m.||New York Rangers||Toronto Maple Leafs||CBC, NHLN, SN1|
|7 p.m.||Buffalo||Montréal||CITY, TVAS|
|8 p.m.||Tampa Bay||St. Louis|
|10 p.m.||Calgary Flames||Vancouver Canucks||CBC, CITY, ESPN+, SN, SN1, SN360|
|10:30 p.m.||Anaheim||Los Angeles|
|Sunday, March 24|
|12:30 p.m.||Philadelphia||Washington||NBC, TVAS|
|3 p.m.||Arizona Coyotes||New York Islanders||SN|
|7 p.m.||Montréal||Carolina||ESPN+, RDS, SN|
There’s no shortage of fun tilts taking place this week, even if we look beyond the standings.
For instance, Vancouver and Chicago squared off on Monday to rekindle their former hatred from the last decade, followed the next day by an Original Six tilt between the Red Wings and Rangers.
Wednesday saw another edition of the Battle of the QEW, while the Wings were back at it in St. Louis on Thursday. Speaking of Thursday, the Battle of California also took place that night to springboard the Sharks into their Friday tilt against the Ducks.
Today’s rivalry action once again features the Rangers in an Original Six bout, this time squaring off against Toronto. Once that game is through, the Freeway Face-Off will be played for the second-to-last time this season, while Philadelphia and Washington’s derby will wait until tomorrow afternoon.
As for playoff rematches of almost a year ago, we saw San Jose get whipped by Vegas once again on Monday, Tampa Bay barely escaped Washington with an overtime victory on Wednesday, Vegas beat the Jets on Thursday and the aforementioned Sharks-Ducks game last night. One more rematch is on the schedule this weekend, as the Predators and Jets will square off tonight in a game that could determine the fate of the Central Division.
As for player returns, there weren’t many that qualified in any way as significant. As a matter of fact, D John Moore‘s return to New Jersey, his former home of three seasons, is the week’s biggest homecoming.
Now, as fun as it would have been to do a big write-up on Moore’s time with the Devils, I thought this weekend’s home-and-home series featuring two Central Division clubs fighting to qualify for the playoffs was a bit more important.
Coming into the weekend with a 32-31-10 record, the Chicago Blackhawks currently occupy seventh place in the Central Division and 11th in the Western Conference, but they’re still very much in the playoff race since they trail the Minnesota Wild by only five points and have two games in hand.
Of course, this is not news to the Hawks, as they were on quite a tear before dropping their last two games. Chicago was on a five-game winning streak before losing 3-2 in overtime at home to the Canucks on Monday, and that six-game point streak was snapped Thursday with a 3-1 home loss to the Flyers.
Just like the good ol’ days, one of the Hawks’ most potent weapons during this surge has undoubtedly been their impressive offense. Chicago has averaged 3.29 goals per game since March 7, the fourth-best mark in the Western Conference and seventh-best in the league.
As would be expected, F Patrick Kane has been one of the most important players during this effort, as he’s posted solid 1-6-7 marks in his last seven outings to average a point-per-game. However, he’s been clearly outplayed by second-liner W Brendan Perlini (the Blackhawks’ return alongside C Dylan Strome for trading C Nick Schmaltz to Arizona in November) and his outstanding 6-2-8 effort in that time.
Perhaps it is simply coincidence, but Perlini has not registered a point in his last two games – the same two games Chicago has most recently lost. Whether he buys into the correlation or not, Head Coach Jeremy Colliton certainly won’t complain if Perlini can get back to work this weekend.
Another facet of Chicago’s play that has been absolutely incredible lately has been its goaltending. Despite playing behind a defense that has yielded 35.43 shots per game since March 7 (the fourth-worst in the league in that time), the Blackhawks have allowed only 2.29 goals in that same time frame – the seventh-best in the NHL.
12-16-3 G Corey Crawford has been absolutely fantastic in his last seven starts. He’s posted a .945 save percentage and 1.79 GAA during this run by the Hawks despite playing behind their shoddy defense, and he will be the one that deserves the most praise should Chicago extend its season beyond 82 games.
Just like the Blackhawks, the 33-29-12 Colorado Avalanche are still on the outside of the playoff bubble and looking in, but they can see their path to the postseason even easier than their brethren from the Windy City.
Colorado enters the weekend trailing eighth-place Minnesota by only one point – an incredibly manageable deficit considering the Avs hold a game-in-hand on the Wild.
However, it is that game-in-hand that makes this weekend’s series against Chicago so important for the Avalanche. Since Minnesota is only playing one tilt this weekend, Sunday’s game will spend that game-in-hand.
Coming into Saturday’s tilt, the Avalanche boast a three-game winning streak, including road victories against current playoff teams in Minnesota and Dallas.
The backbone of this three-game run has undoubtedly been 14-9-3 G Philipp Grubauer as, despite playing behind a defense that has allowed an average of 34.67 shots against per game since March 17, he and the Avs have yielded only two goals in their past three games.
Despite boasting only a .911 save percentage and 2.77 GAA for the season, Grubauer has managed an unbelievable .981 save percentage and 0.67 GAA in his last three outings. Of course, New Jersey, Minnesota and Dallas do not boast the offenses that Chicago do, so he will need to be totally on his game either today or tomorrow when he gets his nod.
The German has faced Chicago only twice in his entire career, earning a 0-1-0 record in those outings. Against the Blackhawks, he owns a career .923 save percentage and 2.27 GAA. His last outing against the franchise was on December 21 of this season, and the Avs played to a 2-1 home loss.
So, who wins this weekend’s series?
Though they’re riding a two-game losing skid, I like the Blackhawks in this home-and-home. Though Grubauer has been incredible lately, the fact that Crawford has such a strong offense playing in front of him is certainly in his favor. Additionally, offense will be even more important when the backups earn the nod, which should make the ice tilt Chicago’s way even more.