Tag Archives: Lightning

December 12 – Day 69 – For the Presidents’ Trophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player of the Week: Artemi Panarin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

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

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

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

December 9 – Day 66 – Mirror images

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the big time, Vladdy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for a sophomore slump.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 5

Player of the Week: Nikita Kucherov

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

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

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

Team of the Week: Toronto Maple Leafs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

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

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

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

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

November 9 – Day 37 – The best in the business

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

Alright, I’ll stop impersonating your dad now.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 4

Player of the Week: Josh Bailey

This award almost went to Bailey’s captain John Tavares, who himself had a 3-goal 5-point week, but his output couldn’t quite match that of Bailey, who tallied 7 points (all of them assists) during the Islanders’ 3-game stretch. The versatile Islanders forward started off the week with a trio of apples against Vegas on Monday night, before adding 2 apiece Thursday in Washington and Sunday against the Avs.

But, quite more impressively, Bailey’s scoring stretch goes beyond this week’s 3 games. In fact, it triples that.

Yes, to find the last time Josh Bailey was held off of a scoresheet, you have to travel all the way back to October 14th against the Sharks. 10 games ago. Registering 2 goals and 14 assists in the 9 games since, once could argue that Bailey is possibly the hottest player in the league that doesn’t play for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Team of the Week: New York Rangers

This was another tight vote, as the San Jose Sharks almost got the nod here. But I’m going to give it to the Rangers based on the fact that they needed this hot streak more than fish need water. After a mostly-miserable October where nothing seemed to go right, the Rangers rolled into MSG to face Vegas on All-Hallows Eve, looking to banish the ghouls that were haunting them. (It physically pained me to write that.)

Fresh off a loss in the ‘Battle to Decide Who is the Least Worst’ in Montreal, the Blueshirts battled their way to a 6-4 victory over the Golden Knights and get their feet back under them, at least for the time being. Faced with the daunting task of taking on the scorching hot Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night (in Tampa’s barn), the Rangers pulled off the upset, allowing just 1 goal against the hottest offense in the league, and vanquished the home team on the strength of a J.T. Miller goal just 1:19 into overtime. Two nights later it would be Kevin Shattenkirk spoiling another Florida foe’s party, as his OT goal would lift the Rangers to their 3rd consecutive win, and directly into this prestigious award.

Now, doubling your season victory total in one week isn’t necessarily something to brag about, but the Rangers desperately needed a week like this to at least drag them back into something resembling contention. We’ve still got a lot of season to go, but digging yourself too big a hole early on can prove fatal when the season reaches crunch time.

Game of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning 8 @ Florida Panthers 5, Monday October 30th

How could it not be? Seriously. Look at the score. That’s silly. Plus the intrastate rivalry, there was a fight, Andrei Vasilevskiy tied a league record for wins in October, it was just dumb and that’s what made it great.

“Oh, but what about…”

No! You’re wrong! My article, my rules, silliness wins.

News, Notes, and Nonsense:

I’m officially done making jokes about the Vegas goaltending situation, because at this point I might actually be like 3rd or 4th on their depth chart.

Habs goaltender Charlie Lindgren has been a rare bright spot for the team this year, as he has now gone 4-0 as an NHL starter and racked up his 1st career shutout with a 38-save effort to blank the Blackhawks in the United Center. Not bad, kid. Not bad.

Brian Boyle returned to game action this week, promptly telling cancer where it can shove it.

A bunch of guys squirted each other with water bottles and the league fined them for it, which can be filed under both the news and nonsense parts of this section.

Alright, let me just check and see if I missed anything as I was putting this together on Sunday evening and *opens Twitter* OH DEAR LORD WHAT HAPPENED?!?

So…apparently Matt Duchene is a Senator…and, Kyle Turris is a Pred…and both of those teams’ futures now belong to Joe Sakic. Huh…

State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 3

Player of the Week: Jakub Voracek

Stealthy good. Not only an apt description of the big Flyers winger’s week (and season), but really of his entire career. Voracek has been one of the best ‘under-the-radar’ players in the league for some time, and this week he was really flying (pun somewhat intended). On a team that finished the week 1-2-0, Voracek was a major bright spot, tallying 2 points in every game. The Kladno, CZE native notched an assist on both Flyers goals in a 6-2 thumping against Anaheim, then tallied 1 & 1 in each of their next two contests (a 5-4 loss to Ottawa and 4-2 victory over Toronto). Oddly, not a single one of his 6 points in those 3 games came on the power play, an area where Voracek usually excels.

Side note: Though Voracek is currently 3rd in points in the entire league (trailing only Tampa’s dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), those goals in back to back games were just his 1st and 2nd tallies of the year. He’s 2nd in the league in assists with 14.

Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

One of the league’s resident surprises, LA has surged to the top of the standings with a 9-1-1 record, and though they suffered their first regulation loss this week, it wasn’t enough to prevent them earning this recognition.

With 8 players having recorded at least 5 points so far in the young season, and a goaltending duo both boasting sub-2.00 GAAs and >.930 save percentages, the resurgent Kings are getting contributions from seemingly everyone. Dustin Brown has burst back to life after multiple subpar seasons, seemingly flourishing in the system of new coach John Stevens. Anze Kopitar continues to make an argument for being possibly the most undervalued center in the league, and youngster Adrian Kempe has been sublime.

Only a 3-2 loss to Toronto managed to blemish an otherwise-flawless week, as the Kings toppled Ottawa 3-2, Montreal 4-0, and Boston 2-1. A long summer and a fresh face behind the bench may have been just what the doctor ordered for the battle-weary club, and other clubs may need to start worrying about how to deal with a Cup-hungry LA franchise once again.

Game of the Week: Dallas Stars 4 @ Edmonton Oilers 5, Thursday October 26th

I admittedly have an affinity to games decided in extra frames when it comes to this award, but the Stars and Oilers simply put on a barn-burner too good to ignore.

One of those matchups that just looks like it’s going to be fun on paper (two high-octane offenses backed up by less-than-stellar defenses), this tilt certainly delivered. 9 goals (3 on the power play), 67 shots, 56 hits, and even a fight (okay, more of a facial reconstruction on Antoine Roussel by Eric Gryba), this one had plenty of everything.

The opening period started with a bit of a goaltending duel, with Ben Bishop and Cam Talbot both making a handful of quality stops in the opening half of the frame. But as a penalty to Ryan Strome was expiring just past the 11 minute mark, Leon Draisaitl collected a loose puck and fought through a check along the boards to push the puck ahead to the newly-freed Strome, who flicked a no-look backhand from the boards into the middle of the ice, feeding a streaking Connor McDavid in full stride, who proceeded to shelf the puck over the blocker side of Bishop to give the hometown Oilers the 1-0 lead. A see-saw contest would develop from there, as just over 1 minute later opposing captain Jamie Benn would bury a sweet feed from Alex Radulov to knot things up. Patrick Maroon would see a centering attempt turn into a goal after bouncing off the skate of Dallas defender Marc Methot and into the net with just 25 seconds to play in the opening frame, sending the Oil to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

Radulov and Benn would both tally power-play goals in the 2nd, with a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal splitting the two and sending the game into the 3rd period tied at 3. To break the streak of trading goals, Esa Lindell would bury Dallas’ 3rd PP tally after receiving a sweet cross-ice slap-pass from Jason Spezza just over halfway through the 3rd, giving the Stars their first lead of the night. Unfortunately for the Dallas faithful it would last just shy of 2 minutes, as RNH would net his second of the night to draw even at 4. Then with less than 3 to play, defenseman Matt Benning would give Draisaitl his 3rd assist of the night by burying a one-timer from the point (with a bit of help from the skate of Alexander Radulov) and giving the Oilers the final lead of the game.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Seriously, Golden Knights, about this Twitter campaign to be the next winning goaltender for your franchise? Oscar Dansk is 3-0-0 after being handed the starting job when both Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban went down with injuries, and boasts a ridiculous 1.34 GAA and .959 save percentage, along with a shutout.

I’m starting to actually believe anyone wearing goalie equipment could win the Vezina with this team.

 

Speaking of roster vacancies in Vegas, Vadim Shipachyov earned himself a suspension by going all ‘Russian’ on the franchise after being sent down to the AHL. He has supposedly gone AWOL from the Chicago Wolves, and his future with the Golden Knights (and potentially the NHL altogether) is looking pretty well decided.

Alex Ovechkin made headlines off the ice, as the Capitals superstar went out of his way to buy a sweater, coat, and hat for a shirtless homeless man he spotted while walking in Edmonton. Ovie downplayed his actions and attempted to avoid questions about it in interviews, stating that “It was nothing,” following up with “I think if you saw a guy almost naked out there with a cold temperature, I think every human can do something, a coat, a shirt, or whatever.” Autograph hounds throughout the league were seen disrobing and untidying their hair soon after word of Ovie’s actions reached the airwaves*.

*- I assume

Kevin Bieksa successfully utilized a ‘Superman Punch’ in a fight for the 2nd time in his career, with both instances occurring against the Philadelphia Flyers. Radko Gudas was on the receiving end of this most recent entry, while years ago it was Mike Richards. This does beg the question of why you would choose to fight Kevin Bieksa.

The Habs and Rangers had a contest to see who was the least worst, and in fitting fashion, it was an ugly thing. 9 total goals on Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, the former getting the…better?…of the latter, with both teams looking sloppy and discombobulated. I suppose either team can take solace in knowing they are better than Arizona, but I don’t know exactly how much solace can actually be taken from that knowledge.

Can Arizona go an entire season without a victory? I think we should all get behind them in their efforts to set the least enviable record in hockey history. 10 down, 72 to go.