Get ready hockey fans. Today has the chance to get wild.
With the exception of Pittsburgh, each and every team will be in action today, and most of those clubs (all but Boston and Florida) are playing their final game of the regular season.
The action starts with a 3 p.m. matinee featuring the New York Rangers at Philadelphia (NBC), a fun warm-up setting up the seven games (Chicago at Winnipeg [SN], Ottawa at Boston [CITY/TVAS], Montréal at Toronto [CBC/TVAS], the New York Islanders at Detroit, Buffalo at Florida, New Jersey at Washington [NHLN] and Tampa Bay at Carolina) at 7 p.m. Columbus at Nashville is the only puck drop scheduled for 8 p.m., with two tilts (Anaheim at Arizona and St. Louis at Colorado [NHLN]) waiting an hour before getting underway. Another couple fixtures (Vegas at Calgary and Vancouver at Edmonton [CBC]) find their start at 10 p.m., while the final pair (Dallas at Los Angeles [NHLN] and Minnesota at San Jose) wait half an hour before closing out this busy Saturday. All times Eastern.
With all those points on the line, any playoff spot not locked down has the chance to change hands. Today’s most important matchups include:
- New York at Philadelphia: As long as the Flyers do anything better than lose in regulation, they eliminate Florida and clinch a spot in the postseason for the second time in three seasons. What spot that’d be is anyone’s guess, as Philly could do as well as third in the Metropolitan Division or remain the Eastern Conference’s second wild card.
- Ottawa at Boston: Even with a game in hand, the Bruins are not in control of their own seeding. They need a win today and tomorrow – neither of which may come in a shootout – before they can even think about challenging for first place in the East.
- Buffalo at Florida: This game hinges on the Flyers’ result. A Philly regulation loss keeps the Panthers’ playoff hopes alive, but they still have to win today and tomorrow’s games – with at least one of those not requiring the shootout.
- New Jersey at Washington: A win ensures the Devils a minimum of the East’s top wild card, but they can climb into third place in the Metro if Columbus doesn’t earn two points or requires a shootout to beat Nashville.
- Tampa Bay at Carolina: As long as they avoid a shootout, two points for the Bolts clinches them the top seed in the East.
- Columbus at Nashville: Having already won their season series against the Devils, all the Blue Jackets need to clinch third place in the Metropolitan Division is a victory that doesn’t necessitate a shootout.
- Anaheim at Arizona: A win of any variety ensures the Ducks no worse than third place in the Pacific Division, but two points paired with a Sharks regulation loss propels Anaheim into second.
- St. Louis at Colorado: The second wild card is the only spot left in the Western Conference playoffs, and both the Avalanche and Blues are eligible.
- Dallas at Los Angeles: The Kings can do no worse than their current position as the West’s first wild card, but it’s still possible for them to jump all the way into second place in the Pacific.
- Minnesota at San Jose: With as little as a point, the Sharks will clinch second place in the Pacific – good enough for home ice in the first round.
No arena is going to be buzzing quite like Pepsi Center tonight, so it looks like we’re headed to Denver for an extremely important Central showdown!
The nice thing about this game is it’s totally independent of the rest of today’s action. Simply put, the winner of this contest is all but ensured a season that extends beyond 82 games.
However, on the last day of the year in the Western Conference, “all but ensured” just isn’t precise enough, is it?
Currently sitting in the second wildcard spot with a one-point advantage, 44-31-6 St. Louis has the inside track towards qualifying for its seventh-consecutive postseason. A win of any variety – or even a loss in extra time (more on that in a moment) – for the Blues this evening earns them a date with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators.
The reason the Blues are in that second wildcard spot is due to beating Chicago 4-1 last night to snap their four-game losing skid. Having posted a 1-3-1 record since March 30, St. Louis is very fortunate to still be in playoff consideration.
As would be expected from a five-game run like that, issues abound with this Blues squad. For starters, the offense is struggling, managing only 2.4 goals per game since March 30 to rank eighth-worst in the NHL in that time.
The biggest reason for St. Louis’ sputtering attack is that both D Colton Parayko (6-29-35 totals) and F Vladimir Sobotka (11-20-31) are in significant scoring ruts right now. Even though both players have provided at least 31 points so far this season, neither have found the scorecard during this five-game run. Additionally, D Alex Pietrangelo (15-38-53) and F Alex Steen (15-31-46) have also had their scoring issues, as neither have played anywhere near their season .6 points-per-game form during this skid, having posted only a point apiece.
However, those skaters’ struggles pale in comparison to the horrid effort 27-24-3 G Jake Allen has put forth lately, and really for his entire season as a whole. Allen has posted an abysmal .869 save percentage and 3.85 GAA in his last four starts – well off the pace of his lackluster .905 save percentage and 2.74 GAA for the season.
For those wondering if the Blues’ defense is to blame, you’d be surprised to learn that St. Louis has allowed only 27.8 shots against per game in its last four showings – the third-best average in the NHL in that time. Even with the incredible play of F Kyle Brodziak (seven takeaways in his past five games), D Joel Edmundson (2.6 blocks per game since March 30) and W Dmitrij Jaskin (3.4 hits per game over this skid) in front of him, Allen continues to let pucks by at an alarming rate that would earn most goalies a demotion to backup.
The beauty of a hockey club always keeping two goaltenders on the active roster is the ability to turn to one when the other is struggling. Why Head Coach Mike Yeo hasn’t given starts to 17-7-3 G Carter Hutton more often is truly baffling. After all, Hutton’s .931 season save percentage and 2.09 GAA are both best in the league among qualified goaltenders, not to mention the fact that he earned the only win in St. Louis’ last five outings – last night’s 4-1 victory against Chiacgo.
I must admit, as a sided supporter of this club, I would have much preferred to see Allen play last night’s game against the Blackhawks – a game that ultimately didn’t matter considering the Blues could still qualify for the playoffs with a win tonight – and have Hutton ready to go today.
Unfortunately for Yeo and the Blues, they’ve made their bed and now they must lay in it – no matter the result.
As for the 42-30-9 Avalanche, they need something a little bit more than just any old victory tonight to qualify for the playoffs: they have to win this game in regulation. Neither overtime nor a shootout is acceptable for Colorado as, even though it’d be tied with the Blues at 95 points if it won, it would lose either the regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker (in the case of a shootout victory) or the season series tiebreaker (St. Louis has earned six points at the hand of the Avalanche, yielding only two).
As luck would have it, Colorado enters tonight’s game riding a similar 1-2-1 record since March 30. However, the similarities end there, as the Avs have been recording losses for far different reasons.
While the defensive skaters have not played exactly well lately – allowing an average of 34 shots against per game since March 30 to rank (t)sixth-worst in the league in that time – they’ve been more than bailed out by the excellent play of 18-13-3 G Jonathan Bernier. Having assumed starting duties since 24-16-6 G Semyon Varlamov went down with a knee injury, Bernier has managed a .905 save percentage and 3.26 GAA in his last four appearances – marks roughly in line with his .912 save percentage and 2.87 GAA for the entire season, especially when we factor in that the Avs have allowed only 2.75 goals per game since March 30 ([t]10th-best in the NHL in that time).
Instead, the biggest problem for Colorado lately has been its sputtering offense, which has scored only 2.75 goals per game in its past four outings to rank (t)12th-worst in the NHL since March 30.
It’s never a good sign when a potential Hart Trophy candidate gets held goalless for multiple games in a row, so one can only imagine the frustration F Nathan MacKinnon (38-57-95 totals) is experiencing right now during his nine-game goalless skid – his longest rut of the season. Further accenting MacKinnon’s scoring troubles, linemate LW Gabriel Landeskog (24-35-59) has also been held to only two assists during this four-game run.
A few more players that have had their issues lately include F Carl Soderberg (16-19-35 totals) and F J.T. Compher (13-10-23), not to mention a fractured patella that will keep D Erik Johnson (9-16-25) off the ice for the next six weeks. Compher and Soderberg are both riding six-game scoreless skids in their bottom-six roles, putting even more pressure on MacKinnon’s line to come alive and carry the team.
As mentioned before, Colorado has certainly had its struggles this season against St. Louis, as the Blues have posted a 3-1-0 record in their first four meetings.
The first matchup occurred way back on October 19, a little over two weeks before the F Matt Duchene trade that allowed the Avalanche to assume their winning form. With that in mind, it only makes sense that the Blues won that game at Pepsi Center 4-3 (D Robert Bortuzzo‘s first goal of the season proved to be the game-winner).
The last three games have occurred a bit more recently. Game 2 was scheduled for January 25 at Scottrade Center, where St. Louis earned a 3-1 victory (Steen earned First Star honors with his one-goal, two-point night). The Avs were back in Missouri exactly two weeks later, suffering an embarrassing 6-1 loss at the hands of the Notes (D Vince Dunn led the way with a three-assist effort).
That loss in particular surely stung, as Colorado made sure its last visit of the season to St. Louis didn’t end in a similar fashion. As such, the Avs won March 15’s showdown by a decisive 4-1 score (Varlamov earned First Star honors with his 44-save performance).
With this game boiling down to whether St. Louis’ goaltending or Colorado’s offense can return to form fastest, I’m going to bet on the home team with a day’s rest every time. Mix in the fact that I’ve trusted MacKinnon to bounce back far more than Allen all season, and the Avalanche look like as good a lock as any for the postseason.
With a 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars at Honda Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks have jumped back into third place in the Pacific Division with only only one day of play remaining in the Western Conference.
If it weren’t for a disastrous first period for the Stars defensively, the score would have better reflected just how competitive this game was. Even though both teams managed only a goal apiece in both the second and third frames, Anaheim earned its victory by notching three markers in the opening 20 minutes.
Second Star of the Game W Jakob Silfverberg (First Star D Josh Manson and F Andrew Cogliano) got the scoring started early, burying a tip-in only 2:28 into the game to give Anaheim an early lead, and that advantage doubled to two only 4:05 later when F Rickard Rakell (C Ryan Getzlaf and C Adam Henrique) scored a power play tip-in with RW Alexander Radulov in the penalty box for slashing Getzlaf. Though D Marc Methot (Radulov and LW Jamie Benn) was able to score his first goal of the season to pull Dallas back within a goal with 8:47 remaining in the period, C Derek Grant (Silfverberg and D Hampus Lindholm) sneaked a tip-in past G Mike McKenna with only 20 ticks remaining on the opening frame’s clock to set the score at 3-1 going into the first intermission.
Scoring started to slow down in the second period, but that’s not to say there weren’t any important goals scored. In fact, the most important tally – the game-winner – was struck 4:36 into the frame courtesy of Manson (Getzlaf and W Corey Perry).
Perry deserves a lot of the credit for this goal, as it was him that intercepted Radulov’s pass along the blue line to spring a breakaway opportunity for Anaheim. Once Perry reached the right face-off dot in his attacking zone, he dropped a pass to Getzlaf who one-timed a wrist shot toward McKenna’s far post. The netminder completed the save with his right shoulder, but he left a juicy rebound that Manson converted into an easy backhanded goal considering McKenna had drifted beyond his crease.
Facing a three-goal deficit, the Stars got to work on the offensive end with C Radek Faksa (D Greg Pateryn and F Tyler Pitlick) potting a wrister at the 7:49 mark, setting the 4-2 score that held into the second intermission.
Whatever Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said in the dressing room, it obviously inspired Benn (D John Klingberg), who buried a wrister 2:52 into the third period to pull Dallas back within a goal of tying the game. However, the Stars’ inability to find that leveling goal paired with Cogliano’s (Silfverberg and F Ryan Kesler) wrister with 5:25 remaining in regulation ensured Anaheim two more points in the standings.
G Ryan Miller earned the victory after saving 23-of-26 shots faced (.885 save percentage), leaving the loss to McKenna, who saved 28-of-33 (.848).
The 102-54-22 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a five-game point streak – a run that has expanded their advantage over the roadies in the series to 51 points.