Tag Archives: Holtby

Caps OT Win Puts Jackets On Brink

With an overtime-winning goal from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps became the first team to win a game on home ice in this series as they moved within a win of the second round.  The Jackets have now lost three straight after starting the series with a 2-0 advantage.

The Jackets had played a solid first period, but the Caps got a power play that felt like it could shift momentum.  Instead, Matt Calvert scored a short-handed goal to give the Jackets their first 1-0 lead of the series off of some nice board work by Seth Jones.  The lead wouldn’t last long as Backstrom got a lucky break on a shot that went off of David Savard‘s skate, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s mask and into the goal.

As the second period started, it felt like the Caps were the hungrier team.  Dmitry Orlov sent a long stretch pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov that he buried to give the Caps their first lead of the game at 2-1.  It was one of several poor line changes by Columbus and Washington took advantage.  Despite continued pressure from the Caps, the Jackets would even it up when Calvert got his second of the game on a breakaway after initially whiffing on a shot and then making a spin move to put it in the net.  With 3:18 left in the 2nd period T.J. Oshie redirected a point shot from John Carlson to put the Caps ahead 3-2. Once again, it felt like maybe the Caps were going to take control of the game.

However, Oliver Bjorkstrand had other thoughts.  Ian Cole took a shot from the point that Bjorkstrand tipped to knot the game at three early in the third period.  Bjorkstrand had seen little time throughout the game (and the series), but he seemed to gain confidence in this game and John Tortorella rewarded him with additional time in the third period and overtime.  All of the momentum was with Columbus in the third period, but they couldn’t solve Braden Holtby.  The Caps were outshot 16-1 in the final frame of regulation.

Once again, the long change seemed to cause problems for the Jackets as momentum again shifted to the Caps in overtime.  The Jackets have struggled with the long change throughout the season and this trend seems to have carried into the playoffs.  The Jackets best chance in overtime was with Bjorkstrand and Jenner on the ice together.  It is a pairing that work at times in the early part of the season and which made some sense here given the game Bjorkstrand had played to that point and the series that Jenner has had.  But it wasn’t to be and the game-winning goal came on a shift in which the Caps managed to sustain pressure and, again, re-direct a point shot past Bobrovsky.

There were some encouraging signs for the Blue Jackets and John Tortorella was emphatic in the press conference that his team would be ready for Game 6 and that they would force a Game 7, but they are running out of chances and now they have their backs against the wall.  Getting Bjorkstrand involved in the game is definitely a positive as the Jackets have been over-relying on their top line.  Cam Atkinson finished the game with 28:25 time on ice and Artemi Panarin and Pierre-Luc Dubois weren’t far behind.

There are also some things to be concerned about.  Bobrovsky’s subpar save percentage in this game is probably not as big of a concern given that more than one of those goals was off a redirection.  What is more of a concern is that Panarin seemed less dynamic than usual after a slash to his knee.  While his 80 percent is still better than most players at 100 percent, his line has also been a big driver in this series and, as noted above, spends a lot of time on the ice.  The Jackets also need to make a decision about Brandon Dubinsky with Alexander Wennberg back on the ice.  Dubinsky’s struggles have been a story line this season, sometimes to the point of being tabloid material.  His struggles as this series have progressed are real and time on ice of just 7:28 (despite getting time on penalty kill) suggests the coaching staff is well aware of the issue.  Mark Letestu looked to be the better option as this game progressed.

The Caps will have the chance to finish the series off in Columbus on Monday and will have confidence having beaten the Jackets twice on the road.  Should they lose, however, the old doubts might start to creep back in, so the series still isn’t over yet and could have some surprises in store.

Road team wins again, CBJ-WSH series leveled at two

 

After winning Game 4 at Nationwide Arena 4-1, the Washington Capitals have salvaged losing Games 1 and 2 to reclaim home-ice advantage in their Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The first two periods of this game were so exciting, even people with insomnia were falling asleep with ease. Whether that was due to lazy offense by Columbus or incredible defense by Washington (the Blue Jackets managed only 15 shots in opening 40 minutes), the fans at Nationwide Arena had very little to get excited about.

Playing a major role in hampering the Jackets’ offense all night was none other than D Brooks Orpik, who blocked a (t)game-high four shots (D Seth Jones matched him in that effort for Columbus), and Third Star of the Game RW Tom Wilson with his team-leading three hits.

Perhaps Columbus’ best scoring opportunity of either of the first two periods came with 5:37 remaining in the opening frame. LW Artemi Panarin had not one, but two shots from prime real estate right in front of G Braden Holtby‘s crease, but the netminder rejected both offerings to keep his young shutout alive.

However, that’s not so say there wasn’t any offense in those periods, as there were two goals struck – but both those markers belonged to the visiting Capitals. Wilson (First Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov) took credit for the first tally at the 6:16 mark of the first period with a slap shot from the top of the zone, followed by F T.J. Oshie‘s (Second Star W Alex Ovechkin and D John Carlson) power play wrist shot 23:03 later.

Oshie’s play started at the 8:49 mark of the second period when Panarin was caught slashing Kuznetsov. Washington’s resulting man advantage lasted only 30 seconds before its third-ranked postseason power play achieved its goal of setting the score at 2-0. After both Carlson’s and Ovechkin’s offerings were rejected by G Sergei Bobrovsky, Oshie collected the loose puck in the slot and beat the netminder’s glove to the far post.

While Oshie’s tally will go down as the game-winner (the fourth of his playoff career), Ovechkin’s (Kuznetsov and Wilson) wrister 2:49 into the third period proved to be the most important goal of the game. Not only was it the Caps’ purest snipe of the night (Ovi elevated his shot from the right face-off dot over Bobrovsky’s glove to beat him near side), but it also forced Head Coach John Tortorella to pull Bobrovsky for an extra attacker even earlier than he would have liked.

But more on that after we discuss the Blue Jackets’ lone goal of the game: a redirection on RW Josh Anderson‘s clapper from above the left face-off circle by F Boone Jenner. For the first time in 46:22 of action, Jackets fans finally had something to cheer about – and cheer they did. Nationwide Arena sounded like it did Tuesday during Game 3, and Columbus rode that positive energy to firing nine shots on goal in the third period – the most it managed in any frame all game.

Just when it seemed like the party was beginning to die down, Bobrovsky ramped the fans back up with an impressive glove save on Ovechkin at the 8:46 mark after The Great 8 earned a one-on-one matchup against the netminder with a long breakaway.

However, all good things must come to an end, and that end started when Tortorella pulled Bobrovksy with 3:29 remaining in regulation.

If only Ovechkin hadn’t scored scored earlier in the third period and the Jackets were only trailing by one instead of two, maybe the Russian goaltender would have still been in the net when Kuznetsov came up with the puck with 2:19 remaining in the game. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and that ended up in Kuznetsov’s favor as he buried an unassisted wrister from the blue line to set the score at 4-1 with his third goal of the series.

Holtby earned the victory after saving 23-of-24 shots faced (.958 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bobrovsky, who saved 29-of-32 (.906).

After winning two games in Washington and having the tempting “sweep” word on the mind, the Blue Jackets need to regroup in a similar way the Caps did when the series transitioned to Ohio. If they don’t show a positive effort in Game 5, Columbus may be forced to wait another year to taste a playoff series victory.

Scheduled for a 3 p.m. Eastern matinee puck drop, the aforementioned Game 5 will go down on Saturday, April 21 at Capital One Arena. Viewers should tune their televisions to NBC, NBCSN, SN or TVAS to catch the action.

Columbus sitting pretty with 2-0 lead

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 1 – Day 172 – Can the Caps clinch?

Make no April Fools jokes about it, all of us here at Down the Frozen River want to wish you a happy Easter or Passover.

Hopefully that covered all the holidays happening today.

Regardless of which of those apply to you, the NHL is staging a full-fledged celebration with five games on today’s schedule. The action begins at 12:30 p.m. with Boston at Philadelphia (NBC/TVAS), followed by Nashville at Tampa Bay at 6 p.m. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. features New Jersey at Montréal (RDS/SN), while Washington at Pittsburgh (NBCSN) waits 30 minutes before dropping the puck. Finally, the evening’s nightcap gets underway at 9 p.m. when Colorado visits Anaheim (SN/SN360). All times Eastern.

The three games that stuck out to me way at the beginning of the season include:

  • Boston at Philadelphia: With only one point separating the Flyers from the second wild card, this rivalry has the chance of getting pretty rowdy this afternoon.
  • Washington at Pittsburgh: Speaking of rowdy rivalries, both these teams are still duking it out for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
  • Colorado at Anaheim: This isn’t so much a rivalry, though both teams are still clawing for playoff positioning. This is more exciting because G Jonathan Bernier, who was a Duck last season, will be the Avs’ starting goaltender tonight with G Semyon Varlamov shutdown for the remainder of the season.

Of course, that list also neglects the Predators-Lightning showdown that should be absolutely entertaining and very well could be a Stanley Cup Final preview.

I very well may be biased, but the tilt I’m most excited for is taking place in Eastern Pennsylvania tonight.

 

The main reason I’m so excited for this game is because of all the 46-25-7 Capitals can accomplish today, as a regulation win would clinch them their third-consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But more on that in a moment.

Almost all of Washington’s last six games have ended in its favor, as the Caps have posted a solid 5-1-0 record since March 20. A major reason for that success has been the solid efforts of both 14-9-3 G Philipp Grubauer and 32-16-4 G Braden Holtby, who have split the last three outings. Together, they’ve combined to backstop the Caps to allow only 2.5 goals per game since March 20, the (t)eighth-best mark in the NHL in that time span.

According to Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington, Grubauer is slated to get the start this evening – and with good reason. Though Holtby’s .914 save percentage and 2.67 GAA in his last three starts has been decent, Grubauer’s .933 save percentage and 2.02 GAA since March 20 has been even better. Those numbers reflect Grubauer’s superior play for the entire season as well, as he currently has a .923 save percentage and 2.33 GAA on the season, both of which eclipse Holtby’s campaign of a .907 save percentage and 3.01 GAA.

The last six games have also treated the 45-28-6 Penguins fairly well too, as they’ve managed a 4-1-1 record to close out the month of March.

To the surprise of no one, Pittsburgh is finding its success lately on the back of its indomitable offense. Since March 21, the Pens have averaged a whopping four goals per game to claim the second-best mark in the NHL in that time.

Leading the way in that effort is none other than C Sidney Crosby who’s increased his season totals to 28-58-86 with a 5-4-9 effort his in last six showings.

However, he’s not the only Penguin to be averaging at least a point per game lately, as RW Phil Kessel (2-5-7 totals since March 21, 31-56-87 overall), RW Patric Hornqvist (4-2-6 since March 21, 26-19-45 overall), F Evgeni Malkin (2-4-6 since March 21, 42-53-95 overall) and F Jake Guentzel (1-5-6 since March 21, 21-26-47 overall) have all been making some excellent contributions on the offensive end lately.

One of the signs of a good rivalry is consistent competitiveness. That has been a staple of this matchup for years now, and that’s been no less true this year as Pittsburgh only has a 2-1-0 advantage in the season series.

Unlike some of the rivalries we’ve been featuring lately, this season series has been spaced out throughout the entire campaign. Game 1 took place way back on October 11 at Capital One Arena, and it ended as a Penguins 3-2 victory (W Conor Sheary provided the game-winning goal). Pittsburgh returned to DC on November 10, but was treated to a 4-1 Capitals victory (Holtby led the way with his 27-save performance).

Games 3 and 4 transitioned back to the Steel City, starting with the most recent meeting on February 2. Enjoying the amenities of home, the Penguins earned an imposing 7-4 victory (Malkin earned First Star honors with a two-goal, four-point night).

For those not so astute at noticing patterns, Pittsburgh and Washington have exchanged victories so far this season. With the Pens claiming the even-numbered tilts, does that mean the Caps are due for two points today?

If that’s the case, the Metropolitan Division could be locked up in the nation’s capital for the third-consecutive season. A Washington win in regulation this evening would increase its advantage on the Penguins to five points, an insurmountable lead considering Pittsburgh will have only two more games after tonight is complete and the fact that, even if Columbus and Philadelphia win out, they’re only capable of reaching 100 points in the standings.

Should the Pens find the victory, they’ll be no more than two points back of the Capitals, meaning this division race will come down to the bitter end. Even if Pittsburgh does earn a regulation win tonight to pull within one point, the fact that Washington still has a game in hand has most leaning towards the Caps raising a third division banner.

Similar to yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, this game features a streaking offense going up against a goaltender enjoying an impressive run of his own. Considering they’re playing at home today, I like the Pens to earn the victory today even though they were in action last night.


With a goal per frame, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the San Jose Sharks 3-2 at T-Mobile Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Even though the Golden Knights never trailed in this game, they never really took control of this game until the waning moments of regulation. That was due in large part to playing most of the game under tied conditions.

Take, for example, the first period. Even though the Knights were the first to find the scoreboard, courtesy of a D Shea Theodore (C William Karlsson and D Deryk Engelland) wrist shot 2:21 into play, they played only 4:53 before F Joe Pavelski (W Timo Meier and RW Joonas Donskoi) leveled the game at 1-1 with a wrister.

The second frame followed a similar script. F Oscar Lindberg (Theodore) gave Vegas another one-goal lead 3:03 into the period, but it lasted only 6:47 before D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (Pavelski and D Justin Braun) had the game knotted at two.

However, the Sharks didn’t have a third answer in the third period, as Karlsson scored an unassisted shorthanded wrister at the 8:35 mark to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Somebody needs to remind Karlsson that it’s supposed to be harder to score with a teammate in the penalty box, because – just like a Staples button would say – that was easy. With Jon Merrill in the sin bin for tripping Meier exactly a minute before, Karlsson intercepted a drop pass to D Brent Burns at the right point with only open ice, G Martin Jones and a net begging to be scored upon in front of him. Karlsson raced all the way into the slot in his offensive zone before readying a wrister to flip the puck over Jones’ right skate.

However, it would seem breakaway goals are just too easy for Karlsson. To up the ante, Wild Bill pulled his stick and the puck through his own legs while sliding across the slot, creating his own sort of reverse shot on a netminder that had already committed to defending the far post.

Not wanting to yield another lead, Vegas’ defense significantly clamped down in the third period. In total, the Sharks managed only seven shots on goal in that frame, the lowest attempts in any period by either team.

G Marc-Andre Fleury earned the victory after saving 29-of-31 shots faced (.935 save percentage), leaving the loss to Jones, who saved 35-of-38 (.921).

It’s a great time to be a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as all they’re doing lately is winning. In fact, the 98-53-21 featured hosts have now posted an eight-game winning streak that also includes a 10-day point streak – both impressive feats that have increased their lead in the series to 46 points.

March 3 – Day 143 – You can put your mind at ease

If Saturdays are good for nothing else, the joy of having hockey on for almost 12-straight hours makes a week at work almost worth it.

Almost.

Today’s action starts at 1 p.m. when Philadelphia visits Tampa Bay, followed an hour later by St. Louis at Dallas. The next matinee is a 4 p.m. tilt featuring Chicago at Los Angeles (NHLN), trailed by a pair of games (Montréal at Boston [SN/TVAS] and the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh) 60 minutes after. The evening’s festivities get underway at 8 p.m. with two matchups (Ottawa at Arizona [CITY] and Toronto at Washington [CBC/NBC/TVAS]), while the New York Rangers at Edmonton (CBC/SN/SN1) close out the night at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few important games on today’s schedule…

  • Chicago at Los Angeles: This rivalry was important when the Blackhawks were competitive.
  • Montréal at Boston: If you’re looking for a rivalry, this one…
  • New York at Pittsburgh: …and this one are the important ones on today’s schedule. You’re free to decide which should take precedence.
  • Toronto at Washington: Not only is this the much anticipated outdoor game being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but it’s also a rematch of an Eastern Conference first round matchup from a season ago.

I suppose we can get into the spirit of things and see how the outdoor game goes. After all, it’s expected to be the evening’s most competitive match.

 

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first:

  • Capitals fans: Your organization is honoring the days of the mid-to-late ’90s when it was having an identity crisis. Instead of donning the customary red we’ve come to know Washington for, the Caps have elected to bust out blue threads this evening. Who cares that Toronto usually wears blue and red and white are also American colors ? This game is at the Naval Academy and – gosh darn it! – the hosts from the nation’s capital are going to wear navy blue!
  • Maple Leafs fans: Yes, we know your team is usually the blue one. Not tonight. Treat it like a game in Tampa – your team is the one clad in white. Blue is bad. White is winners.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can jump into the hockey.

39-20-7 Toronto ended February with a bang, as the Leafs are currently riding a six-game point streak and have posted a 9-1-2 record in their past 12 games.

The reason the the Maple Leafs’ recent winning ways is easily their offense, which has managed a fifth-best 3.67 goals per game since February 5. Mitch Marner has been nothing short of incredible over this run, as he’s posted 8-9-17 totals in 12 games to improve his season marks to 17-36-53. Joining him in averaging at least a point per game during this run is Nazem Kadri (6-7-13 in 12 games) and Auston Matthews (5-5-10 in nine games), who’s currently on injured reserve.

Kadri has managed to make himself right at home filling in for Matthews on the top line, and he’s become best friends with Marner. They’ve combined on nine scoring plays since early February, six of which were at even-strength. Mix in some Patrick Marleau (20-14-34 totals in 66 games) magic, and the Leafs employ one heck of a top line.

Defensively, the only person worth talking about for the Leafs is G Frederik Andersen, because his defense has been abysmal for the last month by allowing 37.08 shots per game – the second-most in the NHL since February 5.

Even with that onslaught, 32-16-5 Andersen has been phenomenal. Having started 10 of the Leafs’ last 12 games, he’s posted a .924 save percentage and 2.87 GAA to earn 15 points in the standings. On the season, he now has a .922 save percentage and 2.67 GAA.

Meanwhile, the 36-21-7 Capitals have struggled to find much consistency lately, alternating wins and losses to post a 4-4-0 record over their last eight games.

As might be indicated by such a mark in recent games, Washington has been little better than average since February 15. With 6-4-10 totals in the past eight games, Alex Ovechkin has been the only consistent presence on the offensive end, and the Caps’ resulting 2.75 goals per game in that time is only (t)15th-best in the league.

That puts pressure on the defensive end to perform well, but that’s only partially happened. The defensive skaters have played decently lately, as Brooks Orpik (2.8 blocks per game since February 15) and Tom Wilson (3.1 hits per game over this run) have led the way to limit the opposition to 32.25 shots against per game over the Caps’ past eight games, the (t)13th-best mark in the NHL in that time.

However, neither 28-14-4 G Braden Holtby nor 8-7-3 G Philipp Grubauer have held up their end of the bargain, as they’ve allowed 3.25 goals per game since February 15. In fact, Holtby – tonight’s starter – has actually been outplayed by his understudy, as his .832 save percentage and 5.77 GAA have been eclipsed by Grubauer’s .949 save percentage and 1.61 GAA.

Considering Grubauer can take credit for all four of the Caps’ most recent wins, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holtby – a former Vezina winner, mind you – is on a short leash this evening.

We’re getting to the part of the season when we can bust out the words “rubber match,” and this tilt definitely qualifies. In the first two games between Toronto and Washington, the Maple Leafs took an impressive 2-0 victory at Capital One Arena way back on October 17 (Andersen took First Star honors with his 30-save shutout), followed by the Caps besting the Leafs 4-2 on November 25 at Air Canada Centre (Ovechkin registered a hat trick to lead Washington’s attack) to level the season series at 1-1-0.

It would seem both of these teams are all but ensured playoff spots given how they’ve played this season, so they’re more interested in improving seeding tonight.

Washington currently leads the Metropolitan Division by one point over Philadelphia, which has two tilts this weekend to result in the Capitals having a game in hand by Monday morning. A win is obviously important in a division where the top six clubs are separated by only 10 points, but the Caps won’t be too disappointed if they end the weekend in second place in the division.

Meanwhile, Toronto is in a full-fledged war against Boston for the all-important second position in the Atlantic Division, as the team with home ice in their likely first round series will surely have the better chance of advancing to the Eastern Semifinals. The Leafs currently trail the Bruins by one point, but the fact that Boston has four games in hand on Toronto puts a major dent in Head Coach Mike Babcock’s plans.

If Washington is going to continue its run of alternating wins and losses, it’s probably not a good thing it beat the Senators in its last showing on Tuesday. Pair that with Toronto’s stellar offense and the road team winning the first two meetings between these clubs, and I’m leaning towards the Maple Leafs earning two points tonight.


Yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was a grind-it-out, defensive affair. Those are just the types of games the Carolina Hurricanes excel at, as they beat the New Jersey Devils 3-1 at PNC Arena.

With the exception of Carolina’s second period (13 shots on goal) and New Jersey’s third (12 SOG), neither offense was able to apply much pressure on its opposing goaltenders in terms of volume considering the remaining shot totals for either team in the remaining periods were all under 10. In particular, the Hurricanes’ defense played marvelously in the first period to limit the Devils to only six shots on goal.

That put a premium on precision scoring, and that was on full display when Third Star of the Game C Derek Ryan (F Victor Rask and D Noah Hanifin) scored the game’s opening goal with 8:10 remaining in the second period. Officially marked as a deflection scored by the center, he actually banked his shot off D Damon Severson‘s left skate to beat G Keith Kinkaid.

Another skilled scorer struck late in the second frame to tie the game at 1-1. With Ryan in the penalty box for holding him 27 seconds before and a measly 33 ticks on the clock separating him from the second intermission, F Taylor Hall (D Sami Vatanen and W Kyle Palmieri) scored a power play tip-in to extend his point streak to 24 appearances.

First Star F Teuvo Teravainen (D Brett Pesce and F Elias Lindholm) takes credit for the game-winning goal at the 9:37 mark of the final frame. Those guilty of blinking at the wrong time – like I was when watching this game live – likely missed this goal.

The play started when Lindholm slid a pass to Pesce at the center of the blue line from the right face-off circle. The defenseman one-timed a killer slap shot just wide of Kinkaid’s net that would have set up a juicy rebound off the boards, but that bounce proved unnecessary as the Finn was waiting in the corner of the slot to redirect the shot through the crease and into the goal, setting the score at 2-1.

With Jersey trailing by one and Kinkaid pulled for the extra attacker, RW Justin Williams (F Jordan Staal) scored an empty netter 22 seconds before the end of regulation to seal the Canes’ 29th victory of the season.

Second Star G Cam Ward earned the victory after saving 25-of-26 shots faced (.962 save percentage), leaving the loss to Kinkaid, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are rolling once again. After allowing road teams to go on a four-game streak of earning at least a point, the 77-47-19 hosts have won three in a row to take a commanding 24-point advantage in the series.

2018 Trade Deadline Preview: Metropolitan Division

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1. Washington Capitals– 31-17-5 (67 points, 53 GP)

After spending a couple of months figuring themselves out and weathering the storm that’s been Braden Holtby‘s second-to-last career worst season (his 2.76 goals against average and .915 save percentage in 39 games played are better and the same as his 2013-14 2.85 GAA and .915 SV% in 48 games played respectively).

It’s a bit of an off year for Washington, but even an off year for the Capitals is still a pretty good season, considering they’re currently first in a division that is more active than a lava lamp in terms of rising and falling.

Washington has a plus-11 goal differential through 53 games played despite the loss of Marcus Johansson in a trade with the New Jersey Devils this offseason and an injured Andre Burakovsky seeing limited time so far. That doesn’t even mention the loss of depth for the Capitals last July either– remember Justin Williams (signed with Carolina) and Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal)?

Luckily for the Capitals they only have about $412,000 in cap space as I write, so their trade deadline plans are pretty much already determined for them.

If they’re able to dump a guy like Brooks Orpik— and his $5.500 million cap hit that runs through next season– that would provide the organization with some much needed relief.

Potential assets to trade: F Jay Beagle, D Brooks Orpik

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), D Ian Cole (PIT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins– 30-22-3 (63 points, 55 GP)

After bouncing around the Metropolitan Division standings, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are currently four points behind first place in the division.

Much like his rival in Washington, Matthew Murray is having a season to forget. Injuries and the death of his father have taken a toll on the two-time Cup winning goaltender, limiting Murray to just 34 games thus far with a 2.97 GAA and .903 SV% (again, both career worsts– though he is in just his second full season since his 13 GP in 2015-16).

Despite their plus-three goal differential and gifted scorer (turned 2018 All-Star snub), Phil Kessel (24-41–65 totals in 55 games), the Penguins have been porous on defense. Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang, is a minus-15 through 52 games played.

Only Justin Schultz (plus-5, 38 GP) and Jamie Oleksiak (plus-6, 20 GP– split between Dallas and Pittsburgh) are positive plus/minus blue liners.

Since November, Pittsburgh has been trying to move defenseman, Ian Cole– though head coach, Mike Sullivan, has been forced to play him (thereby keeping him on the Penguins roster) due to injuries affecting Schultz and friends.

Antti Niemi didn’t pan out and bring stable backup goaltending to the Steel City (he’s since departed via waivers to Florida, then Montreal). Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been left to pick up the tab with some impressive performances at times.

Midseason acquisitions F Riley Sheahan, as well as Oleksiak, have not been enough to fill holes left by Nick Bonino (the forward signed with Nashville in July) and Trevor Daley (left via free agency, landed in Detroit) respectively.

But with roughly $425,000 in cap space to work with currently, the Penguins can’t afford to make much noise on February 26th– but they should definitely snag a defenseman and rental backup goaltender.

Potential assets to trade: D Ian Cole, D Brian Dumoulin, F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carl Hagelin, D Matt Hunwick, F Riley Sheahan

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Nick Holden (NYR), F Derick Brassard (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Jason Garrison (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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3. New Jersey Devils– 27-17-8 (62 points, 52 GP)

New Jersey has almost $8.000 million to work with currently as things approach the trade deadline at the end of the month.

The Devils are one of the biggest surprises this season east of the Mississippi River.

First overall pick in the 2017 draft, Nico Hischier, has been quietly setting the tone with forwards, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha in the resurgence of youth. Travis Zajac is back in his dominant, physical, ways and the Sami VatanenAdam Henrique trade has worked out quite well for both teams.

And that’s not even mentioning Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.

Will Butcher is quite the offensive threat on the blue line and John Moore is firing on all cylinders. Despite Marcus Johansson’s concussion, New Jersey hasn’t faced much adversity in overcoming injuries this year.

There’s a lot of cap room to work with, but not a whole lot that this team can really give up to bring in the best guys on the trade market, like Evander Kane, unless the Devils are comfortable parting ways with prospects and draft picks (spoiler alert, they might be).

New Jersey really should be in the hunt for Kane, Rick Nash, Max Pacioretty, David Perron and other great offensive assets– either as the front-runner or the stealthy dark-horse that’ll make one or two big moves to carry them to glory.

The Devils have the time and space to add a veteran forward or defenseman that might eat some salary, but put them lightyears beyond their Metropolitan counterparts.

It’s a buyers market.

Potential assets to trade: F Ben Coleman, F Jimmy Hayes, D Ben Lovejoy, F Drew Stafford

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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4. Philadelphia Flyers– 25-19-9 (59 points, 53 GP)

Aside from the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights, the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Goaltender, Brian Elliott, has found his top-notch form once again while Travis Konecny and Claude Giroux are rolling along. With almost $3.000 million to spend at the deadline, the Flyers could make some improvements to their team.

Trading away Brayden Schenn was costly for Philadelphia this offseason, but thankfully Jakub Voracek and the rest of the roster decided to pick up some of the points left behind by Schenn’s departure.

Adding Jori Lehtera, on the other hand, was a big mistake– both in production value and in cap management.

The Flyers could really solidify their offense with one or two moves and probably should anchor their defense with at least a depth blue liner or two coming down the stretch. Someone like David Perron, Patrick Maroon or Nic Petan could flourish in the Philly system. Meanwhile, a defenseman like Cody Franson would help put them over the edge if someone’s injured.

Potential assets to trade: D Radko Gudas, F Jori Lehtera, F Matt Read, F Dale Weise

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), F David Perron (VGK), F Nic Petan (WPG)

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5. Columbus Blue Jackets– 27-22-4 (58 points, 53 GP)

After getting a fast start out of the gate the Columbus Blue Jackets have really cooled off. It’s not that they’re a bad team, but rather, they’re just average.

Sergei Bobrovsky can’t stop the puck and play every other position too. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets would probably be first in the division. But good news, Columbus, you’ve got some cap space to work with at the end of the month.

As I write, the Blue Jackets have about $5.000 million to work with in cap room.

That’s good enough to bring in just about any player without considering what the future impact on the team his cap hit might have (unless Jarmo Kekalainen brings in a clear-cut rental player that won’t be re-signed in July). The point is this, Columbus has enough room to mess around with something valuable at the deadline, but they’re going to have to re-sign a plethora of core/future core pieces of the franchise this offseason.

The Blue Jackets aren’t doomed– they know their future plans more than anyone else.

But what could they bring in to make this team better? Someone. Is there anyone they could snag now and really shake things up as a contender moving forward? Short answer, yes.

For all of the return of Rick Nash to Columbus talk, well, that’s not ideal. Kekalainen should consider someone like Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before taking back a guy like Nash– who will only break the franchise’s heart again in July when he goes back to the Rangers *bold prediction alert*.

Potential assets to trade: D Andre Benoit, D Jack Johnson

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), F Sam Reinhart (BUF)F Blake Comeau (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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6. New York Islanders– 26-22-6 (58 points, 54 GP)

The biggest question heading into the 2018 trade deadline for the New York Islanders is the same one that’s been asked since Steven Stamkos signed his extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning– will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

New York has expressed that they are not looking to trade Tavares should things go detrimentally south between now and February 26th, but if things do…

The Islanders have almost $1.500 million in cap space to play around with before the deadline. They also have 13 pending free agents at season’s end, meaning there’s plenty of options the franchise could pursue.

Should Tavares get a raise and a long-term deal? Absolutely.

The  Islanders could pack it up and go home on this season given their injuries, lack of defense and well, let’s just say, things aren’t going so great for the team that ranks 31st (out of 31 NHL teams) in average attendance this season.

Or they could be active in trying to scrap together a good team centered around their current stars (Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Joshua Ho-Sang and others).

Potential assets to trade: F Josh Bailey, F Jason Chimera, F Casey Cizikas, D Thomas Hickey, D Dennis Seidenberg

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F David Perron (VGK)

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7. Carolina Hurricanes– 24-21-9 (57 points, 54 GP)

New Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon, might call an audible heading into this year’s trade deadline and decide to spend money on the roster. With almost $15.500 million in cap space, the Hurricanes are in the best possible position to land not just one or two of the big names floating around the rumor mill, but rather three or four quality pieces.

The trouble is, who would they get rid of, since their prospects and youth are worth keeping for further development and overall organizational growth?

Jeff Skinner is someone to build around. So are Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask.

Lee Stempniak might make his annual trip around the league, but other than that, who are the Hurricanes actually going to offer up from their forwards? If anything, Carolina would move a guy like Noah Hanifin given the contract extensions (and pay raises) that kick in next season for Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

Regardless, though they’re not out of contention, the Hurricanes could really use a goaltender to pull them through the stretch. This whole Cam Ward/Scott Darling thing isn’t working out.

Potential assets to trade: G Scott Darling, D Noah Hanifin, F Lee Stempniak, F Derek Ryan, draft picks

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), G Robin Lehner (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ),  D Mike Green (DET), G Petr Mrazek (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Tomas Plekanec (MTL), F David Desharnais (NYR), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

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8. New York Rangers– 25-24-5 (55 points, 54 GP)

Look, the New York Rangers are still (technically speaking) in contention– but they absolutely shouldn’t waste another year of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career in the National Hockey League without a Stanley Cup.

The team they have right now? Yeah, they aren’t winning.

They’ve aged out. The core’s been decimated by the Vegas expansion draft and some offseason moves (namely trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona after losing Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in June).

Not every player is washed up.

Some will find better homes and rejuvenate their careers before potentially signing with the Rangers in free agency and going back “home” *ahem, Rick Nash*.

Others will simply be a superb rental/long term participant in a franchise, like Michael Grabner.

Basically I’m saying that all the guys New York’s been rumored to trade should get traded and the team can pull off a quick turnaround with their up-and-coming youth, plus whatever they get in return for Nash, Grabner and Co.

And with only about $1.400 million in cap space, the Rangers could have some fun blowing things up (partially).

Build around Mika Zibanejad and friends. Do it, New York. Do it now.

Potential assets to trade: F David Desharnais, F Michael Grabner, D Nick Holden, D Ryan McDonagh, F Rick Nash, G Ondrej Pavelec, D Marc Staal, F Jimmy Vesey, F Mats Zuccarello

Potential assets to acquire: D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

February 2 – Day 114 – An overflow of goals

Happy Friday to you and yours! Celebrate the last day of the work week with some hockey!

To help you in that process, the NHL has scheduled four games this evening, including three at 7 p.m. (Washington at Pittsburgh [SN/TVAS], Detroit at Carolina and San Jose at Columbus). Vegas visits Minnesota (NBCSN) an hour later to close the evening out early. All times Eastern.

Obviously, the game that sticks out above the rest is going down in the Steel City this evening. Even though we just featured the Capitals Wednesday, there’s no way we’re missing this one!

 

No matter the time of season, these tilts between the Capitals and Penguins always seem to mean just a little bit more, don’t they? Having W Alex Ovechkin and C Sidney Crosby on these respective teams is probably a big reason for that.

In fact, it’s to the Metropolitan Division-leading 30-15-5 Capitals’ offense that I was about to turn, so we’ll consider that as good a transition as any.

There are few attacks in the league that have been better than Washington’s since January 12, and it’s not really that close. In their past six outings, the Caps have scored an average of 3.17 goals per game – a mark that is tied for fourth-best in the NHL in that time.

As you might have guessed, Ovechkin has been a big part of that charge. Since mid-January, the 13-year veteran has posted a team-leading 3-4-7 totals to improve his season numbers to 30-23-53, the most goals in the league.

But it’s not just Ovi. D John Carlson and F Evgeny Kuznetsov have been incredible lately as well, as they have both averaged a point-per-game over their last six showings. Carlson and Ovechkin have been meshing particularly well of late, as the defenseman has provided the primary assist on two of Ovechkin’s three most-recent markers.

Of course, Washington also has the luxury of 26-9-2 G Braden Holtby manning the pipes in the defensive end. As a result of his .916 save percentage and 2.67 GAA, his 26 victories on the season are the (t)second-most in the league.

Meanwhile, the 28-21-3 Penguins – who occupy third place in the Metropolitan – have dreams of capping their four-game home stand with their fourth-straight victory.

Offensive struggles have been one of the issues facing Pittsburgh for most of the season, but if this home stand is any indication, those concerns are in the rear-view mirror. The Pens have scored a whopping 4.67 goals-per-game during this three-game winning streak, an effort that tops the league during this time frame.

A total of six players are averaging at least a point-per-game (including D Ian Cole, even though he wasn’t a part of the 3-1 victory against the Hurricanes on January 23) during this run, but none stand out quite like F Evgeni Malkin. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the man whose 26 goals are (t)fifth-most in the league knows what to do with the puck, but Malkin has posted a 5-1-6 effort to improve his season numbers to 26-29-55 totals.

Of course, success should be a given when Malkin has the supporting cast of Cole, Crosby, RW Phil Kessel, W Bryan Rust and F Dominik Simon – all of whom join the Russian in posting at least a point-per-game. With teammates that include the player that’s (t)fourth in points and 10th in assists in Kessel (21-38-59 totals) and the skater that’s (t)eighth in assists and (t)ninth in points in Crosby (17-39-56), losing is a hard thing to do.

Tonight’s tilt is the third in the four-game regular season series, and the title of victor is still very much up for grabs. Both the previous games took place at Capital One Arena, with the Pens winning 3-2 on October 11 (W Conor Sheary provided the deciding goal) and the Caps exacting revenge November 10 with a 4-1 victory (Holtby took First Star honors). Pittsburgh and Washington will tangle for the final time this season on April 1 at PPG Paints Arena.

Holtby and 16-12-1 G Matthew Murray will have to be in their best form tonight if they want to earn their respective club two points, but who will find the save to slow down these potent onslaughts? The Penguins may have home ice, but I’m leaning towards Washington taking the victory considering its defense has been performing better than Pittsburgh’s of late.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Boston Bruins successfully defended TD Garden by beating the St. Louis Blues 3-1.

As far as the scoreboard was concerned, this game was a slow starter as only one goal was struck in the first two periods. That tally belonged to Second Star of the Game C David Krejci (LW Jake Debrusk and F Ryan Spooner), who buried his backhanded shot with 7:28 remaining in the first frame to give the hosts a one-goal advantage.

However, the scoreboard never tells the whole story. Even though Krejci scored in the first period, it was actually the Blues that out-shot the Bruins in the first frame 14-9. The game then turned on its head during the intermission, as Third Star G Jake Allen had to fend off a whopping 22 Boston shots in the second while his offense managed only six shots on goal at the other end.

Things leveled out in the third period as far as shots on goal were concerned (15-13 in favor of Boston), but the Bruins still outscored St. Louis 2-1 in the frame for the 3-1 final score. The first goal belonged to C Patrice Bergeron (RW David Pastrnak and Spooner), who took advantage of RW Vladimir Tarasenko serving a penalty for hooking D Torey Krug to bury a power play snap shot from the right face-off dot that proved to be the game-winner over Allen’s right shoulder. F Jaden Schwartz (F Brayden Schenn and Tarasenko) managed to pull the Notes back within a tally on a wrist shot with 1:32 remaining in regulation, but F David Backes completed the victory against the team he used to captain with an empty-netter with one tick left on the clock.

First Star G Tuukka Rask earned the victory after saving 32-of-33 shots faced (.97 save percentage), leaving the loss to Allen, who saved 43-of-45 (.956).

It seems all the 62-37-15 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series was the All-Star Break to resume control, as they’ve won three out of the last four contests to take a 21-point advantage.

January 31 – Day 112 – High Flyer-ing offense

There may only be three games on the schedule today, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a quality matchup.

The action starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time when the New York Islanders visit Toronto (SN/TVAS), and it is followed half an hour later by tonight’s co-nightcaps: San Jose at Detroit and Philadelphia at Washington (NBCSN).

As I discussed with @nlanciani53 in a recent podcast, it’s time to see just how good this Flyers team actually is, as they face a good test in a rivalry game with the Caps this evening. Let’s take a look into this matchup, shall we?

 

Since December 29, there have been few teams in the Eastern Conference as successful as the Flyers. They’ve posted a 9-3-0 record to surge into the second wildcard, with impressive wins coming against the Lightning in Tampa Bay, St. Louis, the Devils in New Jersey, Toronto, the Devils again and the Capitals in Washington (more on that below).

In other words, Philadelphia hasn’t been picking up wins against scrubs.

All credit for this success is due to the Flyers’ offense, which is scoring the puck at an unbelievable pace (3.33 goals per game, the fourth-best average in the league since December 29) and maintaining possession to limit 5-6-1 G Michal Neuvirth‘s – tonight’s starter with 19-11-7 G Brian Elliott on injured reserve –  workload to an average of only 27.83 shots per game (the lowest mark in the NHL during this run).

As for who’s been behind this attack, all signs point towards C Sean Couturier. Philly’s top center has posted 9-7-16 totals in his last 12 games played to improve his season marks to 26-23-49. In fact, his 26 markers are so impressive, they rank (t)fifth-best in the league.

F Claude Giroux and W Jakub Voracek have also been stellar during this run of success, as they’ve respectively posted 1-13-14 and 1-11-12 totals to join with Couturier in averaging at least a point per game since December 29. Of course, their success is no surprise considering they both rank among the league’s top-three in assists and top-10 in points.

Meanwhile, 29-15-5 Washington has been busy all season proving the doubters wrong, as all the team has done after a tough offseason is lead the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

However, the Caps did not have the best of runs leading into the All-Star Break. Though they earned points in four of their five games, they posted only a record of 2-1-2 in their last five games.

The biggest reason for this lull in an overall very successful season seems to be the play of 25-9-2 G Braden Holtby. Starting three of those five games, he led the Capitals to only one victory with a .91 save percentage.

Fortunately for him, his defensive corps played a big part in helping him post a 2.66 GAA in those tilts, which is exactly in line with his season mark. Behind the stellar efforts of D Dmitry Orlov (team-leading 1.4 blocks per game and five takeaways since January 12) and D Brooks Orpik (three hits per game over this run), the Capitals have limited his workload to only 30.8 shots against per game during this five-game stretch, the 13th-best effort in the NHL in that time.

Tonight’s tilt is Game 3 of four between the Caps and Flyers this regular season. Though Philly trails in the standings, it has had its way in this series so far, as it has won both the previous two games. They first met on October 14 at Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers exploded to an 8-2 victory (Voracek took First Star honors with three assists). More recently, Philadelphia traveled to the capital on January 21 to post a 2-1 victory, courtesy of a F Travis Konecny overtime game-winner.

The Flyers have certainly been the more dominant team leading into the All-Star Break. Add in the fact that they haven’t lost to the Caps yet this year, and I have a hard time picking against Philly’s offense.


With three goals in the span of 53 seconds in the third period, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Calgary Flames 4-2 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This was an odd game in that the number of goals scored in each frame matched the period’s number, and that scoring in each frame was limited to only one team.

Make sense?

Allow me to explain: in the first period, only one goal was scored. Since W Reilly Smith‘s (First Star of the Game F Jon Marchessault and Third Star C William Karlsson) power play tip-in put the Golden Knights up 1-0 with 3:57 remaining in the frame, that meant Vegas was the only team to score in that frame.

Off to Period 2, which featured two markers. Both of those goals belonged to the Flames, as Second Star F Sam Bennett (RW Troy Brouwer) leveled the game 6:02 into the frame with a wrist shot. Calgary then earned its first – and only – lead of the game 12:41 later, courtesy of a LW Matthew Tkachuk (D Dougie Hamilton and F Michael Frolik) wrap-around shot. The 2-1 score held into the second intermission.

Things were looking very good for the Flames in the third period. They still had their one-goal lead with under two minutes remaining in regulation. Worst case scenario, this game went to overtime… right?

Unfortunately for them, the game’s pattern caught up to Calgary in a big way, starting with F Erik Haula‘s unassisted wrist shot with 1:46 remaining on the clock to tie the game at 2-2. The game-winning goal was struck only 10 seconds later, courtesy of Marchessault (Karlsson and Smith).

C Mikael Backlund thought he had this play all wrapped up along the boards in front of his own bench. Karlsson had the puck, but he was coming in to disrupt the play and potentially set his club up for a breakaway opportunity. However, just before he could engage, Karlsson backhanded a pass to Marchessault to set him up for a breakaway opportunity of his own. After getting around D Mark Giordano, Marchessault took advantage of his one-on-one opportunity against G Mike Smith to rip a wrister from the slot top-shelf over the netminder’s glove.

Now trailing by a goal instead of leading by that margin, Flames Head Coach Glen Gulutzan was forced to pull M. Smith with 59 ticks remaining in the game. He was off the ice for only six seconds before W David Perron (F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and D Shea Theodore) capitalized on the gaping cage to set the 4-2 final score with a wrister.

G Marc-Andre Fleury earned the come-from-behind victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to M. Smith, who saved 31-of-34 (.912).

Road teams are staging quite the comeback in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as they’ve won six of the last seven games. This streak has pulled them within 17 points of the 60-37-15 home teams.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 15

Skater of the Week: Brad Marchand

You may not (probably don’t) like him, but the Little Ball of Hate doesn’t give a damn about what you like. He’s gonna score on your team, and you’re gonna deal with it.

The league’s premiere super-pest tallied two goals and five assists in four contests this week, made arguably more impressive by the fact that he started the week being held scoreless against Dallas before recording three consecutive multi-point games to close the week. Burning arch-rival Montreal for a goal and assist in the first meeting, then adding two helpers in the rematch, together with a three-point night against the Islanders, the former unheralded third round pick continues to prove all the critics wrong, as he’s currently on pace to shatter his breakout 85-point performance from last season.

Marchand’s 48 points in 37 games is good for 16th in league scoring, having played no less than seven-fewer games than any player ahead of him, and his performance over the last seven days is good for this award.

Tendy of the Week: Jonathan Bernier

Yeah, I know, right? I couldn’t believe it either.

Bernier’s NHL career has been a well-documented roller coaster of epic proportions, and the former 11th-overall pick has often seen the ‘Bust’ label floating near his name. But he seems to have really found a home with the upstart Avs this season.

In three starts this week, Bernier faced a ridiculous 110 shots and turned aside 105 of them to pick up three victories. On Monday he stopped 33-of-34 to down the Ducks, on Saturday he stifled 27-of-28 against the Rangers, and even when he gave up three to the Sharks, he managed a .938 save percentage on 48 shots faced. Of the Avs’ strengths, the defense is not high on the list.

Bernier is still shaking off some shaky performances earlier in the year, but in 21 appearances his 13-7-1 record, 2.61 GAA and .919 save percentage are more than respectable behind the run-and-gun Avs. If he continues this sort of play, the Avs could potentially use Semyon Varlamov as trade bait to solidify their D-corps come the deadline.

Game of the Week: Washington Capitals 3 @ New Jersey Devils 4 (OT), Thursday January 18th, 2018

A showdown between the top 2 teams in the stacked Metropolitan Division lived up to the hype, delivering seven goals, 51 shots, 48 hits, and 36 penalty minutes.

Drew Stafford would get things rolling 8:01 into the game, taking advantage of a misplay at the blueline by Dmitry Orlov to flee the zone and receive a breakout pass courtesy of Marcus Johansson, fighting off the back-checking Devante Smith-Pelly and going forehand-backhand-roof on Braden Holtby to give the Devils the early lead. Brett Connolly, who was stifled on a golden opportunity just seconds after the Stafford goal, would get his revenge and even the score at the 12:10 mark, pouncing on a long wrister from T.J. Oshie that deflected off of the skate of Jersey d-man Will Butcher right to his tape and burying it past Keith Kinkaid to give us a 1-1 game after one.

The second saw both the scoring and intensity ramp up, started off by Devils captain Andy Greene (playing in his 750th game) scoring on an almost-identical play to the Connolly goal, this time a Taylor Hall effort from the left point deflecting off the stick of Matt Niskanen and coming right to Greene who was just able to squeeze the shot between the left arm and torso of a sliding Holtby to regain the Jersey lead 3:33 into the frame. Then at the 8:33 mark came some shenanigans. Tom Wilson laid a hammering hit on Brian Gibbons along the boards in the neutral zone, leading Brian Boyle to come to the defense of his teammate and earn himself a misconduct and extra minor for instigating. I could go on a tangent about clean hits leading to fights (Gibbons himself appeared to try to wave off Boyle as he approached Wilson), but I’ll save that for another day.

Further into the secnd we go, and the Devils capitalize (see what I did there?) on another breakout pass, this time with Miles Wood sneaking behind the Washington defense and receiving some airmail from Sami Vatanen before getting one through five-hole of Holtby to give New Jersey the 3-1 edge at the 10:55 mark. But just 14 seconds later Dmitry Orlov would collect a long rebound off the boards and spanked the ‘Made In Slovakia’ lettering right off of the puck as it screamed past Kinkaid into the back of the net, sending us into the final frame with a 3-2 Devils lead after some strong netminding by Holtby in the closing stages of the middle frame.

Kinkaid and the Devils would hold the fort for most of the third, but finally with just 3:48 remaining it would be Connolly (who had himself a very good game, I might add) who collected a terrific Evgeny Kuznetsov feed from below the goal line and slid the puck right underneath the left pad of Kinkaid to knot the score at three and send the game to overtime (though not before Kinkaid would shake off a ‘Nisk-cannon’ to the noggin that removed his mask in the dying seconds).

The crowd at ‘The Rock’ would have little to fret over, though, as just 34 seconds into the extra frame it would be Taylor Hall receiving a chip pass from Sami Vatanen, before giving himself a second chip pass to get around Kuznetsov and streaking in on Holtby, roofing a quick wrister over the glove hand and sending the Jersey-faithful into a frenzy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

The Golden Knights are, at the time of this writing, the #1 team in the NHL. I don’t actually have anything clever prepared for this, I just wanted to say it out loud.

A couple of high-profile injuries struck this week, with Edmonton losing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to a hand injury for at least a month, and the Rangers losing Kevin Shattenkirk to a meniscus tear, an injury that could sideline the defenseman for quite some time.

The Senators have supposedly made it their #1 organizational goal to re-sign Erik Karlsson. I’m not sure how much money it will take to keep him with a franchise that doesn’t appear to be set up for major success any time soon, but if anyone has any suggestions for convoluted schemes to marry into his family, I’m all ears.

Dustin Brown was fined (but not suspended) for brutally cross-checking a helpless Justin Schultz face-first into the boards, in a move the Department of Player Safety referred to as “We have no idea who this Andrew Cogliano person you speak of is, and we’re not sure what two-game suspension you could be referring to.”

The Colorado Avalanche have won nine consecutive games, which might be the only thing less people would have bet on at the beginning of the year than Vegas spending time at #1 in the league.

Rene Rancourt has announced that he will retire from his position as the Bruins’ longtime anthem singer. Personally, I never actually thought he was that good of a singer, but his showmanship has always been absolutely second-to-none, and anyone legendary enough to be referenced in a Dropkick Murphy’s song gets a pass in my book, so congrats to Rene on an incredible career and best of luck in retirement.

Finally, I’ll close on two sombering notes. First, I extend my sincerest condolences to Matthew Murray and his family, as the Pittsburgh goaltender has taken a leave of absence from the team to mourn the passing of his father, and I’ll repeat the sentiment to the family of USA Hockey executive and two-time Olympian Jim Johannson, who passed Sunday morning at just 53 years of age.

January 11 – Day 96 – Seeing red

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: solid offenses.

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, let’s talk offense.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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