Tag Archives: Chicago Hawks

DtFR Overtime: Where’s the Star Power?

Welcome to DtFR Overtime, where somebody on the most recent podcast offers some deeper thoughts on one of the points of discussion.

Today’s subject: Star power and the absence of it.

We all know the list of current NHL stars: LW Jamie Benn, D Brent Burns, C Sidney Crosby, G Braden Holtby, F Patrick Kane, D Erik Karlsson, G Henrik Lundqvist, C Auston Matthews, C Connor McDavid, W Alex Ovechkin, G Carey Price, G Jonathan Quick, C Steven Stamkos, D P.K. Subban, RW Vladimir Tarasenko, C John Tavares

OK, I think you get the idea.

But how important are these stars really? I mean, of the skaters listed above, they play an average of only 21 minutes – or barely over a third of a game.

While the top NHL teams put a strong value on depth scoring, I would argue that, over the course of a season, it is necessary for Team X’s star to be the best player on the ice for that team to have success.

It sounds basic, right?

It is, but even the clubs that seem to be built to withstand the unfortunately inevitable scoring droughts from its top players are struggling this season.

My first example is the 12-11-5 Chicago Blackhawks, a club that currently sits in 12th place in the Western Conference and is at risk of missing the postsesaon for the first time since the 2007-’08 campaign.

I brought up Kane in the list of stars earlier, but his team-leading 10-17-27 totals are not the reason Chicago finds itself on the outside looking in. Instead, this star-laden team is struggling to find leadership from its captain.

Getting outplayed by rookie F Alex DeBrincat‘s 11-9-20 effort, C Jonathan Toews has only 8-11-19 totals to his credit and is on track for the worst offensive production of his professional career. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Blackhawks have an 11-2-2 record when Toews finds his way onto the scorecard, but a 1-9-3 record when he doesn’t.

That was fun, especially for a fan of a Central Division team that hasn’t worn a lick of red since the 1997-’98 season. Let’s head east and examine another city where it looks like the local club is in an even more dire situation

Welcome to Ottawa, the national capital of Canada.  Expectations were high after forcing a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series with Pittsburgh back in May, but all the 9-11-6 Sens, who currently sit third-to-last in the conference, have done this season is disappoint.

To be fair, Karlsson at least has the excuse of an injury to partially explain his slump. The hard part in figuring out Karlsson’s 1-16-17 effort is that he’s mostly on track from a points-per-game standpoint. Given he missed the Sens’ first five games, his .81 points-per-game is, while not exemplary by his standards, still a solid output.

Unfortunately, this is where points can distract from goals. You probably noticed he only had one tally to his credit, which is where I think his team needs him most.

The 14-10-2 Sharks are facing a similar situation with their star defenseman Burns, who has managed only 1-11-12 totals in 26 games a year after posting 29-47-76 numbers to win the Norris Trophy. As such, San Jose does not have the solid footing in the standings it would like, as the Sharks are holding onto their second wild card position by winning only a games-played tiebreaker.

Now, I’m not going to sit here on my couch and pontificate about how to score a goal in the NHL against the 30-something best goaltenders in the world. I mean, I live in the South and can barely keep my skates underneath me the entire time I’m at the rink. But, I am going to say that Karlsson’s .05 goals-per-game for the season and Burns’ .04 is – you guessed it – the worst performances of their careers.

Last year, Karlsson scored 17 of the Sens’ 212 regular season goals. That may only be eight percent of the total, but Ottawa earned a 12-3-3 record when he personally put a goal on the scoreboard, including a perfect 2-0-0 record in the postseason. Similarly, Burns’ career-high 29 goals earned the Sharks an 18-7-1 record last season, though it might be of bigger note that Edmonton did not allow him to find the back of the net in their six-game first round matchup, the Sharks’ only playoff series of the 2017 postseason.

Now, don’t read this as all doom-and-gloom for these respective squads. All of these teams can get right back into the playoff discussion (yes, even Ottawa thanks to a weak Atlantic Division) or better cement their position in the tournament if their biggest players can simply rediscover their mojo.

Take for example Montréal, where as recently as two weeks ago it looked like the 13-13-3 Canadiens had never seen, much less used hockey sticks before. Then Price came back from his lower-body injury, and the Habs look better than ever.

Of course, things weren’t exactly peachy in Québec before Price took time off. In his 11 appearances before retreating to the press box, Price had managed only an .877 season save percentage and 3.77 GAA to earn a 3-7-1 record, forcing Habs fans and bloggers alike to wonder when exactly this injury occurred.

But since Price’s return on November 25, Price and the Habs have been almost unbeatable, as they’ve won five of their last six games with him in net. The goaltender himself has been extremely successful as well, as he’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.67 GAA in that time.

But the turnaround hasn’t been simply in the defensive end. Even the offense is gelling now that its true leader is back (Sorry LW Max Pacioretty, but this is Price’s team. You’re captain by technicality), as success breeds success and positive energy. Since Price’s return, Montréal’s offense has managed a whopping 4.5 goals-per-game, highlighted by Saturday’s 10-1 shellacking of the Red Wings. Even taking out that major outlier, the Habs’ 3.4 goals-per-game is much better than the 2.32 goals-per-game they’d managed before Price’s return. This surge has propelled the Canadiens from sixth place in the Atlantic Division into third – a playoff spot.

Since we’re on the topic of Montréal and its stars and I already brought up Pacioretty, we might as well discuss my concerns over this team. Pacioretty is struggling something fierce right now. He’s only managed 8-8-16 totals so far this season, and is on pace for his worst professional season since his first two years with the Habs.

Unfortunately for Canadiens fans, this scoring skid is not limited to just this season. I don’t need to remind them of the magic disappearing act he performed in the playoffs against the Rangers, managing only a lone assist. In fact, since March 14 of last campaign, he’s managed only 10-14-24 totals in games that count (aka everything but the preseason).

While I belittled the letter Pacioretty wears on his sweater, he is still one of the leaders on this team. For the Habs to sustain this recent success, Pacioretty is going to need to snap out of his slump – even if it means he has to become a play-maker before resuming a goalscorer role.

Another team that has had more struggles than it would like is the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions. While they’ve had trouble finding depth scoring and are now facing even bigger goaltending issues than they had before, the 15-11-3 Penguins have held onto a playoff position for most of the year.

Now, the operative word here is ‘most.’ There was a point in late November when the Penguins had fallen outside the playoff picture, and – as you might guess from the other examples – I would pin a lot of the club’s struggles on Crosby.

It is very hard to point at a player that is contributing a point-per-game on the season and say he is not doing enough for his team. After all, isn’t this the same team that supposedly embodies the speed-based future of the sport while also trotting out RW Ryan Reaves onto the ice every game? Why can’t his lousy 1-2-3 totals be the problem?

And yet, it’s hard to ignore that Pittsburgh’s slump aligned almost perfectly with Crosby’s goal-scoring slump. Between October 21 and November 22, Crosby managed only 1-6-7 totals in 15 games, which led the Penguins to earning only a 6-7-2 record in that time.

You might say that 6-7-2 isn’t a terrible run while one of the league’s top players is on the schneid, and I’d agree if that team wasn’t in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. The Penguins also have the luxury of employing RW Phil Kessel and F Evgeni Malkin, who were able to keep the team mostly afloat with their combined 10-18-28 effort.

If that stat does nothing other than stress the importance of Crosby to his team, I don’t know what does. The fact that the Penguins were losing, or at least treading water, while two players created nearly 30 goals in 15 games is unbelievable.

Anyways, Crosby has rediscovered his scoring ways since then, and the Pens are all the better for it. Starting with November 24, the captain has earned 6-6-12 totals that are closer to what fans expect from him. As such, the Penguins have found their way back into the win column, earning a 4-2-0 record in spite of G Matthew Murray missing Pittsburgh’s last three games with a lower-body injury.

Of course, the Penguins are doing a great job of poking a hole in my argument by falling from third in the division back into the second wild card spot while Murray is healing, but I’m still going to hold firm that G Tristan Jarry has earned a 3-1-0 record filling in not because of his solid .926 season save percentage (though that doesn’t hurt), but because Crosby has scored a goal in every game but – you guessed it – Jarry’s one regulation loss.

Confidence – which I am led to believe is the word people are actually looking for when they discuss momentum in sports (I mean, “momentum” is technically mass x velocity, so the momentum of a sports team cannot change without either a plane or a player transaction) – is like hitting in baseball: it’s a contagious thing.

Star players are not star players simply because they can score or stop goals no one else can. Stars are stars because they can make those plays and make the athletes associated with them feel like they too can contribute to the ultimate goal and find wins and success.

Stars are leaders.

And that’s why stars have to perform their best. That’s why they have to have the best numbers on their team. It’s not to belittle the third and fourth liners, but it’s their success that should drive a team to achieve more.

Success breeds success.

In that same train of thought, leaders can’t create success from the rest of their team while they themselves are struggling to find their groove. Stars are stars because they find that motivation to excel within themselves, and then use that flame to light the others’ torches.

You might have noticed the thread that connects all of the players called out in this column: Toews, Karlsson, Burns, Pacioretty and Crosby are all captains. These players have been selected by their coaches and peers based not only on their undoubted skills, but also on their work-ethic and leadership abilities. They were honored with that distinction, so it is time for them to step up and serve the letter and crest on the front of their sweaters and get/keep their squads on track.

These teams are capable of winning; it just takes a little input from a star.

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

December 2 – Day 59 – My exes used to live in Texas

Welcome to another Saturday in the NHL. With everybody else watching the college football conference championships, that leaves more hockey for you and me.

Oh, that’s not how television works?

While I get that figured out, the first Saturday of December brings with it a big bag of presents from the NHL, as there’s a dozen games on today’s schedule. The action starts at 1 p.m. with Boston at Philadelphia (SN), followed by the only other matinee of the day: St. Louis at Minnesota at 6 p.m. The usual 7 p.m. starting time is chock-full of action with six games (Toronto at Vancouver [CBC/CITY], Detroit at Montréal [SN/TVAS], San Jose at Tampa Bay, Buffalo at Pittsburgh [NHLN], Columbus at Washington and Florida at Carolina) slated to drop the puck, with two more (New Jersey at Arizona and Anaheim at Nashville) in tow an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the start of Chicago at Dallas, while tonight’s nightcap – Edmonton at Calgary – will get underway 60 minutes after. All times Eastern.

What a collection of games! All but two matchups are between teams separated by eight points or less in the standings. As for our Game of the Day, I had a few picked out at the start of season…

  • Boston at Philadelphia: Ever since the Flyers beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals to become the first expansion team to win a title, these clubs have not gotten along.
  • St. Louis at Minnesota: Speaking of playoff rematches, this one was far more recent – as in, last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals, recent.
  • Detroit at Montréal: To keep the Stanley Cup theme going, no clubs have hoisted the trophy more than these two Original Six teams.
  • Anaheim at Nashville: The Ducks and Predators squared off in a gritty, nasty seven-game series for the right to represent the Western Conference in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.
  • Chicago at Dallas: F Patrick Sharp‘s two tenures with the Blackhawks was divided by two seasons spent with the Stars. Tonight marks his first trip back to Texas since moving back to the Windy City.
  • Edmonton at Calgary: In this rivalry, the teams don’t only represent only themselves, but also a stark feud between two Albertan cities.

Let me say it again for everybody in the back: What. A slate. Of games.

This is a tough pick today, because I don’t like featuring the same teams all the time (*cough* take a hint NBC and NHL *cough*). That being said, the contest that attracts my attention the most is taking place in the Lone Star State.

 

For those concerned, I’m not drawn to this game simply because of the Sharp story, though I suppose it is one worth noting.

After being a third-round pick by Philadelphia in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Sharp was traded to the Blackhawks during the 2005-’06. He would proceed to play 10 seasons in Chicago, scoring 511 points – including 239 goals – over 679 games en route to three Stanley Cup championships.

As seems to be the case following many championship seasons nowadays, Chicago faced some serious salary cap issues after the 2014-’15 season, which led to Sharp and D Stephen Johns getting shipped to Dallas in exchange for D Trevor Daley and C Ryan Garbutt.

Sharp spent the last two seasons with the Stars, but they only really got one good season out of him. During the 2015-’16 campaign, the forward provided 20-35-55 totals to help get Dallas back to the playoffs for only the second time since the 2007-’08 season when the Stars were Western Conference finalists.

Unfortunately, Sharp’s second season with the club was nowhere near as good as his first. Limited to a measly 48 games, he provided Dallas only 18 points and a -22 rating as the Stars failed to earn a postseason berth. Though I’m not going to argue that Sharp is the reason the Stars struggled last year (*cough* G Kari Lehtonen and G Antti Niemi *cough*), he was not renewed for this season, allowing him to return to his beloved Blackhawks on a one-year contract.

So far, Sharp has been rather uninspiring from Chicago’s third line, as he’s managed only 3-4-7 totals playing alongside young studs F Alex DeBrincat (11-8-19) and F Ryan Hartman (4-9-13). Considering he’ll turn 36-years-old before you hang up your 2018 calendar, his recent bodies of work might force him to consider the dreaded “R” word once this campaign is through.

In the meantime, he’ll try to help his 12-9-4 Hawks get back into the Western Conference playoff picture.

Figuring out why Chicago is on the outside looking in is a difficult task. After all, they back up a ninth-ranked offense (3.16 goals-per-game) with an even better defense (2.68 goals against-per-game) that’s ranked fifth-best in the NHL.

One of my biggest complaints with the Blackhawks is their incredibly unsuccessful power play. Converting only 17.1 percent of their man-advantage opportunities, the Hawks are tied with San Jose for the eighth-worst extra-man attack in the NHL.

This struggle has led Head Coach Joel Quenneville to try some crazy units to resolve his club’s problem. As of Friday’s practice, DeBrincat, D Gustav Forsling, D Duncan Keith, RW Richard Panik and C Jonathan Toews made up Chicago’s top power play team, with F Artem Anisimov, D Cody Franson, F Patrick Kane, W Brandon Saad and F Nick Schmaltz taking second-team duties.

Let’s see, what’s weird about Chicago’s first unit? Oh, maybe that there’s a rookie earning solid power play minutes alongside two defensemen… or maybe that Kane isn’t on the unit…

Like I said, crazy things.

One thing I really like about putting Anisimov, Kane and Schmaltz on the same unit is that it puts Kane in what I’m considering the “joker” position. Take into account that all seven of Anisimov’s power play points are goals (the most on the team), while all five of Schmaltz’ are assists – that makes them a logical pair.

Meanwhile, Showtime has earned a team-leading nine points this season with the man-advantage, but only two of them have been goals. Of course, with 295 career regular season goals to his name, Kane is far from a “pass first” player. Putting Kane with Anisimov and Schmaltz, he’s able to take on the role of goal-scorer or join Schmaltz as another play-maker.

If I’m an opposing goaltender, in this case G Ben Bishop, that versatility is a very scary threat.

Meanwhile, things seem like they’re going 14-10-1 Dallas’ way. They’re currently riding a three-game winning streak, including a 4-3 overtime victory over these Blackhawks Thursday night (more on that later).

We came into the season celebrating what the Stars’ offense could be capable of with LW Jamie Benn, RW Alexander Radulov and F Tyler Seguin combining to form an ultimate super-line. Instead, the story of late has been Dallas’ defense, which has allowed only seven goals since November 24, the (t)second-fewest in that time span.

12-7-0 Bishop has been solid over this run – he’s managed a .925 save percentage in these last three games – but I’ve been much more impressed with the defensive corps playing in front of him.

Behind the unexpected leadership of D Greg Pateryn – who’s thrown eight hits and blocked seven shots during this run – from the second defensive pair, Dallas’ D- corps has allowed only 94 shots to reach Bishop in the past week, the third-fewest in the NHL.

What makes this game especially fun – you know, beyond the Blackhawks trying to get past Dallas for fourth place in the Central Division – is that it’s a rematch of Thursday’s matchup. In that game, F Mattias Janmark scored two goals – including the game-winner – to earn the Stars a 4-3 overtime victory against the Hawks at the United Center. Something tells me Chicago would like to return the favor of sending the home fans at the American Airlines Center away unhappy.

That being said, I’m leaning towards the Stars taking this contest with their excellent defense.


The Los Angeles Kings showed no mercy in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1 at Scottrade Center.

In fact, the Kings were so on top of their game that they registered their game-winning goal before a full seven minutes had ticked off the clock. First Star of the Game F Tyler Toffoli (C Nick Shore and LW Tanner Pearson) opened the scoring with a wrist shot 1:43 after the opening puck drop, followed 4:29 later by Third Star C Anze Kopitar‘s (F Alex Iafallo and D Jake Muzzin) fourth game-clincher of the year.

The play that led to Kopitar’s goal stretched the entire length of the rink. Muzzin started with the puck in his own defensive zone and fed a quick pass to Kopitar at the red line. Once he established the offensive zone, Kopitar dished to Iafallo along the right boards, who fired a snap shot towards G Carter Hutton. Hutts made the save with his pads, but the rebound bounced right to the Slovenian, who deftly pocketed his wrister in the back of the net.

St. Louis finally got on its shiny new scoreboard with 4:43 remaining in the second period courtesy of a power play deflection from F Patrik Berglund (D Colton Parayko and D Vince Dunn), his first goal of the season. Unfortunately for the Notes, that positive momentum was erased 3:39 later when F Adrian Kempe (D Alec Martinez and D Drew Doughty) set the score at 3-1 going into the second intermission.

Only one goal was struck in the third period, but it was enough to signal defeat to the home fans. Toffoli (Pearson and Muzzin) scored his second goal of the game with a deflection 9:06 before the end of regulation, setting the 4-1 final score.

Second Star G Darcy Kuemper earned the victory after saving 39-of-40 shots faced (.975 save percentage), leaving the loss to Hutton, who saved 18-of-21 (.857) before being pulled in favor of G Jake Allen for the third period. Allen saved six-of-seven (857) for no decision.

Los Angeles’ road victory snaps a six-game winning streak by home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but the visitors still trail the 33-20-6 hosts by 15 points.

November 28 – Day 55 – Welcome to Smashville

If you’re a hockey fan and don’t look forward to Tuesdays, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. This is one of the busiest and most exciting days of the week!

The final Tuesday of November is no exception, as the NHL as scheduled 10 games to take place today. Like it usually does on a weeknight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with five contests (Tampa Bay at Buffalo, Vancouver at the New York Islanders, Florida at the New York Rangers [TVAS], San Jose at Philadelphia and Carolina at Columbus), trailed half an hour later by Los Angeles at Detroit. Chicago at Nashville (NBCSN) drops the puck at 8 p.m., with two more tilts (Toronto at Calgary and Arizona at Edmonton) in tow an hour after. Finally, tonight’s nightcap finds its start at 10 p.m. when Dallas visits Vegas (SN1). All times Eastern.

Like every busy day, I have already circled a few games on my personal calendar (it’s actually an Excel spreadsheet, if we want to get really technical).

  • Chicago at Nashville: This rematch of a Western Quarterfinal has already occurred twice this season, but it’s yielded two stellar games.
  • Dallas at Vegas: D Marc Methot was a Vegas Golden Knight for five days this offseason before being traded to Dallas. But what a Knight he was!

Since the Chicago-Nashville series has already yielded two stellar games this season, I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect a third.

 

Somehow, 14-6-3 Nashville having only a four-point advantage over the 12-8-3 Blackhawks in the Central Division still undersells how competitive the games between these teams have been.

As hinted at before, these clubs are already well into their season series, having already played two of their four games this year. Game 1 at the United Center went the way of Chicago thanks to an overtime goal by W Brandon Saad, but home ice didn’t work in the Blackhawks’ favor 13 days later when the Predators beat them 2-1 on G Pekka Rinne‘s almost-perfect night. Those results mean Nashville has a 1-0-1 advantage against the Hawks so far this year.

Exactly one month has passed since the Predators made their second trip to the Windy City, but not much has changed in either team’s style. Nashville still plays stellar defense backed by Rinne – though the Preds’ offense has climbed to 11th-best in the NHL – while the Hawks continue to rely on the incredible play of G Corey Crawford to find wins.

Let’s jump into that for a minute, starting with tonight’s hosts, who currently occupy third place in the Central Division.

Averaging only 31.3 shots against-per-game to rank 11th-best in the NHL, the Predators play an above average defense that isn’t enough to write home about.

That being said, above-average is all Head Coach Peter Laviolette really needs when he has 13-3-2 Rinne in goal. It seems the Finn has finally bucked the trend of the past five seasons where he alternated yearly between success and misery, as he has followed up last season’s .918 save percentage and 2.42 GAA with superior .926 and 2.31 marks this campaign. Under Rinne’s leadership, the Predators have allowed only 2.78 goals against-per-game to rank ninth-best in the NHL.

Knowing Rinne can effectively dominate the defensive end on his own means the Preds’ blueliners can turn their attention to contributing on the offensive end. As such, defensemen Mattias Ekholm (6-9-15 totals), Roman Josi (5-10-15) and P.K. Subban (4-14-18) have all earned at least 15 points to rank among Nashville’s top-six point-earners. Mix in the incredible F Filip Forsberg (11-13-24 totals), and you have an offense that averages an 11th-best 3.09 goals-per-game.

No discussion about the Preds’ offense is complete without mentioning their special teams, as Nashville is home to the third-best power play in the NHL and best in the Western Conference. Of the players listed above, Forsberg and Subban are the brightest when the Predators have the man-advantage as both have at least nine power play points. The forward deserves special recognition for his seven power play goals, as he’s tied with the likes of C Sean Monahan, F T.J. Oshie and C Steven Stamkos for most in the NHL.

Facing the tall task of taking down a very complete team are the Blackhawks, who could use two points to hold off three teams trying to move into the top wild card position Chicago currently occupies.

When Chicago is at the top of its game, it’s the toughest team to score against in the division, as the Hawks allow only 2.61 goals against-per-game to rank fourth-best in the NHL. A major reason for that success has been the brilliant play of 11-7-1 Crawford, who has managed a .933 save percentage and 2.21 GAA (both second-best among goaltenders with at least 18 starts) behind a defense that allows a fourth-worst 34.1 shots against-per-game.

Unfortunately for Chicago, it seems unlikely that Crawford will see the ice tonight, as he played to 7-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks last night at the United Center. Instead, the start will probably go to 1-1-2 G Anton Forsberg, who has earned only a .904 save percentage and 3.81 GAA.

I was surprised to see Crawford given last night’s start, considering the injury-riddled Ducks sport an offense vastly inferior to Nashville’s. Forsberg will need to put up a performance similar to his 40-for-42 (.952 save percentage) showing against the Oilers on October 19 to give the Hawks a chance in this game.

Since the odds of that aren’t exactly likely, the onus falls on Chicago’s eighth-ranked offense to find a way to earn a victory.

Usually this is when most would start talking about F Patrick Kane and C Jonathan Toews – and with good reason. Kane has managed 9-16-25 totals to lead the team, followed by Toews’ 6-10-16 effort for third-most points on the team.

However, it would be highly irresponsible to not highlight rookie F Alex DeBrincat. Having yet to celebrate his 20th birthday, DeBrincat has earned the second-most points for the Blackhawks this season with his 10-7-17 totals and is coming off the game of his life. Yesterday against Anaheim, the youngster had a four-point night that included the first hat trick of his career. Whether or not he can duplicate at least half of that effort tonight could determine the result of this contest.

If Vegas (the bettors, not the Golden Knights) is right, the Predators should be in line for a win tonight, as they’re favored at a -160 money line by most bookies. I’m siding with the bookies on this one since I believe Head Coach Joel Quenneville made a mistake in playing Crawford last night against the Ducks. The Predators’ offense should feast on A. Forsberg tonight.


In a game chock-full of momentum swings, the Pittsburgh Penguins emerged from overtime at PPG Paints Arena victorious over the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

All in all, the game started calmly enough with only one goal struck in the first period. First Star of the Game F Jake Guentzel (D Justin Schultz and G Matthew Murray) is the guilty party, as his snap shot with 3:57 remaining before the first intermission gave Pittsburgh the lead.

It was in the second period when all heck broke loose, which played right into the hands of the Flyers. For starters, both D Brian Dumoulin and D Olli Maatta earned seats in the penalty box to allow D Shayne Gostisbehere (F Nolan Patrick and F Claude Giroux) to score a five-on-three power play slap shot 3:40 into the frame. Philadelphia then took the lead with 4:55 remaining in the second period courtesy of a F Travis Konecny (D Brandon Manning and Third Star W Michael Raffl) tip-in.

The next major play took place only 34 seconds after Konecny’s goal, but it won’t show up on the score sheet. RW Jakub Voracek blew an edge and crashed into Murray with, according to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his skates directed towards the netminder’s midsection. Whatever the injury was, it forced G Tristan Jarry to enter the game, who proceed to allow C Sean Couturier (D Ivan Provorov and Giroux) to set the score at 3-1 with 32 seconds remaining before the second intermission.

It seems power play goals are the way to steal momentum, because that’s exactly how RW Patric Hornqvist (Guentzel and Second Star C Sidney Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within a goal 67 seconds into the third period. The Penguins completed their comeback 39 seconds later courtesy of a W Bryan Rust wrist shot.

Courtesy of an unassisted backhanded shot by Raffl, Philly reclaimed a one-goal lead with 3:41 remaining in regulation to put the pressure on the hosts, but the Pens were up to the task. Guentzel (Schultz and Crosby) leveled the game at four-all with 64 seconds remaining before the final horn to force three-on-three overtime.

The overtime period lasted only 1:48 before Crosby (D Kris Letang and RW Phil Kessel) top-shelfed a redirection to win the game. Following Kessel returning the puck to the point while the Penguins were still on a four-on-three power play, Letang blasted a clapper intentionally wide of the goal to Crosby, who was waiting near the right post, at the same time the door opened to allow Voracek back onto the ice. The captain angled his stick just right to elevate the shot over G Brian Elliott and into the top of the netting.

Jarry earned the victory after saving eight-of-10 shots faced (.8 save percentage) in place of Murray, who saved 20-of-22 (.909) before exiting the game. Elliott, DtFR’s honorary Fourth Star, takes the overtime loss after saving 47-of-52 (.904).

Don’t all look at once, but home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a three-game winning streak. That elevates the hosts’ record to 30-19-6, which is 11 points better than the visitors’.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 6

Player of the Week: Nathan MacKinnon

Remember that kid from the same town as Sidney Crosby that got drafted #1 overall by the Avs a few years ago? Yeah, I’m betting more of you than would care to admit didn’t.

MacKinnon has sort of fallen off the radar in recent years, though playing for a perennial also-ran in a smaller market can certainly take some blame. A promising rookie campaign was followed up by 3 less-than-stellar seasons, and MacKinnon sort of disappeared from the spotlight. Always producing enough to stay out of the doghouse, but never matching the lofty expectations, he seemed doomed to float around on a mediocre team and risk hearing the ‘bust’ associated with his name.

But this year MacKinnon has come out firing, and has helped the Avs to be…well, at least less bad than predicted. With 22 points in 19 games (in addition to eight on the power play, one shorthanded, and a rare +1 rating on a team that isn’t exactly the first word in positive goal differentials), he has shown flashes of the firepower that landed him that #1 draft spot.

In 3 games this week, MacKinnon tallied 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points, including a 5 point night during the Avs’ 6-2 shalacking of Washington, and the game-winning OT goal against Detroit Sunday night. Take out a scoreless effort against Nashville, and it becomes an even more impressive week for the 22 year old.

With Matt Duchene gone, the Avs will look to MacKinnon to continue to carry the offensive load, so let’s see if he can pull that spotlight back his way and remind a few people of his existence.

Team of the Week: Winnipeg Jets

*insert horrible cliche’ something akin to ‘flying high’ here*

What has gotten into these guys, eh?

Winnipeg soared (oh no) through their three-game week with a perfect 3-0-0 record on the back of a ridiculous string of “Iceman” (stop) Connor Hellebuyck performances. Stopping 97 of 102 shots faced, and never allowing more than two goals in any game, the young netminder backstopped his team right to fourth place in the league. Patrik Laine (1G, 2A) and Joel Armia (1G, 3A) carried point streaks through the week (resisting “Maverick” and “Goose” reference), but perhaps more impressive was the balance of scoring throughout the team, as only three players that played in all three contests were held scoreless over the week.

The Jets are in the discussion for Canada’s best team. I’m not actually sure why that’s significant, but I’ll (barrel) roll with it. Hard to say whether or not the success will continue, I mean, at some point they have to use Steve Mason in net again, but Winnipeg has the afterburners lit (please help) for now.

Fans are just hoping that things don’t end up going inverted.

Game of the Week: Buffalo Sabres 4 @ Pittsburgh Penguins 5 (OT), Tuesday November 14th, 2017

In a game that saw nine goals, 77 shots, 63 hits, eight power plays (with three resulting goals), and the winning team never officially having the lead for an actual amount of time, the Sabres gave the defending Cup champs all they could handle.

Only 3:45 into the first period it would be Evander Kane converting on a 2-on-1 with Jack Eichel that would set the tone of Pittsburgh chasing the game. Sam Reinhart would add to the Penguins’ deficit later in the period when, while on the power play, he would jump on a rebound created by Marco Scandella‘s shot hitting the end boards at approximately 17,000 mph. But with just 19 seconds remaining in the first Patric Hornqvist would capitalize on a weird bounce of his own, collecting a misplayed puck from Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner and firing it off the Ryan O’Reilly‘s leg and into the net to halve the Buffalo lead.

But just 16 seconds into the second Sidney Crosby would make a drop pass to no one behind his own net, allowing Jack Eichel to pick up the puck and deposit it into the Pittsburgh net before Matthew Murray had any inkling of impending doom. Conor Sheary would draw the Pens back to within one just over four minutes later, before Crosby would atone for his earlier sin to even the score with a PPG at the 17:15 mark of the middle frame. In the dying minutes of the second, however, Ryan Reaves would take an elbowing penalty, and Benoit Pouliot would capitalize on the power play with just seven seconds remaining in the period to regain the Buffalo lead.

Lehner and the Sabres spent most of the third period trying to hold onto their lead, getting outshot 13-6 in the final frame, but with just over six minutes to play Evgeni Malkin would send the most picture-perfect saucer pass you could ever hope to witness across the ice to Phil Kessel who would make no mistakes and draw the game even. Conor Sheary would then win the game just 16 seconds into overtime, after Crosby dominated board play behind the Buffalo goal and sent a feed directly to his tape, sending the Pittsburgh fans into a frenzy and this Jackets fan who remembers last year’s first round series-clinching goal far too clearly into the fetal position.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Radko Gudas got a 10-game suspension for being Radko Gudas, Luke Witkowski got a 10-game suspension for being Luke Witkowski, and Matthew Tkachuk got a two-game suspension for being Matthew Tkachuk.

The NHL announced that the 2019 Winter Classic will feature the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. This, partnered with the Flyers hosting the Penguins in the first announced Stadium Series game, goes to further prove that Gary Bettman acknowledges the existence of approximately 7-8 of the 31 teams in the league.

Speaking of underperforming teams that Gary Bettman loves, holy smokes are the Canadiens a dumpster fire. Complete disarray from the product on the ice all the way up to upper management, it’s almost like having possibly the worst defense corps in the league suddenly becomes extremely worrisome when you can no longer rely on the best goalie in the world to win every game for you because his limbs are falling off.

Some guy that apparently makes rap music (to steal a line from Dave Mustaine: “Two words combined that can’t make sense”) did a hockey-themed thing on SNL. I didn’t know who he was so I didn’t care.

Editor’s note: Poor Chance the Rapper.

Jason Zucker still hasn’t stopped scoring goals, but rest assured now that I’ve realized that he had been on the bench of my fantasy team throughout this entire hot streak, he’s 110% guaranteed to go colder than Red Deer in January.

Edmonton and LA made waves by trading Jussi Jokinen and Mike Cammalleri straight up for one another, in an absolute blockbuster of a deal circa 2009.

The Blue Jackets signed winger Cam Atkinson to a seven-year deal, mere hours after Aaron Portzline reported the two sides were apparently nowhere even remotely close to a deal. (This is newsworthy/funny to me, Cap’n, and pretty much no one else)

The Golden Knights used their 5th goalie of the season on Tuesday night, as Maxime Lagace seemed to be dealing with an injury during a blowout loss to the Oilers. WHL emergency call-up Dylan Ferguson played the final 9:14 of the 3rd period, allowing one goal, but living a dream in the process. Ferguson was all of us, citing that he was starstruck when Connor McDavid went out of his way to give the 19 year old netminder a tap on the pads and a “Good job, kid” at the end of the game. Lagace has played since, and Malcolm Subban is back off of IR, so it’s likely…okay, fairly likely…that Ferguson has seen the last of his NHL experience, at least for the time being.

November 15 – Day 43 – Heading in opposite directions

We’re halfway through the month of November and only a week away from American Thanksgiving, an important benchmark in the NHL for separating the men from the boys in terms of probable playoff teams. Though it wouldn’t seem it with over four months of play remaining, this is a pivotal week.

Calgary makes its yearly visit to Detroit (SN/TVAS) to get this stretch started at 7:30 p.m., followed half an hour later by the New York Rangers at Chicago (NBCSN). Finally, this evening’s nightcap of Boston at Anaheim (SN360) will drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

All three games should be very competitive, as they are being contested by opponents separated by only two points or less in the league table. That being said, there’s going to be no game more exciting than the one between Original Six clubs taking place in the Windy City.

 

I apparently really like these Central vs. Metropolitan matchups, because this is the fourth game we’ve featured between these two divisions in the last five days.

9-7-2 New York’s wild ride through the month of November continues since the last time it was featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Starting with Halloween night against the Golden Knights, the Rangers have yet to drop a point in any of their past six contests, including tilts against Tampa Bay (you know, the best team in the NHL) and Columbus.

In fact, the Blueshirts have played so well they’ve converted their goal-differential, which was once an ugly -10 on October 23, into a positive number for the first time this season. And with that success, the Rangers find themselves in a tie with their crosstown rivals for eighth-place in the Eastern Conference.

This may seem elementary, but the best way to improve a goal differential – and by default, win – usually involves burying some goals. Offense has been all the rage at Madison Square Garden lately, as the Rangers have scored a league-high 26 goals since October 31, averaging 4.33 per game.

In the league-wide list of top-10 point earners since Halloween, there is only one defenseman listed: Kevin Shattenkirk. Managing 3-5-8 totals in his past six games, the New Rochelle, N.Y. native and first-year Ranger has been a major driver in this surge. Of note, half his points – both for the season and during this run – have come on the power play (an effort the Rangers rank third-best for the season with a 25.8 percent conversion rate), indicating his impact in all situations.

Not to be overshadowed too much, top-line C Mika Zibanejad has also earned eight points over this stretch, but he’s been earning his pay more as a play-maker than a goalscorer, as he’s buried only one goal in this stretch. His favorite player to assist of late has been sophomore W Pavel Buchnevich, who has scored four goals in six games – an effort eclipsed only by fourth-liner W Michael Grabner.

It’s also been a tale of two months for the 8-8-2 Blackhawks, but they’re not exactly as happy with the change as the Blueshirts. Going back to October 24’s 4-2 loss in Vegas, Chicago is an uninspiring 3-6-0. That includes losses to the Avalanche, Canadiens and Flyers, who among them have a combined 24-24-5 record and a -15 goal-differential.

What should be truly concerning for the Blackhawks is their record in meaningful games since April 1 of last season. They went 0-2-2 to finish out the 2016-’17 regular season campaign, followed by an 0-3-1 performance in the playoffs. Add that in with this year’s record and Chicago has gone 8-13-5 in its last 26 competitive matches.

If this is an April Fools’ Day joke, it should go down in the Guinness World Records as the longest and most convoluted, because this Hawks team should be in much better position than 11th in the Western Conference.

After all, the Hawks boast players such as F Patrick Kane (winner of 2016’s Hart, Lindsay and Ross Trophies), D Duncan Keith (a two-time Norris Trophy winner) and C Jonathan Toews (the 2013 Selke Trophy winner), all of whom have thrice hoisted the Stanley Cup.

What’s most frustrating is that the Hawks aren’t really doing anything wrong statistically. Sure, the offense’s 2.94 goals-per-game for the season could technically be better (it’s only [t]13th-best in the league, after all), but allowing a (t)ninth-fewest 2.72 goals against-per-game should be more than enough to keep Chicago competitive.

Of course, season averages have a way of camouflaging recent momentum – or lack thereof. Since October 24, the Blackhawks have scored only 21 goals, tying Detroit for sixth-fewest in that stretch.

Perhaps the most telling point about this squad during this nine-game stretch is that W Alex DeBrincat, a rookie on the third line, is leading the attack with his 5-2-7 totals (6-5-11 for the season), followed close behind by F Artem Anisimov‘s – a player that’s never scored more than 45 points in a season – 5-1-6 effort. Not Kane; not Toews; heck, not even W Brandon Saad.

DeBrincat and Anisimov.

Head Coach Joel Quenneville will never complain about depth scoring. Depth scoring is one of the top things that separates the best teams in this league from pretenders. But you can’t have depth scorers without stars like Kane and Toews doing their jobs as the primary forwards. Until they rediscover their groove, Chicago will continue to struggle.

It’s with that in mind that I’m forced to favor the Rangers in this contest. Though I’m sure G Corey Crawford – who’s having a Vezina-caliber season so far – will prove a solid test against New York’s red-hot offense, I don’t think the Blackhawks’ offense will be able to break through G Henrik Lundqvist and his defense.


A combined seven goals were struck in the second period of yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, but the Nashville Predators weathered the storm to beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 at Bridgestone Arena.

Though the middle act of this three-ring circus was the wildest, the first period still provided some excitement for the home fans when F Craig Smith (First Star of the Game LW Kevin Fiala and D Anthony Bitetto) scored a tip-in with 8:12 remaining before the first intermission. 5:55 later, Third Star C Nick Bonino (D Roman Josi and F Calle Jarnkrok) doubled the Preds’ advantage to 2-0.

It took only 6:28 of play in the second period for the Caps to level the game. Aided by Jarnkrok earning a seat in the penalty box for hooking him 45 seconds earlier, F T.J. Oshie (D John Carlson and F Evgeny Kuznetsov) scored Washington’s first goal of the night at the 4:29 mark with a power play tip-in. 1:59 later, RW Alex Chiasson (W Brett Connolly and Carlson) tied the game at two-all with a slap shot. That tie lasted exactly 17 seconds before F Filip Forsberg buried an unassisted wrist shot to reclaim a lead for Nashville.

Scoring subsided for almost two-and-a-half minutes before Fiala (Second Star D Mattias Ekholm) decided to get things ramped back up with a tip-in that proved to be the game-winner at the 9:04 mark to set the score at 4-2, but his tally was quickly answered by Oshie’s (F Chandler Stephenson and C Nicklas Backstrom) wrister 17 seconds later to pull Washington back within a 4-3 deficit.

Now that we’ve reached the midway point of the frame, let’s take a second and recap: five goals have already been scored in this second period! There’s still 10 more minutes to play! Meanwhile, the last three teams to face Wild G Devan Dubnyk have not been able to score even one goal against him.

Hockey is a fickle game.

Anyways, only two more goals were struck in the period, and they both belonged to the Preds. W Miikka Salomaki (C Colton Sissons and D Matt Irwin) scored his second goal of the season with 5:54 remaining in the frame, and Ekholm (C Kyle Turris and Sissons) finished the period off with a power play clapper two minutes before the second intermission.

It seems both teams used up all their offense in the second period, because not a single goal was struck in the third period. That left G Pekka Rinne with the victory after saving 26-of-29 shots faced (.897 save percentage) and G Braden Holtby, who saved 19-of-25 (.76), with the loss. Holtby was lifted for G Philipp Grubauer at the start of the third period, and he saved all six shots he faced.

Nashville’s victory is the second-straight by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. With their record now improved to 22-16-5, hosts now own a four-point advantage over the roadies.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 4

Player of the Week: Josh Bailey

This award almost went to Bailey’s captain John Tavares, who himself had a 3-goal 5-point week, but his output couldn’t quite match that of Bailey, who tallied 7 points (all of them assists) during the Islanders’ 3-game stretch. The versatile Islanders forward started off the week with a trio of apples against Vegas on Monday night, before adding 2 apiece Thursday in Washington and Sunday against the Avs.

But, quite more impressively, Bailey’s scoring stretch goes beyond this week’s 3 games. In fact, it triples that.

Yes, to find the last time Josh Bailey was held off of a scoresheet, you have to travel all the way back to October 14th against the Sharks. 10 games ago. Registering 2 goals and 14 assists in the 9 games since, once could argue that Bailey is possibly the hottest player in the league that doesn’t play for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Team of the Week: New York Rangers

This was another tight vote, as the San Jose Sharks almost got the nod here. But I’m going to give it to the Rangers based on the fact that they needed this hot streak more than fish need water. After a mostly-miserable October where nothing seemed to go right, the Rangers rolled into MSG to face Vegas on All-Hallows Eve, looking to banish the ghouls that were haunting them. (It physically pained me to write that.)

Fresh off a loss in the ‘Battle to Decide Who is the Least Worst’ in Montreal, the Blueshirts battled their way to a 6-4 victory over the Golden Knights and get their feet back under them, at least for the time being. Faced with the daunting task of taking on the scorching hot Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night (in Tampa’s barn), the Rangers pulled off the upset, allowing just 1 goal against the hottest offense in the league, and vanquished the home team on the strength of a J.T. Miller goal just 1:19 into overtime. Two nights later it would be Kevin Shattenkirk spoiling another Florida foe’s party, as his OT goal would lift the Rangers to their 3rd consecutive win, and directly into this prestigious award.

Now, doubling your season victory total in one week isn’t necessarily something to brag about, but the Rangers desperately needed a week like this to at least drag them back into something resembling contention. We’ve still got a lot of season to go, but digging yourself too big a hole early on can prove fatal when the season reaches crunch time.

Game of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning 8 @ Florida Panthers 5, Monday October 30th

How could it not be? Seriously. Look at the score. That’s silly. Plus the intrastate rivalry, there was a fight, Andrei Vasilevskiy tied a league record for wins in October, it was just dumb and that’s what made it great.

“Oh, but what about…”

No! You’re wrong! My article, my rules, silliness wins.

News, Notes, and Nonsense:

I’m officially done making jokes about the Vegas goaltending situation, because at this point I might actually be like 3rd or 4th on their depth chart.

Habs goaltender Charlie Lindgren has been a rare bright spot for the team this year, as he has now gone 4-0 as an NHL starter and racked up his 1st career shutout with a 38-save effort to blank the Blackhawks in the United Center. Not bad, kid. Not bad.

Brian Boyle returned to game action this week, promptly telling cancer where it can shove it.

A bunch of guys squirted each other with water bottles and the league fined them for it, which can be filed under both the news and nonsense parts of this section.

Alright, let me just check and see if I missed anything as I was putting this together on Sunday evening and *opens Twitter* OH DEAR LORD WHAT HAPPENED?!?

So…apparently Matt Duchene is a Senator…and, Kyle Turris is a Pred…and both of those teams’ futures now belong to Joe Sakic. Huh…

November 4 – Day 32 – Another Saturday, another rivalry

I made a snarky comment in yesterday’s column about the NHL holding out on its fans by scheduling only two games on Friday.

Boy was I just served.

There’s a full slate of games on tap this Saturday – 13, to be exact, which is just as many as Thursday. It all gets started with our lone matinee of the day at 2 p.m. when Vegas makes its first-ever visit to Ottawa (TVAS2). The real fun begins at 7 p.m., as that’s when six games (Toronto at St. Louis [CBC], Montréal at Winnipeg [SN/TVAS], Washington at Boston [NHLN], Columbus at Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers at Florida and Colorado at Philadelphia) will drop the puck, followed by two more (Buffalo at Dallas and Chicago at Minnesota) an hour later and Carolina at Arizona at 9 p.m. The West Coast finally gets involved at 10 p.m. with the beginning of Pittsburgh at Vancouver (CBC/SN), trailed half an hour later by tonight’s co-nightcaps: Nashville at Los Angeles and Anaheim at San Jose. All times Eastern.

As usual, there’s a compelling reason to keep tabs on almost every game. That especially goes for the action at the Xcel Energy Center and SAP Center this evening, as rivalry games always bring out the best in every player involved.

I’m in the mood for a heated rivalry game. Since we just featured the Ducks yesterday, lets see what action the State of Hockey has to offer this evening.

 

Thee straight playoff meetings has a way of creating more than a bit of animosity between two clubs – especially when the same team won all three series.

Interestingly, as the Western Conference table currently stands coming into tonight’s game, neither club has the chance of seeing the other during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs because they’re both slated to be golfing come this April.

The chance of that situation holding for the rest of the season is unlikely, and that makes tonight’s game even more important as the 6-5-2 Blackhawks and 5-4-2 Wild work to climb the Central Division standings.

When Chicago has found success this year, it’s all been by the work of 6-4-0 G Corey Crawford – even in spite of his defense. Even though the Hawks allow a third-most 34.5 shots-per-game to reach their own crease, the Windy City is home to the (t)sixth-best goals-against average in the league at 2.62.

Forget being the better of the Blackhawks’ two goaltenders, or even the best in the Central Division. Heck, saying Crawford’s .941 save percentage and 1.92 GAA is at the top of the Western Conference (yes, even better than G Jonathan Quick) does not even do him justice. Among all 29 netminders in the NHL that have started at least six games, Crawford is number one in both statistics.

Given the 32-year-old’s performance for the season, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Hawks’ penalty kill is also among the top-10 in the league. Even though Crawford’s .918 save percentage against the power play is only fifth-best in the league, Chicago has killed 83.3 percent of opposing man-advantages to tie for ninth-best in the NHL. If D Brent Seabrook, who leads the team with 2.4 blocks-per-game, can find a way to inspire his defensive corps to be even just a little stiffer while shorthanded, this Chicago team can keep riding its goaltender’s career season to a 10th-straight playoff appearance.

This evening, Crawford will face a good test against an offense that knows what it’s doing, as Minnesota’s 3.36 goals-per-game is the third-best effort in the West.

What makes the Wild so difficult to defend against is their unpredictability. D Jared Spurgeon currently leads the team in production with his 2-7-9 totals from the top defensive-pair. Minnesota’s leading forward is its top-line center Mikko Koivu, who is equally potent passing and shooting – made evident by his 4-4-8 totals.

Both Koivu and Spurgeon’s seasons might be foreseeable, but it’s the fact that third-liner W Chris Stewart‘s 6-2-8 campaign begins the list of depth scorers that makes the Wild so potent. Utilizing his incredible .273 shooting percentage, he’s provided 16 percent of the Wild’s goals from his spot on the third line. Add in the fact that Minnesota is also home to players like C Eric Staal, D Ryan Suter and W Jason Zucker, and you have a team that is capable of scoring regardless of which personnel is on the ice.

Though this contest is being played at Xcel Energy Center, I’m leaning towards Crawford being able to ensure a victory for his Blackhawks.


The Nashville Predators have won their last two games played at the Honda Center, as they beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Preds found a fast start to the contest, as they registered their first goal only 6:26 into the matchup courtesy of a LW Scott Hartnell (First Star of the Game D Roman Josi and W Pontus Aberg) tip-in. Anaheim nearly made it to the dressing room for first intermission with the opportunity to regroup after giving up only one goal, but Josi (C Colton Sissons and C Frederick Gaudreau) scored a snap shot with 49 seconds remaining in the frame to give Nashville a two-goal advantage.

Just like in the first period, the Predators were quick to pounce on the Ducks at the start of the second frame. Scoring his first goal of the season, D Matt Irwin (D Yannick Weber and Gaudreau) gave Nashville a 3-0 advantage 3:05 into the period. Anaheim finally got on the scoreboard 79 seconds thanks to F Antoine Vermette (W Ondrej Kase and LW Nick Ritchie) and his wrist shot, but could not build any momentum off the marker. That led to 12:56 of scoreless action.

Ritchie proved important in breaking the game’s scoreless skid, but it wasn’t in the Ducks’ favor. Instead, he earned a seat in the penalty box (his second of the period) for slashing Gaudreau with 3:35 remaining in the frame. 55 seconds later, W Viktor Arvidsson (D Mattias Ekholm and LW Kevin Fiala) registered what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Arvidsson owes every bit of his successful slap shot to a patient Predators power play. Fiala was working with the puck in the right face-off circle and along the boards, but he simply didn’t like the look he was getting at G John Gibson‘s net with D Hampus Lindholm in his way. He eventually returned the puck to Ekholm at the point, who slid a pass across the zone to Arvidsson at the top of the opposite circle that the wing whipped past Gibson’s glove into the back of the net.

Whether he was working to match Arvidsson’s power play goal or Josi’s late-period heroics, Lindholm (F Rickard Rakell) scored a slapper with 15 seconds remaining on the second frame clock to pull the Ducks back within a 4-2 deficit.

Anaheim fans finally had a chance to truly believe their club had a chance at the 7:41 mark of the third period when Second Star W Jakob Silfverberg (C Derek Grant and Third Star F Chris Wagner) notched a slapper to pull the Ducks back within a goal. But, try as they might with their 13 shots-on-goal, the Ducks simply could not find a way past G Pekka Rinne, eventually forcing them to pull Gibson. D P.K. Subban (Rinne and F Austin Watson) took advantage of the empty cage with 18 seconds remaining in regulation to ensure a Predators victory.

By saving 35-of-38 shots faced (.921 save percentage) – not to mention earning his first point of the season – Rinne did all he could to earn his sixth win of the season. On the other side, Gibson took the loss after saving 25-of-29 (.862).

Nashville’s win away from Bridgestone Arena earns another two points for road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but visitors still trail the 17-11-4 hosts by six points.

State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

October 27 – Day 24 – They’re at it again

Thank goodness that work is finally done for the week. Time to sit back and take in the weekend’s hockey!

The weekend starts early in Vegas, as a 3 p.m. local start time against Colorado (TVAS) means a 6 p.m. puck drop on the East Coast. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it two contests (Ottawa at New Jersey [RDS2] and Winnipeg at Columbus), followed by St. Louis at Carolina half an hour later. Nashville pays a visit to Chicago (NHLN/TVAS) at 8:30 p.m., with tonight’s nightcap – Dallas at Calgary (SN360) – waiting until 9 p.m. to get underway.

All times Eastern unless otherwise noted.

I was going to complain about featuring the second Nashville at Chicago matchup of a season that is not even a month old, but upon remembering how competitive and entertaining their first meeting was, there’s no other choice! To the Windy City we go!

 

Now, with this being the second time in two weeks that this matchup has been featured, I’m sure I don’t need to rehash how the Predators swept the Hawks in four games by a combined score of 13-3 that included two shutouts. I’m sure I also don’t need to go over how the eighth-seeded Preds went on to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.

Oh, I guess I just did anyways. As a fan of one of Chicago’s rivals, I guess I simply couldn’t help myself.

Whether or not that playoff elimination still motivates the Blackhawks against Nashville (I’d bet the house it does), we have more current data to help us preview and predict this game.

For starters, we know that the Hawks needed overtime to secure a 2-1 victory at the United Center the last time these squads met on October 14. You can read a slightly more in-depth recap here, but the main thing to know is, with the help of LW Scott Hartnell and D P.K. Subban, F Filip Forsberg got Nashville on the board late in the second period before F Patrick Sharp (F John Hayden and D Cody Franson) leveled the game in the closing six minutes of regulation and W Brandon Saad (F Patrick Kane and D Duncan Keith) cleaned things up in overtime.

If only everything in life was as simple as a one-sentence game recap.

That low scoring affair proved to be a sign of things to come, as both teams have scored only a total of nine goals in four games played since departing the United Center that Saturday night, tying them for the fourth-lowest goal production in that time span.

For Chicago, the downturn in scoring has been no fault of Kane’s. Showtime has averaged a point-per-game in those four games, including three goals. The Predators have also had their own offensive standouts in Forsberg and D Roman Josi, as both have 2-3-5 totals since October 15.

Instead, Chicago and Nashville have continued their strong defensive efforts to find wins.

The Predators in particular have been studs at keeping opponents off the scoreboard of late. In the past two weeks, they’ve allowed only seven goals against in four games, an effort that’s overshadowed only by Tampa Bay’s 10 goals against in six games played in the same stretch of time.

It’s no secret how good Smashville’s defense is, but D Alexei Emelin has been playing at another level since his last visit to Chicago. He’s blocked two shots-per-game to lead the team while also averaging 3.3 hits-per-contest. Through his bold leadership while D Ryan Ellis is recovering from an offseason knee surgery, the Predators have allowed only 29.8 shots against-per-game for the entire season, the fourth-best mark in the NHL.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s (t)eighth-best 2.6 goals against-per-game is due to the play of only one man: G Corey Crawford. Never before has Crawford posted a season save percentage over .93 percent, but he’s currently in possession of a .936 save rate that is second only to G Jonathan Quick‘s unbelievable .944. Considering the Blackhawks’ defense allows a 35.6 shots against-per-game that is second-worst in the league, Crawford being at the top of his game may be an integral piece to the success of this team both tonight and for the remainder of the campaign.

Even though the Blackhawks have a decent 3-1-1 record at home this season – including their victory over Nashville – I’m actually leaning towards the Preds taking this game. Thanks to Emelin, Nashville looks like it’s finally clicking without Ellis and will be a tough out for a Chicago team struggling to score.


In yesterday’s preview, I predicted a barn-burner would go the Senators’ way. In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Ottawa Senators beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 at the Canadian Tire Centre.

There’s no better way to start a game than with three unanswered goals in the first period. That’s exactly what Ottawa did, starting with D Dion Phaneuf‘s (C Filip Chlapik and F Chris DiDomenico) power play slap shot only 91 seconds into the game (what D Brandon Manning was doing slashing DiDomenico only 36 seconds into the game, I’ll never know). D Mark Borowiecki (F Mike Hoffman and First Star of the Game C Jean-Gabriel Pageau) scored his first goal of the season 8:19 later to give Ottawa a 2-0 lead, followed by Pageau (Third Star D Erik Karlsson) burying one of his patented shorthanded wrist shots with 6:32 remaining in the frame to further extend the Sens’ advantage.

Whatever Head Coach Dave Hakstol screamed during the intermission certainly worked, because the Flyers were able to respond with two goals of their own in the second period. RW Jakub Voracek (Second Star C Sean Couturier and D Ivan Provorov) finally stashed his first goal of the season with 5:30 remaining in the second period, followed by F Travis Konecny (D Radko Gudas) only 53 seconds later to pull Philly back within a 3-2 deficit. Much to the delight of the home fans, RW Mark Stone (F Ryan Dzingel and Karlsson) was able to bury a backhanded shot with 2:23 remaining in the period to reclaim a two-goal advantage for the Senators going into the second intermission.

With 9:27 remaining in regulation, F Tom Pyatt (C Nate Thompson and Pageau) scored what proved to be a very important goal. Though Pageau earned the hockey assist, this breakaway goal was almost entirely set up by Thompson. After receiving Pageau’s pass at his own blue line, Thompson immediately connected with Pyatt in the neutral zone, who was screaming up the far boards towards G Michal Neuvirth. With no help, D Shayne Gostisbehere was forced to eliminate the passing lane between Pyatt and Thompson, leaving the forward in a one-on-one situation with the netminder. Pyatt didn’t miss on that opportunity, beating Neuvirth with a pinger off the right post

Pyatt’s tally ended up converting from a brace into the game-winner due to the tremendous comeback effort by the Flyers. With 4:42 remaining in regulation, Provorov (Konecny and Couturier) buried a slapper on G Craig Anderson to pull Philadelphia back within a 5-3 deficit. The comeback became even more realistic when Couturier (Gostisbehere and Voracek) scored a deflection to set the score at 5-4 with 106 seconds remaining before the final horn. But, even with Neuvirth pulled for the extra attacker, the Flyers could not find a leveling goal.

Anderson earned the victory after saving 36-of-40 shots faced (.9 save percentage), leaving the loss to Neuvirth, who saved 23-of-28 (.821).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day are a win away from the business week streak, as they’ve won the last four games. That elevates their record to 14-6-4, which is a solid 10 points better than the visitors.