Tag Archives: Killorn

Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to review:

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

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

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

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

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

Deal(t) with the Devil: Tampa fends off scrappy New Jersey to take Game 1

 

Funny thing, hockey.

In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.

In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?

Well. Color me interested.

The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.

New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.

Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.

First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.

The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.

Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.

Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.

Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.

With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.

Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.

The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.

The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.

Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.

The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.

Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.

Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.

But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.

*The other was Andy Greene

Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?

Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.

Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.

Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.

Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.

At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.

The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.

First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.

Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.

Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.

Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.

Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.

Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.

Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 22

Skater of the Week: Brad Marchand

Yeah, I know, it hurts me to do it. But eight points in three games is a tough stat line to argue against.

*leans away from microphone looking off to stage right* THAT’LL BE ENOUGH OUT OF YOU, @nlanciani53! WE KNOW HE’S GOOD, WE JUST REALLY HATE HIS FACE!

Anyway, here’s how the ‘Little Ball of Hate’ earned the nod for the week.

Marchand started the week by single-handedly ruining the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, racking up three goals and two assists (one of each on the power play) for a five-point night, and tacked on the game-winner for good measure. Then on Thursday he notched a single goal against Philadelphia, with it also being the game-winning tally. Then he capped the week with a pair of ‘apples’ on Saturday to finish off the week with a 50/50 split of four goals and four assists.

Also he possibly tried to murder Anthony Duclair maybe.

Brad Marchand, folks.

Tendy of the Week: Cam Talbot

The Oilers have suddenly remembered how to hockey. It’s a bit late, but hey, good on ’em.

Talbot has, like basically everyone in Edmonton not wearing #97, had a bit of a forgettable year. Currently carrying a .906 save percentage and 3.03 GAA, but sporting a near-.500 record, Talbot’s stats are basically a microcosm of the year the Oilers are having. In fact, his three-straight wins this week directly followed three-straight losses.

But for now we’re focusing on those three wins, as I’m sure all of Edmonton would like to do. Talbot carries a .949 and 1.61 out of the week with him, stopping 94-of-99 shots faced. He did start the week with three goals against on Monday when Arizona visited Rogers Place, but still managed a .914 save percentage on 35 shots. After that he basically completely shut down both the Islanders on Thursday (one goal on 31 shots) and Wild on Saturday (one goal on 33 shots).

It’s definitely a case of too little too late in Edmonton, but a strong finish to the season could give the team, organization, and fans a much-needed morale boost heading into the offseason.

Besides, regardless of where they finish in the standings, we know they’re winning the draft lottery…

Game of the Week: Florida Panthers 4 @ Tampa Bay Lightning 5 (OT), Tuesday March 6th, 2018

If you like hockey games that have a little bit of everything, go watch the condensed game highlights of this one.

Nine goals on 82 shots, 56 hits (evenly split at 28 per team), a fight, a hat trick, and a beautiful overtime winner in a tilt between two in-state rivals. Definitely a candidate for game of the year.

You’d have never guessed there would be nine goals scored if you just watched the first half of the first period. Both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Roberto Luongo were fully on their game, and both goaltenders made multiple standout saves just in the opening minutes alone. In particular, Vasi’s early denial of Nick Bjugstad on a two-on-one and Luongo’s breakaway glove snag on J.T. Miller stand out.

Also early in the first period we had a scrap between the Lightning’s Braydon Coburn, who is 6’5″ and 223 lbs., and Michael Haley, who is neither of those things. Haley, the NHL’s penalty minutes leader this season, more than held his own in a fairly uneventful scrap, but it certainly got the crowd at Amalie Arena into the game.

Finally first blood would be drawn at the 10:38 mark, when Yanni Gourde would pounce on an off-the-glass rebound at the side of the net before Luongo could locate the puck and put the Lightning on top. Vasilevskiy would make a pair of outstanding stops on consecutive shots from Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov to keep the score 1-0, eventually allowing Miller to take a Gourde centering pass from behind the goal line and roof a backhand over the glove of Luongo to extend the Tampa lead to 2-0 at the 12:51 mark. Although being outshot 15-8, the Lightning would nearly survive the first with their lead unblemished, but with just 1:37 to play it would be Bjugstad firing one from the goal line to Vasilevskiy’s left that ricocheted off the goaltender’s shoulder and into the net behind him, sending the two teams to the locker rooms with the score at 2-1.

The second period would see a much faster start, as once again Yanni Gourde (recording his third point in three Tampa goals) put his entire heart and soul into a turnaround wrist shot from the right circle that beat Luongo high glove and put his Lightning up 3-1 just 1:27 into the second. A good chunk of the second would pass rather uneventfully (sans a great save by Luongo on Nikita Kucherov) before Bjugstand would walk out from the corner with Steven Stamkos all over him, drive to the crease and bang home his own rebound to bring the Panthers within one again at the 13:35 mark. But less than three minutes later the lead would stretch again as Alex Killorn picked up a juicy rebound off of a Stamkos one-timer and send the game to its final intermission with a 4-2 score in favor of the home team.

The two-goal lead would last just 21 seconds into the third period, as Bjugstad would bury his third of the game to cut the deficit in half. After an Andrej Sustr tripping penalty a few minutes later, Vincent Trocheck would finally knot the score with a power play wrister from the right circle, beating Vasilevskiy just between the glove and left pad. 4-4 would remain the score through the end of regulation, despite the best efforts of the Panthers who would total 16 third period shots to Tampa’s 11, though a tipped Sustr point shot finding Luongo’s left goal post was probably the closest call of the rest of the third. But, alas, off to overtime we’d go.

A fairly tame start to OT would give way to serious offensive zone pressure by Tampa right around the midway point of the frame. Anton Stralman nearly ended things with a one-timer fired at a gaping net, but it would hit the outside of the post and be collected in the corner by Tyler Johnson. Johnson would give it back to Stralman, who saw an open Brayden Point (waving every available limb and utensil frantically) waiting just inside the right circle. Point would receive the pass, absolutely dance a charging Evgeny Dadonov out of his skates, then roof a laserbeam over the glove of Luongo to rid Amalie Arena of its roof and send the Bolts faithful home happy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

The Carolina Hurricanes are accepting job applications for their next General Manager via Twitter. Obviously we here at DTFR are biased, but I think we’d all gladly throw our hats in the ring for our own @capncornelius to get the gig.

Sidney Crosby reached 1,100 career points, which seems like a slightly obscure number to celebrate. But congrats, I guess.

…this was a slow news week…umm, hey @connorzkeith, can you throw in some sort of funny cat photo or something for filler in the edit? Thanks, buddy.

*Editor’s note: Don’t forget Alex Ovechkin‘s 600th career goal and Marc-Andre Fleury‘s 400th career win last night, @vanekatthedisco! Anyways, time to empty the cat folder. Here’s a few of my faves:*

October 16 – Day 13 – Selections are slim, Vol. II

We’re only 13 days into the season, but today is already the second that features only one game on the schedule. Fortunately for us, it features two 4-1-0 clubs. Let’s get to Motown by 7:30 p.m. Eastern time for Tampa Bay at Detroit (SN1/TVAS)!

 

Tonight’s showdown between Atlantic Division rivals is a far bigger affair than many projected at the beginning of the season. It was simply assumed the Red Wings would already be in the Eastern Conference cellar and en route to an early pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, but so far they’re holding their ground with the best of them. That being said, there are few offenses of the caliber of Tampa Bay’s, so this should be a good test for the Wings.

Since we haven’t featured the Lightning yet this season in the DtFR Game of the Day series, let’s tackle them first.

There are few teams in this league that score as well as the Bolts do, as they average four goals-per game to rank (t)fifth-best. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Head Coach Jon Cooper has F Alex Killorn (1-6-7 totals), RW Nikita Kucherov (5-3-8), F Brayden Point (3-5-8) and C Steven Stamkos (1-6-7) all at his disposal. With the help of two others, these four help to build one of the best top-two line combinations available in the league, meaning 3-0-0 G Jimmy Howard cannot lose his focus for a second without risking a Tampa goal.

In particular, Tampa has absolutely excelled on the power play, converting six-of-21 opportunities (28.6 percent) for the (t)fourth-best effort in the league. While Stamkos has yet to find his second goal of the season, he’s been a vital re-introduction to the special teams with his club-leading four power play points – including one man-advantage goal.

The major hole on this Lightning team is its defensive performance so far, though it’s hard to accurately measure given that opposing forwards are known to step up their game when facing an offense of the caliber of Tampa’s. So far this season, even though D Jake Dotchin has managed two blocks-per-game, the Bolts have allowed 35.8 shots against-per-game to reach 4-1-0 G Andrei Vasilevskiy, the fourth-worst mark in the NHL.

Fortunately, Vasilevskiy – a former first-rounder – is good at his job. Yet to cede the crease to G Peter Budaj, he’s managed a .911 save percentage and 3.2 GAA. Though he’s not exactly at the top of the list of goaltenders in the league right now, he’s doing just enough to ensure his offense can keep the game under control.

Tonight will be a good test for him, because the Wings have had no trouble finding the back of the net most nights. Led by D Mike Green and his eight assists, Detroit has managed 3.4 goals-per-game to rank 10th-best in the NHL.

But since Green doesn’t register an assist without somebody else scoring a goal, Vasilevskiy is going to have to keep an eye on W Martin Frk, W Anthony Mantha and F Henrik Zetterberg, as all three have three goals in their 2017-’18 accounts already.

I brought up Howard earlier, but we didn’t discuss how integral he’s been to this hot start by the Red Wings. Of all the goaltenders that have appeared in more than one game, his .955 save percentage is second-best in the league. If Howard can maintain that level of play, it’ll be interesting to see where his season can take him, especially given he’ll be an unrestricted free agent following the end of next campaign.

Until then, he’s the backbone of a very good penalty kill that could cause fits for Tampa’s special teams. So far this season, the Wings have only allowed two power play goals against in 23 opportunities for a 91.3 percent kill rate that ranks fourth-best in the NHL.

Though Detroit is not being favored by Vegas in this game (the Wings have a +100 associated with their name), I’m leaning towards Howard and co. taking this game. The Wings’ offense has been able to hold its own so far this season, and the Bolts are not the type of team to try to overwhelm a goaltender. Add in the fact that this game is taking place at Little Caesars Arena, and I think the red-and-white can pull this one out.


Though the New York Islanders tried their best, they could not find the upper hand against the Los Angeles Kings in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they fell 3-2 at the Staples Center.

Los Angeles never trailed in this contest, thanks in large part to Second Star of the Game C Anze Kopitar‘s (First Star D Drew Doughty and W Dustin Brown) snap shot with 7:16 remaining in the first period. With the help of the Kings’ defense, Los Angeles was able to take that lead into the first intermission.

F Josh Bailey (Third Star C Mathew Barzal and LW Andrew Ladd) pulled New York even 8:56 into the second frame with a backhanded shot to beat G Darcy Kuemper, but D Jake Muzzin‘s (D Oscar Fantenberg and F Tyler Toffoli) power play wrist shot 2:36 later returned the lead to the Kings’ hands. For the second straight period, Los Angeles’ defensive corps held the Islanders to only seven shots on goal to ensure they took the 2-1 lead into the second intermission.

Shorthanded goals have a way of sucking any momentum out of the opposing team. That’s exactly what happened 5:44 into the third period, as Doughty (Kopitar) scored what proved to be the game-winning goal on a shorthanded tip-in. Like many shorties do, the play started with the Kings in their defensive zone, but that all changed when Kopitar intercepted a pass from F Joshua Ho-Sang intended for D Johnny Boychuk at the far point. Kopitar tore down the far boards into his offensive zone before steering towards G Jaroslav Halak. But, instead of firing a shot at the goaltender, he centered a pass to the crashing Doughty, who beat the falling Halak five-hole to the far post.

C Casey Cizikas (RW Cal Clutterbuck and D Thomas Hickey) did manage to pull the Isles back within a goal with 5:40 remaining in regulation, but Kuemper did not let them get any further into their comeback plan after that.

Speaking of Kuemper, he earned his 1-0-0 record by saving 23-of-25 shots faced (.92 save percentage), leaving the loss to Halak, who saved 24-of-27 (.889).

A second-straight victory by the 8-4-1 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series has the visitors falling behind five points early in the season.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 1…and a half

As the season’s first full week has come to a close, it’s time for the first installment of my incessant weekly ramblings. Yes I know we’re basically 2 weeks into the schedule, but lumping that first half-week in with this seriously helps my desire to be only as productive as absolutely necessary. So, without further adieu, let’s get caught up on all those things you already saw and/or knew about, and find out the selections of your humble, know-nothing Midwesterner of an author for the best player/team/game of the week.

Player of the Week: Alex Ovechkin

It just is. Did you see the things he did? Go watch the things he did. They were silly. He has 9 goals in 6 games. At one point he had 7 goals in 2 games. Those…those aren’t real stats, those are video game stats. Stop arguing with me, and somebody give that man a cookie.

Team of the Week: New Jersey Devils

Alright, who had Jersey atop the ridiculous Metropolitan Division on their predictions lists? Nobody, that’s who. Although technically in a tie with Columbus atop the division, and with Toronto (who the Devils lambasted 6-3) atop the conference, those teams were supposed to be good. Same goes for the only team in the entire league the Devils currently trail in the standings, Chicago. The New Jersey roster basically reads “Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Cory Schneider, and some other hockey players” yet here they are handing out Stone Cold Steve Austin-sized cans of whoop-@$ nightly. Hischier mesmerizes nightly, the makeshift forward group is scoring like it’s going out of style, 22-year-old former 5th-round pick defenseman Will Butcher has put up 8 points in 5 games (with 5 of them on the PP), and Schneider and Keith Kinkaid have both played very well in net. Nobody saw this coming, and anyone who says they did is a liar.

Game of the Week: Capitals 3 @ Lightning 4 (OT), Monday October 9th

When two of the league’s most dangerous offenses come together, you generally expect a good show, and this one didn’t disappoint. A comeback OT win, some sweet saves, 30+ hits, a goal of the year candidate… This game wasn’t lacking much. Even with Andrei Vasilevskiy and Philipp Grubauer trading highlight reel stops, a penalty-filled contest led to 3 total PP goals, including the Nikita Kucherov GWG in OT, and no shortage of even-strength offense to boot. Tampa spent most of the game chasing the Caps on the scoreboard, but with just over 9 minutes remaining in regulation Kucherov received a beautiful tic-tac-toe outlet courtesy of Anton Stralman and Alex Killorn, danced his way across the Washington blueline, and with the puck on his backhand (and Taylor Chorney on his back) roofed a bottle-popper over the glove side shoulder of the Washington netminder to tie it up at 3-3. If you don’t feel like watching the full game highlights, at least go dig up this goal, just have an extra pair of shorts on hand to change into afterwards.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

More than a few teams are currently not where they were expected to be in the standings, and that goes for both ends of the spectrum. The aforementioned upstart Devils are accompanied at 4-1-0 by the Red Wings, and followed closely by the Avs (4-2-0) and the “Nobody told us expansion teams are bad” Golden Knights at 3-1-0. Things get even crazier down at the more lackluster end of the standings, with the Rangers (1-5-0), Sharks/Oilers/Habs (1-3-0), and Wild (1-1-2) all notably underperforming. The Rangers and Habs are both particularly surprising, in that the bulk of their respective troubles can be attributed to their usually-stalwart goaltenders being…well, less than stalwart.

Opening night in Vegas was quite a thing to behold, with a beautiful pre-game ceremony honoring the victims and heroes of the Las Vegas terror attack just a few weeks ago. The Knights fed off the raucous crowd and cruised to a 5-2 victory over their desert-dwelling counterparts from Arizona.

Unfortunately for Vegas, their hot start could be quickly simmered by injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) and Jon Marchessault (lower body). Both players were placed on IR and are expected to miss “at least a week” so Vegas now has to rely on its slim organizational depth to step in for the time being. Marchessault is certainly an important piece of the team (he’s coming off of a 30-goal campaign with Florida), but it’s the Fleury injury that could really hurt them, as they really don’t have any proven goaltenders beyond ‘Flower’. But, given I watched young Malcolm Subban earn a 3-1 victory for the Knights as I typed this article, perhaps they have less to worry about than originally feared.

Oh and Jaromir Jagr is back, so the mullet wig I bought a few years ago is still relevant.

March 26 – Day 163 – It’s so much more than a cup… It’s the Governor’s Cup

With four goals in the third period, Tampa Bay beat the Islanders 7-4 to reclaim the Atlantic Division lead.

It was actually New York that opened the scoring, courtesy of a Brock Nelson slap shot at the 8:54 mark (his 25th tally of the season), assisted by Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey, but the Lightning leveled the score 4:48 with tip-in goal from Nikita Kucherov (his 29th tally of the season), assisted by Alex Killorn and Andrej Sustr.  With his 14th goal of the season, Vladislav Namestnikov gave the Bolts a 2-1 lead only nine seconds after Kucherov’s tally, the score that would hold until the intermission.

5:02 after resuming play, Steven Stamkos connected on a slap shot for his 35th goal of the season, assisted by First Star of the Game Jason Garrison and Kucherov.  New York finally scored their second goal 23 seconds later on an unassisted Shane Prince wrister, his fifth of the season, to set the score at 3-2.  With 3:42 remaining in the period, the Isles leveled the game on a Johnny Boychuk tip-in, assisted by John Tavares (his 31st helper of the season) and Bailey, which held into the deciding third frame.

The Bolts took another lead at the 6:03 mark of the third when Sustr connected on a slap shot, assisted by Garrison (his fifth helper of the season), but the Islanders leveled again 19 seconds later on a Nikolay Kulemin snapper, assisted by Frans Nielsen (his 28th helper of the season) and Travis Hamonic.  Tampa‘s game-winning goal was scored with 9:51 remaining in regulation, a Tyler Johnson wrister (his 13th tally of the season) assisted by Second Star Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Marchessault.  Twenty-three seconds later, Garrison scored the first insurance goal, assisted by Palat and Marchesault (his 10th helper of the season).  The final goal was an empty netter from Victor Hedman, assisted by Matthew Carle and Palat (his 19th helper of the season).

Ben Bishop gets the win after saving 27 of 31 shots faced (87.1%), while Thomas Greiss takes the loss after saving 35 of 41 (85.4%).

After that result, the DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 74-42-17, favoring the home sides by 35 points over the roadies.

I could be wrong, but I believe that this is the most exciting day of hockey we’ve had all season as, with the exception of New Jersey and Vancouver, every team is in action today.  Business opens at 1 p.m. eastern when Winnipeg visits Buffalo (BELL TV), followed an hour later by Pittsburgh at Detroit (SN).  3 p.m. eastern is the beginning of Minnesota at Colorado, which precedes the last matinee of the day, Dallas at San Jose, by 60 minutes.  Six games drop the puck at the usual starting time of 7 p.m. eastern (Boston at Toronto [CBC], the New York Rangers at Montréal [NHLN/TVAS/SN], Anaheim at Ottawa [CITY/TVAS2], Florida at Tampa Bay, St. Louis at Washington and the New York Islanders at Carolina), with Columbus at Nashville trailing an hour later.  The trio of nightcaps end the night at 10 p.m. eastern (Philadelphia at Arizona, Edmonton at Los Angeles [CBC] and Chicago at Calgary [SN]).

Whew… I know.  Gotta catch our breath!

There’s five divisional rivalries being played this evening (Minnesota at Colorado, Boston at Toronto, Florida at Tampa Bay, New York at Carolina and Edmonton at Los Angeles), and three are between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Dallas at San Jose, Florida at Tampa Bay and St. Louis at Washington).

Although both Troy Brouwer and Seth Jones will be making noticeable first returns to previous home arenas (the Verizon Center and Bridgestone Arena, respectively), the battle for the Atlantic Division lead is just too important to ignore.

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This will be Florida‘s ninth time featured in the Game of the Day series, where they own a 4-3-1 record.  The last time they were featured was March 14, when they lost 3-2 in Brooklyn.  With yesterday’s win over the Islanders, Tampa Bay improves their series record to 11-3-2.

The 41-24-9 Florida Panthers currently occupy second place in the Atlantic Division (due to losing a regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker) and fourth in the Eastern Conference.  To get to that position, they’ve played the fifth stingiest defense, paired with the seventh highest scoring offense in the league.

Led by Dmitry Kulikov’s 111 blocks, Florida has allowed only 2183 shots to reach 31-18-6 Roberto Luongo and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.2% for only 182 goals against, the fifth fewest in the NHL.  Although the defense as a whole has found incredible success, the penalty kill has not been as good, neutralizing only 81.25% of their infractions for 45 power play goals against, the 15th worst rate in the league.

Even with Vincent Trocheck’s team leading 168 shots, the Panthers have fired the puck only 2108 times, with a whopping 9.7% finding the back of the net for 211 goals, the seventh most in the league.  Yet again, the special teams have let Florida down, as their power play has converted only 17.06% of their opportunities for 43 extra man tallies (led by Aleksander Barkov’s nine power play goals), the ninth worst rate in the league.

Florida‘s last game was Thursday, a 4-1 victory in Boston.  As both squads are tied on points, the Panthers will take the division lead as long as they win tonight, but a regulation loss paired with a Bruins win will reduce their lead for second place to three points.

The 43-26-5 Tampa Bay Lightning are currently first in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.  The third best defense in the league has gotten them to that position, which has been backed by the 12th best offense.

Led by Hedman’s 128 blocks, the Lightning has allowed only 2096 shots to reach 31-19-4 Ben Bishop and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.5% for 173 goals against, the third fewest in the NHL.  That success continues even when a man down, as Tampa‘s sixth ranked penalty kill neutralizes 83.71% of opposing power plays, allowing only 36 extra man goals.  Further improving on that solid rate, they’ve scored seven shorthanded goals, two more than the league average.

Even with Stamkos’ team leading 199 shots, the Bolts have fired the puck only 2125 times, with a solid 9.4% finding the back of the net for 202 goals (led by Stamkos’ 35 tallies), the 12th most in the league.  Tampa‘s hole continues to be their power play, as their 16.46% success rate, good for 40 extra man goals (led by Stamkos’ 13 power play tallies), ranks fifth worst in the NHL.

With last night’s 7-4 victory over the Islanders, Tampa Bay enters this game riding a three game winning streak.  A win tonight officially breaks the tie for the division lead, but a loss could give them only a three point lead over third place.

Florida has already won the Governor’s Cup this season, regardless of tonight’s outcome, with a 3-1-0  against the Bolts – but this game is much more important than an in-state trophy series.  The last time they met was January 23, a 5-2 Panthers victory in Sunrise.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Florida‘s Luongo (four shutouts [tied for sixth most in the league], .922 save percentage [tied for seventh best in the league] and 31 wins [tied for eighth most in the league]) & Tampa Bay‘s Bishop (2.05 GAA [second best in the league], .927 save percentage [second best in the league], five shutouts [tied for second most in the league] and 32 wins [tied for sixth most in the league]), Hedman (+23 [10th best in the league]) and Stamkos (35 goals [tied for fourth most in the league]).

I don’t see a lot of goals being scored in this one.  Given the fact that neither of Florida‘s special teams give them much of an advantage and that the Lightning are playing at home, I think I’m leaning towards a Tampa Bay winner.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers pull off the upset, proven by them already winning the season series.

October 27 – Day 21 – Return home to Mound City

For the second game in the row, Jonathan Toews (assisted by Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook) scored the overtime winner, this one at the :51 mark, to lead the Chicago Blackhawks to a 1-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

Corey Crawford took the win after stopping all 39 shots the Ducks sent his way to elevate his record to 5-2-0, while Frederik Andersen’s record falls to 0-3-2 after giving up the lone goal on 24 shots (95.8%).

The DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 12-5-3 for the home team, nine points ahead of the roadies.

After a couple days straight of only three games on the schedule, it’s a busy Tuesday in the NHL with 10 games to be contested.  The first three games will get their start at 7 p.m. eastern (Arizona at Boston, Columbus at New Jersey and Buffalo at Philadelphia [TVAS/BELL TV]), followed half an hour later by two more matchups (Carolina at Detroit and Colorado at Florida).  Another triplet of games drop the opening puck at 8 p.m. eastern (Tampa Bay at St. Louis [NBCSN/SN1], Edmonton at Minnesota and Los Angeles at Winnipeg [TSN3]) with an Anaheim at Dallas chaser 30 minutes later.  Finally, the evening’s nightcap gets started at 10 p.m. eastern when Mighty Montréal visits Vancouver (RDS).

Columbus at New Jersey is the only divisional rivalry being played tonight, but has the competition of two games between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Tampa Bay at St. Louis and Los Angeles at Winnipeg).  Of these three, only one is being broadcast nationally in both nations, plus Ben Bishop will return home to play before his hometown fans, so the game at the Scottrade Center will be our Game of the Day.

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Starting with the road side, we find a Tampa Bay team coming off an overtime shutout loss to the Bluesarchrivals (bad pun intended) that has found early success this season.  Currently, the Bolts and their potent offense have 12 points to their name with a 5-2-2 record, which is good enough for second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference (of course, second is as good as first in that division since Montréal doesn’t look like they’ll ever lose).  That offense has scored 27 goals this season, exceeding the league average by five tallies.  They’ve put 243 shots on net so far (exceeding the league average by four), and scored on 11.1% of those attempts (dwarfing the league average by 2.1%).  One player responsible for this success is Captain Steven Stamkos, who leads the team in total goals (five) and power play goals (two), and is tied for the lead in both even strength goals (with Vladislav Namestnikov, three) and game-winners (with Jason Garrison, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat, one).

Netminder Bishop (5-2-1) has also had a solid start to his season, as the Lightning have only given up 24 goals so far (two over the league average).  The team’s collective save percentage of .915 is exactly on par with the rest of the league.

Probably the worst aspect of this Tampa Bay team has been their penalty kill.  They’ve given up two more power play goals than the league average (seven and five, respectively) on two fewer opportunities.  As you can expect, their penalty kill percentage is showing it: their 72% kill rate is 9.41% below average.  If the special teams cannot figure out how to kill penalties better, Nikita Nesterov may find himself riding the bench, being scratched, or even worse, sent back to Syracuse if he cannot get his team leading 17 PIM down (he leads the second highest by nine minutes with only three games played).

Turning our attention to the 5-2-1 home squad, we find another team coming off another overtime loss, this one a 3-2 final against the Isles, but the Notes did manage to score two goals in the second period to earn a point in the standings.  They currently own the fourth position in both the competitive Central Division and Western Conference table.

While the Bolts may be more offensively-minded, the Blues have utilized a more balanced approach and relied on their defense and goaltending for success this season.  St. Louis has scored only one goal over the 22-goal league average, but have kept two more goals off the board than the rest of the NHL this season.  Tonight’s starter Jake Allen (Brian Elliott is recovering from illness) owns a 1-2-0 record with a .899 save percentage and 3.02 GAA.

Luckily for Tampa Bay, the Blues‘ major shortcoming so far this season has been the power play, as they only have four goals to show for 29 opportunities (13.79%, 4.8% below league average).

Inversely, the Blues have done very well on the penalty kill this season.  Although their kill percentage trails the league average by .16%, they’ve had to defend against five more than the typical team.  Should that stat continue, the Blues will be able to physically impose their will on a consistent basis to earn some man-advantages for themselves.

The Blues beat the Bolts in both games played last season, led by RW Vladimir Tarasenko’s two goals and Alexander Steen’s goal and two assists.

Some players to watch in tonight’s game include St. Louis‘ Tarasenko (leads squad in shots [36], points [nine]and goals [five]; tied for squad lead in even-strength goals [four], even-strength assists [four], power play goals [one] and game-winners [one]) and Tampa Bay‘s Bishop (five wins [tied for second in the league]).

This will be a tight game and one worth watching.  I’m inclined to give the advantage to the Notes in this one, simply because they’re playing at home.