Tag Archives: Hedman

Burakovsky and Holtby lead Caps to Cup Finals

 

With his second-straight shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, First Star of the Game G Braden Holtby lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals entered this game with a 7-2 record away from Capital One Arena this postseason, but a 4-11 all-time record in Game 7s for their franchise history.

One of these records had to give.

Doing his best to turn the tables in Washington’s favor, Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (F Evgeny Kuznetsov and RW Tom Wilson) provided one of his patented slap shots from above the left face-off circle only 62 seconds into the contest to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage.

That goal proved to be the game-winner, due in large part to the excellent performance of Holtby. He saved all 29 shots he faced during regulation, with 22 of those being struck in the first two periods.

While Holtby is certainly deserving of credit, it is not without some fortuitous bounces that he held on to his clean sheet. There were more than a few occasions in this tilt that a puck initially beat him between his legs or rang off the post, but he was fortunate that his defense was there to keep the Lightning from scoring off the rebound.

D John Carlson‘s unbelievable five shot blocks (a game-high) played a major role defensively for Washington, as did Ovechkin’s five hits (tied with D Victor Hedman and LW Chris Kunitz for a game-high) and C Lars Eller‘s two takeaways (you guessed it, another game-high).

Additionally, all this talk about Holtby is not to discredit the work done by G Andrei Vasilevskiy. Playing in the second Eastern Finals Game 7 of his young career, the Russian’s 19-for-22 stat line (.864 save percentage) is not reflective of his performance, as he made more than his fair share of awe-inspiring saves.

In fact, the two insurance goals scored in the second period by Second Star W Andre Burakovsky could largely be pinned on Vasilevskiy’s defense, as both were buried as a result of one-on-one matchups.

At the 8:59 mark of the second period, Burakovsky took advantage of D Dan Girardi mishandling the puck in his own zone to register his first playoff tally since May 8, 2017 – another two-goal performance. After wrapping his way around the defenseman, the Austrian slid towards Vasilevskiy’s crease before sneaking a wrist shot under the netminder’s right arm to the far post.

7:32 later, Burakovsky was on the receiving end of another play by a defenseman, but this blueliner was one of his own. Carlson intercepted a Lightning pass off the boards in his own defensive zone and quickly sprang his waiting teammate at the red line, setting Burakovsky up for his second breakaway opportunity of the frame. Just before D Ryan McDonagh caught up to him, the winger slid his wrister past Vasilevsky five-hole, setting the score at 3-0 with 23:29 remaining in regulation.

The final goal of the game belonged to C Nicklas Backstrom, who scored an empty netter with 3:43 remaining in the Lightning’s season.

No Game 7 is complete without tempers flaring, and that box was checked early. With 7:01 remaining in the first period, a seemingly innocent meeting of the minds in Vasilevskiy’s crease – following an incredible save, no less – proved to be nothing of the sort, as the ensuing shoving match between D Braydon Coburn and Kuznetsov resulted in the former possessing two sweaters: the one he was wearing and his opponent’s.

That ignited the fury of Wilson, who tried his hardest to rush Coburn but was intercepted by an official. Both Coburn and Wilson were charged with matching unsportsmanlike penalties, setting play at even-strength four-on-four for two minutes.

However, this was not a simple cool-down period in the penalty box. Immediately upon their release, Coburn and Wilson elected to engage in an exciting bout of fisticuffs. Coburn won by virtue of Wilson falling first, but both earned “five for fighting” major penalties and were sent to their respective dressing rooms for the remainder of the frame.

If Coburn elected to fight Wilson to inspire his club, it did little to do that. After his bout, the Bolts managed only one more shot on goal in the frame, and only 20 for the remainder of the game. Throw in the excellent form that Holtby was sporting, and there was little Tampa – the preseason favorite in many’s eyes – could do to stave off elimination.

With the Prince of Wales Trophy in hand, Washington will wage war against the Vegas Golden Knights in a Stanley Cup Final that features two teams searching for their first title. Game 1 is scheduled for Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern from the theatrical confines of T-Mobile Arena and will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN1 and TVAS.

An early note regarding these Finals in relation to these playoffs: In the First Round, the Boston Bruins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, but were eliminated in the Second Round. Similarly, the Second Round featured the Winnipeg Jets besting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7, but falling in the Western Conference Finals.

After the Caps required seven contests to eliminate Tampa Bay, will they suffer a similar fate against Vegas? Or will they buck yet another trend?

Only time – and at least four hockey games – will tell.

Victor’s Bolts “Heded” in right direction after Game 3 win

 

On a dark and stormy night in the District of Columbia, the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled off the Eastern Conference Finals’ third-straight road victory by beating the Washington Capitals 4-2 at Capital One Arena in Game 3.

Just like Game 2 was all about the Capitals’ offense, the same can be said about Tampa’s in Game 3. In particular, the Bolts’ power play was cruising early, as it provided two of Tampa’s goals en route to a 3-0 advantage.

Taking advantage of G Braden Holtby‘s trip against F Yanni Gourde (RW Alex Chiasson served the penalty) with 7:03 remaining in the first period, C Steven Stamkos (Second Star of the Game D Victor Hedman and F Brayden Point) ripped a Little Einsteins (Americans with the privilege of hearing Pierre McGuire’s analysis should know what I’m talking about) slap shot past Holtby to give Tampa the lead only 56 seconds after Chiasson took his seat.

Considering the score only read 1-0 in the first intermission, Washington seemed like it had kept things under control in the opening 20 minutes. After all, the Capitals fired a game-high 14 shots on goal in the first period – all of which were saved by First Star G Andrei Vasilevskiy.

However, that hypothesis was torn to shreds only 1:50 into the second frame, thanks in large part to C Lars Eller‘s unwise penalty for closing his hand on the puck. After only 16 seconds of five-on-four play later, Third Star RW Nikita Kucherov (Hedman and Stamkos) set the Bolts’ lead at 2-0 with a clapper from the right face-off dot.

An easy snap shot is all Hedman (Kucherov and W Ondrej Palat) needed to find his first goal of the 2018 postseason. With Holtby shading towards Kucherov in the right face-off circle, a quick pass allowed Hedman to capitalize on the gaping net and set the score at 3-0 only 1:47 after the Bolts’ first brace.

Keeping the offense going, Washington finally got on the board with 9:29 remaining in the second period. Taking advantage of Hedman’s failed clear, F Chandler Stephenson dished to W Brett Connolly (Stephenson and D Matt Niskanen) to set him up for a solid one-touch snap shot that beat Vasilevskiy stick side.

However, any positive energy caused by that goal was quickly nullified 5:32 later when Point (F Tyler Johnson and D Braydon Coburn) squeaked a wrist shot past Holtby’s right pad to set the score at 4-1.

With the Caps entering the third period trailing by three goals, logic would lead us to believe they would be firing as many shots on goal as possible to try and shrink that gap. Unfortunately for them, Tampa’s defense was not interested in the slightest in allowing many scoring opportunities.

Due in large part to Tampa Bay’s 18 blocks over the course of the entire game, Washington managed only 13 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes. D Ryan McDonagh played a large role in that effort with his game-high four blocks in the match.

Of course, the Lightning’s solid defense was at its best during five-on-five play. Once Head Coach Barry Trotz upped the ante a bit by pulling Holtby for the extra attacker, the playoff’s best offense finally found its second goal of the game when F Evgeny Kuznetsov (F T.J. Oshie and Eller) scored a wrister with 3:02 remaining in regulation. However, the 4-2 score held until the end of the contest, securing the Bolts’ first Conference Finals victory since May 22, 2016.

The biggest takeaway from this game is that the Tampa Bay team that many pegged to win the Stanley Cup last summer is still well and alive in this tournament. The Lightning’s offense finally found its footing against Holtby and Washington’s defense, and it was paired by a solid defense that stood tall when the Caps’ offense put the pedal to the metal. If Tampa is allowed to dominate Game 4 like it did Game 3, the Capitals will spoil their solid work at Amalie Arena just like Columbus did against them in the First Round.

Speaking of that Game 4, the Bolts’ opportunity to level the Eastern Finals at 2-2 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern. The contest will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Caps’ attack too much for Bolts; win Game 1 4-2

 

After a 4-2 victory at Amalie Arena over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1, home ice in the Eastern Conference Finals now belongs to the Washington Capitals.

Between the actual 2-0 score and the fact that the Caps led 9-2 in shots on goal, we get a rather accurate impression of how the first 20 minutes went down.

The Caps almost exclusively dominated possession from the opening draw to the first TV timeout. They might have managed only two shots on goal in that time (which still exceeded Tampa’s zero), but the fact that they kept the puck in their offensive zone did a lot to wear out the Bolts’ defensemen early.

That pressure paid off in spades at the 7:28 mark when Washington drew first blood in the Eastern Finals. D Michal Kempny (Second Star of the Game F Evgeny Kuznetsov and D John Carlson) did the dirty work with a wrist shot from the blue line, his first-ever North American postseason marker.

Of course, the best weapon against possession is a stellar counterattack. RW Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning though they had done just that with seven seconds remaining before the first intermission, but it was ruled Tampa Bay had too many men on the ice, negating the goal and awarding a power play to Washington.

Entering the game with the best power play in the postseason (converting 30.9 percent of man-advantages into goals), the Caps completed their stellar command of the first frame by burying a man-advantage tally with only six seconds remaining in the frame.

Who else to score that power play goal than First Star W Alex Ovechkin (Kuznetsov and F T.J. Oshie)? Almost unexpectedly, Ovechkin departed from his usual spot in the left face-off circle and scored his patented one-touch slap shot from the blue line on a set play from Oshie’s face-off victory.

Washington picked up right where it left off 2:40 into the second period. Third Star F Jay Beagle (W Brett Connolly and D Dmitry Orlov) beat G Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole from the slot, receiving an unintentional assist from D Braydon Coburn after Connolly’s centering pass bounced off his skate.

4:02 later, the score read 4-0 when C Lars Eller (Oshie and Ovechkin) converted a Kucherov roughing penalty into yet another power play goal – Washington’s final tally of the game.

What started as a 2-0 shot differential early in the first period became a 25-10 domination by the second intermission. It could be argued that LW Jakub Vrana‘s game-high five shots on goal is a major part of that, but I would instead point to Oshie’s two takeaways over the course of the game, as well as both Kucherov and FJ.T. Miller yielding two giveaways by the end of regulation.

Additionally, Washington was also excellent at blocking shots, as it managed 19 before retreating to its hotel that evening. Co-led by Carlson and D Matt Niskanen‘s three blocks apiece, the Caps’ blue line was a major reason for Tampa’s struggle to establish anything close to an offensive presence in the opening 40 minutes.

However, all that turned on its head in the third period when Head Coach Jon Cooper elected to bench Vasilevskiy, who saved 21-of-25 shots faced for a .84 save percentage, in favor of G Louis Domingue.

While Vasilevskiy could have certainly been better in this game, he didn’t give up any blatantly soft goals (looking at you, G Pekka Rinne). Instead, his benching was intended to be a message for his team, and the Lightning certainly responded just as Cooper wished.

It took 43:45 of play and RW Alex Chiasson sitting in the penalty box for slashing F Alex Killorn, but Tampa Bay finally got on the scoreboard when C Steven Stamkos (Kucherov and D Victor Hedman) did his best Ovechkin impression and scored a clapper from the left face-off circle, pulling the score to 4-1.

That was certainly more than enough to get the positive energy surging in the arena. Tampa out-shot the Capitals 11-7 in the third period, proving just how much of the game was  played in its attacking zone.

Keeping hope alive, another goal trickled by with 6:57 remaining in regulation when W Ondrej Palat (F Tyler Johnson and D Anton Stralman) beat G Braden Holtby short side with a wrister from the slot.

However, hope ran short in that remaining time due in large part to the solid effort of Holtby. Though it wasn’t his best game of the season, Holtby posed an imposing challenge even after the Bolts pulled Domingue for the extra attacker. In all, he saved his last four shots faced in the game, posting an 19-for-21 (.905 save percentage) overall performance.

If the Lightning learned one thing from this game, it is that they cannot continue committing penalties like they have been in these playoffs. Washington’s power play, which converted 50 percent tonight, is just too potent for the Bolts to continue serving the 14:41 penalty minutes per game that they’ve managed through the first two rounds.

Tampa’s first opportunity to resolve that issue is in Game 2, which is right back at Amalie Arena and scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern this Sunday. Fans unable to make it to Western Florida can catch the live broadcasts on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

A (forked) Tale of 3 Periods: Devils drop Game 2 to Lightning, but can build on strong play.

 

Often times, hockey games can be looked at as stories. Three separate periods of play strung together as a single narrative, often carrying a common theme among them.

Then, there are games like this one. Games where each 20 minute segment is entirely its own, almost entirely unrelated to one another. In a way, Game 2 could be considered a short story compilation.

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

After dropping Game 1, the Devils and young goaltender Keith Kinkaid (who had not lost back-to-back starts since February) were hungry for redemption, knowing a win before heading back to home ice for Games 3 and 4 could swing momentum greatly in the underdogs’ favor.

With some bad blood boiling over at the end of the first contest, it wasn’t surprising to see the two teams again start their fourth lines, and it didn’t take long for the action to pick up, as Tampa’s Cedric Paquette and Jersey’s Stefan Noesen had a coming-together at the end of an energetic first shift. Unfortunately, the tensions stalled out as when the first set of line changes were made, one of the Lightning bench doors suffered a broken latch and play had to be halted for about five minutes for a repair. When play resumed, Dan Girardi (apparently not a fan of the tempered tone) laid a booming hit on Miles Wood around three minutes in to get the crowd back in it.

A few minutes later it would be Girardi’s former-turned-current teammate Ryan McDonagh firing a wrister in from the point that took a dramatic change of direction right in front of Kinkaid, who somehow managed to stretch out his left pad to deny J.T. Miller‘s bid, having had the deflected shot come right to his tape for a prime scoring opportunity.

This seemed to briefly turn things in the Devils’ favor, as they’d kill off a Tampa power play shortly after, and have two quality chances in quick succession. First it would be Taylor Hall taking a hail mary pass for a partial breakaway, then John Moore stepping up to intercept an attempted clear to walk in and make a strong backhanded bid on the following shift. Unfortunately for the Devils, Andrei Vasilevskiy was equal to the task on both occasions.

After the Vasilevskiy save on Moore, the puck would make it’s way to center ice, where Ondrej Palat would corral the bouncer in traffic and feed a quick pass to Brayden Point breaking in on the right wing. Point walked in and patiently waited for Kinkaid to go down in the butterfly before shelving a quick shot crossbar – left post – and in to put the Lightning on top 12:15 into the period.

Jersey would quickly turn things back in their favor though, first with a quality chance for Travis Zajac on an oddman rush with Blake Coleman. Coleman would take an extra whack at Vasilevskiy as he covered the puck, causing Victor Hedman to come over and have a few words with the young Devils forward.

On the next shift, just 1:23 after the Point goal, a dominant shift by the New Jersey top line would be capped off by Nico Hischier scoring his first career playoff goal, gathering up the rebound of a Damon Severson shot and burying it over top of a sprawled Vasilevskiy.

The two teams would grind out the final 6 minutes and head to the first intermission tied at 1-1. New Jersey limited Tampa to just six shots, firing 10 of their own at the Lightning goal.

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

After going 1-for-1 in Game 1, the Tampa power play was held shotless on their only first period opportunity in this one. In the second period, however, they went off.

First it was a Steven Stamkos one-timer ripping just wide of the cage, bouncing off the end boards directly to the tape of Nikita Kucherov on the opposite wing, and #86 would quickly fire a pass to Alex Killorn waiting in the slot to tip home the 2-1 goal at 3:14, moving Tampa’s power play to two-for-three in the series.

The Bolts’ fourth line followed up the power play with a strong shift that would see Ryan Callahan ring a shot off the goalpost to Kinkaid’s right, narrowly missing the 3-1 goal. However on the next shift it would be the dominant second line making up for Callahan’s miss when Tyler Johnson slipped into the high slot to perfectly redirect a McDonagh point shot past Kinkaid at 4:35.

Hall would attempt to negate some momentum on the following shift, flying in and using a Tampa defender as a partial screen to rip a wicked wrister at Vasilevskiy, who flashed the left leg and stopped the puck with the toe of his skate, before having to cover up when the rebound careened dangerously off the stick of teammate Anton Stralman.

Hall’s efforts were rendered all-for-not when again on the very next shift it would be Kucherov dangling Sami Vatanen at the blueline, retrieving the puck and throwing it at the front of the net, where the chasing Vatanen would accidentally kick the puck past Kinkaid into his own net, putting the Lightning up 4-1 with 13:59 still to play in the second. Ironically, this goal did not count as a shot on net, giving the Bolts four goals on 10 shots.

The Lightning then turned their focus to physical play, first with Miller leveling Ben Lovejoy twice in a sub-10 second span, then Ondrej Palat throwing a big hit on Moore on the shift after.

With 6:48 to play in the second, Killorn would tally his second power play goal of the period (third goal in two games after scoring two in the final 15 of the regular season), again after a Kucherov feed, this time fighting off multiple checkers to lift it over a scrambling Kinkaid. John Hynes had seen enough and pulled his young netminder in favor of Cory Schneider.

Whether it was the Lightning slowing down, or the Devils being reignited by the goaltending change, it was at that coaching decision where the tide began to turn. The final six minutes and change saw Tampa held without another shot, as New Jersey began to pour it on.

Finally with just 25 seconds left, Vatanen would rip home a beautiful wrist shot from the high slot after leading the rush himself. It was a solid redemption shift for Vatanen, who made up for his earlier gaffe by leveling Callahan (who would not return to the game after the hit) to create the turnover that eventually led to his goal.

Outscored 3-1 in the period, New Jersey still managed to widen their advantage on the shot clock to 25-17 after their dominant final six minutes.

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

The third period was all-out domination by New Jersey at both ends of the ice.

Early in the frame it was Schneider showing spectacular form (and likely laying claim to the starting job from here on out) by first stopping a beautiful tip play orchestrated by Stralman and executed by Kucherov, then making a pair of spectacular stops a few minutes later on a Chris Kunitz redirect and follow-up attempt by a driving Paquette.

Then it was basically an uninterrupted offensive assault by the Devils for the final 15 minutes.

Wood found a goalpost at one point, and lost the puck on a breakaway forehand-backhand move at another. Vasilevskiy made a handful of sparkling saves on a Jersey power play. Maroon and Hall linked up on a two-on-one that was denied, followed up shortly after by a great redirect from Pavel Zacha on a Will Butcher slap shot which was again gobbled up by the big Tampa netminder.

Zacha got another golden opportunity with 8:45 to play but was handcuffed by a cross-ice pass that had him staring at a yawning cage. Luckily for both him and his team, later in that same shift it would be Blake Coleman finally beating Vasilevskiy with a laser of a one-timer from the top of the left circle to make the score 5-3 with just over eight minutes remaining.

After the third goal the attack only strengthened for New Jersey. Hischier rang one off the post at the four minute mark, and Miles Wood thought he scored on the very next shift, but video review showed no conclusive evidence of the puck (tangled in the gear of Vasilevskiy) ever crossing the line.

Pat Maroon made a great save on a Stamkos bid for the open net right after Schneider made his way to the bench, keeping hope alive for the Devils, but they just couldn’t solved #88 in net.

Things got scrappy with nine seconds left when everyone piled on Taylor Hall after he took an aggressive charge at the net when Vasilevskiy stopped a Vatanen blast, and it took a few minutes to get things settled down before the final nine seconds could pass without incident.

So, to review:

A closely-contested, grind-it-out first period where both teams looked very evenly matched.

Tampa blows the doors open in the second until the goaltending change turns the momentum.

Schneider lays claim to his net and New Jersey shows that Tampa is very mortal in the third.

The Lightning may lead this series 2-0 on two multi-goal difference victories, but there’s much more to this story. If Schneider plays the way he did in this one, and the Devils can get a boost from their home crowd, they have a lot to build on after this game. This could definitely be a series to watch going forward.

For those wondering, Game 3 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and @kephartc will have our recap coverage for you.

April 3 – Day 174 – Five days later…

For those wondering: yes, the title was supposed to be read in the SpongeBob SquarePants time card voice.

A trio of games (the New York Rangers at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders and Detroit at Columbus) get the honor of getting the night underway at 7 p.m., and they’re followed by another three showdowns (Winnipeg at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Tampa Bay [NBCSN/SN1/TVAS] and Nashville at Florida) half an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the puck drop of Arizona at Calgary, while Vegas at Vancouver waits an hour before starting. Finally, Dallas at San Jose (SN1) closes out the night with a 10:30 p.m. tilt. All times Eastern.

Previously in the season, I’d marked the Battle of the Hudson River as a potential featured matchup. And, even though the Rangers fell off this season, it is still an important rivalry considering it very well could be the game that clinches a playoff spot for the Devils.

However, the fixture that draws my attention for the second time in five days has to be the Bruins-Bolts showdown atop the Eastern Conference.

 

Having climbed all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 49-17-12 record, the Bruins have more than earned the right to be discussed first in today’s preview. Boston is currently on a solid nine-game run, boasting a 5-0-4 record to close the second-half of March with 14 more points.

During this run, no team in the East has been playing defense quite like the Bruins. Led in large part by D Kevan Miller, who has averaged 2.1 blocks per game and managed a team-high seven takeaways since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.78 shots against per game – a mark that’s well better than Detroit’s 29.38 shots allowed per game since March 17 that claims second-best in the conference and is just behind St. Louis’ 27 shots against per game that tops the NHL in that time.

Head Coach Bruce Cassidy can try to claim that he’s the happiest person in the organization about his club’s defensive success, but that gent would actually be 34-11-5 G Tuukka Rask, who’s been confirmed to be starting tonight’s game to the surprise of no one.

With a .919 save percentage and 2.28 GAA (fifth-best in the league among qualified goaltenders) for the entire season, Rask has been having his best campaign since the 2014-15 season. However, when we take a closer look at his last six starts, Rask boasts an even more impressive .937 save percentage and 1.82 GAA – due in large part to that incredible defensive effort.

Regardless of where they finish this regular season in the standings, a defensive zone as bolstered as the Bruins’ will be a tough egg to crack for any opposition. Over their past nine games, Boston has yielded only 2.33 goals against per game, the fourth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.

As for trying to crack that egg tonight, we turn to the 52-23-4 Lightning. Tampa Bay might be experiencing its worst point of the season right now, as it has only a lowly 1-4-0 record to show for its last five games.

Unfortunately for the Bolts, their biggest struggle of late has been on the offensive end. Even with D Victor Hedman averaging a point per game over this run with 1-4-5 totals (15-45-60 overall), the Lightning have averaged only 2.4 goals per game since March 24, the (t)sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time.

The two gaping holes in the Lightning’s last five scorecards involve some longtime members of the club: C Tyler Johnson and C Steven Stamkos. With 21-28-49 totals on the season, Johnson is riding a five-game pointless skid and has managed only one goal in his last 10 outings.

Of course, Stamkos’ struggles are the most surprising of the two. The captain claims 27-59-86 totals on the season to rank second on the team in points, but he’s failed to find the scoreboard in his last four games. He missed the tilt against Arizona on March 26 with a lower-body injury, and that ailment is surely the leading cause of this skid – to the point that he’s being held out of tonight’s game in hopes that he can recover for a deep playoff run.

Even though the Lightning spent almost the entire season atop the NHL, they’re still looking for their first victory against Boston in their fourth try.

The Bruins claimed a 3-2 victory at TD Garden on November 29 (D Torey Krug provided the game-winner at the 5:59 mark of the second period, then setting the score at 3-0) which they only improved upon March 17, winning 3-0 at Amalie Arena (Rask earned the shutout, thanks in large part to his defense limiting the Lightning to only 23 shots on goal). Most recently, Boston claimed another home victory at TD Garden, this time besting the Bolts 4-2 only five days ago on March 29 (C Patrice Bergeron managed a three-point night that included the game-winning goal).

With Toronto already locked into third place in the Atlantic Division, both Boston and Tampa Bay have clinched home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs. Of course, there’s a vast difference between hosting those Maple Leafs and the East’s second wild card in the first round, and that’s what tonight’s game is all about.

Currently trailing the Bruins by two points, the Lightning are currently slated to be hosting those Leafs when the playoffs begin next week. While a win tonight would go a long way towards resolving that issue, Tampa will not see an immediate change in the standings due to the Bruins’ game in hand. In other words, a Bruins loss tonight could be inconsequential if they win their remaining three games this week.

Beyond the Eastern Conference, both the Lightning and Bruins are both still eligible for this season’s Presidents’ Trophy. However, odds of ripping that award out of Nashville’s clutch are growing slim, as the Preds have 113 points coming into tonight’s tilt with Florida. A Predators win tonight – regardless of how Tampa performs – eliminates the Bolts from the competition for that trophy. Meanwhile, a Bruins win paired with a Nashville regulation loss puts Boston in control of its own destiny for claiming its first regular season championship since 2014.

A struggling offense without its fearless leader is no form to assume when squaring off with the Bruins. Because of that, I think Boston cruises to the season sweep of the Bolts tonight.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 at Staples Center.

This was a win the Avalanche desperately needed, but Los Angeles squelched those hopes with two first period goals. F Torrey Mitchell (F Nate Thompson and D Drew Doughty) provided the Kings’ first tally on a wrist shot 9:29 into the game, followed by a shorthanded wrister by Second Star of the Game W Dustin Brown (C Anze Kopitar and First Star D Alec Martinez) that proved to be the game-winner.

Shorthanded goals are almost always a result of a turnover by the team on the power play, and this tally is no exception. RW Mikko Rantanen fed an unwise pass to F Tyson Jost between Kopitar and Martinez, but Jost’s botched attempt to reset the play to D Tyson Barrie at the point resulted in Brown ending up with possession and screaming down the ice. Using Barrie as a screen, Brown ripped his wrister through the defenseman’s legs and over G Jonathan Bernier‘s glove.

With Mitchell in the penalty box for tripping D Samuel Girard, F Alexander Kerfoot (W Sven Andrighetto and F Colin Wilson) buried a power play wrister at the 4:31 mark of the second frame to pull Colorado back within a goal, but the fact that the Avs couldn’t muster up another goal – paired with LW Kyle Clifford‘s (F Trevor Lewis and F Adrian Kempe) backhanded shot two minutes into the third period – left the Kings with a relatively stress-free win.

Third Star G Jonathan Quick earned the victory after saving 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved 22-of-25 (.88).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a 99-54-21 record that is 46 points superior to that of the roadies.

March 29 – Day 169 – To the top of the East

It’s Thursday in the NHL, so you know what that means: games galore!

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [SN/TVAS], Detroit at Buffalo and Pittsburgh at New Jersey), followed half an hour later by Florida at Ottawa (RDS). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two tilts (San Jose at Nashville and Dallas at Minnesota [NBCSN]), while Winnipeg at Chicago waits 30 minutes before following suit. Columbus at Calgary is next up at 9 p.m., with Edmonton at Vancouver (SN1) waiting until 10 p.m. and Arizona at Los Angeles closing up shop at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

I’d love to beat around the bush and act like I considered every game for tonight’s distinct honor of being the DtFR Game of the Day, but there’s only one game the entire hockey world should be focusing on this evening.

 

A lot of people outside of New England may not want to hear this, but this looks like another one of those magical runs by a Boston-based sports team.

Oh wait, and the Celtics are good too?

Accurate representation of DtFR meetings when @nlanciani53 shares Boston sports news.

The 47-17-11 Bruins’ current run is an excellent example. After managing only 22 points by Thanksgiving – the NHL’s cutoff, at least statistically speaking, playoff qualification – to claim 11th place in the conference, Boston has posted a league-best 38-10-7 record to climb all the way into second place in the East.

But second place is not good enough for these Bruins, as evidenced by the six-game point streak they’re currently riding that has pulled them within one point of top spot in the East.

While the Bruins’ offense has been their strongest weapon all year (Boston’s 3.28 goals per game for the entire season is fifth-best in the NHL), it has taken a major blow in production lately due to the numerous injuries plaguing the roster. In fact, the 2.83 goals per game the Bruins have averaged over their past six showings is (t)13th-worst in the league since March 17.

So how are the Bruins winning?

The answer can be found in some incredible defensive play. Since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.83 shots against per game – the fifth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time. D Kevan Miller (three hits per game and 2.5 blocks per game since March 17) and F Riley Nash (five takeaways in his past six showings) have been the brightest stars in that effort, but holding the opposition under 30 shots against is usually an indicator of the entire club’s effort and not just the results of two or three stellar players.

Of course, there’s nothing that makes a goaltender happier than a solid defense in front of him, even if it is one that likes to listen to Finnish death metal. 32-11-5 G Tuukka Rask has thrived with the limited work load coming his way, posting an impressive .93 save percentage and 1.97 GAA over his past four starts. This solid run has improved his season stats to a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA that is fifth-best among qualified goaltenders – numbers befitting the goalie with the (t)sixth-most wins this season.

Between Rask and his defense, the Bruins have allowed only 2.33 goals against per game since March 17, the eighth-fewest in the league in that time.

Boston’s point streak is bad news for the 51-21-4 Lightning, because their last two outings at New Jersey and at home against the Coyotes haven’t exactly been confidence builders, as they lost both by a combined score of 6-2.

As evidenced by only averaging a goal per game, Tampa’s offense over its past two showings is a major issue, especially since it has averaged a league-leading 3.51 goals per game all season.

The Lightning are hoping that the return of C Steven Stamkos to action should be just the fix for these offensive ails. The captain was held out of Monday’s game against the Coyotes with a lower body injury, but Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times has indicated that Stamkos – as well as D Victor Hedman, who took a nasty hit late against Arizona – should be available for tonight’s important tilt.

With no disrespect to Hedman and his 14-42-56 totals in 71 games played this season, Stamkos will certainly be the most anticipated injection into the lineup tonight. Having posted 27-59-86 marks in his first 75 games of the season, Stamkos has already ensured his second-straight season of averaging more than a point per game. If that trend continues this evening, the Bolts should be able to hang at least two goals on the Bruins in this game, right?

With the average team in the NHL having only five games remaining on its schedule, it’s baffling that the season series between these clubs has only reached its halfway point. In the same turn, it just makes today and April 3’s meetings all the more dramatic!

So far, the Bruins have looked like the better of these squads in their previous two meetings, as they’ve earned four points at the expense of Tampa. They earned their first victory against the Bolts on November 29 with a 3-2 score (D Charlie McAvoy earned First Star honors with a one-goal, two-point effort) at home and followed it up with an impressive 3-0 win (Rask made 23 saves in the shutout) on March 17 at Amalie Arena.

With these teams separated by only one point at the top of the conference, a regulation win by either is a major step towards clinching home ice throughout the Eastern playoffs.

However, the Bruins can do far more damage this evening by earning two points as compared to Tampa Bay, due in large part to Boston’s game in hand. Because of the game against the Panthers that had to be postponed until the day after the originally scheduled regular season finale, the Bruins can claim first place in the conference with any variety of win tonight.

Of course, the Lightning have grown quite fond of their spot on top of the mountain, so don’t expect them to give it up easily. The Bolts cannot afford to allow Boston to earn even one point tonight, or else they risk blowing the window through which the Bruins can surpass them even wider than they have with their two-game losing skid.

Tampa has chosen a very inopportune time to struggle on offense, because Boston isn’t planning on allowing many goals by tonight. Fortunately for the Bolts, the Bruins’ offensive injuries should slow them down enough to keep this game manageable for the Lightning’s defense. However, I still feel like Boston comes away with the victory tonight in this extremely important contest.


The Florida Panthers showed great resolve in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre, but they couldn’t complete their comeback and fell 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The biggest reason Toronto was able to win this game was because it completely caught the Panthers off guard by scoring three goals in the first period. First Star of the Game F Mitch Marner (D Morgan Rielly and C Tomas Plekanec) began the onslaught with a wrist shot 3:05 into the frame, and C Auston Matthews (F William Nylander and D Jake Gardiner) followed suit only 6:19 later with a snap shot to set the score at 2-0. With 6:05 remaining in the period, F Patrick Marleau (Marner) completed the Maple Leafs’ blitz with a tip-in, giving the hosts a 3-0 advantage.

While the net result of the first period was the domination of the Leafs, the entire frame didn’t belong to the club in blue. In fact, Second Star F Jonathan Huberdeau (F Denis Malgin) was able to score a snapper 2:11 before the first intermission to pull the Panthers back within two goals.

That positive energy paid massive dividends for the visitors, as the Leafs’ lead was trimmed to one by the second intermission. Huberdeau (F Vincent Trocheck and D Mark Pysyk) once again provided the important play for Florida, scoring a snapper with 4:52 remaining in the second period to set the score at 3-2.

If only the Panthers would stop waiting until the waning moments of the frame to score, they just might have won this game. Instead, their struggles early in frames led to their downfall, as Third Star LW James van Riemsdyk (C Tyler Bozak and RW Connor Brown) was able to score what proved to be the game-winning goal with 8:12 remaining in regulation.

Somewhere in New Jersey, there might still be a midget hockey coach grinning from ear-to-ear after van Riemsdyk scored, as the ninth-year pro earned every bit of his 200th regular season NHL marker after exhibiting some serious commitment and sticktoitiveness. After receiving Bozak’s pass from below the goal line in the slot, van Riemsdyk one-timed a snapper towards the gaping cage to G Roberto Luongo‘s glove side. The netminder was able to block the initial attempt with his glove, but the rebound fell right back to van Riemsdyk’s stick, and he backhanded a successful shot into the back of the net while he was getting pushed from behind by F Maxim Mamin and tripping over Luongo’s glove.

However, the Panthers weren’t ready to give up hope yet, as W Evgeni Dadonov (D Keith Yandle and D Aaron Ekblad) buried a backhander 6:46 after van Riemsdyk’s marker to pull Florida back within a tally. However, that left only 1:26 remaining in the game for the Panthers to level the game, and they weren’t able to do so.

G Frederik Andersen earned the victory after saving 30-of-33 shots faced (.909 save percentage), leaving the loss to Luongo, who saved 31-of-35 (.886).

Can home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series do no wrong? The 95-53-21 hosts have now won five-consecutive tilts in the series, not to mention riding a seven-game point streak. As such, they now have a 41-point advantage on the roadies in the series.

February 26 – Day 138 – And the dust settles

Today’s the day, hockey fans: the NHL trade deadline is finally upon us. As of 3 p.m. Eastern, every roster will effectively look how it will for the end of the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Once all the dust settles, there’s five games to be played tonight, with fans potentially seeing their new additions for the first time. The action begins at 7 p.m. with Washington at Columbus (SN), followed half an hour later by two more (Philadelphia at Montréal [NBCSN/RDS/TSN2] and Toronto at Tampa Bay [TVAS]). Next up is Vancouver at Colorado at 9 p.m., with tonight’s nightcap – Vegas at Los Angeles (SN) – waiting until 10:30 to drop the puck. All times Eastern.

I must admit: I composed this article following the completion of yesterday’s games. Because of that, the featured matchup cannot take into account any of today’s deadline deals.

That being said, there’s only one clear choice for the title of today’s most important game.

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re a regular listener to the DtFR Podcast, you know how much I rail on the lack of quality in the Atlantic Division (though not quite as often as the miserable Pacific). While I still stand by that claim when looking at the division as a whole, the Atlantic is also home to the best top-three of any division in the NHL.

Let’s start with the visiting 39-20-5 Maple Leafs, who have been the league’s hottest team in the past month. Since January 24, Toronto has earned a dominant 13-2-0 record by pairing a standout offense with the exemplary play of 32-16-4 G Frederik Andersen.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to propel a team to greatness. There’s a few of those types of players on Toronto’s roster, but the one that deserves the most credit for the Maple Leafs’ recent run is Andersen. He’s played lights out since January 24, posting a solid .928 save percentage and 2.58 GAA.

Those may not be the best numbers in the league in that time, but it’s the fact that he’s been able to play so well and lead his team to allowing only a second-best 2.33 goals against per game over the past month in spite of his defense’s poor effort that makes him so important. Few netminders would be able to keep up behind a team that has allowed a second-worst 35.4 shots against per game over their past 15 showings.

Of course, there’s more to this Toronto roster than Andersen. Since January 24, the Leafs’ attack has been dominated by current first-liners F Mitch Marner (10-9-19 over this run) and C Nazem Kadri (9-10-19 totals in his past 15 games), as well as second-liner F William Nylander (5-10-15) and C Auston Matthews (7-7-14 in his last 14 games) – who landed on injured reserve yesterday with a shoulder injury that will keep him off the ice for at least seven days.

All four are averaging at least a point per game over the past month, and the top line especially looks like it could take on any defense in the league right now and find much success.

Whether or not 42-17-3 Tampa Bay’s defense will pose much of a problem tonight is certainly up for discussion, but there’s no doubting the Lightning’s offense, which has propelled them to a 4-1-0 record in their past five showings.

For those that haven’t heard: RW Nikita Kucherov is really, really good at his job. In his past five games, he’s posted disgusting 3-7-10 totals to average two points per game and elevate his point streak to nine games. Joining him in averaging a lowly point per game since February 15 are F Brayden Point (5-1-6), D Victor Hedman (1-5-6) and C Steven Stamkos (3-2-5).

Though Kucherov and Point have been playing together on the second line lately, Kucherov’s favorite dance partner over the last 11 days has been Hedman. In addition to the Russian providing the primary assist on Hedman’s goal in Ottawa on Thursday, the defenseman has contributed to another five of Kucherov’s last 10 scoring plays.

Digging even deeper into those six plays, Hedman and Kucherov have completed plays directly to each other (in other words, they both provided assists on another player’s goal or one provided the primary assist on the other’s tally) in five of the six scores. If Toronto’s defense can take away those passing lanes, it can effectively shut down Tampa’s attack.

The Lightning and Maple Leafs were scheduled for a four-game regular season series this year, and both games to take place at Air Canada Centre are already behind us. The Bolts made their first trip to Toronto on January 2, beating the Leafs 2-0 (36-12-2 G Andrei Vasilevskiy earned First Star honors for his 29-save shutout). Game 2 took place on February 12, but this one favored the hosts as Toronto earned a tight 4-3 victory (LW James van Riemsdyk scored the game-winner).

While tonight’s result won’t impact the standings in terms of playoff matchups, Toronto especially can benefit from a win tonight. The Leafs currently hold on to second place in the division by only one point while the third-place Bruins have a whopping five games in hand. Any lead the Leafs can generate is important, because they’re well behind the eight ball in keeping Boston behind them at season’s end.

Of course, Tampa Bay is also more than interested in two points – especially considering the Golden Knights are also in action tonight. The Lightning have only a one-point advantage on Vegas for the Presidents’ Trophy, a lead which is even slimmer when taking into account the Knights’ game in hand.

Tampa Bay has the luxury of playing at home this evening, but I’m of the opinion that it won’t matter. Two of the three most important phases of Toronto’s game has been firing on all cylinders for the past month and show no sign of slowing down. Even without Matthews, I think the Leafs can earn two points tonight.


With an overtime goal from Second Star of the Game D Trevor Daley, the Detroit Red Wings beat the New York Rangers 3-2 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The first period almost ended in a scoreless draw, but F Andreas Athanasiou (D Nick Jensen and F Dylan Larkin) didn’t seem to interested in that when he buried his wrist shot with seven seconds remaining on the clock.

Detroit’s advantage read 2-0 4:31 into the second period when F Darren Helm scored an unassisted wrister, but that advantage lasted only 3:20 before F J.T. Miller (Third Star F Ryan Spooner and D Anthony DeAngelo) pulled the Rangers back within a one-goal deficit with a slap shot.

The tale of two halves was completed with 8:44 remaining in regulation when RW Jesper Fast (F Kevin Hayes and Spooner) scored a wrister to tie the game at 2-2. Surprisingly, even though the Blueshirts fired a whopping 19 shots on goal in the third period, they could not break the tie, sending this game into overtime.

Considering they had powered all the way back from 2-0 down to tie the game, common sense would say New York had all the energy coming into the five minute three-on-three overtime period. However, both defenses rose to the occasion to allow only one combined shot on goal. Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, that shot belonged to Daley (C Frans Nielsen and F Tomas Tatar), who redirected Nielsen’s initial shot between G Henrik Lundqvist‘s legs with six seconds separating the game from the dreaded shootout.

First Star G Jimmy Howard earned the victory after saving 36-of-38 shots faced (.947 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Lundqvist, who saved 31-of-34 (.912).

That’s the second-straight win by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, the 73-46-19 hosts now have only a 19-point lead over the visitors in the series.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 14

Skater of the Week: Mathew Barzal

These bye-weeks are making things weird.

Barzal gets the nod for this week’s award having only played one game during that span. But what a game it was.

Helping his Islanders to a 7-2 rout of the rival Rangers, young Barzal tallied his second five-point game of his breakout rookie campaign with two goals and three helpers. Perhaps more amazing is the fact that all five points were scored at even-strength, no power play help needed. This also landed Barzal a perfect +5 rating for the night, to go along with a .5 shooting percentage and even tallying the official game-winning goal (probably not worth much in a rout, but it pads the stats all the same).

With 44 points in 44 games to this point in the season, Barzal continues to make a very strong case for a Calder Trophy nod come season’s end.

Tendy of the Week: Mike Smith

Posting a perfect 3-0-0 record this week on the strength of just four goals allowed in those contests to rack up a .963 save percentage and a GAA just a smidge over 1.30, Smith has his Calgary Flames scorching. (Pun entirely intended)

Smith started the week stopping 33-of-35 shots faced in an overtime victory against the Wild, before nullifying 33-of-34 against the league-leading Lightning and 38-of-39 against Carolina to extend his winning streak to six games.

Calgary went out and got Smith to fill the one glaring weakness they felt they had, and if he can keep this level of play up, they could be deadly.

Game of the Week: Boston Bruins 4 vs Montreal Canadiens 3 (SO), Saturday January 13th, 2018

The 739th all-time meeting between the Original Six arch-rivals had a little something extra to offer, as it was the first meeting of the two squads since Claude Julien‘s firing from Boston and hiring by Montreal late last season. A little bit of extra hype that this tilt ended up living up to.

In total this one saw seven goals, 62 shots, 77 hits, and two power play goals on five opportunities.

Max Pacioretty would get things rolling just 3:22 into the game, collecting the rebound from a deflected Victor Mete point shot and stuffing it just inside the near post behind Tuukka Rask to give the Habs the early advantage. Most of the first period would then pass by with little affair until Brad Marchand would streak in on the back door and receive a gorgeous Patrice Bergeron centering feed from the far board and bury it top shelf to even the score at the 17:40 mark on the power play, and the two teams would carry the 1-1 score into the first intermission.

The second period would see things really open up, starting with a Jake DeBrusk breakaway tally just 2:55 into the frame. Charlie McAvoy caught the Montreal defense standing still and fed a gorgeous tape-to-tape pass to a streaking DeBrusk who made no mistake en route to his 10th goal of the year. Just 2:50 later, though, Nic Deslauriers would pounce on a Zdeno Chara turnover at center ice and streak past the stumbling Boston captain into the high slot, where he would unleash a laser of a wrist shot past the blocker of Tuukka Rask to draw his Habs back even. Then just 3:06 later Montreal would retake the lead on the power play, as Alex Galchenyuk would receive a cross-ice pass from Jonathan Drouin, take a couple strides towards the net, and absolutely smoke a wrist shot over the shoulder of Tuukka Rask into the top of the net to put his team up 3-2. The Bruins controlled a lot of the play throughout the rest of the 2nd, but were met with some solid Carey Price saves at every opportunity until at the 17:42 mark David Krejci was able to corral a bouncing puck in the slot and wire it past a surprised Price and even the game at three heading into the second intermission.

 

The third period would see both teams register the most shots of any period (12 for Boston, 10 for Montreal), but strong play by both goaltenders (and a few clutch saves by the goalpost to the right of Rask) kept things knotted at three to end regulation and send the proceedings to three-on-three overtime. Montreal looked to have it won in the waning seconds when a Jakub Jerabek shot found it’s way up and over Rask, but a diving Torey Krug managed to bat the puck out of the blue paint before Pacioretty or Plekanec could get a stick on it.

So off to the shootout we went. Both Paul Byron and Jake DeBrusk would score in the first frame, but after that the two goaltenders shut things down for the remaining two shooters a side to force shootout overtime, where Rask would shut the door on Galchenyuk to allow Brad Marchand to streak in and bury the game-winner right through the five hole of Carey Price and directly into the hearts of the Montreal faithful.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

I saved the Phillip Danault story from the Boston/Montreal game for this section, because it definitely deserves to be highlighted. Danault is reported to be doing alright and was released from the hospital Sunday after an overnight evaluation. The Habs forward took a Zdeno Chara slapshot off the side of the head in Saturday night’s contest, and was eventually stretchered off of the ice. A truly sombering scene in a very exciting contest, Chara was one of the first to Danault’s aid and appeared to apologize to him as he was loaded up and carried off the ice. Between this and the Girardi/Frk incident last week, I’m thinking maybe people should stop trying to block the hardest shots in the game with their faces.

Speaking of near-disasters, Milan Lucic came millimeters from life-threatening danger himself when he tangled with Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek and, upon the two falling to the ice, had his neck cut by Nosek’s skate. The picture of the stitch job is pretty unnerving, and according to Lucic the cut was mere millimeters too shallow to open up his jugular vein.

One of the NHL’s most impressive streaks is coming to an end. After 830 consecutive games, Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano will be forced to miss the next two contests after being suspended for a very-not legal hit on Kings forward Adrian Kempe. A very heated contest led to a lot of physicality, and the play was certainly very out of character for Cogliano, who sacrifices a streak that could have broken the NHL record next season had it continued.

The Vegas Golden Knights have formed their first rivalry, but not exactly the sort you’d expect. The United States Army has filed a copyright challenge to the franchise on the grounds that they already possessed the rights to the name ‘Golden Knights’ for its West Point parachute jump team. The franchise’s response? A spectacularly sarcastic tweet, obviously.

Jack Johnson has requested a trade out of Columbus. A pending UFA, it is generally believed that Johnson wants to be traded to a team where he will have a chance at seeing more playing time in an effort to raise his stock on the market, after seeing his minutes plummet in recent weeks. While many CBJ fans (myself included) hold ‘JMFJ’ in high regards as a person, trading the defender had become a very common topic in Columbus long before the player’s request, as his production has dipped significantly, highlighting his defensive shortcomings and bringing about the argument for his replacement by younger options within the CBJ system.

Tampa has lost star defender Victor Hedman for 3-6 weeks with a lower body injury. I’m pretty sure if they lost every game in that time they would still be like 4th in the league, but still, it’s a bummer.

Am I the only one who thinks these Olympic Games are actually gonna be pretty fun? As rosters get released, obviously the star power we’re used to isn’t there, but convince me that these lesser-known guys, most of them being players who probably never even dreamed they’d get this chance, aren’t going to play their absolute hearts out every single second of every single game. I think it’s gonna be great.

On a final note, we learned this week via Doc Emrick that Pierre McGuire has undergone successful surgery to remove a cancer-infected prostate. He is recovering and is hopeful to rejoin the broadcast team in time for the Olympics. Now I, like many, can admit to yelling at Pierre to stop yapping on about whatever ridiculous stat or story he knows about some third-line player on a team I don’t like, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that cancer should take a Chara slapshot to the mush and a few skates to its main artery. So get well, Pierre, Eddy-O and everyone else that has to fight this miserable disease.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I have two notes on that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: goaltender.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.