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2018 Offseason Preview: Anaheim Ducks

The theme of aquatic birds continues in DtFR’s offseason preview series, as it’s time to tackle the Anaheim Ducks’ priorities regarding their pending free agents.

Featuring a playoff roster with an average age of 28.5-years-old, logic would indicate the Ducks are in their prime. However, even though they’ve qualified for the postseason for six-straight seasons, they’ve failed to advance beyond the first round in half of those appearances – including a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks this April.

One of the biggest concerns about this Anaheim club is it plays an old-fashioned, grind-it-out style that simply doesn’t mesh well against the increasingly quicker and technically-sound opponents.

In simpler terms, the Ducks need to get younger and faster.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

One of the easiest ways to get younger is with a solid draft class, and Anaheim will have that opportunity with the 23rd-overall selection.

If one of the mock drafts I’ve compiled (all of which are available at Elite Prospects) are correct, I’d bet on General Manager Bob Murray selecting D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Ryan McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads), D Rasmus Sandin (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP) with his first round selection.

If there’s one thing the Ducks’ scouts know, it’s definitely defense. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are all solid blueliners 26-years-old or younger that will service this organization for years to come, and I’d only expect Alexeyev, Sandin or Wilde to join the group if they’re deemed truly worthy.

That’s what makes McLeod such an attractive option. Even though the 18-year-old is all but ensured at least one more season with the Steelheads, Anaheim’s deep defense gives it the opportunity to invest in restocking its attack.

McLeod had a breakout season in 2017-18, registering 26-44-70 totals in 68 games played (1.03 points per game), followed by 2-3-5 marks in his six postseason appearances. If he can take command of the club following the potential departure of brother F Michael McLeod (12th-overall pick by New Jersey in 2016) and lead Mississauga on a deep playoff run, Anaheim could happen into a stellar young forward.

Pending free agents

Let’s tackle Anaheim’s easiest position first: goaltending. G John Gibson and G Ryan Miller are both under contract for one more season, so the Ducks will likely make no moves in this department. The most important note here is making sure Murray reserves money on the back burner for Gibson next summer (he’ll be an RFA, for those that care about those sorts of things). He currently has a touch over $9 million in cap space this season and a whopping $23 million to play with in 2019-20.

Along the blue line, D Kevin Bieksa (UFA), D Brandon Montour (RFA) and D Andy Welinski (RFA) are all looking for jobs, but I’d argue that only Montour is truly worth a big-time contract.

Montour’s 20:28 time on ice per game was fourth on the team, and the same can be said for his .4 points per game. At 24-years-old, he’ll be worth every penny of any contract he receives to play an imposing presence as a top-four defenseman.

Having just turned 37-years-old Saturday following a 0-8-8, -13 season in 59 games played, it’s hard to see a way Bieksa returns to Anaheim for a fourth season. That makes signing Welinski –  the Ducks’ third-round pick in 2011 – to a low-cost, two-way contract all the easier to swallow.

Instead, the toughest decisions for Anaheim will be made in the forwards room. RW J.T. Brown, W Jason Chimera, C Derek Grant, W Ondrej Kase, F Chris Kelly, LW Nick Ritchie and F Antoine Vermette are all looking for contracts this summer, with all but Kase and Ritchie being of the UFA variety.

Regardless of type, Kase is by far the most important free agent on Anaheim’s plate this summer. He reached the 20-goal plateau in his second season in the NHL, and he needed only 66 games to do it. He may not compare to RW Teemu Selanne (I mean, the Finnish Flash did score 76 goals in his rookie season compared to Kase’s five), but I believe he’s fully ready to climb into a top-six position with F Rickard Rakell to lead this Ducks team when F Ryan Kesler and C Ryan Getzlaf depart.

In a similar fashion, fellow 22-year-old Ritchie should also receive a fresh deal to keep him in Orange County. While not quite the scorer Kase is (he managed only 10-17-27 totals in 76 games played this season), Ritchie is an excellent third-liner that still has more than enough time to develop into a real weapon from his position. Get him a bridge deal for a cap hit under $1.25 million and move on.

Anaheim’s most important UFA is Grant, a player that provided 12-12-24 totals in 66 appearances this season from his position on the fourth line. Coming off a one-year, $650 thousand deal, he’ll likely sign for cheap to give the Ducks four solid centers.

The rest of the UFAs (Brown – 27, Chimera – 39, Kelly – 37, Vermette – 35) either don’t fit with the “get younger” plan or simply aren’t worth the money (looking at you, Brown). Anaheim can either promote a forward from its organization (I like pending RFA F Kalle Kossila) or acquire another from outside to fill its 13th forward position.

David is Goliath: Pastrnak’s hat trick; 6 points too much for Leafs

 

 

 

 

 

If Pastafarianism wasn’t already a religion, Boston would definitely be trying to make it one. (But seriously, it is already a religion. Look it up. It’s a hoot.)

It was a rocking night at TD Garden, with Rene Rancourt bringing his two-game fist pump totals to 8 (kid’s on a roll) and the Boston crowd (that included our own @nlanciani53) was thunderous.

After having the proverbial sand kicked in their faces in Game 1, it was expected that Toronto would come into Game 2 looking for redemption, and prove they were the threat they were made out to be. Sure they’d have to do it without Nazem Kadri (serving the first of his 3 game suspension, replaced by Andreas Johnsson playing his first career NHL playoff game) in the lineup, but Boston would be without Tommy Wingels (the one who received the suspension-worthy hit, replaced by Ryan Donato also playing his first career NHL playoff game) so that should even things up, right?

It, uh…it didn’t.

The first solid action kicked off just 1:30 into the game, as Jake DeBrusk sprung Rick Nash on a breakaway with a beautiful stretch pass, but Nash would fire just wide of the net.

Soon after, it was Tuukka Rask making the game’s first notable stop, grabbing a redirect off the stick of William Nylander. On the following shift Rask covered up another puck and took a snow shower from young Kasperi Kapanen, drawing the ire of…basically everyone wearing black and gold. This seemed to be when the troubles really started for the Leafs, actually.

First it was Kevan Miller absolutely freight train-ing James van Riemsdyk in the corner to Rask’s right, igniting the Boston crowd and giving a jolt of energy to his team.

Just over 30 seconds after the big hit, the Bruins’ top line started zipping the puck around, capped off by Torey Krug firing a hard pass to a streaking David Pastrnak. The pass caught a Toronto stick and deflected up in the air, but Pastrnak somehow managed to corral the puck and settle it on his tape while doing a 360 past a Leafs defender and tucking a backhand past the outstretched pad of Frederik Andersen to take the 1-0 lead at 5:26. If you haven’t seen this goal yet, go find it.

Krug would make the church bells ring a few minutes later, firing one off of the post, shortly before Toronto took a penalty. Early in the penalty kill it looked like Toronto was going to tie the game, as Kapanen broke in alone and deked Rask out of his pants, but fired the puck right off the post and sent the play in the other direction where shortly after DeBrusk would tip in a centering feed from Krug (who had pinched all the way to the goal line on the right wing boards) to score Boston’s 4th power play goal of the series to put his team up 2-0 9:46 into the game.

Less than two and a half minutes later Boston would find the back of the net again, with another defenseman, this time being Kevan Miller from the left wing boards, would fire a pass to the middle of the ice from along the goal line. Miller’s pass hit the skate of Leafs defender Nikita Zaitsev and beat Andersen, putting Boston up 3-0 with 7:47 to play in the first.

Mike Babcock decided he had seen enough, and rather than burning a valuable timeout, he chose to make a goaltending switch to get the attention of his team, pulling Andersen in favor of Curtis McElhinney, who made just the second playoff appearance of his entire career.

Unfortunately for Babcock and the Leafs, the Bruins were having none of this attempt to slow things down. Tim Schaller made sure the building stayed in it by flattening Mitch Marner on the forecheck, leading to a fight with Ron Hainsey.

On the power play resulting from Hainsey’s instigator penalty, the Bs extra man unit improved to five-for-eight in the series when Rick Nash cleaned up the garbage from a ricocheting Pastrnak shot just 11 seconds into the man advantage, giving the Bruins a 4-0 lead at the 15:00 mark.

Toronto did manage to somewhat stop the bleeding for the final five minutes, and mounted a bit of a counter-attack, but never got a serious scoring opportunity out of it and went to the room trailing by four with little in the way of positives to build on. Boston scored four goals on eight shots, including the last three on consecutive shots.

Early in the second, Toronto finally found life, with Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner pouncing on a David Krejci turnover to set up a two-on-one, where Marner would bang in the back door goal to make it 4-1 just 1:22 into the middle frame.

Again, it took no time at all for Boston to push Toronto’s faces right back in the dirt, coming out on the very next shift and responding with two thundering hits. First it was David Backes stapling Zaitsev to the end boards behind his own net, then just a few seconds later Leo Komarov tried to step into Miller and instead ended up laying on the ice seemingly unsure of his whereabouts. Or identity. (He’d return only briefly on a power play shift a few minutes later, taking the ice for about 10 seconds before immediately returning to the locker room and never reappearing)

Then just 2:24 after the Marner goal, it would be Krejci making amends for his costly turnover by tipping a Pastrnak shot past McElhinney as he skated across the front of the net, restoring Boston’s four-goal lead 3:46 into the second.

The Leafs would get a power play soon after, but the only real opportunity they’d have was a hard wrist shot by Auston Matthews labeled for the glove side corner that Rask seemingly lackadaisically snagged out of the air.

Rick Nash and Auston Matthews traded breakaway opportunities, both on terrific power moves through defenders, but both were turned aside by the respective netminders.

Toronto again pulled within 3 when Tyler Bozak tipped home a nice spinning feed from below the goal line by Connor Brown with 10:57 remaining. They managed to build a little momentum off of this, having a few good scoring chances (Gardiner one-timer out of a netfront scramble, Marleau getting his own rebound off the end boards and nearly beating an off-balance Rask) turned aside in the next few minutes. Rask continued to be the story for most of the dying minutes, making two of his best stops with just over 4 to play, first on Matthews walking out from behind the net, then stretching out the opposite side pad to deny Patrick Marleau on the rebound. Shots were evened up at 22 at the end of the second period.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk spent the last part of the second and the third period nursing an apparent leg injury of some sort, often limping noticeably, but finished the game.

The early minutes of the third passed without incident, until Brown and Tomas Plekanec jumped on a loose puck after Charlie McAvoy tripped near his own blueline for a two-on-one, but Rask again turned it aside. On the following shift at the opposite end it would be McElhinney stopping a Patrice Bergeron one-timer on a feed by Brad Marchand.

With 8:26 remaining Boston would strike again, Marchand turning the puck over from Gardiner and walking in on a breakaway that Gardiner somehow managed to get back and poke check away at the last second, but before Toronto could regroup Bergeron had already retrieved the puck in the corner and handed it to Pastrnak, who walked to the front of the net almost uncontested and roofed a shot over the blocker side of McElhinney for the 6-2 lead.

JVR managed to again cut the defecit to 3 with 5:07 to play when he banged home a rebound past Rask, who had little help on the play, after a hard forecheck by Bozak caused Zdeno Chara to lose his stick, leaving him unable to tie up van Riemsdyk in front of the net.

Just to make sure the winning margin was four goals, and just because he could, Pastrnak took a Marchand pass from behind the goal line, toe dragged it between his own legs, then backhanded the puck into the net past a prone McElhinney to scored the hat trick, bring his point total to six on the night (nine in the first two games of the series), and drive the dagger firmly into the hearts of the Toronto faithful with 1:36 to play. ‘Pasta’ became the first player in franchise history to score 3+ points in each of the team’s first two playoff games of the year.

The simple fact in this series is that Toronto has yet to find any answer for the Bruins’ top line (14 points between them in Game 2). Should they be able to, they could find success, as the rest of the Boston lineup is not supremely dangerous (New Jersey has found a way to keep the Miller/Stamkos/Kucherov line quiet, but can’t match the Bolts’ ridiculous depth). But the Toronto defense looks almost helpless at times, and Rask has simply been too good for Toronto to rely upon their offense to solve all their problems.

Mike Babcock and his team will search hard for an answer, I’m sure, and will hope for a little reinvigorating energy from an energetic home crowd at the ACC. Game 3 will come to you on Monday night at 7 p.m. Eastern with DTFR coverage brought to you by shameless Boston homer @nlanciani53

April 2 – Day 173 – King of the mountain

Today marks the final Monday of regular season NHL action. Do with it what you will, but I’d strongly recommend watching hockey.

Buffalo at Toronto gets the evening underway at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by a pair of tilts (Winnipeg at Ottawa [RDS] and Carolina at Florida). Two more puck drops (Washington at St. Louis [NHLN/TVAS] and Edmonton at Minnesota) are scheduled for 8 p.m., while tonight’s nightcap – Colorado at Los Angeles (SN/SN1) – waits until 10:30 before getting started. All times Eastern.

I’d originally marked today’s DtFR Game of the Day as the Battle of the QEW, but Buffalo extending its streak of missing the postseason to a seventh season puts a damper on that option. Instead, let’s make the trip to Hollywood to see if Colorado can keep its playoff hopes alive.

 

 

 

 

 

There were major concerns surrounding 42-28-9 Colorado’s playoff chances when 24-16-6 G Semyon Varlamov was shut down with a lower-body injury, but 18-11-3 G Jonathan Bernier put a damper on that last night with a 38-save performance against the Ducks.

Bernier’s performance in Anaheim, albeit an overtime loss, shouldn’t have really been all that much of a surprise. After all, Varlamov missed the entire month of January due to injury, and Bernier posted a 9-2-1 record in his stead with a .936 save percentage and 2.17 GAA – both marks that are even better than the solid .913 save percentage and 2.86 GAA that he has to show for the entire season.

Bernier seems to relish at the opportunity to be the starter, and he’ll be relied upon this week to once again prove his worth and complete Colorado’s playoff push.

However, since he was in action last night, it remains to be seen if he’ll man the pipes this evening or if 0-1-0 G Andrew Hammond – yes, the Hamburglar from the Senators’ 2015 playoff push – will be called into action for only his second NHL start of the season. Hammond commanded the Avalanche’s crease on March 28, posting a .939 save percentage in a 2-1 home loss to the Flyers.

Of course, part of what makes the Avs so great is not even what they have to offer on the defensive end, but instead their solid attack. Colorado has averaged four goals per game in its last two games, with seven different players averaging at least a point per game in that span.

Of those seven, no player has shone quite as bright as F Tyson Jost. People that don’t regularly watch Colorado might think I misspelled F Nathan MacKinnon (MacKinnon does, after all, rank fifth in the NHL in points and 10th in goals and assists), but Jost has scored three goals in these last two games to improve the second-liner’s season totals to 12-10-22.

Joining Jost in posting at least a point per game in Colorado’s last two outings include D Tyson Barrie (1-2-3 totals since March 30, 13-42-55 overall), F Alexander Kerfoot (1-2-3 since March 30, 18-24-42 overall), W Sven Andrighetto (2-0-2 since March 30, 8-13-21 overall), RW Mikko Rantanen (1-1-2 since March 30, 28-54-82 overall), MacKinnon (0-2-2 since March 30, 38-56-94 overall) and LW Gabriel Landeskog (0-2-2 since March 30, 24-35-59 overall).

The 43-28-8 Kings enter tonight’s tilt as the Western Conference’s first wild card and riding a three-game point streak. As has been a characteristic of Los Angeles and the three California teams for years now, the Kings have found that success by playing some spectacular and physical defense.

Since March 26, Los Angeles has allowed only 26 shots against per game. That’s the second-best mark in the NHL in that time, bested only by Edmonton allowing one fewer shot in its last three games. D Derek Forbort (3.3 blocks per game since March 26) and C Anze Kopitar (five takeaways in his last three games) have led that defensive charge, but the Kings have also had the luxury of four players (LW Kyle Clifford, Forbort, F Trevor Lewis and LW Tanner Pearson) imposing their wills along the boards and averaging two hits per game during this run.

This defensive success has kept 31-27-3 G Jonathan Quick‘s workload light, and that’s just fine by him as he’s managed a .964 save percentage and .96 GAA in his last two starts to lead the Kings to allowing only 1.33 goals against per game since March 26 – the lowest mark in the league in that time.

Quick, the (t)ninth-most winningest goaltender on the season, has a .923 save percentage and a 10th-best 2.37 GAA for this campaign, not to mention a (t)fourth-best five shutouts.

The Kings have certainly had the upper hand in their last two meetings with the Avs, as they’ve earned four points in comparison to Colorado’s one. Just like tonight’s tilt, December 21’s contest took place at Staples Center, where Los Angeles earned a 2-1 overtime victory (W Dustin Brown provided the game-winner). Meanwhile, the March 22 matchup in Denver was a much more lopsided affair, as the Kings posted a dominating 7-1 score (Kopitar earned First Star honors with his four-goal performance).

Should that winning trend continue tonight, the Kings will jump back into third place in the Pacific Division, but they’ll be giving a game-in-hand to Anaheim in the process that – should it convert it into a win of its own – could return the table to how it currently stands.

Meanwhile, as the Western Conference’s second wild card, Colorado has much to gain by pulling off the road upset tonight. A regulation win would propel the Avalanche over Los Angeles into the first wildcard spot, a much more certain position that also has the luxury of avoiding the dreaded Predators in the first round of the playoffs.

However, similar to Los Angeles’ situation with Anaheim, the Blues still have a game-in-hand on Colorado even though they’re also in action tonight at home against the Capitals. If the Avs are lucky, they can expand their lead on St. Louis to three points with a win and a Notes regulation loss, but it’s possible that Colorado could end the night further from playoff qualification than it started – that happens if the Avs lose in regulation and St. Louis earns at least one point, as the Blues would jump into the second wildcard in that situation due to the aforementioned game in hand.

With the top two lines playing remarkably well for Colorado, the Avs are going to be a tough out tonight regardless of who they have in net. However, Los Angeles’ success against against the Avalanche so far this season has me thinking it will be the Kings that come away with two points tonight.


In a penalty-riddled meeting that is just begging for a follow up in the postseason, the Washington Capitals clinched their third-consecutive Metropolitan Division title by downing the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

A whopping 38 combined penalty minutes were distributed in this game, with the hosts taking 10 more than Washington due in large part to F Evgeni Malkin and Assistant Coach Mark Recchi both getting called for misconducts with 61 seconds remaining in regulation. Surprisingly, neither side could capitalize on its five power play opportunities.

One player that went unaffected by all this commotion was First Star of the Game G Philipp Grubauer. Though a late goal by Third Star RW Patric Hornqvist (Malkin and LW Carl Hagelin) cut his dreams of a career-high fourth shutout 3:45 short, his 36-of-37 performance (.973 save percentage) was more than enough to earn the victory.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an offense scoring a goal per period in support. Washington registered all three of its tallies before Hornqvist got the Penguins on the scoreboard, starting with F T.J. Oshie‘s (W Andre Burakovsky and D John Carlson) wrist shot 6:25 into the first period.

Second Star D Dmitry Orlov (F Evgeny Kuznetsov) provided the game-winner on a wrister with 6:14 remaining in the second period. After the Pens had dumped the puck into their offensive zone at the end of a power play to get an even-strength line on the ice, Orlov ended up with possession and began driving through the center of the ice towards G Matt Murray. With D Olli Maatta left to beat, Orlov decided to use him as a screen and fire his wrister through the Finn’s legs, beating Murray’s blocker.

While Orlov does get credit for his second game-winner of the season, the biggest goal in this contest just might have been RW Tom Wilson‘s (D Matt Niskanen) tip-in only 23 seconds into the third period. The Toronto native’s 14th marker of the season set the score at 3-0, meaning Pittsburgh needed far more than a relatively late goal from Hornqvist to seriously cast doubt into the hearts and minds of the Capitals.

Murray took his 16th regulation loss of the season after saving only 31-of-34 shots faced (.912 save percentage).

In addition to clinching their third-consecutive division title, the Capitals’ road win also snapped an eight-game winning streak and 10-game point streak by the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts in the series now have a 98-54-21 record that is 44 points superior to the roadies.

March 19 – Day 159 – There’s a LA Lakers joke here somewhere…

After a busy weekend, only five games are on today’s NHL schedule.

The evening starts with two tilts (Columbus at Boston [SN/TVAS] and Nashville at Buffalo) at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by Florida at Montréal (RDS/TSN2). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Los Angeles at Minnesota (NBCSN), while Calgary at Arizona – tonight’s nightcap – waits a full two hours before closing out the night. All times Eastern.

Originally, the Kings-Wild game was marked in my list of potential games for the simple fact that D Christian Folin is returning to Xcel Energy Center for the first time since departing Minnesota. While that’s not exactly a story worth covering (sorry Folin, but you’ve spent the last two games in the press box), the matchup should still prove to be the most competitive – and important – of the night. To the Land of 10,000 Lakes!

 

March has not been the month of consistency for 39-27-6 Los Angeles, as it has alternated between winning and losing on a game-by-game basis. While that is a good thing in the sense that they haven’t strung two losses back-to-back since February 22 and 24, the Kings have also failed to follow a win with another victory since February 27 and March 1.

As such, the Kings have only a 4-3-1 record to show for this calendar month, but that is certainly not the fault of any in the defensive end. Led by W Dustin Brown (five takeaways since March 1) and LW Kyle Clifford (3.4 hits per game over this stretch), Los Angeles has allowed only 29.88 shots against per game to reach 28-26-2 G Jonathan Quick since March 1, the 10th-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.

Of course, a goaltender like Quick that is faced with so few shots per game is almost always capable of making the required saves. The story has been no different lately, as he’s posted an impressive .923 save percentage and 2.27 GAA over his past seven starts, improving his season marks to a .922 save percentage and 2.42 GAA.

Even with the Kings traveling to Winnipeg for a tilt tomorrow night against the Jets, Quick will be in net this evening.

Instead, inconsistency has showed its ugly face within the Kings’ offensive ranks this month. That seems hard to believe considering C Anze Kopitar and D Drew Doughty are both averaging at least a point per game this month with respective 10 and eight points, but it’s how they reached those point totals where we start to get a clearer picture.

It’s a regular occurrence for an offensive defenseman to register far more assists than goals, so it’s no surprise Doughty has 1-7-8 marks over his past eight showings. Similarly, Doughty plays an excellent center role by being a play maker, as evidenced by his 2-8-10 performance this month.

However, it’s the fact that neither of these leaders are finding the back of the net themselves that seems to be the issue. Similarly, the Kings’ two hottest goalscorers – F Jeff Carter and LW Tanner Pearson – can only boast four goals apiece since March 1, but they play together on the second line instead of with Kopitar.

Therefore, it seems that Los Angeles’ top line is in a bit of a rut lately. With F Tobias Rieder and Brown currently listed as Kopitar’s wings, they need to get their act together to solidify the Kings’ playoff run.

In terms of record, 41-24-7 Minnesota has been experiencing a month of March very similar to the Kings, as the Wild can only boast a 5-4-0 record since turning the calendar’s page.

However, the Wild have reached their March record in a very different way than the Kings, as they have already posted a three-game winning streak this month and could match that mark with a victory tonight.

Defense has been a major part of that success, as Minnesota has done well to limit its opponents to only 28 shots against per game since March 1, the third-lowest mark in the entire NHL. D Jonas Brodin (1.9 blocks per game since March 1), D Mathew Dumba (two hits per game over this run) and W Jason Zucker (six takeaways in his last nine games) have all played major roles in that squelching defensive presence.

However, to have a record so close to .500 over this nine-game run, there’s also been more than a few Minnesotan losses this month. Those belong to 31-14-5 G Devan Dubnyk, who has not exactly been spectacular in his last seven starts. Even though he’s earned four victories this month, he’s also posted an .899 save percentage and 2.93 GAA – well below his season marks of a .916 save percentage and 2.61 GAA.

Of these two teams, Minnesota’s playoff chances are all but clinched as it has a five-point advantage on ninth-place Dallas – not to mention a game in hand (technically, tonight’s game is the Wild’s game in hand over the Stars, but it will be returned to them after Dallas plays Washington tomorrow). Additionally, there’s little forward mobility in the Central Division, as Minnesota trails Winnipeg by seven points.

Instead, the Wild are most concerned with holding on to third place in the division to ensure they play the Jets in the first round of the playoffs instead of Vegas. Currently, Minnesota has a three-point advantage on Colorado in the first wild card. With the Avs getting the opportunity to take on the lowly Blackhawks tomorrow night, the Wild need to hold serve with a victory tonight to maintain their slim advantage.

Of course, playoff seeding is the least of the Kings’ worries as they’re currently tied with Dallas at 84 points. Los Angeles needs any points it can get its hands on, but a win tonight would propel it past Anaheim for third place in the Pacific Division, as both sides would have 86 points and the Kings would win the regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker.

Tonight’s game is the second of three this regular season between Los Angeles and Minnesota. The first took place December 15 at Staples Center, where the Kings effectively imposed their will to post a convincing 5-2 victory. W Marian Gaborik – now an Ottawa Senator after being traded on Valentine’s Day for D Dion Phaneuf and C Nate Thompson – led the way that night with two third period goals.

If the Kings continue their run of alternating results, they should be in line for a victory tonight considering they fell 3-0 against New Jersey on Saturday. Even facing Minnesota’s impressive defense, I think the Kings can get it done today since Quick playing that much better than Dubnyk lately.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks beat the New Jersey Devils 4-2 at Honda Center to propel themselves into third place in the Pacific Division.

Though the Devils twice pulled back within a goal of tying the game, the final result never seemed to be in doubt. Anaheim’s defense squelched almost every attempted attack by New Jersey, as its 36 shots on goals are well more than the Devils’ 17.

Of course, that defense got quite the boost by being spotted a two-goal advantage before even seven minutes had run off the clock. Second Star of the Game C Ryan Getzlaf opened the game’s scoring only 1:14 after the opening puck drop with an unassisted snap shot, and he was followed 5:23 later by W Jakob Silfverberg (D Josh Manson and Third Star D Hampus Lindholm) scoring a tip-in to set the score at 2-0.

Even though they opened the second period with 1:25 of five-on-three play, the Devils’ first comeback attempt didn’t see any real life until 9:29 remained in the second period. With W Corey Perry in the penalty box serving a too many men on the ice penalty, W Kyle Palmieri (C Travis Zajac and F Taylor Hall) buried a slap shot to pull New Jersey back within a 2-1 deficit.

Comebacks are difficult to pull off when Anaheim scores its game-winning goal before Jersey even manages its second. That’s exactly what happened when D Brandon Montour (Getzlaf and First Star F Rickard Rakell) scored a power play clapper 7:55 into the third period.

Montour and co. needed only 26 seconds of D John Moore sitting in the penalty box for cross checking Silfverberg to make the Devils pay. After receiving a pass along the left boards from Cam Fowler at the point, Rakell, moved the puck below the goal line to Getzlaf hanging out just outside the trapezoid. Before New Jersey could get its defense in the right position, Getzlaf centered a perfect pass to Montour at the top-right corner of the slot, who proceeded to rip his clapper past G Keith Kinkaid‘s glove.

Though LW Patrick Maroon (D Sami Vatanen and RW Stefan Noesen) was able to pull the Devils back within a goal with a tip-in against his former team with 9:55 remaining in regulation, a Rakell (Fowler and D Marcus Pettersson) wrist shot only 46 seconds later completed the game’s scoring.

G John Gibson earned the victory after saving 15-of-17 shots faced (.882 save percentage), leaving the loss to Kinkaid, who saved 32-of-36 (.889).

Anaheim’s regulation home victory snaps an eight-game point streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, the series’ hosts now have an 88-52-19 record that is 34 points better than the roadies.

March 1 – Day 141 – It’s usually too warm for Jackets in Los Angeles…

In comparison to other Thursdays, today’s slate of eight games seems to be a lighter load. However, don’t read a lower number of games played as an unimportant evening of action.

The festivities finds their start at 7 p.m. with two puck drops (Pittsburgh at Boston [NBCSN/SN/TVAS] and Carolina at Philadelphia), followed half an hour later by New Jersey at Florida. Next up is Tampa Bay at Dallas at 8:30 p.m., with two more tilts (Nashville at Edmonton and Minnesota at Arizona) waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Chicago visits San Jose (NBCSN) at 10 p.m., while Columbus at Los Angeles (SN1) – tonight’s nightcap – gets green lit half an hour later to close out the night’s activity. All times Eastern.

Originally, I’d only marked the Columbus-Los Angeles game on my calendar as a potential featured matchup on the off-chance G Jeff Zatkoff would make his first return to Tinseltown.

Though that is extremely unlikely, we’re going to stick with that game due to the Blue Jackets, who are in desperate need of wins, facing the tough task of beating a confident Kings team that is riding a major surge after beating the Golden Knights twice in two days.

 

 

 

 

 

To beat the then conference-leader in such a quick turnaround, it takes a team – in this case, the 35-24-5 Kings – being on top of its game, and maybe a little luck too. After all, they were riding a two-game losing skid coming into the home-and-home series.

Los Angeles certainly had both earlier this week, as it posted a 3-2 overtime victory at Staples Center on February 26, followed by a dominant 4-1 win in Sin City a day later.

Perhaps the biggest component of the Kings’ statement victories were the exemplary play of both of their goaltenders. Even behind a defense that allowed an atrocious 40.5 shots per game (the second-worst of any team in the league since Monday), both 24-23-2 G Jonathan Quick and backup 1-0-0 G Jack Campbell were excellent to allow only 1.5 goals against per game, the (t)sixth-best mark in the past three days.

Of the two, Campbell was easily the most impressive, as he posted a solid .976 save percentage for a 1 GAA in his first NHL win. However, Quick will surely earn tonight’s start after his .949 save percentage, 1.94 GAA performance on Monday that elevated his season marks to a (t)ninth-best in the league .922 save percentage and 2.45 GAA.

Before discussing Columbus, Los Angeles’ offense also deserves a hat tip for averaging 3.5 goals per game against the Knights – the ninth-best attack since Monday. With 2-3-5 totals in the two games against Vegas, C Anze Kopitar deserves much of the credit. However, he’s just one of five players that averaged at least a point per game in that home-and-home series, as F Jeff Carter (2-0-2), W Dustin Brown (1-1-2), F Tyler Toffoli (1-1-2) and D Dion Phaneuf (0-2-2) joined him in that effort, but the fact that Kopitar’s 70 points on the season is 10th-most in the league is a testament to how valuable he is to his club.

Meanwhile, it seems the visiting 32-26-5 Blue Jackets have definitely put their five-game losing skid in early February behind them, as they’ve posted a 3-1-0 record in their last four games, including victories at New Jersey and against the Capitals.

Columbus’ strength all season has been in the defensive zone, and that’s been true during these last four games. Led by F Boone Jenner (3.3 hits per game since February 20), D Jack Johnson (two blocks per game in his last four outings) and D Seth Jones (seven takeaways over this stretch), the Jackets have allowed an average of only 27.5 shots against per game during this run, the third-best mark in the NHL since February 20.

Of course, defense like that makes 27-20-5 G Sergei Bobrovsky almost impossible to beat. Having started all four of Columbus’ last games (and likely to start tonight even with Anaheim on the schedule tomorrow), he’s posted an unbelievable .945 save percentage and 1.51 GAA to improve his season marks to a .92 save percentage and a (t)ninth-best in the league 2.41 GAA.

Pairing Bobrovsky and his defense together, they’ve allowed only 1.5 goals against per game since February 20, which ties division-rival Philadelphia for best mark in the NHL in that time.

The Kings have already made their annual trip to Ohio, but they weren’t very nice house guests. Behind a two-goal (including the game-winner), three-point performance by Kopitar, Los Angeles beat the Blue Jackets 6-4 at Nationwide Arena on October 21.

Pending a regulation loss by San Jose tonight against the visiting Blackhawks, the most noticeable immediate impact on the standings this game can have is if the Kings defend Staples Center to a victory. Should both those results come to pass, Los Angeles would pull into a tie with the Sharks for second place in the Pacific Division, taking the lead on regulation+overtime victories.

That’s not to say Columbus isn’t interested in pulling off the victory tonight, as any points it earns are important in keeping pace with New Jersey for the Eastern Conference’s first wild card, not to mention putting a little bit more space between the Jackets and the ninth-seeded Hurricanes.

With goaltenders and defenses like these, this is going to be a tough, grind-it-out style of game. With that in mind, I’m leaning towards the Kings defending Staples Center to a victory due to the fact that they sport a superior offense.


Posting a four-goal period is usually a good way to win, and the Colorado Avalanche did just that to beat the Calgary Flames 5-2 at Pepsi Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Part of the reason for the Avs’ offensive explosion is the fact that they were trailing 2-0 before finding their first goal. C Mikael Backlund scored an unassisted shorthanded backhanded shot with 5:41 remaining in the first period, followed by a F Michael Frolik (LW Matthew Tkachuk and Backlund) backhander 2:41 into the second.

That two-goal advantage lasted until the 8:24 mark of the second frame when First Star of the Game F Nathan MacKinnon (LW Gabriel Landeskog and Second Star D Tyson Barrie) scored a power play wrist shot to get Colorado on the board. That seemed to be the spark the Avs’ offense needed, because D Nikita Zadorov (W Blake Comeau and F Carl Soderberg) provided the game-tying goal only 1:08 after MacKinnon’s tally.

Barrie’s second point of the game proved to be the most important, as it ended up being the game-winner. With 7:19 remaining in the frame, Barrie (RW Mikko Rantanen and MacKinnon) took advantage of a slick Rantanen pass through the slot and around D Travis Hamonic – who was trying to block a potential shot from the right face-off circle alongside G David Rittich‘s attempted save – to bury his one-timer into a gaping net.

W Matthew Nieto (Soderberg and Comeau) finished off the assault 1:18 before the second intermission, setting the score at 4-2.

No goals were scored in the final frame until 17 seconds remained in regulation. With Ritich pulled for a sixth Calgary attacker, D Duncan Siemens scored his first NHL goal with a long-range empty-netter.

Third Star G Semyon Varlamov earned the victory after saving 30-of-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage), leaving the loss to Rittich, who saved 29-of-33 (.879).

With Colorado’s home victory, it snapped a four-day point streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, the 75-47-19 hosts now have a 20-point advantage on the visitors in the series.

January 24 – Day 109 – Heading in opposite directions

Gearing up for a full slate of 15 games tomorrow, the NHL scheduler applied the brakes today.

Only two games are on the schedule this evening, with the first – Toronto at Chicago (NBCSN/SN/TVAS) – dropping the puck at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Next up is Los Angeles at Calgary (SN360), which gets underway two hours later.

While it would certainly be fun to feature an Original Six rivalry for the first time in a week, the Pacific Division has an important contest taking place this evening. Off to the Saddledome with us!

 

 

 

 

 

You know that feeling when you’re driving down the road and you see your friend driving the other way?

That’s kind of what’s going on between these squads within the Pacific Division. For much of the season – as recently as January 4 – the 25-18-5 Kings were competing with Vegas for the division lead, but they’ve suffered a 1-7-0 stretch since then that has sent them to 10th-place in the Western Conference.

A team that drops from second in the division to outside the playoff picture in the span of less than 20 days surely has more than one issue. I’d argue they have two big ones: an anemic offense accented by a regression at the goaltending position.

There’s no other way to say it: Los Angeles’ offense has been terrible lately. Since January 4, the Kings have averaged only 2.13 goals per game – a mark that is better than only the efforts of division-rival Edmonton (two goals per game) and Columbus (1.5 goals per game) in that time.

As might be expected, more than a few Kings have seen a regression in their scoring since this skid began. However, the likes of C Anze Kopitar (19-31-50 totals) and D Jake Muzzin (4-23-27) are still maintaining their high level of play, as they both average a point-per-game since January 4.

Even still, their efforts are not enough to make up for the rest of the squad’s slump. In particular, Los Angeles is missing the usually solid play of W Dustin Brown (15-19-34 totals) and F Tyler Toffoli (18-12-30), two players among the top-five in point production for the Kings on the season that have managed only respective 0-3-3 and 1-0-1 totals in their last eight games played.

While pointing fingers at Head Coach John Stevens‘ offense is certainly a warranted charge, I do need to acknowledge that Los Angeles’ offense was never the class of the league. On the season, the Kings have scored an average of only 2.81 goals per game, the 13th-worst mark in the NHL.

But that bad-turned-worse regression only half the problem. 20-17-2 G Jonathan Quick has also been miserable in his last seven starts. After starting the season with Vezina-like numbers, he’s posted only an .876 save percentage and 3.65 GAA to drop his season marks to a .921 and 2.44.

Making his performance even more frustrating is that his defense is doing everything in its control to make his life easier. Led by Brown’s 3.1 hits per game, Kopitar’s six takeaways and D Alec Martinez‘ 3.3 blocks per game during this run, he’s faced an average of only 29.5 shots per game during this skid – the fifth-fewest in the league in that time.

Pair a flailing offense and a goaltender in a rut and you get a league-worst -12 goal differential since January 4. There’s a lot that needs to improve for this Kings team to get back into playoff position, much less beat the Flames tonight.

One thing that might see an immediate change this evening could take place in the crease. Quick was in net for 24:21 of yesterday’s 6-2 loss in Vancouver, but he was pulled after allowing his fifth goal on 19 shots faced (.737 save percentage). With 5-1-3 G Darcy Kuemper posting a .938 save percentage in his 35:39 of play, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets the nod in this very important game today.

Meanwhile, 25-16-6 Calgary has taken advantage of the Kings’ struggles to surge into a top-three spot in the division after spending most of the season fading in and out of the second wildcard spot. They’ve been impressive since December 31, as that’s when the Flames started their current 7-0-2 run.

In a twist of cruel irony, the biggest reason for the Flames’ increased production rests on one man in particular: 20-13-5 G Mike Smith. Smith has been almost unbeatable since December 31, posting a .945 save percentage and 1.84 GAA to improve his season marks to .926 and 2.41 and lead his club to a 6-0-2 record while he’s been in net (4-1-1 G David Rittich earned the final victory on January 12 at Florida).

Smith’s performance has been of the utmost importance for the Flames, because his defense certainly doesn’t do him any favors having allowed a third-worst 35.11 shots against-per-game since December 31.

Of course, to continue the inverted allusion to the Kings, Calgary has also had the luxury of one of the better offenses in the league during this nine-game run. Scoring 3.22 goals per game since New Year’s Eve, the Flames have wielded the ninth-strongest attack in the NHL.

Many players are performing exceptionally well, but four stick out above the rest. You likely guessed LW Johnny Gaudreau first, and with good reason: his 40 assists on the season are (t)fifth-best in the league, and his 55 points (t)sixth-best. The reigning Lady Byng-winner is continuing his career year by posting solid 2-12-14 totals since New Year’s Eve, but he’s not the only one averaging at least a point per game during this run: LW Matthew Tkachuk (6-4-10), C Sean Monahan (4-6-10) and W Micheal Ferland (4-5-9) join him in that feat, making both of Calgary’s top two lines a very imposing force for even the best defenses.

Tonight is Game 3 in a four-game regular season series between the Flames and Kings, and it’s a matchup Los Angeles is not excited about revisiting. Calgary has won both previous meetings this year, posting a 4-3 overtime victory at Staples Center (Monahan provided the game-winner) on October 11 and defending home ice on January 4 with a 4-3 regulation win (Ferland took First Star honors with a 1-1-2 night).

Since all the Kings need is a win tonight to get back into playoff position, maybe that will be enough motivation for them to rediscover their groove on the offensive end. However, I just don’t see it happening considering the Flames’ stellar play of late. Calgary should come away with two more points tonight.


Though Bridgestone Arena boasts an impressive home-ice advantage for the Nashville Predators, the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to emerge with a 4-3 overtime victory in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

If any Preds fans made the mistake of going to the restroom or buying concessions during the first period, there’s a chance they missed all four goals that were struck in the frame. W Chris Kunitz scored the opening goal of the contest with an unassisted wrist shot 6:24 into the period, but Nashville had the game all tied up only 1:04 later courtesy of a power play (F Cedric Paquette was in the box for hooking C Kyle Turris) slap shot from Second Star of the Game D Ryan Ellis (D Roman Josi and C Colton Sissons). The Predators then took their first lead of the night at the 9:11 mark thanks to W Viktor Arvidsson‘s (LW Pontus Aberg and D Matt Irwin) wrister, but the score was once again tied only 1:37 later on a F Vladislav Namestnikov (C Steven Stamkos and Kunitz) wrister.

In all, it took only 4:24 for all four tallies to be struck, yet the first period ended just as it began – with both teams tied.

Scoring substantially subsided in the remaining 40 minutes, as only two goals were struck – one in each period. The second period’s goal belonged to D P.K. Subban (D Mattias Ekholm and F Ryan Johansen), a power play clapper struck with only 50 seconds remaining before the second intermission.

The Bolts tempted fate by waiting until the waning minutes of regulation to find their game-tying goal, but Stamkos (D Slater Koekkoek and Kunitz) scored a clapper with 2:12 remaining on the clock to force three-on-three overtime.

Overtime is scheduled for five minutes, but First Star F Yanni Gourde (Namestnikov) didn’t want to wait that long. Only 105 seconds into extra time, he took advantage of Namestnikov’s deke-turned-pass across the crease to bury a wrister into Third Star G Juuse Saros‘ gaping cage.

G Louis Domingue earned the victory after saving 30-of-33 shots faced (.909 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Saros, who saved 27-of-31 (.871).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are rolling this week. The visitors’ four-game winning streak has pulled them within 18 points of the 59-36-14 hosts.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 15

Skater of the Week: Brad Marchand

You may not (probably don’t) like him, but the Little Ball of Hate doesn’t give a damn about what you like. He’s gonna score on your team, and you’re gonna deal with it.

The league’s premiere super-pest tallied two goals and five assists in four contests this week, made arguably more impressive by the fact that he started the week being held scoreless against Dallas before recording three consecutive multi-point games to close the week. Burning arch-rival Montreal for a goal and assist in the first meeting, then adding two helpers in the rematch, together with a three-point night against the Islanders, the former unheralded third round pick continues to prove all the critics wrong, as he’s currently on pace to shatter his breakout 85-point performance from last season.

Marchand’s 48 points in 37 games is good for 16th in league scoring, having played no less than seven-fewer games than any player ahead of him, and his performance over the last seven days is good for this award.

Tendy of the Week: Jonathan Bernier

Yeah, I know, right? I couldn’t believe it either.

Bernier’s NHL career has been a well-documented roller coaster of epic proportions, and the former 11th-overall pick has often seen the ‘Bust’ label floating near his name. But he seems to have really found a home with the upstart Avs this season.

In three starts this week, Bernier faced a ridiculous 110 shots and turned aside 105 of them to pick up three victories. On Monday he stopped 33-of-34 to down the Ducks, on Saturday he stifled 27-of-28 against the Rangers, and even when he gave up three to the Sharks, he managed a .938 save percentage on 48 shots faced. Of the Avs’ strengths, the defense is not high on the list.

Bernier is still shaking off some shaky performances earlier in the year, but in 21 appearances his 13-7-1 record, 2.61 GAA and .919 save percentage are more than respectable behind the run-and-gun Avs. If he continues this sort of play, the Avs could potentially use Semyon Varlamov as trade bait to solidify their D-corps come the deadline.

Game of the Week: Washington Capitals 3 @ New Jersey Devils 4 (OT), Thursday January 18th, 2018

A showdown between the top 2 teams in the stacked Metropolitan Division lived up to the hype, delivering seven goals, 51 shots, 48 hits, and 36 penalty minutes.

Drew Stafford would get things rolling 8:01 into the game, taking advantage of a misplay at the blueline by Dmitry Orlov to flee the zone and receive a breakout pass courtesy of Marcus Johansson, fighting off the back-checking Devante Smith-Pelly and going forehand-backhand-roof on Braden Holtby to give the Devils the early lead. Brett Connolly, who was stifled on a golden opportunity just seconds after the Stafford goal, would get his revenge and even the score at the 12:10 mark, pouncing on a long wrister from T.J. Oshie that deflected off of the skate of Jersey d-man Will Butcher right to his tape and burying it past Keith Kinkaid to give us a 1-1 game after one.

The second saw both the scoring and intensity ramp up, started off by Devils captain Andy Greene (playing in his 750th game) scoring on an almost-identical play to the Connolly goal, this time a Taylor Hall effort from the left point deflecting off the stick of Matt Niskanen and coming right to Greene who was just able to squeeze the shot between the left arm and torso of a sliding Holtby to regain the Jersey lead 3:33 into the frame. Then at the 8:33 mark came some shenanigans. Tom Wilson laid a hammering hit on Brian Gibbons along the boards in the neutral zone, leading Brian Boyle to come to the defense of his teammate and earn himself a misconduct and extra minor for instigating. I could go on a tangent about clean hits leading to fights (Gibbons himself appeared to try to wave off Boyle as he approached Wilson), but I’ll save that for another day.

Further into the secnd we go, and the Devils capitalize (see what I did there?) on another breakout pass, this time with Miles Wood sneaking behind the Washington defense and receiving some airmail from Sami Vatanen before getting one through five-hole of Holtby to give New Jersey the 3-1 edge at the 10:55 mark. But just 14 seconds later Dmitry Orlov would collect a long rebound off the boards and spanked the ‘Made In Slovakia’ lettering right off of the puck as it screamed past Kinkaid into the back of the net, sending us into the final frame with a 3-2 Devils lead after some strong netminding by Holtby in the closing stages of the middle frame.

Kinkaid and the Devils would hold the fort for most of the third, but finally with just 3:48 remaining it would be Connolly (who had himself a very good game, I might add) who collected a terrific Evgeny Kuznetsov feed from below the goal line and slid the puck right underneath the left pad of Kinkaid to knot the score at three and send the game to overtime (though not before Kinkaid would shake off a ‘Nisk-cannon’ to the noggin that removed his mask in the dying seconds).

The crowd at ‘The Rock’ would have little to fret over, though, as just 34 seconds into the extra frame it would be Taylor Hall receiving a chip pass from Sami Vatanen, before giving himself a second chip pass to get around Kuznetsov and streaking in on Holtby, roofing a quick wrister over the glove hand and sending the Jersey-faithful into a frenzy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

The Golden Knights are, at the time of this writing, the #1 team in the NHL. I don’t actually have anything clever prepared for this, I just wanted to say it out loud.

A couple of high-profile injuries struck this week, with Edmonton losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to a hand injury for at least a month, and the Rangers losing Kevin Shattenkirk to a meniscus tear, an injury that could sideline the defenseman for quite some time.

The Senators have supposedly made it their #1 organizational goal to re-sign Erik Karlsson. I’m not sure how much money it will take to keep him with a franchise that doesn’t appear to be set up for major success any time soon, but if anyone has any suggestions for convoluted schemes to marry into his family, I’m all ears.

Dustin Brown was fined (but not suspended) for brutally cross-checking a helpless Justin Schultz face-first into the boards, in a move the Department of Player Safety referred to as “We have no idea who this Andrew Cogliano person you speak of is, and we’re not sure what two-game suspension you could be referring to.”

The Colorado Avalanche have won nine consecutive games, which might be the only thing less people would have bet on at the beginning of the year than Vegas spending time at #1 in the league.

Rene Rancourt has announced that he will retire from his position as the Bruins’ longtime anthem singer. Personally, I never actually thought he was that good of a singer, but his showmanship has always been absolutely second-to-none, and anyone legendary enough to be referenced in a Dropkick Murphy’s song gets a pass in my book, so congrats to Rene on an incredible career and best of luck in retirement.

Finally, I’ll close on two sombering notes. First, I extend my sincerest condolences to Matthew Murray and his family, as the Pittsburgh goaltender has taken a leave of absence from the team to mourn the passing of his father, and I’ll repeat the sentiment to the family of USA Hockey executive and two-time Olympian Jim Johannson, who passed Sunday morning at just 53 years of age.

December 28 – Day 82 – Show your shield

I love when the NHL feels guilty. The league went dormant for three days, and it’s trying to make up for it by playing scheduling lots of games this week.

I’m not complaining.

There’s seven games on the schedule today, starting with three (Boston at Washington [NBCSN/SN360/TVAS], Montréal at Tampa Bay [RDS/TSN2] and Philadelphia at Florida) at 7:30 p.m. The next game, Toronto at Arizona, doesn’t drop the puck until 9 p.m., but it starts the chain reaction of contests, as two (Chicago at Vancouver [SN360] and Vegas at Los Angeles [NBCSN]) get underway an hour later and tonight’s nightcap – Calgary at San Jose – clean things up at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Three matchups in particular have caught my eye this evening…

  • Montréal at Tampa Bay: Welcome back to Cigar City, F Jonathan Drouin. How Bolts fans greet him will be… interesting, to say the least.
  • Chicago at Vancouver: In days gone by, these teams fiercely battled for Western Conference supremacy. This season, they’re simply trying to qualify for the postseason.
  • Vegas at Los Angeles: For three seasons, D Brayden McNabb called Hollywood home. Now he’s a top-two defenseman for the Golden Knights.

While I wouldn’t exactly say that McNabb’s return is exactly headline worthy, the fact that these teams are [playing for the lead in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference] definitely is. Off to Staples Center with us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Goal No. 1 was being better than the Avalanche this season, Goal No. 2 must have been leading the Western Conference, because that’s exactly what the 24-9-2 Golden Knights are doing right now.

It’s no secret how Vegas is finding its wins, as the Knights’ offense has managed a whopping 3.46 goals-per-game for the best mark in the conference.

Head Coach Gerard Gallant‘s favorite player from their days in Florida has kept right on ticking, as F Jon Marchessault, who’s riding a four-game point streak, leads the team with his 12-21-33 totals from his spot on the second line. That line as a whole has been phenomenal, as C William Karlsson (17-12-29), Marchessault and W Reilly Smith (9-17-26) have combined for 38 of the Knights’ 123 goals on the season (30.9 percent).

But if we want to get really picky, Marchessualt is not among the best scorers in the league. After all, his 33 points are only (t)31st among all skaters, and his 1.03 points-per-game are (t)17th. But it is that very fact that tells the true strength of this Vegas attack. A whopping 14 players have earned at least 10 points on the season, including five defensemen.

With only an average power play success rate of 19.5 percent ([t]14th-best in the league), every single player on the Knights’ roster has bought into Gallant’s system, and it’s obviously coming back spades.

Lastly, 6-1-1 G Marc-Andre Fleury will get the start in net this evening after 9-2-0 G Malcolm Subban earned a 4-1 victory in Anaheim last night. Though Subban was stellar while Fleury was recovering from his concussion (he’s among the top six goaltenders in the league in both save percentage [.926] and GAA [2.18]), there’s no doubt who owns the Knights’ starting role.

Fleury has a 6-3-2 record against the Kings from his time in Pittsburgh, including a 3-2-1 record at Staples Center. However, his last three outings against Los Angeles have all been losses, even though he forced overtime in two. He comes into tonight’s game with a .938 save percentage and 1.97 GAA on the season.

If there’s only one thing the second place 22-11-4 Kings have in their favor, it’s that they will be playing tonight’s game on four days of rest since the Golden Knights were in action last night.

However, I’d venture to say that Los Angeles has a bit more going for it than simply full bellies and time off the ice – namely 17-11-1 G Jonathan Quick. Quick has been among the league’s best this season, as his .928 save percentage, 2.23 GAA, 17 wins and two shutouts are all among the top eight efforts in the NHL.

But these Kings aren’t only about Quick. W Dustin Brown, D Drew Doughty and C Anze Kopitar have also been studs this campaign. Brown (+15 rating) and Doughty (+18) have been most prevalent on the defensive end, as their ratings are both among the top eight efforts in the NHL, while Kopitar’s 17 goals are (t)eighth-most in the league.

The Kings and Knights have already tangled once this season at T-Mobile Arena. Vegas won that game 4-2 on a two-goal performance by Karlsson that chased Quick from the Nevadan crease. Of everybody involved in that contest, he’ll certainly be looking to show the most improvement.

In medieval times, kings outranked knights regardless of how many colorful adjectives they added. Though we’ve come a long way since castles and crusades, I think that organizational chart will still apply tonight as Los Angeles defends home ice.


Yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was exactly the competitive matchup we expected, as the Nashville Predators beat the St. Louis Blues 2-1 at Scottrade Center.

Just like in the first contest between these clubs, First Star of the Game G Pekka Rinne dominated conversation. Even though the Blues fired a total of 22 shots on his net over the first two periods, it was his team that scored a goal in each frame.

The first of those tallies belonged to F Craig Smith (D Roman Josi), as he scored a tip-in with 9:23 remaining in the first period. Third Star F Calle Jarnkrok (F Filip Forsberg and D Matt Irwin) followed that up with a slap shot with 3:11 remaining in the second period, and it was that goal that proved to be the game-winner.

What made Jarnkrok’s goal spectacular is its blazing speed. Forsberg set him up for a one-timer from the left face-off dot, but it didn’t originally look as if the play had much chance of success. There were no skaters in front of Second Star G Jake Allen to act as screens, and he appeared to be in the right position to make an easy save. However, Jarnkrok ripped his blitz of a clapper over Allen’s shoulder before the netminder could even move.

St. Louis did eventually manage to sneak a goal past Rinne, as F Vladimir Sobotka (F Kyle Brodziak and D Alex Pietrangelo) bagged a tip-in with 6:23 remaining in regulation, but the Notes – even with Allen pulled for the last 1:53 of the game – could not find a way to level the game.

In all, Rinne saved 29-of-30 shots (.967 save percentage) in the victory, while Allen took the loss after saving 24-of-26 (.923).

With the Predators wearing white, they pull the visitors in the DtFR Game of the Day series back within 19 points of the 46-27-9 home teams.

December 23 – Day 80 – Californian Christmas contest

Pack your hockey watching in today, because the NHL goes on hiatus until Wednesday. What are we supposed to do with our lives?

But don’t be alarmed, the league scheduler didn’t forget to tuck a present under your tree: it’s a loaded schedule today, as every team except the Flames are in action.

The action gets an early start today, as both Detroit at Boston (SN) and Winnipeg at the New York Islanders drop the puck at 1 p.m. The usual 7 p.m. starting time brings with it eight contests (Montréal at Edmonton [SN/TVAS], Minnesota at Tampa Bay, Ottawa at Florida [CITY/SN360], Chicago at New Jersey, Toronto at the New York Rangers [CBC/NHLN], Anaheim at Pittsburgh, Buffalo at Carolina and Philadelphia at Columbus), while three more (Washington at Vegas, Colorado at Arizona and Nashville at Dallas) wait until 8 p.m. to get underway. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – St. Louis at Vancouver (CBC/SN) and Los Angeles at San Jose – drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

What a slate of games! Here’s a few that stuck out to me before the season even got started…

  • Detroit at Boston: The first of two Original Six matchups today, though this one pales in comparison to the other.
  • Toronto at New York: If Original Six games are your scene, you need to be in Manhattan.
  • Los Angeles at San Jose: The Battle of California rages on this evening in The Tank.

If only we hadn’t featured the Maple Leafs and Rangers already this week, I would totally be making the trip to Madison Square Garden for what should be an excellent game. But since we did, I have my eye on the activity in the Golden State this evening.

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing gets me into the holiday spirit quite like a nasty intrastate rivalry.

There are few teams nastier than the 22-10-4 Kings, who have thrown 901 hits already this season – the second-most in the league behind Edmonton’s 947 blows. That effort has been led by Dustin Brown, who has delivered 101 of those 901 hits (11.2 percent), the 11th-most in the NHL.

That physical nature has obviously been a major component of Head Coach John Stevens‘ game plan, and that plan has worked to a T considering the Kings allow a league-best 2.31 goals against-per-game to earn first place in the Western Conference.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have 17-10-1 G Jonathan Quick in net stopping pucks. In his seven December starts, he’s posted a .926 save percentage and 2.12 GAA to improve his season numbers to .928 and 2.23. His performance on the season puts him among the top-10 goalies regardless of how much or little time they’ve spent in the crease (76 in all), and third-best among the 39 netminders with at least 11 starts.

To make matters even tougher on the Sharks, Los Angeles is one of the hottest teams in the conference right now, as it has earned a 7-2-1 record over its last 10 games – an effort matched only by second-place Vegas.

Speaking of those Sharks, they’ve earned an 18-11-4 record that is good enough for third place in the Pacific Division. When they’ve found success this season, the Sharks have played some of the bets defense in the NHL, allowing only 2.52 goals against-per-game.

While the Kings have a great defense built on violence and a stellar goaltender, San Jose employs a more traditional defensive plan based on limiting shots on 11-8-3 G Martin Jones‘ net. Jones and backup 7-3-1 G Aaron Dell see an average of only 29.94 shots against per game, the fourth-fewest in the league.

Defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (both with 1.9 blocks per game), Brent Burns (team-leading 37 takeaways) and Brenden Dillon (2.75 hits per game) have been the major leaders in that defensive effort, but a total of seven players average at least 1.5 hits, and another group of nine block at least one shot per game. This entire team has bought into Head Coach Peter DeBoer, and that effort has kept them afloat in the division despite averaging only 2.79 goals per game, the second-worst among the 16 teams currently in playoff position.

These teams have already met twice this season, and both have won one game on the road. Los Angeles won the first game at The Tank 4-1 back in October, while the Sharks exacted revenge in mid-November to win 2-1 at the Staples Center.

Given a home team has yet to defend their arena in this series, I’d be led to believe the Kings will earn two points this evening. Throw on the fact that they statistically play better on both ends of the rink, and I’d say they’re a lock.


Though the Calgary Flames staged a two-goal comeback attempt in the third period, the Montréal Canadiens held on to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at the Scotiabank Saddledome 3-2.

The Habs employed a strong and steady attack throughout this contest, as they managed a goal per period to slowly wear down the Flames. Scoring his first NHL goal since February 20, 2016, First Star C Byron Froese (D Jordie Benn and F Alex Galchenyuk) provided Montréal its first period goal on a deflected shot with 9:15 remaining in the frame.

The second period’s goal belonged to none other than LW Nicolas Deslauriers (Froese and W Daniel Carr). He buried his wrist shot behind G Mike Smith at the 8:44 mark of the period to give the Canadiens a 2-0 advantage.

Though it was only an extra insurance goal at the time, Third Star RW Brendan Gallagher (LW Artturi Lehkonen and C Tomas Plekanec) scored what proved to be the game-winning goal with a wrister at the 3:10 mark of the third period. After collecting the puck in the trapezoid, Lehkonen began wrapping around the backside of Smith’s net from his right to left. However, instead of completing his play with a shot on goal, he elected to pass to Gallagher through the crease, who needed two shots to get the puck past Smith and into the twine.

But this game was far from over at that point. Calgary finally got on the board after 49:42 of action courtesy of a W Micheal Ferland (F Michael Frolik and C Sean Monahan) wrister.

As more minutes ticked off the clock, hope began to dwindle once again among the C of Red, but a power play wrister from LW Matthew Tkachuk (C Mikael Backlund and LW Johnny Gaudreau) with 1:53 remaining in regulation reignited the Flames faithful. However, that comeback would fall just short, as Calgary could not level the game even with Smith pulled for an extra attacker.

G Carey Price earned the victory after saving 21-of-23 shots faced (.913 save percentage), leaving the loss to Smith, who saved 32-of-35 (.914).

The Canadiens’ win away from the Bell Centre is a rare one for road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day of late. Winning only their second in eight days, the roadies now trail the 45-26-9 hosts by only 19 points.

December 6 – Day 63 – This one might get ugly

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.