Tag Archives: Kucherov

Game of the week: December 3-9

It’s time once again for DtFR’s weekly featured matchup! Let’s take a gander at the NHL’s offerings for this edition, shall we?

NHL SCHEDULE: December 3-9
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, December 3
7 p.m. Tampa Bay New Jersey 5-1
8 p.m. Buffalo Nashville 1-2
8:30 p.m. Edmonton Dallas 1-4
Tuesday, December 4
7 p.m. Boston Florida 0-5
7 p.m. Winnipeg Jets New York Islanders 3-1
7 p.m. Colorado Pittsburgh 3-6
7 p.m. Calgary Columbus 9-6
7:30 p.m. Toronto Buffalo 4-3 (OT)
7:30 p.m. Ottawa Montréal 2-5
7:30 p.m. Tampa Bay Detroit 6-5 (SO)
10 p.m. Minnesota Vancouver 3-2
10 p.m. Washington Vegas 3-5
10:30 p.m. Arizona Los Angeles 2-1
Wednesday, December 5
8 p.m. Edmonton St. Louis 3-2 (SO)
10:30 p.m. Chicago Anaheim 2-4
10:30 p.m. Carolina San Jose 1-5
Thursday, December 6
7 p.m. Detroit Toronto 5-4 (OT)
7 p.m. Colorado Florida 5-2
7 p.m. Columbus Philadelphia 4-3 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Pittsburgh Penguins 2-6
7:30 p.m. Montréal Ottawa 5-2
7:30 p.m. Boston Tampa Bay 2-3
9 p.m. Minnesota Calgary 0-2
9 p.m. Washington Arizona 4-2
10 p.m. Nashville Vancouver 3-5
10 p.m. Chicago Vegas 3-4
10:30 p.m. New Jersey Los Angeles 6-3
Friday, December 7
8 p.m. San Jose Dallas 2-3
8 p.m. St. Louis Winnipeg 1-0
9 p.m. Minnesota Edmonton 2-7
10 p.m. Carolina Anaheim 4-1
Saturday, December 8
1 p.m. Philadelphia Buffalo 6-2
4 p.m. Vegas Los Angeles 1-5
7 p.m. Toronto Boston 3-6
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Ottawa 1-2 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Detroit Red Wings 3-2
7 p.m. Colorado Tampa Bay 1-7
7 p.m. New York Rangers Florida Panthers 5-4 (SO)
7 p.m. Washington Columbus 4-0
8 p.m. San Jose Arizona 5-3
10 p.m. Nashville Calgary 2-5
Sunday, December 9
3 p.m. Vancouver St. Louis
3 p.m. Philadelphia Winnipeg TVAS
5 p.m. Boston Ottawa RDS2
6 p.m. Montréal Canadiens Chicago Blackhawks NHLN, RDS, SN, SN1
8 p.m. New Jersey Anaheim
9 p.m. Dallas Vegas
9 p.m. Calgary Edmonton SN, SN1

This week’s rivalries included the Battle of the QEW (Toronto at Buffalo), Ottawa at Montréal, Detroit at Toronto, the Islanders at Pittsburgh, Montréal at Ottawa, Toronto at Boston, Montréal at Chicago and the Battle of Alberta (Calgary at Edmonton).

In a similar strain, there were also more than a few rematches of playoff fixtures from last spring. Tampa Bay continued its beat down of New Jersey on Monday, while Vegas exacted some revenge against Washington on Tuesday. The Bolts then headed home to host Boston on Wednesday, winning 3-2. Vegas is heading to Los Angeles this afternoon looking for its fifth-straight victory against the Kings, followed by tonight’s tilt between the Capitals and Blue Jackets.

Finally, in the “player returns” department, only two really stuck out among this week’s tilts. Now a member of the Avalanche, D Ian Cole made his first trip back to Pittsburgh Tuesday to take on the club he was a member of for the past four seasons. Then, Wednesday night, C Kyle Brodziak made his first return to St. Louis as a member of a visiting team, having spent three seasons with the Blues.

Of all those, the one I’m most interested in is the Battle of Alberta, so pack your coat and start heading to the City of Champions!

Don’t everyone look all at once (it’ll make the team self-conscious), but with last night’s 5-2 win over Nashville, the 19-9-2 Calgary Flames have claimed a one-point lead for first place in the Western Conference.

Not the Pacific Division, mind you. The Flames have been running that show for about a month now. We’re talking about the entire conference.

I guess Head Coach Bill Peters knows a bit more than we give him credit for around here.

A major reason Calgary is in the position it’s in right now is due to the impressive 9-1-1 record it’s riding right now – a stretch that started with a 4-2 victory over the Oilers on November 17.

A solid argument could be made that no team in the NHL has been better than the Flames in the past three weeks, as they are among the top-three in the league in goals per game, goals against per game and shots against per game.

Starting with the offense (a stat in which Calgary ranks sixth on the entire season, averaging 3.47 goals per game), the Flames have been the class of the conference since November 17, as their 4.45 goals per game in their past 11 outings tops the West and ranks second in the NHL, trailing only Tampa Bay’s 4.58 goals per game.

Leading the charge with 6-14-20 totals in those 11 games is exactly who you expected: LW Johnny Gaudreau. Only RW Nikita Kucherov (5-18-23) has registered more points in the past 22 days than Johnny HockeyTM , but he’s also had the benefit of one extra game played.

But don’t think Gaudreau has been doing it all on his own. C Sean Monahan (9-7-16), F Elias Lindholm (7-8-15), LW Matthew Tkachuk (4-8-12), suspended D Mark Giordano (1-10-11 in 10 games played) and even fourth-liner C Alan Quine (he scored a goal in his season debut last night) are all averaging a point per game or better over this run.

Defense has been a major strength of Calgary’s all season long (the Flames’ 28 shots against per game for the entire campaign ranks third-best in the NHL), and the same can be said for the Flames’ last 11 games. Led by D Rasmus Andersson and D Travis Hamonic (both averaging 1.5 blocks per game since November 17), RW Garnet Hathaway (2.6 hits per game in the past 22 days) and Monahan (his 16 takeaways in the past 11 games lead the club), the Flames have allowed only 27.18 shots against per game since November 17- the third-lowest mark in both the Western Conference and NHL in that time.

While Peters might say he appreciates that solid defensive play, no one is happier for the Flames’ success than 11-7-1 G Mike Smith. And even though the blue line is making his job easy, Smith is putting together one of the best runs of his season so far – especially in light of his season stats.

On the campaign as a whole, Smith boasts a lowly .894 save percentage and 2.88 GAA – both stats considerably worse than backup 8-2-1 G David Rittich’s .919 and 2.39, to the point that there were more than a few calling for the Czech to assume starting duties.

However, Smith’s past six appearances have been reminiscent of his incredible 2011-12 season with the Coyotes (he posted a .93 save percentage and 2.21 GAA and led the team to the Western Final), as he’s won six-straight games with a dominant .936 save percentage and 1.59 GAA in those showings.

Having been in net for last night’s home win over Nashville, Smith will likely ride the pine this evening with Rittich getting the start.

Though the 15-12-2 Edmonton Oilers currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, they only trail the second wild card Vegas Golden Knights by a point (with two games in hand, no less), so it is possible for tonight’s hosts to force themselves into the playoff picture with as little as an overtime or shootout loss.

Wait, I thought the Oilers were back to being bad again. I’m so confused.

Sometimes a change of voice from behind the bench is exactly what a team needs to get in shape, because the Oilers have been playing some solid hockey since hiring Head Coach Ken Hitchcock on November 20. Before Hitchcock arrived in Northern Alberta, the Oil boasted a record of 9-10-1, but they’ve gone on a solid 6-2-1 record since then to position themselves right on the playoffs’ doorstep.

Considering Hitchcock’s history, it wasn’t unexpected that his first goal upon taking over Edmonton was teaching his club how to play defense. Instead, the bigger surprise is that the team – one rarely known for its defensive play for its entire history – actually responded and is finding success.

Under Hitchcock, the Oilers have allowed only 29.11 shots against per game, the seventh-best mark in the NHL since November 20. Injured F Drake Caggiula (averaging 4.3 hits per game during this run), D Oscar Klefbom (averaging 2.6 blocks per game in the last 20 days) and C Connor McDavid (his 12 takeaways in his last eight appearances pace the team) have all been integral in leading this strategic shift, and the results are clearly showing in the standings.

Both G Mikko Koskinen and G Cam Talbot have shown considerable improvement playing behind this revamped defense, but Koskinen seems to have gained Hitchcock’s favor as the Oilers’ starting goaltender – at least for the time being. Though he has managed a decent .925 save percentage and 2.23 GAA for the entire season, Koskinen has posted a solid .934 save percentage and 1.82 GAA in his last six starts and will get the nod tonight.

For those wondering, Talbot’s .895 save percentage and 3.12 GAA for the season have been steadily improving under Hitch as well, as he’s managed a .925 save percentage and 2.29 GAA in his last three starts.

So, it’s time for that priceless question: who wins tonight?

With both defenses playing as well as they are right now, my immediate reaction is to pick the team with the superior offense. As that is not the style Hitchcock is having the Oilers play, that leads me to lean towards Calgary earning two points despite playing yesterday and having to travel last night/this morning.

However, with so much for Edmonton to play for and the fact that this is one of the better rivalries in the league, the only thing we can truly predict is unpredictability!

Game of the week: October 29-November 4

As the calendar flips from October to November, the NHL’s powers are beginning to flex their muscles while the league’s less-talented members are already counting the days until April 6.

Some of that can be seen in the games already played this week (take a look at what a good Devils team suffered in its trip to Tampa), while there’s more than a few games coming up in the remaining four days that will help us better predict some teams’ playoff potentials.

NHL SCHEDULE: OCTOBER 29-November 4
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, October 29
7 p.m. Calgary Toronto 3-1
10 p.m. Minnesota Vancouver 2-5
Tuesday, October 30
7 p.m. Calgary Buffalo 2-1 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3
7 p.m. Boston Carolina 3-2
7 p.m. Detroit Columbus 5-3
7:30 p.m. Dallas Montréal 4-1
7:30 p.m. New Jersey Tampa Bay 3-8
8 p.m. Vegas Nashville 1-4
9 p.m. Minnesota Edmonton 4-3
10 p.m. Ottawa Arizona 1-5
10 p.m. Philadelphia Anaheim 3-2
10:30 p.m. New York Rangers San Jose Sharks 4-3 (SO)
Wednesday, October 31
10 p.m. Chicago Vancouver 2-4
Thursday, November 1
2 p.m. Winnipeg Florida NBCSN
7 p.m. Dallas Toronto
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Penguins New York Islanders SN360
7:30 p.m. Washington Montréal RDS, TSN2
7:30 p.m. Buffalo Ottawa RDS2
7:30 p.m. New Jersey Detroit
7:30 p.m. Nashville Tampa Bay
8 p.m. Vegas St. Louis
9 p.m. Colorado Calgary SN1
9 p.m. Chicago Edmonton
10 p.m. New York Rangers Anaheim Ducks
10:30 p.m. Philadelphia Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. Columbus San Jose
Friday, November 2
2 p.m. Florida Winnipeg NHLN
10 p.m. Colorado Vancouver NHLN
10 p.m. Carolina Arizona
saturday, November 3
2 p.m. Ottawa Buffalo RDS
7 p.m. Tampa Bay Montréal CITY, SN360, TVAS
7 p.m. Edmonton Detroit SN
7 p.m. New Jersey Devils New York Islanders
7 p.m. Toronto Pittsburgh CBC, NHLN, SN1
7 p.m. Dallas Washington
8 p.m. Minnesota St. Louis
8 p.m. Boston Nashville
10 p.m. Carolina Vegas
10 p.m. Chicago Blackhawks Calgary Flames CBC, CITY, SN, SN1, SN360
10:30 p.m. Columbus Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. Philadelphia San Jose
SunDay, November 4
7 p.m. Tampa Bay Ottawa NHLN, SN, TVAS
7 p.m. Buffalo Sabres New York Rangers
9 p.m. Columbus Anaheim

As usual, there’s more than a few tilts that caught my attention on this week’s slate. I’m always a big fan of rivalries (New York at Pittsburgh, Chicago at Vancouver, Pittsburgh at New York, Buffalo at Ottawa and Ottawa at Buffalo) and players returning to their former home arenas (W Tom Kuhnhackl and F Joakim Nordstrom made their first trips back to Pittsburgh and Carolina, respectively, on Tuesday, while D Roman Polak is heading back to Toronto tonight), but we also get the added benefits of this year’s NHL Global Series between Florida and Winnipeg in Finland as well as an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal rematch between New Jersey and Tampa Bay.

However, with all of that being said, there’s another huge matchup happening this Thursday that rivals last week’s Toronto-Winnipeg showdown.

The reigning regular season conference champions are going at it tonight, so grab your popcorn and settle in to enjoy a great game!

Wait, what? This showdown isn’t on national T.V. in either Canada or the States, but a game between two one-win NFL teams is?

This is lunacy.

I’m not saying to stream this tilt by any means necessary, but I’m not saying not to stream this tilt by any means necessary.

Regardless of the legality of your decision, it’s a choice you certainly won’t regret as both the Preds and Bolts are off to hot starts this season, surely inspired at least somewhat by dreams left unfulfilled during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both were their respective conferences’ No. 1 seeds this spring, but they both got knocked off on home ice in a winner-take-all Game 7 (the Predators fell to Winnipeg in the Second Round, while Tampa lost to Washington in the Eastern Conference Final).

At least Smashville got the Presidents’ Trophy, right? Not to mention its prestigious “Regular Season Western Conference Champions” banner.

Sorry, that’s the last time I’ll point out the Predators’ unprecedented award that should probably be penalized for excessive celebration.

Hopefully.

Just as they did last season, the 9-3-0 Predators currently sit atop the Central Division, the Western Conference and the NHL with the best record of all 31 teams.

The major reason for the Preds’ success is undoubtedly their goaltending tandem of 3-1-0 Pekka Rinne and 6-2-0 Juuse Saros. Even though they do have the luxury of playing behind the league’s 11th-best defense in terms of shots against per game (W Viktor Arvidsson‘s 12 takeaways, D Ryan Ellis‘ two blocks per game and F Zac Rinaldo‘s 2.3 hits per game have been major factors in Nashville’s 29.92 shots against per game), both have been integral in keeping the Predators’ goals allowed per game at 2.42 – the (t)third-best mark in the league. Both boast save percentages better than .915 and GAAs at or below 2.5, not to mention a shutout apiece.

After being activated from Injured Reserve yesterday (G Troy Grosenick made room on the roster by heading back to Milwaukee), it seems likely that Rinne will be the starter this evening. In his first five starts this season before going down with an undisclosed ailment, the Finn posted a .929 save percentage and 2.1 GAA – both of which are top-six among the 36 netminders with at least five starts to their credit.

Regardless of who’s in net, don’t focus too much on that or you’ll miss Nashville’s outstanding offense that ranks second-best in the conference and (t)sixth-best in the league by averaging 3.5 goals per game. In particular, no Predator has been as dominant as F Filip Forsberg, who’s 10-4-14 totals leave no doubt as to who’s the best scorer in Tennessee.

Forsberg’s 10 goals are (t)third-most in the NHL, trailing league-leaders F Patrick Kane (CHI) and RW David Pastrnak (BOS) by only one marker. After scoring a hat trick against Edmonton on Saturday (he scored all of Nashville’s goals in a 5-3 loss), the Swede was totally kept off the scoreboard Tuesday against Vegas, so he’ll be extra motivated to notch another tally tonight.

The team the Predators are leading for the Presidents’ Trophy are none other than the 8-2-1 Lightning, last season’s preseason darlings that have been ignored – rather unwisely, I might add – by the media in favor of division-rival Toronto so far this year.

The Leafs might be getting all the attention, but it’s business as usual in central Florida as the Bolts are leading the Eastern Conference just like last campaign. Tampa still boasts a dominant offense, not to mention a stellar goaltender and overpowering special teams.

Led from the second line by F Brayden Point and his 7-7-14 totals – not to mention RW Nikita Kucherov and F Yanni Gourde‘s respective 5-7-12 and 4-8-12 efforts – Tampa’s attack is among the most feared in the league, scoring 3.64 goals per game to rank third-best.

Only two days ago against New Jersey in an 8-3 victory, Point notched an outstanding five-point game, but if recent performances are any indication, he likely won’t find the scorecard tonight: his last five games saw him score 5, 0, 1, 0 and 3 points respectively.

Defensively, there’s not much to talk about with the Lightning since D Victor Hedman is still on Injured Reserve. The Bolts’ blue line has suffered during his absence, allowing a 12th-worst 32.36 shots against per game for the season.

However, who needs a defense when you have 6-1-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy playing for your team? Vasilevskiy has already been confirmed to be starting this game and will look to improve upon his .935 save percentage and 1.98 GAA that both already rank top-five among the 36 goalies with at least five starts to their names.

If this game boils down to special teams, there’s no way the Lightning aren’t coming away with two points. Tampa Bay leads Nashville in both statistics, including owning the league’s top-rated penalty kill (93.2 percent) that will be more than enough to counteract anything the Preds’ fourth-worst power play (13.3 percent) can muster.

Similarly, Tampa Bay’s power play will be a Halloween hangover to the Predators tonight, as a 29.3 success rate is good enough to rank sixth-best in the NHL – especially when it gets to go to work against the 10th-worst penalty kill (75 percent).

If Nashville’s penalty kill is going to have any success, it should probably try to keep F J.T. Miller under wraps as much as possible. Of his 3-7-10 totals on the year, 3-2-5 have occurred with the man-advantage. If those numbers don’t communicate just how potent he’s been, Miller’s .571 power play face-off winning percentage and .429 power play shooting percentage should do the trick.

An interesting note surrounding this game is its location. While it would be assumed that the Lightning would have the advantage considering they are at home, their 5-1-0 record at Amalie Arena is challenged by the Predators’ outstanding 5-0-0 road mark. With that in mind, there is no doubt Smashville is going to throw everything it has at tonight’s host.

There’s no doubt that this is going to be a showdown of the ages, just as should be expected from the top two teams in the league. But which one wins?

That’s the tough question.

I’m going to go out on a limb and take the Predators tonight. I think their offense is more than good enough to take advantage of the Lightning’s weakened defense corps. That being said, Vasilevskiy is going to be a difficult wall to break (as should Rinne be for the Bolts), so I’m predicting only a 2-1 victory for the visitors.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

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.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to review:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

March 17 – Day 157 – No green here

Top o’ the mornin’ to you, or whatever people say today to fool themselves into believing they’re Irish.

I’m obviously infatuated with the holiday.

One thing I actually enjoy is hockey, and I think that’s something we can all get behind. A perfect 10 games are on today’s schedule, starting with Chicago at Buffalo (NHLN) at 1 p.m. and Edmonton at Florida an hour later. 4 p.m. marks the puck drop of New Jersey at Los Angeles, the last matinee of the day. The usual 7 p.m. starting time brings with it four tilts (Montréal at Toronto [CBC/NHLN/SN/TVAS], Boston at Tampa Bay, Philadelphia at Carolina and Ottawa at Columbus [CITY/TVAS2]), while the New York Rangers at St. Louis waits an hour before getting underway. Minnesota at Arizona’s puck drop is scheduled for 9 p.m., and San Jose at Vancouver (CBC/SN) – tonight’s nightcap – sees the green light 60 minutes later. All times Eastern.

Two games stuck out to me at the start of this season, including…

  • Montréal at Toronto: Who cares that the Habs have no shot at winning this game? It’s Original Six action!
  • New York at St. Louis: D Kevin Shattenkirk has played over seven seasons’ worth of games at Scottrade Center, but tonight will be his first in the arena as a visitor. Of note, he won’t be wearing normal road attire tonight, as the Notes are electing to sport their white sweaters at home this evening. Guess that shows how well I’ve paid attention to the Rangers during their decline – Shattenkirk has been sidelined with a knee injury since mid-January.

However, there’s no way anyone can miss the potential title fight going down in Florida this evening.

 

Ooh boy, what a showdown we have today!

Let’s start with the 48-18-4 Lightning, who have sat atop the Eastern Conference for almost every day of the 2017-’18 season. Though it’s been a wee bit stressful (seven of the Bolts’ last 11 games have required extra time), things have been looking up for Tampa Bay lately, as it has earned an impressive 9-1-1 record.

Now, before I jump in talking about how great the Lightning have been lately, we do need to acknowledge there’s a major reason for their offensive explosion. Tampa has allowed a miserable 3.55 goals against per game over its last 11 showings, which just so happens to be the fourth-worst mark in the NHL since February 20. The defense has been abysmal by allowing 35.27 shots against per game ([t]fifth-worst in the league) since February 20, and even the greatness that is 40-13-3 G Andrei Vasilevskiy cannot keep up with that kind of nightly assault.

Fortunately for the Lightning, there’s two ends of the ice and they’re really, really good on that end. Specifically, they have the luxury of employing C Steven Stamkos, who just so happens to be one of those guys that’s pretty good at his job.

Not only has Stamkos posted impressive 27-55-82 totals on the season – already locking himself in as a point-per-game scorer a year removed from a 17-game campaign – but he’s also managed team-leading 3-11-14 marks since February 20.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the weapons Stamkos does as linemates, as both RW Nikita Kucherov and F J.T. Miller have also been stellar lately. With respective 3-11-14 and 5-4-9 totals, both join Stamkos in averaging a point-per-game since February 20 (Kucherov has played only eight games, and Miller seven with Tampa). The Lightning’s current top line has accounted for 10 of the club’s last 42 goals, just short of 25 percent.

Talk about an offensive presence, especially considering the pressure they’ve been under during this defensive lapse. Even with their backs against the wall, the Lightning have managed a (t)second-best goals per game since February 20 with 3.82.

Of course, Tampa is not the only team in the Atlantic Division that knows how to win. Second place 44-17-8 Boston is pretty good in its own right, made evident by its 7-2-0 record in its last nine showings.

What makes this game fun is that the Bruins are effectively a mirror image of the Bolts lately. Though the defensive end has had its lapses lately (Boston has allowed a 13th-worst 3.22 goals per game since February 27), the Bruins have scored an impressive 4.11 goals per game in their past nine games to lead the league since February 27.

Beloved he may not be, but there’s no denying LW Brad Marchand‘s ability to create offense. In his last eight games, Marchand has posted impressive 6-8-14 totals to elevate his season marks to team-leading 30-42-72 numbers.

Joining him in averaging at least a point per game since February 27 are RW David Pastrnak (5-8-13), D Torey Krug (3-7-10), F Riley Nash (3-7-10) and the injured LW Jake Debrusk (2-7-9). With a top line of Marchand, Nash and Pastrnak lining up against Tampa’s best in Miller, Stamkos and Kucherov, it’s hard to tell which team has the upper hand – and that’s even without the help of Boston’s C Patrice Bergeron.

With the Bruins trailing only Tampa in the Eastern standings, the potential playoff implications of this game are pretty easy to discuss.

While the Lightning are the only team in the conference with 100 points to their credit, Boston – which trails by four points – is actually neck-and-neck in the race for home ice through the conference tournament due to its fewer games played. Should the Bruins earn the win tonight, they’ll pull within two points of Tampa Bay with two more tilts against the Bolts and a game in hand.

There’s a major difference between playing the Maple Leafs in the first round and the whichever team ends up as the second wild card, so it goes without saying that both sides in tonight’s game want to emerge victorious.

Even though the end of the regular season is only a few weeks away, tonight’s meeting between the Bolts and Bruins is only their second of the year. The first tilt occurred way back on November 29 at TD Garden, and it went the way of the hosts as Boston survived to earn a 3-2 victory (Krug posted the eventual game-winning goal in the second period when he set the score at 3-0).

If this matchup strikes your fancy, you’re in luck: Boston and Tampa will meet two more times before the year is through. They’ll square off again at TD Garden on March 29, followed six days later by a final southern showdown.

Whether these teams square off in the second round of the postseason or not, this game is definitely a preview of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs as a whole.

But that’s a month from now – who wins today?

I’m leaning towards the Bruins for the simple fact that Boston’s unstoppable offense has the chance to play against a slumping defense. While I don’t expect Tampa to be a pushover at home, the Bruins should come away with two points tonight – even if the game requires more than 60 minutes to determine a winner.


For a game expected to be a defensive matchup, there were a whole lotta goals scored at Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as the San Jose Sharks beat the Calgary Flames 7-4.

This tilt started innocently enough, as only one goal apiece was struck in the first period. First Star of the Game LW Evander Kane (W Jannik Hansen) got the Sharks on the scoreboard with a wrist shot 6 minutes into the game, but W Troy Brouwer (F Curtis Lazar and C Matt Stajan) leveled the game 10:42 later with a snap shot.

Instead, it was the second period where this game took a turn towards the insane with a whopping combined six markers. Calgary took its first lead of the game 2:10 into the period when C Mark Jankowski (RW Garnet Hathaway) scored a wrister, but that advantage lasted only 4:19 before Kane (D Dylan DeMelo and D Brenden Dillon) scored his second of the game to pull San Jose even at 2-2.

Next up on the scorecard is LW Johnny Gaudreau (Third Star W Micheal Ferland and D Michael Stone), who returned another one-goal advantage to the Flames with 9:44 remaining in the period, but RW Kevin Labanc (D Brent Burns) needed only 1:26 before he matched Gaudreau’s tally.

Things started tilting in San Jose’s favor with 3:28 remaining in the second frame, as that’s when Kane (C Chris Tierney) completed his hat trick to give the Sharks their first lead since scoring the opening goal. 1:30 after Kane’s marker, Second Star F Tomas Hertl (D Justin Braun and D Marc-Edouard Vlasic) provided what proved to be the game-winning goal.

There’s pretty goals, and then there’s goals like Hertl’s. Braun advanced the puck into the offensive zone along the right boards before attempting a quick shot to the far post from the face-off circle. G Mike Smith was able to make that save, but Hertl jammed the rebound through the netminder’s legs to set give San Jose a two-goal advantage.

As if a hat trick isn’t enough, Kane (F Joe Pavelski) posted a four-goal night with a tip-in 1:02 into the third period to set the score at 6-3. Ferland (C Sean Monahan and D Dougie Hamilton) was able to strike back with 5:35 remaining in regulation, but the Flames couldn’t muster a fifth – much less a game-tying sixth – goal. That forced Head Coach Glen Gulutzan to pull G David Rittich for an extra attacker, allowing F Eric Fehr (Hertl) to score his second goal of the season on an empty net with 3:58 remaining in the game.

What might be most unbelievable about this final score is that none of these 11 goals were scored with the man-advantage. Talk about some serious five-on-five offense.

G Martin Jones escaped with the victory after saving 30-of-34 shots faced (.882 save percentage), leaving the well-deserved loss to Smith, who saved only 14-of-20 (.7). Smith was lifted following Kane’s third period goal in favor of Rittich, who saved all seven shots he faced for no decision.

San Jose’s victory marks the seventh-straight win by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, the 87-51-19 hosts now have only a 34-point advantage in the series.

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:*