Get ready, because there’s a whole lot of hockey coming at you today.
With the Olympics underway, the hockey festivities get an early start today. Switzerland and the unified Korean women’s hockey teams will square off in Group B play at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time.
As for NHL action, the first five of nine games (Buffalo at Boston, Ottawa at Toronto [SN/TVAS], Nashville at Montréal [CITY/NHLN/SN360/TVAS], Los Angeles at Tampa Bay and New Jersey at Columbus) wait until the usual 7 p.m. starting time before getting underway. Next up is the three tilts (Philadelphia at Arizona, Chicago at Minnesota and Colorado at Carolina) scheduled for 8 p.m., followed two hours later by Edmonton at San Jose (CITY/SN/SN360), tonight’s NHL nightcap. All times Eastern.
Finally, we’ll also include Finland vs. the United States’ women’s hockey team’s Group A tilt in today’s listing. That puck drop is scheduled for Sunday at 2:40 a.m. Eastern time.
Here’s just a few of the games on today’s slate that stuck out to me:
- Switzerland vs. Korea: Let’s see if this unified Korean team can shock the sixth-ranked women’s side in the world.
- Buffalo at Boston: It’s rivalry night in New England!
- Ottawa at Toronto: Speaking of rivalries, the Battle of Ontario rages on in the Queen City tonight.
- Nashville at Montréal: Another former Canadiens defenseman moved to Nashville this offseason. This year, it was Alexei Emelin.
- Los Angeles at Tampa Bay: C Vincent Lecavalier‘s sweater is being sent where it belongs tonight: hanging above the Amalie Arena ice.
- Chicago at Minnesota: Saturdays are apparently for rivalries, because every game between the Blackhawks and Wild is a good one.
- Edmonton at San Jose: This tilt may not be a rivalry, but it is a rematch of one of last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals.
- Finland vs. USA: Every game in Group A of the women’s Olympic tournament is a big deal. This one is no exception.
A sweater can only be retired once, so it looks like we’re headed to Florida!
Lecavalier’s outstanding story of an NHL career began on June 27, 1998. It was a beautiful 78 degree day in Buffalo (that’s 25.5 degrees to you Canadians) outside Marine Midland Arena, but that didn’t interest the 18-year-old L’Île-Bizard, Quebec native all that much, as he was the top-overall pick in that year’s NHL Entry Draft – the Bolts’ second such pick in six years.
With only two years of play under his belt with QMJHL side Rimouski, Lecavalier immediately joined a Tampa Bay team that had posted a horrendous 17-55-10 record the year before to finish dead last in the league standings, 19 points behind second-worst Florida.
The rookie didn’t exactly put up stellar numbers, finishing with 13-15-28 marks, but he did play all 82 games of his first regular season to help the Lightning improve, albeit moderately, to 19-54-9. Lecavalier finished 14th in Calder Trophy voting, well behind winner C Chris Drury, the 22-year-old center of the Colorado Avalanche.
Considering then-new Lightning owner Art Williams had dubbed Lecavalier “the Michael Jordan of hockey,” his rookie season must have been a disappointment. However, real champions are those that learn and grow from their struggles.
That’s exactly what Lecavalier did over the summer, and he reaped the benefits during his sophomore season. The still teen-aged youngster exploded during the 1999-’00 season, more than doubling his rookie production with 25-42-67 totals in two fewer games played- far and away the best marks on the team. Though the Bolts held firm in fourth place in the Southeast Division, Lecavalier was starting to show that he was worth the top-overall pick.
After stumbling a bit and continuing to grow into the NHL game over his next two seasons (not to mention assuming captaincy of the Lighting for the 2000-’01 season), Lecavalier’s next breakthrough came during the 2002-’03 campaign. In 80 games played, he posted a then career-best 33-45-78 score line, barely missing out on averaging a point-per-game for the first time since his dominant 44-71-115 effort during his final year in the QMJHL. Additionally, he posted his first non-negative season goal-differential, which is just as much a testament to his improved play as it is to the improvement of the squad around him.
This improved team effort earned Tampa Bay a 36-25-16-5 record, good enough for its first-ever division title and second-ever playoff berth. Lecavalier and the Lightning performed well in the postseason, advancing to the Eastern Semifinals before falling to the mighty Devils in five games.
That sparked a run of four-consecutive postseason appearances for the Bolts (ignoring, of course, the locked-out 2004-’05 season), which included what is probably the pinnacle of Lecavalier’s NHL career: hoisting the 2004 Stanley Cup after a seven-game war against the Calgary Flames.
After taking a back seat in Tampa’s five-game victory over the Isles in the Eastern Quarterfinals, Lecavalier absolutely dominated his hometown Canadiens in the semifinals (growing up a Red Wings fan, he probably brought some Original Six bad blood into the matchup). In only four games, he posted unbelievable 5-2-7 totals to have a hand in half of the Bolts’ goals.
Lecavalier continued his scoring ways in the Conference Finals against third-seeded Philadelphia, nearly managing a point per match with 4-2-6 totals in the seven-game series.
Though not to the extreme of his 0-0-0 performance against New York, Lecavalier struggled to find much traction in the Stanley Cup Finals against Calgary – the West’s sixth-seeded team – and its dominant defense. He posted only 0-3-3 totals in the seven-game series, but one of those assists proved to be the primary helper on LW Ruslan Fedotenko‘s Cup-clinching goal.
But Lord Stanley’s Cup is not the only piece of hardware associated with Lecavalier. The same year he was named to the Second All-Star Team (not the group that competes during the break in late January, but the arguably more important season-ending honor), he took home the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for his career-best 52-56-108 performance in 2006-’07, beating Ottawa’s LW Dany Heatley by two tallies.
In addition to being a stellar hockey player, Lecavalier was – and undoubtedly still is – an incredible human being. Only a year after winning one of the most prestigious awards for achievements in the rink (and finishing in fourth place for the Hart Memorial Trophy as well), Lecavalier was bestowed the 2008 King Clancy Memorial Trophy for pledging $3 million to build the Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at St. Petersburg’s All Children’s Hospital (now Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital).
As for Lecavalier on the ice, things started to decline following his respective 108 and 92-point seasons in 2006-’07 and 2007-’08. Though he came close in 2012-’13 with his 10-22-32 totals in 39 games played, never again would Lecavalier reach the illustrious point-per-game mark that all forwards strive for.
As such, the Lightning were forced to buyout the remaining seven years of Lecavalier’s contract on June 27, 2013 – 15 years to the day after being drafted by the club.
However, that didn’t mark the end of Lecavalier’s career. He would go on to play three more seasons in the NHL, including 42 regular season games in the 2015-’16 campaign with tonight’s opponent: the Los Angeles Kings. After five postseason games with the Kings, in which he managed 1-1-2 totals before being eliminated by San Jose, Lecavalier retired from the league on June 21, 2016, six days before the 18th anniversary of an 18-year-old boy from L’Île-Bizard being drafted first overall.
It was a beautiful 89 degrees that day in Los Angeles, but that didn’t interest Lecavalier all that much.
Made known by his Richard Trophy, there’s nothing Lecavalier loved more than scoring. Though he won’t be lacing up the skates this evening, he would certainly fit in with his would-be teammates on the league-leading 37-14-3 Lightning, as they’ve posted a 6-2-0 record since January 22 with an imposing 3.75 goals per game, the third-best mark in the league in that time.
If the leaders of an offense during a run like this are those that average at least a point per game, Tampa has had three stars in its past eight tilts: F Yanni Gourde (6-4-10 points over this run, 20-20-40 overall), C Steven Stamkos (3-5-8 over this run, 20-42-62 overall) and sophomore LW Adam Erne (1-0-1 in his one NHL game of the season so far, Thursday’s 5-2 victory against the Canucks).
In all seriousness, the Lightning’s top line – which currently consists of Gourde, Stamkos and F Tyler Johnson – has been playing lights out over the past 19 days. Whether it’s been on the power play or at even-strength (Tampa’s 24.1 percent power play success rate on the season is [t]second-best in the league), the Bolts have been an imposing threat every time they have the puck on their sticks.
Of course, it would be wildly irresponsible to discuss Tampa Bay’s offense without bringing up RW Nikita Kucherov. The Russian has been unstoppable all season, as his 68 points on the year is the most in the league, followed by his (t)sixth-most 28 goals. Stamkos has also been the consistent threat everyone expects him to be, as his 62 points on the year is (t)seventh-most in the NHL and his 42 assists (t)eighth-most.
Of course, the Lighting aren’t just all offense. They dominate the defensive end too, allowing a ninth-fewest 2.63 goals against per game since January 22.
Considering Tampa’s defense has allowed an abysmal 36.25 shots against per game over its past eight games (third-worst since January 22), no one but 32-10-2 G Andrei Vasilevskiy deserves any credit for that success. Vasilevskiy has posted a dominant .938 save percentage and 2.29 GAA over his past six starts to improve his season marks to .929 and 2.27, and he’s all but certain to be in net this evening.
As for the visiting 30-19-5 Kings, it’s been an up-and-down season so far. However, Los Angeles seems to be experiencing one of its ups lately, as it’s posted a 5-1-0 record in its past six games to jump into second place in the Pacific Division.
The person behind these recent winning ways is none other than 9-1-3 G Darcy Kuemper. He’s started four of the past six games for an undefeated record, sporting an almost unbreakable .973 save percentage and .74 GAA to improve his season marks to .942 and 1.78. With 21-18-2 G Jonathan Quick dominating the crease to a 3-1 victory in Sunrise last night, it seems probable that Kuemper will be in net this evening
Of course, Kuemper has also had the luxury of the league’s (t)ninth-best defense since January 24 playing in front of him. Led by the efforts of LW Kyle Clifford (2.5 hits per game since January 24), F Alex Iafallo (four takeaways over this run) and D Alec Martinez (4.5 blocks per game in his past four appearances), the Kings have allowed an average of only 30.83 shots against to help Kuemper earn these victories.
For the icing on the cake, Los Angeles has also been able to turn Kuemper’s confidence in the crease into goals on the other end. With C Anze Kopitar (3-5-8 totals since January 24, 22-36-58 overall) and D Drew Doughty (1-5-6 totals in his past six games, 8-31-39 overall) leading the way, the Kings have scored an impressive 3.17 goals per game over their past six tilts – the 10th-best effort in that time.
Back on November 9, the Lightning made their annual trip to Tinseltown and found much success, beating the Kings 5-2. Kucherov took home First Star honors from that tilt with his one-goal, three-point effort.
Two teams come into this game playing with confidence, but only one can earn two points. Considering the Kings had to travel to Tampa last night, it’s hard to pick against the Bolts. However, considering how well Kuemper has been playing of late, the Lightning just might need more than 60 minutes to get enough pucks past him.
With three goals in the second period, the St. Louis Blues beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Bell MTS Centre.
Before the Jets even got on their own scoreboard, St. Louis had already earned found its game-winner. First Star of the Game RW Vladimir Tarasenko (Third Star F Alex Steen) scored the first goal of the game with a wrist shot 24:18 into the contest.
Once that opening tally was out of the way, the Blues were able to score seemingly at will. With 9:47 remaining in the second frame, F Patrik Berglund (D Robert Bortuzzo and F Jaden Schwartz) doubled St. Louis’ advantage, followed only 1:26 later by Steen’s (D Alex Pietrangelo) game-winning snap shot.
Though Pietrangelo technically goes down as providing the only helper on Steen’s tally, he should really receive the secondary assist while handing the primary honors over to G Connor Hellebuyck. Pietrangelo fired a low wrister from the right face-off circle that the netminder easily deflected with his pads, but that save ended up right on Steen’s stick. Having scored 11 goals on the season before this one, the forward knew exactly what to do with the opportunity, burying a snapper in Hellebuyck’s wide open net before he could figure out what was going on.
Winnipeg’s comeback attempt continued in the third period, as W Patrik Laine (Connor and RW Blake Wheeler) took advantage of F Vladimir Sobotka hooking him only 39 seconds before to score a power play slap shot with 8:21 remaining in regulation. With Winnipeg now only a goal away from tying the game, Tarasenko (C Paul Stastny and D Jay Bouwmeester) set the score at 4-2 with an insurance snapper 66 seconds after the horn stopped blaring for Laine. Finally Schwartz tacked on another insurance tally with three seconds remaining on the clock, scoring a shorthanded wrister on an empty net.
G Jake Allen earned the victory after saving 20-of-22 shots faced (.909 save percentage), leaving the loss to Hellebuyck, who saved 22-of-26 (.846).
With points in three-straight games, the road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day are trying to do all they can to get back into the season series. With the Notes’ victory in white sweaters, the roadies are now 24 points behind the series’ 67-40-15 hosts.