Tag Archives: Game of the Day

April 9 -Day 172 – It all comes down to this

It’s all come down to this: the last day of the 2016-’17 NHL regular season. Don’t cry that it’s leaving; instead smile and laugh at the memories.

Oh yeah, and get amped for the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

To close out the season, the league has scheduled 10 games for our viewing pleasure. A trio of them (New Jersey at Detroit [SN1], Buffalo at Tampa Bay and Ottawa at the New York Islanders [RDS2]) start at 5 p.m., followed by another pair (Colorado at St. Louis and Columbus at Toronto [SN/TVAS]) an hour later. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. marks the puck drop of three contests (Pittsburgh at the New York Rangers, Carolina at Philadelphia and Florida at Washington) and Los Angeles at Anaheim (SN1) waiting until 8:30 to get started. Finally, 9 p.m. brings with it the regular season nightcap: Vancouver at Edmonton (SN). All times eastern.

Short list:

  • New Jersey at Detroit: The day many had hoped would never come. This is the final game to be played at Joe Louis Arena. I’ll forever consider the Wings a rival to my beloved Blues, but I hope Motown gives this incredible place one more victory for old times’ sake.
  • Columbus at Toronto: As long as the Leafs can avoid a regulation loss, they’ll win third place in the Atlantic Division and avoid the mighty Capitals.
  • Pittsburgh at New York: The last rematch of last season’s playoffs will be contested in Madison Square Garden.
  • Los Angeles at Anaheim: Though the Kings‘ season is complete after today, the Ducks still have something to play for: a Pacific Division banner.
  • Vancouver at Edmonton: As long as the Oilers don’t need a shootout to win, they can surpass Anaheim for the division title if it loses to Los Angeles.

It’s such hard decision among the contests in Toronto, Anaheim and Edmonton, as all three could have a significant impact on how the postseason plays out. Since there’s so much at stake in the Pacific, I think we have to focus in on the Freeway Face-Off!

 

I’ll start this article in a similar way I began yesterday’s:

The 39-35-7 Kings enter this game in fifth place in the Pacific Division and 10th in the Western Conference, already eliminated from playoff contention. With Nashville’s regular-season campaign complete at 94 points, the best Los Angeles can do is finish seven points behind eighth place.

This game is not about them (though they have more reasons to play spoiler than Pittsburgh did last night – more on that later).

Instead, all eyes (specifically those in Southern California and Northern Alberta) are on 45-23-13 Anaheim, the club currently leading the Pacific Division with a day left of play.

Notice the phrase currently leading. That is very intentional, as the Ducks have not ordered their division championship banner yet. The job tonight is simple: don’t lose in regulation. As long Anaheim earns at least one point, the second place Oilers cannot surpass them for the division title.

Fortunately, the repercussions for not sealing the deal tonight aren’t too bad, at least immediately. If Edmonton could manage to surpass the Ducks for first in the division, Anaheim would host the third place Sharks in the first round instead of the wild card Flames.

Either way, the Ducks retain home ice in the first round.

Anaheim has definitely been trending upwards of late. In fact, the Ducks are tied with Washington for the best record in the NHL since March 12 with their 10-0-3 record.

Just like its been all season, they’ve returned to winning ways by keeping the opposition off the board. Only 24 goals have been scored on the Ducks since mid-March, the fewest in the NHL in that time.

Of course, that starts with the goaltending. Both 25-16-9 John Gibson and 20-7-4 Jonathan Bernier have been fantastic over this run, as both have save percentages and GAAs better than .93 and 2.0, respectively.

Though Bernier was extremely impressive while filling in for Gibson during his injury, it seems the usual Number 1 has reclaimed his crease as Gibson has started the last two games. I expect the owner of the superior .96 save percentage and 1.32 GAA to take to the crease again tonight, as Gibson’s effort in his past three games has been third and second-best, respectively, among the 62 goalies who have played at least two games since mid-March.

Much of the reason both goaltenders have found such success is they haven’t been overworked. Though the Ducks‘ blueline has been only slightly above-average at keeping pucks off the crease on the year (they average 29.8 shots allowed-per-game), the 395 they’ve allowed in their past 13 games is tied for fifth-fewest in the league.

Both Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have been a big part of that play, as they co-lead the team with 21 shot blocks since March 12. Jakob Silfverberg has also been instrumental with his 11 takeaways in that time.

On the season as a whole, only two clubs have been better than the Ducks when faced with a penalty kill situation. Gibson has played a major role in that effort all year, as his .909 season save percentage against the power play is the fourth-best mark in the league among the 48 goalies with at least 25 appearances on the year.

Doing their best to play spoiler tonight will be the visiting Kings, Anaheim‘s greatest rival. Though the postseason is out of their grasp, there is probably nothing more they would like to do than harm the Ducks‘ Stanley Cup playoff chances by declining them the opportunity to outright win the Pacific Division.

Unfortunately, it’s been an up-and-down effort of late for Los Angeles. Since March 16, the Kings have matched every win with a loss for a 6-6-0 record. In fact, every game since March 31 has alternated results. The 31st was a win, the 2nd was a loss. The 4th was a win… you get the idea. April 8 was a win, so…. well, things aren’t looking good for Los Angeles if this trend continues.

Offense has been Los Angeles‘ biggest struggle not only during this stretch, but for the entire season overall. On they year, the Kings have averaged only 2.42 goals-per-game, the sixth-lowest average in the NHL. Since mid-March, that number is down to 2.25, including two shutouts.

The brightest star on the Kings‘ offense of late is easily Anze Kopitar. With 10 points in a dozen games, he’s the only forward that has contributed more than seven tallies in the past three weeks. That being said, Jarome Iginla has also been decent with his team-leading four goals during this run.

Though far from a dominant force throughout the season, Los Angeles‘ power play has been especially shoddy of late, converting only 16.7% of its 36 most recent opportunities. Just like he’s been on the entire offense, Kopitar has been the most impressive during this skid with his four power play points.

If anything positive can be said about Los Angeles‘ power play, it’s that it’s unpredictable. All six tallies since March 16 have come off a different stick, and those scorers are evenly split between the power play units.

If the season series is any indication, we’re in for a fantastic game tonight. Both clubs have won two of the four previous games between them this campaign for copied 2-2-0 records. Making things even more interesting, both teams have gone 1-1-0 on home ice.

The last time they met up was February 25 at the Staples Center. Speaking of home ice, that is the game the Kings scored four goals (including two from Tyler Toffoli) to give Jonathan Quick a 4-1 victory in his first full game of the season. He saved 32 shots faced in his first game back from his groin injury.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Anaheim‘s Ryan Getzlaf (55 assists [tied for third-most in the league]) and Gibson (2.22 GAA [fifth-best in the NHL] on a .924 save percentage [tied for fifth-best in the league], including six shutouts [sixth-most in the NHL]) & Los AngelesJeff Carter (32 goals for 66 points on 250 shots [all lead the team]) and Drew Doughty (+8 [leads the team]).

The easy pick is obviously the Ducks, who have much more to play for, to win on home ice. The problem is you can never use such concrete logic when predicting a rivalry game of this magnitude. I’ll still take Anaheim to clinch the Pacific Division tonight, but I have no doubt in my mind that the Kings will make it as difficult as they possibly can.

Hockey Birthday

  • Jimmy Roberts (1940-2015) – This skaters spent most of his 15 seasons in Montréal, though he had a lengthy tenure with the Blues as well. He was a three-time All Star and, more importantly, has his name on the Stanley Cup five times as a player.
  • Michel Parizeau (1948-) – The Rangers selected this center 10th-overall in the 1965 NHL Amateur Draft, yet he never played a game with the Blueshirts. In fact, he spent only one season in the NHL, as he played most of his eight years with the Nordiques in the WHA.
  • Rick Tocchet (1964-) – Though a longtime Flyer – albeit in two stints – after being selected by Philadelphia in the sixth round of the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing won his lone Stanley Cup as a member of the 1992 Penguins.

Three goals in the third period is exactly what the doctor ordered for Toronto, as it beat the Penguins 5-3 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to secure its spot in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was not the start the Maple Leafs wanted to this game, though. Former Leaf Phil Kessel (Matt Cullen and Tom Kuhnhackl) buried a snap shot only 6:11 into the contest to give Pittsburgh an early 1-0 lead. That advantage didn’t last long though, as James van Riemsdyk (Tyler Bozak and Roman Polak) leveled with a snapper of his own only 29 seconds later. The one-all score held into the first intermission.

Only 1:29 after Tom Sestito‘s goaltender interference penalty, Bozak (William Nylander and Jake Gardiner) scored a power play snapper at the 3:30 mark of the second frame. This time, it was the Pens who had the answer, as Sidney Crosby (Jake Guentzel and Justin Schultz) leveled the match at two-all 4:25 later with a power play slap shot.

Pittsburgh once again took a one-goal lead 6:51 into the third period courtesy of an unassisted Guenztel wrist shot, but that is what lit a fire under Toronto‘s belly. In all, the Maple Leafs fired a dozen shots on Marc-Andre Fleury‘s net in the final frame, and three got past him. Kasperi Kapanen (Matt Hunwick and Auston Matthews) leveled the game with 5:30 remaining in regulation with the first goal of his career, followed by Connor Brown‘s (Gardiner and Hunwick) game-winner 2:42 later. With four seconds remaining, Matthews scored his 40th goal of the season (only the fourth rookie under 20-years-old in NHL history to achieve that total) on an empty net to ensure the Leafs‘ victory.

Curtis McElhinney earned the victory after saving 12-of-14 shots faced (85.7%). He replaced Frederik Andersen, who had saved three-of-four (75%), after the starter was struck in the head by Sestito. Fleury saved 25-of-29 (86.2%) in the loss.

After 175 games in this 2016-’17 DtFR Game of the Day series, the 88-61-25 home teams have finally clinched the deciding victory in our featured series. The hosts have 201 points to their credit to create a five-point spread the visitors are incapable of surpassing.

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.

April 7 – Day 170 – Selections are Slim, Vol. III

Here’s tonight’s listings.

  • Tampa Bay Lightning at Montréal Canadiens – 7:30 p.m. eastern – NBCSN
  • Hawaii Five-0 – 9 p.m. eastern – CBS
  • Blue Bloods – 10 p.m. eastern – CBS

Have you realized when I make this joke (not just today, but all season) just how many of those shows are on CBS? They crank out some good TV.

*This post not sponsored by Columbia Broadcasting System*

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This will be only Tampa Bay‘s fifth time being featured in the Game of the Day, while Montréal is making its 19th appearance. Within the DtFR series, the teams have 2-1-1 and 11-5-2 records, respectively.

By going on the road to the Air Canada Centre and beating current wild card Toronto 4-1 yesterday, the 40-30-10 Bolts amazingly still have playoff life. No matter the injuries and no matter the goaltending struggles, they’ve continued to find ways to get the job done.

If I asked you to name the best offense in the NHL since March 23, I’d assume you’d give me an answer like Washington or the Predators. While both are good guesses, one attack has been better: the Lightning‘s.

Tampa has struck 29 goals in the past 16 days for a 3.625 goals-per-game average. That impressive scoring ability has propelled the Bolts to a 6-1-1 record and within three points of eighth-place in the East. They may still need the Leafs to lose out, but the fact that there’s still a chance to dance is reason enough for the surge.

Regardless of how daunting or unpredictable a task playoff qualification is, Tampa doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. Only a season ago, Philadelphia climbed from fourth-worst in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break into the second wild card.

Though Nikita Kucherov has headed the Lightning‘s offense throughout this season during Steven Stamkos‘ absence, it has been Ondrej Palat and his league-leading 13 points leading the Bolts‘ attack in the past eight games. He closed March on a six-game point streak and already has two multi-point games this month.

Playing left wing on Tampa‘s top line, Palat is very adept at passing the puck. This has remained the case during his recent scoring spurt, as he’s set up fellow wing Kucherov for five tallies, the highest mark on the team since late-March.

Tampa has been especially deadly on the power play. as it has converted 38.1% of opponents’ penalties into tallies – the third-best mark in the NHL since March 23.

The man behind this surge is neither Kucherov nor Palat, but defenseman Victor Hedman – just as it’s been all year. Of his season-total 33 power play points, six have been struck in the past two weeks. All of those have been assists to a stellar first PP unit that includes Jonathan Drouin, Kucherov and Palat; each of whom has buried two man-advantage tallies since late-March.

Maybe the most significant improvement during this late-season run has been Tampa‘s penalty kill. On the season, the Bolts have only successfully defended 81% of their infractions, which is tied for 13th-best in the league. Lately, that kill rate is up to 85.7%, which ties for ninth-best in the NHL. 21-17-7 Andrei Vasilevskiy has been absolutely spectacular over this run, as his .935 shorthanded save percentage ties for third-best in the NHL since March 23 among netminders with at least five games played.

While one team is fighting for its playoff life, the other has been sitting around with nothing to play for since Monday night. That was when 46-25-9 Montréal beat the Panthers to clinch the Atlantic Division.

Montréal‘s overall defensive effort this season has been spectacular, and that’s been especially true since March 25. Over the past six games, the Habs have allowed only eight tallies, and that’s led them to a 5-1-0 record that ties for fifth-best in the league in that time.

Of course, that all starts with 37-19-5 Carey Price, who’s been in net for this entire run except for the division-clincher in Florida. He’s posted a .951 save percentage and 1.4 GAA over the past two weeks, which is the sixth and fifth-best marks, respectively, among the 42 goalies with at least three appearances since March 25.

Maybe even more impressive than Price’s effort has been that of his blueline. Co-led by Nathan Beaulieu and Andrei Markov and their 11 shot blocks apiece, the Canadiens‘ defense has allowed only 175 shots to reach its goaltender since late-March, the second-lowest total in the NHL.

If there’s three indicators to a strong defensive club, Montréal has them all. The goaltender? Solid. The defense? Excellent. The penalty kill? Unstoppable, at least of late. The Canadiens PK has not allowed a power play goal in its past six games, thanks in large part to Alexei Emelin‘s three shorthanded shot blocks.

That penalty kill will face a stiff test this evening, and may prove to be the deciding factor in this game. Of course, predicting anything about Montréal is difficult since it has nothing to play for. Head coach Claude Julien could take advantage of the fact that the Lightning are treating this like a playoff game to give his club a “playoff practice” of sorts, or he could keep his best players off the ice to keep them safe from a team willing to do anything for a win.

Tonight’s game is the final contest of the four-game regular season series between these clubs. They last met six days ago in Tampa, where Price led the Habs to a  2-1 overtime victory over the Bolts. That victory extended Montréal‘s record against the Lightning to 2-0-1 this year.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Montréal‘s Max Pacioretty (35 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]) and Price (2.2 GAA [fifth-best in the NHL] on a .924 save percentage for 37 wins [both tied for fifth-best in the league]) & Tampa Bay‘s Peter Budaj (seven shutouts [tied for third-most in the NHL] and a 2.18 GAA [fourth-best in the league]), Hedman (55 assists [tied for third-most in the NHL]) and Kucherov (39 goals [tied for second-most in the league] for 82 points [sixth-most in the NHL]).

This is a tough game to predict since we have no idea what Julien will do. Due to that I offer my pick to win this way: if the Habs play this game to win, I believe they can do just that. If not, Tampa should have no trouble finding two points.

Hockey Birthday:

  • Pascal Dupuis (1979-) – The left winger enjoyed 871 games over 14 NHL seasons before being forced to retire last December due to blood clots. He was most known for his nine seasons with the Penguins, playing in 452 games and twice hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Between Second Star of the Game Oscar Klefbom‘s four-point night and First Star Milan Lucic‘s hat trick, the Oilers were able to best San Jose 4-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to all but lock up home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

The Sharks were actually the first club to score, as Joel Ward (David Schlemko and Marc-Edouard Vlasic) scored off a deflection at the 6:08 mark of the first period. It was the lone tally of the frame.

Third Star Connor McDavid (Klefbom and Adam Larsson) pulled the Oil back even 4:40 into the second period, but Edmonton couldn’t maintain a tied game into the second intermission. Brent Burns (Tomas Hertl) was the cause of that, as he scored a wrist shot with 7:30 remaining in the period.

I assume you’ve quickly realized that Lucic dominated the third period. He was most imposing in the first half of the frame, as he’s scored two of his tallies before eight minutes had ticked off the clock. His first tally, assisted by Klefbom and McDavid, was a power play deflection 4:26 into the third period to tie the game. 3:31 later, Klefbom and Jordan Eberle assisted him to another goal, a wrister that proved to be the game-winner. He added on his own insurance marker with 3:29 remaining in regulation on a power play wrister.

Even more than the offense, what might have been most impressive about Edmonton‘s play is the fact that the blueline yielded exactly five shots per period to reach Cam Talbot. He saved 13 of them (86.7%) for the victory, leaving the loss to Martin Jones, who saved 28-of-32 (87.5%).

A road victory is important in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as it means the visitors have not lost the season series. The 87-60-25 home teams lead the visitors by five points with three days remaining on the schedule.

April 6 – Day 169 – Pacific pandemonium

Buckle up for a wild Thursday.

There’s a dozen games on tap this evening, starting with four (Ottawa at Boston [NBCSN/RDS], Pittsburgh at New Jersey [SN360], the New York Islanders at Carolina and Winnipeg at Columbus) at 7 p.m. and another two (Tampa Bay at Toronto [TVAS] and St. Louis at Florida) half an hour later. 8:30 p.m. marks the puck drop of Nashville at Dallas, with Minnesota at Colorado waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. A pair of contests (Vancouver at Arizona and Chicago at Anaheim [NBCSN]) see their start at 10 p.m., with our co-nightcaps – Calgary at Los Angeles (SN360) and Edmonton at San Jose – dropping the puck half an hour later. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Ottawa at Boston: These clubs are tied at 94 points apiece for second and third place in the Atlantic Division.
  • Tampa Bay at Toronto: Tampa‘s postseason dreams are still alive, but they’ll be dashed with a loss this evening.
  • Chicago at Anaheim: Chicago has already clinched home ice throughout the Western Conference playoffs, but the Ducks still have some work to do within the Pacific Division.
  • Edmonton at San Jose: Speaking of the Pacific, these squads are tied at 97 points apiece for second and third place.

Of that list, the two tie-breaking games certainly stand out among the rest. It’s a tough choice between them, and I don’t think there’s really a wrong answer.

But…

Since Montréal has already clinched the Atlantic and both the Oilers and Sharks can still win their division, we have to turn our attention to The Tank for this episode Pacific Pandemonium!

 

No, not pandamonium. Pandemonium.

Though, come to think of it, that is a good representation of what is going on out West.

The top three teams in the Pacific are all over each other, and each still has a chance to advance into first place in the group. In fact, this panda .gif is so accurate, it even shows the fourth-place Flames leaving the tussle, as they’re already locked into one of the wild cards.

To continue with our panda metaphor, the bear at the bottom of the pile is certainly the 45-28-7 Sharks. Though tied with Edmonton on points, they’ve played one more game to put them in third place. Should they fall tonight, whether it be in regulation or extra-time, they will be unable to claim the top seed in the division.

The reason they’ve fallen from grace is their 1-8-0 record over the second half of March. As pointed out the last time we featured San Jose, it led the Pacific by five points at the beginning of the month. Now, the Sharks are simply fighting for home ice in the first round.

That article went on bemoaning the Sharks and their play of late. Somebody in San Jose‘s front office must have read it, because things have certainly changed since the beginning of April.

San Jose enters tonight’s game on a two-game winning streak (their first since March 12-14), and it’s all because 35-22-6 Martin Jones rediscovered his game. Over the second half of March, Jones posted an atrocious .862 save percentage and 3.85 GAA. Simply put, you’re not going to win many games that way.

Jones’ goaltending coach is Johan Hedberg, himself a former NHL goaltender.  Undoubtedly, Hedberg probably also went through tough patches like Jones did. Whatever he said or did with Jones has obviously worked, as the Sharks have their number one goalie back.

Jones hasn’t been just good in these last two games, he’s been great. He’s posted an incredible .969 save percentage and averaged only one goal-allowed, both numbers that are near the top of the league to start the month.

One of the best tests of a goalie is his performance against the power play, especially when the penalty kill in front of him manages only an average 80.9% kill rate on the campaign. Of all the goaltenders to have faced at least eight power play shots in the past four days, Jones is one of only six to have saved all of them.

There is still one remnant from the losing skid, though it’s no surprise given the Sharks‘ season success rate of only 16.7% on the power play that ties for sixth-worst in the NHL. San Jose has converted neither of its extra-man opportunities this month even though both Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski – the Sharks‘ best players on the man-advantage – have not missed any time.

With a game-in-hand on the Pacific-leading Ducks, 44-26-9 Edmonton still has its sights set on hoisting its first Division Champion banner since 1992. They can make a strong step in that direction with a win tonight.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Oilers did just that (win, that is), as they’ve earned a 9-2-0 record in their past 11 games – the third-best record in the league in that time.

The only thing better than Edmonton‘s record is its propensity for scoring the puck. 44 Oilers goals have been struck since March 14, the most in the league since then. I probably don’t need to tell you who’s behind most of those tallies, but would I be doing my job if I didn’t?

Simply put, Connor McDavid is really, really good at hockey. He’s registered 20 points in his past 11 games to pace the league since mid-March. What is truly impressive about McDavid’s late-season surge is that he’s calling his number more often. He’s only notched 29 goals on the season, a surprisingly low total since he’s effectively locked up his first Art Ross Trophy. But lately? He’s buried six of those tallies in the last 11 contests, a run that is matched by line-mate Patrick Maroon to co-lead the squad.

The Oil‘s offensive dominance continues on the power play, where it has converted an impressive 28.9% to rank sixth-best in the league since mid-March. McDavid is joined on this attack by Leon Draisaitl and Milan Lucic, as they’ve all notched five man-advantage points in the past 24 days. Lucic has been especially impressive during this run, as four of his points have been goals, which ties for the second-highest total in the NHL in that time.

Edmonton‘s penalty kill has also been excellent of late, as it’s properly defended and neutralized 85.7% of its infractions to tie for the sixth-best mark in the league since mid-March. Andrej Sekera deserves a lot of the credit for that success, as he’s blocked eight shots on the penalty kill in the past 11 games, which ties for second-most in the league.

The Oilers own a one-point lead in the series between these clubs this season, thanks to forcing overtime they first ran into the Sharks on December 23. These clubs last met March 30 in Edmonton, where the Oil bested San Jose 3-2 thanks to Maroon’s two-goal night.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Edmonton‘s Draisaitl (75 points [eighth-most in the league] on 47 assists [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), McDavid (66 assists for 95 points [both lead the league] and a +25 [10th-best in the NHL]) and Cam Talbot (40 wins [third-most in the league], including seven shutouts [tied for third-most in the NHL]) & San Jose‘s Burns (74 points [ninth-most in the league]) and Jones (35 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]).

I’m surprised: Vegas favors the Sharks to win tonight on a -125 line. While Jones’ resurgence have helped to cool my doubts about San Jose going into the playoffs, I still don’t think it’s enough to fend off the Oilers‘ dominant offense.

Hockey Birthday

  • Connie Broden (1932-2013) – This center did the unthinkable by the standards of today’s game: he played only six regular season games in the NHL – all with the Canadiens – and scored only three points, but he hoisted two Stanley Cups. Talk about an effective career!
  • Michel Larocque (1952-1992) – This goaltender was selected sixth-overall by Montréal in the 1972 NHL Amateur Draft, and that’s where he played most of his 11 seasons. Amassing a career 160-89-45 record, he won four Vezina Trophies and the 1979 Stanley Cup.
  • Olaf Kolzig (1970-) – The only South African to play in the NHL to date, this goaltender was the 19th-overall pick by Washington in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. All but one of his 17 seasons were spent with the Capitals, and he won the 2000 Vezina and 2006 King Clancy Memorial Trophies and played in two All-Star Games before retiring.
  • Hal Gill (1975-) – Another player to spend most of his career with the club that drafted him, this defenseman was selected by Boston in the eighth round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He hoisted his lone Stanley Cup as a member of the Penguins‘ 2009 squad.
  • Ville Nieminen (1977-) – This NHL journeyman was picked by Colorado 78th-overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. In only seven seasons, he played with seven different clubs, but before being shipped off from the Avalanche, he helped them to the 2001 Stanley Cup.
  • Travis Moen (1982-) – Calgary selected this left wing in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, but he never played a game with the Flames. Instead, he spent half of his 12-year career in Montréal. Another Stanley Cup winner, he was a member of the 2007 Ducks.
  • Clarke MacArthur (1985-) – Buffalo selected this left wing 74th-overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but he’s in his fourth season with the Senators. Due to suffering a concussion during training camp, he finally made his season debut Tuesday.

With a two-goal shutout victory over the Rangers in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, I present you your 2016-’17 regular season champion, the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals!

With four prominent skaters healing up in the press box, the Rangers entered this contest over-matched. That being said, they managed to keep the Capitals off the board until only 5:11 remained in the second period. Alex Ovechkin (Second Star of the Game Evgeny Kuznetsov and Third Star Marcus Johansson) took advantage of a Brendan Smith holding penalty to score a deflected power play goal.

That was the only tally Washington managed before the second intermission, meaning the game’s lone insurance goal was struck in the third period. It came off Kuznetsov’s (Johansson and Justin Williams) stick, a wrist shot 5:42 into the frame.

First Star Braden Holtby earned the victory after saving all 24 shots he faced, leaving the loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 23-of-25 (92%).

With the final playoff pushes seeing their last breaths, hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series are truly taking advantage of their home-ice advantage. They’ve improved their records in the series to 87-59-25 (seven points better than the road teams) by winning six of the last seven games.

April 5 – Day 168 – The hardware is ready for the taking

After a busy Tuesday in the NHL, only two games will be contested on the final Wednesday of the regular season.

The action starts at 7:30 p.m. with Montréal at Buffalo (RDS/SN), followed half an hour later by the New York Rangers at Washington (NBCSN/TVAS). All times eastern.

Is there any question which game we’re featuring tonight? Off to the American capital! Hopefully the cherry blossoms are still in bloom.

 

It looks said and done, but the 47-26-6 Rangers still technically have a ridiculously small chance at earning the third seed in the Metropolitan Division. All they need to do is win all their games without a shootout, increase their +39 goal differential to at least +53 and hope the Blue Jackets suffer three-straight blowout losses to close the season.

If that sounds impossible, it’s because it almost certainly is. Then again, I’m kind of pulling for a tie so severe the NHL runs out of official tiebreakers. That’d be awesome.

Of course, that neglects the fact that the Rangers are probably happy where they are. A road series against Montréal sounds much more manageable than a road series against Pittsburgh.

Since the odds of all that happening are slim, the Rangers play the role of lame duck in the three remaining games of their regular season.

But don’t read that as Blueshirts aren’t taking advantage of their situation. They’re using this opportunity to rest some players (including Jesper Fast, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello tonight), while giving others who are still completing their return from the trainer’s room an opportunity to iron out some kinks – à la 31-18-4 Henrik Lundqvist, who will start in net for only his fifth time since coming back from a hip injury.

Though I can’t say I’ve had the chance to watch the Rangers recently, I’d guess Alain Vigneault is taking advantage of the fact that there are no negative repercussions to experimenting with new plays or strategies.

A combination of all of these things (and probably a few more) are probably the reason New York has gone only 1-0-2 in its last three games.

When the Blueshirts have been at the top of their game this year, everything has revolved around the offense. They’ve averaged 3.15 goals-per-game, the fourth-best scoring rate in the league.

Usually, Zuccarello takes the lead on offense, as he’s notched a team-leading 59 points. Since he’ll be sitting in the press box this evening, that responsibility will fall to J.T. Miller, who is chasing his Norwegian teammate by three points.

Of the two, Miller has actually been the more prolific scorer with his 22 goals, and he’s using his propensity for finding the back of the net to reign in Zuccarello in the clubhouse scoring race. He has buried two goals in the last three games, and added on two more assists.

Of course, he still plays second fiddle (well, technically fourth fiddle) to Chris Kreider in the goal-scoring department. Kreider has buried 28 goals this season to lead the team, and has matched Miller’s two-goal surge of late with a pair of his own.

Scorers can be found throughout the Rangers‘ roster, and that becomes even more apparent when they take to the power play. Usually successful only 20% of the time, New York is riding a real hot-streak right now with the extra man, as it’s converted 44.4% of its man-advantages into goals in its last three games (tied for second-best in the league in that time).

Of those expected on the ice tonight, defenseman Brady Skjei has been a major part of that success. Though he’s only managed assists, he has two power play points in the last nine days to lead the team. Four different Rangers have provided the man-advantage goals, all of whom should be on the ice tonight.

Earlier, we briefly touched on Vigneault experimenting with his club’s play. If he’s been changing things up on the penalty kill, he’s doing exactly what he needs to. On the season, New York has successfully defended only 79.7% of its penalties – the eighth-worst rate in the NHL.

That’s all changed of late. In the past three games, the Rangers have allowed only one power play goal against for a 87.5% penalty kill rate. That ties for the ninth-best rate in the league in that time.

Lundqvist deserves a lot of the credit for this impressive run with his .923 power play save percentage that ties for seventh-best in the NHL in his last three games.

New York may have little to gain from this game, but there’s still some work to be done for the 53-18-8 Capitals. They have yet to lock-up anything beyond a spot in the playoffs, but that can all change tonight. Should Washington simply avoid a regulation loss, it will have won the Metropolitan Division, the Eastern Conference and the Presidents’ Trophy.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Alex Ovechkin and Co. did that very same thing a year ago, only to fall to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Not only has Washington been the best team all season, it’s also been the past team in the league since March 14. Going 9-1-1 in their past 11 games, it seems the Caps are peaking at just the right time as they try for their first Stanley Cup.

Just like New York‘s season-long success, offense has been the core of this recent surge. The Capitals have scored 39 goals in the past 23 days, which ties Toronto (another potent offense) for the second-highest total in that time.

Having the best year of his career since his 2009-’10 season, Nicklas Backstrom has been an absolute machine over the past 11 games. He’s registered a whopping 17 points in that time to not only lead the team, but also rank third-best in the NHL since March 14.

Of course, Backstrom is known for his ability to pass the puck. On the receiving end of many of those assists has been T.J. Oshie, who has buried a team-leading seven goals in the past fortnight. Of course, we’d be remiss to forget the left wing on that line: Ovi. The captain has also been extremely successful, as his goal total in this run is only one short of Oshie’s mark.

One of the most feared aspect of Washington‘s game is its power play. Lundqvist will be put to the test tonight, as the Capitals have converted 38.7% of their opponent’s penalties of late into goals. The usual suspects are behind this success, as Backstrom leads the team in power play points since mid-March with nine and Ovechkin has five man-advantage goals.

The opposite special team has also been solid over the past 23 days, as the Capitals have successfully defended 84.4% of their shorthanded situations. 41-12-6 Braden Holtby has been good, but I’ve been most impressed with Brooks Orpik and the blueline. Together, they’ve combined for a dozen shorthanded shot blocks over the past three weeks to allow only  37 power play shots to reach 12-6-2 Philipp Grubauer or Holtby.

Though the Caps have a solid lead on New York in the standings, things haven’t gone quite so smoothly for them when they actually see the Rangers face-to-face. The Blueshirts currently lead the four-game series 2-1-0 coming into tonight’s game, though the last time they met Washington was when they lost to them.

It was February 28 in Madison Square Garden. Lundqvist was in net, but was unable to stop Marcus Johansson from earning a two-goal, three-point night to lead the Caps to a 4-1 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include New York‘s Michael Grabner(+23 [leads the team]), Nick Holden (160 hits [leads the team]), Kreider (28 goals [leads the team]) and Derek Stepan (203 shots [leads the team]) & Washington‘s Backstrom (62 assists [second-most in the league] for 85 points [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]), Holtby (eight shutouts [tied for most in the league] among 41 wins [tied for most in the NHL] on a 2.11 GAA [second-best in the league] and a .924 save percentage [tied for fourth-best in the NHL]), Dmitry Orlov (+31 [fifth-best in the league]), Orpik (+32 [tied for third-best in the NHL]) and Oshie (+27 [seventh-best in the league]).

Though the Rangers should be a scary team when they face Montréal next week to start the playoffs, it’s hard to pick them to win tonight. Washington simply has too much to play for, not to mention home ice and the fact it’s the best team in hockey. I’d bet on the Capitals winning by two goals.

Hockey Birthday

  • Gord Donnelly (1962-) – Though selected by St. Louis 62nd-overall in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, this defenseman never played a game for the Notes. Instead, he spent much of his 12 seasons in Quebec. A consistent enforcer, he spent 2069 minutes in the penalty box, including 316 in the 1991-’92 season alone (4.45 minutes-per-game).

Boy was I wrong in my prediction for yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day. I thought we’d get a closely contested game in the Blue Jackets‘ favor, but Pittsburgh instead exploded for a 4-1 victory.

Rookie Carter Rowney (Scott Wilson) found the Penguins‘ icebreaker with 69 seconds (keep it together Rob Gronkowski) remaining in the first period. His tip-in to find the back of Sergei Bobrovsky‘s net was only the second goal of his young 24-game career.

Things really got rolling for the Pens in the second period, as two scores were added before the second intermission. 9:26 into the frame, Patric Hornqvist (Tom Kuhnhackl) provided what came to be the winning goal with a pure wrist shot. 3:04 later, Third Star of the Game Brian Dumoulin (First Star Jake Guentzel and Second Star Sidney Crosby), the same defenseman I called out in my preview, rose to my challenge and buried his first tally of the season to set the score at 3-0.

Only 33 seconds into the final frame, Guentzel (Justin Schultz and Crosby) provided Pittsburgh its final insurance goal. By scoring a shorthanded snap shot with 9:40 remaining in regulation, Brandon Dubinsky robbed Matthew Murray of his fifth shutout of the season.

Murray saved 38-of-39 shots faced (97.4%) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Bobrovsky, who saved 23-of-27 (85.2%).

The 86-59-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have now won five of the last six games in the featured series. That expands their lead to five points with only five days remaining in the regular season.

April 4 – Day 167 – Who gets Game 7?

After a quiet Monday in the NHL last night, the final Tuesday of the regular season should be absolutely stellar.

Barring some freak weather system or facilities complication, 13 contests will take place this evening. All but four teams will be in action tonight, including the entire Western Conference.

The action gets started at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [NBCSN/SN/TVAS], Philadelphia at New Jersey and Columbus at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by two more (Washington at Toronto and Detroit at Ottawa [RDS]). Another trio (Winnipeg at St. Louis, the New York Islanders at Nashville and Carolina at Minnesota) will be contested at 8 p.m., with Arizona at Dallas waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Chicago at Colorado is the only matchup to start at 9 p.m., which is the same for Calgary at Anaheim (SN1) at 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Los Angeles [NBCSN] and Vancouver at San Jose) will drop the puck at 10:30 p.m. to finish the night.

Short list:

  • Philadelphia at New Jersey: Both teams may be eliminated from the postseason, but that won’t take away from the Battle of the Jersey Turnpike, which was already heated before Dalton Prout‘s hit on Radko Gudas.
  • Columbus at Pittsburgh: While the rivalry status of this matchup is still in the air, one thing is certain: it will have an immediate impact on the Metropolitan Division with only six days remaining in the season.
  • Edmonton at Los Angeles: With a little help from the Flames, this old-timey rivalry could provide the Oilers a shot at first place in the Pacific Division.

Riding a two-game winning streak, it seems like the Penguins are getting healthy and returning to form just in time for the playoffs. They’ll need all the help they can get tonight to try to retain home ice in the Eastern Quarterfinals.

 

There’s a lot at stake tonight in this game. 48-19-11 Pittsburgh currently has a one-point advantage on 49-21-8 Columbus for the second seed in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. Of course, that second seed is ultra-important in the not-so-new-anymore playoff format the NHL is using nowadways.

Instead of a conference tournament where the best team was paired with the worst team in a given conference until the conference championship (effectively the NBA’s playoffs, except the NHL used to reseed after every round), the league now crowns two division champions, determined by three seven-game playoffs, to play for one of the conference titles.

Whether you’re a fan of the format or not (Hint: I’m not. #TeamOldFormat), it’s the world we live in. And that’s what makes this matchup so integral. As all sports fans know, a home ice/court/field advantage can be wildly important in deciding who wins a Game 7 and advances to the next round, or loses and schedules tee times a week later.

All that aside, this also acts as a week-early preview for a highly-probable first round playoff matchup. Considering what is on the table, I doubt either of the coaching staffs are too concerned about putting too much film in their opponent’s hands. Then again, we are talking about John Tortorella, so who knows?

While I’m in no way implying that I think the Jackets have lost their edge, they have hit a slight rough patch in the past week; since March 30, they’ve amassed only a 0-2-1 record. Given, their two regulation losses are in Chicago and against the Capitals, but beating playoff teams is relatively important when the postseason starts next week.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the best defenses in the league all season long, allowing only 2.28 goals-against per game – the second-best mark in the NHL. In the last three games, they’ve allowed eight goals – well above that mark.

Much of that season success has been due to a solid blueline. Unfortunately for 41-15-5 Sergei Bobrovsky (more on him in a minute), a blueline collapse is not the reason for Columbus‘ recent struggles. They’ve allowed only 28.3 shots-against in the past week, which is actually down from the usual 30.4 they’ve averaged all year.

No, the blame rests on Bobrovsky’s shoulders. While he’s been almost as far from horrible as one can get, he’s not been his usual super-reliable self. On the season, he has a .934 save percentage and 1.99 GAA (both are best in the league among goalies with more than eight games played), but he’s let his numbers drop to .906 and 2.56 in the past six days.

As showcased by Chicago and Washington, that extra sliver of space is all elite offenses need to capitalize.

With the postseason on the horizon, the important thing is that the penalty kill has remained healthy. The fact that the Jackets have allowed only one power play goal against since March 30 is proof enough that nothing needs to be retooled in Columbus; Bobrovsky just needs to focus back in and the Jackets should be set for an effective postseason.

The thing that does need to be checked for life is the power play. Usually successful on 19.9% of attempts – an above-average effort – the Jackets haven’t scored on the man-advantage in their past seven attempts. It is moments like these where Captain Nick Foligno and power play-mastermind Alexander Wennberg need to step up and provide the offensive spark for their club, a squad that desperately needs one with the extra-man.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if the Penguins are doing much better of late. Since March 23, they’ve gone 2-2-2, though their last two contests were victories against solid offenses in Carolina and New York.

Though I love statistics, Pittsburgh‘s drop in production can be attributed to one thing and one thing along: injuries. There’s still seven Penguins on the injury report, including the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz, who went down against the Rangers Saturday.

That explains why the best offense in the league has managed only 13 goals in six games, but why has Pittsburgh allowed so many goals of late?

I’m going to give  30-10-4 Matthew Murray a pass here and blame the blueline. Of course, the Penguins‘ defense is hurt too. Trevor Daley, Letang and Olli Maatta have not registered a game since at least February 21, all of whom average more than a shot block per game when healthy.

One of those pieces looks to be coming back soon though. The Penguins‘ official Twitter handle indicated that Daley returned to practice today, so it remains to be seen when he will see game action.

Until then, Pittsburgh needs to find a way to keep shots off Murray. In the past six games, the Pens blueline has allowed 213 shots (35.5) to reach their goaltender, which is worse than their already very bad 32.6 season average.

Both Justin Schultz and Ian Cole have been fantastic in their efforts, as they’ve combined for 26 shot blocks in the past six games. But it’s skaters like Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel that need to improve their effort.

It is hard to have such high expectations for Ruhwedel, who has bounced between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the fact that he has only one block in five games with the Penguins should be alarming to Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan, and could impact if he gets a contract of any kind this offseason.

Where Murray doesn’t get a pass is the penalty kill. He’s faced seven power play shots in the past six games, and has saved only four of them. Four. As you’d expect, a .571 power play save percentage has dropped the Penguins‘ penalty kill numbers to the bottom of the league in that stretch of time, as they’ve successfully stopped only 76.9% of opposing attempts in the last 13 days.

The current Penguins‘ brightest spot has to be a a power play that has managed to convert 30.8% of its opportunities since March 23, the seventh-best effort in that time. Though Phil Kessel, who has 29 power play points on the season, still leads the team’s man-advantage, it’s been a full-team attack of late as both lines have found the back of the net. In fact, even though the squad has managed four power play goals in this stretch, no player has more than two points to his credit.

Though the Blue Jackets have gone 2-0-1 against Pittsburgh this year, they still have yet to clinch the season series. The Pens could tie it all up tonight if they can best Columbus in regulation.

If February 17 is any indicator, the Penguins will have to work extremely hard to get that done. Columbus needed overtime to best Pittsburgh 2-1 the last time they met (Brandon Dubinsky scored the game-winner), though they had that pesky home ice we were talking about earlier in their favor.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include ColumbusCam Atkinson (34 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]), Bobrovsky (1.99 GAA on a .934 save percentage [both best in the NHL] for 41 wins [tied for the most in the league], including seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the NHL]) and David Savard (+30 [sixth-best in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Sidney Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 84 points [tied for fourth-most in the league]) and Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the NHL]).

Though wounded, Vegas has marked Pittsburgh a -130 favorite going into tonight’s game. I expect a tight game, but I’m actually leaning towards the Blue Jackets. I think their special teams are an even match for those of the Penguins and their offense should take advantage of a struggling Pittsburgh defensive corps.

Hockey Birthday

  • Pat Burns (1952-2010) – It may have been the shortest stop in his 14 years of head coaching, but Burns is most remembered for leading the 2003 Devils to the Stanley Cup.
  • Dale Hawerchuk (1963-) – Winnipeg selected this center with the top pick in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, and it turned out to be a good pick. In addition to winning the 1982 Calder Memorial Trophy, this Hall-of-Famer played in five All-Star Games over his 16 seasons.
  • Yanic Perreault (1971-) – Selected 47th-overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, this center played 14 seasons – most of which with Los Angeles. Though he appeared in only one All-Star Game, he scored 247 goals over his career.
  • Kevin Weekes (1975-) – Before working for NHL Network and starting his clothing line No5Hole, this goaltender was selected 41st-overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by Florida. He ended up playing 348 games over 11 seasons – most of which with Carolina – for a 105-163-39 record.
  • Roberto Luongo (1979-) – Another goalie, Luongo was picked fourth-overall by the Islanders in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Currently in his second stint with the Panthers, he’s played 494 of his 966 games with Florida. He has a career 453-365-117 record.
  • Evgeny Artyukhin (1983-) – Tampa Bay selected this right wing 94th-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he played most of his three-year career. He managed only 49 points before returning to Russia.
  • Doug Lynch (1983-) – Another player whose career didn’t last long, this defenseman was selected 43rd-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Edmonton. He only played two games with the Oilers, and has since played most of his career in the EBEL.
  • Cam Barker (1986-) – This defenseman was the third-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by Chicago, and that’s where he spent most of his eight-year NHL career. Most recently, he was playing in the KHL for HC Slovan Bratislava.

Led by Nazem Kadri‘s two-point effort, the Maple Leafs bested Buffalo 4-2 in the Battle of the QEW, yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Toronto took command of this game quickly, as it had a 3-0 lead by the 5:09 mark of the first frame. Third Star of the Game Leo Komarov (Kadri) took credit for the Leafs‘ first tally, tipping-in a shot 4:26 after the initial puck drop. 35 seconds later, First Star Auston Matthews (William Nylander and Jake Gardiner) doubled that lead by potting a wrist shot. That surge culminated with Second Star James van Riemsdyk (Tyler Bozak), who notched the game-winner only eight seconds after Matthews’ 39th tally of the season, the most ever by an American rookie.

Buffalo finally got on the board 1:51 into the second period. Though Marcus Foligno still had nine seconds remaining on his cross-checking penalty against Kadri at the end of the first period, Ryan O’Reilly (Brian Gionta) notched a shorthanded snap shot to pull the Sabres within two goals of their Canadian rivals.

That 3-1 score held until the 5:50 mark of the third period. That’s when Kadri (Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) buried his power play marker to reclaim a three-goal advantage for Toronto. Jack Eichel (Sam Reinhart) buried a backhanded shot with 56 seconds remaining in the game, but it was too little too late to effect Buffalo‘s fate.

Frederik Andersen earned the win after saving 20-of-22 shots faced (90.9%), leaving the loss to Robin Lehner, who saved two-of-five (40%). He was pulled after van Riemsdyk’s game-winning slap shot in favor of Anders Nilsson, who saved 39-of-40 (97.5%) for no decision.

Toronto‘s victory snaps the four-game winning streak by the 85-59-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Though hosts have still had more success when featured, their advantage over the visitors is now only three points.

April 3 – Day 166 – One more! For Queen Elizabeth!

Seven more days of the regular season remain, making this the last Monday of the NHL year. I know it’s difficult, but enjoy it as best as you can.

To help you do that, there’s three games on the schedule tonight. A pair of those (Toronto at Buffalo [NHLN/SN/TVAS] and Ottawa at Detroit [RDS2]) drop the puck at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by Montréal at Florida (RDS) – tonight’s early nightcap. All times eastern.

Since none of these games are matchups of playoff teams, what better contest to watch than the Battle for the Queen Elizabeth Way?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though divided by a national border, the fact that these towns are separated by only 89 miles/145 kilometers has yielded quite the rivalry. That hatred has only increased this season as both the Maple Leafs and Sabres are returning to form and promise to be strong clubs next season and for years to come.

The future has come early in Toronto, as the Maple Leafs have a 38-24-15 record that is good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division. Winners of their past three games, the Leafs have been especially good since March 16, as they’ve gone 7-1-1 since then, which ties for the fourth-best run in the league in that time.

Just like it’s been all season, the reason for Toronto‘s success over this run has been its incredible offense. The Leafs have scored 32 goals since mid-March, a total that ties for second-most in the league in that time.

The man behind this attack? Exactly who it’s been all year: rookie phenom Auston Matthews. Not only has the kid scored seven goals for 11 points in the last nine games, but he’s also tied at 38 with Nikita Kucherov for third-most tallies all season.

It goes without saying, but this Leaf is absolutely special. He is the number one reason Toronto is currently in playoff position going to be in the playoffs, and potentially could be reasons two and three as well.

Reason four just might be Toronto‘s power play. Converting 30.4% of  their opportunities of late, the Maple Leafs‘ man-advantage has been fourth-best in the NHL since March 16. While Matthews has been effective during this specific stretch (he’s scored three power play goals for four points in his last nine games), fellow rookie William Nylander has been the true stud on the man-advantage. He’s notched 25 points with the extra man all season, nine of which have been tallies off his stick, to lead all first-year players.

To complete our perfunctory list, reason number five has to be Toronto‘s penalty kill. Thanks in large part to 32-15-14 Frederik Andersen and his .897 power play save percentage (fourth best in the league among the 37 netminders with at least 32 appearances), the Maple Leafs have rejected 83% of opposing man-advantages to rank eighth-best in the NHL.

Don’t tell anybody, but that lone regulation loss Toronto has suffered recently came at the hands of the 32-34-12 Sabres, the second-worst team in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, that win is one of only four the Sabres have earned in their past seven games.

You’ve got to score to win, and that’s been Buffalo‘s main struggle of late. Although Jack Eichel has averaged a point-per-game over this stretch (including three goals) to lead the team, he and Ryan O’Reilly (six points) have been the only two forwards really contributing to the attack lately.

Of course, that’s looking at the offense as a whole. When you start breaking things down, you find Buffalo‘s problem truly lies in even-strength play, as its power play has been the best in the league since mid-March.

Yes, even better than Washington‘s vaunted attack.

The Sabres have converted 46.7% of their man-advantage opportunities in the last two weeks, and it is on this assault where more of the team has participated. 15 different players have contributed at least a point on even-strength play since March 17, compared to 10 on the power play in that time.

Five more players were involved? Great! Bottom line, it means the Sabres are scoring!

True, but unfortunately it’s not that easy. Buffalo has spent a combined 22:16 on the man-advantage over 15 opportunities in its past seven games. Both those totals are the lowest in the league over that stretch. That means much of the team has effectively wasted the remaining (approximately) 400 minutes they’ve played, as they’ve only scored nine goals during five-on-five play, or a goal every 44 minutes.

One goal per 44 minutes of even-strength play does not win hockey games. If that’s not apparent by Buffalo‘s recent record, I don’t know what is.

Fortunately, the Sabres have remained competitive due to performing the opposite special team as well as they execute the power play. 22-24-8 Robin Lehner deserves much of the credit for that success, as his .926 power play save percentage ranks sixth-best in the NHL among the 39 goalies with at least four appearances since March 17.

Though the Sabres will miss the postseason for the sixth-straight season, this is an important game for Buffalo. Due to their two-game winning streak against Toronto, the Sabres have tied the season series against the Maple Leafs at 2-2-0, making this contest a true rubber match.

They last squared off on March 25 at the KeyBank Center – the same site of tonight’s game – where the Sabres won 5-2 on Eichel’s two-goal, three-point night.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Buffalo‘s Lehner (.921 save percentage [tied for ninth-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (32 wins [tied for eighth-most in the league], including four shutouts [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), Jake Gardiner (+26 [10th-best in the league]) and Matthews (38 points [tied for third-most in the NHL]).

Uh oh, that’s not good for the home team. Vegas has marked this game with a +140 line, meaning the odds-makers favor the Leafs. Unfortunately for the Sabres, so do I. While both clubs are almost evenly matched on special teams, the Toronto‘s offense is far superior at even-strength, which is where they should earn the victory.

Hockey Birthday

  • Ray Getliffe (1914-2008) – Though originally a Bruin, this forward spent most of his 10-year career in Montréal. A two-time Stanley Cup champion, he hoisted the trophy once with both clubs.
  • Bernie Parent (1945-) – Another player to start his career in Boston, this Hall-of-Fame goaltender played most of his 13 NHL seasons with the Flyers. He was a five-time All Star and won two Conn Smythes, Vezinas and – most importantly – Stanley Cups.
  • Brent Gilchrist (1967-) – Drafted by Montréal 79th-overall in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft, this left wing  played 15 seasons in the league – most of which with the Stars organization. He hoisted his lone Stanley Cup in 1998 with the Red Wings.
  • Shawn Bates (1975-) – The Boston-theme continues with this center, as the Bruins selected him in the fourth round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He actually spent most of his 10-year career with the Islanders, with whom he notched 170 of his 198 career points.
  • Stephen Weiss (1983-) – The fourth-overall selection in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Florida, this center spent all but two of his 13 seasons with the Panthers. He notched 423 points before hanging up his skates, including 156 goals.

The Predators had the chance to not only clinch their postseason berth with a victory, but also surpass the Blues for third place in the Central Division. Instead, St. Louis beat Nashville 4-1 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

St. Louis didn’t wait long to get on the board, courtesy of a Vladimir Tarasenko (Jaden Schwartz and First Star of the Game David Perron) wrist shot 5:22 after the initial puck drop. Ryan Johansen (Filip Forsberg and P.K. Subban) and the Preds responded exactly six minutes later to tie the game at one-all with a power play wrister, the score that held into the first intermission.

Alex Steen (Perron) provided the game-winner early in the second period. He buried a wrister only 55 seconds after resuming play from the first intermission, followed only 5:52 later by a Perron (Alex Pietrangelo) wrister. Those tallies set the score at 3-1, which held into the second intermission.

The lone score of the third belonged to Third Star Joel Edmundson, an unassisted wrister 8:11 into the frame.

Second Star Jake Allen saved 35-of-36 shots faced (97.2%) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Juuse Saros, who saved 21-of-25 (84%).

Nashville did qualify for the playoffs yesterday by virtue of Arizona beating ninth-place Los Angeles.

For four straight days now, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have earned two points in the standings. Within the series, that has given hosts a 85-58-25 record, five points better than the roadies.

April 2 – Day 165 – Gigantic goalies

After the final game is complete this evening, we will be officially in the final week of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. It is officially crunch time.

This Sunday’s action gets started at 12:30 p.m. with Boston at Chicago (NBC/TVAS). After that, we have staggered starts every hour, on the hour. 3 p.m. marks the puck drop of the New York Islanders at Buffalo (SN), followed an hour later by Nashville at St. Louis. Carolina at Pittsburgh (NHLN) gets underway at 5 p.m., and a trio of games (Colorado at Minnesota, Dallas at Tampa Bay and Washington at Columbus) follows suit 60 minutes later. 7 p.m. marks the puck drop of San Jose at Vancouver (SN), half an hour before Philadelphia at the New York Rangers (NBCSN). More of the West Coast gets involved at 9:30 p.m. with Anaheim at Calgary (SN1), an hour before tonight’s nightcap: Arizona at Los Angeles.

Short list:

  • Boston at Chicago: For those that love Original Six battles, this is, if my count is correct, the second-to-last one of the year.
  • Nashville at St. Louis: The difference between third in the Central Division and the second wild card is nonexistent.
  • San Jose at Vancouver: A 10-year veteran of the Canucks, Jannik Hansen now makes his home in San Jose.
  • Philadelphia at New York: The Flyers are still hanging around in the playoff hunt, but they’ll need to beat another rival to stay alive.

Call me biased, but there’s no way we’re not heading to Scottrade Center for this important Central Division matchup.

 

8-3-2. That’s the 40-27-11 Predators‘ record since March 7. Though it’s not the best run in that stretch of time, it’s still been more than enough to all but punch Nashville‘s third-straight ticket into the playoffs. Currently occupying the second wild card, it has a 10-point advantage on the Kings.

In fact, all the Preds need to do is avoid a regulation loss and they will be among the 16 teams playing after next Sunday’s regular season finale.

Of course, Smashville has bigger ideas in mind than simply eliminating Los Angeles. Third place in the Central Division is held by their opponent this afternoon, who leads the Predators with only one-fewer game played.

To surge past the Notes, the Predators will probably employ the same tactic that has been the backbone of their recent winning ways: goaltending.

Wait, I thought Nashville was an offensive team… Well, that’s true. On the season as a whole, the Predators have notched 2.92 tallies-per-game, the ninth-best scoring rate in the NHL. Yet since early March, the Preds have allowed only 28 goals against, which #ties for sixth-fewest in that time.

In short, 31-18-8 Pekka Rinne has been excellent of late. Already among the league’s better goaltenders on a normal day, his .931 save percentage and 1.97 GAA of late are far superior to his season-long averages of .917 and 2.44. In fact, since March 7, he’s posted the eighth and (t)sixth-best marks, respectively, among the 32 goalies with at least seven appearances in that time.

Rinne can’t save everything though. That becomes brutally apparent when a Predator takes a seat in the penalty box. Over the past month, Rinne has saved only 32-of-41 power play shots against (78%), which ties for the 11th-worst power play save percentage in that time span.

But take notice of how many shots he’s faced. 41 is a lot. In fact, it’s tied for 14th-most in the league since early March. Therein lies Smashville‘s penalty kill problem. P.K. Subban leads the team with five shorthanded shot blocks, especially when paired with his two shorthanded takeaways.

But yes, only five blocks on the penalty kill in his last 13 games. And yes, he leads the team with that measly total over this stretch.

The penalty kill needs to be a bigger priority for this team, and it needs to see improvements in a hurry. Over the past month, Nashville is sixth-worst in the NHL when down a man, neutralizing only 74.3% of its infractions.

Special teams seem to be a struggle for David Poile’s club this season, because the power play actually manages to be worse than the penalty kill. The Predators tie with Colorado (remember, being compared to the Avalanche in any way this season is a recipe for disaster) for the second-worst man-advantage in the NHL since March 7, converting only 11.4% of opportunities.

Of that limited success, much of it has been off James Neal‘s stick. He’s scored three of Nashville‘s four power play goals in the past month, an impressive effort given the mire he’s been surrounded by.

Can you pick the best team in the league since March 5? Here’s a hint: they’ll be wearing blue today.

That’s right, it’s the 42-28-7 Blues. Having gone 11-1-2 since then, the Notes tie Carolina with 24 points in that time – on two fewer games.

Similar to Nashville‘s surge over the past month, this streak is a direct result of improved play in the crease by Jake Allen. He’s gone 30-19-5 all season, but 8-1-2 of that has come in the past 29 days.

Among goalies with at least four appearances in the past month, Allen is second only to Sergei Bobrovsky in his play. In the month of March, Allen posted an excellent .953 save percentage and 1.35 GAA, making him almost impenetrable to opposing offenses.

What definitely sets him apart from Rinne is the Blues‘ success on the penalty kill. While the Predators are prone to giving up power play goals, St. Louis has successfully neutralized 86.5% of their infractions in the past month, the fifth-best rate in the NHL.

St. Louis‘ power play has also been having a run of success this month. Led by Alex Pietrangelo and his five power play points, the Notes have converted 21.2% of their power plays since March 5, the 10th-best mark in the league.

As you’d might guess, Vladimir Tarasenko has potted a couple of those tallies, but what makes the Blues truly dangerous is the fact that six different players have scored a power play goal in the past month. Unpredictability is a dangerous weapon, and St. Louis has employed it well.

As far as the season series is concerned, this game is meaningless since the Predators have already won three of the previous four meetings. The last time they met was December 30, and it was Nashville‘s most dominant victory in the series. Jusse Saros led the way by saving all 25 shots he faced for a 4-0 shutout at Scottrade Center, the site of today’s matchup.

Some players to keep an eye on during today’s game include Nashville‘s Ryan Johansen (47 assists [ninth-most in the league]) and Rinne (31 wins [10th-most in the NHL]) & St. Louis‘ Allen (four shutouts [tied for ninth-most in the league]) or Carter Hutton (2.34 GAA [10th-best in the NHL]) and Tarasenko (36 goals [fifth-most in the league]).

According to the odds-makers in the desert, St. Louis is a -135 favorite to win this afternoon. I have to agree. Where the Blues will truly dominate today is in special teams situations. The Predators‘ best shot at pulling off the upset is keeping both penalty boxes empty.


It needed overtime, but Edmonton was able to hold home ice and best the Ducks 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to improve into first place in the Pacific Division.

The first period nearly escaped scoreless, but First Star of the Game Connor McDavid (Patrick Maroon and Adam Larsson) had other plans. He buried a wrist shot with 49 seconds remaining in the frame to give the Oilers a 1-0 going into the first intermission.

That didn’t seem to sit well with Ryan Getzlaf (Jakob Silfverberg and Cam Fowler) over the break, as he took advantage of Matt Hendricks being sent to the sin bin by scoring a power play slap shot 3:27 into the second period. That tied the game at one-all, the same score that read going into the second intermission.

8:53 into the final frame, Patrick Eaves (Antoine Vermette and Silfverberg) provided Anaheim its first lead of the night. It was the result of another power play, this time a slashing penalty by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But what goes around, comes around. With 1:58 remaining in regulation, Third Star Milan Lucic (Leon Draisaitl and McDavid) scored a power play tally of his own to level the game at two-all and force overtime.

Three-on-three play didn’t last long before Draisaitl (McDavid) ended it. After only 1:26 of overtime play, the third-year pro buried a wrister to win the game for Edmonton.

Cam Talbot took the victory after saving 16-of-18 shots faced (88.9%), leaving the overtime loss to Second Star John Gibson, who saved 34-of-37 (91.9%).

The 84-58-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a three-game winning streak. That’s important as the series comes to a close, as it gives them a three-point advantage on the roadies.

April 1 – Day 164 – Ducks dominance or Oilers ownage?

Eight games will be played this penultimate Saturday of the NHL regular season, starting with Florida at Boston (SN) at 1 p.m. The other matinee of the day drops the puck an hour later and features Minnesota at Nashville. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. marks the beginning of five contests (Ottawa at Winnipeg [SN], Toronto at Detroit [CBC/NHLN], Montréal at Tampa Bay [CITY/TVAS], New Jersey at Philadelphia and Dallas at Carolina), and tonight’s nightcap – Anaheim at Edmonton (CBC/SN) – gets underway at 10 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Toronto at Detroit: Not only is this one of the more historical rivalries in the game, but Alexey Marchenko also makes his first – and last – trip to Joe Louis Arena as a visitor.
  • New Jersey at Philadelphia: The Battle of the Jersey Turnpike rages on tonight on Broad Street.
  • Anaheim at Edmonton: Oh, you know, there’s nothing major on the line in this game. Just the lead in the Pacific Division, that’s all.

There’s no joking about it, tonight’s festivities in Edmonton are going to have a significant impact on the race for the Pacific championship. Though we were just there a couple days ago, it’s off to Edmonton with us!

 

The best way to complete our three-day stop in Alberta is by featuring the best two teams in the Pacific Division. Only a point separates the Ducks and Oilers from each other with five fixtures left on the schedule.

What makes this game even more important is this is the last time they’ll run into each other this year – barring a postseason meeting. The reason for Anaheim‘s advantage can be found in their second run-in with Oilers of the year. On December 3 – ironically at Rogers Place, the same surface on which they’ll square off tonight – Edmonton needed overtime to best the Ducks 3-2.

That overtime loss is the differential in the season series between these clubs. Since both have won two of the previous four meetings, Anaheim has a one-point advantage on the Oilers in both the series and the standings as a whole.

The 42-23-12 Ducks have been playing some fantastic hockey since mid-March. They’re riding a nine-game point streak that has seen them go 7-0-2 and climb to the top of the Pacific Division.

As has been the case all year, Anaheim has made this surge on the back of its defense and goaltending. The Ducks have allowed only 17 goals in their past nine games, which is the second-fewest in the league since March 12.

Though normally bearing the title of backup, a main reason for the Ducks‘ surge is 19-7-4 Jonathan Bernier, who has been the only goaltender to take to the crease during this run. He’s played remarkably, as his .938 save percentage and 1.86 GAA over this stretch are (t)fifth and (t)seventh-best among the 42 goalies who’ve made at least four appearances since mid-March.

What makes Bernier’s play even more impressive is he hasn’t had quite the defense that he and 23-16-8 John Gibson have grown accustomed to this season. Though not by much, Anaheim‘s blueline is under-performing by their standards as they’ve allowed 30.3 shots-per-game to reach Bernier’s crease in the past nine games, which is actually sixth-tenths more than their season average.

That slight decrease in performance can’t be blamed on Hampus Lindholm or Sami Vatanen though. They’ve been playing out of their minds of late, as they both have 18 shot blocks to their credit since March 12.

Perhaps the reason for the Ducks‘ almost indiscernible drop in defensive production is due to Cam Fowler‘s recent play.  Though he averages 1.7 shot blocks per game for the entire season, that rate has dropped to 1.3 in the last nine games.

Like I said, almost indiscernible. We’re splitting hairs here; Fowler has still been excellent, as have Lindholm and Vatanen. The Ducks still have a defense to be reckoned with, not to mention the red-hot Bernier playing in net. In short, scoring against the Ducks is not an easy thing to do.

The true mark of a good defense is a solid penalty kill, and Anaheim has one of those. It ranks fifth-best on the season and stops 85.1% of opponents’ power plays. As you’d expect, the reason for the Ducks‘ success is twofold – as in two fantastic goalies. Both Bernier and Gibson save over 90% of power play shots against. Of the 28 netminders who’ve faced 175 or more man-advantage shots this season, they’re the only two goaltenders in the league who can make that claim.

Of course, every team has a hole. For the Ducks, that issue this year is the power play, and that’s especially been the case over the last 20 days. The Ducks have found the back of the net with the man-advantage only three times in the past nine games for a horrendous success rate of 10%. Only three teams in the NHL have been worse since March 12.

43-25-9 Edmonton has also been playing incredible hockey since mid-March, especially when it has the puck on its stick. Since March 14, the Oilers have buried 37 goals – five more than Carolina, Chicago and Washington (incredible offenses in their own rights) to lead the NHL. That offensive explosion has led the Oil to a 8-1-0 mark in that time, which ties for second-best in the league.

Just like it’s been all year, Todd McLellan‘s club has utilized a two-headed attack of none other than Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Both have 16 points apiece since the 14th to co-lead the league.

Since both play a solid, unselfish game, they get credit for a lot of helpers. Patrick Maroon, the final third of Edmonton‘s top line, has been the man taking advantage of that of late, as he’s potted six beauties in the past 18 days to lead the squad.

An offense of this caliber does not mess around. Since March 14, Edmonton has taken advantage of 29% of its man-advantage situations to score nine power play goals. Four of those have been a direct result of Draisaitl’s play, though they’ve all been apples. Half of those assists have gone to Mark Letestu and the other half to Milan Lucic, both of whom join Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with two power play goals apiece to headline the Oil‘s extra-man attack of late.

Maybe the most impressive part of Edmonton‘s game during this impressive run is its effort on the penalty kill. Only two tallies have resulted due to an Oilers penalty for a 91.3% kill rate, the second-best in the league in that time frame.

While 39-21-8 Cam Talbot has been good over the stretch, the real reason for Edmonton‘s success is McLellan’s leadership. The best way to succeed at the penalty kill is to avoid it, and the Oilers have been shorthanded only 23 times in their past nine games, which ties for sixth-fewest in the NHL.

The last time these squads met was only 10 days ago on March 22 at The Pond. Both Ryan Getzlaf and Lindholm added three points to their season totals to lead Anaheim to a narrow 4-3 victory over the visiting Oilers.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Anaheim‘s Getzlaf (52 assists [fifth-most in the NHL]) and Gibson (five shutouts [tied for sixth-most in the league] and a 2.28 GAA [seventh-best in the NHL] on a .921 save percentage [10th-best in the league]) & Edmonton‘s Draisaitl (72 points [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), McDavid (63 assists for 91 points [both lead the league] for a +26 [tied for eighth-best in the NHL]) and Talbot (seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the league] among 39 wins [third-most in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked the Oilers a -125 favorite to win tonight’s game. I’m going to side with the odds-makers this evening, as I trust Talbot and Edmonton‘s defense more than the Ducks‘ offense. That being said, this should be an absolutely thrilling matchup.

Hockey Birthday

  • Ken Reardon (1921-2008) – This Winnipeg-born defenseman played all of his seven-year NHL career in Montréal. Though a short career, the Hall of Famer played in three All-Star Games and hoisted the 1946 Stanley Cup.
  • Guy Trottier (1941-2014) – This right wing played only three season in the NHL, and another three in the WHA. His longest tenured NHL team was Toronto, with whom he notched 45 points in 113 games.
  • Darren McCarty (1972-) – Detroit selected this right wing 46th-overall in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he spent all but two of his 15 seasons in the NHL. As you’d expect from a tenured Wing, McCarty is the proud owner of four Stanley Cup Champion rings.
  • J.P. Dumont (1978-) – Selected third-overall by the Islanders in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, this right wing played most of his 12 seasons in Nashville. He found his game with the Predators, as he provided a defensive presence and focused his offensive efforts on assists, earning 174.

Scoring three goals in a period is usually a formula for success. That’s the strategy Calgary employed in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to beat the Sharks 5-2 at the Saddledome.

Third Star of the Game Johnny Gaudreau (Second Star Sam Bennett) provided a sample of what was to come after the intermission by scoring a tip-in with 7:34 remaining in the first period. That was the lone goal of the frame, giving Calgary a 1-0 lead with 40 minutes remaining.

Sean Monahan (Matthew Tkachuk and Kris Versteeg) provided Calgary‘s first tally of the second with a power play wrist shot. That goal was answered 4:46 later by Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Michael Haley and Marcus Sorensen), but there was no Sharks response for what the Flames did next. Matt Stajan (Michael Stone) scored what came to be a game-winning snap shot with 7:22 remaining in the period, followed 5:31 later by an Alex Chiasson (Versteeg and T.J. Brodie) backhander. After having a one-goal lead for much of the game, Calgary entered the second intermission with a 4-1 advantage.

Melker Karlsson (Joe Pavelski and Paul Martin) pulled San Jose back within two tallies with 6:54 remaining in regulation, but even that tally was erased by Bennett’s (Chiasson and Brodie) wrister on an empty net with 34 seconds remaining in the game.

First Star Brian Elliott saved 36-of-38 shots faced (94.7%) to earn the victory. That left the loss to Martin Jones, who saved 18-of-22 (81.8%) before being pulled after Chiasson’s tally. Aaron Dell saved all 12 shots he faced for no decision.

Currently riding a two-game winning streak, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have an 83-58-25 record, which is two points better than the visitors.

March 31 – Day 163 – Keeping it in Alberta

Welcome to the penultimate Friday in the NHL’s regular season. Unless you’re a fan of one of the 16 teams heading for the playoffs, there’s not much hockey left to be watched so make sure to catch the rest of this season’s games!

Tonight’s festivities start with Pittsburgh at the New York Rangers (SN) at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by New Jersey at the New York Islanders. 8:30 p.m. marks the puck drop of Columbus at Chicago,  with two more (St. Louis at Colorado and San Jose at Calgary) getting underway at the top of the hour. Two contests – Los Angeles at Vancouver (SN360) and Washington at Arizona – share the role of nightcap and get started at 10 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Pittsburgh at New York: Not only is it a rematch of last year’s Eastern Quarterfinals, but the Blueshirts could pull within four points of third place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • Columbus at Chicago: Two of the three best teams in the league? Yes please.
  • San Jose at Calgary: Thanks to the Sharks‘ loss last night, the Flames are only three points out of third place in the Pacific Division.

I’d love to watch the Hawks and Jackets square off, but it doesn’t have major playoff implications – and that’s what we’re all about this time of year. As much as I dislike repeating teams on back-to-back nights, it looks like we have to catch the Sharks‘ plane to Calgary for another important Pacific tilt.

 

If the Sharks can be happy about anything right now, it’s that today is the final day in what has been a dreadful March for them. Their 6-9-0 mark is tied with Arizona for the sixth-worst record in the month, and being compared to Coyotes in anything is usually a sign of trouble.

What makes the recent struggles an even harder pill to swallow is that it is spoiling an overall solid regular season. When the final game in February was played, San Jose was not only leading the Pacific Division by five points, but also trailed Minnesota by only seven points for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Thirty days later, the 43-27-7 Sharks sit alone in third place in the division, and four teams separate them from home ice throughout the conference playoffs. It leaves a club and fan base that entered the season on a quest to hoist its first Stanley Cup wondering if they can even escape what will be a very trying quarterfinals matchup against the Ducks, Flames, Oilers or possibly even the Blackhawks.

As I mentioned yesterday, it’s been an nearly all-inclusive collapse (defense notwithstanding) by the Sharks that has resulted in their horrendous run over the past 15 games.

Since 33-32-6 Martin Jones was in net last night, I’d assume 10-6-1 Aaron Dell will start in goal tonight (of course, I tabbed Dell to start yesterday and I was wrong, so who knows?). Dell has actually been a solid backup all season, as his .928 save percentage and 2.09 GAA are not only better than Jones’ effort, but also rank (t)third and fourth-best in the league among the 56 netminders with at least 16 appearances.

Whether we get that Dell or the Dell that has seen his save percentage drop to .915 in March remains to be seen, but you can plan on Justin Braun and San Jose‘s defense playing as strong as ever.

All season the goal has been to keep pucks off Dell and Jones’ crease as much as possible, and they’ve done an excellent job in achieving just that. All year, they’ve allowed only 27.5 shots-against per game – the third-best rate in the league – and they’ve actually been slightly better of late, allowing only 27.1 per game in March.

No Shark deserves more credit for that than Braun. He’s been the defensive stalwart of the club all year, and it shows in his team-leading 154 shot blocks. Another that has done well defensively is Joe Thornton, but he does his work before the opposition even thinks about firing at the net. He leads the squad in takeaways with 64 (tied for eighth-most in the league), including 13 this month.

The goaltending issues have proven to be especially detrimental to San Jose‘s penalty kill. Since it has been only an average effort on the season as a whole (80.8% kill rate is 15th-worst in the NHL), taking away the luxury of a usually-reliable backstop has dropped the Sharks to ninth-worst in March, neutralizing only 78% of their infractions. Dell has saved only 85% of the power play shots that have come his way this month, the 14th-worst effort among the 38 goalies with at least six March appearances.

Special teams seem to be a struggle for Peter DeBoer’s squad this year, as his power play has actually been worse than his penalty kill. The Sharks rank seventh-worst on the season with their 17.1% success rate with the man-advantage.

It’s surprising that San Jose has been so poor, mostly because they have one weapon few can match: Brent Burns. The offensive-minded blueliner has notched 24 points on the power play this campaign, which ties for 16th-most in the NHL.

Perhaps the Sharks‘ mojo has relocated itself to Cowtown. Currently in possession of a 43-30-4 record and the West’s first wild card, the Flames have earned a 15-4-1 record since February 15. That ties Columbus for the best mark in that time, though I’d argue the Flames have been better with one fewer game played.

I may actually be on to something regarding San Jose‘s mojo, as Brian Elliott has been fantastic during this run. After a rocky start to the season, he’s reclaimed the starting job in Calgary and made it his own. Since mid-February, he’s earned a .933 save percentage and a 1.97 GAA, the fourth and fifth-best marks in the league, respectively, among the 33 goalies with at least nine appearances in that time.

Tonight is the fourth of five games between these clubs this season, and the Flames have the opportunity to clinch the series victory with a win tonight. They’ve gone 2-1-0 so far against San Jose, including the last time they met on January 11. It was a closely contested affair, but Dougie Hamilton scored with 2:19 remaining in regulation to earn a 3-2 win for the Flames in the Saddledome.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Calgary‘s Johnny Gaudreau (42 assists for 59 points [both lead the team]) and Mark Giordano (176 blocks for a+22 [both lead the team]) & San Jose‘s Burns (73 points [eighth-most in the league]) and Jones (33 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]).

It’s hard to argue with recent success. Vegas has marked the Flames a -130 favorite to win tonight. Just like I said yesterday, the Sharks‘ rebound has to start in the crease. While Calgary certainly doesn’t pose the offensive threat the Oilers did a night ago, the Flames‘ confidence should be enough to get past whichever goaltender DeBoer decides to go with.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bud MacPherson (1927-1988) – For seven seasons MacPherson roamed along Montréal‘s blueline, and he was rewarded with one All-Star Game and the 1953 Stanley Cup.
  • Gordie Howe (1928-2016) – There’s no discussion: this right wing is one of the greatest players the world has ever seen. Named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 – seven years before his last season in the league – he played in 23 All-Star Games over 26 NHL seasons (all but one with Detroit) and won both the Hart Memorial and Art Ross Trophies six times apiece, not to mention his four Stanley Cups.
  • Bob Pulford (1936-) – Another Hall of Famer, this left wing played all but two seasons of his 16-year career in Toronto. He won four Stanley Cups in the process, including three-straight from 1962-’64.
  • Bill Hicke (1938-2005) – Spending most of his time in Montréal, this right wing played 13 seasons in the NHL. The three-time All-Star was good for almost as many penalty minutes as points contributed, but that didn’t stop him from being a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
  • Gilles Gilbert (1949-) – Selected by the North Stars 25th-overall in the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft, this goaltender played 416 games over his 14-year career. Spending most of his time in Boston, he earned a 192-143-60 record before hanging up his pads.
  • Tom Barrasso (1965-) – Buffalo selected this goaltender fifth-overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, but he played a majority of his career for the Penguins. He played well for both clubs, as he earned the 1984 Calder Memorial and Vezina Trophies and the 1985 William M. Jennings Trophy with the Sabres and back-to-back Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh.
  • Pavel Bure (1971-) – Though only selected in the sixth round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by Vancouver (his longest-tenured club), this right wing had a highly successful career. In addition to six All-Star Game appearances, he won two Maurice Richard Trophies and the 1992 Calder. All of that added up to a Hall of Fame induction in 2012.
  • Michael Ryder (1980-) – Montréal selected this right wing in the eighth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he played most of his 11 seasons. That being said, he was wearing the crest of the arch-rival Bruins when he hoisted his lone Stanley Cup.
  • David Clarkson (1984-) – A longtime right wing for the Devils, this Toronto-native played 10 seasons in the NHL. He could’ve been playing his 11th this year with Columbus, but he was denied the opportunity to practice with the club due to failing his physical.
  • Steve Bernier (1985-) – The 16th-overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by San Jose, this right wing has played 633 games over 11 seasons in the league. His longest -tenured club is New Jersey, with whom he scored 28 goals for 65 points.
  • Jakob Chychrun (1998-) – This rookie defenseman was the 16th-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by Arizona. He shows promise on the offensive end of the ice, as he’s provided 19 points already this year, the third-most among Coyotes blueliners.

Thanks to Second Star of the Game Cam Talbot‘s 38-save effort, Edmonton was able to best the Sharks 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day to improve into second place in the Pacific Division.

Though Talbot had a strong night, it didn’t start off the best way. He allowed Jannik Hansen (Paul Martin) to score only his eighth goal of the season 1:01 into play to allow the Sharks to take an early lead. Fortunately for him, Third Star Patrick Maroon (First Star Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) provided a game-tying goal 9:21 later. Though Zack Kassian was sent off the ice for hooking birthday boy Marc-Edouard Vlasic with 3:24 remaining in the period, McDavid (Oscar Klefbom and Drake Caggiula) was able to score a shorthanded backhander only 52 seconds later to give the Oil a 2-1 lead it would not yield.

Maroon (Kris Russell) provided what proved to be the game-winning goal 7:51 into the third period with a tip-in. It became the winner with 6:01 remaining in regulation when Joe Pavelski (Vlasic and Hansen) scored a tip-in of his own, but the Sharks were unable to find another tally before the final horn.

Talbot earned the victory after saving 38-of-40 shots faced (95%), leaving the loss to Jones, who saved 19-of-22 (86.4%).

We’re all squared up once again in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as both home and away teams in the series have an identical 189 points. Road sides still have more wins with their 83-59-23 record.