Tag Archives: Leafs

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 2

Player of the Week: Jaden Schwartz

Calm down, Lightning fans, you’ll get your turn.

I could have easily chosen either of the dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in Tampa, who have been going Harlem Globetrotters on every team they’ve come into contact with, but I think Schwartz deserves some props. The diminutive Blues winger has always been a very good under-the-radar guy, usually playing 2nd fiddle to his linemate Vladimir Tarasenko. But Schwartz made the headlines this week, with a hat trick against the Blackhawks on Wednesday, followed up the next night with another goal against Colorado, and finished off with an assist against Vegas Saturday night (more on that game later). All in all, a 4-goal, 5-point week in 3 games is more than enough to earn Schwartz this completely meaningless nomination.

Team of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning

Alright, we good, Bolts fans? We square? Cool.

The Lightning have looked borderline immortal so far this season, with a 7-1-1 record bolstered by this week’s 3-0-1 stretch. But it’s not just that near-flawless week putting them here, it’s how they did it. Tampa’s 3 victories came by a combined score of 12-3 (granted, a big part of that percentage was the 7-1 sha-lacking they put on Pittsburgh), and if not for a sweet little backhand move by Kyle Palmieri in the 3rd round of the shootout in New Jersey (oh, more on that game later, too), the Bolts could have walked away with a perfect week.

Game(s) of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning 4 @ New Jersey Devils 5 (SO), Tuesday October 17th & St. Louis Blues 2 @ Vegas Golden Knights 3 (OT), Saturday October 21st

It simply wasn’t possible to leave either of these games out.

First up, we had the current Team of the Week squaring off with the former Team of the Week, in a battle of two of the league’s hottest clubs. What we got was 72 total shots on goal, 35 hits, 9 power plays (resulting in 3 goals), and a whole mess of fun. The game started with Cory Schneider making a terrific paddle-down save on Brayden Point just moments into the action, and just a few minutes later Drew Stafford let a seemingly harmless wrister go from the right wing boards that eluded a rusty Peter Budaj (his first game action since the preseason) and gave the Devils the 1-0 lead. Budaj would settle down a bit in the next few minutes making a few quality stops, eventually leading to his team tying the game, and taking the lead just minutes later, on the strength of goals from Vladislav Namestnikov and Ondrej Palat. It would be short-lived, though, as just 4 minutes later a top shelf power play rocket from Palmieri would even the score, and Brian Gibbons would follow suit in the final minute of the period to send New Jersey to the room with the lead.

Things settled down on the scoreboard for most of the 2nd period, although both goaltenders were still busy. Finally with just under 6 minutes to play Kucherov would fire a rocket directly from Russia with love and even the score, before linemate Stamkos would give the Lightning the 4-3 lead in the closing minutes of the 2nd. Tampa did their best to lock the game down the rest of the way, but finally with just over 4 minutes remaining Stafford would bury his own rebound to cap off a gorgeous passing play, score his 2nd of the night, and send it to overtime. A relatively tame 3-on-3 period would send it to the shootout, where Palmieri’s nifty mitts would deposit the only biscuit of the frame and send the Jersey faithful home happy.

Now onto a Saturday night in Vegas, where the upstart Golden Knights would look to make history by being the first franchise to ever start its inaugural season with 6 wins in 7 games.

Things weren’t looking great for the Golden Knights early on, as the Blues peppered young Malcolm Subban mercilessly in the opening frame, St. Louis eventually holding an 18-4 shot advantage when the period came to a close. But Subban managed to limit the damage to only a lone Magnus Paajarvi tally and get his team into the dressing room only down 1-0. Vegas would feed off of the strong play of their goaltender, and reward him in the 2nd period with power play tallies from both Reilly Smith and Colin Miller, and they’d take a 2-1 lead into the 3rd period.

Unfortunately for Vegas, just past the midway point of the 3rd period Subban would appear to strain his groin kicking out his right pad for a save, and would have to be helped from the ice, leaving the task of surviving the continued St. Louis onslaught to another youngster, former Blue Jackets prospect Oscar Dansk. Unfortunately for the young Swede, the first shot he faced would be an Alex Pietrangelo one-time bomb from the high slot with just over 5 minutes to play, drawing the game even once again on a shot that no goaltender could be expected to do anything about. The Blues would do everything in their power to get the winning goal past Dansk in the closing minutes, including a Schwartz tip that got behind the Vegas netminder but went wide of the net with just 8 seconds on the clock, but the youngster held the fort and took the game to extra time.

Overtime brought another golden opportunity for Schwartz, who found himself with all alone in the slot with a clear lane to shoot, only to be bested by the right leg of Dansk. Then Brendan Leipsic would jump on a turnover to break in all alone, but Jake Allen met his backhand with a flash of the leather to keep the game going. But just over a minute later, and with less than 30 seconds left, Smith would jump on a loose puck, glide into the St. Louis zone, and float a beautiful pass to a streaking William ‘Wild Bill’ Karlsson who ripped a one-timer over the two-pad stack of Allen to send the building into bedlam and the Golden Knights into the history books.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Despite their apparent ability to win with anyone wearing goalie pads in net (I could see a Twitter campaign for this being a hit), Vegas’ injury situation is no laughing matter. Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with the effects of a concussion (which as we know really doesn’t have a set recovery time), and Subban is out for at least a month. The goaltending duties now fall on Dansk and Maxime Lagace for the foreseeable future. If there’s any consolation to be found in this for the Golden Knights, it’s that they’ve had tremendous success with injury replacements so far. Subban played very well in Fleury’s absence, and Alex Tuch (who was called up to replace the injured Jon Marchessault) has 2 goals and 3 points in his first 3 games with the club.

Roman Polak has signed a 1 year deal with the Maple Leafs, in what was almost certainly just a plot to further shorten the useful lifespan of Steve Dangle’s heart.

Potential big-money bet: Does Montreal fire Claude Julien and replace him with Michel Therrien?

Side bet: Does Therrien walk into that press conference to Eric Bischoff’s “I’m Back” entrance music?

Side-side bet: Over/under on amount of sticks Carey Price destroys before Montreal’s next victory.

If you haven’t seen/heard/read any of Ed Olczyk‘s comments from his return to broadcasting (both on Wednesday in St. Louis for the NBCSN broadcast or Thursday in Chicago to call the Hawks/Oilers game) while in between chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer, please do yourself a favor and go find them. Truly inspiring stuff from one of the best in the business, and the standing ovations he received at both games are enough to give anyone chills.

On a somewhat related topic, Brian Boyle also made his return to action, this time on ice in a full-contact practice on Sunday. Boyle has been battling a form of cancer that attacks bone marrow, but cleared the final ‘hurdle’ in his treatment regimen to be able to get back on the ice with his teammates. Once he and his coaches feel he is fully into game shape, we should see the big man out of Boston College going back to work.

October 23 – Day 20 – There will be goals

Another Monday, another start to the work week. It’s the same for hockey players, which is good for us; there’s nothing better than sitting back and taking in a game after a day’s work.

For those planning on doing just that this evening, you’ll have to games to choose from – both dropping the puck at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It’s two West vs. East matchups, as Los Angeles makes its annual trip to Toronto (TVAS) and San Jose takes on the New York Rangers (NHLN/SN).

With the Rangers and Sharks both off to slow starts this season, we have to turn our attention to the Air Canada Centre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When two of the current top-five teams in the league square off, it’s must-watch TV.

If it’s possible to be hotter than a 6-0-1 record indicates, the Kings have discovered how as they’re riding a four-game winning streak coming into tonight’s game.

Los Angeles has a long history of being a defensively-minded club, and this year is no different. Allowing an average of only two goals against-per-game, LA might as well be playing with the Great Wall of China in front of its net.

That wall has a name though, and it’s G Jonathan Quick. Having already earned a 5-0-1 record, Quick has returned to the elite status every fan at the Staples Center was hoping for following his lower body injury, as he’s rocking an impressive .938 save percentage and 1.99 GAA, numbers that pale only in comparison to Chicago’s G Corey Crawford (.945, 1.86).

To continue my analogy (because why not?), the wall alone was not expected to be the nation’s lone defender. Similarly, the Kings don’t rely only on Quick, as their defense is also 13th-best in the NHL in the shots-against category, allowing only an average of 31.4 per game. Two defensemen that deserve a lot of the credit are Derek Forbort and Alec Martinez, as both have blocked 16 shots this season, and C Anze Kopitar leads the team with eight takeaways. Martinez’ effort has been particularly exemplary, as he’s amassed his shot blocks in only four games played.

I need to admit something to you: I may have lied when I said this season has been no different in regards to the Kings’ defensive gusto. That part is true, but Los Angeles has also been one of the best offenses in the game, averaging 3.86 goals-per-game to rank third-best in the NHL.

The top line – especially W Dustin Brown and Kopitar – has been nearly unstoppable in the Kings’ first seven games played. Brown and Kopitar have posted almost identical numbers en route to their 11-point efforts, as the captain has managed 6-5-11 totals while Brown has produced a 5-6-11 contribution.

If the Maple Leafs want to win this game, their defense had better make a point of shutting those two down and instead take their chances with the bottom-nine.

Playing decent defense shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for Toronto, which allows a 14th-fewest 32 shots against-per-game. Blocking 3.4 shots-per-game, D Nikita Zaitsev has been a mastermind at keeping pucks off G Frederik Andersen (he averages 3.4 blocks-per-game to lead the team), which has proven necessary given Andersen’s inconsistent play.

5-2-0 Andersen has started all but one game for Toronto this season, and for good reason – he’s definitely better than G Curtis McElhinney. Then again, that’s not exactly all that hard to do, as McElhinney allowed three goals Wednesday to a Detroit team that looks to be trending in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Andersen has managed only an .892 save percentage and 3.41 GAA, marking him the second-worst goaltender in the league with at least five starts to his credit.

Maybe that explains Toronto’s (t)eighth-worst 3.5 goals against-per-game, huh?

As you might guess with Toronto’s goaltending situation, there’s a lot of pressure on the offense to keep the Leafs competitive. Fortunately for them, they drafted that C Auston Matthews guy last year, who’s absolutely perfect for the job. Just like we all expected, the sophomore from Arizona has been among the best scorers in the league to start the season, as he’s already registered 7-5-12 totals in eight games.

But what might be Matthews’ most important statistic coming into tonight’s game is his shooting percentage. He’s a managed a goal on 31.8 percent of his shots, which is best on the team among those that have fired the puck more than 10 times.

Remember Quick’s godlike .938 save percentage? Goals will not be easily earned, meaning a pure shot like Matthews’ will be necessary to earn victory.

Now’s the time to make a pick, which is very tough given the Maple Leafs’ solid 3-1-0 record at home. That being said, I have full faith in Quick and his offense to invade the Air Canada Centre and earn two points for the Kings.


With a dominant three-goal second period, the Vancouver Canucks beat the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 at Little Caesars Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This contest remained scoreless until First Star of the Game LW Sven Baertschi (Third Star C Bo Horvat and RW Brock Boeser) buried a backhanded shot with 5:26 remaining remaining in the first period to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead. The Canucks almost took that advantage into the first intermission if not for a snap shot by W Anthony Mantha (F Gustav Nyquist and D Mike Green), buried with 92 seconds remaining in the frame.

Since Mantha’s marker was the only goal Detroit could muster, W Derek Dorsett‘s (Horvat and D Derrick Pouliot) wrist shot 8:30 into the second period proved to be the Canucks’ game-winning goal.

The play that led to this goal looks to be something Head Coach Travis Green has been running in practice, as the Canucks ran it to perfection. From his own defensive zone, Pouliot banked a blue line-to-blue line pass off the far boards to Horvat to set up Vancouver’s attack. As that was happening, Dorsett started streaking up the ice towards G Jimmy Howard‘s glove side. Almost immediately upon receiving Pouliot’s pass, Horvat sent a centering pass towards Dorsett, which he quickly put on net. Howard made the initial save with his left shoulder, but the puck bounced into the air and eventually rolled down his back into the goal.

That was Dorsett’s fifth goal and sixth point of the year. After starting the season on the fourth line, he’s earned himself a promotion to a top-six position in the Canucks’ lineup and is certainly one of the most exciting stories in Vancouver.

Baertschi (F Alexander Burmistrov) and Second Star RW Jake Virtanen (LW Daniel Sedin) provided Vancouver’s two insurance goals in the remaining time of the second period, and the Canucks limited the Red Wings to only six shots on goal in the third to ensure the victory.

G Jacob Markstrom earned the victory after saving 20-of-21 shots faced (.952 save percentage), leaving the loss to Howard, who saved 33-of-37 (.892).

In the last four games in the DtFR Game of the Day series, all of them have come back as wins for the road teams. With this run of success, visitors in the series have pulled within two points of the 10-6-4 hosts.

October 9 – Day Six – Goals on goals on goals

Happy Columbus Day, if you’re into that sort of thing (yes, Blue Jackets fans, I assumed you would be). Even if you aren’t, I’ll bet you’re into the day off work you potentially have and afternoon hockey.

That’s right, we have three matinees on tap this afternoon, with two (Colorado at Boston [SN1] and St. Louis at the New York Islanders) at 1 p.m. and New Jersey visiting Buffalo two hours later. Chicago at Toronto (NHLN) drops the puck at the usual time of 7 p.m., with Washington at Tampa Bay trailing half an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the beginning of Winnipeg at Edmonton, while tonight’s nightcap, Calgary at Anaheim, waits an hour before starting. All times Eastern.

There’s some great games on the slate today, including an old-timey rivalry and a rematch from last year’s playoffs, but something tells me an Original Six matchup featuring the two best offenses to start the season should prove exceptionally exciting.

 

 

 

 

 

I usually try to not repeat teams in the Game of the Day series early in the season, but its hard to avoid this explosive, star-studded matchup.

That doesn’t even mention that this contest features the top clubs from their respective conferences once you go through all the NHL’s tiebreakers.

If you like offense, this is the game for you. Both teams enter tonight’s game having scored 15 goals in two games played. That 7.5 goals-per-game average makes the Capitals’ five scores-per-game rate look pedestrian by comparison.

Let’s start with the visiting Blackhawks.

Their first action came Thursday night against the two-time reigning-champion Penguins. Chicago did not tremble at any of Pittsburgh’s accolades and instead took the Pens to the woodshed for a 10-1 beatdown. Two days later, the Hawks welcomed another strong Metropolitan Division team to town, only to show the Blue Jackets the door after beating them 5-1.

It’s been a mix of established and budding stars heading the charge for the Hawks so far, as 2015-’16 Art Ross Trophy winner F Patrick Kane (2-4-6 totals) and sophomore W Ryan Hartman (1-5-6) both have a half-dozen points to their credit. Of course, we also can’t forget Chicago’s prodigal son W Brandon Saad and his 4-1-5 effort, including his even-strength hat trick to open the season.

Hartman has arguably been the most pleasant surprise so far. The Hilton Head, S.C. native has been living every little boy’s dream having grown up a Hawks fan and playing on Kane’s second line. Last season, he posted 19-12-31 totals for his 76-game rookie campaign, but he looks well on his way to exceeding those numbers.

Hartman is obviously not going to keep up the three points-per-game rate he’s currently sporting, but if he can continue learning and being a consistent weapon for Kane, Windy City natives will begin second-guessing the LW Artemi Panarin trade even less than they already are following Saad’s performance.

All in all, the Blackhawks should provide the strongest test the Maple Leafs have faced so far in this young season.

Meanwhile, depending how you look at it, Toronto’s offense has perhaps been even more dominant as the Leafs have yet to score less than seven goals in a game. They opened the NHL season with a 7-2 demonstration in Winnipeg, followed by a thrilling 8-5 victory at home against the Rangers Saturday.

What has made the Leafs so dangerous in their first two games is that opposing defenses and goaltenders have no idea where the puck is coming from. Though C Nazem Kadri (2-2-4 totals) and C Auston Matthews (1-3-4) co-lead the squad with four points already in their accounts, seven other skaters already have three points this season – including newcomer F Patrick Marleau and his two-goal performance (both at even-strength, I might add) against the Jets.

Of course, Marleau is best known for his 19 seasons in San Jose, but the Sharks lost out on their bid to resign the 38-year-old when he elected to sign a three-year, $6.25 million contract in Toronto. At first glance, it seemed General Manager Lou Lamoriello overpaid for a senior player coming off his third-consecutive season of declining offensive production, but – similar to Chicago’s situation with Hartman – if Marleau can keep posting points from Toronto’s third line, he should prove the shrinking collection of doubters wrong.

Quick sidebar: During the preseason, I wrote about a team that uses its third line for depth scoring instead of the usual checking team. That squad is currently the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to say yet that this Leafs team is destined to hoist some hardware, but a similar character could be forming in Hogtown.

I’m of the opinion that two-time Jennings Trophy-winner G Corey Crawford (.968 save percentage) and Chicago’s defense is far superior to one-time Jennings recipient G Frederik Andersen (.903, 3.5 GAA) and Toronto’s blue line, so the Hawks should be able to escape the Air Canada Centre with two points.


On the back of First Star of the Game G Henrik Lundqvist‘s 62nd regular-season shutout of his career, the New York Rangers were able to best the Montréal Canadiens 2-0 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The game remained a scoreless draw for much of the first period until D Brady Skjei (W Michael Grabner and F J.T. Miller) “buried” what proved to be the game-winner on G Carey Price.

It was a quick play off a face-off in New York’s offensive zone. Miller won the resumption of play, but it was Grabner that swatted the puck towards the near boards to Skjei. The defenseman advanced the puck along the wall to the end line before attempting a centering pass to Grabner at the top of the crease. At first glance, it appeared D Shea Weber had Grabner under wraps, but he instead proved to be the final one to touch the puck, as Skjei’s pass deflected off his right skate and into the net.

After a second period devoid of goals for either team, the Habs brought their strongest offense in the third period when they fired 13 shots at Lundqvist’s net, but they couldn’t find a tying goal. Instead, it was Second Star C Mika Zibanejad (Third Star W Pavel Buchnevich and F Chris Kreider) that found the back of the net, setting the 2-0 final score with a wrist shot.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving all 34 shots-on-goal he faced, while Price was able to save only 23-of-25 (.92 save percentage) in defeat.

Thanks to the Blueshirts finding their first victory of the season, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now hold a one-point advantage over the roadies with a 3-2-1 record.

October 4 – Opening Day – Let’s get this show on the road

You know when you go to a Mexican restaurant and they bring you chips and salsa? That’s great, but what you’re really looking forward to is what you ordered: those sizzling fajitas or a burrito stuffed to the max.

That’s exactly what the first day of the regular season is like. Preseason was fun, but now it’s time to feast.

As has been NHL custom since the 2014-’15 season, the league will open play with four contests this evening. The festivities officially begins at 7 p.m. when Toronto visits Winnipeg (SN and TVAS) in a matchup of the top two picks from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, followed an hour later by St. Louis at Pittsburgh (NBCSN) for the Penguins’ banner raising ceremony. Round two finds its start at 10 p.m. with Calgary at Edmonton (SN and TVAS), trailed half an hour later by Philadelphia at San Jose (NBCSN). All times eastern.

In Season One of the “Game of the Day” series, we featured only one game. Last year, that number exploded to include all four opening day contests.

This season, let’s rein things in a bit and focus on one game per nation. Canada, you’re up first!

 

Given the Battle of Alberta happening later tonight, picking Canada’s featured game was a tough decision. There is no shame in wanting to watch a hard-fought rivalry C Connor McDavid and the Oilers dominate their first game of the season.

Unfortunately, that pales in comparison to the opportunity to take in the first of only two meetings of the season between RW Patrik Laine and C Auston Matthews.

There’s no doubt these offenses are capable of scoring. The Leafs registered 251 goals last season to rank fifth-best in the league, and Winnipeg trailed them by only two tallies to tie Columbus for sixth-most markers.

Of course, a lot of that offense came from each club’s respective first-round pick last year. Reigning Calder-winner Matthews buried all four goals in his NHL debut against the Senators en route to a 40-29-69 season. Not to be outdone too much, Laine – who finished in second in Calder voting last year – got his 36-28-64 rookie campaign kick-started with a power play goal and an assist on C Mathieu Perreault‘s game-tying goal in his first NHL game.

For those keeping score, Laine was the only one to win his first game in the big leagues. Then again, Matthews beat Laine to the playoffs… Suffice to say, these guys are good at their jobs.

With all that in mind, I’m most focused on Winnipeg’s net this evening for G Steve Mason‘s debut. While I am of the opinion that Mason is a minor improvement over last year’s starter G Connor Hellebuyck (seriously, emphasis on “minor” – to the point of being negligible), tonight may not be the best to prove that claim. In his only game against the Leafs last year, Mason – then a member of the Flyers – allowed six goals, including four in the third period. Of particular note was D Martin Marincin‘s tally to tie the game at three-all, his lone goal of the season and only the third of his career.

Yeah, that probably left a bad taste in Mason’s mouth when he heard that.

While making improvements in net is probably a good idea in the next couple years for General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff (all three current goalie contracts will be off the books by the 2019 offseason), he would also be wise to work on his defense that allowed an 11th-worst 31 shots against-per-game last year.

Then again, maybe all the Jets needed was a year of experience and an offseason of training. We’ll know if that’s the case based on the performance of another player entering his second season: D Josh Morrissey. At the ripe age of 21, he registered a +6 rating and a team-leading 139 blocks last season. If he can continue to grow into the shutdown blueliner he hinted at last year – and, if we get really greedy, improve on his 20 points (there’s few better to learn from than D Dustin Byfuglien) – maybe Winnipeg isn’t as far off the mark as we think.

Until then, Mason will have to be on top of his game to keep the Jets alive in this game – and ultimately the season.

 

As if the action in Manitoba wasn’t fun enough, there’s also the Penguins’ banner raising ceremony to take in. For Pittsburgh supporters, this is a joyous night; for most other hockey fans, it’ll be a night they’re glad to put behind them.

And even after the festivities are complete, fans are going to be treated to quite a hockey game featuring two of the most consistent teams of the past dozen years. The Penguins have qualified for the postseason for the last 11 years – three of which ended with them hoisting the Stanley Cup – for the longest active streak in the league, trailed by the Blues’ fourth-best six-straight playoff appearances.

If there’s one Blue Note ready to play this game, I’d peg newcomer F Brayden Schenn. He’s making his first club-debut since 2011-’12, and the team he was traded from has nurtured a special hatred in him for the black-and-gold.

The former Flyer has been brought into the St. Louis fold to generate more points for an offense that featured only three 50+ point scorers a season ago (RW Vladimir Tarasenko, F Jaden Schwartz and F Alex Steen). Schenn is a talented former first-rounder capable of playing either center or left wing that is coming off a 25-30-55 season, and it looks like he’ll center the second line for Schwartz and W Dmitrij Jaskin to start the season.

Beyond the usual culprits of C Sidney Crosby, RW Phil Kessel and C Evgeni Malkin, one Penguin to keep an eye on this evening is RW Ryan Reaves.  No, he probably won’t score a goal tonight – or maybe even a point at all – but I’m more interested in seeing if he has it in him to bring the muscle against former teammates of seven seasons. And if he does, who does he hit? Who hits back?

Seeing LW Cody McLeod‘s response to playing the Avalanche last season after being traded to Nashville, I have my suspicions on the topic: let’s just say I expect St. Louis’ new enforcer, RW Chris Thorburn, to be dressed this evening.


At least eight points are to be had this evening for these eight teams in action, and I expect Toronto, Pittsburgh, Edmonton and San Jose to be at the top of their respective divisions after all the action is complete.

NHL Schedule Analysis

Welcome to Down the Frozen River’s first-ever attempt at offering some schedule analysis of the upcoming NHL season.

I know what you’re thinking: these types of columns are usually associated with the NFL and not the NHL – or any other league, for that matter, where all teams play at least once per season. But when and where different clubs appear on the  schedule can still play a big role in a team’s success. An important home stand or an ill-timed extended road trip can determine if a club is a buyer or seller at the trade deadline, make or break a squad’s chances for playoff qualification in March or affect seeding in April.

For starters, I’d like to explain how I approach the season. Maybe it’s my varying degrees of affection for the NFL (the only other Big Four league in the United States that uses bye weeks), but I view a campaign in thirds.

Thirds?

Yes, thirds. They may not be perfect thirds, but each section takes on its own characteristics. Take a look at how the NFL arranges its 16-game, 17-week season. For example, during the 2017 season, the NFL’s byes will begin in Week 5 and extend to Week 11, effectively cutting the season into approximate thirds: (1) Weeks 1-4 featuring no byes, (2) Weeks 5-11 and (3) Weeks 12-17 (Week 12 corresponds with American Thanksgiving and the following Sunday/Monday, just to put things in perspective).

Now lets take that approach to the 2017-’18 NHL season, a campaign featuring 82 games for each of its 31 clubs. With the regular season beginning October 4, most teams will play approximately 21 games before American Thanksgiving, another 41 before the trade deadline and 20 to close out the season.

Pretty close to thirds, right? Well, maybe it’s fourths but the middle two are combined… Whatever. My degree isn’t in math.

But regardless of what they are, what do they mean?

Well, if you buy into the stat that teams in playoff position by American Thanksgiving qualify for the postseason over 75 percent of the time, that proves how important a quick start can be. If nothing else, it is certainly an early barometer of which teams are good and which should already be making plans for the 2018-’19 campaign.

Speaking of plans, that leads us to the second part of the season. It involves Christmas Break, the Winter Classic, bye weeks (more on those in a minute) and, of course, the All-Star Weekend in Tampa. Those are all fun and exciting, but most important are the transactions between clubs at this time, as contenders try to shore up chinks in their armor and the lesser clubs (*cough* Colorado *cough*) prepare for the future. This almost ho-hum, business-as-usual state of play is status quo for most of the season, which makes sense why this section is double the games of the other two phases of the year.

Then comes the final push. With the exception of the playoffs, this is some of the most exciting hockey of the season – night in, night out. Almost every game matters not only for playoff qualification and seeding, but also for fully integrating those deadline acquisitions before April 7,  the final day of the regular season, comes to a close.

Having more or less games in comparison to the rest of the league in any of the three sections can have its positives and negatives, but they’re impossible to predict given the unpredictability of hot or cold streaks, injuries and even the weather issues the league has had to deal with the past few years.

Another thing to keep in mind is the still relatively new change to the schedule: the addition of bye weeks. Making their debut only a season ago, the league has done a little tweaking to when each teams’ breaks occur on the calendar.

Last year, the first bye weeks began as early as New Year’s Day when the Islanders and Penguins began their five- and seven-day breaks, respectively, but Anaheim – the last club to take its 2017 hiatus – did not complete its vacation until early March.

What resulted was just over two months of action where fans had to keep track of which clubs had already taken their breaks and which hadn’t and trying to calculate how that affected the standings.

Sound like too much effort? Don’t worry, the league thought so too. This year, all bye weeks will take place in the span of two weeks in January, just before the All-Star Break.

I’m intrigued by this decision. With last year’s setup, the volume of games in a given week did not seem to change enough to be noticeable – which is good. Everybody wants to watch games all the time. But as I mentioned before, 2017’s situation required media, fans and teams to stay on top of which sides had or had not taken their week off.

Although condensing the bye week-schedule resolves that problem, it may also create a lull in the season only two weeks after Christmas Break and a week before the All-Star Break by having only 15 teams active at a time, potentially making January an overall anemic month. We’ll have to wait and see if that is the case, but if my prediction proves correct the NHL might have to find a happy medium between the two formats.

Perhaps the original reason the league condensed the bye week schedule was to account for the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, but that is no longer the case as the NHL has elected not to release its players to their national federations for the February 10-25 tournament. Though some players have said they intend to participate in the tournament regardless of the NHL’s decision to abstain (whether they actually do or not remains to be seen), everyone’s favorite international tournament will certainly have a different flair – especially involving the rosters of usual favorites: Canada and the USA.

The last final major date on the calendar is always the previously hinted at trade deadline. This year, the deadline is scheduled for February 26 at the usual 3 p.m. Eastern time. Like most Mondays, the schedule is fairly light that evening with only five contests taking place (Washington at Columbus, Philadelphia at Montréal, Toronto at Tampa Bay, Vancouver at Colorado and  Vegas at Los Angeles).

After last year’s Cody McLeod episode that featured him fighting and scoring against the Avalanche only a day after being being traded from that very team (he didn’t even leave Denver, instead meeting up with the Predators when they arrived in town), I’m looking forward to even more excitement at this deadline.

For those that enjoy the days where every team is in action, I regret to inform you that the addition of Vegas has made that impossible. Instead, you’ll have to settle for dates that feature 15 contests and leave one club inactive.

Five such days exist this season: October 7 (first Saturday of the season), November 22 (day before American Thanksgiving), December 23 (day before Christmas Eve), January 25 (day before the All-Star Break) and April 7. On those dates, don’t expect to catch Boston, St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh – respectively – as they’ll be just as glued to their televisions as you will be, taking in all the day’s action.

ANAHEIM DUCKS – Campbell Cup runner-up, 105 points

Don’t tell anybody, but the Ducks have won the Pacific Division for five straight seasons. The main reason? An impressive 29-8-4 record at the Pond last season. But don’t let that distract you from a blemish growing in the Ducks’ armor: the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead they’re only 17-15-9 outside Orange County. That road trip to end November just so happens to occur right after Edmonton finishes a five-game home stand, meaning Anaheim may be forced to hold serve within the Pacific Division in an uncomfortable position.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (November 7-19)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 25-December 5)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. New Jersey, at Calgary, at Winnipeg, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Colorado, vs. Minnesota, vs. Dallas and at Arizona

ARIZONA COYOTES – 28th, 70 points

Remember in high school when the football team’s weakest opponent always aligned with homecoming? Keep that in mind when you realize that the Coyotes get to help the Golden Knights open T-Mobile Arena. Also keep in mind Arizona was 12-24-5 away from home last year.

BYE WEEK: January 7-11 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 17 days (February 15-March 3)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in nine days (March 21-29)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Buffalo, at Carolina, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, at Vegas, at Los Angeles, vs. St. Louis, at Calgary, at Vancouver and vs. Anaheim

BOSTON BRUINS – eliminated in first round, 95 points

Usually, rivalry series are supposed to take place over the course of an entire season. Instead, the NHL has elected to schedule all four matchups of one of its premier rivalries in the span of seven weeks, including three meetings in eight days. The Bruins should be relatively happy though, as they’ll get their bye week to prepare for their first visit to the Bell Centre and the Canadiens will have games in Washington and Brooklyn the night before their January 20 and March 3 matchups, respectively, while the Bruins get the nights off.

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (February 17-25)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (February 27-March 10)

LAST 10 GAMES: at St. Louis, at Dallas, at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Florida, at Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay, at Florida and vs. Ottawa

BUFFALO SABRES – 26th, 78 points

Some teams simply struggle on the road. The Sabres were one of those squads last year, amassing only a 13-22-6 record away from Upstate New York. Though a four-game trip in early December doesn’t seem too taxing on the surface, Buffalo will be hard pressed to come back with more than two points as it’ll visit Pittsburgh (December 2), Colorado (December 5), Chicago (December 8) and St. Louis (December 10) before returning home to host Ottawa.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (December 2-10)

BYE WEEK: January 12-17 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (March 10-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Arizona, vs. Montréal, at NY Rangers, at Toronto, vs. Detroit, at Nashville, at Toronto, vs. Ottawa, at Tampa Bay and at Florida

CALGARY FLAMES – eliminated in first round, 94 points

If only one team from the Western Conference gives up its playoff spot this season, I’d bet the house on it being the Flames. Last year’s side had an unimpressive 24-17-0 home record, including a 4-7-0 start over the first two months at the Saddledome. In a cruel bit of irony, the Flames’ longest home stand begins the last weekend of October, so Glen Gulutzan will need to get his troops in order in a hurry to avoid another backwards-step season similar to 2015-16.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 27-November 13)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 15-25)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Anaheim, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, vs. Columbus, vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Winnipeg and vs. Vegas

CAROLINA HURRICANES – 21st, 87 points

In terms of off-season moves, last year’s Predators are this year’s Hurricanes. And, just like last year, everyone will be watching the Canes’ first few games to see if their new additions will be an immediate success. Carolina will certainly be put to the test in those contests, as their opening five matchups are against Minnesota (October 7), Columbus (October 10), Winnipeg (October 14), Edmonton (October 17) and Calgary (October 19). As long as Carolina can head to its sixth game in Dallas with at least five points on the table, I have no doubt the squad can come together and be a real threat in the Metropolitan Division.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (December 5-15)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 15 days (January 30-February 13)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Ottawa, vs. Ottawa, at New Jersey, at Washington, vs. NY Rangers, at Florida, at Philadelphia and vs. Tampa Bay

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – Central Division Champion, 109 points

The Blackhawks have not missed the playoffs since 2008, and I don’t expect that to change this year. That being said, they’ll be tested early and often this year, starting with their first eight games – all against 2017 postseason clubs. In particular, Chicago will have October 14 circled on its calendar, as it represents an opportunity for the Hawks to avenge getting swept by the Predators in April.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 14 days (December 21-January 3)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (January 10-24)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. St. Louis, vs. Colorado, vs. Vancouver, at NY Islanders, vs. San Jose, vs. Winnipeg, at Colorado, at St. Louis, vs. St. Louis and at Winnipeg

COLORADO AVALANCHE – 30th, 48 points

If only the schedule was the only thing holding the Avalanche back from finding success. Instead, their last five games represent a gimme two points for Chicago (March 30), Anaheim (April 1), Los Angeles (April 2), San Jose (April 5) and St. Louis (April 7) – all teams that will be finalizing either a qualification push or establishing their seeding.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (December 27-January 6)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (January 22-February 3)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Chicago, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Vegas, at Vegas, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Chicago, at Anaheim, at Los Angeles, at San Jose and vs. St. Louis

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – eliminated in first round, 108 points

After last year’s dominant performance at the midway point of the season, Columbus won’t be taking any by surprise this campaign – especially with Artemi Panarin, 2016’s Calder Memorial Trophy winner, on the squad. The Jackets face an interesting schedule that doesn’t feature an extended West Coast trip in exchange for any home stand of much worth – their longest stay in Ohio is a measly nine days early in the season with only four games played. But, should this squad keep last year’s positive energy rolling through the summer and cash in on their frequent flyer miles, they could be the most prepared of any for a lengthy postseason and all the travel associated with it.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in nine days (October 19-27)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Three games in five days – 2x (November 2-6; March 27-31)

BYE WEEK: January 13-17 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Boston, at NY Rangers, vs. Florida, vs. St. Louis, at Edmonton, at Calgary, at Vancouver, vs. Detroit, vs. Pittsburgh and at Nashville

DALLAS STARS – 24th, 79 points

A season ago, Dallas was a horrendous 12-24-5 away from the American Airlines Center. That’s what makes a potential late-season playoff push daunting, as the end of March has the Stars departing the Lone Star State for an Eastern road trip that also bizarrely includes a visit to Winnipeg in the middle. As if the travel wasn’t scary enough, all five of the Eastern opponents qualified for the playoffs last year, so Dallas would be very wise to take advantage of a fairly easy October schedule (includes Vegas, Detroit, Colorado twice, Arizona twice and Vancouver) to pad themselves some points in the standings ahead of time.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 16 days (December 29-January 13)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (March 11- 20)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Winnipeg, at Washington, vs. Boston, vs. Vancouver, vs. Philadelphia, at Minnesota, vs. Minnesota, at San Jose, at Anaheim and at Los Angeles

DETROIT RED WINGS – 25th, 79 points

Without even acknowledging the Red Wings’ roster troubles, they’re going to be hard pressed to get back into the playoffs this year given their extended trip away from Little Caesars Arena (that’s still weird to type) at the trade deadline. Between February 25 and March 18, Hockeytown will come to life only once when the Wings host Vegas on March 8. That contest splits what could have been a 10-game, 22-day road trip against steep competition into perfect halves, just for the Wings to get back on a plane to Columbus for another road game the next day.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (November 11-22)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days – 2x (February 25-March 6; March 9-18)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, vs. Washington, at Toronto, at Montréal, vs. Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Ottawa, at Columbus, vs. Montréal and vs. NY Islanders

EDMONTON OILERS – eliminated in second round, 103 points

As if the Oilers weren’t already poised for greatness, their schedule is arranged in a way that they should be competing for the top seed in the Western Conference. Edmonton has three five-game home stands spread throughout its schedule, including one right after the Oil’s six-day bye week that also includes the All-Star Weekend. Add in the fact that their longest road trip is behind them by Thanksgiving and you find a team prepared for anything or anyone that makes the mistake of wandering into Rogers Place.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 17 days (January 20-February 5)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (November 18-26)

BYE WEEK: January 14-19 (six days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Carolina, at Ottawa, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Anaheim, vs. Columbus, at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Minnesota, vs. Vegas and vs. Vancouver

FLORIDA PANTHERS – 23rd, 81 points

Florida opens up its season with a home-and-home series against Governor’s Cup rival Tampa Bay before hosting St. Louis and visiting Pittsburgh. It’s a tough start to what many expect to be another disappointing season for the Panthers, especially giving their awful 19-19-3 record in Sunrise a season ago.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days – 2x (December 11-19; February 12-20)

BYE WEEK: January 13-18 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (February 22-March 4)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Columbus, vs. Arizona, at NY Islanders, at Toronto, at Ottawa, at Boston, vs. Carolina, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston and vs. Buffalo

LOS ANGELES KINGS – 22nd, 86 points

Especially for a club that missed out on the playoffs last year, there is nothing more exciting than seeing the Avalanche twice in the last 17 days of the season. Add in the fact that the Kings also drew Arizona in that stretch and the Kings could be a well-rested club in the first round of the playoffs – if they qualify.

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 12 days (February 9-20)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (March 1-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, at Colorado, at Edmonton, vs. Calgary, vs. Arizona, at Anaheim, vs. Colorado, vs. Minnesota and vs. Dallas

MINNESOTA WILD – eliminated in first round, 106 points

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Scheduler gave to Minny… a tough, nine-game stretch!

Yes, I’m pretty proud of that.

In all seriousness, the Wild are certainly going to be looking forward to the three-day holiday break, as it will signal an end to the nine-game run of playing against eight playoff teams from a season ago. The gauntlet starts on December 8 in Anaheim, followed by a contest in San Jose on December 10 before returning home to host Calgary (December 12), Toronto (December 14) and Edmonton (December 16). The Wild take back to the road to play the Blackhawks (December 17), Senators (December 19), Panthers (Decmber 22) and Lightning (December 23) before hanging up their skates in exhaustion for a few days.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (October 24-November 4)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (December 17-23)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Los Angeles, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, at Nashville, vs. Dallas, at Dallas, vs. Edmonton, at Anaheim, at Los Angeles and at San Jose

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS – Atlantic Division champion, 103 points

March is looking like its going to be a taxing month on the Canadiens, a club that could lose control of a division its won twice in the past three seasons. After the Habs close out their season two-and-a-half month series with rival Boston on March 3, they’ll have to clean up a six-game road trip that involves visits to Tampa (March 10) and Columbus (March 12), host the Penguins (March 15), travel to Toronto (March 17), Pittsburgh (March 21) and Buffalo (March 23), host the Capitals (March 24) and travel to Pittsburgh again (March 31). That’s quite a gauntlet for an aging defense.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (November 7-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 15 days (December 16-December 30)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Florida, at Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Washington, vs. Detroit, at Pittsburgh, vs. New Jersey, vs. Winnipeg, at Detroit and at Toronto

NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Campbell Cup winner, 94 points

Now that the Predators have cemented themselves as one of the big players in the NHL, they’ll need to back up last year’s postseason performance with a big target on their backs. That’ll be no more apparent than in their last 10 games (see below). With the exception of Florida, all of those clubs could be fighting for a playoff spot, making Nashville’s efforts to improve its seeding a difficult affair.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (November 1-7)

BYE WEEK: January 10-15 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in eight days (January 16-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, vs. Minnesota, vs. San Jose, vs. Buffalo, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Washington and vs. Columbus

NEW JERSEY DEVILS – 27th, 70 points

Sometimes the scheduler has a cruel way of making a team a whipping post. That is the Devils’ fate over their last dozen games of the season. It’ll be no surprise that Jersey is solidly out of playoff contention by that time, but they’ll be squaring off with at least 10 teams (they play the Penguins twice) potentially in desperate need of two points to solidify a playoff spot or seed, which will make a tough season even harder for Jersey fans. Keep your heads up though, folks! Hopefully Nico Hischier can lead you back to the Promise Land!

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (December 15-29)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 14 days (March 10-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Carolina, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. NY Islanders, at Montréal, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Toronto and at Washington


NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 17th, 94 points

A year ago, the Islanders missed out on a playoff spot by only a point even though they ended their campaign on a six-game winning streak. The main reason? A slow, 8-10-4 start to the season (specifically a 1-6-1 road record through November) that eventually cost Jack Capuano his job. Surely Doug Weight is aware of this, so I expect him to have his club prepared for their California trip a week into the season. If the Isles aren’t up to snuff, Garth Snow may start fielding calls early.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (October 11-19)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (December 16-27)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Chicago, vs. Florida, at Ottawa, vs. Toronto, at New Jersey, vs. Philadelphia, vs. NY Rangers and at Detroit

NEW YORK RANGERS – eliminated in second round, 102 points

There’s some mean scheduling going on in the Metropolitan Division this season, and that is no more apparent than with the Rangers. The Blueshirts play their last regular season game at Madison Square Garden on March 30, a full eight days before their season finale in Philadelphia. Then again, is any team better prepared to complete its playoff push wearing white than New York? Last season, the Rangers won an impressive 27 games beyond the shores of Manhattan – three more than Chicago, the second-best road team. Making the four-game road trip even less frightening, the Rangers will still be able to sleep in their own beds for at least six of those nights as two of the games are against Jersey and the Islanders.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (October 14-26)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (March 31-April 7)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Columbus, at Philadelphia, vs. Buffalo, vs. Washington, at Washington, vs. Tampa Bay, at Carolina, at New Jersey, at NY Islanders and at Philadelphia

OTTAWA SENATORS – Prince of Wales Trophy runner-up, 98 points

And the winner of the second annual bye week lottery is… the Ottawa Senators! For being runner-up for the Prince of Wales Trophy a season ago, the Sens earned the longest bye week of any club in the league by at least a day. The vacation will be especially useful for the Senators, as they’ll be able to effectively prepare for their imposing five games before the All-Star Break: vs. St. Louis, vs. Toronto, at Minnesota, at St. Louis and vs. Boston.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (October 17-26)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 14 days (November 29-December 12)

BYE WEEK: January 11-17 (seven days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Carolina, at Carolina, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Florida, at Detroit, vs. Winnipeg, at Buffalo, at Pittsburgh and at Boston

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – 19th, 88 points

It seems someone within the Flyers organization offended the schedule maker in the last year, because they have the unfortunate predicament of starting the season on a four-game Western road trip, culminating with a visit to Bridgestone Arena against the current owners of the Campbell Cup, the Nashville Predators. But every cloud has a silver lining, and Philly’s is twofold: not only is that (tied for) the club’s longest road trip, but they also come home to a nice long home stand.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (October 4-10)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 11 days (October 14-24)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Washington, at Detroit, vs. NY Rangers, at Pittsburgh, at Dallas, at Colorado, vs. Boston, at NY Islanders, vs. Carolina and vs. NY Rangers

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – Stanley Cup Champion, 111 points

At this point, I think the Penguins are only concerned with what day the Stanley Cup Finals begin. For those wanting to dig a little bit deeper, we need to look no further than Pittsburgh’s first five games of the season against clubs with playoff aspirations, including one that may or may not feel as if it was robbed of a goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals (*hint* they definitely were).

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 28-November 4)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (December 2-11)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, vs. New Jersey, vs. Philadelphia, at Detroit, at New Jersey, vs. Montréal, vs. Washington, at Columbus and vs. Ottawa

SAN JOSE SHARKS – eliminated in first round, 99 points

The Sharks have home stands aplenty throughout their schedule – but the best one may not be the one you’re thinking of. Sure, they get to spend the first half of March in the Bay Area and play six games, but I expect Brent Burns‘ club is licking its chops even more about its opening five games. Over the first two weeks of the season, San Jose hosts Philly, LA, Buffalo, the Islanders and Montréal – four teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs and one that fell in the first round. If the Sharks can find their rhythm early, they can carry that momentum into their Eastern road swing and try to stake their claim in the Pacific Division.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (October 20-28)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (February 27-March 12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. New Jersey, vs. Vegas, vs. Calgary, at Chicago, at St. Louis, at Nashville, at Vegas, vs. Dallas, vs. Colorado and vs. Minnesota

ST. LOUIS BLUES – eliminated in second round, 99 points

The Blues’ biggest games every year are against Chicago, and 2018 will be no different. This year the matchup earns added importance as the series is backlogged in the season schedule. Game 80 for both teams will take place at Scottrade Center (soon to be the Artist Venue Formerly Known as Scottrade Center), followed only two days later by another contest at the United Center. Given the fact that first and second place in the Central Division has been separated by an average of only 2.75 points over the last four seasons, first round home ice – and maybe even a banner – could be on the line.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 11 days (November 21-December 1)

BYE WEEK: January 10-15 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in 10 days (March 3-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Boston, vs. Vancouver, at Columbus, vs. San Jose, at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Washington, vs. Chicago, at Chicago and at Colorado

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – 18th, 94th

As exciting as hosting the All-Star festivities is, there’s always one negative repercussion that sometimes gets overlooked: the extended time away from home. To allow arena staff and the NHL to prepare a venue for the event – and then return it to its original state – the Lightning will have to make two four-game road trips, before and after the event. That being said, they’ll be handsomely compensated for their time away from Amalie Arena with a long eight-game home stand for almost the entirety of March. But don’t mark those as wins yet, Bolts fans: six of those eight teams qualified for the playoffs last year.

BYE WEEK: January 12-17 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Eight games in 17 days (January 20-February 5)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 18 days (March 3-20)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at NY Islanders, at New Jersey, vs. Arizona, at Boston, at NY Rangers, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, vs. Buffalo and at Carolina

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – eliminated in first round, 95 points

Remember last season when the Maple Leafs finally clinched their playoff spot in their penultimate game? That may be a bit harder to do this year as Toronto has only 18 contests following the trade deadline, tied with Anaheim for the lowest total over that stretch of time. Instead, Mike Babcock’s club will have to get their work done early this year with 23 games before Thanksgiving. Given Auston Matthews‘ four-goal debut a season ago, something tells me that won’t be too big a task.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 12 days (December 20-31)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (January 2-16)

BYE WEEK: January 11-15 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Tampa Bay, at Nashville, vs. Detroit, vs. Buffalo, vs. Florida, at NY Islanders, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Buffalo, at New Jersey and vs. Montréal

VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 29th, 69 points

Last season, Vancouver went a measly 12-26-3 away from Rogers
Arena, the second-worst road record in the league. That’s what makes January so frightening for the Canucks, even if their bye week occurs in the middle of their seven-game road trip. If Vancouver can survive that and is still in the playoff hunt at the end of March, it has a tough five-game home stand that should either more than properly prepare it for the playoffs or allow the squad to set up their April 8 tee times early.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days – 2x (October 26-November 6; January 23-February 3)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 16 days (January 6-21)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vegas, at Chicago, at St. Louis, at Dallas, vs. Anaheim, vs. Edmonton, vs. Columbus, vs. Vegas, vs. Arizona and at Edmonton

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

What better way to build quick interest in the NHL’s newest market than by having not one seven-game home stand in its debut season, but two? The first should certainly be the more exciting of the two, as four of the Golden Knights’ seven opponents failed to make the playoffs a season ago. The better Vegas capitalizes on this …ahem… golden opportunity, the better its chance of achieving the club’s primary on-the-ice objective: finishing ahead of Colorado.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 10-27)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (January 30-February 8)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Vancouver, at San Jose, at Colorado, vs. Colorado, vs. Arizona, vs. St. Louis, vs. San Jose, at Vancouver, at Edmonton and at Calgary

WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Presidents’ Trophy winner, 118 points

Washington’s roster may have taken a hit, but that doesn’t mean the Capitals’ goal has changed. The first four games on their schedule should give us a good impression of what to expect from them this year, as they’ll visit Ottawa, host Montréal, travel to Tampa Bay and host Pittsburgh – four quality sides in seven days that also have their eyes on the postseason.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (November 30-December 8)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (December 19-27)

BYE WEEK: January 13-17 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Dallas, at Detroit, at Montréal, at NY Rangers, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Carolina, at Pittsburgh, at St. Louis, vs. Nashville and vs. New Jersey

WINNIPEG JETS – 20th, 87 points

After the All-Star festivities in Tampa have died down, make sure to turn your attention to Manitoba where Patrik Laine and the Jets could dominate the month of February. The club that missed the playoffs by only seven points a season ago will play 12 games before the trade deadline, the first 10 of which will be at The Phone Booth. If Winnipeg can’t improve on last year’s 22-18-1 home record over that stretch, it could signal an early end for the Jets’ quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

BYE WEEK: January 14-19 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: 10 games in 22 days (January 30-February 20)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (March 4-13)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Los Angeles, vs. Anaheim, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, at Chicago, at Toronto, at Ottawa, at Montréal, vs. Calgary and vs. Chicago

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round – April 23

For at least the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writers are Connor Keith and Nick Lanciani.

 

 

 

 

 

Ottawa Senators at Boston Bruins – Game 6

By: Nick Lanciani

The Ottawa Senators came back in Game 6 to eliminate the Boston Bruins from 2017 Stanley Cup Playoff competition with a 3-2 victory in overtime on road ice at TD Garden on Sunday. Clarke MacArthur had the game-winning power play goal to end the series.

Third Star of the game and Senator’s goaltender, Craig Anderson, made 28 saves on 30 shots faced for a .933 save percentage in the win, while Boston’s Tuukka Rask made 26 saves on 29 shots against for an .897 SV% in the loss.

After killing off three consecutive delay of game penalties for sending the puck over the glass, the Bruins had their first power play opportunity of the afternoon after Ottawa forward, Mark Stone, tripped Sean Kuraly as he was exiting the defensive zone.

On the ensuing power play, Brad Marchand faked a shot and slid a pass over to Drew Stafford (2) who went high with a slap shot, beating Anderson on the blocker side, to give Boston a 1-0 lead at 18:13 of the 1st period. Marchand (2) and Charlie McAvoy (3) recorded the assists on Stafford’s goal.

In an incredible display of goaltending, Rask denied Stone on a breakaway and follow up shot with about 15 seconds left in the period after David Pastrnak failed to connect on a pass to a mid-line change Bruins defense.

McAvoy was sent to the box early in the 2nd period for tripping Senators forward, Tommy Wingels in a manner similar to how Ottawa defenseman, Chris Wideman, injured Bruins forward, David Krejci in Game 5 with a knee-on-knee collision. Wideman’s play was not penalized, unlike McAvoy’s.

While on the power play, Bobby Ryan (4) tied the game, 1-1, 3:26 into the 2nd period on a redirected slap shot from Derick Brassard. Brassard (5) and Erik Karlsson (6) were credited with the primary and secondary assists on Ryan’s power play goal.

Past the halfway mark in the 2nd period, Kyle Turris (1) received a pass from Ryan Dzingel and unleashed an absolute laser of a wrist shot that found the back of the net. Dzingel (1) had the only assist on Turris’s goal, which made it 2-1 Ottawa.

Trailing 2-1 early in the 3rd period, Boston caught Ottawa in a slow line change, which resulted in a quick rush from Colin Miller to Marchand, who fired a shot at Anderson, producing a rebound. Patrice Bergeron (2) was on the doorstep and scored on the rebound from the left side of the crease, having tapped the trickling puck into the twine while Anderson sprawled to recover.

Marchand (3) and Miller (1) were given the helpers on the play and the Bruins tied the game, 2-2.

For the fourth time in the series, overtime was necessary to determine a game winner.

Pastrnak was sent to the box for tying up MacArthur on a Senators rush with 14:06 to go in the overtime period.

MacArthur (2) ended the series on the ensuing power play, scoring Ottawa’s second power play goal of the afternoon at 6:30 of overtime. Ryan (3) and Brassard (6) notched the assists on the game winning goal.

Sunday’s game marked the first time in Senators franchise history that they were involved in four overtime games in a playoff series. Additionally, all six games in the series were decided by one goal.

Per the NHL’s PR department, 17 out of 41 First Round games (41.5%) have required overtime in this year’s postseason, which ties the record for an opening round. In 2013, 17 out of 47 games (36.2%) required overtime in the Conference Quarterfinals.

Of note, Ottawa had three shots on goal in the 3rd period, while Boston recorded 12 shots on net in the last twenty minutes of regulation. In overtime, the Senators had six shots on goal, while the Bruins failed to record a shot on net.

The Senators advance to the Second Round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs and will face the New York Rangers at the Canadian Tire Centre in Games 1 and 2, as Ottawa will have home ice in the series.

The first contest of the series will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern time. American viewers can watch the game on CNBC, while Canadian residents will be serviced by both CBC and TVAS.

 

Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs – Game 6

By: Connor Keith

On the backs of Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson, the Capitals beat in overtime Toronto 2-1 at the Air Canada Centre Sunday night to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the third-straight year.

Only 6:31 of extra time was required before Washington made its move. The play started in the far face-off circle in front of Frederik Andersen. Evgeny Kuznetsov won the scrum by kicking the puck back to John Carlson at the far point. The defenseman shoved the puck down the far boards to Justin Williams, who fired a shot a slap shot from the top of the face-off circle. That attempt never reached the waiting netminder because it was intercepted by Johansson, who redirected the puck beyond his reach to the near post.

It’s only fitting this contest went to overtime, as all but Game 4 of this series required post-regulation hockey to determine a winner. In fact, overtime has been a theme throughout the 2017 playoffs so far. In addition to being the first time the Caps played five overtime games in a single playoff series, this was the 18th match to require extra time – an NHL record for a single round.

This game was a true goaltending treat. No matter how hard each offense tried, it simply could not register a goal. In all, the Capitals fired 36 shots at Andersen (94.4%) and Toronto 37 at Holtby (97.4%) over the course of the game, but they both answered the bell on all but three combined times.

Both regulation tallies were struck in the third period. The scoreless draw survived 47:45 before being snapped by Auston Matthews (Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman) with a wrist shot from the slot. The Maple Leafs didn’t get to celebrate their lead long though, as Johansson (Lars Eller and Brooks Orpik) buried a wrister of his own only 5:06 later to level the knot at one-all and force the eventual overtime.

Much of the reason neither club could find a goal for so long was due to the very disciplined play by both sides.  Only five penalties were recorded in the entire game to yield what proved to be effectively one power play – an opportunity for Washington due to William Nylander holding Nicklas Backstrom.

Technically, the Leafs did earn a man-advantage in the first period when Johansson was caught holding Nylander, but Tyler Bozak‘s hi-stick against Carlson negated that power play only 22 seconds into the opportunity.

Nazem Kadri and T.J. Oshie were sent to the box simultaneously for roughing with 47 seconds remaining in regulation for the final two infractions.

With their victory, the Capitals will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center for Games 1 and 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup. It will be their second-straight meeting in the second round and their fourth since the turn of the millennium.

Game 1 drops the puck at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday. Residents of the United States can watch the game on NBCSN, while interested Canadians will be serviced by both SN and TVAS.

This will be the 10th time the Capitals and Penguins have squared off in the postseason, but it’s been a lopsided affair in the past. Pittsburgh has won all but one of the previous series and has advanced to the next round six straight times at the Caps’ expense. Washington’s only time besting the Pens was in the 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, winning four games to two, before falling in the conference semifinals to the New York Rangers, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round – April 15

For at least the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer – unless noted otherwise –  is Connor Keith.

Boston Bruins at Ottawa Senators – Game 2

By: DtFR Staff

After trailing 3-1 in 3rd period, the Ottawa Senators completed the comeback with a 4-3 victory on an overtime goal from Dion Phaneuf shortly after the Boston Bruins killed off a delay of game penalty against captain Zdeno Chara.

Boston’s Tuukka Rask made 25 saves on 29 shots faced for an .862 save percentage in the loss, while Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson made 26 saves on 29 shots against for an .897 SV% for the win.

Still tied 0-0 entering the 2nd period, the Bruins struck first on a goal from Drew Stafford (1) at 9:47 of the period. Stafford’s goal was challenged by the Senators, who thought it was offsides, but after review it was determined that there was not enough evidence to overturn the call on the ice. David Backes (1) and Chara (1) tallied the assists on Stafford’s goal.

Clarke MacArthur (1) hit the twine for his first playoff goal since his comeback from injury (and first in two years) on a power play at 10:57 of the 2nd period. MacArthur’s goal tied the game, 1-1, and was assisted by the hot hands of Bobby Ryan (1) and Derick Brassard (1).

Tim Schaller (1) picked up his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal on a shorthanded opportunity at 12:39 in just his 2nd career NHL playoff appearance to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead. Dominic Moore (1) recorded the only assist on Schaller’s goal.

With 3:59 remaining in the 2nd period, it looked like Boston had the game all but put away as Patrice Bergeron (1) redirected a shot from David Pastrnak past Anderson for a two-goal lead for the Bruins. Pastrnak (2) and Ryan Spooner (1) were credited with the assists on Bergeron’s goal.

Boston went into the second intermission with a 3-1 lead, but came out looking flat for the final twenty minutes of regulation. And it ultimately cost them.

Chris Wideman (1) fired a shot past Rask— who had been partially screened by his own rookie defenseman, Charlie McAvoy— to make it a one goal game just 5:28 into the 3rd period. Phaneuf (1) had the only assist on the goal and recorded his first point of a three-point night (one goal, two assists).

A mere 2:20 later, Brassard (1) received a pass from Erik Karlsson and sent it behind Rask on a one-timer goal. Karlsson (2) and Phaneuf (2) notched the assists on the game-tying tally not even halfway into the final period of regulation.

After Chara sent the puck over the glass and earned an automatic two-minute minor penalty for delay of game, the Bruins managed to kill off 1:48 of the remaining time on the penalty kill that had carried over into overtime.

Eleven seconds later, it was all over, however, as the B’s were caught in their own zone, while the Sens pressured their will onto their opponent.

Phaneuf (1) sent one behind Rask on a pass from Mark Stone (1) almost two minutes into overtime and tied the series 1-1 with his game winning overtime goal.

The series shifts to TD Garden in Boston on Monday night with Games 3 and 4 hosted by the Bruins before the now necessary Game 5 will occur in Ottawa on Friday, April 21st.

Again, Game 3 is Monday at 7 p.m. ET and can be seen nationally on CNBC in the United Stats and SN/TVAS in Canada.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals – Game 2

Led by First Star of the Game Kasperi Kapanen‘s two-goal night, the Maple Leafs were able to level their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Captials at one-all with a 4-3 double-overtime victory at the Verizon Center.

When a playoff game requires overtime, some believe that most of the regulation action doesn’t matter. Kapanen probably doesn’t prescribe to that theory, as his first career postseason goal was almost as important as his second.

With 5:35 remaining in the second period, the rookie right wing (Matt Martin and Brian Boyle) scored a turn-around backhander five-hole on Braden Holtby from right in front of his crease. That tally pulled then the Leafs even at two-goals apiece.

Of course, the one he’ll remember for a long time is the first game-winner of his short NHL career – playoffs or otherwise. To beat the current holder of the Vezina Trophy, you have to be quick, and that’s exactly what Kapanen and co. were. The play started when Martin won a battle near the far corner behind Holtby’s net. He managed to force a pass behind the goal to Boyle, who one-touched the puck with a backhander back towards to far post. Kapanen was streaking towards the crease, so he was more than able to collect the pass and pound it home behind an unsuspecting Holtby, who thought Boyle still had the puck.

This series is turning nasty in a hurry. Though it’s only two games deep, 32 penalty minutes have been served between these two clubs – 24 of which were Saturday night.

All those opposing power plays put pressure on goaltenders, but both Frederik Andersen and Holtby performed rather amicably. Andersen saved 47-of-50 (94%) on the night for the victory, leaving the overtime loss to Holtby, who stopped 47-of-51 (92.2%).

Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks – Game 2

As far as seeding is concerned, the Central Division is an absolute mess in the first round, as the Predators beat Chicago 5-0 Saturday at the United Center to take a two-game lead in their Western Conference Quarterfinals matchup as the series transitions to Nashville.

Nashville is playing the Blackhawks like a fiddle right now. Led by Austin Watson and his eight blows, the Predators threw 48 hits to get under the top seed in the West’s skin. And as you’d expect, that’s yielded penalties, and lots of them. The Hawks served 16 penalty minutes – almost all of them in the all-important third period.

Nashville was able to convert one of its three power plays into a goal, though it was the ultimately unimportant fifth goal – a Kevin Fiala (Second Star of the Game Ryan Johansen and P.K. Subban) wrist shot from the far face-off dot to beat Corey Crawford stick-side with 107 seconds remaining in the game.

No, the winner came off Third Star Ryan Ellis‘ (Johansen and Roman Josi) stick. Only 3:44 into the contest, he fired a one-timer from the blueline so hard the rebound off Crawford’s pad came right back to him. If at first you don’t succeed… Ellis went right back to work, firing another slap shot to beat the netminder glove side.

Even when Chicago was able to run its offense, it ran into one major problem: First Star Pekka Rinne. The goaltender saved all 30 shots he faced for the third postseason shutout of his career, and second straight.

Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks – Game 2

Thanks to a power play tally late in the third period, Anaheim beat the Flames 3-2 at the Honda Center to take a two-game lead in their Western Conference Quarterfinals matchup.

No penalty is a good penalty when it turns into a power play goal. Just ask Dougie Hamilton, who was caught holding Corey Perry‘s stick with 5:27 remaining in regulation. Only 41 seconds later, First Star of the Game Ryan Getzlaf (Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves) miraculously ricocheted a pass-turned-shot off Lance Bouma‘s skate for the freak game-winning goal.

Those Calgary mistakes were further compounded when T.J. Brodie cross-checked Kesler with 2:38 remaining in regulation. Though Mikael Backlund (Michael Frolik) managed to bury a shorthanded wrist shot with 96 seconds remaining in the first period to then pull Calgary back within a 2-1 deficit, goals while down a skater are tough to come by – especially at the end of games.

If not for their 17 penalty minutes and miserable 41% face-off percentage, the Flames were doing a lot of the right things to win. They matched the Ducks’ physicality by throwing 34 hits to their 38, while also managing almost 40 shots on goal. Though it has yet to win a game, Calgary still is a dangerous foe for the Pacific champions.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: First Round – April 13

For at least the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the authors at Down the Frozen River present a rapid recap of all of the night’s action. Tonight’s featured writer is Connor Keith.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals – Game 1

Though it was an uphill battle, Washington managed to maintain home-ice advantage by beating the visiting Maple Leafs 3-2 in overtime at the Verizon Center.

Though the final score may not be indicative of a true goalie battle, that’s exactly what this game was. It’s well known how good both Washington’s and Toronto’s offenses are, but both Third Star of the Game Braden Holtby and Frederik Andersen were up to the task of keeping the opposition neutralized. The netminders combined for 76 saves on 81 shots faced, including 44 rejections by Holtby.

For anyone wondering if the Leafs were going to be content with simply qualifying for the playoffs this year, rookie Mitch Marner (James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak) proved otherwise. He buried a wrist shot only 95 seconds into the game, beating Holtby’s left skate.

Near the midway point of the first, the Caps were originally the beneficiary of a questionable goaltender interference call. Though Nazem Kadri was certainly in Holtby’s crease, the left wing’s skate barely restricted the netminder’s stick. Fortunately for Jake Gardiner, the NHL’s new review system for the playoffs ruled in his favor to give the youngsters an impressive two-goal lead on his unassisted strike.

Andersen played well all game, but his play and the Leafs’ two goals were not enough to daunt Second Star Justin Williams. The three-time Stanley Cup champion provided both goals to pull the Caps even, starting with his first (T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom) with 7:36 remaining in the opening frame. He scored his power play wrister two seconds after Brian Boyle returned to the ice from his interference penalty to end Washington’s five-on-three advantage.

Williams’ second tally was struck with exactly four minutes remaining in the second frame. Assisted by Matt Niskanen and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Williams collected the rebound, which was sitting right between Andersen’s legs, of the defenseman’s initial shot and buried it to level the game at two-all.

Though they needed overtime, the Capitals were able to complete their comeback. But instead of Williams being the goalscorer, it was First Star Tom Wilson, who managed to knock down Martin Marincin‘s attempted clear and rip his wrister from the near face-off circle top-shelf over Andersen’s glove for his first NHL playoff goal.

Win, lose or draw, the most impressive thing about Toronto’s play is it was not afraid of anything the Capitals threw at it. Washington tried early and often – made evident by Lars Eller‘s cross-check against Marincin early in the first – to get under the young Leafs’ skins, but Mike Babcock’s well-coached club would not be drawn into a dumb reactionary penalty. Do not count the Maple Leafs out simply because of their youth.

 

Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks – Game 1

When First Star of the Game Pekka Rinne reaches peak performance, he’s tough to beat. Chicago learned that the hard way, as it fell 1-0 to the Predators at the United Center.

Though Chicago then led the shot count 5-3, Nashville took the opening – and only –  score in the ninth minute of play, courtesy of a quick tip-in from Second Star Viktor Arvidsson (Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen).

That proved to be the last tally of the game, though a total of 41 more shots were fired between the two offenses. Rinne was outstanding, as he saved all 29 shots he faced.

Though he gave up a tally, Third Star Corey Crawford was also solid, saving 19-of-20. But the real reason Chicago gave up only one score is found within Crawford’s stat line. His defense was exemplary, and allowed the second-fewest among all the first playoff games. Brent Seabrook was the brightest star, blocking four shots on the night.

 

Calgary Flames at Anaheim Ducks – Game 1

Though the Flames fired a dozen shots at John Gibson in the third period, Anaheim defended home ice with a 3-2 victory at the Honda Center.

The Ducks’ win is a result of one thing: their power play. Special team action was expected in this matchup, as these clubs were numbers one and two in times shorthanded during the regular season. This series already looks like it will be decided by the club that takes better advantage, as 24 total penalty minutes were assessed in only the first game.

Anaheim converted two of its seven extra-man opportunities, and Second Star of the Game Jacob Silfverberg played a role in both of them. The wing assisted First Star Ryan Getzlaf to the opening goal of the game, a wrister only 52 seconds into the contest, and buried the game-winning marker (Patrick Eaves and Shea Theodore) with 2:13 remaining in the second.

If Calgary can’t convert any more than one extra-man situation into a goal, their playoff run may see an untimely end. Sean Monahan (Kris Versteeg and T.J. Brodie) did manage one at the 8:43 of the first period to level the game, but the Flames couldn’t take advantage of their other four opportunities, including two in the third period (technically three, though the final power play lasted only a second before the end of regulation).

Another issue for the Calgary is Anaheim’s unrelenting offense, regardless of the number of players on the ice. Led by 17 attempts in the first period, the Ducks fired the puck on Brian Elliott‘s net 41 times. Not only will that wear out the 32-year-old goaltender, but it also means that the Flames do not have the puck in their offensive zone very often. Both those variables add up to early playoff exits.

April 8 – Day 171 – Have mercy on the Leafs, Kessel!

All but two teams are in action today, so the playoff situation could be a whole lot clearer at the end of the night.

Not only are 14 games being played, but they’re spaced throughout the day for our viewing pleasure! The action starts with two 12:30 p.m. matinees (the New York Rangers at Ottawa [NHLN/RDS/SN] and Columbus at Philadelphia), followed by Washington at Boston (NBC) at 3 p.m. The evening’s play starts an hour early, as two contests (Chicago at Los Angeles and the New York Islanders at New Jersey) drop the puck at 6 p.m., trailed an hour after by five more (Nashville at Winnipeg [CITY], Pittsburgh at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Montréal at Detroit [SN/TVAS], Buffalo at Florida and St. Louis at Carolina). Colorado at Dallas gets underway at 8 p.m., with Minnesota at Arizona waiting an hour for its green light. Finally, our co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Vancouver [CBC] and Calgary at San Jose [NHLN/SN]) drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the day.

Short list:

  • New York at Ottawa: Before they were members of the Rangers‘ high-flying offense, Matt Puempel and Mika Zibanejad spent a combined eight seasons in Ottawa.
  • Washington at Boston: Another player making his return to his former home is Brett Connolly, who played two seasons with the Bruins.
  • Chicago at Los Angeles: Though the rivalry has died off lately, the Hawks and Kings have played some vicious games in the past.
  • Pittsburgh at Toronto: All the Leafs need to qualify for the playoffs is a lone victory. This is the more winnable of their last two games.
  • Montréal at Detroit: Not only is it an Original Six rivalry and the Habs‘ last trip to Joe Louis Arena, but Steve Ott also makes his first return to Motown since being traded at the deadline.
  • Minnesota at Arizona: After 10 years with the Coyotes, Martin Hanzal will play his first game in Gila River Arena as a visitor.
  • Calgary at San Jose: The Flames want to avoid Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, and San Jose still has a chance at home ice against the Oilers. Only one of those things can happen, and it’s decided tonight.

It may not be the fun answer, but we have to go to Toronto to see if the Maple Leafs can lock up a spot in the playoffs. Sorry Connolly, Hanzal, Ott, Puempel and Zibanejad!

 

The 50-19-11 Penguins have already clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division and will host at least the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This game is not about them.

Instead, all eyes are on 39-26-15 Toronto, the club beloved by many that currently occupies the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.

As stated before, it’s a simple win-and-you’re-in situation for the Leafs. A victory tonight would give the Maple Leafs an insurmountable 95 points on the season, more than either the Lightning (92 points, one game remaining) or Islanders (90 points, two games remaining) can surpass.

That’s goal number one: qualification.

Of course, there’s plenty more on the table here if the Leafs can sweep their last two games. Third place is certainly an achievable goal, as it is currently occupied by a Boston team with 95 points and only one game remaining – a dreadfully difficult home contest against the Capitals.

Since that game will be done by the time the Leafs drop the puck tonight, they’ll know if they can surpass the Bruins in the standings or not. Toronto already knows it cannot surpass Boston if it wins this afternoon, as the Leafs could only tie the Bruins at 97 points, but lose the regulation+overtime-wins tiebreaker.

Even second place in the division is still on the board should the Bruins lose today and the Senators (96 points) lose both their remaining games and no more than one require overtime.

But that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Remember, the first goal is qualification.

Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, April’s schedule is not doing them any favors in achieving that goal. After opening the month in Detroit, Toronto has faced or will face five quality opponents – quality offenses, to be exact –  in a row. They beat the Red Wings 5-4 on April Fools’ Day, followed by a strong 4-2 victory against a sneaky-good Sabres team.

Then started the ill-timed losing skid. Though all skids are ill-timed (Unless you’re Colorado, I suppose. Nolan Patrick won’t fall into just anybody’s lap!), one during a playoff push is especially unwanted.

After returning home for the final four games of the regular season, the Leafs fell to the Capitals 4-1 on Tuesday (Eh, they can handle that. Everybody loses to Washington), followed two days later by another 4-1 loss to the Lightning. That’s the one that caused the most damage, as a victory would have clinched the last spot in the postseason and made this game a little less important.

Obviously there have been issues on both sides of the puck. The easy answer is to crucify the defense and goaltending, but I don’t think that’s the right one. 5-6-0 Curtis McElhinney was in net for the Washington game since it was only a night after the Leafs‘ contest in Buffalo, and 33-16-14 Frederik Andersen reclaimed the crease for the Tampa game.

Sure, you want Andersen to beat the Bolts, but he had been on a five-game winning streak (his longest of the year, if my count is correct) and was bound to drop a game eventually, especially when faced with such a potent offense of late.

And though the defense hasn’t played well recently, when has it this year?  They’ve allowed an average of 32.8 shots-per-game to reach Andersen’s crease on the season, the third-worst rate in the NHL. The fact that they allowed a combined total of only 68 (34 per game) shots against both the Caps and Bolts is almost impressive!

If anything, the only major setback in the last two games for Toronto has been its penalty kill. Usually successfully killing 82.6% of opponent’s power plays (ninth-best in the NHL), that rate has dropped to only 60% of late, which is tied for fourth-worst in the league in that time.

But for a team that has averaged 3.04 goals-per-game, the fifth-highest scoring rate in the league, to score only a goal in both games is alarming. Even more concerning is that Tyler Bozak, a third-liner, took credit for both the tallies, meaning the remaining 17 Leafs skaters – including the top two lines – have been held goalless.

And the cherry on top? Those that follow the Leafs know that Bozak and Auston Matthews do not share ice time in any circumstance (even-strength or power play), meaning the rookie wonder has not registered even an assist during this skid.

Scoring is usually the kid’s thing! Matthews has done it all year. Starting with his four-goal effort to begin his NHL career and all throughout the season, he’s found a way to generate offense. He leads Toronto in points (67). He leads Toronto in goals (39).

Yet it’s that exact reason that I’m not too worried about Matthews. Barring a horrid seven-game run to start March and the five-game drought as he was getting adjusted to the league, the youngster has faced only a three-game pointless skid this season (albeit twice). He is the energy in this Leafs team and will not be kept off the scorecard for long.

One way to get Toronto back to scoring is to take advantage of the man-advantage opportunities it is presented with. On the season, the Maple Leafs have been the second-best power play in the league by converting 24.1% of their opponents’ infractions into goals.

This is where fellow rookie William Nylander can shoulder the burden of providing offense with Matthews, as the Albertan has notched a team-leading 25 power play points. Nazem Kadri can also be instrumental from the second power play unit with his squad-leading 12 extra-man goals.

Though they’re riding a four-game winning streak, the Leafs have a great opportunity to get back on track against Pittsburgh. The Pens have allowed 10 goals during this streak, including four to the lowly Devils on Thursday.

The Penguins defense is fourth-worst in the league when measured by shots allowed-per-game this season (32.7), and that’s been an even worse 36.25 in the month of April. Regardless of who’s in net, be it 32-10-4 Matthew Murray or 18-9-7 Marc-Andre Fleury, they should see a lot of shots coming their way.

Those defensive struggles are especially apparent on the penalty kill of late, as the Pens‘ penalty kill rate of 66.7% in the past week ties Detroit for the sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time. Since March 31, Murray has faced 15 power play shots, which ties for eighth-most against the 58 other goaltenders in that time.

Of course, to truly beat the Pens is to stifle slow down their offense. Doing that will require a bit of work, as first liners Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel both have six points to their credit over the past four games. The rookie may actually be more impressive than his captain of late, as four of his points have been goals, a total that leads the club.

Pittsburgh is especially potent on the man-advantage, mostly because each member of both power play units is capable of scoring. Eight players in the past week, almost evenly split between the two special teams, have notched a power play point to lead the Pens to a 36.4% conversion rate (third-best in that time). Lately, the stars of the show have been Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist, both of whom have registered a power play goal and assist.

In the previous two times these clubs have met, the Penguins have had an upper-hand, as they lead the season series 1-0-1. That being said, the last time they met on December 17 (at the Air Canada Centre, in fact) was when Toronto bested the Pens 2-1 thanks to Jake Gardiner‘s overtime goal.

Some players to keep an eye on include Pittsburgh‘s Ian Cole (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the league]), Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 88 points [tied for second-most in the league]), Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for seventh-best in the NHL] for 32 wins [tied for ninth-most in the league]) and Justin Schultz (+27 [tied for seventh-best in the NHL]) & Toronto‘s Andersen (33 wins [eighth-most in the league], including four shutouts [10th-most in the NHL]) and Matthews (39 goals [tied for third-most in the league]).

I like the Leafs to win this game tonight mostly due to my faith in Matthews. He knows he’s too important to his club to not be effective on the offensive end, and he should be able to take advantage of a poor, uninspired Penguins defense.


Thanks to First Star of the Game Yanni Gourde‘s two-goal night, the Lightning not only beat the host Canadiens 4-2, but they also kept their slim postseason hopes alive in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though every period of play featured two goals, the difference in this game proved to be the first, as both tallies belonged to the Bolts. Gourde (Second Star Nikita Kucherov and Luke Witkowski) fired an ice-breaking wrist shot with 8:18 remaining in the period to give Tampa Bay the lead, and Kucherov (Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point) followed that up with a wrister of his own 10 seconds before intermission.

Dwight King (Third Star Artturi Lehkonen and Nikita Nesterov) pulled the Habs back within a goal a second before the midway point of the contest with a pure wrister, but Alex Killorn (Cory Conacher) was able to score what ended up being the game-winning wrister only 4:20 later. Tampa took its 3-1 lead into the second intermission.

Only 4:36 into the third frame, Lehkonen took advantage of a Tampa Bay mistake to score a shorthanded backhand shot and pull Montréal back within a tally, but Gourde’s (Conacher and Jake Dotchin) wrister only 21 seconds later put an end to any Habs comeback.

Andrei Vasilevskiy earned the victory after saving 27-of-29 shots faced (93.1%), leaving the loss to Carey Price, who saved 18-of-22 (81.8%).

With their second 4-2 victory in a row, road teams are trying their darnedest to win the DtFR Game of the Day series. They trail the 87-61-25 home teams by only three points with two days remaining in the regular season.

April 4 – Day 167 – Who gets Game 7?

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

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

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

Short list:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hockey Birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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