Tag Archives: Jim Rutherford

2018 Offseason Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Only a few more teams’ offseason previews remain before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft gets started this Friday. First up today is the Pittsburgh Penguins!

The chance to become the NHL’s first official dynasty since the 1983-90 Edmonton Oilers is still available to C Sidney Crosby‘s Penguins, but falling in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Washington Capitals has forced them into a situation that requires another title in 2019.

Among others, the major flaw in this Penguins club during the postseason was clearly a disappearance of the depth scoring that became so expected during their previous two Stanley Cup runs, as well as a defense that – while playing well overall (their 26.6 shots against per game in the playoffs was best of all 16 teams) – had a habit of allowing its few mistakes to become major problems.

Was this just a result of a tired squad, or is General Manager Jim Rutherford going to have to make some major adjustments?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

For any Pittsburgh fans planning on addressing these issues in the draft, you’re in for some bad news: the Penguins’ first round pick belongs to Ottawa as a result of the trade that yielded C Derick Brassard.

Slated to turn 31-years-old this September, Brassard certainly does not provide the Penguins the scoring youth they would have received in the draft (speaking of, I’d expect Ottawa to select C Benoit-Olivier Groulx [Halifax Mooseheads], RW Martin Kaut [HC Dynamo Pardubice], F Isac Lundeström [Luleå HF] or RW Serron Noel [Oshawa Generals] with Pittsburgh’s pick). However, there’s a reason Columbus selected him sixth-overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Under contract for one more year, Brassard is still capable of providing the depth scoring Pittsburgh needs, as he’s notched at least .64 points per game in three of his last four seasons. After a summer off the ice to fully recover from his groin injury, I have no doubt Brassard will make Rutherford’s trade look like an excellent idea.

Pending free agents

With almost $4.8 million to play with, Pittsburgh needs to sign or trade for a minimum of three players just to reach the minimum 20-man roster required by the NHL. That’s not very much wiggle room, especially since that would leave the Pens without a 13th forward and a seventh defenseman.

To put it simply, Rutherford is going to need to put in some serious work if he wants to get his club back to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in four years.

With nine forwards on the current roster, it’s a no-brainer that a minimum of three rosters are going to be added into the mix. If the Penguins elect to change things up in their bottom-six, they’re certainly going to have that option, as W Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, W Bryan Rust, C Riley Sheahan and F Dominik Simon are all pending free agents, with all but Rowney being of the restricted variety.

Of the five, Rust is clearly the most talented offensively, as his 13-25-38 totals in 69 games played are the most of the group. Making him more impressive, Rust bounced all over the Pens’ lineup this season, proving that his numbers weren’t just a result of playing with Crosby or F Evgeni Malkin.

With unrestricted free agency only one year away, odds are very slim of seeing Rust settle for much of a team-friendly deal given his two championship rings. If I were a gambling man, I’d put my chips on Rutherford shipping Rust’s rights to a team that has cap space and needs a proven winner (perhaps F Ryan Dzingel or W Micheal Ferland would be available if Pittsburgh could find an acceptable package).

Sheahan is another player that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wearing a different sweater next season. Though he is still excellent at the face-off dot (he won 54.2 percent of draws this season), it’s hard to justify his 11-21-32 totals (.4 points per game) at the $2.075 million price tag he was awarded in 2016 by Detroit. Unless Sheahan – who will be eligible to test unrestricted free agency following his next contract’s completion – is willing to take a pay cut, he might meet the same fate as Rust.

Of their free agents I’d actually expect the Penguins to resign, Simon looks to be the best bet. Turning 24-years-old in August, the Czech posted 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL appearances this season, spending time on the first and third lines. Considering how good Crosby has made young players look in the past (ex: F Jake Guentzel, W Conor Sheary and Rust), there’s a strong chance Rutherford gives Simon a slight raise to a three-year, $1 million AAV contract to keep him in town.

A resigning of Simon also makes Kuhnhackl expendable if the two parties cannot come to terms on a team-friendly deal. The German provided only 2-6-8 totals in 69 games played from his fourth-line role at a $625 thousand price tag. If he tries to leverage his two championships for a raise, Rutherford will likely go no higher than $1 million per season.

Lastly, if Rutherford resigns Rowney for a cent more than the league minimum ($700 thousand starting this season), he loses his job. It’s that plain and simple in my book. The Penguins simply don’t have the cap space to keep a player who’s averaged only .17 points per game for his career.

His only saving grace in staying with the team is the Pens not wanting to risk having too few players. He’s a known commodity, which makes him a better asset on the fourth line than a player from outside the organization.

One thing to keep in mind regarding the signing of any of these free agents is the fact that Guentzel will be looking for a contract this time next year. Given his 23 goals and 42 points in 37 Stanley Cup playoff games, the Nebraskan will fetch a pretty penny that Rutherford will need to plan for if he sees Guentzel as a longtime member of the organization.

With Pittsburgh set in net (G Matt Murray and G Casey DeSmith have respective two and one seasons remaining on their contracts), the only contract to focus on defensively is RFA D Jamie Oleksiak. Oleksiak’s 17:24 time on ice per game was seventh among Penguins defensemen, while his .3 points per game clocked in at fourth-best.

For the past three offseasons, Oleksiak has signed one-year deals of increasing value, the most recent of which was worth almost $965 thousand.

Figuring out if Oleksiak gets a new contract is a difficult task, as Pittsburgh could certainly save money by promoting from within. Since 2015, the Penguins have drafted eight defensemen – including three in the first three rounds – but none of those players have even been signed by the club.

If promotion is in fact the route Pittsburgh elects to take, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s best option, D Andrey Pedan, is no longer on the table due to his decision to take his talents to Russia. Similarly, both D Frank Corrado and D Kevin Czuczman are in the same position as Oleksiak, as their identical one-year, $650 thousand contracts expired following the Charlotte Checkers’ three-game sweep against the Pens.

If Rutherford can pull off the signings listed above, he’ll have approximately $2 million to play with to keep Oleksiak around and/or acquire additional skaters.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #95- Call The Ex-Sturm-inator

Nick and Connor recap the 2018 trade deadline, 2018 Winter Games and 2018 overall even though it’s only March. Marco Sturm is worthy of an NHL coaching job, but will anyone take the risk? Hint: They should. Also, more thoughts on the Erik Karlsson saga.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

February 6 – Day 118 – Episode II: Return of the Flower Power

I may not get to watch hockey on Tuesday nights, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Fortunately for you, there’s a whopping 11 games on the schedule to choose from, so surely one game strikes your fancy.

Like most nights, the action starts at 7 p.m. with four puck drops (Anaheim at Buffalo, Vegas at Pittsburgh [SN1/TVAS], Philadelphia at Carolina and Washington at Columbus), followed half an hour later by three more (New Jersey at Ottawa [RDS], Boston at Detroit and Vancouver at Florida). The next two games (Minnesota at St. Louis [NBCSN] and Arizona at Winnipeg) get started at 8 p.m., with Calgary at Chicago waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Finally, San Jose at Colorado closes out the night with their tilt at 9 p.m. All times Eastern.

What a slate of games! There’s potential for the playoff picture to look wildly different Wednesday morning. As for matchups that have caught my eye…

  • Vegas at Pittsburgh: Welcome home Flower. Welcome home.
  • Boston at Detroit: Where are the Original Six fans at?
  • Minnesota at St. Louis: D Nate Prosser played exactly one game this season with the Blues before being placed on waivers. Was there any doubt the Wild would pick him up?

Of course, that list ignores important fixtures like Philly at Carolina, Washington at Columbus, Calgary at Chicago and San Jose at Colorado – all of which should be competitive matchups between teams either currently qualifying for the playoffs or trying to climb the table.

In an effort to appease both lists, I think its clear we have to make the trip to Pittsburgh to take in G Marc-Andre Fleury‘s return.

 

Fleury’s tenure in Pittsburgh began when he was selected with the first-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft from the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

Though he was sent back to Nova Scotia after playing 21 games with the Pens to complete his final year of junior eligibility, Fleury had certainly impressed with his .896 save percentage and 3.64 GAA. He made 46 saves in his NHL debut and posted a shutout in only his sixth professional game.

Pittsburgh knew it had made a good choice in trading RW Mikael Samuelsson to Florida for the pick. I mean, Samuelsson only won one Stanley Cup in his career (ironically, against the Penguins in 2008). Fleury has won three.

It seems like basic math to me.

After joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the 2004 Calder Cup playoffs, he remained in the AHL for the entire 2004-’05 season before laying claim to Pittsburgh’s starting position a year later.

2005-’06 wasn’t exactly a stellar year for the Penguins – in fact, quite the opposite. Pittsburgh finished dead last in the Eastern Conference and only a point ahead of St. Louis – the worst team in the league. However, Fleury showed improvement from his first stint in the world’s top hockey league, posting a .898 save percentage and 3.25 GAA.

It didn’t take long for the Pens to assume the form we’ve come to expect. Behind a season .906 save percentage and 2.83 GAA, Fleury – who posted a 40-16-9 record – qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time of his career in 2007. The postseason ended almost as quickly as it began (Ottawa needed only five games to advance to the Eastern Semifinals), but Fleury and the Pens were establishing themselves among the league’s best teams.

That climb up the league table was officially realized during the 2007-’08 season when Fleury, with a career-best .921 save percentage and 2.33 GAA, led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1992. Though Detroit was able to win its 11th Stanley Cup in franchise history, Fleury performed marvelously by posting a .933 save percentage and 1.97 GAA in the playoffs – by far the best marks of his postseason career.

Of course, the Penguins were able to exact revenge against the Red Wings only a year later. Perhaps the most memorable play from that June 12, 2009 Game 7 in Detroit occurred with two seconds remaining on the clock. D Nicklas Lidstrom, himself a four-time Stanley Cup champion and winner of the 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy, had the opportunity to beat Fleury near side to tie the game at 2-2 and force a Cup-clinching sudden-death overtime, but Flower flopped in that direction just in time for his 23rd save of the game, securing the Penguins’ third championship and Pittsburgh’s second of the year (the Steelers had won their sixth Super Bowl four months earlier on February 1).

From 2009-’10 to 2014-’15, the Penguins toiled away to limited playoff success considering the talent on their roster. Though some would rightly say Fleury was part of the problem during those seasons, that’s not to say he didn’t have incredible performances. In fact, he managed a whopping 10 shutouts during the 2014-’15 season, a career-high that led the league that season.

I’d argue all those shutouts were a major reason for the resurgence of Flower Power in Pittsburgh in the 2015′-16 season. That year, Fleury matched his current career-high .921 save percentage and set a new career-best 2.29 GAA in the regular season.

The emphasis on regular season is important here, because that’s when Fleury’s tenure in Pittsburgh began to take a turn. Just as we began with Fleury as a rookie netminder, the emergence of rookie G Matthew Murray during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is a major reason the Sorel, Quebec native now calls the desert home.

With Fleury sidelined with a concussion suffered during the regular season, Murray exploded onto the scene to lead the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In Game 4, Fleury was able to take the ice for the third period with Pittsburgh trailing 4-0. The goalie swap rejuvenated the skaters, inspiring a comeback that fell one goal short of forcing overtime.

Head Coach Mike Sullivan saw this as an opportunity to return the crease to his starter as well as continue the positive energy from Game 4. Instead, Fleury laid an egg in Game 5, allowing three goals in regulation and the game-winner only 53 seconds into overtime.

With the Pens trailing the series 3-2, Sullivan went back to Murray in Game 6. The renewed nod of confidence is all the youngster needed, as he led Pittsburgh past the Lightning in Games 6 and 7 against the Lightning as well as a Stanley Cup Finals victory against the San Jose Sharks.

With Murray starting 47 games in the 2016-’17 to Fleury’s 34, the Flower Power Era in Pittsburgh had effectively come to a close – but not without one last ride.

Just like a Fleury injury opened the door for Murray to earn playoff starts, the youngster suffered a non-contact ailment before Game 1 of the First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Enter Fleury, who needed only five games to knock off the Jackets, including a dominant 49-save performance in the series clincher.

Fleury would continue to be a stellar force in the Eastern Semifinals against the rival Washington Capitals, leading the Pens to a seven-game victory. The most memorable occurrence of the series involving Fleury wasn’t exactly his save against W Alex Ovechkin in Game 7, but his celebration afterwards.

He’s… uh… playing an electric guitar, kids.

However, Fleury’s Penguins career would last only three more games. He was pulled in Game 3 of the Eastern Finals against the Ottawa Senators after allowing four first period goals in 12:52 of action. Murray returned to the crease to lead Pittsburgh to a second-consecutive Stanley Cup Finals after a double-overtime victory in Game 7, as well as another championship following a six-game series against the Nashville Predators.

But this most recent success is all Vegas General Manager George McPhee needed to convince him who his first goaltender in franchise history was going to be. With Pittsburgh wanting to officially deed the crease to Murray, General Manager Jim Rutherford left Fleury exposed to the Expansion Draft and shipped his second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft to the Golden Knights to ensure Fleury would be selected.

With the exception of a concussion that kept the goaltender off the ice for two months, just about everything has gone 35-13-4 Vegas and Fleury’s way in the Knights’ inaugural season. Should he continue playing like he is, Fleury is in line for the best save percentage of his career (currently a .939) as well as an unbelievable 1.84 GAA – also a potential career-best mark.

Over their past four games, the Golden Knights gave earned a 3-1-0 record. 15-4-2 Fleury has been in net for all three victories and played well, posting a .917 save percentage and 2.29 GAA.

However, I’ve been most impressed with the effort of the defense playing in front of him over this run. Led by the stellar efforts of D Deryk Engelland (three blocks and 1.5 hits per game over this run) and D Nate Schmidt (six takeaways in his last four games), Vegas has allowed only 29.75 shots against per game, the seventh-best mark in the NHL since January 30.

With a win tonight, Vegas – who already leads the Pacific Division and the Western Conference – can claim the top spot in the NHL with 76 points, one more than Tampa Bay in as many games played.

However, the Golden Knights will have to get past 29-22-3 Pittsburgh to do that, and beating the Penguins has been a tough ask of late. Making the matchup even more exciting, it puts Fleury and his defense even more at the center of attention, as the Pens’ offense is absolutely dominating lately.

Since January 23, no offense has been as imposing as Pittsburgh’s. Led by the incredible efforts of F Evgeni Malkin, the Pens are averaging a league-leading 4.4 goals per game in that time, almost half a goal more than Toronto and Washington’s imposing attacks.

In his last five games played, Malkin has been the most frightening goalscorer in the NHL, posting 8-3-11 totals (the most goals and points in the league in that time) to average over two points per game to increase his season totals to 29-31-60. Making the Penguins even more intimidating, RW Phil Kessel (2-7-9), C Sidney Crosby (0-7-7) and W Bryan Rust (3-2-5) all join Malkin in averaging at least a point per game, giving Pittsburgh three explosive lines.

For those wondering, 17-12-1 Murray has been decent of late too. Even though his defense has allowed a terrible 34.8 shots against per game over this run, he’s won both his starts with a .92 save percentage and 3 GAA. He’ll need to be better against a Vegas offense that ranks second-best on the season (3.37 goals per game), but he’s well rested since his last showing was February 2 against the Capitals.

The Penguins made their trip to The Silver State on December 14, but they didn’t receive very warm hospitality. Behind a 24-save performance by First Star Fleury in his first game back from a concussion, the Golden Knights claimed a 2-1 victory.

This is going to be an emotional game for Fleury, Penguins fans and probably a few of the Pens as well. The team that can put the tears behind them fastest will likely come out the winners, which is why I’m leaning towards the Penguins’ offense taking two points this evening.


With a two-goal, three-point night from First Star of the Game F William Nylander, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Anaheim Ducks 7-4 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre.

There may have been 11 goals struck in this game, but almost all of them were scored in the final two periods. Second Star C Auston Matthews (F Zach Hyman and Nylander) registered the lone tally, burying a wrap-around shot 6:32 into the game.

One intermission is all this contest needed to find the wild side. A whopping six goals were buried in the middle frame, starting with C Ryan Getzlaf‘s (Third Star F Rickard Rakell and W Corey Perry) wrist shot 43 seconds after play resumed to level the game at 1-1. Toronto answered back 5:09 later thanks to Nylander’s (D Jake Gardiner) first goal of the night, but the game was tied once again only 2:31 after the horn stopped blaring due to a Rakell (Getzlaf and Perry) backhanded shot.

With F Leo Komarov in the penalty box for hi-sticking D Kevin Bieksa, Anaheim took its first lead in the game when W Ondrej Kase (Perry and W Jakob Silfverberg) scored a power play wrister with 8:54 remaining in the period, setting the score at 3-2. However, it was a case of “whatever you can do, I can do better” as F Mitch Marner (C Nazem Kadri and LW James van Riemsdyk) took advantage of LW Nick Ritchie serving a slashing penalty against D Roman Polalk by scoring a power play snap shot of his own 4:22 later. Komarov (Gardiner and Kadri) completed the period’s scoring with 2:20 remaining, setting the score at 4-3 in favor of the Leafs with a snapper.

After a wild second period, there was no chance the Ducks were going to allow that score to stand. Rakell (Perry and D Josh Manson) tied the game at 4-4 with a wrister 2:07 into the frame, but that turned out to be Anaheim’s final goal of the night. That set up Nylander’s (Gardiner) second tally of the match to be the game-winner.

A sloppy pass by D Brandon Montour intended for Silfverberg ended up on Gardiner’s stick, and the Leaf knew exactly what to do with the gift. Spotting Nylander tearing towards the offensive zone, the defenseman ripped a perfect blue line-to-blue line pass to set up a one-on-one opportunity for the 21-year-old, which he used to beat G Ryan Miller glove side.

Insurance goals from Matthews (RW Kasperi Kapanen) and Hyman (RW Connor Brown and Matthews) sealed the Leafs’ victory, keeping them within three points of the Bruins in the race for second place in the Atlantic Division.

Though he didn’t start the game, G Curtis McElhinney earned the victory after saving 15-of-16 shots faced (.938 save percentage), leaving the loss to Miller, who saved 33-of-39 (.846). McElhinney replaced G Frederik Andersen with 6:15 remaining in the second period after taking a kick to the head from Perry. He saved 25-of-28 shots faced (.893) for no decision.

Winners of five of the last six games in the DtFR Game of the Day series, the 65-38-15 home teams are absolutely rolling of late. With the Leafs’ victory, the hosts now have a 25-point advantage over the visitors.

January 25 – Day 110 – Daddy’s home!

Unless you’re headed to a game, make sure to sit down in front of your TV tonight because there’s much to be watched!

As hinted at yesterday, the NHL is closing out the unofficial first half of the season with a bang today, as all but Los Angeles is in action (and believe me, the Kings are 100 percent happy with this situation). Like it does most weeknights, the action begins at 7 p.m. with three games (Nashville at New Jersey, Tampa Bay at Philadelphia [SN1] and Minnesota at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by four more (Carolina at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Ottawa [RDS2], Chicago at Detroit [NBCSN] and Washington at Florida). Next up is Colorado at St. Louis in the 8 p.m. time slot, with Toronto at Dallas dropping the puck 30 minutes later. 9 p.m. marks the beginning of a pair of tilts (Calgary at Edmonton and Columbus at Arizona), while three contests (Buffalo at Vancouver, the New York Islanders at Vegas [SN1] and Winnipeg at Anaheim) wait until 10 p.m. to get underway. Finally, the New York Rangers at San Jose close out the evening as the 10:30 p.m. nightcap. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few of tonight’s games that I’ll have my eye on…

  • Minnesota at Pittsburgh: It’s the return of F Matt Cullen to PPG Paints Arena. Time for him to grab his third Stanley Cup ring!
  • Boston at Ottawa: No matter how poor the Sens are this year, it doesn’t take away from their playoff run from a season ago – which began with a six-game series with the Bruins.
  • Chicago at Detroit: Original Six matchups are always fun, right?
  • Colorado at St. Louis: Welcome back to the Gateway City, W Nail Yakupov.
  • Calgary at Edmonton: This rivalry always has the chance of getting truly nasty.

It’s been a while since we’ve featured either the Pens or the Wild, so let’s head to the Steel City.

 

Remember when you were little and you would run to your dad every night when he got home from work?

That’s kind of what happened at the Penguins’ morning skate today when Cullen showed up – and yes, all of them probably did call him “dad.”

Cullen has been a bit of a journeyman over the course of his career. Since being selected 35th-overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by Anaheim (back when they were the Mighty Ducks), he’s worn eight different sweaters, including two stints with both the Hurricanes (with whom he won the 2006 Stanley Cup) and the Wild.

One of those teams is, of course, Pittsburgh. After not being offered a deal after two years in Nashville, he signed a one-year, $800 thousand contract with the Pens to be their fourth-line center, as well as provide a veteran voice in the dressing room, for the 2015-’16 season.

It goes without saying that it was a marvelous relationship. He posted 16-16-32 totals (all top-eight marks on the team that season) from his bottom-six position during the regular season, followed up by decent 4-2-6 marks in the postseason to help the Pens to their fourth Stanley Cup.

In fact, the pairing was so good that General Manager Jim Rutherford offered Cullen another one-year deal to stay with the club for the 2016-’17 season, this time with a $1 million price tag.

The results came up spades once again for Pittsburgh, as the resident father figure posted even better 13-18-31 totals (all top-11 on the squad) in 10 fewer games played, followed by a 2-7-9 effort in the playoffs as the Penguins beat Cullen’s former team for their second-consecutive and fifth-overall title.

However, this offseason wasn’t as simple as the year before’s. Not only did Rutherford have to figure out how to successfully navigate multiple signings, but Cullen was mulling retiring from the NHL. That forced the Penguins to look elsewhere to fill their holes at center on the third and fourth line (with a roller coaster of results, ranging from the highest heights to the lowest lows), making Cullen’s decision on whether he would return to the club or not for him.

With Cullen on the outside looking in, Minnesota General Manager Chuck Fletcher caught wind that he was interested in at least one last ride and signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal to play the same veteran fourth-line center role he did in Pittsburgh.

I can’t vouch for his presence in the dressing room, but the Virginia, Minn. native’s solid performance on the ice has not followed him back to his hometown team. Missing only one game so far this season, Cullen has posted only 4-7-11 totals for .23 points-per-game, well under the .41 he managed in 154 regular season games in Pittsburgh. If he continues scoring at this pace, Cullen is in line for 19 points in 81 games played. It’d be the worst season of his career.

Fortunately for 26-17-5 Minnesota – the sixth-best team in the Central Division – it has 18-9-3 G Devan Dubnyk at its disposal. When he’s on fire like he is right now, he keeps the Wild in every game they play. As a result, Minnesota has earned a point in six-straight games with a 4-0-2 record.

Dubnyk has started four of the Wild’s last six games, and with much success. He’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.73 GAA to improve his season numbers to .919 and 2.59. As a result of his winning ways and the opportunity to play behind a defense that has allowed only a 12th-fewest 30.5 shots against-per-game since January 9, the Wild have allowed a (t)second-best average of 1.83 goals against per game during this solid run.

As mentioned before, Cullen rejoining the Wild was a result of the Penguins turning to other players to fill the third and fourth-line center positions. Currently, those players are C Riley Sheahan and F Jean-Sebastien Dea, and it seems Pittsburgh is starting to find success with them in those positions.

However, the real reason 26-21-3 Pittsburgh – the Eastern Conference’s second wild card – has been wining lately is because of some stellar play in net. Over their past eight games, the Pens have gone 6-2-0 by allowing only 2.13 goals per game, the fourth-best mark in the league since January 5.

Specifically, much of that defensive success has occurred in the crease since the Pens’ defense has allowed 30.88 shots against during this run. Of the three goaltenders that have played since January 5, 2-2-0 G Casey DeSmith has easily been the most impressive and will be in net this evening for the Pens.

In line for the fourth start of his NHL career tonight, DeSmith has posted an imposing .96 save percentage and 1.35 GAA since January 5 in three starts. In fact, he’s been so solid lately that, to make room for 15-12-1 G Matthew Murray returning to the roster, the Penguins sent 9-4-2 G Tristan Jarry back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL instead of him. After starting the season as Jarry’s backup with the Baby Pens this season, that is certainly a major compliment to DeSmith and the potential Head Coach Mike Sullivan sees in him.

The Penguins have already made their annual trip to St. Paul this season, but it is not a trip they look back upon fondly. Minnesota ended up winning the October 28 game 2-1 thanks to First Star C Mikko Koivu‘s game-winning goal at the 9:03 mark of the third period.

If picking winners of games was as simple as choosing the team with the superior overall record, Minnesota would be in line for two points this evening. However, the Wild have a miserable 9-13-1 record on the road this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can perform well away from the State of Hockey.


With an overtime winner from Third Star of the Game LW Tanner Pearson, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Flames’ lone goal of the game was struck with 5:57 remaining in first period, courtesy of Second Star C Sean Monahan (LW Johnny Gaudreau and W Micheal Ferland). The wrist shot is Monahan’s 22nd goal on the season, the most on the club.

Including this game, Calgary’s average of 10:52 penalty minutes per game is fifth-most in the league. The Flames certainly lived up to their reputation, as they served a whopping 22 PIM, including a C Mikael Backlund misconduct. Most of those infractions took place in the second period, as both squads committed four infractions each.

However, the penalty that led to the Kings’ game-tying goal didn’t take place until the 3:23 mark of the final frame when C Mark Jankowski was caught tripping C Anze Kopitar. 46 seconds later, D Jake Muzzin (Kopitar and D Drew Doughty) buried a power play slap shot to tie the game at one-all.

With neither squad able to break the draw, the contest advanced into the five-minute three-on-three overtime period.  Almost all five of those minutes were necessary, but Pearson (Doughty and W Dustin Brown) was able to avoid the shootout with 27 seconds to spare. The main action on the scoring play occurred when Doughty faked a clapper from above the face-off circles. That fake made G Mike Smith commit just long enough that he wasn’t able to react in time when Doughty set up the Pearson wrister, which beat him five-hole.

First Star G Darcy Kuemper earned the victory after saving 30-of-31 shots faced (.968 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Smith, who saved 25-of-27 (.926).

The road teams are coming in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Visitors in the series have won five in a row and earned points in seven-straight, pulling them within 17 points of the 59-36-15 hosts.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #85- Schenn Zen

Nick and Connor breakdown the St. Louis Blues (#SchennZen), Brian Boyle’s success, the Disney deal with 21st Century Fox and preview the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

November 27 – Day 54 – Battle of Pennsylvania

Welcome to the last week of November! I know you think you need to be doing your Christmas shopping, but you have all of December to do that. Instead, sit down this evening and watch some hockey.

If you’re wise and followed my instructions, the NHL has scheduled five games for your viewing pleasure. Two of them (Florida at New Jersey and Philadelphia at Pittsburgh [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) start at 7 p.m., followed by Columbus at Montréal (RDS/TSN2) half an hour later. Minnesota at Winnipeg continues the half-hour intervals by dropping the puck at 8 p.m., as does Anaheim at Chicago, which waits until 8:30 p.m. to close out the evening’s action. All times Eastern.

I know we just featured the Penguins Saturday, but there’s no way we can miss the season’s first iteration of the Battle of Pennsylvania.

 

To keep the story short, there’s only a few things these teams can agree on:

  1. Hockey is a good game.
  2. Pennsylvania is a good state commonwealth.
  3. Mark Recchi is a good guy.

Beyond that, there’s very little these rivals see eye-to-eye about. Of course, what should one expect from teams that have met 316 times in regular or postseason play (played to a 172-114-30 record in favor of Philadelphia, by the way).

Looking at the overall numbers, the Flyers have certainly had their way with this series. In addition to already owning the overall series by almost 60 games, they’ve also beaten Pittsburgh in four of their six playoff series, including winning three-straight from 1989-2000.

You’d think Pittsburgh having players like C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin would have had a way of leveling the playing field for the Pens of late, but every good rivalry has a way of dulling stars’ impact. Even though the Pens swept Philadelphia 8-0-0 during Malkin’s rookie season in 2006-’07, the Flyers have amassed a slightly superior 34-27-8 regular season record against the Penguins since Crosby first donned the black-and-gold.

The difference? Two points.

That’s right, a win by the Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena would level the Battle for Pennsylvania series during the Crosby Era – as if 12-10-3 Pittsburgh needed more motivation than it already had sitting a point outside of the playoff picture.

When we featured the Pens’ game against the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning a couple days ago, I mentioned that one of their problems seemed to be a dry spell by Crosby. Of course, he went out and proved me wrong, as he scored two goals and tacked on another assist to lead G Tristan Jarry to his first-ever NHL victory.

But there’s still another wound to poke on this squad: defense. Pittsburgh has allowed 3.4 goals-per-game this season, which is the fourth-highest in the entire NHL.

That being said, it seems even that problem might slowly be resolving itself. The Penguins search for a backup goaltender has been well documented, with offseason signing Antti Niemi failing miserably and already playing for his third team of the year. Since Jarry has been called up, the goaltending duo of him and starter 11-7-1 G Matthew Murray has found much more consistent play, as they’ve combined for a 2.89 season GAA.

Of course, it still seems probable that General Manager Jim Rutherford will eventually pursue a trade that allows him to send Jarry back to the AHL and resume playing consistently alongside fellow prospect Casey DeSmith, but his solid play has allowed management to take its time and find a good deal instead of rush into a bad decision.

Of course, that’s a discussion for another day, because it’s likely that Murray resumes starting duties this evening.

Compared to his rookie campaign and his 13 starts in 2015-’16, he’s left much to be desired in his first season as Pittsburgh’s undisputed number one, as he’s managed only a .906 save percentage and 2.94 GAA that ranks 14th and 11th-worst, respectively, among the 34 goalies with at least 10 starts.

But Murray is not the only contributor to Pittsburgh’s defensive woes. Even though D Kris Letang leads the team with 17 takeaways and RW Ryan Reaves throws 3.1 hits-per-game, Murray has already faced 595 shots this season, the eighth-most among that group of 34 goalies.

One of the odder things going on in Pittsburgh nowadays is D Ian Cole being a healthy scratch, as he leads the team with 1.8 blocks-per-game. He hasn’t dressed for the past two games, and word on the street from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey is that he’ll watch tonight’s game from the press box.

It’s peculiar that a defenseman so committed to keeping pucks away from his netminder that he’s only managed three points this season is the one being punished. Head Coach Mike Sullivan has yet to publicly show his hand (he claims Cole needs to improve his game), but the longer this goes on, the transaction rumors will only increase.

As for the 8-9-6 Flyers, they wish they were in as enviable a position as Pittsburgh to be unhappy with only being a point outside playoff position. For the umpteenth season in a row, Philly burst out of the starting gate to only find itself six points from the bottom of the conference.

A major reason for this slide has been the Flyers’ play over the second half of November. After beating the Blackhawks 3-1 on November 9, Philadelphia has earned only an 0-3-4 record since.

While the offense hasn’t been very good over this stretch (they’ve managed only 2.14 goals-per-game), it’s been the play on the defensive end that has been the true burden, as the Flyers have allowed 25 goals against in their past seven games.

Much of the responsibility for this struggle falls on the shoulders of 6-5-5 G Brian Elliott, who has started all but one of the games in this stretch for a .909 save percentage and 2.77 GAA that is actually better than his season marks of .905 and 2.85.

Unfortunately, that nominal improvement is simply not good enough behind an offense that scores only 2.83 goals-per-game on the season. Until the other three lines behind Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek decide to play hockey, General Manager Ron Hextall can only look forward to a trip to Dallas for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to see if he can find a skater that can actually contribute (shots fired, F Nolan Patrick).

The reason Murray can put up comparable numbers to Elliott and still win is because of the goal support he receives from RW Phil Kessel, and it’s for that reason that I believe Pittsburgh will snap its two-game losing skid to the Flyers and beat them for the first time since February 25.


Though they needed the shootout to do it, the New York Rangers were able to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Vancouver’s offense was ticking throughout this entire game, as it managed a goal in all three frames. W Loui Eriksson (C Henrik Sedin) took credit for the first period’s marker, burying a wrist shot 7:54 into the game.

The Canucks doubled their lead at the 7:21 mark of the second period courtesy of RW Jake Virtanen‘s third goal of the season, an unassisted wrister. However, this tally did not go unanswered, as Second Star of the Game RW Jesper Fast (D Nick Holden and D Brendan Smith) scored a wrister with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission to pull the Rangers back within a goal.

All the offensive action that ultimately mattered in the third period occurred in the opening 5:05 of the frame. W Michael Grabner (W Mats Zuccarello and D Kevin Shattenkirk) took his turn first, bagging a wrister only 19 seconds after emerging from the dressing room to level the game at two-all. The Rangers weren’t even for long though, as Third Star F Sam Gagner (W Thomas Vanek) returned the lead to Vancouver only 41 seconds later. First Star LW Jimmy Vesey (W Rick Nash and F Kevin Hayes) scored the final goal of regulation at the 5:05 mark, and it was an important one: Vesey’s backhanded shot tied the game at three-all and forced three-on-three overtime and, ultimately, the shootout.

As for how the shootout went down…

  1. Vanek took the opening attempt for the Canucks, but his wrister was saved by G Henrik Lundqvist.
  2. That provided Zuccarello an opportunity to earn a mini-break, but just like Vanek, his wrister was saved by G Jacob Markstrom.
  3. Vancouver’s second shooter was C Bo Horvat, but the shootout remained tied thanks to Lundqvist’s save.
  4. C Mika Zibanejad apparently grew tired of seeing all these saves, as he ensured Markstrom couldn’t get his mitts on his shot by sending it wide of the net.
  5. RW Brock Boeser finally found the first goal of the shootout for the Canucks, which forced a miss-and-lose situation for New York.
  6. Put in a pinch, Head Coach Alain Vigneault turned to Shattenkirk, who hadn’t scored a shootout goal since the 2015-’16 season. The defenseman ended that skid to continue the tiebreaker.
  7. Now in a sudden death situation, F Markus Granlund was sent out to win the game for the Canucks. Lundqvist had other ideas and was there to make the save.
  8. W Pavel Buchnevich‘s offering met the same fate: saved by Markstrom.
  9. LW Sven Baertschi started round five with a bang, as he beat Lundqvist to force New York’s second miss-and-lose situation.
  10. Cool under pressure, Nash sent the shootout on to the sixth round by beating Markstrom.
  11. Though he was able to score in regulation, Gagner couldn’t beat Lundqvist in the shootout.
  12. F J.T. Miller hasn’t scored a goal since November 2, and his luck didn’t change here. His offering was saved by Markstrom.
  13. Another skater, another save: this time, Lundqvist stopped D Ben Hutton in round seven.
  14. He was the one to force overtime, and he was the one to end the shootout: Vesey beat Markstrom to earn two points for the Blueshirts.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 29-of-32 shots faced (.906 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Markstrom, who saved 17-of-20 (.85).

After being on the wrong end of a two-game winning run two days ago, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a two-game winning streak of their own. That has elevated their record to 29-19-6, 10 points better than the visitors’.

October 29 – Day 26 – Welcome to the NHL

With three games on tap today, the last Sunday of October won’t go quietly.

What makes today exciting, especially for fans with access to NHL Game Center, is that all three contests will be played independent of each other. With two hours separating the opening puck drop of each match, inspired hockey fans should be able to devote their entire attention to only one game at a time for almost the entirety of today’s schedule.

Of course, by me saying that, I’m asking for three shootouts today. That’d be my luck.

All three of today’s games are East-West matchups, so – barring a meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals – this is one of only two meetings between the clubs this season. First up is Anaheim’s yearly visit to Carolina at 5 p.m., followed two hours later by Pittsburgh at Winnipeg (NHLN/SN/TVAS) to complete their season series. Finally, Washington at Calgary (SN360) – tonight’s nightcap – finds its start at 9 p.m. to close out today’s festivities. All times Eastern.

After playing in Minnesota last night, the Penguins will be playing a second game in as many days. That means G Casey DeSmith is all but certain to get his first-ever NHL start. Let’s take it in, shall we?

 

DeSmith’s path to the NHL has been a quick but peculiar one. The 26-year-old native of Rochester, N.H. has been playing big kid, organized hockey since his days with the Indiana Ice, a now dormant team in the USHL junior league. Of particular note was that Indiana qualified for the playoffs both years DeSmith was a member of the club and that both postseason appearances ended with him owning a save percentage of at least .922.

After posting a .92 regular season save percentage in 2010-’11 during his second season with the Ice, DeSmith earned the opportunity to play for the University of New Hampshire. DeSmith played three years with the Wildcats, posting .926, .924 and .92 season save percentages in a total of 97 games. He was forced to forgo his senior season after not getting an NCAA waiver to transfer to a new school after being dismissed from the Wildcats for assault charges that were later dismissed.

After sitting out the 2014-’15 season entirely, DeSmith signed a contract with the Wheeling Nailers, Pittsburgh’s ECHL affiliate, and played 13 games in 2016 before being loaned within the Penguins’ system to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. DeSmith performed brilliantly with the Baby Pens to earn a 1.94 GAA and .925 save percentage in six regular season appearances, followed by a .919 save percentage, 2.44 GAA effort in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s nine playoff games before being eliminated from Calder Cup contention.

That strong performance earned DeSmith a full-time role with the Penguins as G Tristan Jarry‘s backup, and he didn’t disappoint. Playing in 29 games in his first full season as a pro, DeSmith posted a .926 season save percentage and 2.01 GAA. in 29 games. Impressive stuff.

Another season, another contract for DeSmith. This offseason, he signed a two-way deal with Pittsburgh to cement himself as the fourth-string goaltender within the Penguins organization behind goaltenders Matthew Murray, Antti Niemi and Jarry.

At the mention of Niemi, it’s now time to discuss why DeSmith is in Winnipeg tonight in the first place. Also signed this offseason, Niemi was brought in to replace fan-favorite G Marc-Andre Fleury as Murray’s backup, but he failed miserably. In only three starts, he allowed a whopping 16 goals for a .797 season save percentage and 7.5 GAA. That led to him being waived and eventually being claimed by the Florida Panthers to fill in for G Roberto Luongo, which created a hole in Pittsburgh’s lineup.

At first, it was expected Jarry would be called up like he was at the end of last season when Murray was injured. After all, one game of NHL experience surely trumps only one full season of AHL play, right?

Apparently not. General Manager Jim Rutherford elected to call up DeSmith instead for two reasons: (1) he wants to ensure Jarry continues to get playing time to further his development (that’s hard to do when earning only one start per week – at most), and (2) DeSmith has been nearly unbeatable to start this season.

In three games, 3-0-0 DeSmith has allowed only three goals against for a .98 GAA. Both his GAA and his .965 save percentage are top-four in the AHL and well superior to Jarry’s 3.18 GAA and .897 save percentage. Throw in his perfect performance against the shootout, and he’s certainly the hot hand in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and worthy of the call up.

Of course, even the worst NHL offense is all but certainly better than the top offense in the AHL, so DeSmith could be in for a long night behind a 7-4-1 Pittsburgh defense that allows a 14th-highest 32.6 shots against-per-game.

Fortunately for him, his first taste of the top hockey league in the world comes against a sputtering 4-3-2 Jets team that manages only a (t)eighth-worst 2.67 goals-per-game on a fourth-fewest 29.6 shots-per-game.

It’s surprising that Winnipeg’s offensive numbers are so low considering it has the incredible RW Patrik Laine at its disposal. Then again, is it any surprise that opposing defenses are concentrating their efforts on 2016’s second-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft that managed 36-28-64 totals in his rookie season? He’s only managed a 4-2-6 effort so far in nine games, but linemate W Nikolaj Ehlers has picked up the slack for the second line with his team-leading six goals.

Instead, it’s been the Jets’ top line – specifically C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler – that has provided most of Winnipeg’s limited offense. Both Scheifele and Wheeler have eight points to their credit to tie for the team lead, so shutting them down will be objective number one for D Ian Cole and the Penguins.

Should expectations be that high for DeSmith tonight? Probably not, though I’m sure he’d love to put his hat in the ring alongside G Oscar Dansk for best unexpected goaltending debut of the 2017-’18 season. In reality, stories like that are few and far between, so I like the Jets to pull things together tonight against a tired Pittsburgh club and earn two points at home.


With three goals in the third period, the Washington Capitals were able to beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-2 at Rogers Place in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This game belonged to Edmonton early, as the Oil had a 2-0 lead with two minutes remaining in the first period courtesy of tallies from LW Patrick Maroon (C Connor McDavid and F Leon Draisaitl) and Third Star of the Game D Adam Larsson (C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and LW Milan Lucic) after firing a game-high 16 shots at G Braden Holtby. That advantage would not last into the first intermission though, as W Devante Smith-Pelly (D John Carlson and Second Star W Alex Ovechkin) cut Edmonton’s lead in half with a snap shot to beat G Cam Talbot with 18 seconds remaining in the first frame.

The lone goal of the second period leveled the game for the Capitals. Just like Smith-Pelly, C Lars Eller (D Madison Bowey and Ovechkin) registered his first goal of the season on a slap shot with 9:28 remaining on the second period clock to set the score at two-all. It wasn’t exactly the best of games for Eller considering he earned two of his three seats in the penalty box for sending the puck over the glass, but hey, he scored, so that’s great.

A player who truly had a great game was First Star C Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored two of Washington’s three goals in the third period. His first, which proved to be the game-winner, was struck only 30 seconds into the frame after assists from Ovechkin and Bowey.

Ovechkin deserves a lot of the credit for the goal, as it was his initial shot from the top of the left face-off circle that did most the work. Seeing Kuznetsov streaking towards Talbot’s crease undefended, he centered the puck in a spot that forced Talbot to attempt to make a save, allowing the center to redirect the shot past the netminder’s right leg.

That wasn’t Kuznetsov’s only trick, as he also buried an unassisted insurance tally with 4:04 remaining in regulation to apply further heat to the Oilers. F Jay Beagle (Eller) tacked on Washington’s final goal with 19 seconds remaining in the game to set the 5-2 final score.

Holtby earned the victory after saving 38-of-40 shots faced (.95 save percentage), leaving the loss to Talbot, who saved 26-of-30 (.867).

The Capitals’ victory is the second straight by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series and pulls the visitors within six points of the 14-8-4 hosts.

October 11 – Day Eight – Second round preview

Now that all the fun of the opening week is behind us, it’s time to get focused for the two-month run to American Thanksgiving.

Don’t think the holiday is that important in the NHL? Maybe this will change your mind.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the five games on the schedule this evening. The action starts at 7:30 p.m. with two contests (New Jersey at Toronto [SN] and Pittsburgh at Washington [NBCSN]), followed two hours later by Boston at Colorado. Fixtures continue to fall in line every half hour as the New York Islanders visit Anaheim at 10 p.m. and tonight’s nightcap, Calgary at Los Angeles, drops the puck 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.

Tonight was supposed to be Brian Boyle‘s return to Toronto, but since his diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia has kept him off the ice to star the season, we’ll delay the celebration of the Leafs’ trip to the second round until his return in mid-November.

Instead, let’s take in one of the NHL’s best rivalries in recent years.

 

If not for the Capitals’ significant roster turnover this offseason, it would have been safe to pencil these two squads into a third-straight meeting in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Then again, given Washington’s 2-0-1 record to lead the Metropolitan Division after a week of play, maybe that assumption isn’t too far off the mark.

What has made Washington so deadly to start the season has been its ultra-efficient offense. Though the Capitals average 4.33 goals-per-game ([t]fourth-best in the NHL), they take the fewest shots-per-game in the league at 25.7.

In effect, the Caps are attacking opposing goalies with scalpels instead of battle axes.

At the head of that attack is head surgeon W Alex Ovechkin (.389 shooting percentage), who’s assisted by American Sniper F T.J. Oshie (.375) – both of whom are in the top-15 of shooting percentage and combine for 10 of Washington’s 13 goals. With two solid centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov feeding them passes, Head Coach Barry Trotz is optimistic his top-two lines won’t miss a beat after the offseason departures of F Marcus Johansson and RW Justin Williams.

Speaking of the title of “American Sniper,” Oshie should look out for Columbus’ LW Sonny Milano and his obnoxious .571 to start his rookie season. The kid’s going places with a shot like that, but we’ll worry about that when the Capitals and Jackets tangle in early December.

Back to our game tonight, Washington has felt its turbulent offseason most within the defensive corps. It’s a good thing G Braden Holtby moonlights as a brick wall, as his career .922 save percentage has been put to the test by facing an average of 37 shots-per-game, the (t)fourth-highest in the league. If the Pens want any chance of beating the reigning Jennings Trophy winner, they’ll need to attack him early and often.

All but two (D Nate Schmidt and D Kevin Shattenkirk) of the goalscorers from the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs have returned to Washington this season. Mentioned above as simply play-makers, Backstrom and Kuznetsov both found much success against Pittsburgh in May, as they both beat former Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury for four goals apiece.

Similarly, only two players (C Nick Bonino and F Matt Cullen) that scored on Holtby last postseason departed Pittsburgh. In particular, Holtby is least looking forward to seeing F Jake Guentzel again, as the 23-year-old scored on him four times five months ago.

The Penguins simply haven’t played the same way twice to start the season (most notably falling flat on their faces in Chicago, losing 10-1), though they’d like to repeat their performance from Saturday when they beat Nashville 4-0.

Beyond simply jumping out to a quick start (F Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal only 66 seconds into the game), Pittsburgh got back to playing a sound defensive game. The Predators managed to fire only 26 shots at G Matthew Murray, far below the Penguins’ average of 34.7 shots-against-per-game.

It was also in that game where the city of Pittsburgh fell in love with RW Ryan Reaves, similar to how St. Louis did seven years ago, as he provided a goal to go with his fights with W Cody McLeod and F Austin Watson. Fans and pundits alike questioned General Manager Jim Rutherford‘s decision to bring in an enforcer, but if he can manage to be a goon with a little bit of touch and put up similar numbers to his 7-6-13 performance last season, he’ll be a welcome addition to this lineup.

This is a tough game to pick, as it seemed the Penguins turned a corner last Saturday and are resuming the form we’ve come to expect from them year in and year out. That being said, I think this Capitals team matches up well against them. No matter how hard Pittsburgh’s defense tries, I believe that either Ovechkin or Oshie will be able to find just the right shot to beat Murray.


In an exciting and emotional night for the city of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights were able to beat the Arizona Coyotes 5-2 to win their first-ever home tilt at T-Mobile Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Knights absolutely blitzed the Coyotes out of the gates, as they scored four of their five goals in 10:42 of play. First up was F Tomas Nosek (F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and D Luca Sbisa) burying a wrist shot 2:31 after puck drop, followed by Second Star of the Game D Deryk Engelland (LW Brendan Leipsic) finding the back of G Antti Raanta‘s net only 107 seconds later. Scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal was none other than Third Star W James Neal (D Brayden McNabb and W David Perron), the same man who has now accounted for all three of Vegas’ winners to begin its inaugural season.

Within this sequence, the puck first made its way towards the goal off a shot by McNabb from the top of the offensive zone. It was casually blocked by D Jason Demers at the top of the crease, but Neal was able to collect the rebound and pivot towards the face-off circle to Raanta’s right. Once he finished his spin, he squeezed his wrister between the goaltender’s blocker and the near post.

But Neal wasn’t done. Thanks to F Mario Kempe interfering with Fleury, Vegas earned a power play that Neal (W Reilly Smith and F Erik Haula) was able to convert with a wrister from the crease to beat a fallen G Louis Domingue five-hole. Though F Tobias Rieder (D Niklas Hjalmarsson) was able to get the Coyotes on the board with 7:23 remaining in the first period, it did little to dampen the spirits of the newborn hockey fans.

After a wild opening frame, the second and third periods were much more tame. C Oscar Lindberg (Leipsic) and D Kevin Connauton (C Derek Stepan and F Clayton Keller) were able to score for Vegas and Arizona, respectively, but their tallies had little impact on the outcome.

Overall, the Knights absolutely dominated this game. To start with, they won 68 percent of face-offs, but they were further helped by sloppy play from the Yotes. Though the statistic is recorded as takeaways, most of Vegas’ 12 steals (led by Smith’s three) were a result of aimless passes from Arizona. The Coyotes supposedly improved on paper this offseason, but this showing was not evident of that.

Fleury earned his third victory in as many games played by saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to Raanta, who saved two-of-five (.4) before being pulled. He was replaced by Domingue 6:15 into the game, and saved 21-of-23 (.913) for no decision.

That’s a fourth-straight win by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, a series that now favors the 5-2-1 hosts by four points.

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

50-21-11, 111 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

Additions: D Matt Hunwick, G Antti Niemi, RW Ryan Reaves

Subtractions: C Nick Bonino (signed with NSH), F Matt Cullen (signed with MIN), D Trevor Daley (signed with DET), G Marc-Andre Fleury (drafted by VGK), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with CBJ), D Ron Hainsey (signed with TOR), LW Chris Kunitz (signed with TBL), C Kevin Porter (signed with BUF), D Mark Streit (signed with MTL), C Oskar Sundqvist (traded to STL), D David Warsofsky (signed with COL)

Offseason Analysis: After hoisting the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, is it ok to just write the Penguins into their third-straight Finals appearance?

To the joy of 30 other fan-bases, I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh is still the class of the Eastern Conference and has its eyes set on a three-peat. Though they had their fair share of departures this offseason, the Penguins return the “Sid and the Kids” line (Jake Guentzel, Captain Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary) as well as the dominant second line of Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, so last year’s best offense will expect to continue its scoring ways.

However, the potential chinks in the armor start appearing in the bottom-six as GM Jim Rutherford had to replace Bonino, Cullen and Kunitz – all of whom appeared in 91 or more regular and postseason games last season. In particular, I’m most concerned about the Pens’ third line center.

What needs to be remembered about recent Penguins third lines is that they don’t fit the typical mold. Few third lines are counted on to provide many goals, instead preferring to slow down the opposing offense. But in Pittsburgh, scoring depth extends beyond the top two lines. Bonino and Kunitz provided a combined 66 points last season from the third line, including 27 markers.

Something tells me Head Coach Mike Sullivan will expect their replacements to perform similarly, but who will they be?

As expected, Sullivan has played around with his bottom two lines throughout camp. In Pittsburgh’s most recent preseason contest, Tom Kuhnhackl, Greg McKegg and Bryan Rust made up the third line with the fourth including Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and Reaves.

Rust can certainly continue the tradition of this new-age third line, but I have my doubts about Kuhnhackl’s career .37 points-per-game and McKegg’s nine points in 65 NHL games. Unless Sullivan gets pleasantly surprised by their performances or accepts a more typical third line, Rutherford might be testing the trade market early.

Considering Hainsey and Streit were trade deadline rentals, Pittsburgh’s main defensive loss was soon-to-be 34-year-old Daley, who managed 5-14-19 totals last season, but 32-year-old Hunwick should be a serviceable replacement having earned 19 points of his own in Toronto last year.

The Penguins also have the luxury of D Kris Letang returning to play. Letang managed only 41 games last year before his campaign was cut short by a mid-season neck injury. Though his 11-year career has been dotted with injuries, Letang has been a potent force when on the ice. He manages .83 points-per-game, including .259 power play points-per-game, for his career and will be a welcome reintroduction to a defensive corps that scored 177 points last season – the most of any Eastern Conference blue line.

Pens fans, you know what we have to discuss next. Ready tissues.

We turn our attention to Pittsburgh’s crease, a spot the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft will no longer occupy. Instead, it is his protégé Matthew Murray that will assume the true starting role with Niemi as his backup as compared to last year’s “1A-1B” tactic.

Though it’s a bizarre idea to question a goalie that won two Stanley Cups before playing his second NHL season, I’m intrigued to see how Murray responds to undoubtedly being “the guy” for Pittsburgh. Gone are the days of a more-than-competent backup (sorry Niemi, but you’re not impressing anybody with your 2016-’17 .892 save percentage) to fall back on, so all the responsibility rests firmly on Murray’s shoulders. Judging from his 32-10-4 record last season, he’ll react just fine.

Offseason Grade: D

If a “C” is average, the Penguins have to score below it for simply not doing enough to solidify their third line. Maybe McKegg can surprise, but a team trying to win its third-straight Stanley Cup should not be taking such a risk on one of the main things that separates it from the competition. If Rutherford misses on his roll of the dice, the selling price for a viable piece could have dire consequences for the future.

April 4 – Day 167 – Who gets Game 7?

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

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

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

Short list:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hockey Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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