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2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 NHL Entry Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pending Free Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preds force Game 7 with 4-0 victory

 

With First Star of the Game F Filip Forsberg and Third Star W Viktor Arvidsson splitting the goals and Second Star G Pekka Rinne posting a 34-save shutout, the Nashville Predators took Game 6 4-0 at Bell MTS Place against the Winnipeg Jets to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in three days.

Arvidsson wasted no time in finding his first tally, but the path he took to scoring the game-winner could probably be cleaned up a little. Arvidsson advanced into the offensive zone with the puck along the left boards, but his drive towards G Connor Hellebuyck‘s net was cut short by D Dustin Byfuglien, who sent the Swede sliding into the boards from the goal line.

F Ryan Johansen wound up with the puck, skating into the corner before slinging the puck back to D Roman Josi at the point. Josi slung a high snap shot towards the net, but before it could reach Hellebuyck, Arvidsson found a way to get involved in the play once again by falling to avoid the puck in the high slot. While it seemed like he was trying to avoid the shot and protect his face with the middle of his stick, he instead deflected the shot past Hellebuyck’s glove.

Equipment near the face is usually evidence enough for officials to declare a shot was played with a high stick, and that’s the way this play was originally called. However, replay proved that Arvidsson had fallen in time to get his stick under the crossbar, giving Nashville the advantage only 1:02 into the tilt.

After that, the first period was all about Rinne. Even though both sides fired 10 shots on goal in the opening 20 minutes, Predators skaters committed three penalties (including two within 2:28 of each other) to provide the Jets multiple shots at some stellar scoring opportunities. Rinne stood tall though, maintaining his club’s one-goal advantage into the first intermission.

Assigned the role of scoring the insurance goals, Forsberg did his best to make his braces exciting to dissuade the Winnipeg Whiteout from reigniting the Jets. At the 8:06 mark of the second period, Forsberg (F Craig Smith and Johansen) blocked a D Tyler Myers slap shot into the left corner at the cost of his stick. Instead of staying in the defensive zone, he immediately reported to his bench to grab a fresh twig while making sure to stay behind the blue line.

That attention to detail yielded incredible dividends, as he ended up on the receiving end of a breakaway pass from Smith, setting him up for a one-on-one against Hellebuyck that he capitalized on with a wrist shot from the slot.

Instead of the goaltenders, defense proved to be the other major story of the second frame. Winnipeg yielded only six other shots on goal in that period other than Forsberg’s wrister, trailed only slightly by the Preds allowing nine Jets offerings.

Nashville’s defense wasn’t very pretty, but it was certainly effective. Even though the Predators gave the puck away 16 times in this game (D Mattias Ekholm and Josi “leading” the way with four turnovers apiece), they blocked a whopping 23 shots, including Josi’s four.

If Nashville hadn’t yet taken full control of the game, Forsberg’s (Arvidsson and Josi) second goal of the night – struck at the 5:55 mark of the final period -certainly did the trick.

Remember back with me, if you will, to April Fool’s Day. That night, the San Jose Sharks visited the Vegas Golden Knights where C William Karlsson proceeded to score what will likely go down as the goal of the regular season by pulling the puck between his legs to flip a shot behind G Martin Jones.

Forsberg did almost the exact same thing with this marker, but from a stationary position instead of sliding across the crease. That made the direction of where the can-opener shot would go even more unpredictable for Hellebuyck, who could only watch as the puck trickled past him.

Arvidsson (Forsberg) completed the Preds’ scoring with 4:02 remaining, scoring a backhanded shot on an empty net to set the 4-0 final score.

Of note in this game, former-captain C Mike Fisher played only five shifts in the first period before being forced to the dressing room with 5:43 remaining on the clock. Head Coach Peter Laviolette did not have an update on his condition during his post-game press conference, so his status for Game 7 is undetermined.

The seventh and final game of this Western Semifinal will take place Thursday, May 10 at 8 p.m. Eastern inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Fans have no excuse to miss this game, as it will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Jones Shuts Out Knights; Evens Series at 2

 

 

 

 

 

The San Jose Sharks got quality goaltending from Martin Jones and buried the Vegas Golden Knights 4-0 to send the series back to Las Vegas tied at two.  Jones had 34 saves on the night and bested Knights goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who seemingly had Sharks circling him all night long.  The loss was the first shutout loss in the playoffs for the Knights.

The Sharks’ first goal came off of an impressive skating exhibition by Marcus Sorensen who outmaneuvered four of the Sharks skaters and Fleury to put the puck top shelf with under five minutes left in the first period.  The Knights felt there was interference (effectively a pick on one of their defending players), but the referees apparently felt otherwise.

The Sharks may not have got back Joe Thornton, but they did get back Joonas Donskoi and he didn’t waste time getting back on the scoresheet.  In the dying minutes of the first period, Donskoi skated down the ice with two Knights back to defend, but managed to shoot the puck through Brayden McNabb‘s legs and Fleury had no hope to stop it.  Fleury managed 30 saves and was better than his save percentage might suggest on the night.

In the second period, Tomas Hertl cashed in on chaos in front of Fleury after a shot by Mikkel Boedker.  At that point, it was all over but the shouting.  “Little” Joe Pavelski would add a power play goal in the third and that was the final nail in the coffin.

This was the first game of the series where the Sharks had a better Corsi-For percentage than the Knights.   The Sharks looked faster than Vegas and the Knights seemed unable to establish the forecheck.  The Vegas power play went 0-for-5 and they have to be a little concerned by the lack of offense.  James Neal still only has one goal for the series.   The Sharks have evened the series without much from Evander Kane to this point.

With that said, Vegas regained home ice advantage in Game 3 and now they head home for a critical Game 5.  They have to generate more offense and part of that has to come on the power play.  If they can do that and/or have Fleury play out of his mind, they have a good change.  But if they continue being out skated by San Jose and allowing the Sharks to take shots from high danger areas, the clock will strike midnight for Cinderella.

Both power plays roll, Vegas wins 4-3

 

 

 

 

 

Having suffered their first-ever playoff loss Saturday, the Vegas Golden Knights rebounded in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Second Round to beat the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in overtime at SAP Center to reclaim a one-game advantage in their series.

Play was back-and-forth across all 200 feet of the rink in the opening 10 minutes, but San Jose certainly had the upper hand in terms of shots on goal. The Sharks’ nine scoring attempts easily eclipsed Vegas’ four, but First Star of the Game G Marc-Andre Fleury was more than up to the task of keeping that attack at bay.

Soon after, action turned decidedly in the Sharks’ favor as the Golden Knights struggled to get the puck into their attacking third. Starting at the 9:24 mark, the Knights went 5:54 without firing a shot on G Martin Jones in the second half of the first frame, due in large part to some stellar play by San Jose in the neutral zone. The only reason that skid came to an end is due to W Mikkel Boedker sending the puck over the glass, taking a delay of game penalty and giving Vegas a power play.

Further proving San Jose’s defensive abilities, it yielded only one shot against on that man-advantage.

However, no matter how well San Jose controlled play in the first period (the Sharks’ final shot differential for the frame read 16-10), the game remained scoreless at the first intermission. As such, the frame belonged to Fleury, who saved all 16 of those shots as a part of his 39-for-42 save performance (.929 save percentage).

That tie finally came undone at the 6:59 mark of the second period when W Timo Meier (C Chris Tierney and Boedker) scored a power play wrist shot. Taking advantage of W William Carrier committing a tripping penalty against Boedker 1:31 earlier, the Sharks completed some excellent one-time passes to set Meier up for a tic-tac-goal from the right face-off circle.

Meier’s was the first of three-consecutive power play goals scored in the third period, but unfortunately for the teal-clad fans, the next two belonged to the visiting Knights.

D Colin Miller (W James Neal and W David Perron) tied the game only 2:41 after Meier’s goal with a power play wrister, taking advantaged of D Brenden Dillon‘s holding penalty against Perron at the 7:56 mark.

Known for his scoring ability, Neal drew a lot of attention once he ended up with possession along the goal line to Jones’ left. With Sharks swarming towards him, he crossed a centering pass to Miller across the crease, who then returned a wrister towards the far post to give Vegas its first lead of the night.

With the Knights’ second power play unit striking gold for the club’s first goal, it was first unit that got its time to shine when Third Star F Tomas Hertl was caught roughing Neal with 7:13 remaining in the second period. F Jon Marchessault (RW Alex Tuch and W Reilly Smith) buried a wrister only 22 seconds after Hertl took his seat in isolation to give Vegas a 2-1 advantage.

The Golden Knights had one more trick up their sleeves in the third period, but this one they managed to pull off under even-strength conditions. Smith (Second Star C William Karlsson and Marchessault) set the score at 3-1 only 1:17 after Marchessault’s marker with a slick backhanded shot on Karlsson’s centering pass, his first marker of this postseason.

However, these Sharks were far from ready to turn their attention to Game 4 just yet. Though they officially failed to capitalize on D Jonathon Merrill‘s crosscheck against D Dylan DeMelo at the 5:45 mark of the third period, LW Evander Kane‘s (D Brent Burns and DeMelo) wrister 2:04 later was completed before the defenseman could rejoin play. Kane fired his shot from the right face-off dot, beating Fleury over his glove.

Vegas Head Coach Gerard Gallant challenged for goaltender interference against F Logan Couture, but it was ruled that the screening forward was outside the crease and enough time had passed since any previous contact that Fleury was able to recollect himself to prepare for the save on Kane’s wrister.

It also didn’t help that much of the previous contact was due to Fleury crosschecking Couture in the back when he had been in the crease, but those facts are neither here nor there since Fleury came out on the winning side of things.

As for forcing overtime, San Jose did that with 1:57 remaining in regulation when Hertl (D Justin Braun and RW Kevin Labanc) somehow sneaked a wrister past basically every skater on the ice and used them as screens against Fleury. After D Deryk Engelland blocked Braun’s shot from just above the crease, Fleury had no idea where the puck went until it ended up behind him.

In terms of shots on goal, overtime was an even affair considering both squads managed three shots on goal apiece. However, it was Vegas’ third and final offering that earned it the victory.

Karlsson (Neal and Marchessault) provided that breakaway snap shot at the 8:17 mark of the overtime period.

A quick stretch pass is all the Golden Knights needed to set up the league’s third-best goalscorer from the regular season. Marchessault’s pass from the right corner found Neal at Vegas’ defensive blue line, and the runner-up in last year’s Stanley Cup Final dumped a pass to the game-winner at the red line before sitting back and watching him do the rest of the work. Karlsson turned on the NOS to set up a one-on-one against Jones, firing his snapper from the top of the right face-off circle to beat the netminder to the far post.

Game 3 was an important match for the Golden Knights, as they’ve now reclaimed home-ice advantage in this playoff series. Jones and the Sharks now face the difficult task once again of needing to win a game at T-Mobile Arena – the very place they lost 7-0 in Game 1.

Puck drop for Game 4 from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. is scheduled for May 2 at 10 p.m. Eastern. The match will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.

Undisciplined Knights take first playoff loss

 

 

 

 

After losing Game 1 7-0, the San Jose Sharks have miraculously stolen home ice away from the Vegas Golden Knights after a Game 2 4-3 double-overtime victory at T-Mobile Arena.

Between its inability to stay out of the penalty box and lack of success at defensive zone face-offs, it’s almost a surprise Vegas was able to extend this game to the 85:13 it lasted.

As for the former note, no Golden Knight takes as much responsibility for his club playing shorthanded as W David Perron. He took a game-high six penalties in minutes, all for unruly infractions like slashing (against D Brenden Dillon with 3:56 remaining in the first period), holding the stick (against D Dylan DeMelo 1:56 into the second period) and roughing (against the aforementioned Dillon with 6:36 remaining in the second period).

Fortunately for Perron, only one of his infractions ended up costing the Knights a power play goal – but it was a big one, considering it started the Sharks’ trend of success off set plays. On the immediate face-off in Vegas’ defensive zone following Perron’s infraction against DeMelo, F Joe Pavelski won the scrum and fed the puck to Third Star of the Game D Brent Burns, who ripped a nasty slap shot from the blue line – with the help of a lucky bounce off F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare‘s skate – past G Marc-Andre Fleury‘s right pad, snapping the netminder’s perfect 144:04 goalless streak.

Burns’ goal set the score at 2-1, canceling out one of Second Star C William Karlsson‘s two markers. The Swede potted his first of the night (D Colin Miller and D Nate Schmidt) on a snap shot with 2:01 remaining in the first period, capitalizing on a missed slap shot-turned-assist by Miller that bounced off the endboards and right into his lap.

Karlsson’s offering was the Knights’ fifth and final shot of the first period, as the Sharks’ defense was doing an excellent job all night keeping the hosts’ attack at bay. In the more than 85 minutes played all night, Vegas managed only 29 shots on G Martin Jones – well below the (t)10th-most 32.8 shots on goal per game it averaged all regular season. Of those, he saved 26 for a .897 save percentage.

In a mirror image of registering his club’s last shot of the first frame, Karlsson also fired the Golden Knights’ first shot on goal of the second period, and he found just as much success. Only 26 seconds into the frame, he set the score at 2-0 with a snapper assisted by W Reilly Smith that probably should not have reached the back of the net. Jones was late sealing off the near post, allowing the puck to barely squeak past his arm to set off the T-Mobile Arena goal horn.

As for how Vegas overcame its shortcomings, one needs look no further than the goaltending crease. Though he is the only player judged by a personal win-loss record, Fleury absolutely stood on his head in this contest just like he has in his last five playoff showings. The man nicknamed “Flower” did not wilt under the Sharks’ pressure, as he saved 43-of-47 shots faced for a .915 save percentage.

That being said, the second period was a tough one for him, as it was in those 20 minutes that he let in all three of his regulation goals against. Not only was Burns’ marker part of that total, but so too was First Star F Logan Couture‘s (F Tomas Hertl) snapper with 8:52 remaining in the period and Burns’ (W Timo Meier and Pavelski) wrap-around 2:59 after.

Just like his first goal of the game, Burns’ second was also the result of another set play from the face-off dot. Pavelski won the draw and shoved the puck to Meier, who quickly dished to San Jose’s favorite defenseman so he could get to work. Burns rumbled up the right boards and into the trapezoid, eventually getting rewarded with a gaping cage when Meier literally crashed into Fleury’s left post. Head Coach Gerard Gallant challenged for goaltender interference, but it was ruled he was shoved by a Golden Knight and was not responsible for any contact he made with the netminder.

For those keeping score at home, Perron was also in the box for this goal against, but Dillon took a corresponding roughing penalty to even play at four-on-four.

Anyways, that left the score at 3-2 going into the second intermission (during which it was revealed the Buffalo Sabres will be drafting first overall and the Carolina Hurricanes won the lottery by jumping up nine spots into the second pick at the NHL Entry Draft), and that’s where it remained at the midway point of the third period.

Having yet to experience a playoff loss, the Vegas crowd was beginning to grow antsy – that is until Schmidt (D Shea Theodore and F Erik Haula) took a page out of Burns’ book and ripped an impressive clapper from the blue line following a resumption of play.

The play was a mirrored-image of Burns’ second tally, as Perron won the draw and shoved the puck to Haula along the boards, who returned the play to Theodore at the point. The defensemen quickly connected after that, allowing Schmidt to line up a perfect clapper past Jones’ blocker to tie the game at three-all.

Some excellent goaltending extended this game into the second overtime period. In total, 16 shots on goal were fired in the frame between the Golden Knights and Sharks, but none found the back of the net thanks to the incredible play of Fleury and Jones.

Well, that’s technically not true.

F Jon Marchessault thought he had scored the game-winning goal with 3:02 remaining in the first overtime period, but it was ruled he interfered with Jones in the blue paint and inhibited his ability to make a play on the shot. That took the score off the board and left the game raging on into the cool desert night.

The contest finally reached its end at the 5:13 mark of the second overtime when Couture (RW Kevin Labanc and Burns) took advantage of D Jonathon Merrill‘s hooking penalty against Meier to bury a power play wrister behind Fleury.

Completing the theme of the night, Couture’s play was the direct result of Hertl’s face-off victory only moments before. After the play was set up with Burns at the point, he dished to Labanc heading towards the right face-off dot. The sophomore would have been well within his rights to attempt a shot through traffic, but he instead elected to sling a pass through the zone to Couture at the opposite dot, who elevated his writer over Fleury’s blocker.

With the exception of another stellar performance by the three-time Stanley Cup champion, Vegas has only itself to blame for this loss. Perron and the Golden Knights will need to put an emphasis on staying out of the penalty box in their upcoming games, especially considering the next two are away from the comforts of home.

After a quick 90-minute flight from Sin City to San Jose, Game 3’s puck drop is scheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern on Monday, April 30. Hockey fans that can’t snag one of the 17,562 tickets into The Shark Tank that night should tune their televisions to CBC, NBCSN or TVAS.

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.

Costly penalties abound; Jackets win 4-3 in overtime

 

In a contest filled with a combined 29 penalty minutes and four power play goals, the Columbus Blue Jackets earned a 4-3 overtime victory to beat the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena in Game 1 of their first round matchup.

With the exception of this being the first overtime match of the 2018 postseason, easily the biggest story coming out of this game is RW Josh Anderson‘s boarding penalty against D Michal Kempny with 2:37 remaining in the first period. Kempny struggled to return to his skates after the hit and never returned to the game, earning Anderson a match penalty (and a probable call from the Department of Player Safety if D Drew Doughty‘s one-game suspension is any indication) and the Capitals a five-minute power play.

Having managed only four shots on goal in their first two power plays against Columbus’ (t)fifth-worst regular season penalty kill, Second Star of the Game F Evgeny Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands to score two goals in the first 58 seconds of Anderson’s infraction. Both markers, which set the score at 2-0, were a result of primary apples from C Nicklas Backstrom and hockey assists by Third Star D John Carlson.

However, the man-advantage didn’t just favor the hosts, as the Blue Jackets also earned themselves a pair of power play markers in the third period – including the tally that forced overtime.

RW Tom Wilson was caught charging D Ryan Murray 1:18 into the third period, and W Thomas Vanek (F Pierre-Luc Dubois and First Star LW Artemi Panarin) needed only 13 seconds of the man-advantage to tie the game at 2-2 with a wrist shot (C Alexander Wennberg [F Boone Jenner and Vanek] got the Jackets on the board with a second period even-strength goal).

Even though Washington regained a one-goal lead at the 5:12 mark when W Devante Smith-Pelly (LW Jakub Vrana and Carlson) scored a wrister, another Capitals penalty – this one an W Andre Burakovsky tripping infraction against D Seth Jones – proved to really send the hosts off the rails.

Burakovsky was sent to the sin bin with 5:05 remaining in regulation with a two-minute sentence, but Jones (Panarin and RW Cam Atkinson) – the very man he tripped – found it in him to post his bail after serving only 39 seconds of confinement by scoring a wrister.

Forgiveness is a fickle thing in the NHL, isn’t it?

Speaking of forgiveness, the Capitals will be begging for it from Head Coach Barry Trotz before too long considering how easily Panarin (D Ian Cole and Dubois) was able to get into position to rip his overtime wrister over G Philipp Grubauer‘s left shoulder.

Upon receiving Cole’s falling pass from Columbus’ zone, Panarin sped along the left boards – dodging D Dmitry Orlov in the process – to end up on Grubauer’s front porch. Instead of being patient and attempting to drag the play across the crease, Panarin elected to elevate his wrister from the slot to beat the netminder to the far post.

G Sergei Bobrovsky earned the victory after saving 27-of-30 shots faced (.9 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Grubauer, who saved 23-of-27 (.852).

With the obvious goal of limiting penalties in Game 2, the energy levels of both teams – specifically Columbus’ offense and Washington’s defense – will be of much interest. Playing almost the entire game short a skater can be extremely taxing, and everyone involved will surely be grateful for the extra day off before returning to Capital One Arena.

Speaking of Game 2,  it’s scheduled for Sunday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. For those that can’t make it to Capital One Arena, the tilt will be broadcast on NBCSN, SN360 and TVAS2.

April 5 – Day 176 – From green jackets to Blue

To commemorate the final Thirsty Thursday of the regular season, make sure to pour one out for the best day of the hockey week. Fortunately, that should be pretty easy to do considering there’s a dozen games spread out across the continent.

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with five contests (Toronto at New Jersey, the New York Rangers at the New York Islanders, Carolina at Philadelphia, Nashville at Washington [NBCSN] and Pittsburgh at Columbus), followed half an hour later by two more (Montréal at Detroit [RDS/TSN2] and Boston at Florida [TVAS]). Calgary at Winnipeg drops the puck at 8 p.m., while Vegas at Edmonton (SN1) waits an hour before doing just the same. Next up is Arizona at Vancouver (SN360) at 10 p.m., with tonight’s co-nightcaps – Minnesota at Los Angeles and Colorado at San Jose – cleaning up the festivities 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.

There’s rivalries galore tonight!

  • New York at New York: The Battle of New York looked so good at the beginning of the season, but neither team was able to maintain that positive energy and make the playoffs.
  • Pittsburgh at Columbus: Pens fans don’t want to admit that this is a rivalry, but important games like this one might be just the trick to change their minds.
  • Montréal at Detroit: It’s the penultimate Original Six matchup of the season.
  • Calgary at Winnipeg: This rivalry might be dated, but the Jets just might run up the score for fun anyways.

Even though it’s not on national television, there’s only one game worthy of begin watched after the first round of The Masters is done. In fact, it just so happens to be taking place in Jack Nicklaus’ hometown.

 

The past month has been pure bliss for Ohioan hockey fans, as the 45-29-6 Blue Jackets have gone on a 13-1-1 record to improve from outside the playoff picture to competing for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

The biggest reason for that success has been Columbus’ unstoppable offense – specifically the spectacular play of the first line. Combined, LW Artemi Panarin, F Pierre-Luc Dubois and RW Cam Atkinson have managed incredible 25-36-61 totals since March 4 to lead the Jackets to averaging a league-best 4.27 goals per game in that time.

Of those three, Panarin is certainly deserving of the most attention. Though all three members of the top line are averaging at least a point per game over their last 15 outings (Dubois barely makes the grade with his 6-9-15 marks), the Russian has been the class of the bunch with his 9-18-27 totals sine March 4, averaging 1.8 points per game in that time to improve his season numbers to 27-53-80 – new career-highs in assists and points with two games left to play.

Another major player on this offense has been D Seth Jones – to the point that he might as well be considered a fourth member of the first line. Since March 4, he’s posted impressive 6-10-16 totals (16-41-57 overall), with all but three of those points occurring with at least one member of the top line also participating on the play.

One team that knows all about that story of resurgence is the 45-29-6 Penguins, who were also falling on on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff early in the season. Since then, Pittsburgh has climbed into the second position in the division that Columbus is searching for, and it has done its best to hold onto that spot with a 2-1-0 record in the past week.

The position most under the microscope in Pittsburgh lately (you know, other than the gaping hole in center field that should be occupied by Andrew McCutchen if not for Robert Nutting’s questionable business practices) has been the Penguins’ goaltending. Completing his comeback from another injury, 26-16-3 G Matt Murray looks like he is rounding back into form just in time for another playoff run. In his past three starts, Murray has managed a .912 save percentage and 2.67 GAA – both marks that are well better than his season numbers of .907 save percentage and 2.9 GAA.

Of course, Murray will be facing arguably his toughest test tonight since returning to action on March 20. Any help he can get from his defense – which has allowed a 13th-best 30.33 shots against per game since March 29 – will go a long way towards Pittsburgh stealing another win at Nationwide Arena.

With both teams tied at 96 points with two games remaining, saying this is a huge fixture just might be the understatement of the season. With 43 regulation+overtime wins to Columbus’ 39, the Penguins have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Jackets should it be necessary at the end of the campaign. As such, a regulation win tonight would clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division for Pittsburgh – the same position from which it has won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Of course, that means anything better than a regulation loss keeps the Blue Jackets alive for swiping second, but the fact that their final game of the season is in Nashville compared to the Penguins hosting the D Erik Karlsson-less Senators makes this even more of a must-win for Columbus.

Unfortunately, tonight’s opponent hasn’t exactly been very generous to Columbus all season, as Pittsburgh has swept the Blue Jackets through the first three meetings this year – even if a couple of those games were won by the skin of its teeth beak.

Similar to the potential playoff series between these clubs, Games 1 and 2 both took place in the Steel City before transitioning west for the second half of the series. They first met on December 21, playing to a 3-2 shootout victory (F Evgeni Malkin earned First Star honors for his regulation and shootout goals). The Jackets were back in Pittsburgh only six days later, but they once again fell in a shootout – this time by a 5-4 final score (Malkin stole headlines again with three points and another shootout goal).

Most recently, the Penguins made the trip to Nationwide Arena on February 18, claiming a dominant 5-2 victory on the back of C Riley Sheahan‘s two-goal effort.

It feels weird to say, but with every offense in the NHL chasing Columbus’ lately, the Penguins’ attack might have to work to keep up in this tilt should Murray be unable to keep the Jackets’ top line under control. Since I have to make a pick, I think the Blue Jackets earn two points tonight.


With their 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Honda Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth-consecutive season.

All credit goes to the goaltenders for keeping the first frame a scoreless affair. Even though First Star of the Game G Ryan Miller faced 13 Wild shots and G Devan Dubnyk faced 11 Anaheim offerings, both nets remained empty.

Thanks to C Ryan Getzlaf tripping F Mikael Granlund 5:16 into the second period, that scoreless draw ended at the 6:08 mark courtesy of D Mathew Dumba (D Jonas Brodin and W Jason Zucker) burying a power play slap shot. Minnesota’s one-goal advantage lasted 6:47 before LW Nick Ritchie (D Francois Beauchemin and Third Star D Josh Manson) leveled the game with a snap shot.

Another pair of goals were registered in the third period, but much to the disappointment of Minnesotans everywhere, they both belonged to the Ducks. Second Star W Ondrej Kase (Manson and C Adam Henrique) takes credit for the first, as he tapped home a shot with 3:56 remaining in regulation to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Not every goal is a pretty one, but Kase isn’t complaining with his 20th tally of the season – not a bad mark for an NHL sophomore playing on a third line. Manson fired an initial clapper from the point, but Dubnyk was able to make a miraculous save considering all the bodies he had to track the puck through (I counted at least two, but would accept arguments as high as five). However, pads aren’t very good at preventing saves from becoming juicy rebounds, which is exactly what led to Kase completing the play with a tip-in.

Now facing a deficit with little time remaining on the clock, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to pull Dubnyk for the extra attacker. That left the Wild’s net wide open, allowing F Andrew Cogliano (W Jakob Silfverberg and Beauchemin) to score his 11th goal of the season to set the 3-1 final score with 2:13 remaining.

Miller earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (.963 save percentage), leaving the loss to Dubnyk, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).

Anaheim’s win is the third in a row for home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The series’ hosts now have an imposing 101-54-21 record that is 50 points better than the visitors’.