Tag Archives: Kucherov

December 12 – Day 69 – For the Presidents’ Trophy

Given what day this is of the season and the number of games on today’s schedule, there’s only one thing that can be said:

You know what, I’ll let you figure it out.

Anyways, there’s nine contests on the slate for today, beginning with five (Ottawa at Buffalo [RDS], Los Angeles at New Jersey, Toronto at Philadelphia [TVAS], Colorado at Washington and Edmonton at Columbus) at the usual 7 p.m. start time. Next up are the two 8 p.m. games (Tampa Bay at St. Louis [NBCSN] and Calgary at Minnesota), followed by Florida at Chicago (SN) half an hour later. Finally, Carolina makes its first annual trip to Vegas at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

There were two games I had circled at the beginning of the season…

  • Ottawa at Buffalo: It’s rivalry night in the Queen City between the Eastern Conference’s two worst teams! Get excited Upstate!
  • Carolina at Vegas: For a combined three days, C Marcus Kruger and D Trevor van Riemsdyk were Golden Knights. Does this count as a homecoming?

… but they pale in comparison to tonight’s action in the Gateway to the West.

 

What a gauntlet the league-leading 21-6-2 Lightning have faced of late. It was only Saturday that they escaped with an overtime victory against an impressive Jets squad that plays a similar style to them.

There’s no denying how dominant the Bolts have been through their first 29 games, and that’s especially apparent when they have the puck on their own sticks. Tampa averages 3.75 goals-per-game to lead the league, thanks in large part to the incredible efforts of its top line. RW Nikita Kucherov (20-21-41 totals), F Vladislav Namestnikov (12-15-27) and C Steven Stamkos (12-30-42) have been nothing short of incredible, and it doesn’t hurt that they have F Brayden Point (12-14-26) and company backing them on the second line.

As I pointed out this weekend, this offense is also acting as the Lightning’s best defense, because it’s keeping pucks off 19-4-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy – not that he needs much help, as his .93 season save percentage and 2.24 GAA are both among the top four performances of any goaltender in the league with at least nine starts.

But we discussed all this this weekend. Let’s talk about Tampa’s special teams, which – as you would probably guess – are among the best in the NHL.

The Lightning are the league’s deadliest when they have the man-advantage, as they convert a 28.44 percent of opposing penalties into goals, a mark that is over two percent better than Nashville’s second-best effort.

Just as they do at even strength, Kucherov, Namestnikov and Stamkos have led the charge on the power play with their combined 46 extra-man points. Makhail Sergachev has also made his presence known on the Bolts’ second unit, as he’s managed 2-8-10 totals – the fourth-best effort on the team.

Perhaps one of Tampa’s biggest weaknesses is when it is on the penalty kill. If that is the case the rest of the league should be alarmed, because the Lightning successfully defend 82.6 percent of their infractions to rank eighth-best in the NHL. Vasilevskiy in particular has performed spectacularly when his club is shorthanded, managing a .924 save percentage against the power play to rank (t)fourth-best among the 32 goaltenders with at least 14 starts.

Before we jump into talking about the 21-8-2 Blues, it needs to be noted that they’ll be without three players this evening. In addition to D Jay Bouwmeester missing tonight’s game to rest an injury, F Jaden Schwartz and D Alex Pietrangelo are both on injured reserve with respective ankle and lower body injuries suffered blocking shots.

It certainly wouldn’t be without reason if the Notes’ offense struggles with these injuries, as they average a 3.29 goals-per-game average that ranks sixth-best in the league.

On that end, the biggest injury is certainly to Schwartz, who is posting career-best 12-21-35 totals. In his place, RW Vladimir Tarasenko moves up onto the top line with F Vladimir Sobotka and Vladimir C Paul Stastny. While Schwartz is a tough act to follow, there’s little reason to believe Tarasenko won’t thrive in that role, as his 14-19-33 performance from playing on the second line is already the third-best on the team. Instead, I’ll be interested to see if F Brayden Schenn, St. Louis’ leading scorer with a 16-37-37 effort, can turn W Dmitrij Jaskin (4-7-11) into a real scoring threat while filling in for Tarasenko.

Of course, this offense is not simply reliant on spectacular play from its forwards. Pietrangelo is also very active in the attacking zone, as his 7-16-23 totals are not only the most among St. Louis blueliners, but also the fourth-best marks on the entire team. In fact, Pietrangelo ranks fifth in defensive scoring across the league, behind only the likes of Drew Doughty, John Klingberg, Kris Letang and Nick Leddy (for what its worth, the Blue Notes’ captain has scored more goals than any of those players).

Fortunately for St. Louis, it has just the player to slide into his role as the top two-way defenseman on the team: D Colton Parayko. Currently owning 3-14-17 marks, the third-year player has put his arguable sophomore slump behind him and is well on his way to surpassing his solid 9-24-33 rookie performance. Should he continue on his current pace, Parayko is on track to post 8-37-45 totals that would exceed Pietrangelo’s effort in his third year in the league (yes, that was the lockout season – we’re going off points-per-game in this instance).

As far as defense, not much should change for the team that features the reigning Second Star of the Week in 17-6-2 G Jake Allen. Allen is riding a four-game winning streak and has not lost in regulation since December 1 against the Kings, posting a .939 save percentage over the five games since then. As long as the Blues don’t see a significant drop in its defense that has allowed an average of only 29.45 shots against-per-game (the third-fewest in the NHL), Allen should be able to keep his end of the ice under control.

Now, what makes this contest extremely exciting is that the winner will take the lead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. Both are tied at 44 points currently, but the Bolts do own a “games played” tiebreaker, having laced up their skates two fewer times than St. Louis. Considering the Lightning already beat the Blues 2-1 on October 14, St. Louis will no doubt want to exact revenge on home ice.

As for if that actually happens, I’m having a tough time making that prediction. With their injuries, I’m concerned the Blues’ lackluster special teams will take too much of a hit this evening, so I think Tampa Bay will come away with the road victory.


The New York Islanders exploded out of the gates to beat the Washington Capitals 3-1 at the Barclays Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

It took New York only 2:36 of action before it had the lead. That’s when Third Star of the Game F Brock Nelson (RW Cal Clutterbuck and W Jason Chimera) buried a wrist shot to set the score at 1-0.

That advantage doubled to two goals 36 seconds into the second period when Second Star LW Andrew Ladd (D Calvin de Haan and RW Jordan Eberle) scored what proved to be a game-winning wrister.

When facing a goaltender of the likes of G Braden Holtby, quick passes become a necessity. That’s exactly what provided Ladd the opportunity for his eighth goal of the season. de Haan collected a drop pass from Eberle at the blue line and began crashing towards the goal line. But, instead of throwing a wrist shot on Holtby from an angle with low odds of success, he instead slid a centering pass across the crease to Ladd, who was camping out near the left goal post. Before the netminder could slide across his crease, Ladd had already buried his wrister.

Only 58 seconds after the Isles’ goal horn had been quieted, C John Tavares (F Josh Bailey and F Anders Lee) brought it back to life with a wrister to chase Holtby and set the score at 3-0.

The Capitals finally got on the scoreboard at the 8:23 mark of the third period courtesy of D Dmitry Orlov (F Chandler Stephenson and F Jay Beagle), but they couldn’t claw any further back into the game before the end of regulation.

First Star G Jaroslav Halak earned the victory after saving 31-of-32 shots faced (.969 save percentage), leaving the loss to Holtby, who saved nine-of-12 (.75) before being pulled following Tavares’ tally. G Philipp Grubauer saved all 17 shots he faced for no decision.

New York’s regulation win is the first in six games in the DtFR Game of the Day series, snapping a five-game run of contests requiring more than 60 minutes. Hosts in the series now own a 39-22-8 record that is 17 points better than the roadies’ efforts.

Weekly Bumblings for Week 9 With Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

Peter’s vacation continues, so you are stuck with me once more for the recap of last week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week: Artemi Panarin

You didn’t really think I’d get through two straight columns without talking about the Blue Jackets, did you? The Breadman had been having a solid if unspectacular year as the calendar turned to December.  Despite his talent (or because of it), it had taken some time for the Jackets to find line mates that paired well with the Russian winger.  The initial thought was to put him with Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson.  On paper, that line made all of the sense in the world—two high scoring wingers paired with a player who showed his acumen for setting the table last season.  On the ice was a different story.  While Atkinson and Panarin clicked at points, Wennberg was too conservative, often playing in no man’s land beyond the offensive zone face-off circles.

This lead to weeks of John Tortorella running the blender to try and find lines that worked. In the meantime, Wennberg’s injury also forced Tortorella to get more creative at center, a position the Jackets had been looking to upgrade during the offseason.  Enter rookie, Pierre-Luc Dubois.  While the Jackets wanted Dubois to be their center of the future, the team had been hesitant to play him at the position, preferring to try and ease him in.  But Torts took the advice of Dubois’ father who had found that when he was struggling with his game, he actually improved when forced into the rigors of playing center.  After a bit of a cold spell for Dubois, Tortorella decided to give it a try and Dubois slowly moved his way up the lineup, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Wennberg’s absence, and finding himself on the top line with Panarin and Josh Anderson.  If the Jackets make noise in the postseason, the decision to unite the three unlikely line mates may be looked back as the moment that set the table for their success.

So, in recent weeks, the line which has affectionately become known as PB&J (Pierre, Breadman and Josh) has started to click, but Panarin had yet to really have a performance where he went off. That changed on Friday night in New Jersey.  After a poor performance in Columbus on Tuesday against the Devils (notwithstanding excellent possession performances from the PB&J line), the Jackets’ backs were to the wall.  They really needed the win against their divisional opponent given how tight the race is in the Metropolitan.  The game didn’t start well for the Jackets with the team entering intermission down 2-0 and likely facing an unhappy LukasTortorella in the locker room.  But the tide would turn in the second period largely due to the efforts of Panarin.

Panarin caused a turnover which found its way to Dubois’ stick for his first assist of the night. Another turnover created by Panarin lead to a goal by Lukas Sedlak in the middle of a line change to even up the score.  Panarin’s third assist of the night may have been the most impressive.  As four Devils watched Panarin, he saw the trailer, Scott Harrington, and made a perfect cross ice pass to get Harrington the goal.  After the Devils tied it before the second period ended, the Jackets got a rare power play goal when Panarin made a backhanded pass to Wennberg who, in a rarer aggressive play, went to the net and buried the puck.  Panarin would add a fifth first assist of the night when he found an open Zach Werenski for the fifth and final goal of the night. And that summary of the game doesn’t even fully encapsulate how well Panarin played.  He was consistently finding his way through traffic and the puck seemed to be magnetically attracted to the tape on his stick blade.

While Saturday’s game was not nearly as exciting, Panarin still managed a Corsi For percentage of 58%. The Jackets would strike early as Panarin found Anderson behind the net and he would bury it top shelf.  When you have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, sometimes one goal is enough, and it would prove to be the case.  Panarin now has 6 straight primary assists for Columbus, but when you look back at Panarin’s performance this week, the thing that stands out that is underrated about him and is the big difference from Brandon Saad, is his play away from the puck.  His work in creating two turnovers that set up those first two goals against New Jersey during a crucial time in the game on Friday prevented the game from getting out of control and righted the ship for a team that had a couple poor performances against divisional opponents before that game.

Game of the Week: Winnipeg Jets 3 at Tampa Bay Lightning 4 (OT), December 9, 2017.

We’ve covered this game extensively this week, and with good reason. One of the top teams in the Western, versus one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. A classic matchup between the immovable object and the unstoppable force.  Even with the Jets coming off of two losses entering the game, you knew they would play up for this one.  Yes, I’m talking about Winnipeg for the second time in my two weeks doing this column and no it isn’t because there is a social media account that retweets anything you tweet featuring the word Winnipeg, positive or negative (yes, that really was a thing).

The game got off to a quick start as you’d expect from two offensive powerhouses. Adam Lowry showed some great patience with two Lightning players defending him to find Andrew Copp in the slot for the first goal of the game.  The Lightning continued their streak of nine straight games with a power play goal (that’s possible, eh?) when Brayden Point made a beautiful feed to give Yanni Gourde a goal that Connor Hellebuyck had no hope to stop.

A Cedric Paquette goal was overturned for goaltender interference by Chris Kunitz, so the score would stay 1-1, but Mikhail Sergachev would finally put the Lightning ahead with a beautiful shot after losing his defender with a quick change of directions. The Jets would not go away though.  Former Youngstown Phantom, Kyle Connor, would redirect a rising shot from Josh Morrissey to even the game at 2 and that is how the second period would end.

Winnipeg retook the lead near the midway point of the third period when Nikolaj Ehlers somehow found Andrei Vasilevskiy’s five hole before the goaltender could even react to the shot.  After Vasilevskiy would stop another attempt by Ehlers, Nikita Kucherov’s shot through traffic somehow found the net and the score was again tied at three.  Note—the sequence I just described happened in all of about 2 minutes of game time.  Both teams then settled down and got the game to overtime to salt away a point for their troubles.

Overtime wouldn’t last long though as Point would elude Bryan Little and get his backhand over Hellebuyck.

The Lightning continue to be in a class by themselves in the early part of the season, but the Jets gave it their all.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

A busy week in NHL and other hockey news. On Tuesday the news came down that Russia would be banned from the Winter Olympics as punishment for their concerted efforts to violate anti-doping rules during the Sochi games in 2014.  Clean Russian athletes will still be permitted to play at the games, but not under the Russian flag.  If they are looking for a team name, I suggest “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Russia, Steroid Free!”  There was concern that the KHL might prevent its players from playing in the Olympics, which would have thrown a monkey wrench in Team Canada’s plans for the games.  However, cooler heads prevailed as the KHL probably realized there was value to having its athletes compete on the world’s highest international stage…unlike the NHL.

Backing up slightly, last Monday the City of Seattle approved the memorandum of understanding with the Oak View Group to remodel the ancient KeyArena at a cost of around $600 million (most of it comes from private funds) so that it could be suitable to host one or more professional sports franchises. This will likely be the death knell for a competing project which would have seen a new arena built closer where the existing stadiums are, in SoDo.  The NHL owners, who conveniently had a Board of Governor’s meeting, couldn’t wait to let Seattle know that they would be willing to take their money consider their application for expansion.  Fee for expansion?  $650 million, exceeding the $500 million that Vegas just paid.  I think Seattle is a great market for hockey in an underserved part of the country, but I also think the economics of a team with startup costs of over one billion dollars are a bit shaky.  For comparison, the Blue Jackets paid a franchise fee of $80 million and built an arena at a cost of $175 million…and still eventually needed a bailout from local government.  From the league’s side, it is understandable why they prefer Seattle to, say, Quebec City, because of the geographic balance adding the market will create.

Finally, let’s take a moment to remember 11 years ago when Anson Carter and his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates released a Christmas album. Amazingly I see no trace of this masterpiece on YouTube, so, if you are looking for a Christmas gift for me, there you go.

December 9 – Day 66 – Mirror images

After your busy Saturday of holiday shopping is complete, sit down; take a load off; watch hockey. You know, exactly what we were created to do.

There’s only one matinee on the schedule, and it takes place at 1 p.m. when St. Louis makes its annual trip to Detroit (SN1). The rest of the action gets started at 7 p.m. with the puck drop of seven games (the New York Islanders at Boston, Edmonton at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Winnipeg at Tampa Bay [CITY], Colorado at Florida, New Jersey at the New York Rangers, Toronto at Pittsburgh [CBC/NHLN] and Arizona at Columbus), followed by Vegas at Dallas an hour later. The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. with the start of two contests (Ottawa at San Jose [SN] and Vancouver at Calgary [CBC]), followed by Carolina at Los Angeles – tonight’s nightcap – half an hour later. All times Eastern.

As regular readers have come to expect, I have circled more than a few games on my calendar on days like today.

  • St. Louis at Detroit: This rivalry might have lost some heat when the Wings jumped to the Eastern Conference, but a rivalry it is nonetheless.
  • New Jersey at New York: The Battle of the Hudson River is truly special when both parties involved are playing well.
  • Toronto at Pittsburgh: The day has finally arrived for D Ron Hainsey to collect his championship ring.
  • Vancouver at Calgary: There’s no love lost in this rivalry.

Of course, I couldn’t predict the magnitude of the night’s events in Central Florida. Since we’ve already featured Canucks-Flames once this season, let’s take in this exciting Jets-Lightning matchup.

 

Even with the advice of our very own Colby Kephart, I’ve made the unforgivable sin of featuring the best team in the league only three times before today. While I cannot go back and change the past, I can only try my best to feature the 20-6-2 Lightning more often.

Where to start with what makes the Bolts great? We could discuss their incredible offense that averages a league-leading 3.75 goals-per-game, or we could turn our attention to a defense that allows only 2.5 goals against-per-game, the fourth-lowest average in the NHL.

It’s more fun to talk offense, so we’ll do that. Besides, I would argue that 18-4-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s .93 save percentage and 2.21 GAA ([t]best and third-best, respectively, among the 45 goaltenders with at least eight starts) are helped just as much by an offense that possesses the puck at will as they are by D Dan Girardi‘s team-leading 2.32 blocks-per-game.

Perhaps you’ve heard, but C Steven Stamkos is pretty darn good at his job. After all, his 12-29-41 totals, the most by any player in the NHL this year, is made even more impressive considering he played only 94 games over his past two season.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have coworkers like RW Nikita Kucherov, who has managed an equally mesmerizing 19-21-40 effort to rank second in the league in both points scored and goals (dang you, W Alex Ovechkin, and your 21 tallies), and breakout fourth-year player F Vladislav Namestnikov playing on the same line.

With 12-15-27 totals currently to his name this season, Namestnikov is on track to post 35-44-79 marks by the end of the regular season. If he can continue on that pace, he will effectively double the 33-46-79 career totals he had coming into this season.

Welcome to the big time, Vladdy.

There’s some stellar teams in the Central Division this season, but one of the two that has mirrored Tampa’s style is the 17-8-4 Jets. Just like the Lightning, Winnipeg utilizes a commanding offense that manages 3.37 goals-per-game (fifth-best in the league) to keep pucks out of their defensive zone. The strategy has worked almost as seamlessly as the Bolts’, as they’ve allowed only 2.82 goals-per-game, the 10th-fewest in the NHL.

Of the pucks that have made their way to 15-3-3 G Connor Hellebuyck, he’s been more than able to make the necessary stops. He’s managed a .92 save percentage and 2.43 GAA performance that ranks him in the top-10 goaltenders with at least 11 starts to their name.

Beginning to see some similarities yet? Maybe you’d be interested to know that Winnipeg also has a top line focused around its potential All Stars: C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler.

That’s right, even the starred positions are the same.

Wheeler has absolutely stolen the show in Winnipeg this year. In the 11th year of his career, he’s managing a team-leading 8-29-37 points that is tied for third-most in the NHL.

As you can see, most of those points are assists, and most of those apples have turned into Scheifele goals. Scheifele has scored 14 of them this season en route to 14-20-34 totals. Sticking with the theme of career years, Scheifele could manage 39-57-96 totals if he keeps up this pace, well better than last year’s 32-50-82 effort.

If there’s one thing the Jets have that the Bolts don’t, it’s a commanding presence at the second line’s right wing position. RW Patrik Laine isn’t getting quite the amount of headlines he did last year due to the improved play of those around him, but that hasn’t stopped him from posting similar numbers. After a 36-28-64 rookie campaign, he’s already managed 15-10-25 totals this season and is on his way to a 43-28-71 performance if he continues on his pace.

So much for a sophomore slump.

This game has the potential to be the matchup of the season so far. It features two dominant offenses led by impressive centers and right wings intent on keeping possession. Tonight’s game should be a Lightning victory, but they might face one of their toughest tests yet in the Jets.


The Vegas Golden Knights weathered an impressive third period resurgence by the Nashville Predators to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Bridgestone Arena 4-3 in a shootout.

Only one goal was struck in the first period, and F Craig Smith was largely responsible. Due to him getting caught hi-sticking W David Perron, C William Karlsson (RW Alex Tuch and D Nate Schmidt) was able to score a power play snap shot 6:55 into the game to give Vegas an early lead.

The Knights doubled that lead with 5:23 remaining in the second period courtesy of W James Neal (D Luca Sbisa and Schmidt), playing his first game in Nashville since being selected in the expansion draft. However, the score was trimmed to 2-1 only 63 seconds later on C Calle Jarnkrok’s (W Pontus Aberg and F Filip Forsberg) wrist shot.

Nashville completed its comeback at the 8:04 mark of the third period on a wrister by First Star of the Game W Viktor Arvidsson (W Kevin Fiala and C Kyle Turris), followed 6:52 later by Second Star C Nick Bonino‘s (Arvidsson) sixth goal of the season to give the Predators their first lead of the night. That 3-2 lead almost held to the end of regulation, but F Erik Haula (D Colin Miller and Perron) was able to bury a wrister with 40 seconds remaining in regulation to level the game and force three-on-three overtime.

Since no goal was stuck in overtime, this game entered the shootout. As host, the Predators had the choice of shooting first or second…

  1. Head Coach Peter Laviolette chose first and sent Turris to center ice. Usually a decent penalty shooter (he now has a .365 career shooting percentage in this situation), he missed wide of the net.
  2. The Homecoming King had an opportunity to give the Golden Knights a mini-break, but Neal’s offering was saved by G Pekka Rinne, who had probably seen every trick Neal had up his sleeve over the last three years of practice.
  3. Fiala was next up for Nashville, but he performed just like Turris: he missed wide of the net.
  4. If only saves forced was a deciding factor in shootouts, because Vegas would have won after Rinne saved Tuch’s wrister.
  5. Of the Preds’ first three shooters, Forsberg was easily the best. Though he didn’t score, he did manage to force G Malcolm Subban to make a save.
  6. With the opportunity to win the game, Perron’s backhanded shot… was saved by Rinne. To sudden death!
  7. Up next for Nashville was Smith, but he continued the Predators’ tradition of blatantly missing the net, though he did at least catch iron.
  8. Here comes Haula! He fired a wrister on net, but Rinne was there to make the save.
  9. Tell me if you read this already: another Predator missed the net – this time it was Arvidsson. I guess one goal in this game was enough.
  10. Vegas’ fifth shooter was none other than Karlsson, who had scored the opening goal of the game way back in the first period. That experience didn’t help him here, because his backhander was saved by Rinne.
  11. Round six started with Bonino firing a wrister at Subban’s net, but the netminder was there to make the save.
  12. Finally, everyone’s prayers were answered by Third Star W Reilly Smith, who was the lone goalscorer of the shootout to earn the bonus point for Vegas.

Subban earned the victory after saving 41-of-44 shots faced (.932 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Rinne, who saved 36-of-39 (.923).

This was the third-straight game in the DtFR Game of the Day to require more than 60 minutes to determine a victor. With the visitors coming out on top of this one, they pulled within 15 points of the 37-22-7 hosts.

December 4 – Day 61 – They’re currently in line for the postseason, but…

For the second day in a row, the NHL has scheduled only four games in a row. While a limited schedule makes it easier to keep an eye on everything, it does make it a slow night for our fantasy teams, doesn’t it?

What’s really nice about tonight’s slate is that all four games have a different starting time, which should hopefully ensure that there’s at least one contest being actively played from 7 p.m. – when San Jose makes its yearly visit to Washington (NHLN) – until Philadelphia at Calgary, which drops the puck at 9 p.m., wraps up around midnight. Starting between those games are the New York Islanders at Florida at 7:30 p.m., followed by Boston at Nashville (SN/TVAS) half an hour later. All times Eastern.

The only game I had circled on my calendar since the start of the season is taking place in the Saddledome, as G Brian Elliott is making his return to Calgary – his home for the 2016-’17 season – but I can’t say that matchup gets me all that excited. Instead, I think we need to wander towards The Capital of the Free World.

 

Though both these clubs currently occupy playoff positions, I wouldn’t go so far as to assume they are two of the top 16 teams in the NHL.

I find that especially apparent with tonight’s visitors, the 14-9-2 Sharks. Even though they’re in third place in the Pacific Division, they sport an offense that manages a third-worst 2.56 goals-per-game, putting them in the same conversation as Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Philadelphia in terms of offensive inefficiency – all teams currently sitting on the outside looking in at the tournament for the Stanley Cup if it started today.

Of course, having a winning record with an offense as bad as San Jose’s makes the defense look really, really good. In fact, it’s because the Sharks allow only 2.24 goals against-per-game (second in the NHL) that this team is able to thrive.

A major player in that effort is 10-6-1 G Martin Jones, who has managed a solid .926 season save percentage for a 2.23 GAA to rank sixth and fourth, respectively, in those statistics among the 34 goaltenders with at least 10 starts to their names.

But it’s not simply Jones. The Sharks’ physical defense has also been among the league’s strongest, allowing only 29.7 shots against-per-game to rank second-best in the NHL. Stand-out skaters include D Justin Braun (2.2 blocks-per-game), F Logan Couture (team-leading 27 takeaways) and D Brenden Dillon (2.8 hits-per-game), but it’s the entire team’s commitment to excellence in their own zone that really makes this San Jose team a tough out.

Meanwhile, the best word to explain the 15-11-1 Capitals is “average” (we’ll be generous and not tack on any adverbs). Gone are the days of dominating both ends of the ice, as Washington manages the (t)13th-fewest goals (2.89 per game) while allowing the 12th-most against (3.07 per game).

If anyone is going to take the blame for Washington’s struggles, it’s not going to be its stars. W Alex Ovechkin has been stellar this season with his league leading 19 goals (ok, he’s tied for the with Tampa’s RW Nikita Kucherov), while F Evgeny Kuznetsov has been equally stellar on the second line with his 9-20-29 totals.

14-6-0 G Braden Holtby has also been solid, posting a .919 save percentage for a 2.63 GAA to rank (t)12th and 11th, respectively, among the group of 34 netminders mentioned when we discussed Jones.

Instead, what seems to be holding the club back is simply the absence of yesteryear’s stars, specifically those on the blueline. With the exception of D John Carlson and his stellar 2-18-20 totals, there are no defensemen contributing on the offensive end anymore.

Though D Kevin Shattenkirk has moved on to the Big Apple, I think the major reason for this decline is the departure of D Karl Alzner to Montréal. No, Alzner was never a major offensive threat: he managed only 19-98-117 totals in his nine seasons with the Caps (.2 points per game, 13 per campaign). But it’s the fact that Alzner can dominate the defensive zone almost single-handedly that allowed the offense – and his defensive partner – the freedom and versatility to take chances when they had the puck on offense.

Should the Capitals desire to hold on to their playoff spot, I bet they’ll find a way to bring in another solid defenseman of Alzner’s mold. Until then, the Caps are a living example of what can happen when you overpay too many players.

Apparently below average is enough to get by in the Eastern Conference right now, because Washington currently occupies seventh place in the conference and the second wild card position. That being said, I think Washington’s offense has enough in it to get past the Sharks’ vaunted defense and earn two points tonight.


The Dallas Stars didn’t skip a beat playing in back-to-back DtFR Game of the Days, as they beat the Colorado Avalanche 7-2 at the Pepsi Center.

Though it took him a moment to get going, the first period ended up being dominated by First Star of the Game F Tyler Seguin, who buried an unassisted backhanded shot with 5:16 remaining in the frame, followed 4:26 later (RW Alexander Radulov and Third Star D John Klingberg) by a tip-in to set the score at 2-0 going into the first intermission.

In my preview for this game, I commented on RW Mikko Rantanen scoring fewer goals since making the trip to Stockholm, Sweden. He apparently read the column (thanks for reading, Mikko), as he scored a wrist shot (F Nathan MacKinnon) 39 seconds into the second period to pull Colorado back within a goal.

C Jason Spezza (C Devin Shore and Klingberg) returned the two-goal advantage to the Stars 6:09 later with what proved to be the game-winning tally. For a contest clincher, it was far from an incredible marker, but more a reward for good work in the defensive zone. D Erik Johnson and Shore battled along the boards for a solid five seconds before the center was able to move the puck back to Klingberg in the left corner. When the defenseman returned the pass, Shore was off to the races, screaming up the boards before sliding a centering pass to Spezza, who redirected a the puck through G Jonathan Bernier‘s five-hole.

Another player I brought up in my preview was D Greg Pateryn, though it was for his efforts on the other end of the ice. This evening, he was rewarded for his hard work with his first goal of the season (Radulov and LW Jamie Benn), a slap shot scored at the 7:52 mark of the second period to set the score at 4-1. W Blake Comeau (W Matthew Nieto and F Carl Soderberg) was able to net a wrister with 7:15 remaining in the frame, but it proved to be the Avalanche’s final goal of the night.

Second Star RW Brett Ritchie (LW Curtis McKenzie), Shore and Ritchie (C Radek Faksa and D Esa Lindell) again for a second time provided the Stars’ three insurance goals in the final frame to set the 7-2 final score.

G Kari Lehtonen earned the victory after saving 25-of-27 shots faced (.926 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved five-of-nine (.556). Bernier was replaced by G Semyon Varlamov following Pateryn’s goal, who saved 16-of-18 (.889) for no decision.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series seem to be finding their groove again, as they’ve earned points in three-consecutive games. That being said, they’ll need quite a few more wins to catch up with the 34-21-6 hosts, who lead the series by 14 points.

November 25 – Day 52 – Kunitz and the City of Champions

Aren’t holiday weekends great? There’s leftover Thanksgiving food for turkey sandwiches, you get to spend time with your family (ok, maybe that one’s not always super) and there’s sports abound.

It’s no different for the NHL. Even though 28 of the 31 teams in the league were active yesterday, there’s still a whopping 11 games on today’s slate. Six of those contests (Washington at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Buffalo at Montréal [SN/TVAS], the New York Islanders at Ottawa [CITY], Detroit at New Jersey, Chicago at Florida and Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh) will drop the puck at 7 p.m., followed by two more (Vegas at Arizona and Minnesota at St. Louis) an hour later. When the clock reads 10 p.m., a pair of tilts (Winnipeg at San Jose [SN] and Calgary at Colorado [CBC]) find their starts, with tonight’s nightcap – Anaheim at Los Angeles – waiting half an hour before cleaning up another exciting day’s action. All times Eastern.

Who would’ve thunk it: there’s a few games I had already planned on taking note of today. Some that stick out to me include…

  • Washington at Toronto: It took the Capitals six games and six overtime periods to defeat the Maple Leafs in last season’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
  • Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh: For nine years LW Chris Kunitz was a Penguin. Today marks his first return to the Steel City as a member of the Lightning.
  • Minnesota at St. Louis: Hey, it’s another conference quarterfinals rematch, but this one occurred in the Western Conference.
  • Anaheim at Los Angeles: No playoff rematch here; just a good old-fashioned rivalry that dates way back to 1993.

We haven’t featured the Bolts or Pens in at least two weeks. Since I’m sure this will be an emotional night for Kunitz, let’s head up to PPG Paints Arena.

 

Kunitz’ career didn’t begin in Pittsburgh, but it might as well have. After five seasons and one Stanley Cup with Anaheim, Kunitz switched coasts as a result of being traded with F Eric Tangradi a week before the 2008-’09 deadline for D Ryan Whitney.

Former Penguins General Manager Ray Shero made the trade in efforts to create depth scoring on Pittsburgh’s roster behind C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin, and boy did it ever work. In the final 20 regular season games of the year, Kunitz managed 7-11-18 totals with his new club, not to mention adding 14 points in the playoffs en route to his second ring and the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Considering Tangradi and Whitney have played a combined 625 games between them for their entire careers, I’d say the Penguins came out on top of that trade.

Of course, the legend of Kunitz in the Steel City continues beyond his efforts in the 2009 postseason. Over the course of his nine seasons wearing the black and gold, Kunitz amassed 169-219-388 totals (.682 points-per-game) while playing on any one of the Pens’ top three lines.

Though Kunitz spent most of his time on Pittsburgh’s third line last year, his presence was almost always felt as he morphed his game from one of the club’s top scorers to reliable depth players. As his offensive numbers have gone down (he posted only 9-20-29 totals last season), his efforts on the defensive end have only increased, as he managed 480 hits (3.18 hits-per-game) in his final two regular seasons with the Penguins that both culminated in Stanley Cups, his third and fourth.

It’s that willingness to do anything to help his team win that still makes him a desirable piece to any club in this league. That’s why General Manager Steve Yzerman felt the 38-year-old was worth paying $2 million this season to join the Lightning’s fourth line. So far, Kunitz has found moderate success in Tampa with 3-3-6 totals, but it’s his work ethic and the leadership in the dressing room that makes him such a valuable addition.

Of course, it’s not like the league-leading 16-4-2 Lightning needed all that much help scoring anyways. With a top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov leading the way, any offensive contributions Kunitz can make is just icing on the cake that is a league-best 3.77 goals-per-game offense.

While the normal five-on-five attack is scary enough, no other team in the league capitalizes on the power play like the Bolts do. With both Kucherov and Stamkos contributing 14 or more points with the man-advantage, Tampa Bay has converted a league-best 27.4 percent of its power plays.

Meanwhile, life could be going better for the 11-10-3 Penguins, a team that has now lost three-straight games following yesterday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

Though they managed three goals in the second period yesterday, offense has absolutely dried up for the Pens during this skid, as they’ve scored only six goals since November 18 – the (t)fourth-fewest in the NHL. While F Jake Guentzel has been impressive from his spot on the second line (he’s scored three goals in his past three games), a major name that is missing from Pittsburgh’s points list is Malkin, who has missed the Pens’ last two tilts with an upper-body injury.

Even when Malkin returns to health, he’ll still be in search of his scoring form. He hasn’t found the back of the net since November 7 against the Coyotes, resulting in a five-game goalless skid.

With Crosby and Malkin not scoring goals, it’s tough for the Penguins to find too many wins – hence the 3-5-2 record over their past 10 games. Considering there’s been no indication Malkin will return to the ice this evening, it would seem likely the Lightning should get out of Pittsburgh with two points.


On the back of First Star of the Game G Pekka Rinne‘s shutout, the Nashville Predators were able to defeat the St. Louis Blues 2-0 at Scottrade Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Rinne performed excellently to earn his second shutout of the season, as he stopped all 34 shots on goal the Blues sent his way. Second Star G Carter Hutton also played brilliantly, but his one goal allowed on 27 shots faced (.963 save percentage) proved to the deciding marker in this game.

On only Nashville’s second shot on goal and 2:32 into the game, Third Star F Ryan Johansen (F Filip Forsberg and D P.K. Subban) provided the most important play of the game. Subban sent a pass around the boards that ended up on Forsberg’s stick near the right face-off dot, and the forward proceeded to drive towards Hutton’s net. Once he reached the goal line, he centered a pass to Johansen, who was waiting inside the right face-off circle to rip a snap shot over Hutton’s right shoulder.

Austin Watson (Johansen) tacked on an insurance goal on an empty net with 48 seconds remaining in regulation to ensure the Predators’ victory.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have now won two-straight games, but they still trail the 27-19-6 hosts by seven points.

November 22 – Day 50 – Decision day, beta version

The big day is finally here! If stats are right – and, I mean, they usually are – the way the standings read after tonight’s action should include 78 percent of this April’s postseason participants.

Making this evening even more exciting, today is the second day of the 2017-’18 season that features the maximum 15 games. Of course, that means one team has to be left off the schedule, which is why members of the Blues are already consuming their turkey dinners.

As for teams on the clock tonight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with nine of those games (Minnesota at Buffalo, Edmonton at Detroit, Toronto at Florida, Boston at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders, Vancouver at Pittsburgh, Ottawa at Washington [TVAS], the New York Rangers at Carolina and Calgary at Columbus [SN360]) and Chicago at Tampa Bay (NBCSN) half an hour later. Montréal at Nashville (RDS/SN1) drops the puck at 8 p.m., while a pair of contests (Dallas at Colorado and San Jose at Arizona) wait until 9 p.m. before getting underway. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vegas at Anaheim and Winnipeg at Los Angeles – close out what I consider the first quarter of the season at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

One of the games I had circled on my calendar today was Minnesota at Buffalo due to the returns of F Tyler Ennis and LW Marcus Foligno to the Queen City after being traded this June. Combined, they played 14 seasons in Buffalo.

But, considering how important tonight’s action could be when the regular season comes to a close, I don’t have it in me to make the trip to Upstate New York. Instead, I’m far more interested in a game featuring two teams that started slow, but now are only a point outside of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

 

This matchup at PNC Arena is always a special one to me, because it was my first – and still only – NHL hockey game.

But I’m not featuring it simply for personal nostalgic reasons. As mentioned before, these teams are fighting for their playoff lives after rebounding from very slow starts to the season.

After beginning their campaign with a 2-6-2 record, the 10-9-2 Rangers have exploded in the month of November (and Halloween) to win seven of their last nine games.

The biggest impetus for this resurgence has been the Rangers’ offense making the decision to dominate games. Not only does possessing the puck give New York a better chance of scoring – which it does with ease, by the way, managing 32 goals since Halloween to rank (t)fifth-best in that time – but it also alleviates the pressure on the defense and 9-6-2 G Henrik Lundqvist, whose .91 save percentage since the start of last season is noticeably lower than his career .92 effort.

Leading that offensive charge in the Big Apple is none other than C Mika Zibanejad, whose 10 points in the last nine games top the clubhouse leader board. With seven of those points being assists, Zibanejad’s chemistry with Pavel Buchnevich is almost palpable, as the sophomore winger has warmly embraced his role as the first line’s goalscorer.

In 41 games last season, Buchnevich scored eight goals – a decent enough total for a rookie drafted in the third round. Only 21 games into this campaign, he’s raised his game another level to already match that total, and I’d argue it’s a safe assumption to say he’ll find more than a few more. I could be over-hyping Buchnevich, but I think he has the potential to compete with the likes of Aaron Judge and Kristaps Porzingis for the title of best scorer in town.

Of course, he’ll also need to compete with a member of his own team, at least for the time being. Though W Michael Grabner is only a lowly third-liner, he’s actually been the most potent depth weapon the Blueshirts have at their disposal, as his six goals since Halloween lead the team over that stretch.

There’s just something about playing in New York City that brings out the best in Grabner, because joining the Rangers last year lit a flame that had been dormant since his days with the Islanders. While playing for the blue-and-orange, the Austrian averaged .3 goals-per-game over the course of his five seasons. That attracted the attention of Toronto, who traded for him but received only 18 points out of the transaction in the 2015-’16 season.

Since returning to The Big City, Grabner has gotten right back to his scoring ways much to the Rangers’ delight. He’s scored .37 goals-per-game in a Rangers sweater, giving him decent 9-2-11 totals given his spot on the depth chart.

If any team is capable of slowing down New York, I’d bet on the 9-6-4 Hurricanes, whose 2.68 goals against-per-game is the third-lowest in the Eastern Conference and seventh-best in the entire NHL.

No team in the East plays defense like Carolina. Led by the impressive efforts of F Jeff Skinner (team-best 18 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (club-leading 2.5 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (team-high 2.2 hits-per-game), the Canes allow only 29.2 shots to reach 6-4-4 G Scott Darling, which is important considering the 29-year-old’s .909 season save percentage is nowhere near the .924 he posted last year in Chicago.

Of course, the source of this season’s momentum was the offense’s performance at the end of last season. While averaging 2.95 goals-per-game is not exactly dominant (it’s the [t]15th-worst effort in the league, after all), it seems like the Canes are starting to find momentum a month into the season. Led by F Teuvo Teravainen‘s 5-7-12 effort since November 7, Carolina has managed 25 goals –  the fourth-most in the NHL in that time.

Another weapon the Rangers need to keep an eye on is the wing opposite Teravainen on the top line: Sebastian Aho. After starting the season on a 14-game goalless skid, he’s finally found his touch to score a goal in each of his last four games. With Staal having a scoring renaissance à la his last season in Pittsburgh in 2011-’12 (you know, basically his only good year when he managed 25-25-50 totals), this line has – at least at the moment – few peers (shh, stop talking Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov).

When the Hurricanes’ offense is gelling like this, they’re tough to stop – hence the 5-1-1 record over their past seven games. Should they continue that momentum and keep playing the sout defense they have all year, the Canes should be a lock to win tonight’s game and potentially pull into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.


Scoring continues to be a problem for the Montréal Canadiens, as they lost 3-1 to the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

While it’s good to find success on the power play, it must be partially embarrassing to the Habs to know their only goal in this game was struck as the result of a man-advantage. With RW Brett Ritchie serving time in the penalty box for hi-sticking D Joseph Morrow, RW Brendan Gallagher (LW Charles Hudon and Morrow) broke the scoreless draw with 7:56 remaining in the second period.

After that, this game almost entirely belonged to the Stars. That was made no more apparent than in the final 100 seconds before the second intermission when Dallas scored two quick goals to take the lead. The first belonged to First Star F Devin Shore (D John Klingberg and D Esa Lindell) courtesy of a wrist shot struck with 1:38 remaining in the period, followed only 59 seconds later by a wrister from Third Star F Jason Spezza (F Tyler Seguin and Shore) that proved to be the game-winner.

Just like Spezza has been taught his whole life, good things happen when you hang out near the net. Just before Seguin ripped his snap shot from between the left face-off circle and the goal line, Spezza moved from screening G Charlie Lindgren to moving to the top of the crease, pushing Morrow out of position in the process. Though the netminder was able to block Seguin’s shot with his left shoulder, the loose puck was prime for the taking for a relatively uncovered Spezza. Even though Morrow tried to knock him down before he could take possession, Spezza had just enough time to tap the puck to the far post before Lindgren’s left skate sealed the gap.

Both defenses really clamped down in the third period, as a total of only 14 shots were fired between the two teams. As a result, Montréal was unable to find a goal to level the game and Head Coach Claude Julien was forced to pull Lindgren for an extra attacker. With 27 seconds remaining in regulation, Seguin (RW Alexander Radulov) took advantage of the gaping cage to score an insurance empty netter and set the 3-1 final score.

Second Star Ben Bishop earned the victory after saving 29-of-30 shots faced (.967 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lindgren, who saved 26-of-28 (.929 save percentage).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a five-game point streak thanks to Dallas’ victory last night. The win sets the hosts’ record at 27-17-6, which is 11 points better than that of the roadies.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 5

Player of the Week: Nikita Kucherov

Tampa is kind of making these choices too easy every week.

The hottest team in the league continued to roll, and the hottest line in the league followed suit. Linemates Vladislav Namestnikov (4 goals, 1 assist) and Steven Stamkos (1 goal, 5 assists) were certainly no slouches, but Kucherov’s 2 goals and 7 points in 3 games were easily the most impressive output of the week, especially considering both goals and 6 of those points were in the first 2 games of the week.

Kucherov is even being talked about as having a shot at 50 goals in 50 games. While it’s certainly still quite a ways away, it will definitely be interesting to see if he can reach the fabled mark.

Team of the Week: Toronto Maple Leafs

Fans of Steve Dangle’s LFR series will know that this was a week chock full of victory puppies.

After a very shaky stretch that saw the Leafs nearly fall all the way back to a .500 record after a scorching start, things looked increasingly bleak as they learned they’d be without superstar Auston Matthews heading into this week’s 4-game schedule. But the loss of #34 seemed to light a spark under his teammates’ collective tails.

Toronto opened the week hosting the Golden Knights and whoever they could find willing to throw on some goalie pads (we love ya, Max) and the two squads treated us to an extremely fun night that ended in a 4-3 Leafs victory on the strength of a silky shootout goal from Mitch Marner. They would follow that effort up with a 4-2 victory over Minnesota, heading into a back-to-back home-and-home with arch rival Boston.

Now, the Bruins are more Providence than Boston right now as they deal with a slew of injuries, particularly in the forward group, but credit them for putting up one heck of a fight at the ACC on Friday night as they came just 60 seconds from victory before James van Hockey (who notably had 4 points in the 2 games against the Bruins) tied the game and sent it to overtime. In overtime, Patrick Marleau touched the ice, so the team he played for won the game. (If you’re not familiar with Marleau’s ridiculous GWG stats, go have a look. Legitimately about 1/5th of his career goals have won a game.)

Saturday night the Leafs would wrap up a Matthews-less week 4-0 after a 4-1 victory over the Bruins in Boston, with backup goalie Curtis McElhinney shining in net. The Leafs now get 4 days of rest, riding a boatload of momentum, and likely will see the return of Matthews the next time they hit the ice. Maybe hope your team doesn’t play them anytime soon.

Game of the Week: Los Angeles Kings 4 @ Anaheim Ducks 3 (OT), Tuesday November 7th

The NHL likes to think of Wednesday as rivalry night, but boy were they a day late this week.

What was easily the most entertaining game of the year to this point (in this humble writer’s opinion) saw some fantastic stat lines. 7 goals, 79 shots, 54 hits, 51 penalty minutes, and 12 power plays should tell you what sort of game you missed if you didn’t happen to catch this barn-burner.

To put the insanity of this game into simple terms, Jared Boll opened the scoring. Yeah, that Jared Boll! Isn’t that spectacular?! Like, okay, Brandon Montour did 99% of the work and just had his wrap-around attempt bounce onto Boll’s stick so he could hack it into an open net, but who really cares? Somebody get that man a cookie.

Sami Vatanen would send the Ducks up 2-0 later in the 1st just as their power play opportunity expired, and for most of the 1st period the Ducks looked like they had the game by the throat. If not for some simply spectacular goaltending (see also: strategical flailing) by Jonathan Quick, this game could have gotten out of hand early. But after watching their goaltender perform miracles for most of the opening frame, the Kings decided maybe they should help him or something, so Anze Kopitar figured he’d go ahead and score a goal with just over 3 minutes remaining to send the teams to the locker rooms with Anaheim leading 2-1.

The second period saw less offense and more punches in the face. Jonathan Quick attempted to help Derek Forbort ruin Corey Perry‘s day, but the referees felt that someone with a full cage getting into fisticuffs with someone who isn’t wearing a full cage isn’t decidedly fair, so Andy Andreoff (great name, btw) had to go to the penalty box and feel Quick’s shame for him. Jared Boll would later fight Andreoff, I would assume feeling that Andy should earn his own time in the penalty box and not just bum it off of others. Oh, also Rickard Rakell and Adrian Kempe scored goals, so that was kinda neat.

The Kings absolutely mugged the Ducks in the 3rd, racking up 17 shots on John Gibson to just 6 mustered against them, but only Dustin Brown managed to get one past the Anaheim netminder, so off to bonus hockey we would go, knotted at 3. It would take nearly 4 minutes of 4-on-4 madness to decide the game, but finally Nick Shore would complete the Kings’ comeback and end a terrific night of hockey and shenanigans.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Jarome Iginla is still unsigned (podcast listeners will appreciate that), but he says he’s not ready to retire. I think he should play on a line with Jagr in Calgary, and we can nickname the line the Geri-hat-tricks or something like that.

Roberto Luongo picked up career win number 455 this week, passing Curtis Joseph for 4th all-time in that category. I’m pretty sure nobody above him is better at self-deprecating Twitter humor, though, so really he’s probably the greatest of all time.

Brian Boyle scored his first goal since returning to the Devils lineup, and his celebration was pretty much the most sincere display of happiness that doesn’t include a dog that you’ll ever see.

The Hockey Hall of Fame inductee class of Danielle Goyette, Clare Drake, Jeremy Jacobs, Dave Andreychuk, Mark Recchi, Teemu Selanne, and Paul Kariya was one for the ages, and if you need a solid laugh, check out the back-and-forth between longtime friends Selanne and Kariya, some of the finest chirping you will ever find.

November 9 – Day 37 – The best in the business

It’s your favorite day to head to your local rink! It’s Thirsty Thursday! May all of our readers – of legal age, of course – enjoy a responsibly fun-filled night at the game!

Alright, I’ll stop impersonating your dad now.

With seven games on the schedule this evening, there’s a decent selection of NHL action to choose from. Two of those contests (Edmonton at New Jersey and Chicago at Philadelphia [TVAS]) drop the puck at 7 p.m., half an hour before Minnesota at Montréal (RDS/TSN2). 8 p.m. marks the start of Arizona at St. Louis, followed by Detroit at Calgary an hour later. Finally, the West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. when Vancouver pays a visit to Anaheim, followed 30 minutes later by tonight’s nightcap: Tampa Bay at Los Angeles (SN). All times Eastern.

Before the season started, I had the Lightning’s annual trip to Hollywood circled for the simple fact that G Peter Budaj could be squaring off against the team he started 51 games for last season. Backup Budaj is in fact starting this evening, but it’s because both clubs hold solid early season leads in their divisions that this a must-watch matchup.

 

 

 

 

 

The 12-2-2 Lightning have been the talk of the town since many pundits have pinned them as Stanley Cup favorites, and they haven’t disappointed. In that same strain, they face a tough task this weekend as they tour the Golden State, but the trip is already off to a great start after Tampa beat the Sharks 5-1 in The Tank last night.

Since G Andrei Vasilevskiy earned his 12th victory of the season last night, Budaj is in line for his third start of the season. With only a 0-1-1 record, he’s still looking for his 2016-’17 groove.

Perhaps he’ll find it tonight in the Staples Center, as he hasn’t been the same since departing the Kings organization. Last season in Los Angeles after being called up from the AHL following G Jonathan Quick‘s lower-body injury that had him sidelined for four-and-a-half months, Budaj managed an impressive .917 save percentage and 2.12 GAA to keep the Kings within reach of the playoffs. Though Los Angeles failed to qualify, it was certainly no fault of Budaj’s.

Considering how well Budaj had performed, the Kings elected to “sell high” and trade him to Tampa Bay for G Ben Bishop (now with the Stars) and a 2017 fifth-round pick on February 26, just in time for last season’s trade deadline. In his six starts since then, he’s managed only an .885 save percentage and 3.16 GAA, an effort far inferior to how he performed in La-La-Land.

Though I suppose it’s possible he left his mojo in his Staples Center locker, it’s more likely he’s a goaltender that simply needs regular playing time to maintain his rhythm. Unfortunately for him, he plays behind a 23-year-old netminder that has posted a .928 save percentage and 2.41 GAA to be among the league’s top-10 goalies. Until Vasilevskiy’s performance drops (which isn’t all that likely), Budaj will simply need to adjust to riding the pine more than he’d like unless he’d prefer to earn ice time with another team after being traded, waived or – in a worst-case scenario – in Syracuse.

Of course, all this talk about who’s in goal is borderline ridiculous considering how good Tampa Bay’s offense is. Sure, the Bolts allow a sixth-fewest 2.63 goals against-per-game, but that effort is more than eclipsed by an offense that is the best in the NHL by scoring 3.94 goals-per-game.

There’s no doubt that a large majority of this attack is coming from the Bolts’ top line of Vladislav Namestnikov (7-10-17 totals), Steven Stamkos (7-21-28) and Nikita Kucherov (15-11-26). Tampa has already buried 63 goals this season, and over 46 percent of those tallies have come off the sticks of these three players.

Making Kucherov’s goal total even more impressive is he’s not doing it by peppering his opposing goaltender. Instead he’s being selective with his opportunities, and he’s been rewarded with a 24.2 shooting percentage on 62 attempts that is the best in the NHL among players who have fired the puck at least 40 times.

Before we move on to the Kings, don’t think for a minute that Namestnikov is included on this line simply to feed pucks to Stamkos and Kucherov. He’s just as potent with the puck on his stick, and that was no more apparent than last night when he scored the last two goals of the game.

If any team poses a threat to the Lightning attack, it’s the 11-2-2 Kings. Led by 9-2-1 Quick, Los Angeles has played the best defensive hockey in the NHL by allowing only 2.27 goals against-per-game.

Considering the Kings’ defense allows a 13th-most 32.5 shots against-per-game, almost all of Los Angeles’ success is the result of stellar play by Quick. The 31-year-old has been nearly unbeatable this year in 12 starts, as he’s stopped 93.7 percent of the nearly 400 shots he’s faced this season for a 2.06 GAA. Only Chicago’s G Corey Crawford can claim better numbers in net, but Quick has a superior record – and at the end of the day, those three numbers are the ones that matter most.

Choosing a winner in this game is tough, because even though I’m more than convinced that the Lightning are the superior team, the Kings do have the benefit of having yesterday off and not having to travel from Northern California. That being said, I have faith that Tampa Bay’s defense can find a way to slow down the Kings’ eighth-best offense to extends its winning streak to three games.


With three goals in the first period, the New York Rangers beat the Boston Bruins 4-2 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

A total of four goals were struck in the first period before an empty second frame. W Pavel Buchnevich (D Ryan McDonagh and W Michael Grabner) got the scoring started 9:53 into the contest with a high-cheese wrist shot, but the Rangers’ lead lasted only 21 seconds before a RW David Pastrnak (Third Star of the Game C Patrice Bergeron and F Anders Bjork) wrister through First Star G Henrik Lundqvist‘s five-hole leveled the game.

It’s remarkable enough that the Blueshirts’ next two goals were struck within 29 seconds of each other, but the fact that they were both scored by Second Star LW Jimmy Vesey is truly extraordinary. Assisted by Buchnevich and C Mika Zibanejad, Vesey buried a wrister with 5:19 remaining in the frame to reclaim the lead for New York.

Vesey’s second goal proved to be the game-winner. The goal-scoring  sequence started when C David Desharnais reset the play from below the goal line to D Kevin Shattenkirk at the top of the right face-off circle. Shattenkirk slung his wrister just wide of the net, but Vesey was able to clean up the mess and beat G Tuukka Rask‘s left skate to the near post.

Though they fired 13 shots at Lundqvist in the second period, the Bruins could not make a dent in New York’s Vesey’s two-goal lead. Instead, Boston couldn’t find its second goal until the 6:44 mark of the final frame when Bergeron (Pastrnak and D Torey Krug) scored a wrister. The Bruins continued to apply the pressure for the remainder of frame by duplicating their second period 13-shot attack, but they couldn’t sneak another goal past King Henrik. They eventually had to pull Rask for an extra attacker, and that’s when W Rick Nash (McDonagh) registered the final goal of the game with eight seconds before the final horn.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to Rask, who saved 29-of-32 (.906).

The Rangers’ home victory snaps a two-game winning streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, hosts in the series now have a 19-14-4 record that is four points better than the visitors’.

November 5 – Day 33 – Rolling Avs vs. a Sandwich

Last Sunday was spectacular, as there was little to no overlap between the three games, meaning fans could focus in on only one game at a time.

With this Sunday’s four-game schedule, we get pretty darn close to that similar situation. The action starts in Edmonton at 4 p.m. when Detroit visits the Oilers, followed two hours later by Colorado at the New York Islanders and Montréal at Chicago (NHLN/RDS/SN) at 7 p.m. Finally, this evening’s nightcap drops the puck at 9 p.m. when New Jersey makes its annual visit to Calgary (SN360). All times Eastern.

If Original Six matchups get you really excited, there’s no doubt the Canadiens-Blackhawks game is the one for you. That being said, we featured Chicago yesterday and I don’t want to feature teams on back-to-back days this early in the season.

Because of that, let’s feature the only game between two teams that are currently in playoff position (because, you know, that’s super important the first week of November).

 

That’s right, you read it correctly: if the standings remain the way they are right now, the 8-5-0 Avalanche and the 7-5-1 Islanders are both on their way to extending their seasons by at least four playoff games.

Even more unpredictable is that Colorado enters tonight’s game riding a three-game winning streak. The Avs offense has been firing on all cylinders since October 28 against the Blackhawks, as it has scored 15 goals (five goals-per-game) for the (t)fourth-most in the league in that time.

Leading the charge over this stretch is none other than the top overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft: F Nathan MacKinnon. Though he personally hasn’t been the goalscorer, his 2-5-7 totals in the past three games have undoubtedly been among the top performances in the league over the past week.

But if MacKinnon isn’t scoring the goals, who is? Answer: RW Mikko Rantanen, who has scored four of his five goals on the season since October 28, including two on that date against Chicago.

Even though he played for a notoriously bad Avalanche offense last season that scored only 2.01 goals-per-game, Rantanen managed a 20-18-38 rookie season in 75 games played lat year. This Finn is an absolute stud with a nose for twine that should be very exciting to watch for the remainder of his career, whether in Denver or elsewhere.

In particular, the Avs have been very advantageous, as they’ve converted a (t)second-best 50 percent of their power plays since last weekend; and as you might expect, MacKinnon and Rantanen have been a major part of that effort. Considering New York’s 79.5 percent kill rate for the season is 11th-worst in the NHL, the Isles would be wise to keep D Johnny Boychuk and his team-leading 11 PIM under control.

Speaking of the Islanders, they’ve also been one of the strongest offenses in the league as their 3.62 goals-per-game is (t)third-best.

New York’s culprit is just as predictable as Colorado’s, though he’s been a lot better about spreading the puck around to both of his wings. C John Tavares has been one of the brightest stars in the league this season (did anyone say contract year?), as his 12 goals are overshadowed only by RW Nikita Kucherov‘s 14.

Even though Tavares is a good great goalscorer, he also makes his parents proud by showcasing his ability to share with the rest of what I’ve affectionately named the Sandwich Line. Linemates F Josh Bailey and F Anders Lee have also seen some solid offensive numbers this season, as they both have point totals at or in excess of 15. In particular, Lee has been the most impressive scorer without a “C” on the front of his sweater, as eight of his 15 points are goals.

With two hot offenses going head-to-head, this contest will almost certainly come down to the defense and goaltender that bend the most without breaking. Though neither blue line is necessarily fantastic, I’m leaning towards New York holding off MacKinnon and Rantanen to earn two points.


Pitching his second shutout in as many starts, Second Star of the Game G Corey Crawford and the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Minnesota Wild 2-0 at the Xcel Energy Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Both Crawford and First Star G Devan Dubnyk were absolutely spectacular in this contest. Both had shutouts through the first two periods, and Dubnyk allowed his lone goal with 5:42 remaining in regulation. Crawford ended the night saving all 24 shots faced, while Dubnyk made 33-of-34 saves (.971 save percentage).

The goal Dubnyk allowed belonged to Third Star F Artem Anisimov (D Duncan Keith and F Patrick Kane), and he didn’t have much of a chance to make the save. For starters, the Hawks had a power play due to rookie F Luke Kunin committing a double-minor hi stick against D Cody Franson, so the Wild’s defenses were already dropped.

Chicago made good work of the advantage, as Kane started with the puck at the right point before passing along the blue line to Keith while Anisimov was setting himself up in the crease as a screen. The defenseman snapped a waist-high shot towards the net that Anisimov deflected towards the far post for the first goal of the game.

F Alex DeBrincat (C Jonathan Toews) tacked on the insurance goal on an empty net with 97 seconds remaining in regulation to secure the win for the Blackhawks.

The Hawks’ victory is the second-straight by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, pulling the visitors within four points of the 17-12-4 home teams.

November 2 – Day 30 – How fun can the DMV can be?

Most Thursdays are busy, and this one is no different. A perfect dozen games are on the schedule, so we should be in for an exciting night of hockey action.

Like most nights do, this evening’s festivities find their beginning at 7 p.m. when two games (Vegas at Boston [SN/SN360/TVAS] and the New York Islanders at Washington) drop the puck, followed by three more (Detroit at Ottawa [RDS2], the New York Rangers at Tampa Bay and Columbus at Florida) half an hour later. 8 p.m. marks the beginning of a second trio of contests (Philadelphia at St. Louis, Montréal at Minnesota [RDS/TSN2] and Dallas at Winnipeg), with a pair of matchups (Carolina at Colorado and Pittsburgh at Calgary) holding an hour before getting underway. Buffalo at Arizona finds its start at 10 p.m., half an hour before tonight’s nightcap: Toronto at Los Angeles. All times Eastern.

There’s reasons aplenty to choose any one game this evening. Here’s just a few I can think of:

  • Vegas at Boston: After being selected in the expansion draft, D Colin Miller makes his first trip back to the TD Garden.
  • New York at Washington: It’s rivalry night in the US Capital!
  • Philadelphia at St. Louis: C Jori Lehtera played for the Blues for three seasons, but he was traded to the Flyers this offseason.

Of those three games, the one that gets me the most excited is taking place at Capital One Arena. Off to the DMV!

 

For those wondering, no: you can’t register for your new license plates at Capital One Arena. This is a different DMV.

I’ve made it a habit of late to feature stellar offenses, and the  7-4-1 Islanders have been nothing short of that so far. Through a month of action, New York has done nothing but average 3.67 goals-per-game, the fourth-highest scoring rate in the entire NHL.

Even among all the talk about his future, all C John Tavares does is score. He’s been an absolute monster to start this season, as his 11-4-15 totals through 12 games played are undoubtedly the best on the team. In fact, his 11 goals are the second-most by any player in the NHL and only two short of RW Nikita Kucherov‘s baker’s dozen.

Tavares’ primary partner in crime is none other than F Josh Bailey, who has managed a 3-11-14 effort so far this year. Tack on F Anders Lee‘s 6-6-12 totals, and you have a first line that has accounted for 20 of the Isles’ 44 goals (45 percent). If the Capitals can’t find a way to squelch what I affectionately refer to as New York’s Sandwich Line (named such because of Bailey, Lee and Tavares’ initials), G Braden Holtby could be in for a long day.

Speaking of 5-3-0 Holtby, it’s been the activity in his end of the rink that has been the biggest struggle for the 5-6-1 Capitals. Of course, even though his .919 season save percentage and 2.75 GAA may not be necessarily indicative of the fact, it hasn’t really been his fault Washington has seen a spike in goals against this season. Holtby has faced 258 shots already this campaign (32.3 per start), which is the second-highest work load among goaltenders with eight or fewer starts this season.

Instead, it’s largely his defense’s fault that the Caps have allowed a seventh-worst 3.42 goals-per-game. That being said, there is one defenseman that has been laying it all on the line for his club: Brooks Orpik.

The former first-rounder has been all over the ice doing the nitty-gritty things to help his team win: he’s throwing hits (three per game); he’s blocking shots (2.6 per game); heck, he’s even providing sparks by earning seats in the penalty box (his eight penalty minutes are [t]second-most among Washington defensemen). If Head Coach Barry Trotz knows nothing else about his team, he knows Orpik will do everything short of scoring to help the team in red (he hasn’t registered a marker since his three-goal explosion in 2015-’16).

Fortunately for Holtby, the Islanders’ 30.4 shots-per-game is the 10th-lowest in the NHL, so his defense should be able to manage this evening’s onslaught for the most part. If they can’t, I think this could be the Isles’ third-straight victory.


Bolstered by First Star of the Game G Cory Schneider‘s first shutout of the season, the New Jersey Devils beat the Vancouver Canucks 2-0 at Rogers Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

I predicted a competitive contest, and that’s exactly what we got. Only one goal was registered in the opening 59:44 of play (read: basically the entire game), and the only reason W Drew Stafford (Third Star F Taylor Hall) was able to score the Devils’ insurance marker was due to Second Star G Jacob Markstrom abandoning his post for the Canucks’ extra attacker.

Otherwise, this was a game dominated by the goaltenders. Schneider certainly earned his shutout, as Vancouver threw everything it had at him. He saved all 37 shots he faced to earn his first clean sheet since on the road since January 16, 2016.

Markstrom was also exemplary, as he saved all but one of his 25 shots faced (.96 save percentage) in his third loss of the season.

Unfortunately, it was that lone blemish, scored courtesy of RW Jimmy Hayes (Hall) with 9:51 remaining in the second period, that proved to be the deciding goal – and Markstrom had actually already performed brilliantly on the play.

Hall entered the offensive zone screaming up the far boards to set himself up for a quick wrist shot against Markstrom. The netminder did exactly what he needed to, using his left pad to direct the shot towards to his right. Unfortunately for him, Hayes was the first to reach the loose puck, and he banged a slap shot from above the right face-off circle off the far post.

Jersey’s victory is the second-straight by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. That being said, the 16-10-4 home teams still own a six-point advantage in the series.