Tag Archives: Darling

January 11 – Day 96 – Seeing red

Usually Thursdays are among the busiest days of the week, but this particular edition doesn’t quite fit the bill with only three East Coast games to offer.

Like it usually does, the action begins at 7 p.m. with a pair of contests (Columbus at Buffalo [SN] and Carolina at Washington [NHLN]), but the nightcap – Calgary at Tampa Bay (TVAS) – gets an early start at 7:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, Nashville, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Toronto and Vegas.

Fortunately, all three tilts are being broadcast nationally so no one gets left out on tonight’s fun. However, it is citizens of the United States that are truly the lucky ones, because they get tonight’s best matchup.

 

Hidden within this tilt between Southeast-turned-Metropolitan Division rivals is the homecoming of Mr. Game 7 to Washington for the first time since returning to Raleigh this offseason.

RW Justin Williams played the last two seasons before this one with W Alex Ovechkin and company. Following a successful seven seasons in Los Angeles that earned him his second and third Stanley Cup rings (not to mention the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy), the Kings left him unsigned and he joined the Caps on a two-year, $6.5 million contract.

Beyond the simple offensive prowess he had shown throughout his NHL tenure (he’d averaged .63 points per game for his career leading up to the 2015-’16 season), Williams was brought into the Washington fold to bring the very thing it had missed in seasons past: the clutch factor. The ability to take the ice in a Game 7 knowing they had the experience and scoring touch to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.

Williams brought exactly what the Capitals expected as far as his scoring was concerned. Having scored .63 points per game for the first 14 seasons of his career, Williams managed a .62 in two seasons with the Caps to post 46-54-100 totals during his tenure.

However, Mr. Game 7 apparently didn’t travel from the West to East Coast, because he managed only 2-1-3 totals in five elimination games with Washington. In fact, even though the Capitals clawed their way back into last year’s Eastern Semifinal against Pittsburgh from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7, all Williams can claim for his last three postseason games are six shots on goal. No goals, no assists. Heck, he even has a goal-differential of zero.

While I’m sure the Caps’ dire cap situation is the primary reason he swapped out red sweaters this offseason, Williams not delivering in the postseason like he was expected to must have factored into the decision to not resign him at least a little bit.

Regardless of the reason, Williams was presented with the opportunity to resign with the Hurricanes, the club with which he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006, on a two-year, $9 million contract. He pounced on the opportunity immediately.

So far, Williams has continued his stellar offensive production. With 7-19-26 totals alongside LW Brock McGinn and C Victor Rask on the Canes’ third line, he’s posting his .62 points-per-game while while also providing a guiding hand for a team with an average age of 26.4-years-old – 1.3 years younger than the league average according to hockeyreference.com.

That guiding hand is apparently working, because Carolina has a 19-15-8 record that is only one point behind Pittsburgh for the second wildcard spot.

We already talked on Tuesday about the impressive surge the Canes have been on lately, earning 17 points over their past 13 games with an 8-4-1 record. However, the next step for this Carolina team is to start beating some of the best teams in the league with a little bit more consistency.

The last six games the Hurricanes have played have been against teams currently in playoff position. In those contests, they’ve managed only a 2-3-1 record, and it’s due in large part to the defense meeting their match against some of the best offenses the game has to offer.

Usually, Carolina is one of the soundest defenses in the NHL. On the season, F Jeff Skinner (42 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (2.1 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (2.4 hits-per-game) have led the Canes to allowing only 29.1 shots against per game, the fewest in the league by half a shot.

Statistically, that defense is still unmatched. Over its past six games, Carolina has allowed only 28 shots per game, the fewest in the league since December 29. However, 11-4-2 G Cam Ward‘s numbers are plummeting from his season marks of a .907 save percentage and 2.78 GAA. How can it be that he’s managed only an .883 save percentage and 3.18 GAA in his past five starts?

Answer: solid offenses.

It is worth mentioning who these current playoff teams are Carolina has played lately: Pittsburgh (2-1 win), at St. Louis (3-2 loss), Washington (5-4 overtime loss), at Pittsburgh (4-0 win), at Boston (7-1 loss) and at Tampa Bay (5-4 loss).

Of these offenses, three are in the top-10 in goals-per-game, and for good reason: they have some of the best scorers in the league. In short, players on these teams (think RW Nikita Kucherov and Ovechkin, just to name a couple) don’t need much room to find the back of the net.

That would put the onus on Ward to perform better against these top teams to keep games close, as well as the offense to find a way to break through these clubs’ defenses with a little bit more success. However, with Carolina and Washington playing a home-and-home series tonight and tomorrow, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of 8-11-6 G Scott Darling for this evening’s matchup.

Darling hasn’t exactly been all the Canes had hoped he’d be when they acquired him this offseason, but he’ll get another opportunity tonight against the Metropolitan Division-leading 27-13-3 Capitals. Washington is rolling right now, as they’ve won five-straight and earned points in 11 of their past 12 games with a 9-1-2 record.

Just like Carolina, Washington is finding much of its success on the defensive end with solid play from RW Alex Chiasson, 24-8-0 G Braden Holtby, D Dmitry Orlov, D Brooks Orpik and RW Tom Wilson, but we tackled that conversation Sunday.

Instead, let’s talk offense.

We’ve already mentioned Ovechkin and the stellar season he’s having. Posting 27-19-46 points (a goal total that ties Kucherov for most in the NHL), he’s well on his way to having his best season since the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 campaign where he registered 56 points in 48 games.

He’s certainly been the hero during this impressive run the Caps have been on since December 12, but he’s also received tremendous support from D John Carlson and C Nicklas Backstrom, who’ve earned respective 3-9-12 and 4-7-11 marks over their past dozen games.

This offensive explosion has been happening all season for Carlson, who must have gleaned a thing or two from D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s short stay in the capital. He’s already posted 5-29-34 totals for the season in his first 43 games played, and if he continues on his pace, he may very well have a season even better than his 12-43-55 career year in 2014-’15.

Tonight marks Game 2 of four between these clubs for the 2017-’18 regular season. The Capitals made the trip down I-95 on January 2. Even though Rask managed to post a two-goal night, Ovechkin was able to match him and score the most important tally of the game: the overtime game winner. Washington won the contest 5-4.

With Darling in net on the road in a usually hostile environment, I have a hard time of seeing the Canes pulling out the victory tonight. However, they will have more than their fair shot at evening the weekend series tomorrow when theses teams square off once again in Raleigh.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game road losing skid by beating the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center.

Making it all the sweeter, the victory was of the come-from-behind variety, as Third Star of the Game D Brent Seabrook (D Michal Kempny and C Nick Schmaltz) – coming off his first-ever healthy scratch when Chicago played in Ottawa the day before – scored a wrist shot with 7:36 remaining in the first frame to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

It took until the 9:58 mark of the second period for Minnesota to level the game. D Jonas Brodin (W Jason Zucker and D Mathew Dumba) was the guilty party, scoring a slap shot from the blue line for only his fourth tally of the season.

As for the game-winner, it was fired off First Star D Ryan Suter‘s (C Mikko Koivu and F Mikael Granlund) stick 3:03 into the third period during four-on-four play. Not usually known for his scoring touch (this was only his sixth goal of the year), Suter received a cross-ice pass from Koivu above the right face-off circle that he turned into a powerful top-shelf wrister that squeezed between G Anton Forsberg‘s left ear and shoulder – an area that is almost impossible to defend.

Another major player in the Wild’s victory was Second Star G Devan Dubnyk, who saved 34-of-35 shots faced (.971 save percentage) to earn the victory. That left Forsberg with the loss after he saved 25-of-27 (.926).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are showing life lately, as they’ve earned points in three of the last four contests. However, the series is still dominated by the 54-30-12 home teams, as they still have a 24-point advantage.

January 9 – Day 94 – It was a dark and Stormy night

With only one game on the schedule, yesterday was kind of boring. Darn you college football!

Fortunately for us, every day for the remainder of the regular season – barring the All-Star Break – has at least two games on tap, and today has way more. as it usually does, the action starts at 7 p.m. with a pair of games (Winnipeg at Buffalo and Vancouver at Washington), followed half an hour later by two more (Chicago at Ottawa [RDS] and Carolina at Tampa Bay). To clean up the evening’s festivities, the three remaining tilts (Florida at St. Louis, Edmonton at Nashville [NBCSN/SN1/TVAS] and Calgary at Minnesota) drop the puck at 8 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Vegas.

None of these games really excite me all that much, but the one that should prove to be the best of the bunch will be taking place in Central Florida this evening.

 

We all know the 30-9-3 Lightning are good. After all, they have a three-point lead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and an eight-point advantage on Washington for the Eastern Conference lead.

But they’ve been even better lately. Tampa has posted a 6-3-1 record over its last 10 games, and earned points in all but one of its five-game road trip (darn those pesky Senators) that it just completed Sunday.

What’s it take to win like that on the road these days in the NHL? Apparently stellar offense, because that’s exactly how the Bolts pulled it off. Over their past five games, the Lightning have scored an impressive 16 goals. That’s the (t)seventh-most in the league since December 31.

I know what you’re thinking: “Duh the Lightning won on their offense. I mean, they average a league-best 3.64 goals per game.”

I have two notes on that:

  1. Good for you for knowing exactly how potent Tampa Bay’s attack is.
  2. The leader of the offense over this run is not who you think it is, and you probably wouldn’t pick him if I gave you five guesses.

Over their last five games, no one has been a more dominant force for the Lightning than F Yanni Gourde. Yes, Tampa’s favorite third-liner has been thunderstruck of late, as he’s posted 3-3-6 totals during the road trip to elevate his season numbers to 14-16-30.

Of course, Gourde didn’t take the weekly scoring title from a lack of effort by anyone else. Usual suspect RW Nikita Kucherov, who has league-leading 27 goals and 59 points to his credit on the year, performed just as he typically does, posting 3-2-5 totals to average a point-per-game over the past 10 days.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have 26-6-2 G Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. The second-year starter has been nothing short of phenomenal, as he tops the chart in almost every statistical category. His six shutouts (two of which occurred on the recent road trip) and 26 wins are both the best marks in the league, and his .935 season save percentage and 2.04 GAA put him in third place in those respective statistics. Pairing his stellar work with an unstoppable offense has yielded three (D Victor Hedman, F Brayden Point and D Anton Stralman) Bolts with top-10 +/- ratings, a total that is matched only by the Bruins.

And to think, we had that whole discussion without mentioning two-time Richard Trophy-winner C Steven Stamkos. If that’s not an indicator of how good this Tampa Bay team is, I don’t know what is.

Suffice to say, 19-14-8 Carolina has a tough task on its hands to climb back in front of the Penguins for the second wild card tonight (they can do it with any result except a regulation loss). However, don’t count these Canes out: they’ve posted an 8-3-1 record since December 12 on the back of a solid defense.

Let’s play that game where I know what you’re thinking again. I bet you’re looking at me like, “Good defense? Don’t the Canes allow three goals per game?”

Man, you are so good at statistics. You should write a daily hockey blog.

Yes, it’s true: Carolina’s season numbers aren’t all that impressive. Averaging three goals against per game puts the Canes among the 12 worst on the year. However, what’s hidden within goals-per-game is responsibility. Who’s been bad: the defense or the goaltender?

Answer: goaltender.

On the season, Carolina has allowed only 29 shots against per game, easily the best in the league. F Jeff Skinner (40 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (2.1 blocks per game) and F Jordan Staal (2.39 hits-per-game) have performed phenomenally through their first 41 games to achieve that impressive mark. However, 8-11-6 G Scott Darling proved that he is not ready to assume a starting role, having posted a .893 save percentage for a 2.97 GAA after Carolina traded a third-round pick to Chicago for him to assume that position this offseason, wasting that solid effort.

Enter 11-3-2 G Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe winner during Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup run a dozen years ago. Since reclaiming his starting role once again, all the Hurricanes have done is win (well, almost). With that still solid defense playing in front of him, he’s posted a 7-1-1 record since December 12 with a .917 save percentage and 2.18 GAA that, while nothing to write home about, is enough for W Sebastian Aho‘s (team-leading 13-20-33 totals) offense to get the job done.

These teams have already squared off once before, but it is not a memory Carolina remembers fondly. On October 24, the Lightning wandered into PNC Arena and smacked the young Hurricanes around more than a little bit, beating them 5-1 in the midst of a four-game winning streak. Vasilevskiy saved 31-of-32 (.969 save percentage) and F Tyler Johnson paced the offense with his 1-1-2 night. Slavin scored the only goal for the hosts.

For those wondering: yes, Darling was in net that night.

With Ward in action, it seems anything is possible for the Canes right now. However, it’s hard to pick against the league’s best when they’re at home, so I have to pick the Bolts to win this one. Perhaps Carolina can find a way to force overtime so they can get back inside the playoff bubble.


Facing a 2-0 defect going into the third period, the Columbus Blue Jackets staged an impressive late comeback to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in overtime in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre.

Though a 2-0 advantage through 40 minutes of play might indicate the Leafs had the game in hand, that was not the case. Columbus actually out-shot Toronto 25-22 in the first and second periods, but it was the Maple Leafs who had the lead. They finally broke through Second Star of the Game G Sergei Bobrovsky with 8:51 remaining in the second period courtesy of a tip-in from Third Star LW James van Riemsdyk (D Roman Polak and C Tyler Bozak), followed 4:53 later by F William Nylander (D Jake Gardiner) bagging a power play snap shot.

Knowing the Blue Jackets would come out of the second intermission with goals on the mind, Toronto’s defense performed phenomenally to allow only four third period shots. The Leafs’ offense did their part too, keeping the puck in Bobrovsky’s end and making him stop 13 shots.

However, they couldn’t hold off the Jackets forever. F Nick Foligno (F Jordan Schroeder and D Markus Nutivaara) finally got Columbus on the board with a tip-in, leaving his squad 4:35 to find a leveling goal. F Pierre-Luc Dubois (D Seth Jones) found that leveling tally with 2:47 remaining in regulation, beating G Frederik Andersen with a wrist shot.

Since neither defense allowed another shot on goal, the game advanced into the five-minute three-on-three overtime period. With 1:49 remaining of those five minutes, First Star LW Artemi Panarin (D Zach Werenski and Jones) had had enough and ended the game with a tip-in.

Panarin entered the zone along the left boards, but because Gardiner was covering him, he slid a pass across the zone to Werenski. The uncovered defenseman immediately drove towards the net until he was on Andersen’s front porch, forcing the netminder advance towards him to defend any possible shot. However, that left a gap between Andersen’s left skate and his goal post that doubled as the passing lane Werenski used to get the puck back to Panarin, setting up a wide open shot that was impossible to miss.

Bobrovsky earned the victory after saving 35-of-37 shots faced (.946 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Andersen, who saved 30-of-33 (.909).

Though the road team won this one, the DtFR Game of the Day series is still dominated by home teams. The hosts have a 53-29-12 record that is 24 points superior to the visitors’.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 7

Player of the Week: William Karlsson

The kid the Jackets bribed Vegas to take in the expansion draft is making Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson sweat, and CBJ fans like myself weep.

Karlsson’s 13 goals in 22 games this season already far surpass his previous best effort of 9 in 81 games with Columbus 2 years ago, and he is only 3 points off of a career high of 25 last year with the Jackets. Those eye-catching stats are due in large part to his current scorching stretch of 5 consecutive multi-point games (and 6 multi-point games in his last 7 contests), as the young Swede has really found his offensive game in an increased role with the expansion Golden Knights.

This week’s 3-game stretch saw ‘Wild Bill’ tally 4 goals and 6 points, including just his 2nd power play goal of the year (Karlsson has as many shorthanded tallies as he does PP markers), and he’s a major reason that Vegas is riding a 5-game winning streak and have found themselves suddenly propelled to 4th place in the entire league.

Team of the Week: New York Islanders

…what? Oh, right, sorry, I was still watching that John Tavares setup on Josh Bailey‘s OT goal.

A pair of exciting games capped with OT wins against the Flyers and a 2-1 victory over the Senators took the suddenly-streaking Islanders to a 3-0-0 week and 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. The Isles are starting to show signs of the balanced attack I hinted at in the season preview I wrote a few months ago, with 14 different players tallying at least 1 point this week, led by Josh Bailey’s 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists). Bailey’s lone goal was an overtime game-winner, which was made possible by John Tavares absolutely ruining Sean Couturier‘s reputation as a defensive stud with the prettiest bit of 1-on-1 puck protection you’re likely to see by anyone not named Pavel Datsyuk.

Questions loom over the legitimacy of the Isles as contenders, but for now they’re as hot as their arena is terrible.

Game of the Week: Nashville Predators 3 @ Carolina Hurricanes 4 (SO), Sunday November 26, 2017

This week had a helluva lot of potential choices for this award, but I’m giving the nod to Preds/Canes on the basis that it’s not a traditional matchup that you’d expect to see produce a fantastic game, but that’s exactly what it did.

Two teams that don’t see much of each other certainly didn’t play like strange bedfellows, with a combined 71 hits. Tack on 71 shots for good measure, and you’ve got all the makings of a spectacular Sunday matinee.

Josh Jooris would kick things off just 3:37 into the 1st period, receiving a stretch pass from Marcus Kruger and using his speed to create just enough separation from Mattias Ekholm (boo for my fantasy team) to sneak a backhander through the legs of Juuse Saros that would just squeak across the goal line to give the Canes the early lead. Both netminders were extremely solid for the bulk of the first (and the entire game for that matter), but with just over 4 minutes remaining Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would find Viktor Arvidsson with a stretch pass of his own, and Arvy would go to work from there. Gliding across the blueline on the left wing side, Arvidsson gave Noah Hanifin the old howdoyado with a gorgeous toe-drag, before collecting the puck on his forehand and burying a quick wrister bar-down over the glove of Scott Darling to knot the game at 1.

The first half of the 2nd period saw a goaltending duel, before finally just past the 10 minute mark Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would blast home a power play goal to give the Preds their first lead of the game. But just 1:04 later Victor Rask would collect a bouncing puck at the side of the Nashville net and bury the equalizer.

The two netminders again duked it out until Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams would collect the rebound of Mr. Jersey Number 7 Derek Ryan and give the Canes the lead once again at 5:49 of the 3rd period on a power play goal. Then just over 5 minutes later it would be Craig Smith once again tying the game, capitalizing on a netmouth scramble after a hectic odd-man rush and tallying the goal that would eventually send the game to extra time.

A relatively tame 3-on-3 period was highlighted by a heroic penalty kill shot block by Joakim Nordstrom on P.K. Subban, but the game was eventually settled in the shootout by a pair of Finns, as Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen would both score on countryman Saros to send the Raleigh crowd home happy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Hockey Fights Cancer month continues to destroy everyone’s ability to be negative, as this week we saw Brian Boyle score the night the Devils had their HFC promotional game, as well as Alex Ovechkin tripling the wish of cancer survivor and new best friend Alex Luey, who asked for a goal from his buddy and was rewarded with 3.

Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup, and promptly reminded the Sabres that they’re still worse than the Habs, with a 36-save blanking in a 3-0 win. Oh, and in case you thought you were done reading this article through tear-blurried eyes, he did so on a night where he was joined for the anthems by 11-year-old Charlotte Richard, a cancer patient who was attending her first ever Canadiens game and meeting her hero in the process. Break the tissues back out, no shame in it.

In a complete 180 from heartwarming stories like those, the Anaheim Ducks posted (then promptly deleted and apologized for) a video of a naked Ryan Kesler strolling through their offices, apparently celebrating the NHL’s 100th birthday in his birthday suit. I’m not sure who’s idea this one was, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out they were no longer gainfully employed.

Apparently Andy Andreoff has never been on the internet, because he seemed to think challenging Kevin Bieksa to a fight was a solid strategy. Much like Radko Gudas, Andreoff waded in to the deep end without his water wings, and found himself on the receiving end of Bieksa’s 2nd superman punch KO of the season. Andy tried to pop right back to his feet and look tough, but we all saw those Bambi legs, bud. You’re not fooling us.

November 26 – Day 53 – Broadway vs. Hollywood North

After two consecutive days loaded with action, the NHL is forced to pump the brakes this afternoon with only three games on the schedule.

You’ll notice I specifically said “this afternoon.” That’s because all three games are slated as matinees. Nashville at Carolina gets the action started at 1 p.m., followed an hour later by Vancouver at the New York Rangers (SN). Finally, today’s nightcap – which should be done in time for dinner – gets underway at 5 p.m. and features Edmonton at Boston (NHLN/SN/TVAS). All times Eastern.

Since I’m so fascinated by the Canucks, I’ve made the executive decision to head back to the Big Apple for the third time this month.

 

Though this game features two teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture, don’t dismiss it as an uninteresting event.

For starters, the 12-9-2 Rangers are fun to watch for the simple reason that they know what they’re doing with the puck on their stick. Even taking its slow start into account, New York has scored 3.22 goals-per-game this season to rank (t)seventh-best in the NHL.

Currently riding a three-game winning streak, New York’s primary star of late has been F Chris Kreider, who has managed 3-1-4 totals since November 19 to lead the team in that time span. Two of those goals, including one only 52 seconds into the tilt, were scored against G Scott Darling and the Hurricanes in Wednesday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Of course, no matter how well Kreider plays from here on out, the man who really makes the Blueshirts’ offense flow is none other than his center, Mika Zibanejad. The Swede has put up solid 11-11-22 totals so far this season in his 23 games played, which translates into him being directly responsible for 2.5 of the Rangers’ 26 points in the standings according to hockey-reference.

That being said, Zibanejad will have to be at the top of his game this afternoon if the Rangers want to keep up their winning ways, because the 11-9-3 Canucks have been solid on their defensive end. So far this season, Vancouver has allowed only 2.74 goals against-per-game, the eighth-best effort in the NHL.

A major reason for the Canucks’ success has been the quietly strong goaltending tandem of starter 6-8-2 Jacob Markstrom and 5-1-1 Anders Nilsson. Behind a defense that allows 31 shots against-per-game (11th-fewest in the league), they’ve both amassed save percentages over .91 and GAAs under 2.65.

While those numbers aren’t impressive in and of themselves, what I appreciate about the pair is there isn’t a notable difference in the quality of play between them. The Canucks’ defense knows exactly what it will get from either netminder and doesn’t have to do too much to change their game.

The real question today is who will get the start. While I feel pretty confident Markstrom will get the nod, it should be noted that he has a 1-4-0 record in his past five appearances, allowing 16 goals in the process. Meanwhile, Nilsson has not lost a game in regulation since October 19, earning a 4-0-1 record since then.

The longer Nilsson can perform at this level, you have to wonder about his position on Vancouver’s depth chart. Though this is his fifth season in the NHL, he has yet to earn a starting role for any of the five clubs he’s played for. Maybe, just maybe, Head Coach Travis Green has it in him to make the switch today.

If Nilsson does earn the start this afternoon, I’m fully confident that the Canucks can pull off the road victory. Otherwise, New York’s offense might be a little too much for even the incredible RW Brock Boeser to keep up with.


On the back of First Star of the Game RW Phil Kessel‘s four-point night, the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though the opening 10 minutes of the first period was a scoreless affair, Pittsburgh took command of the back half of the frame by scoring three unanswered goals. The first, struck with 5:24 remaining before the first intermission, belonged to W Bryan Rust (Third Star G Tristan Jarry), which he earned by burying a shorthanded wrist shot. 3:27 later, Kessel (Second Star C Sidney Crosby and RW Patric Hornqvist) doubled the Penguins’ lead to 2-0 with a power play wrister.

Before the Bolts could escape to their dressing room, Crosby (Kessel and D Justin Schultz) provided what proved to be the Pens’ game-winning goal, and if you blinked at the wrong time, you probably missed it. The play was simple enough: with both F Cedric Paquette and D Anton Stralman in the penalty box for unassociated charges, Kessel fired a wrister towards G Peter Budaj‘s right goal post. In all honesty, his shot wasn’t all that spectacular on its own, as the netminder was more than prepared to make the necessary blocker save. However, Crosby had different intentions: before Budaj could get his pad on the puck, he elevated it over his leg and into the back of the net, setting the score at 3-0 with 34 seconds remaining before intermission.

Pittsburgh’s scoring onslaught continued into the second period when Kessel (C Riley Sheahan) scored a wrister at the 2:22 mark to give the Penguins a 4-0 advantage, but W Ondrej Palat (D Mikhail Sergachev and F Yanni Gourde) pulled the Lightning back within a goal only 4:30 later with a power play tip-in.

The 4-1 score held until the 4:41 mark of the third period, as that’s when Crosby (Kessel and Schultz) scored his second marker of the game, a power play wrister. F Cory Conacher (F Alex Killorn and C Tyler Johnson) buried a wrister with 6:06 remaining in regulation, but it was too little, too late for Tampa to mount anything that looked like a true comeback.

Jarry saved 33-of-35 shots faced (.943 save percentage) to earn his first-ever NHL victory in four tries, while Budaj was forced to take the loss after saving only 29-of-34 (.853).

The Penguins’ home victory snaps a two-game winning streak by visitors in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Hosts now own a 28-19-6 record that is nine points better than the roadies’.

November 22 – Day 50 – Decision day, beta version

The big day is finally here! If stats are right – and, I mean, they usually are – the way the standings read after tonight’s action should include 78 percent of this April’s postseason participants.

Making this evening even more exciting, today is the second day of the 2017-’18 season that features the maximum 15 games. Of course, that means one team has to be left off the schedule, which is why members of the Blues are already consuming their turkey dinners.

As for teams on the clock tonight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with nine of those games (Minnesota at Buffalo, Edmonton at Detroit, Toronto at Florida, Boston at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders, Vancouver at Pittsburgh, Ottawa at Washington [TVAS], the New York Rangers at Carolina and Calgary at Columbus [SN360]) and Chicago at Tampa Bay (NBCSN) half an hour later. Montréal at Nashville (RDS/SN1) drops the puck at 8 p.m., while a pair of contests (Dallas at Colorado and San Jose at Arizona) wait until 9 p.m. before getting underway. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vegas at Anaheim and Winnipeg at Los Angeles – close out what I consider the first quarter of the season at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

One of the games I had circled on my calendar today was Minnesota at Buffalo due to the returns of F Tyler Ennis and LW Marcus Foligno to the Queen City after being traded this June. Combined, they played 14 seasons in Buffalo.

But, considering how important tonight’s action could be when the regular season comes to a close, I don’t have it in me to make the trip to Upstate New York. Instead, I’m far more interested in a game featuring two teams that started slow, but now are only a point outside of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

 

This matchup at PNC Arena is always a special one to me, because it was my first – and still only – NHL hockey game.

But I’m not featuring it simply for personal nostalgic reasons. As mentioned before, these teams are fighting for their playoff lives after rebounding from very slow starts to the season.

After beginning their campaign with a 2-6-2 record, the 10-9-2 Rangers have exploded in the month of November (and Halloween) to win seven of their last nine games.

The biggest impetus for this resurgence has been the Rangers’ offense making the decision to dominate games. Not only does possessing the puck give New York a better chance of scoring – which it does with ease, by the way, managing 32 goals since Halloween to rank (t)fifth-best in that time – but it also alleviates the pressure on the defense and 9-6-2 G Henrik Lundqvist, whose .91 save percentage since the start of last season is noticeably lower than his career .92 effort.

Leading that offensive charge in the Big Apple is none other than C Mika Zibanejad, whose 10 points in the last nine games top the clubhouse leader board. With seven of those points being assists, Zibanejad’s chemistry with Pavel Buchnevich is almost palpable, as the sophomore winger has warmly embraced his role as the first line’s goalscorer.

In 41 games last season, Buchnevich scored eight goals – a decent enough total for a rookie drafted in the third round. Only 21 games into this campaign, he’s raised his game another level to already match that total, and I’d argue it’s a safe assumption to say he’ll find more than a few more. I could be over-hyping Buchnevich, but I think he has the potential to compete with the likes of Aaron Judge and Kristaps Porzingis for the title of best scorer in town.

Of course, he’ll also need to compete with a member of his own team, at least for the time being. Though W Michael Grabner is only a lowly third-liner, he’s actually been the most potent depth weapon the Blueshirts have at their disposal, as his six goals since Halloween lead the team over that stretch.

There’s just something about playing in New York City that brings out the best in Grabner, because joining the Rangers last year lit a flame that had been dormant since his days with the Islanders. While playing for the blue-and-orange, the Austrian averaged .3 goals-per-game over the course of his five seasons. That attracted the attention of Toronto, who traded for him but received only 18 points out of the transaction in the 2015-’16 season.

Since returning to The Big City, Grabner has gotten right back to his scoring ways much to the Rangers’ delight. He’s scored .37 goals-per-game in a Rangers sweater, giving him decent 9-2-11 totals given his spot on the depth chart.

If any team is capable of slowing down New York, I’d bet on the 9-6-4 Hurricanes, whose 2.68 goals against-per-game is the third-lowest in the Eastern Conference and seventh-best in the entire NHL.

No team in the East plays defense like Carolina. Led by the impressive efforts of F Jeff Skinner (team-best 18 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (club-leading 2.5 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (team-high 2.2 hits-per-game), the Canes allow only 29.2 shots to reach 6-4-4 G Scott Darling, which is important considering the 29-year-old’s .909 season save percentage is nowhere near the .924 he posted last year in Chicago.

Of course, the source of this season’s momentum was the offense’s performance at the end of last season. While averaging 2.95 goals-per-game is not exactly dominant (it’s the [t]15th-worst effort in the league, after all), it seems like the Canes are starting to find momentum a month into the season. Led by F Teuvo Teravainen‘s 5-7-12 effort since November 7, Carolina has managed 25 goals –  the fourth-most in the NHL in that time.

Another weapon the Rangers need to keep an eye on is the wing opposite Teravainen on the top line: Sebastian Aho. After starting the season on a 14-game goalless skid, he’s finally found his touch to score a goal in each of his last four games. With Staal having a scoring renaissance à la his last season in Pittsburgh in 2011-’12 (you know, basically his only good year when he managed 25-25-50 totals), this line has – at least at the moment – few peers (shh, stop talking Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov).

When the Hurricanes’ offense is gelling like this, they’re tough to stop – hence the 5-1-1 record over their past seven games. Should they continue that momentum and keep playing the sout defense they have all year, the Canes should be a lock to win tonight’s game and potentially pull into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.


Scoring continues to be a problem for the Montréal Canadiens, as they lost 3-1 to the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

While it’s good to find success on the power play, it must be partially embarrassing to the Habs to know their only goal in this game was struck as the result of a man-advantage. With RW Brett Ritchie serving time in the penalty box for hi-sticking D Joseph Morrow, RW Brendan Gallagher (LW Charles Hudon and Morrow) broke the scoreless draw with 7:56 remaining in the second period.

After that, this game almost entirely belonged to the Stars. That was made no more apparent than in the final 100 seconds before the second intermission when Dallas scored two quick goals to take the lead. The first belonged to First Star F Devin Shore (D John Klingberg and D Esa Lindell) courtesy of a wrist shot struck with 1:38 remaining in the period, followed only 59 seconds later by a wrister from Third Star F Jason Spezza (F Tyler Seguin and Shore) that proved to be the game-winner.

Just like Spezza has been taught his whole life, good things happen when you hang out near the net. Just before Seguin ripped his snap shot from between the left face-off circle and the goal line, Spezza moved from screening G Charlie Lindgren to moving to the top of the crease, pushing Morrow out of position in the process. Though the netminder was able to block Seguin’s shot with his left shoulder, the loose puck was prime for the taking for a relatively uncovered Spezza. Even though Morrow tried to knock him down before he could take possession, Spezza had just enough time to tap the puck to the far post before Lindgren’s left skate sealed the gap.

Both defenses really clamped down in the third period, as a total of only 14 shots were fired between the two teams. As a result, Montréal was unable to find a goal to level the game and Head Coach Claude Julien was forced to pull Lindgren for an extra attacker. With 27 seconds remaining in regulation, Seguin (RW Alexander Radulov) took advantage of the gaping cage to score an insurance empty netter and set the 3-1 final score.

Second Star Ben Bishop earned the victory after saving 29-of-30 shots faced (.967 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lindgren, who saved 26-of-28 (.929 save percentage).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a five-game point streak thanks to Dallas’ victory last night. The win sets the hosts’ record at 27-17-6, which is 11 points better than that of the roadies.

November 13 – Day 41 – Lookin’ for the Promised Land

Everybody makes a big deal about Fridays that are the 13th day of a month. Since Monday is everybody’s most-dreaded day of the week, shouldn’t Monday the 13th be the unluckiest day of the year?

Think about it and get back to me.

With two games on tonight’s schedule, there’s four teams hoping I’m wrong in my assessment. The first of those – Dallas at Carolina (TVAS) – is scheduled for 7 p.m., followed by St. Louis at Calgary two hours later. All times Eastern.

We could feature a game between two teams that are already in decent position in the league table, but I’m actually more interested in the Stars-Hurricanes game if for no other reason than to say we’ve finally featured Carolina in the DtFR Game of the Day series.

 

It’s time for me to back up the heaps of praise I poured on the Hurricanes this offseason.

As ridiculous as it sounds, the real reason for my confidence in Raleigh’s 2017-’18 team goes way back to the 2015-’16 season. In March of that year, the Canes went on a quietly solid 6-2-6 run that actually ranked 10th-best in the league. Whether by F Jordan Staal‘s gritty physical play (he averaged 2.4 hits-per-game that month) or D Jaccob Slavin‘s 1.8 blocks-per-game in March, that squad played solid team defense to keep shots off G Cam Ward and earn points in six-straight games.

The Canes pulled within four points of the then-second wild card Bruins (Philadelphia eventually qualified as the eighth seed), but that momentum died and they could not improve from 10th-place in the Eastern Conference. While surely disappointing at the time, the young Hurricanes showed promise for the future.

If that comeback story sounds familiar, it’s because the Hurricanes did almost the exact same thing last year. During March of the 2016-’17 campaign, Carolina was even better than it was the previous campaign, going an incredible 10-2-5 to lay claim to the best record of the month.

What makes this surge different than the one the year before is that it was absolutely driven by the offense. The Canes scored 54 goals in the month of March, six more than both Chicago and Pittsburgh (for those wondering, doing anything offensively better than the Blackhawks or Penguins – much less both – is a very good sign). F Jeff Skinner was the primary impetus behind that attack, as he registered 12-5-17 totals – and not a one of them occurred on the power play.

Once again, the playoffs were not in the cards for Carolina. Even though they climbed into 10th-place in the Eastern Conference and trailed – who would have guessed it – the Bruins by only four points for the second wild card, the Hurricanes could not find any success in April and ended the 2016-’17 season the same way they have since 2009-’10: watching the first round on TV.

The optimism remained as strong as ever though. This still young team has now performed brilliantly in crunch time of the NHL season two years in a row, showcasing both ends of the ice. Add in the fact that Skinner, Slavin, Staal and even Ward  are all still members of this year’s club (Ward and RW Justin Williams are the only two Canes still remaining on the team from their 2006 Stanley Cup season), and Carolina seemed poised to take the next step as a franchise and return to the postseason.

That’s what inspired General Manager Ron Francis to acquire talents like G Scott Darling, D Trevor van Riemsdyk and Williams this offseason. Surely adding these solid players – who between them have five Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy – would lead Carolina to the Promised Land!

As it turns out, the 6-5-4 Hurricanes have done just what they’ve done in previous seasons: get off to a slow start that necessitates those late-season pushes. For a season of excitement, 13th-place in the Eastern Conference was not exactly in the Canes’ plan.

It certainly has not been a lack of effort on the defensive end that has held Carolina back. Staal (2.3 hits-per-game) and Slavin (2.3 blocks-per-game) are still as busy as ever, and have led the Hurricanes to allowing only 29.2 shots against-per-game, the best effort in the conference and third-best in the NHL.

Instead, it’s Head Coach Bill Peters’ offense that is holding the Hurricanes back from glory. Even with Williams (2-11-13 totals) and Skinner (8-2-10) leading the way, Carolina has managed only 2.67 goals-per-game, the ninth-fewest in the league.

That all being said, perhaps the Canes are starting to turn a corner. After a rough October, Carolina is 2-1-2 in the month of November and has earned points in its last four games, including a 3-1 victory in Columbus Friday and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks Saturday. LW Brock McGinn in particular has been on fire during this run, as he’s supplied four of the Canes’ 10 goals since November 4 from the third line.

Another team looking to make a return to the playoffs this season is the 9-7-0 Stars, and they’re off to a much better start in achieving their goal considering they occupy seventh in the Western Conference after 16 games played.

I know I say it every time we talk about Dallas, but it still feels so weird to think about: the Stars are winning on the efforts of their defense.

*shivers*

Told you it’s weird.

The Stars have allowed only 28.8 shots to reach 7-4-0 G Ben Bishop, which is tied for the fewest in the entire league. Though his play has not indicated it’s necessary, keeping a solid netminder with a .914 season save percentage under-worked sounds like an excellent way to earn two points most nights you strap on the skates.

Whether it’s been the work of fourth-liner RW Brett Ritchie and his 2.6 hits-per-game or D John Klingberg‘s 1.8 blocks-per-game, that work in the defensive zone may prove important tonight. After the completion of tonight’s game, the Stars board a plane for Sunrise, Fla. (ok, they’re probably going to fly into Miami) for a Tuesday night tilt with the Panthers.

What that means for tonight’s game is Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has to choose which game to start backup G Kari Lehtonen, who has a 2-3-0 record on a .914 save percentage and 2.4 GAA. Considering the Panthers’ offense scores a solid 3.31 goals-per-game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lehtonen take on the Canes tonight, especially since he beat Carolina in both meetings last season.

With two teams playing some of the best defense around, this game is going to boil down to who has the better offense. Since that is the case, I’m going to bet on forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin every time. Dallas should win tonight.


With two goals in the third period, the San Jose Sharks pulled off the 2-1 comeback victory against the Los Angeles Kings in the Staples Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

If not for D Tim Heed‘s hooking penalty against F Tyler Toffoli at the 7:49 mark of the first period, perhaps the Kings never would have found their lone goal. Instead, W Dustin Brown (C Anze Kopitar and D Drew Doughty) took advantage of the man-advantage only 41 seconds later to give Los Angeles a lead it would hold for nearly 40 minutes.

Though the Sharks fired 19 shots at Second Star G Jonathan Quick through the first two periods, they didn’t find their first goal of the game until the 5:42 mark of the third period. F Melker Karlsson (F Tomas Hertl and F Logan Couture) took credit for breaking through Quick’s defenses with a wrist shot to level the game at one-all.

With 7:10 remaining in regulation, fourth-liner RW Joel Ward (F Barclay Goodrow and D Joakim Ryan) scored the third-and-final goal of the night with his left skate. Caught in the corner by Doughty and F Brooks Laich, Ward shoved a pass up the far boards to Ryan at the point that he returned back down the boards to Goodrow, who was near the left face-off circle. The forward than tried to snap a pass to W Timo Meier on the opposite side of Quick’s crease, but it was intercepted by Ward’s skate and redirected right into the net.

First Star G Martin Jones earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (.963 save percentage), leaving the loss to Quick, who saved 31-of-33 (.939).

The Sharks’ road win is a big one in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as it pulls the 21-17-3 road teams even with the 20-16-5 hosts.

Carolina Hurricanes 2017-’18 Season Preview

Carolina Hurricanes

36-31-15, 87 points, seventh in the Metropolitan Division

Additions: G Scott Darling, C Josh Jooris, C Marcus Kruger, D Trevor van Riemsdyk, RW Justin Williams

Subtractions: G Eddie Lack (traded to CGY), G Michael Leighton (signed with TBL), D Ryan Murphy (traded to CGY), F Andrej Nestrasil (signed with HC Neftekhimik), D Matt Tennyson (signed with BUF)

Offseason Analysis: I’ve been high on the Hurricanes all offseason, but now is the time to put everything in writing.

I’m beyond excited, but let’s simply tackle the transactions to get started.

In the crease, Carolina made arguably its biggest move by bringing in Darling from Chicago to replace Lack, who was eventually traded to Calgary. For the Canes last year, Cam Ward’s 29-year old backup started 18 games for an 8-7-3 record with a .902 season save percentage and a 2.64 GAA. Meanwhile, 28-year-old Darling started 27 contests in Corey Crawford’s place for an 18-5-5 with a .924 save percentage and 2.38 GAA.

Given that Darling is certainly the goaltender of the future – and maybe even the present, taking into account 33-year-old Ward’s decline over the past two seasons – Carolina definitely improved in net.

The Hurricanes also made a major move on defense, as they allowed Tennyson to sign with Buffalo to make room for van Riemsdyk. At 27-years-old, Tennyson notched only six assists last season for a -13 rating over 45 games. Meanwhile, the former Blackhawk (noticing a trend yet?) notched 16 points in only 58 games played (he missed over a month of action with an upper-body injury) for a +17 rating. The scoring numbers may not be much of a change, but the fact that Chicago generated one more goal that it allowed while he was on the ice is far more attractive than the Canes’ efforts last season while Tennyson was playing.

Net result of a 26-year-old van Riemsdyk taking over Tennyson’s spot: an improvement I’d make any day.

And lastly, the forwards. As if General Manager Ron Francis hadn’t already gotten Head Coach Bill Peters enough new toys to play with, he also made an effort to add Mr. Game 7 – yes, the same Williams that scored the final goal in Carolina’s Stanley Cup-winning game in 2006 – to a two year, $4.5 million AAV deal. Last year in Washington, the soon-to-be 36-year-old notched 48 points evenly split between goals and assists, but his experience may be an even bigger asset for an offensive corps that had an average age of 25.6 years-old before he was added to the mix.

Even though he’s not an alumnus of the Blackhawks’ organization, I’m sure he’s going to fit in just fine.

But what makes all these additions exciting is how well the club they’re joining performed at the end of last season. From March 9-30, the Hurricanes amassed an incredible record of 9-0-4 – the best in the league during that span – by scoring over 3.5 goals-per-game for 46 tallies (that’s six more than even Edmonton’s mighty offense managed in that time).

That offensive assault was spearheaded by 2011 Calder winner F Jeff Skinner and his 12-3-15 performance (37-26-63 for the season) over that stretch, so he may need a similar start to the 2017-’18 season to prevent another slow start that has plagued Carolina in the past.

Last year, the Canes were only 9-9-4 by the end of November; they were an even worse 8-12-4 over the first two months of the 2015-’16 season. Together, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs by only a combined 18 points. If not for those slow starts, perhaps this campaign could be Carolina’s third-straight playoff appearance.

Offseason Grade: B+

All in all, Francis’ offseason acquisitions may not be quite as good as Jim Nill’s considering how much work was needed in Dallas, but he was no less effective. Carolina only improved their young core this offseason and are prepared to make some serious noise in the Metropolitan Division – but therein lies the problem. Given the competition in that division, the Canes could struggle to bust into the playoffs this season as a top-three seed, but they should be well in the hunt for a wildcard seed.

March 29 – Day 161 – Bird is the word

Though there’s only four games on today’s schedule, there’s at least two that should provide some captivating play.

The action starts a little later this evening as Chicago at Pittsburgh (NBCSN/TVAS) doesn’t drop the puck until 8 p.m., followed an hour later by Los Angeles at Calgary (SN). 10 p.m. marks the beginning of Washington at Colorado, preceding tonight’s nightcap – St. Louis at Arizona (SN360) – by half an hour. All times eastern.

Since the Kings‘ playoff chances took a significant hit last night with their loss in Edmonton, let’s catch the action in the Steel City.

 

Quick, tell me the best team in the NHL since the beginning of February. Calgary? Nope. Pittsburgh? Nada. Washington? Guess again.

You’ve probably figured it out, but the correct answer is the best team in the Western Conference, the 48-21-7 Blackhawks. In the past two months, Chicago has earned an impressive 18-4-2 record on the back of its elite offense.

On the season as a whole, the Hawks rank seventh-best in goals-per-game, but February and March have been an absolute clinic. Led by Patrick Kane‘s 33 points (the fourth-most in the league over that stretch), Chicago has buried 84 goals in that time, trailing only Nashville for most in the NHL.

Kane has been absolutely magnificent of late. 19 of his 34 goals on the season have been struck since the beginning of February, and both totals are tops in the Windy City. But the main reason Chicago is playing so well is they’ve stayed extremely healthy. Only 25 different skaters have donned a Blackhawks sweater in their past 24 games, an extremely impressive total that perfectly explains the club’s synergy.

That compatibility is most evidenced when the Hawks take to the power play. Though they actually rank 14th-worst on the season as a whole, Chicago has converted 22.4% of its man-advantages in the past month – the 10th-best effort in that time.

Captain Jonathan Toews gets to take a lot of credit for that success. Though he’s only registered one power play point in his past six games, Toews has nine on his resume since February to lead the club. Most of those have been assists to the other star of the first power play unit: Kane. He’s buried five power play goals in the past two months to headline the team and tie for fourth-most in the NHL.

If there’s one spot the Hawks are still trying to improve, it has to be their penalty kill. Stopping only 77.4% of opponents’ power plays all season, they rank fifth-worst in the league. The issue is not 30-16-3 Corey Crawford, but the defense playing in front of him. Crawford has faced the 12th-most power play shots against in the league (among netminders with 30 or more appearances) due to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook being the only two players with more than 22 shorthanded shot blocks.

Though two games ended in a shootout, the last three games have been tough for the 46-18-11 Penguins, the third-best team in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference.

The reason for Pittsburgh‘s struggles is not on the ice, but off it. Nine players were listed on the Penguins‘ most recent injury report, though Jake Guentzel (concussion), Ron Hainsey (upper body) and Conor Sheary (lower body) skated yesterday. If any are cleared before tonight’s game, I’d bet on Sheary since Guentzel and Hainsey wore non-contact sweaters.

Usually one of the elite squads in the game, the holes in the lineup has most effected Pittsburgh‘s offense. Usually averaging a league-high 3.4 goals-per-game, the Pens have scored only six goals in their past three games, which ironically ties with Chicago for fifth-fewest since Thursday.

If able, Sheary will be a welcome addition to the lineup to rejuvenate the offense. He’s averaged .91 points-per-game this season, which is the third-best average in Pittsburgh. Of course, he’s no Evgeni Malkin, another member of the club spending more time in the training room than he’d like. His 33 goals are second-most on the team (and 10th-most in the league) behind Sidney Crosby‘s 42, as is his 1.16 points-per-game average (good for the ninth-most points in the NHL).

One thing that hasn’t suffered is the power play. Scoring on a third of its attempts, Pittsburgh is tied for sixth-best in the league since March 23 – well above its 22.4% success rate on the season. What’s most impressive about this effort is that the power play scoring has come from five different players, and none of them were drafted first overall.

Instead, the special team that has taken a step back is the one that was already poor to begin with. The Pens‘ penalty kill has blocked only one power play shot (courtesy of Tom Kuhnhackl) en route to only a 75% kill rate, which ties for eighth-worst in the league in the last week.

When the Penguins visited the United Center four weeks ago, they seemed to forget about one major detail: Kane.

Not Kahn, Captain Kirk; Kane. Notching his second hat trick in three games, the right wing teamed with Scott Darling and his 36-save effort to lead Chicago to a 4-1 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Chicago‘s Crawford (30 wins [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]) and Kane (82 points [tied for second-most in the league] on 34 goals and 48 assists [both tied for sixth-most in the NHL]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (42 goals [leads the league] for 82 points [tied for second-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.923 save percentage [seventh-best in the league]), Justin Schultz (+27 [eighth-best in the NHL]) and Sheary (+26 [tied for ninth-best in the league]).

No matter how busy Chris Stewart – the Penguins‘ head athletic trainer –  is, Vegas still favors Pittsburgh to win with a -125 line. Unfortunately, I don’t feel quite so optimistic for the home team. Chicago has been on an absolute tear over the past 56 days and doesn’t look like its stopping now.

Hockey Birthday

  • Brad McCrimmon (1959-2011) – Selected 15th-overall by the Bruins in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, this defenseman spent most of his 18 seasons in Philadelphia. The late 80s were an incredible year for this Saskatchewanian, as he not only made his lone All-Star Game appearance in ’88, but also hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Flames a year later.
  • Maxim Lapierre (1985-) – Though currently playing in Switzerland, this center has 10 seasons of NHL experience. Due to being selected 61st-overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the local Canadiens, most of his playing time came in Montréal. A consistent enforcer, he spent 130 minutes in the penalty box in 2011-’12 as a Canuck.

Three of Boston‘s four lines found the back of the net to lead the Bruins to a 4-1 victory over the Predators in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Patrice Bergeron (Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand) got the scoring started early with a wrist shot 2:28 into the game to give the Bruins an early lead. With 6:08 remaining in the first period, Second Star of the Game David Krejci (David Pastrnak and Drew Stafford) doubled that lead with a wrister of his own, the score that proved to be the game-winner.

The visiting Preds finally got on the scoreboard with 8:44 remaining in regulation when Craig Smith (Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis) tipped the puck into Tuukka Rask‘s net, but Third Star Noel Acciari (Riley Nash) neutralized that tally 4:31 later with the first goal of his NHL career. David Backes (Dominic Moore) took advantage of an empty net in the waning moments of the contest to set the final 4-1 score.

Rask earned the victory after saving 24-of-25 shots faced (96%), leaving Pekka Rinne with the loss, who saved 27-of-30 (90%).

Boston‘s home victory was a big one in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as road and home teams in the series have both earned an equal 187 points. Visitors do have the most wins though at 82-58-23, compared to the hosts’ 81-57-25.

March 12 – Day 144 – Wild-Hawks: not a biker gang

Every Sunday is Sunday Funday during hockey season.

I’m going to consider that my application for the NHL’s marketing department. Feel free to tweet me (@connorzkeith) to set up an interview. That’s what professionals do, right? Tweet people important things?

Anyways, while they’re composing their tweet, let’s watch some hockey. There’s lots to watch today, starting with the Minnesota at Chicago (NBC/TVAS) matinee at 12:30 p.m. The usual 7 p.m. starting time marks the beginning of two contests (Montréal at Edmonton [RDS/SN] and the New York Rangers at Detroit [NBCSN]), followed two-and-a-half hours later by Washington at Anaheim (NHLN). Finally, Dallas at San Jose drops the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the day’s action. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Minnesota at Chicago: A rivalry game between the top-two teams in the Western Conference? Yes, please.
  • New York at Detroit: Original Six? Check. Return of Brendan Smith to Motown? Check.

It’s been hard to ignore a game between the Blackhawks and Wild all season, so we can’t stop today. Off to the United Center!

 

This is the fourth time these teams have met this season, and the fourth time the matchup has been featured as the DtFR Game of the Day.

In other words, I’m really committed to this rivalry.

But I should be! Today’s game features two of the top-five teams in the league and, should Chicago win, could leave the Wild with only a one-point lead in the Central Division with under 16 games remaining in the regular season.

As they’ve been for a majority of the season, the 43-17-6 Wild enter tonight’s game as the best team in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. The reason for that success? Their incredible offense, which has managed 218 goals – the second-most in the NHL.

Speaking of topping the charts, Mikael Granlund has been doing just that within Minnesota‘s offense on his team-leading 62 points. In only the fifth year of his NHL career, he continues to raise the bar regarding his abilities and contributions, as he sets a new career-high in all scoring statistics each year. Another of those stats is his 22 goals, another way he paces Minnesota. Four Wild skaters have 20 or more tallies, an incredible total.

While I would argue Minnesota is better when facing a full-strength defense compared to a short-handed opponent, that’s not to say its power play is poor. Led by – you guessed it – Granlund and his 18 extra-man points, the Wild have successfully converted 21.2% of their power plays – the eighth-best rate in the league. Granlund transitions into more of a passing role in Bruce Boudreau‘s offensive special team, instead opting to set up Nino Niederreiter, who has the club-lead in power play goals with eight.

Oh, and the penalty kill? Minnesota is pretty good at that, too. Thanks in large part to Jared Spurgeon‘s squad-leading 18 shorthanded shot blocks, the Wild have properly defended 83.7% of their undermanned situations, the seventh-best rate in the NHL.

Playing host this evening are the 42-20-5 Blackhawks, the second-best team in both the Central and the West. In a surprising turn of events, the facet of Chicago‘s game that I’ve been most impressed with has been their goaltending. While the offense is still as imposing as ever, the Hawks have allowed only 168 goals so far this year – the sixth-fewest in the NHL.

Of course, that effort always starts with the goaltender, and the Blackhawks have a good one in 26-15-3 Corey Crawford. He’s earned a .918 season save percentage for a 2.55 GAA, the 12th and (t)18th-best marks, respectively, among the 46 goalies with at least 22 appearances.

If the netminder is good and the offense is good, why does he have 15 regulation losses? You’ll notice defense is left out of that list, mostly because the Hawks‘ blueline has been… forgettable this year. Even though Niklas Hjalmarsson has an impressive 157 shot blocks to lead the team (he’s also tied for fourth-most in the league), his defense still allows 31.1 shots-against-per-game, the 10th-worst rate in the league.

But since the trade deadline, things are slowly improving in the Windy City. The Hawks‘ big add on the last day of February was Johnny Oduya. While not influencing shots the way he did two or three years ago, he does add experience along the blueline that has dropped to eighth-fewest shots-against since his arrival.

No matter how good the goaltender is, a bad defense usually yields a poor penalty kill. That’s the biggest pitfall for the Hawks this year, as they’ve neutralized only 77.6% of their shorthanded situations, the fourth-worst rate in the league. Just like he does the rest of the time, Hjalmarsson is the primary defenseman in this situation with his team-leading 34 shorthanded shot blocks. He’s not the problem.

Instead, he and Brent Seabrook are the only two blueliners with at least 15 shorthanded blocks to their credit this season, a lousy, too-small group. If this club has any intentions of winning four-straight even-numbered year Stanley Cups, more defensemen will need to get involved in the penalty kill.

If previous meetings are any indication, Chicago should win tonight’s game, albeit narrowly. Against the Wild this season, the Hawks have gone 2-1-0, including a 5-3 victory in the Xcel Energy Center in their most previous meeting on February 21.

Some players to keep an eye on this afternoon include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.931 save percentage [second-best in the league] for a 2.13 GAA [fourth-best in the NHL]) and Patrick Kane (71 points [tied for third-most in the league] with 42 assists [seventh-most in the NHL]) & Minnesota‘s Devan Dubnyk (36 wins on a .932 save percentage [both best in the league] and a 2.03 GAA [second-best in the NHL], including five shutouts [tied for fifth-most in the league]), Granlund (+28 [eighth-best in the NHL]), Mikko Koivu (+31 [tied for fourth-best in the league]), Spurgeon (+33 [tied for second-best in the NHL]), Ryan Suter (+35 [best in the league]) and Jason Zucker (+33 [tied for second-best in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked Chicago a -130 favorite to win this afternoon’s contest. While I am concerned about the Hawks‘ penalty kill against the Wild‘s solid power play, I’ll stick with the experts. This should be a fantastic game, but I’ll give the home team the advantage.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bronco Horvath (1930-) – A two-time All Star, this center spent most of his nine-season NHL career in Boston. His best campaign was easily his 1959-’60 effort when he buried 39 goals for 80 points.
  • Douglas Murray (1980-) – San Jose selected this defenseman in the eighth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he spent almost his entire nine-year career in the league. In 2007-’08 he managed a +20 with 10 points, but he was never able to replicate that defensive prowess over the remainder of his playing days.

After spotting the Panthers two first period goals, Tampa Bay notched three unanswered goals to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day 3-2.

Florida didn’t score its first tally until 3:28 remained in the opening frame. The Ageless Wonder Jaromir Jagr (Aleksander Barkov and Jon Marchessault) takes credit for his 14th of the season with a wrist shot to beat Second Star of the Game Andrei Vasilevskiy. Mark Pysyk (Reilly Smith and Barkov) provided the Panthers‘ second tally only 2:41 later, setting the score at 2-0 going into the first intermission.

Jon Cooper must have had some choice words for the Lightning during the break, because the team that emerged from the dressing room was not the one that entered it. 3:43 after retaking the ice, Nikita Kucherov (Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin) buried a power play slap shot to pull the Bolts back within a goal of the Panthers. Third Star Yanni Gourde completed the comeback with 9:49 remaining in the period with an unassisted shorthanded goal, the first tally of his young career.

The game-winner waited a long time to present itself, but First Star Ondrej Palat (Andrej Sustr) forced it to present itself with 2:23 remaining in regulation. He sneaked his tip-in past James Reimer to earn the victory.

Vasilevskiy saved 32-of-34 shots faced (94.1%) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Reimer, who saved 31-of-34 (91.2%).

The third win in four days by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day has pulled series hosts  within a point of the 73-51-22 visitors.

March 1 – Day 133 – Birds of prey

There’s only two games on Wednesday’s schedule, but don’t let that distract from the quality of at least one of the matchups. The action starts at 7 p.m. with Carolina at Tampa Bay, followed an hour later by Pittsburgh at Chicago (NBCSN/SN/TVAS).

Although the Lightning are fighting valiantly to break into the playoff discussion, there’s no way we’re passing up the opportunity to witness a potential Stanley Cup Finals preview.

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The Penguins make their yearly trip to the United Center with a 38-15-8 record, the third-best mark in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. As you’d expect from a club that has one of the all-time best players at the helm, offense is the name of the game for the Pens, as they’ve accounted for 211 goals this year – the most in the NHL.

That player hinted at above is, of course, Captain Sidney Crosby. He’s scored 34 goals for 67 points, both the best marks on the squad. On pace for 93 points by season’s end, it’ll be his best campaign since 2013-’14 when he broke the 100-point mark for the fifth time of his career.

With an offense like that, it’s hard to struggle on the power play. Considered, is a 21.6% conversion rate – ninth-best in the league – struggling? Regardless of the answer (I’d argue yes, but I’m also a little biased), Phil Kessel has been an absolute machine when his club has the man-advantage. He’s registered 26 points on the power play this season, which ties for the best mark in the league. Most of those have been helpers though, as he’s preferred to set up Crosby, who has a team-high 11 extra-man goals.

Playing host this evening are the 39-18-5 Blackhawks, the second-best team in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. As you’d expect from a club that has won its last four games and has such a position in the conference table, Chicago plays very well on both ends of the ice, yet it’s their offense that has been powering this team this season, as they’ve accounted for 185 goals in 62 games – the seventh-best rate in the league.

It’s nowhere near last year’s Hart, Lindsay and Ross-winning 106- point performance, but Patrick Kane is still the man making the Blackhawks machine run. He leads the club with 65 points and 24 goals.

What is probably the biggest surprise for a team of this caliber is how much Chicago has struggled on the penalty kill. Successfully neutralizing only 76.4% of opposing power plays, the Blackhawks rank third-worst in the NHL. The injured Niklas Hjalmarsson has tried his hardest to resolve this issue with his 34 shorthanded shot blocks, but he’s the only member of the club to have more than 25 to his credit.

Only one other team currently qualifying for the playoffs – the Montréal Canadiens – can claim one of the bottom-10 penalty kills in the league. They’ve already made an effort to resolve that issue by trading for Johnny Oduya, who’s 22 shorthanded blocks on the season already rank second-most for the Hawks without him even playing a game in a red sweater.

Both clubs have a lot to gain from a victory tonight. If the visiting Penguins come away with victory (heck, even if they only force the game beyond regulation), they’ll improve to second-place in the Metropolitan Division – though they don’t really clear Columbus, as the Jackets will trail by only two points and have a game in hand. Pittsburgh also has the most to lose from a regulation loss for that exact same reason, as well as the Rangers trailing them by only two points.

Less pressure is on the Hawks as far as losing is concerned, but winning provides a valuable prize. Since the Wild, who lead Chicago by five points, are inactive tonight, the Blackhawks would pull within three points of the Western Conference lead.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.929 save percentage [tied for second-best in the NHL] for a 2.18 GAA [tied for fourth-best in the league]) and Kane (41 assists [tied for fourth-most in the NHL] for 65 points [tied for fifth-most in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (34 goals [most in the NHL] for 67 points [second-most in the league]), Evgeni Malkin (62 points [eighth-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.926 save percentage [tied for fifth-best in the league] for a 2.29 GAA [ninth-best in the NHL]) and Justin Schultz (+30 [tied for fifth-best in the league]).

Chicago is absolutely rolling right now. In their last 10 games, they’ve only lost one contest. One. Of course, the Penguins are a more than worthy adversary, but I don’t see the Blackhawks getting pushed around too much at the United Center.

Hockey Birthday

  • Max Bentley (1920-1984) – The most successful of the three Bentley brothers, this Hall-of-Fame center played a dozen seasons in the NHL – most of which in Toronto. In his six campaigns with the Maple Leafs, he hoisted the Stanley Cup three times. The four-time All-Star also won the 1943 Lady Byng and 1946 Hart Memorial Trophies.
  • Allan Stanley (1926-2013) – This defenseman also had a knack for hoisting the Cup, as he did it four times over his 21-season career – all with Toronto, his longest tenured club. Named to the Hall of Fame in 1981, he played in seven All-Star games.
  • Ron Francis (1963-) – Greatness must have been created on this date, as this Hall of Fame center was also born on March 1. Selected by Hartford fourth-overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, Francis played almost his entire 23-year career with the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise. Two of the years he was absent from the organization were spent in Pittsburgh, where he won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The four-time All-Star won the Byng Trophy three times, as well as the 1995 Frank Selke and the 2002 King Clancy Memorial Trophies.
  • Brad Winchester (1981-) – Known most for his St. Louis days, this left wing was selected 35th-overall by Edmonton in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. He officially retired from the NHL in 2015, three years after his final appearance in the league.
  • Alex Steen (1984-) – Picked 24th-overall by Toronto in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, this center is playing his ninth season in St. Louis this year. He’s scored 520 points during his career, 209 of which are goals.

Washington took the Rangers to the woodshed in yesterday’s DtFR Game of they Day, as they won 4-1 at the Madison Square Garden.

New York‘s lone tally was struck only 5:08 into the game, belonging to Brady Skjei (Adam Clendening and J.T. Miller) on a tip-in. The Blueshirts‘ 1-0 lead held into the first intermission.

The Capitals finally got on the board at the 27:28 mark of regulation with a snap shot from First Star of the Game Marcus Johansson (Dmitry Orlov and Second Star Evgeny Kuznetsov), followed 8:58 later by Brett Connolly‘s (Third Star Matt Niskanen and Lars Eller) wrist shot that proved to be the game-winner. No other scores were struck in the second period, leaving the score at 2-1 going into the second intermission.

Johansson (Kuznetsov and Niskanen) and Nicklas Backstrom (Johansson and John Carlson) provided the two insurance goals in the final frame to put the final nails in New York‘s coffin.

Braden Holtby earned the victory by saving 29-of-30 shots faced (96.7%), leaving the loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 34-of-38 (89.5%).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have earned points in each and every one of the past 12 games to earn a 70-43-22 record – a dozen points better than hosts in the series.