Tag Archives: Fleury

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 19

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators – Game 4

With their 3-2 victory over Ottawa at the Canadian Tire Centre Friday, the Penguins have leveled the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

The biggest story coming into the game was Mike Sullivan‘s decision to entrust the Penguins’ net to Matthew Murray instead of Marc-Andre Fleury. The choice baffled many Yinzers considering the veteran goaltender had posted a .931 save percentage and 2.32 GAA in his 14 postseason games before getting pulled not even 13 minutes into Game 3 after allowing four goals.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Sullivan may not have made the right decision, but it certainly wasn’t the wrong one. Allowing only two goals against, Murray earned his first victory of the 2017 playoffs on a .923 save percentage.

Stopping Ottawa’s attack was only half the battle though. Pittsburgh had only scored a goal-per-game in the first three contests of the series, but it exploded in comparison with three goals in one match – or, more precisely, just over 12 minutes.

It started with Olli Maatta‘s (Second Star of the Game Sidney Crosby and First Star Jake Guentzel) first-ever postseason tally with 46 seconds remaining in the opening frame. After crossing the near face-off circle, the fourth-year defenseman squeezed a wrist shot under Craig Anderson‘s blocker to give the Pens a one-goal lead going into the first intermission.

Where the Penguins’ offense truly took command of the game was in the middle frame. Thanks to Jean-Gabriel Pageau earning a roughing penalty for practicing his favorite WWE moves on Pittsburgh’s captain, Crosby (Guentzel and Phil Kessel) himself doubled his club’s lead with a scrappy power play goal 7:41 into the second period, followed 3:49 later by Brian Dumoulin (Ian Cole and Scott Wilson) banking a wrister from the far point off Dion Phaneuf‘s left skate and behind Anderson for what proved to be the deciding tally, the first game-winner of his playoff career.

With the Senators trailing 3-0, Sullivan’s decision was truly put to the test as the Senators upped their attacking intensity in the remaining 28:30 of regulation. In that time, they fired 16 shots at the second-year netminder, including 10 in the third period.

The first evidence came about in the waning moments of the second period. Just as Maatta did for the Pens late in the first period, Clarke MacArthur (Bobby Ryan) did for the Sens in the second. With 98 seconds remaining before the second intermission, he recharged a nervous Canadian Tire Centre with a tip-in that beat Murray top-shelf.

Even with MacArthur’s tally, the Penguins felt comfortable for most of the third period with their two-goal advantage. That lead was trimmed to one with 5:01 remaining when Third Star Tom Pyatt (Erik Karlsson and Pageau) not only acted as a screen on Karlsson’s initial shot, but also deflected it through Murray’s five-hole, making the remainder of regulation that much important in not only deciding Game 4’s victor, but also the momentum of the remaining games in the series.

Murray certainly did his job in those remaining five minutes as he saved all three shots he faced in that time, but it was the Penguins’ defensive efforts that were arguably more impressive – especially since they were on the short side of a six-on-four man-advantage for the final 37 seconds of the game due to having too many men on the ice.

In all, Pittsburgh forced three missed shots after Pyatt’s goal, including two from Kyle Turris, owner of a 14.6% regular season shooting percentage, the third-best on the Senators’ roster.

Shot blocking was also a major focus for the Penguins during Ottawa’s final possession to close regulation. In all, the Senators fired four shots after winning the last face-off of the game with 37 seconds remaining. Two were saved by Murray, and two were blocked by Dumoulin and Nick Bonino to secure the victory.

The Eastern Conference Finals, now a three-game series, return to PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh for Game 5 at 3 p.m. Eastern time this Sunday. American viewers should tune their televisions to NBC, while Canadians have the option between CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals – May 13

 

Ottawa Senators at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 1

Thanks to Second Star of the Game Bobby Ryan‘s overtime winner, the Senators defeated Pittsburgh 2-1 at PPG Paints Arena Saturday to steal home ice in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Ryan was involved in both Senators tallies, as was Jean-Gabriel Pageau – the proud scorer of a wrist shot with 5:28 remaining in the first period. The play was caused when Pageau forced Brian Dumoulin into a giveaway behind Marc-Andre Fleury‘s net. Ryan collected the loose puck and centered a pass to the native Ottawan in the far face-off circle that he was more than able to bury top-shelf.

Though the Senators have been lauded for their defense this postseason, it certainly didn’t hurt that Pittsburgh struggled to find much rhythm offensively for most of the evening. The Pens uncharacteristically gave the puck away a whopping 17 times (Pittsburgh has given the puck away only 109 times this entire postseason, the fewest of the remaining squads), not to mention the 11 times Ottawa intentionally stole the puck.

A lot of that was due to the Sens’ physical play. Led by Marc Methot‘s seven blows, Ottawa threw 32 hits to knock the Penguins off balance. Even when Pittsburgh could manage a shot, the Sens were quick to get in the way, as they blocked an impressive 22 offerings (led by Methot’s four).

And the Penguins’ 28 shots that did manage to reach First Star Craig Anderson? He saved all but one for a .964 save percentage.

But no matter how well a defense and goaltender perform, its tough to keep the mighty Penguins offense off the board. With 5:35 remaining in regulation, Third Star Evgeni Malkin (Chris Kunitz and Ron Hainsey) leveled the game at one-all to give Pittsurgh life. It was a beautiful redirection by Malkin on Kunitz’ initial shot from the near face-off circle to beat Anderson five-hole.

That marker could have rattled the Sens, but they regrouped following regulation to reestablish their dominance. In the 4:59 of extra time, they allowed only two Penguins shots to reach Anderson.

The Senators themselves may have managed only three shots, but their final one ended the game. Assisted by Pageau and Mark Stone, Ryan fended off Bryan Rust in his own defensive zone to set up a breakaway opportunity for himself. Screaming up the near boards, he crossed across the slot to set up a nasty backhander that beat Fleury to the far post.

After a day off, these teams will be right back at it Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern time for Game 2. NBCSN has broadcasting rights withing the 50 United States, while Canada will be serviced by both CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – May 8

 

Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 6

By beating Pittsburgh 5-2 at PPG Paints Arena, the Capitals have forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 for a chance to play in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Simply put, absolutely nothing was going right for the Penguins. Though the Capitals did throw an impressive 38 hits (led by both Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson‘s five blows), Pittsburgh still should have managed more than 18 shots on goal.

It wasn’t until 7:43 remained in the first period that the Pens managed their first shot on Braden Holtby‘s goal. Unfortunately for them, Third Star of the Game T.J. Oshie (Evgeny Kuznetsov and Second Star Nicklas Backstrom) was already getting to work on the Capitals’ first goal of the night 24 seconds later, a power play snap shot from the far face-off circle.

Another part of the game the Penguins struggled at was keeping the puck away from Washington. They committed a combined 11 giveaways, the most egregious of which was Ron Hainsey‘s at the 6:32 mark of the second period.

Though it doesn’t go down as a turnover because First Star Andre Burakovsky dislodged the puck with a hit along the far boards, Hainsey brought the contact on himself. At the tail end of what proved to be a long 76-second shift, he tried to maintain possession for his club instead of chip the puck out of the defensive zone, turning back towards Marc-Andre Fleury‘s goal. Burakovsky took advantage of the exhausted defenseman to squeeze a wrist shot between Fleury and the far post to double the Caps’ lead.

But not all of Washington’s goals were results of Penguins mistakes. The game-winner certainly qualifies as one of those, as Backstrom (Oshie and Dmitry Orlov) won the third frame’s opening face-off to bury a snapper only 16 seconds later to set the score at 3-0.

John Carlson (Matt Niskanen and Kuznetsov) and Burakovsky tacked on two more goals within 1:12 of one another to set up a comfortable five-goal advantage for the visiting Caps, more than enough to survive Jake Guentzel (Sidney Crosby) and Evgeni Malkin‘s (Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin) two-goal surge in the remaining 3:22 of regulation.

The series’ deciding game has been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, May 10. American viewers can catch the game on NBCSN, while Canadian hockey fans will be serviced by both CBC and TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – May 3

For the first and second rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 4

With a 3-2 victory over the Capitals at PPG Paints Arena Wednesday, Pittsburgh has pulled within a win of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth time in the last decade.

After the events of Game 3, two things could have happened in this contest. The Penguins could have taken to the ice with intentions of revenge for Matt Niskanen unintentionally downing Sidney Crosby with at least the fourth concussion of his career, or they could let the scoreboard do the talking.

Since Mike Sullivan and his club still have intentions of hoisting the Stanley Cup for a second straight season, cooler heads prevailed and they decided on the latter option.

Of course, missing Crosby and Conor Sheary – both first-liners – will put a damper on the offense no matter how brilliant Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin perform. That’s where First Star of the Game Marc-Andre Fleury comes in.

Just like he’s done for most of his appearances this postseason, the veteran goaltender posted another exemplary 60 minutes. Though the Capitals fired 38 shots at him, he saved all but two for a solid .947 save percentage.

As far as scoring is concerned, almost all the action – save Second Star Patric Hornqvist‘s (Olli Maatta and Matt Cullen) marker 4:39 into the game – occurred in the second period when the Capitals scored three goals.

Wait, three?

Officially recorded as Guentzel’s eighth goal of the playoffs, Dmitry Orlov started Washington’s scoring with his right skate at the 3:51 mark. It looks like he intended to catch the puck with his skate then collect with his stick, but the second half of his plan never came to fruition. Because of that, Guentzel’s shot deflected into Braden Holtby‘s net to set the score at 2-0.

But the Caps didn’t waste any time getting that goal back. First up was Third Star Evgeny Kuznetsov (Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson), who buried his wrist shot from the at the 7:21 mark to pull Washington back within a goal. Nate Schmidt (T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk) followed that marker up 72 seconds later to level the game at two-all with his first-ever postseason marker.

After Washington had tied the game at two-all, the Penguins defense clamped down. In the remaining 31:27 of play, they allowed only 17 shots to reach Fleury’s net. That effort was led in large part by Ian Cole, who blocked three Capitals shots in addition to his team-leading six hits by the end of the game.

With that in mind, it’s only fitting then that the game-winning goal belongs to one of Pittsburgh’s blueliners. Buried with 8:36 remaining in the second period, Justin Schultz (Malkin and Guentzel) banged home a power play slap shot over Holtby’s stick shoulder for the final tally of the contest.

The Capitals certainly had their chances to score at least one more goal in the third period to force overtime. They had all the momentum in the final frame and maintained possession in their offensive zone most of the time, but were done in by a questionable penalty with 1:52 remaining in regulation.

On initial look, it seemed like Oshie’s stick caught Nick Bonino in the face when they made contact in the far corner behind Fleury’s net. The penalty for that is, of course, a seat in the penalty box for hi-sticking.

But a replay later, the truth came out: the stick only caught Bonino’s shoulder – the eighth-year center sold/embellished/flopped (pick your favorite) to force the Caps to the penalty kill, effectively neutralizing any chance of an equalizer.

Of course, that’s only part of the story.

Guentzel actually suffered a hi-stick from Andre Burakovsky late in the third period that went uncalled, even though the officials knew he was bleeding.

And of course, this was all played out a year after this same narrative was played out by the exact same players. That time, Oshie was crossing Matt Murray’s crease and Bonino hit him in the chest in Game 5. Though a stick came nowhere near his face, Oshie threw his head back in faux pain to draw a penalty and force off elimination for one more game.

In either case, Penguins fans see the Oshie penalty as a makeup call.

Pittsburgh’s first opportunity to advance to the Conference Finals is scheduled for Saturday at 7:15 p.m. Eastern time at the Verizon Center. American viewers can look for Game 5 on NBC, while Canadians will be serviced by CBC, SN and TVAS.

 

Anaheim Ducks at Edmonton Oilers – Game 4

After trailing 2-0 – in more ways than one – the Ducks beat Edmonton 4-3 in overtime at Rogers Place to make their Western Conference Semifinals matchup a best-of-three series.

Third Star of the Game Drake Caggiula (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Patrick Maroon) did so well to tie the game with 102 seconds remaining in regulation. The rookie’s first postseason goal was struck only seconds after Cam Talbot was pulled for the extra attacker.

It was a typical grind-it-out style tally we’ve come to expect in the playoffs. He took advantage of John Gibson being unable to contain Nugent-Hopkins’ initial shot from the far face-off circle and collected the rebound to bury the puck over the netminder’s glove shoulder.

And only 2:27 of action later, it was all for naught.

Following intermission, the Ducks exploded onto the ice. Beyond Ryan Kesler losing the face-off to open overtime, Anaheim did not let the Oilers do anything else. 35 seconds into the fourth period, Adam Larsson tried to fire a puck at Gibson, but his shot was stopped by First Star Ryan Getzlaf.

Getzlaf maintained possession following the block and began Anaheim’s attack into the offensive zone by passing to a streaking Second Star Jakob Silfverberg. Silfverberg couldn’t take control of the puck and lost possession to Oscar Klefbom, who passed to Larsson.

Once again, Getzaf had other plans than letting the Oilers dump the puck into the neutral zone or start a counterattack. He intercepted Larsson’s pass and dished across the face-off circles to a waiting Silfverberg, who absolutely ripped a wrist shot past Talbot to end the game and level the series at two-all after losing both games at the Honda Center.

Making the Ducks’ victory all the more impressive is the fact that Edmonton effectively dominated the first period. Milan Lucic had the Oil riled up as they were hitting in the first period like it was going out of style. In total, Edmonton threw 37 hits before Silfverberg’s game-ending marker, led by both Zack Kassian and Lucic’s five blows apiece.

Lucic (Leon Draisaitl and Mark Letestu) was eventually rewarded for his physical play by scoring a power play goal with 4:22 remaining in the first period. Similar to Caggiula’s tally to force overtime, it was a hard-nosed goal struck from Gibson’s crease after he didn’t collect Draisaitl’s initial shot.

Only 2:05 after that, Connor McDavid (Draisaitl and Maroon) caught Gibson sprawled on the ice following a botched diving save to set the score at 2-0, the same score that read going into the first intermission.

Then Getzlaf happened.

The Ducks’ captain was involved in all four goals on the evening, starting with his first of two tallies only 97 seconds after the start of the second frame. After receiving a pass from Brandon Montour from the far point,  he rang home a wrister to pull Anaheim within a goal.

Unfortunately for him, that goal was slightly controversial. Talbot was not caught off-guard for this tally, but was instead fighting to see around Corey Perry.

Screens are perfectly legal in hockey, and a very effective way to produce goals. Perry rushed towards the crease from the far boards to act as one, but bounced off Larsson in the process. That slight change of direction changed his course from screening Talbot to making contact with Talbot.

The nudge was enough to force Talbot off his spot and the netminder immediately threw his hands up in frustration. That led Todd McLellan to quickly challenge the play. Though the officials deliberated for a few minutes, they ultimately decided to count the goal even though contact with the goaltender is clearly made.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it should have counted. But then again, I don’t wear black-and-white stripes to hockey games.

The Ducks’ relentless, 21-shot attack in the second period continued 3:56 later when Rickard Rakell (Getzlaf and Perry) did his best tic-tac-goal off Getzlaf’s pass from the far post of Talbot’s net. Getzlaf passed across the crease to Rakell, who was waiting in the slot, and the right wing beat Talbot to the near post with his fast hands.

Getzlaf completed the surge on an unassisted slap shot  with 5:35 remaining in the frame for his seventh goal of the playoffs. Of all the goals the Oilers defense allowed in this contest, this is the one they want back the most.

After Talbot had saved Rakell’s initial wrist shot from the slot, Nugent-Hopkins had the puck on his stick near the far corner of the crease. Instead of quickly dumping the puck to allow his team to fight another day, he remained motionless and looked for a pass to start a counterattack. Getzlaf took advantage and attacked the puck through Nugent-Hopkins’ stick to bury it five-hole.

With hosts in this series having yet to successfully defend home ice, these remaining three games will be must-see TV.

Speaking of, the pivotal Game 5 is set for Friday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time at the Honda Center. Residents of the United States will find the contest on NBCSN, while Canadians should tune to either SN or TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – May 1

 

Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 3

By beating Pittsburgh 3-2 in overtime, the Capitals have pulled within a game of leveling their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup

The tone of this match was set early  – at the 5:24 mark, specifically – when Captain Sidney Crosby was injured after driving towards Braden Holtby‘s crease. While Alex Ovechkin‘s slash across the back appeared to be intentional, his taking Crosby’s left skate out from under him and whacking him across the head with his stick while preparing to play defense was done with no malice.

The contact threw Crosby off-balance and he tumbled across Holtby’s crease. The first thing he came in contact with was Matt Niskanen, and it is here where Crosby probably got hurt.  The defenseman was taken by surprise and raised his hands to fend him off, a reasonable reaction especially since the puck was still in his defensive zone. But with hands come a stick, and Niskanen’s ended up catching Crosby squarely in the forehead. Though conscious, Pittsburgh’s star stayed down following the hit and the play was soon stopped.

Crosby did not see the ice for the rest of the game with an apparent head injury and Niskanen was charged with a five-minute major and a game misconduct, suspending him for the remainder of Game 3. Niskanen probably doesn’t deserve the misconduct he received, but was forced into a penalty befitting one who downs – intentionally or accidentally – a league superstar.

As one would expect, the physical series became only more so after play resumed. 67 hits were thrown in all between the two clubs, led by Pittsburgh’s 36. Chris Kunitz was the Penguins’ most dominant checker with seven hits, with his counterparts Brooks Orpik and Ovechkin both managing four blows apiece.

All the physicality made it difficult for either club to find much rhythm throughout the game, which is why power plays and man-advantages proved to be so important.

The first tally of the game was a wrist shot from Second Star of the Game Nicklas Backstrom (Ovechkin and Justin Williams), but even with the five-on-three power play it was not easy. After receiving Ovechkin’s pass from above the far face-off circle, Backstrom fired his shot from the far corner of the slot. Obviously boucing the puck off Marc-Andre Fleury‘s stick and Ian Cole‘s shaft was the plan, because his shot ended up in in the corner of the goal to give the Caps a 1-0 lead with 6:55 remaining in the first period.

No goals were struck in the second period, but the Penguins’ situation became even more dire when Patric Hornqvist accidentally injured teammate Conor Sheary. He bore the brunt of his attempted hit on Lars Eller, and his recoil sent him crashing into Sheary’s head. Similar to Crosby, Sheary did not return for the remainder of the game.

The lack of bodies started becoming apparent late in the frame and through much of the third. Losing two top-line forwards in a game is detrimental to any team, but especially one that is trailing.

Though technically scored at even-strength, Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s (Marcus Johansson and Williams) wrister at the 9:46 mark of the third might as well have been with the man-advantage given his exhausted opponent. Given the circumstances, the Capitals  – and the many Pittsburgh fans that made their ways home early – thought they’d iced the victory away.

Then the Penguins made things interesting.

Knowing his club needed a goal as soon as possible, Mike Sullivan pulled Fleury for an extra attacker with 2:56 remaining in regulation, and Third Star Evgeni Malkin (Phil Kessel and Justin Schultz) capitalized with 63 seconds later on his six-on-five slap shot from the near face-off circle.

There was little to no celebration by Malkin, as he knew there was still work to be done. Sullivan left his piecemeal top-line on the ice for the remainder of regulation and eventually called a wise timeout with 94 seconds remaining before the final horn.

That’s exactly the rest the Penguins needed, as Schultz (Malkin and Kunitz) scored a slap shot with only 65 ticks remaining in regulation to level the game at two-all and force overtime.

That extra period didn’t last long though, due in part to Trevor Daley holding Johansson 2:40 after it began. 33 seconds later, First Star Kevin Shattenkirk (Backstrom and Kuznetsov) took advantage of the man-advantage by ripping a slap shot past Fleury for the first postseason game-winner of his career.

Of course, Washington’s work has only just begun. With the Penguins winning both games at the Verizon Center, they still have home ice in this series. If the Caps truly want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in franchise history, they’ll need to repeat Monday’s performance in Game 4.

Speaking of, Game 4 is slated for Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time at PPG Paints Arena. The contest will be televised on NBCSN in the USA and CBC and TVAS in Canada.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – April 29

For the first and second rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

 

 

 

 

New York Rangers at Ottawa Senators – Game 2

With four goals from First Star of the Game Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa won 6-5 in a wild double-overtime contest to take a two-game lead in its Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Rangers.

Many a young boy in Ottawa dreams of playing for the Senators when he grows up. Not many get that opportunity. Even fewer get to play with the Sens in the playoffs.

Pageau joined that select list in 2013, but he’s created a list all his own by playing arguably the best game of his professional career to lead his hometown team to a come-from-behind victory.

His day started early, but then again, so did the Rangers. Only 4:16 after puck drop, Michael Grabner (Jesper Fast) scored a shorthanded snap shot to give the Blueshirts an early lead. Pageau seemed to take exception to that, so he leveled the game at one-all with 6:01 remaining in the frame.

Then came New York’s big period. With the exception of Marc Methot‘s (Mike Hoffman and Ben Harpur) snapper with six minutes remaining in the frame, the Rangers dominated the second period by scoring three goals in 5:12. First up was Chris Kreider (Mika Zibanejad and Ryan McDonagh), who scored a wrist shot at the 10:39 mark. 2:31 later, Derek Stepan (Rick Nash) buried a shorthanded wrister on Craig Anderson. Finally, with 4:09 remaining in the frame, Third Star Brady Skjei (McDonagh and Zibanejad) banged home a wrister to set the score at 4-2 going into the second intermission.

Things were looking grim for the home fans, but Guy Boucher had just the right things to say to his club. That intermission pep talk led to Mark Stone (Second Star Dion Phaneuf and Fredrik Claesson) scoring a snapper just 88 seconds into the frame to pull Ottawa within a goal, but Skjei (Brendan Smith) was quick to reclaim a two-tally lead for the Rangers, burying a snapper of his own 3:42 later.

Skjei’s marker set the score at 5-3, the same differential that read when Pageau took control of the contest. The Senators’ comeback didn’t resume until 3:19 remained in regulation. That’s when the Ottawan scored his second goal (Zack Smith and Phaneuf) of the game on a deflected Smith shot.

62 seconds separated the Rangers from heading back to Manhattan with home-ice advantage, but once again Pageau had other ideas. With the sixth attacker, Kyle Turris took Erik Karlsson‘s pass from the near point to slam home a slap shot from Alex Ovechkin-land toward Henrik Lundqvist‘s net. The netminder probably would have been able to make the save if not for Pageau, who redirected the shot in mid-air to squeeze it between the far post and Lundqvist’s body.

Pageau has only registered one hat trick in his career before Saturday’s effort. It was on May 5, 2013 in Game 3 of the Senators’ Eastern Conference quarterfinals series with Montréal, only his third-ever playoff appearance.

But he’s never scored four goals in a game. Not in the postseason. Not in the regular season.

At least not until Saturday.

The brightest star on the ice decided enough overtime was enough after 22:54 of extra hockey. It was a breakaway goal that started in Anderson’s end. Alexandre Burrows beat Nick Holden to a loose puck at the far end of the goal line and cleared it into the neutral zone. Starting from the blue line, Pageau took chase and claimed possession near center ice along the far boards. Using Tommy Wingels – who entered the offensive zone with him – as a decoy, Pageau made Lundqvist commit to one or the other before cocking his snapper. Once he saw the netminder cash in on saving an attempt from Wingels, he fired his shot over Lundqvist’s glove to pull Ottawa within two victories of the Eastern Finals.

An extra day off has been included between Games 2 and 3, so Madison Square Garden will not come alive until 7 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, May 2. American hockey fans can watch that game on NBCSN, while Canadians will be serviced by CBC and TVAS.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals – Game 2

The Penguins’ offense showed no mercy in their 6-2 beat-down against Washington at the Verizon Center.

Though there were a firestorm of goals, none of them were struck in the first period. For Pittsburgh, it was Second Star of the Game Marc-Andre Fleury keeping the Capitals off the board, saving all 16 shots he faced in the opening 20 minutes. Meanwhile, it was an extremely physical attack from the Caps’ skaters that kept the Pens off-balance. Both John Carlson and T.J. Oshie were a big part of that effort, as they both ended the game with five hits apiece (Oshie threw two of his blows in the opening frame).

Nothing seems to get an offense humming quite like a shorthanded goal. That’s exactly what happened for the Penguins, as Matt Cullen capitalized on his steal at the blue line to score an unassisted wrist shot on Braden Holtby only 75 seconds into the second period. Though Matt Niskanen (Ovechkin and Third Star Nicklas Backstrom) did cash in on Jake Guentzel‘s hooking penalty to level the game, Pittsburgh’s offense was certainly cooking.

That became brutally apparent when First Star Phil Kessel (Sidney Crosby and Guentzel) and Guentzel (Crosby) scored within 3:10 of each other in the second half of the period. Kessel’s goal was a beautiful wrister to beat Holtby top shelf from the far face-off dot, but Guentzel’s was a low wrister that should have been an easy glove save for the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.

Due in part to Guentzel’s marker, Holtby was pulled for the third period in favor of Philipp Grubauer, the Capitals’ backup goaltender with only one previous game of NHL playoff action. Pair his lack of experience with Kevin Shattenkirk sending the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty, and it’s no wonder Kessel (Justin Schultz and Evgeni Malkin) was able to score a power play wrister only 2:19 into the final frame to set the score at 4-1.

Once again Washington had a response to the Pens’ first goal of the period – a wrister courtesy of Backstrom (Ovechkin and Oshie) – but the Capitals couldn’t close the gap any further. 107 seconds after Backstrom’s tally, Malkin (Ian Cole and Kessel) tipped-in his goal that all but ended any chance of a Washington comeback.

Guentzel (Matt Cullen and Olli Maatta) tacked on an empty netter with 43 seconds remaining in the game for his seventh of the postseason.

You could’ve heard a pin drop in the Verizon Center after Malkin’s goal. It fell quiet as fans watched a team destined for greatness begin to lose its edge in the second round of the playoffs.

The Capitals will face an uphill battle if they want to qualify for the Eastern Finals for the first time since 1998. Pittsburgh needs only two more victories to close the series, and it will have three home game opportunities to do just that.

The series will resume at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Penn. with Game 3 on Monday, May 1 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. Residents of the United States can watch that game on NBCSN, while Canadians will be able to choose between CBC or TVAS.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second Round – April 27

For the first and second rounds of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

 

 

 

 

New York Rangers at Ottawa Senators – Game 1

Second Star of the Game Erik Karlsson‘s third period wrist shot proved to be the difference in Game 1 at the Canadian Tire Centre, as Ottawa beat the Rangers 2-1.

It seems like it’s said every time Henrik Lundqvist is involved, but this was a stunning goaltending matchup.  The Swede saved a brilliant 41-of-43 shots faced (95.3%), but was out-dueled by First Star Craig Anderson, who allowed only one tally on 35 attempts (97.1%).

This contest’s scoreless draw was not broken until 27:10 had ticked off the clock, though what set up the play occurred a little bit before that. 6:54 into the second period, Cody Ceci earned a seat in the penalty box for tripping Michael Grabner, and the Blueshirts made sure he paid. Captain Ryan McDonagh (Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich) took advantage of the man-advantage only 16 seconds later by pinging a strong slap shot from the far point off the near post.

But as happens so often in sports, what comes around goes around. Brady Skjei got caught holding Ryan Dzingel with 2:23 remaining in the frame, followed 62 seconds later by the Third Star himself (Alexandre Burrows and Kyle Turris) cashing in on the power play with a wrist shot from the slot. Dzingel’s goal leveled the contest at one-all with only one period of regulation remaining.

Karlsson is one of the most clutch players for the Senators and he proved that once again tonight with his first goal of the 2017 playoffs. The play reset at the far point when Marc Methot battled Rick Nash to keep the puck in the Sens’ offensive zone. Mike Hoffman collected that victory and carried the puck to the face-off circle before rolling it along the boards behind Lundqvist’s net to Karlsson at the opposite end of the goalline. There’s not much room to score from there by usual means, but the two-way defenseman proved his mastery at scoring by banking the puck off the back of the netminder’s head and into the net.

What a way to score the first postseason game-winning goal of your career.

As made evident by tonight’s action, it’s going to take a talented – or otherwise opportunistic – goalscorer to earn a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. Be on the lookout for New York’s Grabner and J.T. Miller (both earned a .167 shooting percentage in the regular season) or Ottawa’s Mark Stone (scored on 16.4% of shots) to be the determining factor in future games.

Game 2 will drop the puck at 3 p.m. Eastern time this Saturday. Residents of the 50 States can catch the contest on NBC, while those that salute the red maple leaf will be serviced by CBC and TVAS2.

 

Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals – Game 1

The first round of this best-of-seven bout between Metropolitan Division rivals went to the visiting Penguins, who beat Washington 3-2 at the Verizon Center Thursday.

Before the offensive performances by the two captains, this series proved to be shaping into exactly what it was expected to be. Both defenses were flying in Game 1, leading to only 56 combined shots being fired. Pittsburgh’s blue line made its presence known with its 29 blocked shots (led by Ian Cole‘s eight), while the Capitals preferred a more personal approach: sparked by Third Star of the Game Alex Ovechkin‘s six hits, Washington threw an impressive 41 blows to disrupt the Pens’ attack.

But no matter how well a defensive corps plays, there’s not much that can ensure these clubs don’t bury the puck. Braden Holtby stopped all four shots he faced in the first period, but couldn’t keep Second Star Sidney Crosby (Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist) off the board a dozen seconds into the middle frame. Crosby (Hornqvist and Olli Maatta) followed that up 52 seconds later with another wrist shot to give Pittsburgh a quick two-goal lead.

The game cooled – offensively, at least – following Crosby’s blitz, but the period wouldn’t end without Ovechkin (Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie) having some fun. With 103 seconds separating him from the second intermission, the captain scored a wrister of his own on Marc-Andre Fleury to pull his Caps back within a tally.

Washington’s comeback was completed 8:05 into the third period courtesy of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored a wrister from the slot off a beautiful cross-slot setup from former Penguin Matt Niskanen to set up a thrilling finish.

Unfortunately for fans clad in red, that finish is not what they were hoping for. That result is due in large part to the existence of First Star Nick Bonino, who has scored the last two game-winning goals for Pittsburgh in playoff games against the Capitals.

This one was a wrister struck with 7:24 remaining regulation with assists from Scott Wilson and Cole. After receiving a Justin Schultz from behind Fleury’s net, Cole dished to Wilson along the far boards into the offensive zone. The left wing one-touched a pass to his trailing center who was tearing towards Holtby’s crease. When he reached the slot, he ripped his wrister glove-side before the goalie could react.

These clubs will drop the puck again Saturday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The game will be televised on NBC in the USA and CBC and TVAS in Canada.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round – April 14

For at least the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

New York Rangers at Montréal Canadiens – Game 2

Montréal redeemed itself in in Game 2 by beating the Rangers 4-3 in overtime at the Bell Centre to level their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal at a game apiece.

And none of it would have been possible if not for Third Star of the Game Tomas Plekanec‘s (First Star Alexander Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk) miracle goal with 18 ticks remaining on the clock in regulation. Carey Price had vacated his crease for the extra attacker, but the real advantage occurred when Shea Weber knocked Michael Grabner down along the blue line. That freed up the Galchenyuk to find Radulov in the far corner, who then set up Plekanec on the far post for a quick tip-in.

In similar fashion as far as the clock was concerned, the Canadiens waited to strike until the end of the overtime period was near. Radulov (Max Pacioretty and Weber) earned the first playoff game-winning goal of his career in the scrappiest of ways. Though the Habs captain had fired the initial shot, Second Star Henrik Lundqvist was able to keep that attempt out of his net. He was unable to contain that shot however, leaving the rebound in front of his crease ready for the taking by Radulov, who buried a wrister five hole for the victory.

Speaking of Lundqvist, he stood tall though he faced adversity all night. He knew he was in for a tough game when his stick snapped early in the first period. He was without that important piece of equipment for almost a minute, and Jeff Petry (Phillip Danault and Radulov) was able to take advantage for the opening goal of the game.

In all, the Rangers netminder saved an incredible 54-of-58 shots faced (93.1%). By comparison, Price saved 35-of-38 (92.1%) in his win.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 2

Thanks in large part to another stellar performance by Second Star of the Game Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins earned a 4-1 victory against the Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena to claim a two-game advantage in their Eastern Quarterfinals matchup.

Mike Sullivan is going to have quite the decision on his hands when Matthew Murray is cleared to resume play. Though last year’s Stanley Cup-winning goaltender was expected to command the Pens’ crease throughout the postseason, longtime starter Fleury has saved a combined 70 of 72 shots faced (97.2%) for two-straight victories.

Offensively, no one on the ice was finer than First Star Sidney Crosby. He posted a three-point effort on the night, including the lone tally of the first period.

It was an excellent play that started with Conor Sheary ripping the puck away from Sergei Bobrovsky behind the goaltender’s net. After Bobrovsky had given up on the play to return to his goal line, Sheary passed to Third Star Jake Guentzel (who took credit for the game-winner in the second period), who was waiting on the near side of the crease. Bobrovsky committed to saving a Guentzel shot, so the rookie dished across the crease to Crosby, who powered home an easy wrist shot.

 

 

St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild – Game 2

It may not be what many predicted, but the Blues emerged from two games at the Xcel Energy Center with a two-game lead in their Western Conference Quarterfinals matchup against Minnesota thanks to a 2-1 victory.

Both clubs’ defenses were the true stars of this game. Neither Jake Allen (21 saves, 95.5%) nor Devan Dubnyk (22 saves, 91.7%) faced more than 24 shots, and a combined 27 shot blocks were earned between the two teams. The brightest blueliners were Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko, as both rejected three shots apiece from reaching Allen’s crease.

Another blueliner that earned his pay was Joel Edmundson, who seems to be taking over Kevin Shattenkirk‘s former position of two-way defenseman. Assisted by Patrik Berglund and Magnus Paajarvi, he fired a slap shot from the blueline to give the Notes an early lead in the second period.

Zach Parise (Eric Staal and Ryan Suter) made sure St. Louis would not escape the frame with the lead, though. Taking advantage of Alex Steen and Scottie Upshall sitting in the penalty box, Staal collected his own rebound and slid a pass between Allen and a sprawled Bouwmeester to Parise waiting at the top of the crease. The wing elevated his wrist shot bar-down over Allen to level the game at one-all.

With 2:27 remaining in regulation, Jaden Schwartz (Alex Pietrangelo and Kyle Brodziak) provided St. Louis its second tally of the night. The Blues’ captain dished to Schwartz from the red line, who entered the offensive zone slow enough to allow David Perron to screen Dubnyk. Schwartz did not simply use that screen, he used Perron. He fired his wrister five hole… on Perron… to find the back of the net before the Minnesota netminder even knew a shot was fired.

San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers – Game 2

With a 2-0 victory over the Sharks at Rogers Place, Edmonton pulled even at one game apiece in its Western Conference Quarterfinal and earned the celebration it had been waiting 11 years for.

The Oilers scored only four shorthanded goals during the regular season, but both tallies they registered in the victory were on the penalty kill. One of those – the opening goal of the game – belonged to First Star of the Game Zack Kassian. He was the best player on the ice all night, sticking his nose in every play and throwing six hits – including two bone-rattling blows on Logan Couture and Brenden Dillon.

His shorty was a direct result of a Joe Pavelski fumbled puck early in the second period (It was that kind of night for the Sharks. They managed only 16 shots on goal). The wing collected the puck at the Sharks’ blueline, but Pavelski tried to steal it right back.

Unfortunatly for San Jose, his steal landed right on Mark Letestu‘s stick, who returned the puck to the streaking wing for a one-on-one showdown against Martin Jones. Kassian elected to fire a snap shot from between the face-off dots, beating the netminder low for the winner.

The usual star of the Oilers would not be outdone. Just like Kassian, Third Star Connor McDavid registered the first goal of his playoff career in a shorthanded situation. Assisted by Darnell Nurse and Second Star Cam Talbot, he fired a snapper from the far face-off dot after screaming up the boards to beat Jones low.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round – April 12

For at least the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer – unless noted otherwise –  is Connor Keith.

 

New York Rangers at Montréal Canadiens – Game 1

On nights like these, it doesn’t matter who the goal comes from. All that matters is that it goes in the net. That was the case for the Rangers, who bested the Habs 2-0 at the Bell Centre to take an early lead in their playoff series.

After collecting a face-off Tomas Plekanec had originally won for Montréal, Second Star of the Game Tanner Glass sneaked an unassisted backhanded shot over Third Star Carey Price‘s glove shoulder at the 9:50 mark of the first period for what proved to be the netminder’s only goal allowed on the night. Michael Grabner (Jesper Fast) provided the lone insurance tally on an empty net with 70 seconds remaining in regulation.

We knew coming into this series it was a matchup between two incredible goaltenders in 31-20-4 First Star Henrik Lundqvist and 37-20-5 Price, and they didn’t disappoint, combining for 59 saves. Lundqvist saved all 30 he faced for the 10th postseason shutout of his career.

New York truly took command of this game after the first intermission, limiting the Canadiens to only 15 shots over the remaining 40 minutes. Even when the Habs were able to control the posession, the Blueshirts would not let them get a shot on Lundqvist’s net, managing 24 blocks – led by Dan Girardi‘s four.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators – Game 1

By: Nick Lanciani

After going 0-3-1 against the Ottawa Senators in the regular season, the Boston Bruins opened up their edition of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 victory on road ice.

Fresh off of his two-game suspension for the last two games of the regular season, Brad Marchand scored the game winning goal with 2:33 to go in the 3rd period– capping an almost two-minute long shift.

Ottawa Senators goaltender, Craig Anderson, played a stellar game despite the loss. Anderson made 23 saves on 25 shots faced for a .920 save percentage.

Both teams swapped tremendous chances in the first 20 minutes, but neither Boston’s David Pastrnak, nor Ottawa’s Derick Brassard could score on back-to-back breakaway chances. After an eventful 1st period which nearly witnessed Bruins forward– and Ottawa native– Ryan Spooner pocket one in the twine with about four seconds to go, the score remained tied at 0-0.

The Sens kicked off the series’s goal scoring in the 2nd period with a goal from Bobby Ryan (1) at 10:28. Ryan crashed the net and followed up on one of his own chances, firing the puck short side by Bruins goaltender, Tuukka Rask. Erik Karlsson (1) notched the only assist on the goal.

For the first time since May 10, 2014 an NHL team was held without a shot in a single period in a Stanley Cup playoff game, as Boston did not record a shot on goal in the 2nd period. The Anaheim Ducks, by the way, were the last team to do so in their matchup with the Los Angeles Kings. The Ducks wound up winning the game 2-0, however.

After going without a goal in his last 15 games of the regular season, Frank Vatrano (1) found the back of the net with 15:05 to go in the 3rd period in his first career Stanley Cup Playoff game. Riley Nash (1) and Adam McQuaid (1) were credited with the assists on the goal.

Vatrano became the 6th Bruin since 1999 to score in his playoff debut and Boston tied the game, 1-1.

Late in the 3rd period, Marchand (1) put the Bruins ahead for the first time in the game with the game-winning goal off of a blocked shot by Dion Phaneuf. Patrice Bergeron (1) and Pastrnak (1) collected the assists on Marchand’s 17th career NHL playoff goal.

Boston’s Rask made 26 saves on 27 shots against for a .936 save percentage in the win. The Bruins lead the series 1-0 with Game 2 scheduled for Saturday at Canadian Tire Centre and can be viewed on NBC/TVAS/SN at 3 p.m. ET.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins – Game 1

When Matthew Murray went down in warmups, things were looking grim for the Penguins, at least for their playoff opener. Instead, First Star of the Game Marc-Andre Fleury saved all but one shot faced to lead Pittsburgh to a 3-1 victory over the Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena.

Just like Pierre McGuire said during the broadcast, sometimes the best trade a club can make is the very one they don’t. Trade rumors swirled about the Penguins’ former first-overall pick all season, but he turned in a 31-save performance and a Game 1 victory for First Star honors.

Jeff Zatkoff, anyone? Maybe Fleury has too much playoff experience to be the Pens’ new “Mr. Game 1,” but the story is beginning to sound eerily similar to last year’s Cup run.

Offensively, the Pens showed one period of greatness after a sluggish opening frame. The Jackets held them to only three shots on the opening 20 minutes – including none in the last 14:49 – due in large part to their 23 first period hits .

The Penguins came out on fire after the intermission, notching all three of their tallies. Only 1:15 after returning from the dressing room, Bryan Rust (Second Star Phil Kessel and Third Star Evgeni Malkin) broke the ice with a snap shot. Kessel’s assist was especially impressive, as he used his skate to pass to the right wing.

Rust’s tally was followed only 2:30 later by Kessel’s (Justin Schultz and Malkin) eventual game-winner. Kessel’s tally was a strong power play wrist shot from the near face-off dot over Sergei Bobrovsky‘s glove shoulder.

Nick Bonino (Patric Hornqvist and Olli Maatta) provided Pittsburgh’s final tally with 3:35 remaining in the frame.

Columbus finally got on the board with 7:19 remaining in regulation courtesy of Matt Calvert (Josh Anderson), but the Jackets couldn’t convert any more of their 32 shots on goal into markers.

 

St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Minnesota Wild – Game 1

Overtime game-winners in the playoffs can come from the most unlikely of sources. In Game 1, it was First Star of the Game Joel Edmundson that gave St. Louis the 2-1 overtime victory over the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center.

No matter how hard Minnesota’s offense tried, it could not get past Second Star Jake Allen. The Blues’ goaltender saved 43 straight shots faced for an unblemished effort.

That is, until only 23 seconds remained in regulation. Zach Parise (Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund) scored a wrist shot to match Vladimir Sobotka‘s (Alex Steen) snap shot at the 6:21 mark of the second period to force the first overtime period of the 2017 postseason.

Similar to the Notes’ long playoff run a year ago, the Wild found its success when it made its presence known. Led by Jared Spurgeon and Chris Stewart‘s four checks apiece, Minnesota threw an impressive 28 hits in regulation to St. Louis’ 13, which led to 11 takeaways.

In all, Allen saved 51 shots faced before Edmundson (Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz) scored the game-winning wrister. It wasn’t the prettiest play the Blues have ever run, but they aren’t complaining. Tarasenko was crashing Third Star Devan Dubnyk‘s crease, but lost control of the puck before he could manage a shot. Fortunately for him and his club, the loose puck found the defenseman’s stick and he easily scored on Dubnyk’s stick side.

 

San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers – Game 1

The Sharks arguably entered the playoffs in their worst slump of the season, but those losing ways just might be behind them. San Jose beat Edmonton 3-2 in overtime at Rogers Place to take an early one-game lead in their first round series.

San Jose’s worst fears were realized in the first period, as Edmonton’s offense made it known that it has no trouble picking Martin Jones apart when he’s off his game. Both Oscar Klefbom (Jordan Eberle and Milan Lucic) and Lucic (Mark Letestu and Connor McDavid) scored in the opening frame to give the Oil an early 2-0 lead.

Playoff experience is one of the most valuable things a club can have. Whether it was the Oilers’ offense not having much of it or the Sharks’ defense being able to match the hosts’ efforts (Edmonton managed only nine shots on goal after the first period), San Jose was able to fight its way back into this contest by constricting Edmonton’s attack. As a result, Joel Ward (Joonas Donskoi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic) took advantage of Drake Caggiula‘s hooking penalty late in the opening period to score a power play wrist shot 1:43 into the second.

Paul Martin (Tomas Hertl) completed the comeback 5:22 into the final frame. He buried the rebound off Second Star of the Game Cam Talbot‘s left pad after Hertl’s inial shot to tie the game at two-all and force the second extra-time game of the night.

It only took 3:22 of extra time, but that playoff experience was truly apparent in that time. San Jose fired six shots to the Oilers’ two, and the final one, a snap shot by First Star Melker Karlsson (Joe Pavelski and Valsic), was able to get past Talbot for a Sharks victory.

April 8 – Day 171 – Have mercy on the Leafs, Kessel!

All but two teams are in action today, so the playoff situation could be a whole lot clearer at the end of the night.

Not only are 14 games being played, but they’re spaced throughout the day for our viewing pleasure! The action starts with two 12:30 p.m. matinees (the New York Rangers at Ottawa [NHLN/RDS/SN] and Columbus at Philadelphia), followed by Washington at Boston (NBC) at 3 p.m. The evening’s play starts an hour early, as two contests (Chicago at Los Angeles and the New York Islanders at New Jersey) drop the puck at 6 p.m., trailed an hour after by five more (Nashville at Winnipeg [CITY], Pittsburgh at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Montréal at Detroit [SN/TVAS], Buffalo at Florida and St. Louis at Carolina). Colorado at Dallas gets underway at 8 p.m., with Minnesota at Arizona waiting an hour for its green light. Finally, our co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Vancouver [CBC] and Calgary at San Jose [NHLN/SN]) drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the day.

Short list:

  • New York at Ottawa: Before they were members of the Rangers‘ high-flying offense, Matt Puempel and Mika Zibanejad spent a combined eight seasons in Ottawa.
  • Washington at Boston: Another player making his return to his former home is Brett Connolly, who played two seasons with the Bruins.
  • Chicago at Los Angeles: Though the rivalry has died off lately, the Hawks and Kings have played some vicious games in the past.
  • Pittsburgh at Toronto: All the Leafs need to qualify for the playoffs is a lone victory. This is the more winnable of their last two games.
  • Montréal at Detroit: Not only is it an Original Six rivalry and the Habs‘ last trip to Joe Louis Arena, but Steve Ott also makes his first return to Motown since being traded at the deadline.
  • Minnesota at Arizona: After 10 years with the Coyotes, Martin Hanzal will play his first game in Gila River Arena as a visitor.
  • Calgary at San Jose: The Flames want to avoid Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, and San Jose still has a chance at home ice against the Oilers. Only one of those things can happen, and it’s decided tonight.

It may not be the fun answer, but we have to go to Toronto to see if the Maple Leafs can lock up a spot in the playoffs. Sorry Connolly, Hanzal, Ott, Puempel and Zibanejad!

 

The 50-19-11 Penguins have already clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division and will host at least the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This game is not about them.

Instead, all eyes are on 39-26-15 Toronto, the club beloved by many that currently occupies the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

As stated before, it’s a simple win-and-you’re-in situation for the Leafs. A victory tonight would give the Maple Leafs an insurmountable 95 points on the season, more than either the Lightning (92 points, one game remaining) or Islanders (90 points, two games remaining) can surpass.

That’s goal number one: qualification.

Of course, there’s plenty more on the table here if the Leafs can sweep their last two games. Third place is certainly an achievable goal, as it is currently occupied by a Boston team with 95 points and only one game remaining – a dreadfully difficult home contest against the Capitals.

Since that game will be done by the time the Leafs drop the puck tonight, they’ll know if they can surpass the Bruins in the standings or not. Toronto already knows it cannot surpass Boston if it wins this afternoon, as the Leafs could only tie the Bruins at 97 points, but lose the regulation+overtime-wins tiebreaker.

Even second place in the division is still on the board should the Bruins lose today and the Senators (96 points) lose both their remaining games and no more than one require overtime.

But that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Remember, the first goal is qualification.

Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, April’s schedule is not doing them any favors in achieving that goal. After opening the month in Detroit, Toronto has faced or will face five quality opponents – quality offenses, to be exact –  in a row. They beat the Red Wings 5-4 on April Fools’ Day, followed by a strong 4-2 victory against a sneaky-good Sabres team.

Then started the ill-timed losing skid. Though all skids are ill-timed (Unless you’re Colorado, I suppose. Nolan Patrick won’t fall into just anybody’s lap!), one during a playoff push is especially unwanted.

After returning home for the final four games of the regular season, the Leafs fell to the Capitals 4-1 on Tuesday (Eh, they can handle that. Everybody loses to Washington), followed two days later by another 4-1 loss to the Lightning. That’s the one that caused the most damage, as a victory would have clinched the last spot in the postseason and made this game a little less important.

Obviously there have been issues on both sides of the puck. The easy answer is to crucify the defense and goaltending, but I don’t think that’s the right one. 5-6-0 Curtis McElhinney was in net for the Washington game since it was only a night after the Leafs‘ contest in Buffalo, and 33-16-14 Frederik Andersen reclaimed the crease for the Tampa game.

Sure, you want Andersen to beat the Bolts, but he had been on a five-game winning streak (his longest of the year, if my count is correct) and was bound to drop a game eventually, especially when faced with such a potent offense of late.

And though the defense hasn’t played well recently, when has it this year?  They’ve allowed an average of 32.8 shots-per-game to reach Andersen’s crease on the season, the third-worst rate in the NHL. The fact that they allowed a combined total of only 68 (34 per game) shots against both the Caps and Bolts is almost impressive!

If anything, the only major setback in the last two games for Toronto has been its penalty kill. Usually successfully killing 82.6% of opponent’s power plays (ninth-best in the NHL), that rate has dropped to only 60% of late, which is tied for fourth-worst in the league in that time.

But for a team that has averaged 3.04 goals-per-game, the fifth-highest scoring rate in the league, to score only a goal in both games is alarming. Even more concerning is that Tyler Bozak, a third-liner, took credit for both the tallies, meaning the remaining 17 Leafs skaters – including the top two lines – have been held goalless.

And the cherry on top? Those that follow the Leafs know that Bozak and Auston Matthews do not share ice time in any circumstance (even-strength or power play), meaning the rookie wonder has not registered even an assist during this skid.

Scoring is usually the kid’s thing! Matthews has done it all year. Starting with his four-goal effort to begin his NHL career and all throughout the season, he’s found a way to generate offense. He leads Toronto in points (67). He leads Toronto in goals (39).

Yet it’s that exact reason that I’m not too worried about Matthews. Barring a horrid seven-game run to start March and the five-game drought as he was getting adjusted to the league, the youngster has faced only a three-game pointless skid this season (albeit twice). He is the energy in this Leafs team and will not be kept off the scorecard for long.

One way to get Toronto back to scoring is to take advantage of the man-advantage opportunities it is presented with. On the season, the Maple Leafs have been the second-best power play in the league by converting 24.1% of their opponents’ infractions into goals.

This is where fellow rookie William Nylander can shoulder the burden of providing offense with Matthews, as the Albertan has notched a team-leading 25 power play points. Nazem Kadri can also be instrumental from the second power play unit with his squad-leading 12 extra-man goals.

Though they’re riding a four-game winning streak, the Leafs have a great opportunity to get back on track against Pittsburgh. The Pens have allowed 10 goals during this streak, including four to the lowly Devils on Thursday.

The Penguins defense is fourth-worst in the league when measured by shots allowed-per-game this season (32.7), and that’s been an even worse 36.25 in the month of April. Regardless of who’s in net, be it 32-10-4 Matthew Murray or 18-9-7 Marc-Andre Fleury, they should see a lot of shots coming their way.

Those defensive struggles are especially apparent on the penalty kill of late, as the Pens‘ penalty kill rate of 66.7% in the past week ties Detroit for the sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time. Since March 31, Murray has faced 15 power play shots, which ties for eighth-most against the 58 other goaltenders in that time.

Of course, to truly beat the Pens is to stifle slow down their offense. Doing that will require a bit of work, as first liners Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel both have six points to their credit over the past four games. The rookie may actually be more impressive than his captain of late, as four of his points have been goals, a total that leads the club.

Pittsburgh is especially potent on the man-advantage, mostly because each member of both power play units is capable of scoring. Eight players in the past week, almost evenly split between the two special teams, have notched a power play point to lead the Pens to a 36.4% conversion rate (third-best in that time). Lately, the stars of the show have been Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist, both of whom have registered a power play goal and assist.

In the previous two times these clubs have met, the Penguins have had an upper-hand, as they lead the season series 1-0-1. That being said, the last time they met on December 17 (at the Air Canada Centre, in fact) was when Toronto bested the Pens 2-1 thanks to Jake Gardiner‘s overtime goal.

Some players to keep an eye on include Pittsburgh‘s Ian Cole (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the league]), Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 88 points [tied for second-most in the league]), Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for seventh-best in the NHL] for 32 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]) and Justin Schultz (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (33 wins [eighth-most in the league], including four shutouts [10th-most in the NHL]) and Matthews (39 goals [tied for third-most in the league]).

I like the Leafs to win this game tonight mostly due to my faith in Matthews. He knows he’s too important to his club to not be effective on the offensive end, and he should be able to take advantage of a poor, uninspired Penguins defense.


Thanks to First Star of the Game Yanni Gourde‘s two-goal night, the Lightning not only beat the host Canadiens 4-2, but they also kept their slim postseason hopes alive in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though every period of play featured two goals, the difference in this game proved to be the first, as both tallies belonged to the Bolts. Gourde (Second Star Nikita Kucherov and Luke Witkowski) fired an ice-breaking wrist shot with 8:18 remaining in the period to give Tampa Bay the lead, and Kucherov (Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point) followed that up with a wrister of his own 10 seconds before intermission.

Dwight King (Third Star Artturi Lehkonen and Nikita Nesterov) pulled the Habs back within a goal a second before the midway point of the contest with a pure wrister, but Alex Killorn (Cory Conacher) was able to score what ended up being the game-winning wrister only 4:20 later. Tampa took its 3-1 lead into the second intermission.

Only 4:36 into the third frame, Lehkonen took advantage of a Tampa Bay mistake to score a shorthanded backhand shot and pull Montréal back within a tally, but Gourde’s (Conacher and Jake Dotchin) wrister only 21 seconds later put an end to any Habs comeback.

Andrei Vasilevskiy earned the victory after saving 27-of-29 shots faced (93.1%), leaving the loss to Carey Price, who saved 18-of-22 (81.8%).

With their second 4-2 victory in a row, road teams are trying their darnedest to win the DtFR Game of the Day series. They trail the 87-61-25 home teams by only three points with two days remaining in the regular season.