Another Wednesday, another day to sell any random matchup as a rivalry when it almost certainly isn’t worthy of such designation.
Such is life in the world of sports broadcasting, I suppose.
Today’s slate of action features four games, starting with Calgary at Toronto (SN/TVAS) at 7:30 p.m. and Chicago at Washington (NBCSN) at 8 p.m. In a similar setup, Philadelphia at Edmonton (SN1) is scheduled to drop the puck at 9:30 p.m., with tonight’s nightcap – Ottawa at Anaheim (RDS) – following suit half an hour later. All times Eastern.
Though C Nate Thompson is making his first return to The Pond after calling it home for three seasons, I’m much more attracted to the contest involving the other team from Ontario.
No, it’s no rivalry like the one between Chicago and Washington (I mean, they are obviously warring over who wears red better), but this could be a good game nonetheless.
If nothing else, it should be the most entertaining, as the 17-10-1 Maple Leafs are always capable of putting on a good show with their third-ranked offense that averages 3.5 goals-per-game.
It’s no surprise who spearheads the Leafs’ attack, as all C Auston Matthews has done this season is improve on his Calder Trophy-winning 40-29-69 effort from a year ago. Having already earned team-leading 13-13-26 marks through 24 games played this year, he’s on pace for an incredible 84 points this season.
For those wondering, F Patrick Kane followed up his Calder-winning season with 25-45-70 totals in 80 games played. If you that think Kane is a solid player (hint: that should be all of us), Matthews has a chance to make Showtime simply an opening act.
While Matthews’ increased goal production certainly merits praise (his goals-per-game is up to .54 this season from last year’s .49), I’m actually most impressed with how he’s settled into his role as a top-line center. I often got the impression from Matthews that he felt he was the only one on Toronto’s roster capable of scoring goals (which, assuming he’d been watching the Leafs while he was in Switzerland, wasn’t exactly a misguided conclusion), which has made apparent by his four-goal NHL debut.
In a real test for Matthews, Head Coach Mike Babcock took the training wheels off Saturday by moving F William Nylander – himself a tremendous talent with 5-15-20 totals – to the third line to fill in for C Tyler Bozak while he was sick. As a result, Matthews and linemates RW Connor Brown (8-5-13) and F Zach Hyman (5-9-14) did not find the scorecard in Toronto’s 2-1 loss in Vancouver.
Word on the street is Bozak will be ready to go this evening, but I wouldn’t put it past Babcock to continue to play with his lines while the Leafs are in no danger of falling out of playoff position.
Tonight’s game might be a tough one for the 14-12-1 Flames, because even though they’re currently only one point outside of the Western Conference playoffs, they’ve made a bad habit of allowing 3.25 goals-per-game, the eighth-most in the NHL.
Considering last campaign’s starter G Brian Elliott has managed only a .908 save percentage this season in Philadelphia, I suppose Flames General Manager Brad Treliving did make an upgrade by trading for 12-9-1 G Mike Smith. Unfortunately, Smith’s .916 season save percentage and 2.79 GAA, which rank seventh- and fifth-worst, respectively, among goalies with at least 20 starts, has not been enough to keep the Flames in the playoff position they earned last year.
Of course, goaltending is a tough job when you’re being pelted with 31.71 shots-per-start like Smith has. Overall, the Flames defense has allowed the 10th-most shots to reach their goaltender, averaging 32.37 per game.
To put it simply, this team is not committed to playing defensive hockey. Not only are their 354 blocks the fewest in the Western Conference and third-fewest in the league, but they’ve also thrown the fewest blocks at 437, 27 less than Carolina’s second-worst effort. It is fortunate that C Mikael Backlund has managed a league-leading 34 takeaways, or things might be even worse for Calgary.
Oh wait, it can get worse. Backlund was sick yesterday and missed practice. Unless D Mark Giordano can assume his ultimate form and block more than his already team-leading 2.2 shots-per-game, this game has a really good chance of getting ugly for the Flames.
The New Jersey Devils are now the top team in the Metropolitan Division after beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 at Nationwide Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
Jersey never trailed in this game, due in large part to C Travis Zajac‘s (RW Stefan Noesen and F Marcus Johansson) first goal of the season, a backhanded shot 4:24 into the contest. The first period was also when the Blue Jackets got on the board, courtesy of a F Nick Foligno (RW Oliver Bjorkstrand and D Seth Jones) wrist shot with 6:14 remaining in the frame.
After that, this game belonged to the Devils, starting with Third Star of the Game F Taylor Hall‘s (Second Star C Nico Hischier and W Jesper Bratt) game-winning tip-in 4:47 into the second period. He was the benefactor of his own hard work, as it was Hall that won the scrum in his own defensive zone to get the puck to Hischier, who was off to the races after corralling the play. Once the rookie reached the right face-off dot, he pulled up and drew an additional defender before centering a pass to Hall, who tapped a one-timer past G Sergei Bobrovsky‘s blocker.
Noesen (LW Miles Wood and Hischier) also made sure to end the period with a bang, burying a wrister with 46 seconds remaining before the second intermission.
Bratt (Hall) tacked on the final insurance goal with 8:54 remaining in regulation with a tip-in.
First Star Cory Schneider earned the victory after saving 41-of-42 shots faced (.976 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bobrovsky, who saved 32-of-36 (.889).
December’s pattern of giving in the DtFR Game of the Day series continues, as hosts and visitors continue to exchange victories every other day. With last night being the road teams’ turn, they’ve now pulled back within 14 points of the home sides.