Tag Archives: Foligno

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

Is Player Usage Costing Jackets a Playoff Series?

Most of the focus in analyzing the playoff performance seems to focus on Sergei Bobrovsky.  This is understandable given Bobrovsky’s history of giving up three or more goals in playoff games, but it ignores another reason that the Jackets may be struggling against the Capitals as their series has progressed and that is player usage.

The Jackets played 82 games prior to the playoffs and that data tells us a lot about which players were making positive contributions to the team and which players weren’t.  Yet, John Tortorella’s player usage in this series suggests that some old school thoughts about playoff hockey may be leading to the Jackets deploying players in a sub-optimal manner.  In a series defined by close games and, more importantly, overtime games, choices in player deployment can be the difference between being up 3-2 and being down 3-2.

Let’s take the case of Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Bjorkstrand finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% of 51.64 percent and was fifth on the team with 40 points.  Furthermore, Bjorkstrand had become a very solid player at both ends at the ice, something that Tortorella had him focused on at the start of the season.  Yet, through five games of this series, the only players with less time-on-ice than Bjorkstrand were Alexander Wennberg (who has only played in two games due to injury), Mark Letestu, and Sonny Milano (a healthy scratch for Game 5).  After scoring a goal in Game 5, Torts finally started playing Bjorkstrand more in the rest of the game and the result was a number of solid shifts where the puck was held in the Caps zone–something the Jackets have struggled with in this series. Bjorkstrand’s line had two of the best opportunities in the overtime period of Game 5.

One of the players getting less ice time than Bjorkstrand is Milano, who was a healthy scratch for Game 5, but played little to no minutes in the prior four games.  Like Bjorkstrand, Milano had a positive 5-on-5 CF% of 50.91 percent.  He put up 14 goals in only 55 games and his return to the lineup was one of the things that helped the Jackets down the stretch.  In fact, Milano was paired with Bjorkstrand on a line centered by Nick Foligno that provided a scoring threat when the top line wasn’t on the ice during a part of March.  That line was scuttled by Foligno’s injury.

So, who has been getting ice time over Milano and Bjorkstrand?  Thomas Vanek, for one.  While Vanek had positive possession numbers in 19 games for the Jackets, his possession numbers in Vancouver were less than stellar with a 45.01 percent 5-on-5 CF%. Seven goals and eight assists in 19 games was also probably not a sustainable pace for the 34 year-old Vanek.

You have to wonder how much of the decision to play Vanek more than Bjorkstrand and Milano comes down to an antiquated view of “playoff hockey.”  Neither Milano nor Bjorkstrand are known for a gritty or grinding style.  They aren’t veterans.  And, while Bjorkstrand is solid in his own end, Milano is still a work-in-progress in this respect.  However, none of this changes the fact that the team is better off with them in the lineup and playing.  The fact is that Milano is a dangerous player in both good ways and bad and the good still outweighs the bad based on what the advanced stats tell us.  Given Vanek’s own unforced-errors in Game 4, it hardly seems like playing him more has solved anything and it has, arguably, taken a more skilled player off the ice and certainly taken a quicker skater off the ice.

With Wennberg back in the lineup, one of Brandon Dubinsky or Letestu should be out of the lineup to make room for Milano.  The sole reason this apparently hasn’t happened would seem to be face-offs.  Wennberg is clearly being sheltered from this part of his duties, while Boone Jenner is actually being put in for spot face-off duty.

I’m not sure this is good enough justification to keep them both in.  Jenner has been strong enough in the face-off dot, as has Foligno.  Letestu been so-so this series and Dubinsky has been strong, though Dubinsky has taken three penalties while Letestu has taken none.  Flip a coin, but one of these two should sit instead of dividing minutes and taking a roster spot that could be held by a better player.  If you want to see how smart coaches can make dumb decisions about players based on overemphasizing face-offs, take a look at Jay Beagle‘s possession stats sometime.  Woof.

That’s another thing, here.  The Caps have dog crap for depth.  They had six forwards who played regularly who finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% above 50 percent.  One of them–Burakovsky–is out for the series.  How many regular forwards did Columbus have above that mark?  Eight, all of whom who are available to play in this series.  That means the Jackets are one line deeper than Washington.  Josh Anderson is playing bottom-six minutes for the Jackets.  I’ve got no problem with that as long as (1) the right people are getting more minutes than him and (2) the Jackets more evenly divide the minutes.

Why should the minutes be divided more evenly?  Because the Caps have dog crap for depth AND these games are going into overtime.  The Jackets should be taking more advantage of their depth by spreading minutes more evenly.  Keep the legs fresh.  This isn’t the old days.  Penalties are called regularly in the playoffs now and the old grind and hold game doesn’t work.  The team with fresh legs is best prepared to capitalize on mistakes in overtime.  You look at the last shift yesterday and the Jackets’ top line was gassed and the Caps took advantage on the cycle.  Divide minutes more evenly and the story might end differently.  The Jackets can afford to do it because the skill difference between their third and second lines isn’t as pronounced as it is for Washington.

If the Jackets want to take it to Washington tomorrow, John Tortorella needs to face his fears and embrace the fact that speed and skill is what wins games in hockey in 2018, even in the playoffs.  Yes, Milano will make mistakes, but so have the guys who have played in place of him.  Show faith in your young players.  They are the future of this team and they didn’t let you down for the 82 games that preceded this series.  Don’t abandon them now because of fear, embrace them as your hope.  Depth is your advantage, press your advantage.  Divide playing time more equally not just because you expect these games to go to overtime, but because it is to your advantage even over 60 minutes of hockey.  Torts needs to think about his own motto in a new way.  When it comes to coaching playoff games in 2018, Safe Is Death.

Whiteout Whitewashing: Jets take the series with Game 5 shutout victory

 

For the first time since the birth of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise 19 years ago, the team will see the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the city of Winnipeg, a 31-year wait has ended with thunderous applause.

For Minnesota, however, an arduous struggle has ended in back-to-back blankings at the hands of a Jets squad that far outclassed them. The Wild fought as best they could, but with the absence of Ryan Suter on defense, and the loss of Zach Parise after Game 3, the tools for them to compete with a stacked Winnipeg roster just weren’t there. Pile on some notably lackluster performances from key players like Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle (all held scoreless in the series) and there was really no hope to overcome the juggernaut Jets.

The Wild knew to have any shot at surviving Game 5 they’d need to play the perfect road game and try to keep the Jets from building momentum and getting the raucous crowd involved. This strategy lasted all of 31 seconds.

A strong opening shift was capped off when Jacob Trouba received a cross-ice pass from Mark Scheifele at the top of the right circle, took a few strides towards the net and ripped a wrist shot past Devan Dubnyk to ignite Bell MTS Place in the first minute.

A Winnipeg penalty shortly after the goal threatened to kill the energy, but strong work on the PK kept the tide in the Jets’ favor, and shortly after the conclusion of the penalty Trouba (who had himself a game) nearly scored on an odd-man rush, before nearly tipping home a follow-up shot right after. Dubnyk was trying desperately to keep his team alive and settle things down.

Unfortunately for the Minnesota netminder, his efforts were for nothing, as on the following faceoff Dustin Byfuglien let go a wrist shot from the right point that Bryan Little redirected beautifully past an unsuspecting Dubnyk for the 2-0 lead, still just 5:42 into the game.

Still the Jets kept coming, and the Wild had no answer. A Brandon Tanev shot nearly went in off the skate of Dubnyk after bouncing off of the end boards. Then Niederreiter tried to create a scoring opportunity by dancing around one Winnipeg defender only to get blown up by Big Buff as he attempted to let the shot go. Then Tanev, apparently upset at his previous failure, stripped a fumbling Jonas Brodin of the puck at his defensive blueline and fired a quick turnaround wrister through Dubnyk before he had time to react, Winnipeg taking a 3-0 lead with 8:50 to play. Tanev’s first career playoff goal.

Just 49 seconds later things went from calamity to catastrophe when an initial attempt from Andrew Copp rebounded out high to a locked and loaded Byfuglien, who proceeded to unload a bomb that redirected off of Joel Armia (his first playoff goal, just to stick with the theme) and into the net.

It was now 4-0 with 8:01 to play in the first period, and a mercy pulling was in order. Bruce Boudreau sent Alex Stalock in to relieve Dubnyk of his nightmare, and he returned to the bench to a standing reception from his teammates. Captain Mikko Koivu walked down to the end of the bench after Dubnyk sat down, seemingly to say “We’re sorry, this is on us.” to his visibly emotional goaltender.

Winnipeg fans, however, did not share in Koivu’s sympathies, as a chant of “We Want Dubnyk” rang out not long after the resumption of play. Apparently even after a long, cold winter, Winnipeg still has plenty of salt to go around.

The period ended with the Jets outshooting Minnesota 13-7, but the play was even more lopsided than that would indicate.

Early in the second Minnesota got their proverbial “This one just isn’t going to go your way” sign from the hockey gods, as a Mikael Granlund rush drew Connor Hellebuyck out of his net, giving Granlund an open cage to tuck a wraparound into, only to see the puck sail across the crease along the goal line and bounce off of multiple Winnipeg skates just inches from paydirt, only to be cleared away.

Minnesota did finally gain some offensive traction to their credit, though the second notable opportunity was a Niederreiter rush that was met with a shot block and subsequent leveling hit by Trouba. Ironically even though they controlled a lot of the play early in the second, the Wild would not record a shot for nearly eight minutes of play.

The game’s only real notable save came from the left pad of Stalock who denied a seemingly sure-thing one-timer right on the doorstep at the bottom of the left circle from Scheifele just past the game’s halfway mark.

A Wild power play around the 11:00 mark brought some more offensive traction to the visitors, who had a few quality chances on the power play followed up by a Niederreiter breakaway all turned aside. Jason Zucker found iron on a later power play, but Hellebucyk simply couldn’t be solved.

The Jets put a stamp on the game just 32 seconds into the third with a beautiful high-low-high passing sequence from Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, and Scheifele capped off by a beautiful one-time rip from #55 into the net from the low slot.

Sensing victory was now firmly in hand, the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd started to take over the third period. Multiple renditions of Bananarama’s ‘Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye’ were belted out in perfect harmony at numerous points in the frame, starting with the initial performance just after the puck had dropped following the 5-0 goal.

When Hellebucyk made a great stop on Matt Cullen off of a Marcus Foligno rebound, the crowd responded with the wave, then some more Bananarama.

Blake Wheeler nearly made it 6-0 on a beautiful backhand tip of a Scheifele centering pass, but the hockey gods had decided enough was enough, so it found the crossbar and vacated the goal crease without further incident.

‘We Want Nashville!’ is now the chant. Bold, Winnipeg. Bold.

Later in the period a fan took a deflected puck to the face, only to be tossed a towel by Matt Hendricks (making his series debut) and signal to everyone in attendance that they were still very much alive, drawing a rousing round of applause.

The standing ovation started with 2:30 to play, and was only interrupted by an obligatory singalong to ‘Sweet Caroline’ at 2:10. The final minute of play was basically just one long explosion of noise as the city erupted into a party that I assume will still be occurring when the sun rises. On Monday.

In the end, Connor Hellebucyk posted his second-consecutive shutout to seal the series, and the Parise-less Wild fail to score a single goal. It’s hard for Minnesota to argue that injuries were the only reason they couldn’t climb this mountain, as Winnipeg faced games without Tyler Myers, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey among others, and played the entire series without Toby Enstrom. It just speaks to their incredible depth that even when missing key contributors they could still trounce Minnesota with relative ease.

Now with a long rest ahead of them to get healthy before a likely (at least as of this writing) Second Round matchup for the ages with Nashville, the Jets have a little time to celebrate before looking towards what lay ahead.

Special shoutout to 20-year veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen, who may have just played the final game of a fantastic career.

Snowed Under: Wild fall 2-0 to Jets, face 3-1 series defecit

 

In the midst of a Minnesota snowstorm, the hometown crowd watched their hopes all but buried as the Wild were simply unable to overcome their laundry list of injuries and a suffocating Winnipeg defense.

Already without Ryan Suter, the Wild took another hammering blow late in Game 3 when Zach Parise got sandwiched by Mark Scheifele and Ben Chiarot and suffered a fractured sternum (side note: ouch) that rules him out of the rest of the playoffs. Parise’s spot in the lineup would be filled by Tyler Ennis, seeing his first NHL playoff action since 2011 when the diminutive forward was a member of the Buffalo Sabres.

Winnipeg was not without their own injury problems, losing Tyler Myers after an awkward collision with Marcus Foligno in Game 3. Though not as key an element to his team as Parise is to the Wild, Myers still eats a lot of quality minutes on the Winnipeg blueline. Young Tucker Poolman would taste his first ever playoff action as he filled in for the towering Myers.

The game started much the same as it ended…and middle-d…you know what I mean.

Tight checking, excellent stick position, and a near-complete lack of offensive chances were a theme in this one. Not to say that there wasn’t action, as from the opening puck drop the two teams continued the series’ main theme: That is, both teams spent every shift actively trying to kill each other. Arguably 2018’s roughest series so far, it isn’t even so much the quantity of hits we’ve seen in this one, but moreso that every hit we do see is thrown with seemingly as much force as it can possibly be delivered with. No great wonder why so many players are nursing injuries.

Other than a brief flurry by Winnipeg that Devan Dubnyk answered with three or four quality stops about 8:30 into the frame, the opening 10 minutes had little to speak of in terms of scoring opportunities.

Finally it was Minnesota who started to find some traction, first coming from an unlikely source in their fourth line of Foligno – Joel Eriksson EkDaniel Winnik, who deployed an effective dump and chase strategy, sending two forecheckers in hard and fast to get the Winnipeg defense in deep, then working the puck free to a second wave usually of the third forward and a pinching defenseman. All Minnesota lines adopted the strategy for a solid few minutes in the late first, and all had decent chances, including Nino Niederreiter feeding Eric Staal right in the goal mouth, only to have an excellent backhand chance waffled away by Connor Hellebuyck. Shortly after, Minnesota’s sustained pressure forced the Jets into a penalty, and on the resulting power play Josh Morrissey got away with an egregious cross-check to the face/neck of Staal, who lay on the ice for a few seconds before slowly making his was to the bench all while play continued around him. The Minnesota crowd was…less than pleased.

To continue their displeasure, shortly after the penalty concluded, it would be Morrissey starting a breakout to Scheifele, who played a give-and-go with Kyle Connor beautifully, taking Connor’s drop pass in the low slot and ripping a snapshot through traffic and over Dubnyk with just 28 seconds left to play, sending the Minnesota crowd into a symphony of boos so loud I think P.K. Subban actually might have heard them.

Minnesota ended the period leading 10-7 in shots, but down on the board. Shot blocking was a major theme of the first period, and the game, really. It also contributed to the growing list of banged up players, as both Mathew Dumba and Dustin Byfuglien left the ice at different points in the first because of shot blocks.

The second started with a bang, as on the opening shift the Wild jumped on a turnover by Jacob Trouba and flew up the ice on a three-on-one lead by Mikael Granlund. #64 in green showed Hellebucyk shot all the way, but with just inches to spare sent a pass across the crease to Dumba who looked to have a sure goal, before the glove of Hellebucyk robbed him blind. A few minutes later Jonas Brodin sprung Niederreiter on a breakaway with an unbelievable stretch pass (that frankly I have no idea how Nino even managed to corral on his stick) but just before he could get the shot off a desperate Morrissey poked the puck off of his stick and clear of danger.

Dubnyk would see little action of serious consequence in the middle frame, a few whacks at a centered puck in the blue paint by Adam Lowry the only real threat of the second 20 minutes. The Wild did, however, lose Granlund for a few minutes in the middle of the frame, but he would return to finish the game. Also of note was Dumba taking a run at Byfuglien, which worked out about as well as you’d expect.

Late in the period Brodin nearly played hero himself, absolutely dancing a Winnipeg defender at the blueline and walking in to label a wrist shot for the high blocker side of Hellebucyk, but the newly-elected Vezina candidate had the answer, as was the case all night.

By the end of the second the Wild lead 20-19 on the shot clock, but struggled to find room to construct any serious chances.

The Jets took the attack to Minnesota for stretches of the third, attempting to prevent them from even having the chance to tie the game. An early chance by Joe Morrow found a goal post, and later Scheifele found one of his own, which created some chaos around the Wild goal that Dubnyk had to tidy up. Laine then got a breakaway opportunity in the dying minutes of the third that was harassed just enough by Spurgeon to allow Dubnyk to poke the puck away before any harm could come.

It took Minnesota until just under two minutes remaining to gain enough solid puck possession to get Dubnyk off, but the extra attacker still couldn’t help them solve the labyrinth that was Winnipeg’s defensive scheme, and Scheifele buried the 2-0 dagger with 10 seconds remaining to seal Minnesota’s fate.

Outshot 30-28, the Jets took the first road victory of the series, giving them the chance to win the first playoff series in franchise history in front of what will surely be a raucous Winnipeg Whiteout crowd on Friday night (DTFR coverage brought to you again by yours truly).

How Minnesota finds a way to extend this series is beyond me. The injuries to key players just seem to be too much for them to overcome. They’ll need nothing short of a miracle to make it back to Xcel Energy Center for Game 6.

Columbus sitting pretty with 2-0 lead

 

Another overtime game, another Columbus Blue Jackets victory, as they beat the Washington Capitals 5-4 to take a two-tilt advantage going into Game 3.

Even though it was challenged for offsides, First Star of the Game LW Matt Calvert (D Zach Werenski and RW Josh Anderson) scored his fourth career postseason goal – and second-ever playoff overtime winner – to etch his name into Jackets lore on an elevated wrist shot to the near post from along the goal line with 7:38 remaining in the first overtime period.

For a franchise that has never escaped the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blue Jackets are a mighty confident team right now. Going back to the regular season, Columbus has earned a 15-2-2 record in its last 19 games played and is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

That being said, tonight was not a game in which Columbus dominated play. That was made apparent right from the opening puck drop, as F Jay Beagle (D Brooks Orpik and D Jakub Jerabek) scored Washington’s first shot on goal to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage. That lead doubled to two 11:14 later when Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (D John Carlson and F T.J. Oshie) scored a power play slap shot from his usual spot in the left face-off circle.

In all, the Capitals out-shot the Blue Jackets 58-30, earning a dominating 28-shot differential that effectively demonstrated just how much action was taking place in G Sergei Bobrovsky‘s end.

However, it was the incredible play of Bobrovsky – who saved 54-of-58 shots faced (.931 save percentage) and earns the honorary DtFR Fourth Star – that not only kept the Jackets alive defensively, but also allowed Columbus to set up an effective counterattack on numerous occasions.

Enter Second Star RW Cam Atkinson with 1:35 remaining in the first period. Having been the Jacket called for the goalie interference penalty that allowed Ovechkin to find the back of the net 4:59 earlier, Atkinson (F Nick Foligno) collected a long stretch pass that crossed both blue lines to beat G Philipp Grubauer‘s left skate to the post with a wrister, pulling Columbus back within a goal.

Even though it came late in the period, Atkinson’s play signified a major turning point in this game. The tally came on the heels of the conclusion of two minutes of four-on-four play (F Pierre-Luc Dubois and F Evgeny Kuznetsov were charged with corresponding slashing minors) that certainly boosted the confidence of Columbus’ defense.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Washington to try to reclaim control after the intermission – and it did with a little help from F Brandon Dubinsky, who accidentally removed Carlson’s helmet with a hi-stick while hitting W Devante Smith-Pelly.

The power play is usually Ovechkin’s (C Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson) time to shine, and he didn’t disappoint by burying another one of his patented clappers at the 4:09 mark of the frame – only eight seconds after Dubinsky took his seat in the sin bin.

However, a two-goal advantage is all the Caps could manage, as the Jackets started to turn the tides in their favor to score three goals before the second intermission.

Getting back to the counterattack point from earlier, Anderson (Werenski and LW Artemi Panarin) was the next beneficiary at the 8:49 mark of the frame. After W Brett Connolly fell down in the corner to Bobrovsky’s right, Anderson pounced on the newly vacated puck to set up a five-on-two rush for Columbus. With such a man-advantage, it’s no surprise that the Jackets were able to pass the puck back-and-forth enough times to confuse Grubauer and pull themselves back within a one-goal differential.

The theme of Game 1 was unwise and untimely penalties, and the Capitals decided to reprise that story line for the remainder of the second frame with two such infractions that resulted in Columbus goals.

First was a RW Tom Wilson roughing penalty against D Seth Jones with 9:24 remaining in the period. Like so often happens in a hockey game – regardless of if it is in the regular season or playoffs – there was a little scrum in front of Grubauer’s net after he froze the puck. However, Wilson took offense to this one in particular and elected to literally jump into the fray and take Jones down to the ice. In turn, Atkinson (Panarin and Jones) made his stay in the penalty box only 37 seconds long after tying the game with a power play wrister.

Old habits die hard, so it only makes sense that Smith-Pelly was sent to the box with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission for a holding the stick penalty. This power play lasted 1:12, but the net result as the same: Werenski (RW Oliver Bjorkstrand and Panarin) scoring another goal for the Blue Jackets, giving them their first lead of the night.

With the rumored hockey gods distributing power play goals like Oprah gives away household appliances, it’s only logical that the Capitals would be handed one last opportunity to level the game when Werenski flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game infraction with 4:51 remaining in regulation.

Still looking for his first goal of the 2018 postseason, Oshie (Backstrom and Carlson) capitalized on the man-advantage to bury a power play snap shot, tying the game at 4-4 with 3:35 remaining in regulation.

But wait, there’s more! After Oshie scored, F Boone Jenner didn’t like him very much so he tripped him with 1:59 remaining in regulation. That’s right, ladies and gentleman: Jenner decided to give the regular season’s seventh-best power play a shot at winning this game in regulation.

Fortunately for Jenner, he escaped the wrath of Head Coach John Tortorella when Wilson absolutely whiffed on an excellent opportunity, allowing the game to advance into overtime which eventually ended in Columbus’ favor.

Though he didn’t start the game, G Braden Holtby takes the overtime loss after saving seven-of-eight shots faced (.875 save percentage) in the third period and overtime. He replaced Grubauer, who saved 18-of-22 (.818) and earned no decision, following the second intermission.

Of note, W Andre Burakovsky suffered an upper body injury on his first shift of the game, meaning the Capitals played almost the entire contest with only 11 forwards. It remains to be seen what his status for Game 3 and beyond will be for Washington.

After a short flight west to Central Ohio, Game 3 will take place at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, April 17 at Nationwide Arena. American viewers can catch the game on NBCSN, while Canada will be serviced by SN360 and TVAS.

April 4 – Day 175 – Which team will Wild Wing pull for?

There’s not much happening in the world of hockey tonight, as there’s only three games on the schedule in anticipation of an important busy weekend.

First up is Ottawa at Buffalo (SN1/SN360/TVAS) at 7:30 p.m., followed half an hour later by Chicago at St. Louis (NBCSN). Finally, Minnesota visits Anaheim (SN1/SN360) at 10 p.m. to close out the evening’s festivities. All times Eastern.

In terms of percentages, there’s rivalries galore tonight. That will play an especially important role in Missouri, as there’s nothing more the Blackhawks want to do than spoil St. Louis’ playoff push.

However, the tilt that deserves the most attention this evening is taking place on the West Coast between two teams that, though they may not be rivals, are hoping to meet in the Western Conference Finals.

 

You’re hard pressed to find a hotter team in the Pacific Division than 41-25-13 Anaheim, currently the Western Conference’s first wild card. The Ducks have posted a 7-1-1 record over their past nine games to keep pace with the Kings in the race for third place in the Pacific.

As would be expected by a team with such an impressive record over the last three weeks, there’s been little Anaheim has done wrong during this run. With five skaters having scored at least six points in their last nine games, the Ducks’ offense is averaging an impressive 3.22 goals per game since March 14 to rank 12th-best in the NHL in that time.

However, the Ducks’ attack has paled in comparison to their effort on the defensive end. Led by D Francois Beauchemin (1.6 blocks per game since March 14), C Ryan Getzlaf (13 takeaways in his last eight games) and D Josh Manson (3.6 hits per game during this run), Anaheim has allowed only 30.22 shots against per game since March 14, the eighth-lowest mark in the NHL in that span.

A major note concerning Anaheim’s defense this evening is the absence of D Cam Fowler, who took a strong hit from W Blake Comeau along the boards in Sunday’s game against Colorado. He’d been averaging two blocks per game during the Ducks’ impressive streak and will leave a sizable hole for whoever fills his spot on the blue line.

That being said, it’s not like 31-18-7 G John Gibson has needed all that much help to find success. Having posted a .926 save percentage and 2.43 GAA for the entire season, his defense playing so well in front of him lately has helped him manage an even better .936 save percentage and 1.9 GAA in his last nine starts.

Between Gibson and his defense, Anaheim has allowed only 2.11 goals against per game since March 14, the third-best mark in the NHL over the past three weeks.

Unfortunately, Gibson was another victim of the Avalanche on Sunday, and his upper-body injury is going to make him unavailable for at least tonight’s game. That puts 9-6-6 G Ryan Miller, who completed the 4-3 overtime victory against the Avs, in the spotlight for the undetermined future. Miller has managed a .925 save percentage and 2.51 GAA for the season.

Based on those marks being comparable to Gibson’s and the defense the Ducks have been playing lately, I’d assume it will be business as usual on The Pond this evening provided Fowler’s replacement can perform half as well as he usually does.

Another team playing some spectacular hockey of late are the 44-25-10 Wild, the Central Division’s third place club. Minnesota has posted a 5-1-3 record over its past nine showings, including wins over Vegas and Nashville.

Both the Golden Knights and Predators are certainly capable of lighting up a scoreboard, yet they combined for only three goals in their losses to Minnesota. That’s been a normal occurrence for the Wild during this run, as they’ve allowed only 1.89 goals against per game since March 16, the (t)best mark in the league in that time.

Minnesota’s incredible defense has been a major reason for that success, as it has allowed only 28.33 shots against per game during this run – the third-lowest average in the NHL since March 16. Whether it’s been D Jonas Brodin (two blocks per game since March 16), LW Marcus Foligno (2.6 hits per game during this run) or W Jason Zucker (eight takeaways in his past nine games), the Wild excel at making life extremely difficult on opposing attacks.

Just like Anaheim, Minnesota will also be missing a vital part of its defense for the extended future. D Ryan Suter is out indefinitely with a fractured fibula suffered in Dallas Saturday night. D Carson Soucy made his NHL debut filling in for Suter in the Wild’s first game without him (a 3-0 win over the Oilers), firing three shots and throwing two hits in 15:26 of play on the third pair.

Part of the reason the Wild aren’t in terrible shape without Suter is because they have 34-15-7 G Devan Dubnyk manning the pipes. Though this campaign has been far from the 2015 Masterton-winner’s best – he has a .918 save percentage and 2.52 GAA on the season – Dubnyk has been exemplary when it matters most. In his last seven starts, Dubnyk has managed a .939 save percentage and 1.68 GAA, and he’ll be called upon tonight to stop a hungry Anaheim attack.

With the Wild making the trip into Los Angeles tomorrow night, there were questions whether Dubnyk or 10-10-3 G Alex Stalock, would be in net this evening. According to Michael Russo of The Athletic yesterday at 6 p.m. Eastern, Dubnyk has been confirmed as tonight’s starter.

Not only have the Wild already clinched a spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they need only one point in their remaining three games (or one St. Louis loss of any variety in its last three games) to be locked into third place in the Central Division.

That 5-7-2 record was a long time ago, wasn’t it Minnesota?

If only the future were so certain for the Ducks. Currently the Western Conference’s first wild card, there’s still a chance Anaheim could miss the postseason altogether.

Of course, two points tonight can make the Ducks’ footing a little more certain, as they would jump Los Angeles for third place in the Pacific Division with only two games to play for both clubs.

Both of the first two meetings between these sides were so close, they required more than 60 minutes to determine a winner.

Game 1 took place on December 8 at The Pond, where the Wild claimed a 3-2 overtime victory (D Mathew Dumba scored the game-winner). However, Minnesota couldn’t successfully defend home ice when the Ducks came to St. Paul on February 17, as Anaheim stole a 3-2 shootout win (LW Nick Ritchie claimed First Star honors for ending the 11-round shootout).

The fact that the Ducks have an offense that is playing slightly better lately paired with home ice advantage leads me to thinking Anaheim should earn two points tonight. However, as well as Minnesota’s defense has been performing, it just might be able to force overtime to lock in its playoff position.


Led by First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s 33-save shutout, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Boston Bruins 4-0 at Amalie Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Between Tampa’s defense holding the Bruins to only eight shots on goal and G Tuukka Rask saving all 17 shots the Bolts managed to send his way, this game had the looks of a tight affair after the first period ended scoreless.

That all changed in the second period, as Tampa registered three of its four goals in the span of 9:26, starting with F Brayden Point‘s (RW Nikita Kucherov and Second Star D Braydon Coburn) game-winning wrist shot at the 5:01 mark.

Kucherov deserves a lot of credit for setting up this goal, as the way he skated circles around LW Brad Marchand and C Patrice Bergeron to get the puck into the offensive zone would probably be a suitable audition for hockey’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Once Kucherov reached the left face-off circle, he flung a pass across the zone to Point, who proceeded to rip his wrister from above the right face-off circle. Though it was a long distance, Point’s dart to the far post sneaked under Rask’s right arm and into the back of the net.

But the Lightning were far from done with that tally. D Victor Hedman (Coburn and Third Star RW Ryan Callahan) doubled Tampa Bay’s advantage 5:58 later with a slap shot, followed by LW Chris Kunitz‘ (Callahan and D Dan Girardi) wrister setting the score at 3-0 with 5:33 remaining in the frame.

Even though the Bruins out-shot the Bolts 12-3 in the third period, F J.T. Miller was the only player to score in the final frame. He buried his unassisted snap shot 2:34 into the period to set the 4-0 final score.

While Vasilevskiy was busy earning his eighth shutout of the season, Rask saved 32-of-36 shots faced in the loss (.889 save percentage).

With Tampa’s victory at Amalie Arena, the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a 100-54-21 record that is 48 points better than the roadies’.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 19

Skater of the Week: Nico Hischier

Boy, what a devil of a week for this kid, huh? HUH? (not even crickets chirp for this pun)

In four games, the 19-year-old centerman put up four goals (one in each game) and three assists for seven points, and is currently riding a five-game point streak overall. A +8 through the first three games was marred slightly by a -2 in the final game of the week, but any coach would gladly take a +6 week for any of his players. Perhaps the best stat in all of this, though, is Hischier’s shooting percentage throughout the four-game goal streak. In those four games, Hischier has only fired seven total shots at the net, leaving him with a ridiculous .57 shooting percentage.

With 39 points in 59 games, the league’s most recent first-overall pick is having himself a very solid year. With his Devils entrenched in the knock-down, drag-out dogfight that is the Metropolitan playoff race, he’ll need to continue his strong play to help New Jersey go from the basement to the playoffs.

Tendy of the Week: Antti Raanta

The Arizona Coyotes have won four consecutive games. This is not a drill.

For the first time since January of 2016, the ‘Yotes have strung together four straight, and Raanta is arguably the entire reason for it. In three starts and one relief appearance throughout the week, Raanta managed to string together a 3-0-0 record with a .976 save percentage and 0.91 GAA. The Finnish netminder started the week stopping 37-of-38 against Chicago, before stopping all 12 shots he faced against San Jose, turned aside 34-of-36 attempts by Montreal, and capped the week with a 40-save blanking of Edmonton.

Obviously Arizona is in no position to even entertain the idea of a playoff run, but they can at least have some confidence in the performance of Raanta this year. He currently holds a .924 save percentage and 2.45 GAA on the season, and is two wins under .500 on a very bad team.

Game of the Week: New Jersey Devils 5 @ Philadelphia Flyers 4 (SO), Tuesday February 13th, 2018

Who would have guessed that two bitter rivals fighting for position in the division standings would produce a fun game?

71 shots and 51 hits in a game that saw no major penalties looks a lot like a playoff stat line. Just good, hard hockey.

Things would get rolling shortly into the opening frame, as Claude Giroux fed a speeding Travis Konecny with a beautiful backhand stretch pass, allowing Konecny to steam past Will Butcher across the New Jersey blueline before firing a beautiful wrister past the blocker of Keith Kinkaid and putting the Flyers up 1-0 just 1:54 into the game.

The rest of the first and first few minutes of the second would pass scoreless, due in part to solid netminding, and arguably moreso to a symphony of goalposts. But 4:06 into the second the Devils finally knotted the scored, as Taylor Hall streaked down the left wing side and found just enough daylight between Michal Neuvirth and the post to squeak in the 1-1 tally. Hall would get absolutely buried by Radko Gudas just as the puck was finding its way into the net, but the hit was clean and Hall shoo’d away the tweetie birds in short order and looked none the worse for wear. Just 43 seconds later the Flyers would reestablish their lead as Michael Raffl took an indirect pass off the end boards from Andrew MacDonald and fed a turnaround pass to Scott Laughton in the slot, who managed to get just enough of it to get it past the pad of Kinkaid and across the goal line. Then about six minutes later a Radko Gudas point shot would redirect off of a New Jersey stick past Kinkaid to put the Flyers up 3-1, before John Moore would answer at the 13:17 mark with a bomb from the point that blurred past the glove of Neuvirth and drew the Devils back within one. Just under three minutes later it would be Philly captain Claude Giroux firing home a power-play goal from the left circle, but just 10 seconds later Nico Hischier would again cut the lead to one heading into the third.

Neuvirth and co. held the fort for nearly the entire third period, but a jam play in front would create a loose puck for a circling Taylor Hall who would pounce and send the game to overtime. The extra frame saw a pair of dazzling glove stops (Neuvirth on Hall just seconds in, and Kinkaid on a Voracek redirect with just over a minute remaining), but no more pucks would find twine until Drew Stafford continued his shootout mastery in the second round of the skills competition, and a Kinkaid stop on Voracek would end the game and give the Devils the victory.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Four ‘Blackhawks fans’ (I use the term loosely, as no one I’ve ever encountered that roots for the Hawks deserves to be lumped in with these lowlifes) were booted from the arena and later issued a permanent ban by the organization for shouting racial taunts at Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly as he was serving a penalty. Personally, I think they should have been invited into the penalty box with DSP as part of their punishment, but that’s just my opinion.

Speaking of the Blackhawks and Capitals, the two teams made a deal that sees defenseman Michal Kempny head to D.C., while a third round pick finds its way back to the Windy City, likely to be turned into a superstar player because Stan Bowman is a wizard.

Also on the trade front are rumors of Petr Mrazek being dealt to Philadelphia, who are currently relying upon third-stringer Alex Lyon after injuries to Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. As someone who owned Mrazek on their fantasy team at one point this season, I feel I am qualified to ask the Flyers why in the name of all that is holy they would want to do such a thing.

Editor’s note: Pete’s crystal ball was on point Monday night. Mrazek was shipped to Philadelphia in return for two draft picks: a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 and a conditional third-round pick in 2019. Detroit retained half of the goaltender’s salary. Read our recap here.

Nick Foligno is out for what looks to be a couple of weeks, and I’m not crying, you’re crying.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament has been even weirder than we could have predicted, but after an early hiccup it looks like the Artists Formerly Known as Russia are set to steamroll everything in their path just as it appeared they should on paper.

Barry Trotz became just the fifth coach in league history to coach 1,500 games. Don’t let his ‘angry Russian mob boss’ looks fool you, Trotz is one of the nicest humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and I’d like to extend a sincere congratulations to him.

Dion Phaneuf and Marian Gaborik changed places, in a move that would have been landscape-shifting in the NHL in about 2008. Phaneuf did score in his first game as a King, because the hockey gods are just having all sorts of fun at Ottawa’s expense this year.

 

It’s looking more and more likely (depending on who you ask, anyway) that we could see Erik Karlsson dealt at the deadline. I’m not sure what sort of return that would yield, but considering some believe Jack Johnson is worth a first round pick, I’d have to assume that the Sens would legally own the first-born child of the other involved GM.

Why Jackets Fans Need to Step Off the Ledge

This has definitely not been the season that Jackets fans had hoped for in September or even the season it seemed like it would be in late October.  Sitting outside of a playoff spot with a week to go before the trade deadline is less than ideal.  With the Devils now seven points ahead of the Jackets with 23 games left, the only spot left for them in the playoffs may be the eighth seed and a first round matchup against Tampa Bay, a team they have struggled mightily against this year.

Even if they went on a tear and somehow got the sixth or seventh seed, they would likely find themselves playing the Penguins or Capitals in round one, two other teams they have not played particularly well against.  The loss yesterday to Pittsburgh was not encouraging–a team built around speed looked slow and lethargic compared to the Pens (even more amazing when you consider the Jackets are the younger team) and the Jackets’ Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky again struggled to solve the Penguins.

Many fans are frustrated.  They want results and are tired of waiting.  I certainly understand this, but I also think that perspective is needed and last year’s unexpected season probably had us thinking the team was closer than it was just as the prior season’s disastrous performance had us thinking the team was further away that it actually was.

I’m going to take you back in time to April of 2016 at the end of that disastrous season when I wrote the following on another site:

So, a Jackets team that is capable of winning the Cup has those basic ingredients–an elite defenseman, an elite center, solid goaltending and forward depth.  The Jackets do not possess all of these things, clearly and you could argue that the 2015-16 Jackets had none of those things.  So, what is a reasonable timeline to get to the destination?

I am going to argue that the Jackets are closer than you think, but that the timeframe to get there is longer than you want it to be.  I believe this team can compete for a Cup in three years.

Three years.  This is year two.  Yes, it seems that the team has taken one step forward and one step back since then, but things are still on schedule.

Let’s start by looking at elite defensemen.  Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is as good of a pair as any in the NHL.  In 2016, this was still a question mark because we hadn’t seen Werenski.  This has been solved.  Beyond the top pair, there are some issues that will need to be addressed, but this could be resolved through players in the pipeline.  Markus Nutivaara has really shown his worth this season.  Gabriel Carlsson is still in Cleveland.  Vladislav Gavrikov will spend another year in the KHL–shout out to the NHL for deciding not to go to the Olympics!  Before he was hobbled with injuries, Ryan Murray was solid.  Beyond Jones, the right side is the weakness.  Savard has had a horrible year.  David Savard will get another chance next year likely paired with Nutivaara or Carlsson as Jack Johnson will not be back.  Maybe a new partner will reinvigorate him.  If not, one of the lefties will need to take that spot.  Either way, keep in mind that Jones and Werenski will play monster minutes in any future playoff run and the bottom pair will play minimal minutes.  They just need to get a top-four that works consistently.

Pierre-Luc Dubois has exceeded expectations.  His even-strength CF% within 1 is second only to Artemi Panarin for Jackets’ regulars (Zac Dalpe is the statistical anomaly at #1 due to small sample size).  His size, speed and willingness to drive to the net could make him a player in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf.  He’s the center the franchise has always needed.  There may be growing pains, but the potential is there and the work ethic also seems to be there.

Forward depth.  Let’s start with the positive.  The Jackets have a wealth of options on the right side.  Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand can all be scoring threats and they do it in their own unique ways.  Anderson’s size and speed make him a tough guy to defend.  Atkinson also possesses speed, but has more agility and creativity.  Bjorkstrand is a sniper who is also become a solid defender despite his size.  Meanwhile, Vitaly Abramov has picked up right where he left off last season in the QMJHL.  It is unclear if he’ll make the team next year or spend a year in Cleveland, but Abramov has a high upside.

On the left side, Panarin has been everything he was billed to be, but he has also impressed me with his play away from the puck more than I expected.  Matt Calvert always gives 100 percent.  Other than those two, this has been part of the team’s struggles this season.  Before yesterday’s injury, Nick Foligno has not looked as quick as he has when the team is at its best.

But, there is some good news.  For one, I don’t think Sonny Milano has been as bad as some would have you believe and I think maybe Torts needs to relax with the kid just a bit and find line mates who can cover for his deficiencies as he works on them.  This team was at its best this year when Milano was in the lineup.   The Jackets either need to give Milano another chance at second line left wing or they need to find someone else to fill that role so that Foligno can slot in on the third line.

The Jackets have center depth, it just seems that, outside of Dubois, every center is slotted about 1 spot above where they should be.  Alexander Wennberg‘s 2016-17 performance was inflated by unsustainable power play production.  Once Wennberg stopped producing on power play (January of last year), his overall performance trailed off and frankly, it hasn’t rebounded.  I’ll probably write about this at more length, but despite what you may have read elsewhere, his struggles are real.  The Jackets options are (1) upgrade Wennberg or (2) fix the problem on the second line left wing and hope that improves Wennberg’s production.  Given that Wennberg is never going to produce his own goals and the Jackets’ competition has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the first route may be the better route, but it is also the more expensive route.

The other issue may be Brandon Dubinsky.  No, I’m not all that concerned that he has “career-threatening issues” as some have reported.  I’m more concerned that the reporting has created a rift and lead him to want out.  Stan Fischler suggested this on a recent broadcast. Trying to move Dubinsky would be a real challenge.  Beyond that, Dubi playing on the third (or fourth) line is exactly the sort of depth we need.  The team may need to rebuild this relationship and hopefully certain journalists can avoid fanning the flames further.

In the pipeline and under the radar is Kevin Stenlund, who has been playing in Europe. Stenlund could challenge Lukas Sedlak next year for a roster spot or play a season in Cleveland with Abramov, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for both players.

While it has been a disappointing season in Cleveland as well, there are still some guys there who could provide the Jackets some needed depth.  Paul Bittner, Calvin Thurkauf and Tyler Motte are still young and could be nice additions to the bottom six.

The drags on the Jackets speed game and possession statistics may soon be moved.  Johnson has reportedly demanded a trade, and I’d like to personally thank him for that.  If reports are true that he could yield a first round pick (or more), that is very good news for the Jackets.  On a sadder note, Boone Jenner is probably in need of a change of scenery.  He doesn’t seem to mesh well with what the Jackets are attempting to do.  He could also still yield a valuable asset in return and could create some cap space for the offseason to address some of the issues raised above and to start dealing with extensions for key players like Panarin and Werenski.

Which leaves us with goaltending.  While I believe Joonas Korpisalo is an improvement over his predecessor, there remains a $9 million (plus?) question with respect to Bobrovsky after next year.  That’s a conservative estimate of what the two-time Vezina winner might seek on his next contract.  At 30-years-old, he’s also likely going to be seeking a six-eight year deal.  That is a large commitment to a player who has yet to come up big when it matters most.  The Rangers and Canadiens have two great goaltenders making $8.5 million and $10.5 million next year.  They are also both out of the playoffs this year with the Rangers having sent a letter to fans breaking it to them gently that they will be deadline sellers.

There is no doubt that the Jackets would be even worse without Bob, but the question has to be asked if the team can afford to tie up that much cap space in one player.  If not, this is the offseason they have to start dealing with the transition.  Does that mean buying out Elvis Merzlikins’ contract with Lugano so the 23-year-old can come over to North America next year?  Does that mean making a deal to acquire a goaltender in case negotiations with Bob don’t work out?  Does that mean getting Korpisalo more playing time next year despite the theory that Bob doesn’t do well on long rest?  Or, does it mean doing the unthinkable–trading Bobrovsky and acquiring a replacement at a lower cap hit?  It is a difficult situation and one that could define the franchise going forward.

While it would hurt to miss the playoffs, I would not be bothered by getting the top 10 pick I fully expected the team to get last year.  That’s another asset that can either be flipped for immediate help or, the better option in my view, kept to sustain organizational depth into the future.

Regardless, the Jackets are closer now than they were two years ago, and still on schedule.  They have the center they needed.  They have the defensemen they needed.  And, for now, they have an elite goaltender though they need to make a decision about his future.  They also have players who can yield them assets at the deadline (and, in Jenner’s case, even at the draft) if they decide to move them.  The Jackets are not far away, if they can use these assets and some cap space to address their issues on the second line, they can be in a position to be a contender next year and beyond.

January 10 – Day 95 – There’s no place like home

There’s only two games on the schedule today, but for once I’m not complaining about either failing to live up to NBC’s promotion of “Wednesday Night Rivalry.”

The action starts in Toronto when Ottawa pays the Maple Leafs a visit at 7:30 p.m. (SN/TVAS) and Minnesota at Chicago (NBCSN) cleans up the evening’s festivities half an hour later. All times Eastern.

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

Is there any question of which game we’re featuring tonight? The winner of the Wild-Blackhawks game will be the eighth seed in the Western Conference! It’s off to the Windy City with us!

 

Tonight’s tilt is Game 4 in a five-game series between these clubs. Chicago owns a 2-1-0 record against the Wild so far this season, and another win tonight would clinch the season series – an important note considering it is the second tiebreaker at the end of the season and both of these clubs are currently competing for the last wild card.

Obviously, the 23-17-4 Wild, who currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference due to losing a games-played tiebreaker with both Chicago and Calgary, will have high hopes of leveling the series this evening. But do they have much of a chance of pulling it off?

I’m worried for them the answer is no. Minnesota has lost five of its last six road games (including one at United Center less than a month ago), including an active skid of four-straight. That run since December 17 makes the Wild the fourth-worst road team in the league, and it’s all because their defense simply doesn’t travel well.

Given, it’s not like Minnesota’s defense is all that spectacular in and of itself. The Wild allow 2.91 goals against per game for the season as a whole, the 14th-worst mark in the league.

However, in their six road games since December 17, the Wild have allowed a league-worst 25 goals against, or a second-worst 4.17 per game (the Wild would like to take this opportunity to thank the Islanders for allowing 16 goals in only three road games).

A major problem is Minnesota, even with LW Marcus Foligno throwing three hits per game, D Jared Spurgeon blocking 2.67 shots per game and W Jason Zucker averaging a takeaway-per-game, has allowed an average of 35 shots in each contest away from Xcel Energy Center since mid-December, a mark that is sixth-worst in the NHL in that time.

While Foligno’s, Spurgeon’s and Zucker’s efforts are impressive on their own, it seems to me to be a lack of commitment by the rest of the team on the defensive end – especially in terms of physicality. Foligno has not been afraid to rough up the opposition along the boards, but Matt Dumba has averaged the second-most hits-per-game during this section of games with only 1.67 to his credit. While physicality is only one aspect of playing defense, it seems to be lacking from Head Coach Bruce Boudreau‘s squad.

The icing… err, frosting, since icing is a penalty… on the cake though is the fact that the Wild’s defense has allowed all these shots of late against 7-8-2 G Alex Stalock. Most of this run came while 15-9-2 G Devan Dubnyk was recovering from his lower-body injury. Given how much he was getting peppered while filling in, I’d say Stalock did pretty well in his five most recent road starts. He posted a .914 save percentage and 2.93 GAA.

Dubnyk will be in goal tonight in only his second road game since returning to action. His first was that drubbing at the hands of the Avalanche where, due in large part to posing a .813 save percentage and 7.61 GAA, he lost his cool and tried to smash F Alexander Kerfoot‘s face into the ice. Perhaps the former Masterton Trophy-winner can keep his cool tonight, because his team desperately needs him to cover up for its defensive inefficiencies.

If last night’s 8-2 performance in Ottawa is any indication, it seems the 21-15-6 Blackhawks are starting to figure things out. Having won four of their past six games and earned a point in one of those losses, Chicago has surged into the second wild card and has pulled within three points of first wild card Dallas.

Since December 29, no offense has scored more goals than Chicago. The Hawks have managed an impressive 28 goals in six games, which averages into a second-best 4.67 per game behind Boston’s unbelievable 5.5 (for those that care, three of the top-five teams in goals-per-game since December 29 are in the Central Division).

While the usual suspects of C Jonathan Toews and F Patrick Kane have been impressive over this run, posting respective 5-4-9 and 3-6-9 totals, the Blackhawk that truly takes the cake is sophomore C Nick Schmaltz, who’s currently riding a four-game goal streak. He’s done it all for the Hawks lately, posting 5-5-10 totals to elevate his season marks to 12-19-31. Having already surpassed last year’s numbers, Schmaltz is poised to join the ranks of recent dominant Chicago forwards. How does one club get W Alex DeBrincat, Kane, LW Artemi Panarin (well, last season), Schmaltz and Toews all on the same team?

Just like Minnesota saved its top goaltender for the Hawks, 2-1-1 G Jeff Glass will probably be in net tonight for Chicago after 3-5-3 G Anton Forsberg played yesterday against the Sens. Playing his rookie season at 32-years-old, Glass has posted a .908 save percentage and 3.51 GAA in his first four NHL starts.

The United Center hasn’t been the imposing threat to road teams as it was only a year or two ago, but with an 11-6-2 record at home this season, I think the Blackhawks can find a way to pull this one out.


Though the Carolina Hurricanes gave them all they had, First Star of the Game F Tyler Johnson and the Tampa Bay Lightning was able to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day 5-4 at Amalie Arena.

Johnson was an unstoppable force throughout the entire game, as he registered a goal in each frame. However, before he struck his tally for the first period, three others found the net. First was LW Brock McGinn (RW Justin Williams and D Jaccob Slavin), who gave Carolina the advantage 3:23 into play with a power play wrist shot. Tampa pulled the game back even 6:39 later courtesy of a wrister from D Victor Hedman (RW Nikita Kucherov and C Steven Stamkos). The exchange of goals continued with 7:50 remaining in the period when W Sebastian Aho bagged an unassisted wrister, but Johnson (D Anton Stralman and Second Star F Brayden Point) set the score at 2-2 on a tip-in 4:16 later.

In terms of playing time, Johnson didn’t have to wait too long to find his second goal of the night. Only 1:58 into the second period, he (Third Star D Jake Dotchin and Point) gave Tampa its first lead of the night with a backhanded shot. However, Carolina continued to show its resilience when D Justin Faulk (F Teuvo Teravainen and F Jordan Staal) scored a power play wrister 8:38 later, leveling the game at three-all.

The 3-3 tie held for a considerable time, even though both clubs combined to fire 26 shots in the second period. However, the draw was finally broken when Dotchin (Point and W Ondrej Palat) tickled the twine with a snap shot. 5:27 later, the Bolts went up what proved to be an insurmountable two goals when Johnson (Hedman) completed the hat trick with a wrister.

Johnson’s final goal was simply a pure spectacle of his superior speed to that of D Noah Hanifin. Hedman dumped the puck towards center ice from his defensive zone to enact a line change, but Johnson decided to race Hanifin to ensure there was no chance for icing. Once he realized he could take possession, Johnson squeezed past the defenseman, upending him in the process, to set up a one-on-one battle with G Cam Ward. The netminder fended off the first backhander from within his crease, but he couldn’t stop an immediate second try by Johnson: a wrister over his left blocker.

That’s not to say the Canes gave up on the remaining five minutes of regulation. In fact, the exact opposite is true, as F Elias Lindholm (Faulk and Teravainen) pulled Carolina back within a one-goal deficit with 1:18 remaining in the frame, but even with six attackers the Hurricanes couldn’t find a leveling marker.

G Andrei Vasilevskiy saved 28-of-32 shots faced (.875 save percentage) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Ward, who saved 29-of-34 (.853).

It’s no surprise, but the 52-29-12 home teams are absolutely dominating the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts’ record in the series is 26 points better the roadies’, the same advantage Tampa Bay has on the Oilers for the Presidents’ Trophy.

November 30 – Day 57 – Ain’t no Haulaback girl

Nothing is better than Thursday night in the NHL! Grab your favorite brew and head to the rink to watch your favorite crew!

That may have been forced, but I don’t really care.

Anyways, the NHL has lined up seven games for our viewing pleasure this evening, starting with Los Angeles at Washington at 7 p.m. and Montréal at Detroit (RDS/TSN2) half an hour later. Two more contests (Vancouver at Nashville and Vegas at Minnesota) drop the puck at 8 p.m., while Dallas at Chicago gets underway 30 minutes after. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Arizona at Calgary [SN360] and Toronto at Edmonton [TVAS]) see the green light at 9 p.m. to close out the night’s – and the month’s – action. All times Eastern.

Like I usually do, let’s highlight a couple of the games that might strike your fancy:

  • Montréal at Detroit: Did someone say Original Six?
  • Vegas at Minnesota: It’ll be a trip down memory lane tonight for F Erik Haula, as he’s returning to the Xcel Energy Center for the first time since being picked by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

The Stars-Blackhawks game also merits considerable attention since they’re tied for fourth place in the Central Division, but it’s not being considered for Game of the Day status due to Chicago being featured nine times already this season – as recently as two days ago.

As such, let’s make the trip to St. Paul and see if the Wild can do anything to slow down the best offense in the Western Conference.

 

 

 

 

 

Before we get started, I know what you’re thinking: no, I’m not all that interested in the game between the Maple Leafs and Oilers. I get that C Auston Matthews and C Connor McDavid are squaring off, but I don’t have it in me to make my loyal readers watch the Oil’s horrendous defense. That game will probably end with some ridiculous 7-3 score or something like that.

Instead, let’s focus in on Minnesota’s defense that is only a little bit better!

Ok, more on that in a minute. First, let’s recap the first four years of Haula’s NHL career.

The Finn was a seventh-round selection from the USHL’s Omaha Lancers by the Wild in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, but he didn’t start his NHL rookie season until the 2013-’14 campaign after a year with the Lancers, three seasons at the University of Minnesota and 37 games in the AHL.

Of Haula’s four campaigns with the Wild, his latter two were easily the most successful of his Minnesotan tenure. During the 2015-’16 season, he posted a career-high in points with 14-20-34 totals, and followed that up last campaign with a 15-11-26 effort – the most goals he’s scored in a season since his junior year of college.

Playing between RW Nino Niederreiter and RW Jason Pominville, Haula completed the Wild’s solid third line in what proved to be his final season with the club. Unfortunately, the good work that trio did was not enough to keep Haula on the squad, as General Manager Chuck Fletcher arranged a deal with Vegas GM George McPhee to ensure Haula would be selected during the expansion draft.

While his selection may have been choreographed to ensure Minnesota retained all the pieces it wanted, selecting Haula has only come up spades for the 15-7-1 Golden Knights. Haula has been promoted from lowly third-liner to Vegas’ top center and acclimated very well to his new role, averaging a career-high .68 points-per-game on the season with his 7-6-13 totals.

Of course, it’s hard to struggle with a linemate like W James Neal (12-7-19 totals), especially when they have the luxury of W Reilly Smith (6-13-19), C William Karlsson (13-9-22) and F Jon Marchessault (8-13-21) playing behind them as a brilliant second line. As such, the Pacific Division-leading Knights sport a nasty 3.52 goals-per-game average that trails only the Islanders and Lightning for best in the NHL.

Given the unenviable task of trying to slow down Vegas’ attack is 11-10-3 Minnesota, the worst team in the Central Division and third-worst in the Western Conference.

Hinted at before, the Wild’s biggest struggle this season has been keeping the opposition off the scoreboard. They allow 3.04 goals against-per-game, the (t)11th-worst effort in the NHL. Since I’m struggling to determine if responsibility for this issue falls on G Devan Dubnyk or his defense, I’m led to believe both share in the blame.

Let’s start with Dubnyk, who’s struggling to replicate last season’s .923 season save percentage and 2.25 GAA that earned him the fifth-most votes towards the Vezina Trophy. So far this year, he’s managed a .911 season save percentage and 2.85 GAA, which are 17th- and 14th-worst, respectively, among the 34 goaltenders with at least 10 starts (read: Dubnyk’s been average).

Unfortunately, he’s not getting all that much help from his d-corps. Even with LW Marcus Foligno‘s three hits-per-game, C Mikko Koivu‘s team-leading 18 takeaways and D Jared Spurgeon‘s 2.2 blocks-per-game, Minnesota is allowing a 12th-worst 32.2 shots against-per-game.

It is probably very telling that D Jonas Brodin, the team’s leader in individual goal-differential with a +8, is the only blueliner with a +/- better than +1. Meanwhile, defensemen like Spurgeon and Ryan Suter that have at least 14 points to their name have been neglecting their defensive duties, as neither have positive goal-differentials even though they’re among the Wild’s top-six point earners.

Unless Dubynk stands on his head – which is something he hasn’t done since his 30-for-30 performance against Philadelphia over two weeks ago – it’s hard to believe that the Wild will have much luck slowing down the Golden Knights’ offense.


With two goals in the span of 2:20, the Montréal Canadiens beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 at the Bell Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Senators had a hot start to this game, as Second Star of the Game RW Mark Stone scored an unassisted shorthanded backhanded shot only 4:36 into the contest to quiet the loudest arena in the NHL.

Ottawa’s lead lasted until the 2:56 mark of the second period. That’s when First Star F Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the season, a penalty shot that pinged off G Mike Condon‘s right goalpost. 2:18 later, F Phillip Danault (F Andrew Shaw and LW Max Pacioretty) set the 2-1 final score with a wrist shot.

This goal was a result of some lightning-fast puck movement. Pacioretty and Shaw were busy behind Condon’s net, scrapping with C Derick Brassard and D Cody Ceci for possession. The moment Shaw had the opportunity, he forced the puck back above the goal line to Danault, who was screaming towards Condon’s right goalpost. Before the goalkeeper could get turned the right way, Danault sent his one-timer into the back of the net.

Though I was unable to watch the game, I’m led to believe that Third Star D Karl Alzner played a major role in keeping the Sens off the scoreboard after Stone’s first period tally. In 21 minutes of ice time, he threw three hits, blocked four shots and tacked on an additional takeaway to help the Habs earn two points.

G Carey Price earned the victory (his third-straight since returning from injury) after saving 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage), leaving the loss to Condon, who saved 29-of-31 (.935).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are on quite the roll, as they’ve won the last five games. Tonight’s victory improves their record to 32-19-6, 15 points better than the roadies’ effort.