Tag Archives: Lundqvist

DtFR Overtime: Where’s the Star Power?

Welcome to DtFR Overtime, where somebody on the most recent podcast offers some deeper thoughts on one of the points of discussion.

Today’s subject: Star power and the absence of it.

We all know the list of current NHL stars: LW Jamie Benn, D Brent Burns, C Sidney Crosby, G Braden Holtby, F Patrick Kane, D Erik Karlsson, G Henrik Lundqvist, C Auston Matthews, C Connor McDavid, W Alex Ovechkin, G Carey Price, G Jonathan Quick, C Steven Stamkos, D P.K. Subban, RW Vladimir Tarasenko, C John Tavares

OK, I think you get the idea.

But how important are these stars really? I mean, of the skaters listed above, they play an average of only 21 minutes – or barely over a third of a game.

While the top NHL teams put a strong value on depth scoring, I would argue that, over the course of a season, it is necessary for Team X’s star to be the best player on the ice for that team to have success.

It sounds basic, right?

It is, but even the clubs that seem to be built to withstand the unfortunately inevitable scoring droughts from its top players are struggling this season.

My first example is the 12-11-5 Chicago Blackhawks, a club that currently sits in 12th place in the Western Conference and is at risk of missing the postsesaon for the first time since the 2007-’08 campaign.

I brought up Kane in the list of stars earlier, but his team-leading 10-17-27 totals are not the reason Chicago finds itself on the outside looking in. Instead, this star-laden team is struggling to find leadership from its captain.

Getting outplayed by rookie F Alex DeBrincat‘s 11-9-20 effort, C Jonathan Toews has only 8-11-19 totals to his credit and is on track for the worst offensive production of his professional career. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Blackhawks have an 11-2-2 record when Toews finds his way onto the scorecard, but a 1-9-3 record when he doesn’t.

That was fun, especially for a fan of a Central Division team that hasn’t worn a lick of red since the 1997-’98 season. Let’s head east and examine another city where it looks like the local club is in an even more dire situation

Welcome to Ottawa, the national capital of Canada.  Expectations were high after forcing a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series with Pittsburgh back in May, but all the 9-11-6 Sens, who currently sit third-to-last in the conference, have done this season is disappoint.

To be fair, Karlsson at least has the excuse of an injury to partially explain his slump. The hard part in figuring out Karlsson’s 1-16-17 effort is that he’s mostly on track from a points-per-game standpoint. Given he missed the Sens’ first five games, his .81 points-per-game is, while not exemplary by his standards, still a solid output.

Unfortunately, this is where points can distract from goals. You probably noticed he only had one tally to his credit, which is where I think his team needs him most.

The 14-10-2 Sharks are facing a similar situation with their star defenseman Burns, who has managed only 1-11-12 totals in 26 games a year after posting 29-47-76 numbers to win the Norris Trophy. As such, San Jose does not have the solid footing in the standings it would like, as the Sharks are holding onto their second wild card position by winning only a games-played tiebreaker.

Now, I’m not going to sit here on my couch and pontificate about how to score a goal in the NHL against the 30-something best goaltenders in the world. I mean, I live in the South and can barely keep my skates underneath me the entire time I’m at the rink. But, I am going to say that Karlsson’s .05 goals-per-game for the season and Burns’ .04 is – you guessed it – the worst performances of their careers.

Last year, Karlsson scored 17 of the Sens’ 212 regular season goals. That may only be eight percent of the total, but Ottawa earned a 12-3-3 record when he personally put a goal on the scoreboard, including a perfect 2-0-0 record in the postseason. Similarly, Burns’ career-high 29 goals earned the Sharks an 18-7-1 record last season, though it might be of bigger note that Edmonton did not allow him to find the back of the net in their six-game first round matchup, the Sharks’ only playoff series of the 2017 postseason.

Now, don’t read this as all doom-and-gloom for these respective squads. All of these teams can get right back into the playoff discussion (yes, even Ottawa thanks to a weak Atlantic Division) or better cement their position in the tournament if their biggest players can simply rediscover their mojo.

Take for example Montréal, where as recently as two weeks ago it looked like the 13-13-3 Canadiens had never seen, much less used hockey sticks before. Then Price came back from his lower-body injury, and the Habs look better than ever.

Of course, things weren’t exactly peachy in Québec before Price took time off. In his 11 appearances before retreating to the press box, Price had managed only an .877 season save percentage and 3.77 GAA to earn a 3-7-1 record, forcing Habs fans and bloggers alike to wonder when exactly this injury occurred.

But since Price’s return on November 25, Price and the Habs have been almost unbeatable, as they’ve won five of their last six games with him in net. The goaltender himself has been extremely successful as well, as he’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.67 GAA in that time.

But the turnaround hasn’t been simply in the defensive end. Even the offense is gelling now that its true leader is back (Sorry LW Max Pacioretty, but this is Price’s team. You’re captain by technicality), as success breeds success and positive energy. Since Price’s return, Montréal’s offense has managed a whopping 4.5 goals-per-game, highlighted by Saturday’s 10-1 shellacking of the Red Wings. Even taking out that major outlier, the Habs’ 3.4 goals-per-game is much better than the 2.32 goals-per-game they’d managed before Price’s return. This surge has propelled the Canadiens from sixth place in the Atlantic Division into third – a playoff spot.

Since we’re on the topic of Montréal and its stars and I already brought up Pacioretty, we might as well discuss my concerns over this team. Pacioretty is struggling something fierce right now. He’s only managed 8-8-16 totals so far this season, and is on pace for his worst professional season since his first two years with the Habs.

Unfortunately for Canadiens fans, this scoring skid is not limited to just this season. I don’t need to remind them of the magic disappearing act he performed in the playoffs against the Rangers, managing only a lone assist. In fact, since March 14 of last campaign, he’s managed only 10-14-24 totals in games that count (aka everything but the preseason).

While I belittled the letter Pacioretty wears on his sweater, he is still one of the leaders on this team. For the Habs to sustain this recent success, Pacioretty is going to need to snap out of his slump – even if it means he has to become a play-maker before resuming a goalscorer role.

Another team that has had more struggles than it would like is the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions. While they’ve had trouble finding depth scoring and are now facing even bigger goaltending issues than they had before, the 15-11-3 Penguins have held onto a playoff position for most of the year.

Now, the operative word here is ‘most.’ There was a point in late November when the Penguins had fallen outside the playoff picture, and – as you might guess from the other examples – I would pin a lot of the club’s struggles on Crosby.

It is very hard to point at a player that is contributing a point-per-game on the season and say he is not doing enough for his team. After all, isn’t this the same team that supposedly embodies the speed-based future of the sport while also trotting out RW Ryan Reaves onto the ice every game? Why can’t his lousy 1-2-3 totals be the problem?

And yet, it’s hard to ignore that Pittsburgh’s slump aligned almost perfectly with Crosby’s goal-scoring slump. Between October 21 and November 22, Crosby managed only 1-6-7 totals in 15 games, which led the Penguins to earning only a 6-7-2 record in that time.

You might say that 6-7-2 isn’t a terrible run while one of the league’s top players is on the schneid, and I’d agree if that team wasn’t in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. The Penguins also have the luxury of employing RW Phil Kessel and F Evgeni Malkin, who were able to keep the team mostly afloat with their combined 10-18-28 effort.

If that stat does nothing other than stress the importance of Crosby to his team, I don’t know what does. The fact that the Penguins were losing, or at least treading water, while two players created nearly 30 goals in 15 games is unbelievable.

Anyways, Crosby has rediscovered his scoring ways since then, and the Pens are all the better for it. Starting with November 24, the captain has earned 6-6-12 totals that are closer to what fans expect from him. As such, the Penguins have found their way back into the win column, earning a 4-2-0 record in spite of G Matthew Murray missing Pittsburgh’s last three games with a lower-body injury.

Of course, the Penguins are doing a great job of poking a hole in my argument by falling from third in the division back into the second wild card spot while Murray is healing, but I’m still going to hold firm that G Tristan Jarry has earned a 3-1-0 record filling in not because of his solid .926 season save percentage (though that doesn’t hurt), but because Crosby has scored a goal in every game but – you guessed it – Jarry’s one regulation loss.

Confidence – which I am led to believe is the word people are actually looking for when they discuss momentum in sports (I mean, “momentum” is technically mass x velocity, so the momentum of a sports team cannot change without either a plane or a player transaction) – is like hitting in baseball: it’s a contagious thing.

Star players are not star players simply because they can score or stop goals no one else can. Stars are stars because they can make those plays and make the athletes associated with them feel like they too can contribute to the ultimate goal and find wins and success.

Stars are leaders.

And that’s why stars have to perform their best. That’s why they have to have the best numbers on their team. It’s not to belittle the third and fourth liners, but it’s their success that should drive a team to achieve more.

Success breeds success.

In that same train of thought, leaders can’t create success from the rest of their team while they themselves are struggling to find their groove. Stars are stars because they find that motivation to excel within themselves, and then use that flame to light the others’ torches.

You might have noticed the thread that connects all of the players called out in this column: Toews, Karlsson, Burns, Pacioretty and Crosby are all captains. These players have been selected by their coaches and peers based not only on their undoubted skills, but also on their work-ethic and leadership abilities. They were honored with that distinction, so it is time for them to step up and serve the letter and crest on the front of their sweaters and get/keep their squads on track.

These teams are capable of winning; it just takes a little input from a star.

November 22 – Day 50 – Decision day, beta version

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 17 – Day 45 – It’s the Rick Nash/Torts game

Hopefully you’re not interested in going to a hockey game this evening if you live on the West Coast, because there’s not a single game happening in the NHL west of the Wabash River.

Now that you’re done looking up where the Wabash River is, I regret to inform you tonight’s limited geography in the NHL is largely due to only two games being on schedule. The first is set to start at 7 p.m. and will feature the New York Rangers at Columbus (NHLN/TVAS), followed half an hour later by Buffalo at Detroit (SN360) acting as our early nightcap. All times Eastern.

The limited selection of contests also makes it difficult on me to choose today’s DtFR Game of the Day, because I try not to feature teams multiple times in the same week. That being said, the action in Ohio is going to be far more interesting, so it looks like we’ll watch the Rangers for the third time in the past 10 days.

 

I’m the author, so I get to make the rules: We’ve done enough talking about the 9-8-2 Rangers of late, so let’s dig into the 11-7-1 Blue Jackets, a team that hasn’t been featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series since October 25.

Columbus is quietly camping out in third place in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, trailing both New Jersey and Pittsburgh by only two points.

As you’d expect from a team that features the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, the Jackets play one of the best defenses in the league as measured by goals against-per-game. They’re seventh best in the statistic, to be precise, allowing only 2.63 goals against each time they lace up their skates.

A major part of that is the exemplary play of 10-4-1 G Sergei Bobrovsky. So far in 15 starts, he’s managed a .928 save percentage and 2.16 GAA that is pedestrian by his 2016-’17 standards (.931 and 2.06), but is still good enough to rank him in the top-six in his position among those with at least seven starts.

His GAA in particular is exceptionally outstanding, as it is the second-best among that group of 33 netminders. Of course, that statistic measures not only how well Bobrovsky performs, but also the success of the defense in front of him. That’s where D Jack Johnson and co. come into play, as their efforts have led Columbus to ranking (t)ninth-best in the league in shots against-per-game, allowing only 30.9 each night.

At first it seemed bizarre that Johnson’s 1.9 blocks-per-game was enough to lead the team. After all, D Alec Martinez leads the Los Angeles Kings – another club that doesn’t allow many goals – in that statistic with a whopping 3.5 blocks-per-game (1.2 more than second-best D Derek Forbort) that actually tops the league.

And it’s then that I realized this is the culture Head Coach John Tortorella has built over the course of his first two seasons in Columbus. Johnson’s effort by itself may not be all that impressive, but it’s the fact that he’s not alone in blocking shots that makes this Blue Jackets team successful.

As an entire squad, Columbus has blocked 280 shots to tie for eighth-most in the NHL as Johnson and fellow defensemen Seth Jones, Ryan Murray and David Savard all manage at least 1.6 blocks-per-game. Pairing that effort with the incredible ability of Bobrovsky, it’s impressive that eight teams have been able to outscore the Jackets.

Of course, the offense going up against the Jackets tonight is a good one. Even though they lost their last outing, the Rangers still takes credit for the seventh-best offense in the league, managing 3.28 goals-per-game.

C Mika Zibanejad takes a lot of credit for what New York has been able to achieve on the offensive end, as he leads the team with a point-per-game on 9-10-19 totals, but he’s also gotten a lot of help from new addition D Kevin Shattenkirk and his 5-12-17 campaign.

Of particular note for both players is that they’re playing the Blue Jackets this evening. So far this season, Zibanejad has had two three-point games, and the most recent was November 6’s contest against Columbus. Similarly, Shattenkirk’s last goal was scored in that game against Bobrovsky, so there’s no doubt he’d like to beat the netminder once again.

While their performances this season have been strong, it’s the Blueshirts’ versatility in the offensive zone that has made them so dangerous. A total of eight players, including two defensemen, have earned 10 or more points already this season.

New York also has a special way of capitalizing on opportunities, made evident by its third-best 24.6 power play conversion percentage. Considering the Jackets play only an average penalty kill, stopping 81.3 percent to tie the Rangers for 13th-best, they’d be wise to keep RW Josh Anderson and his 11 penalty minutes under control.

Since this game features a strong New York offense against an equally competitive Columbus defense, this game may very well come down to the activity in 8-5-2 G Henrik Lundqvist‘s zone. Even though the Blueshirts have a miserable 2-4-0 record away from Madison Square Garden, I think their clear edge in special teams will be enough for them to pull off the upset this evening at Nationwide Arena.


Led by First Star of the Game G Roberto Luongo‘s 35-save shutout, the Florida Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 2-0 at the SAP Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This game was a very competitive, grind-it-out affair, as the Panthers were able to pull out the win even though they managed to fire only 28 shots on G Martin Jones‘ net.

The first of those to sneak past him was a wrap-around goal from Second Star F Colton Sceviour (F Connor Brickley and F Vincent Trocheck), buried exactly 60 seconds into the second period. After escaping a scrum with F Joe Pavelski and D Joakim Ryan along the rear boards, Sceviour skated behind Jones from his left to right. No defenders moved to cover Sceviour when he reached the goalpost, so he took the opportunity to slide the puck past Jones’ right skate and into the back of the net.

Third Star C Nick Bjugstad (W Jamie McGinn and RW Radim Vrbata) tacked on the highly-desired insurance goal with 7:37 remaining in regulation to set the 2-0 final score.

That shutout was Luongo’s first of the season and the 79th of his career in the regular season or playoffs. Meanwhile, Jones took the loss after saving 26-of-28 shots faced (.929 save percentage).

Florida’s road victory snaps a three-game winning streak by the 23-17-5 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Visitors now trail the hosts by only four points.

November 15 – Day 43 – Heading in opposite directions

We’re halfway through the month of November and only a week away from American Thanksgiving, an important benchmark in the NHL for separating the men from the boys in terms of probable playoff teams. Though it wouldn’t seem it with over four months of play remaining, this is a pivotal week.

Calgary makes its yearly visit to Detroit (SN/TVAS) to get this stretch started at 7:30 p.m., followed half an hour later by the New York Rangers at Chicago (NBCSN). Finally, this evening’s nightcap of Boston at Anaheim (SN360) will drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

All three games should be very competitive, as they are being contested by opponents separated by only two points or less in the league table. That being said, there’s going to be no game more exciting than the one between Original Six clubs taking place in the Windy City.

 

I apparently really like these Central vs. Metropolitan matchups, because this is the fourth game we’ve featured between these two divisions in the last five days.

9-7-2 New York’s wild ride through the month of November continues since the last time it was featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Starting with Halloween night against the Golden Knights, the Rangers have yet to drop a point in any of their past six contests, including tilts against Tampa Bay (you know, the best team in the NHL) and Columbus.

In fact, the Blueshirts have played so well they’ve converted their goal-differential, which was once an ugly -10 on October 23, into a positive number for the first time this season. And with that success, the Rangers find themselves in a tie with their crosstown rivals for eighth-place in the Eastern Conference.

This may seem elementary, but the best way to improve a goal differential – and by default, win – usually involves burying some goals. Offense has been all the rage at Madison Square Garden lately, as the Rangers have scored a league-high 26 goals since October 31, averaging 4.33 per game.

In the league-wide list of top-10 point earners since Halloween, there is only one defenseman listed: Kevin Shattenkirk. Managing 3-5-8 totals in his past six games, the New Rochelle, N.Y. native and first-year Ranger has been a major driver in this surge. Of note, half his points – both for the season and during this run – have come on the power play (an effort the Rangers rank third-best for the season with a 25.8 percent conversion rate), indicating his impact in all situations.

Not to be overshadowed too much, top-line C Mika Zibanejad has also earned eight points over this stretch, but he’s been earning his pay more as a play-maker than a goalscorer, as he’s buried only one goal in this stretch. His favorite player to assist of late has been sophomore W Pavel Buchnevich, who has scored four goals in six games – an effort eclipsed only by fourth-liner W Michael Grabner.

It’s also been a tale of two months for the 8-8-2 Blackhawks, but they’re not exactly as happy with the change as the Blueshirts. Going back to October 24’s 4-2 loss in Vegas, Chicago is an uninspiring 3-6-0. That includes losses to the Avalanche, Canadiens and Flyers, who among them have a combined 24-24-5 record and a -15 goal-differential.

What should be truly concerning for the Blackhawks is their record in meaningful games since April 1 of last season. They went 0-2-2 to finish out the 2016-’17 regular season campaign, followed by an 0-3-1 performance in the playoffs. Add that in with this year’s record and Chicago has gone 8-13-5 in its last 26 competitive matches.

If this is an April Fools’ Day joke, it should go down in the Guinness World Records as the longest and most convoluted, because this Hawks team should be in much better position than 11th in the Western Conference.

After all, the Hawks boast players such as F Patrick Kane (winner of 2016’s Hart, Lindsay and Ross Trophies), D Duncan Keith (a two-time Norris Trophy winner) and C Jonathan Toews (the 2013 Selke Trophy winner), all of whom have thrice hoisted the Stanley Cup.

What’s most frustrating is that the Hawks aren’t really doing anything wrong statistically. Sure, the offense’s 2.94 goals-per-game for the season could technically be better (it’s only [t]13th-best in the league, after all), but allowing a (t)ninth-fewest 2.72 goals against-per-game should be more than enough to keep Chicago competitive.

Of course, season averages have a way of camouflaging recent momentum – or lack thereof. Since October 24, the Blackhawks have scored only 21 goals, tying Detroit for sixth-fewest in that stretch.

Perhaps the most telling point about this squad during this nine-game stretch is that W Alex DeBrincat, a rookie on the third line, is leading the attack with his 5-2-7 totals (6-5-11 for the season), followed close behind by F Artem Anisimov‘s – a player that’s never scored more than 45 points in a season – 5-1-6 effort. Not Kane; not Toews; heck, not even W Brandon Saad.

DeBrincat and Anisimov.

Head Coach Joel Quenneville will never complain about depth scoring. Depth scoring is one of the top things that separates the best teams in this league from pretenders. But you can’t have depth scorers without stars like Kane and Toews doing their jobs as the primary forwards. Until they rediscover their groove, Chicago will continue to struggle.

It’s with that in mind that I’m forced to favor the Rangers in this contest. Though I’m sure G Corey Crawford – who’s having a Vezina-caliber season so far – will prove a solid test against New York’s red-hot offense, I don’t think the Blackhawks’ offense will be able to break through G Henrik Lundqvist and his defense.


A combined seven goals were struck in the second period of yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, but the Nashville Predators weathered the storm to beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 at Bridgestone Arena.

Though the middle act of this three-ring circus was the wildest, the first period still provided some excitement for the home fans when F Craig Smith (First Star of the Game LW Kevin Fiala and D Anthony Bitetto) scored a tip-in with 8:12 remaining before the first intermission. 5:55 later, Third Star C Nick Bonino (D Roman Josi and F Calle Jarnkrok) doubled the Preds’ advantage to 2-0.

It took only 6:28 of play in the second period for the Caps to level the game. Aided by Jarnkrok earning a seat in the penalty box for hooking him 45 seconds earlier, F T.J. Oshie (D John Carlson and F Evgeny Kuznetsov) scored Washington’s first goal of the night at the 4:29 mark with a power play tip-in. 1:59 later, RW Alex Chiasson (W Brett Connolly and Carlson) tied the game at two-all with a slap shot. That tie lasted exactly 17 seconds before F Filip Forsberg buried an unassisted wrist shot to reclaim a lead for Nashville.

Scoring subsided for almost two-and-a-half minutes before Fiala (Second Star D Mattias Ekholm) decided to get things ramped back up with a tip-in that proved to be the game-winner at the 9:04 mark to set the score at 4-2, but his tally was quickly answered by Oshie’s (F Chandler Stephenson and C Nicklas Backstrom) wrister 17 seconds later to pull Washington back within a 4-3 deficit.

Now that we’ve reached the midway point of the frame, let’s take a second and recap: five goals have already been scored in this second period! There’s still 10 more minutes to play! Meanwhile, the last three teams to face Wild G Devan Dubnyk have not been able to score even one goal against him.

Hockey is a fickle game.

Anyways, only two more goals were struck in the period, and they both belonged to the Preds. W Miikka Salomaki (C Colton Sissons and D Matt Irwin) scored his second goal of the season with 5:54 remaining in the frame, and Ekholm (C Kyle Turris and Sissons) finished the period off with a power play clapper two minutes before the second intermission.

It seems both teams used up all their offense in the second period, because not a single goal was struck in the third period. That left G Pekka Rinne with the victory after saving 26-of-29 shots faced (.897 save percentage) and G Braden Holtby, who saved 19-of-25 (.76), with the loss. Holtby was lifted for G Philipp Grubauer at the start of the third period, and he saved all six shots he faced.

Nashville’s victory is the second-straight by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. With their record now improved to 22-16-5, hosts now own a four-point advantage over the roadies.

November 14 – Day 42 – Holtby vs. the Preds

It’s Tuesday night in the National Hockey League, so you know what that means: keep an eye on your fantasy team, because there’s lots of points to be earned!

There’s eight games on tonight’s schedule in all, starting with Buffalo at Pittsburgh (SN1) at 7 p.m. and two more contests (Columbus at Montréal [RDS/TSN2] and Dallas at Florida) half an hour later. As we cross into the next time zone, three tilts (Washington at Nashville [NBCSN], Philadelphia at Minnesota and Arizona at Winnipeg) drop the puck at 8 p.m. Another time zone, another game: this one is Vegas at Edmonton, which will start at 9 p.m., followed 90 minutes later by Vancouver at Los Angeles, tonight’s nightcap. All times Eastern.

I must admit, if we hadn’t featured the Predators Saturday for the sixth time this season, I’d be very drawn to their matchup with the Capitals. But, to keep things fresh… oh, I can’t do it. Let’s get to Tennessee!

 

There’s more than a few winning streaks going in the NHL right now, and one of them is the 9-5-2 Predators’ eight-point run in their last four games. Though those four wins didn’t come easy (they needed an overtime goal from W Viktor Arvidsson in Los Angeles and a shootout against the Penguins), the fact that three of them came on the road speaks volumes about this hockey team, as does occupying third place in the Central Divsion.

The verdict may still be out on Taylor Swift’s new album, but one thing I know that definitely is – as the kids say nowadays – straight fire is Nashville’s offense. In their last four games played, they’ve scored a whopping 16 goals. That ties Tampa Bay in third place for most tallies in the league since November 3.

These days, doing anything as well as the Lightning is a very good thing, considering they’re the only team in the NHL with 30 points in the standings.

Like you’d expect from someone so clutch as to score an overtime winner, Arvidsson has been at the forefront of this attack with his 3-2-5 totals from the first line since November 3.

But what is really making this Preds offense scary is they’re getting goals from all over the lineup. D P.K. Subban has scored three goals over this run, but his offensive production is expected. Third-liners C Calle Jarnkrok (2-2-4) and W Miikka Salomaki (1-3-4), however? They have been an intimidating force – especially for their spots in the lineup – that has required opposing goaltenders – G Braden Holtby, in this case – to always be on their toes.

Speaking of Holtby, he’s been a major part of his 10-7-1 Capitals both earning third place in the Metropolitan Division and winning two-straight games.

There’s a few defensemen in this league that get called pylons. It’s not a good thing to be a pylon.

Considering the way Holtby has played lately, General Manager Brian MacLellan could save Owner Ted Leonsis some major money by simply wandering down to the local sporting goods store and buying some actual pylons. I mean, who needs defensemen when Holtby has won his last six starts?

That’s right: 10-3-0 Holtby has not lost a single start since allowing five goals October 26 in Vancouver. After that, the 2017 Jennings Trophy-winner has posted a disgusting .944 save percentage for a 1.79 GAA.

To compare, G Henrik Lundqvist, who has also won all of his last six starts to drag the Rangers kicking and screaming into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, has found his victories with only a .912 save percentage and 2.66 GAA.

Though Lundqvist is certainly worthy of all the praise he’s lauded with, there’s a clear superior netminder in this discussion.

As stated before, Holtby will face a tough test tonight against a red hot Predators offense. Any and all help he can get from RW Tom Wilson (2.8 hits-per-game since October 28) and D Brooks Orpik (2.5 blocks-per-game) will surely be appreciated.

As for picking who is going to win this game, I feel it’s important to take into account the six teams Holtby has beaten during this run: Edmonton, the Islanders, Boston, Arizona, Pittsburgh and the Oilers again. Of those, I would argue that only New York and the Penguins are getting consistent scoring from their third line, and two different “Holtbys” appeared in those games.

Against the Penguins Friday, Holtby put in a solid performance and allowed only one goal. But, against the Isles on November 2, he allowed three markers to force a back-and-forth affair that the Caps were fortunate enough to win 4-3.

The Holtby that played against the Islanders cannot show up at Bridgestone Arena tonight if the Caps want to win. All the right gears are meshing right now for the Predators, and I don’t expect them to miss a beat on their own accord.

Given the location of this tilt, I think the Preds can pull out the victory and snap Holbty’s winning streak.


A 7:05 third period hat trick by First Star of the Game F Teuvo Teravainen is all the Carolina Hurricanes needed to beat the Dallas Stars 5-1 at PNC Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Teravainen’s hat trick was necessitated by the third period starting with a 1-1 score. Third Star W Sebastian Aho (Second Star F Jordan Staal and Teravainen) scored his first goal of the season at the 8:07 mark of the first period to give the Canes their first lead of the night, and Dallas leveled the score at the 8:44 mark of the second courtesy of a power play snap shot by RW Alexander Radulov (F Tyler Seguin and F Jamie Benn).

There’s nothing like a power play goal to get a scoring run started. Just ask Teravainen (Staal and Aho), who scored his first goal of the night with a slap shot on the man-advantage 2:39 into the third period. The play started with the puck in a scrum behind G Ben Bishop‘s net. Staal eventually came out the winner and slid a pass towards Teravainen near the left point. After advancing towards the top of the near face-off circle, he ripped his slapper past Bishop’s glove with a little help from an F Elias Lindholm screen.

But Teravainen wasn’t done yet – he wanted some insurance goals too. He scored his second tally of the night 4:12 after his first off assists from D Jaccob Slavin and Staal, and then buried a snapper at the 9:44 mark (Staal and Aho) to set the score at 4-1. While he was sorting his new headgear, Teravainen let F Jeff Skinner (D Trevor van Riemsdyk and Lindholm) score a final insurance goal with with three seconds remaining before the final horn.

G Scott Darling earned the victory after saving 25-of-26 shots faced (.962 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bishop, who saved 23-of-28 (.821).

A home win by the Hurricanes means the 21-16-5 hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series once again have an advantage – even if it’s only two points – over the visitors.

November 8 – Day 36 – It’s a whole new month

It’s Wednesday, so you know what that means: it’s supposedly rivalry night in the NHL.

At least that’s what I’ve been told by Doc Emrick…

The action finds its start at 7:30 p.m. this evening with Minnesota at Toronto (SN/TVAS), followed half an hour later by Boston at the New York Rangers (NBCSN). After that game finishes, fans should keep their televisions tuned to NBCSN to catch this evening’s nightcap -Tampa Bay at San Jose – at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Last Wednesday’s rivalry was New Jersey at Vancouver… I know, what a heated matchup. This week, we get a real rivalry of the Original Six variety that features one team riding a four-game winning streak.

 

What a difference turning a page in the calendar can be! After opening the season a miserable 1-5-2, the Blueshirts have now rattled off four straight victories to crawl into a tie for sixth in the Metropolitan Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Whether the 7-7-2 Rangers were spending too much time planning their Halloween costumes or being respectful of the Yankees playoff run, we’ll never know. Either way, New Yorkers are happy to have winning ways at Madison Square Garden once again (yes, we’ll include the 6-4 Knicks, who are riding a three-game winning streak of their own, until proved otherwise).

Since Halloween, only Winnipeg’s 3-0-1 run comes close to rivaling the Rangers’ four-game winning streak, and there’s some interesting similarities between both clubs’ surges: a spike in offensive productivity has been integral to the teams’ performances. That’s especially true in New York’s case, as 6-4-2 G Henrik Lundqvist and co. have allowed an average of three goals-per-game over this stretch.

Usually that’s not the best strategy to win hockey games, but it’s working out right now for the Rangers because of the spectacular play of C Mika Zibanejad and D Kevin Shattenkirk.

Even though Zibanejad’s seven points are the most on the team during this run, Shattenkirk has arguably been the most impressive with his 3-3-6 totals since the last day of October. Playing a style that makes him seem to be a fourth forward instead of one half of the Rangers’ second defensive pairing can prove difficult to adjust to (just ask the Capitals), but it seems New York is starting to find its groove with the offseason’s most-desired piece.

One of the best ways to find momentum is to have success on special teams. The Rangers have been doing just that during this stretch, as their 40 percent conversion rate since Halloween is (t)fourth-best in the league. It’s on the man-advantage that Zibanejad has put in most his work, as his five power play points over this stretch are most on the squad. His favorite person to connect on the with on the man-advantage of late has been F Chris Kreider, who has scored two of the Blueshirts’ six extra-man tallies.

That effort doesn’t stop at the power play. New York has also been perfect on the penalty kill in its last four games, stopping all eight of the man-advantages that has come its way. Considering Lundqvist has faced only nine shots during that stretch, all credit for this success must belong to D Ryan McDonagh and the rest of the defensive corps.

If the Rangers are truly going to make a living out of dominating special teams, they’ll face a serious test tonight against a 6-4-3 Bruins club that absolutely dominates in uneven situations.

The superior of Boston’s special teams is its penalty kill, which ranks third-best in the NHL for the month-old season with an 87.2 percent kill rate. This success has been a combined effort of exemplary play by 3-4-2 G Tuukka Rask, who’s managed a .935 save percentage against the power play that ranks second-best among goaltenders with at least six starts, and a defense that has limited his work to only 46 shots in that situation.

If Rask doesn’t hug D Zdeno Chara every day, or at least shake his hand and offer a Finnish thanks, he’s doing something wrong. Chara averages 1.4 blocks-per-game and has only stepped up his game to an even higher level in that department with D Adam McQuaid‘s broken leg. Every little thing Chara does helps keep pucks away from Rask and reduce his workload, and that’s a very important thing for a netminder that has started over 60 games for the past three seasons.

Boston is also home to one of the top-five power plays in the league. Led by RW David Pastrnak and his 3-3-6 power play effort, the Bruins have converted a wildly impressive 25.5 percent of their extra-man opportunities. If the Rangers can keep the Bruins’ power play from finding the back of their net, they deserve to win. Otherwise, it may be wise to keep Shattenkirk and his team-leading 22 penalty minutes under control.

Neither team played yesterday, so this should be an entertaining matchup between two fresh clubs. Since I don’t feel the Bruins’ even-strength offense offers anything Lundqvist hasn’t seen before, I’m leaning towards the Rangers earning two points tonight.


The Vancouver Canucks repaid the Calgary Flames for winning at Rogers Arena last month, as they won yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at the Scotiabank Saddledome 5-3.

Like every good rivalry game, this contest had its share of penalties – seven, to be exact, totaling 14 penalty minutes. As a result, five of the eight goals struck last night came as a result of special teams play.

The Flames were able to kill off D Dougie Hamilton‘s cross-check against W Thomas Vanek at the midway point of the first period, but they weren’t so fortunate after F Michael Frolik tripped LW Daniel Sedin with 6:21 remaining in the frame. With only a second remaining before Frolik could return to action, F Sam Gagner (Sedin and Vanek) scored a power play wrist shot to give Vancouver the lead.

However, that lead wouldn’t last into the first intermission, and it was all because F Brandon Sutter was caught holding D T.J. Brodie. With 11 seconds remaining before the break, Hamilton (C Mikael Backlund and LW Matthew Tkachuk) made amends for his prior infraction to level the game for Calgary.

Power play goal #3 was a result of Sedin hi-sticking Hamilton with 8:32 remaining on the second period clock. He sat in the box for only 23 seconds, as Second Star of the Game LW Johnny Gaudreau (Brodie and C Sean Monahan) posted his bail with a wrister to give the Flames their first lead of the night.

Apparently all this power play mumbo jumbo is not what Vanek (D Michael Del Zotto and D Alex Biega) had in mind for the evening, as he registered the first five-on-five goal of the game with 4:51 remaining in the second period to level the score at 2-2, and W Micheal Ferland followed suit 2:18 later to reclaim the lead for Calgary.

The next penalty that proved important was Biega’s trip against D Mark Giordano with 1:56 remaining before the second intermission, but it was not the Flames that capitalized. Instead, RW Derek Dorsett (Sutter and D Ben Hutton) scored a shorthanded deflection to level the game 100 seconds before reporting to the dressing room for intermission.

After two back-and-forth frames, the Canucks decided to take command of the game with a swift two-goal blitz before five minutes ticked off the third period clock. They were helped in that effort by D Michael Stone, who was caught holding Vanek at the 3:49 mark. 23 seconds later, Vancouver registered its game-winning goal.

The fourth power play tally of the night belongs to First Star C Bo Horvat (RW Brock Boeser and Hutton), though he was more beneficiary than anything. Hutton and Boeser did most of the work, as it was them that brought the puck into the offensive zone following a Flames clear. Boeser slung a wrist shot from the right face-off circle towards the far post that G Mike Smith blocked rather easily. The operative word here is obviously blocked, as Horvat was waiting in the crease to collect Smith’s rebound and slide a backhanded shot behind him.

Though Horvat gets credit for the game-winner, it was probably C Henrik Sedin‘s (D. Sedin and RW Jake Virtanen) five-on-five goal only 38 seconds later that really took the wind out of the Flames’ sails. Try as they might, they could neither force the Canucks to commit a penalty nor break through Third Star G Jacob Markstrom at even strength.

Speaking of Markstrom, he saved 29-of-32 shots faced (.906 save percentage) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Smith, who saved 16-of-21 (.762).

Being the road team in the DtFR Game of the Day seems to be the desirable thing of late, as visitors are riding a two-game winning streak and have won six of the past eight tilts. This solid run has pulled the roadies within two points of the 18-14-4 hosts.

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.

October 19 – Day 16 – Won’t you be my neighbor?

With nine games on tonight’s schedule, there’s no time to waste. Let’s jump right in!

As it usually does, the evening starts at 7 p.m. when four contests (Vancouver at Boston [SN360/TVAS], the New York Islanders at the New York Rangers, Nashville at Philadelphia and Tampa Bay at Columbus) drop the puck, followed by red-hot New Jersey at Ottawa (RDS) 30 minutes later. Slow-starting Edmonton will try to find its way with a visit to Chicago (SN1) at 8:30 p.m., trailed half an hour later by another two games (St. Louis at Colorado and Carolina at Calgary). Finally, tonight’s nightcap takes place in Arizona when the Coyotes host Dallas at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

As we saw last night, there’s nothing like a good rivalry game to get the juices flowing. And what better rivalries exist than those between clubs separated by only a half-hour train ride? The Battle of New York is on!

 

Some rivalries start immediately when the second team is formed. Others are made following intense regular season and – more likely – nasty playoff series.

The Big Apple Bout checks both those boxes.

Ever since the Islanders began play in 1972, interactions between these two squads and their respective fan-bases have been heated. In the same strain as the old Dodgers-Giants matchups, as well the more contemporary tangles between the  Giants and Jets, Knicks and Nets, Mets and Yankees and NYCFC and Red Bulls, no one hates a New York team like a New Yorker that supports the other club. Just ask those Santas in 2003.

But there’s more history between these clubs than simply claiming the same geographic area as home. Excluding any preseason matchups, these two clubs have squared off 341 individual times, with the Rangers narrowly leading the total series 163-159-19.

But, when we get into the true basis of any NHL rivalry, we find the Islanders have a decent advantage. It may not seem that way by simply looking at the Isles’ playoff record against their New York brethren, as they lead that total series by only one game with a 20-19 record. But, when we realize these clubs have played eight Stanley Cup playoff series against each other and the Isles have advanced five times, we start to get the real root of the issue.

Surprisingly, the rivalry between these clubs has been dominated by the Islanders for the last three seasons, as they own a 10-3-0 against the Blueshirts since the 2014-’15 campaign. Included in that stretch is the 2015-’16 season that featured the Islanders sweeping the season series against the Rangers for the first time in franchise history.

If they want to win their fourth-straight series against the Rangers, the 2-3-1 Isles had better stick to the formula that has worked so far for them in this two-week old season: G Thomas Greiss.

Seriously, that’s all I, and more importantly, the Islanders have to show for being 11th in the Eastern Conference. The defense allows a 12th-worst 33.2 shots against-per game (read: bad) and the offense currently ranks eighth-worst in the league at 2.5 goals-per-game (read: worse).

But that’s the beauty of how Greiss has been playing so far this season. His 3.07 GAA may not be pretty, but it’s all you can ask of a goaltender who’s getting peppered every night and still managing a .921 save percentage.

Oh, what’s that? G Jaroslav Halak is starting tonight? Oh boy…

Well, it’s actually not that bad, as Halak’s 2.62 GAA is actually superior to Greiss’. Apparently, the defense plays better when the Slovak is in net, which is a good thing considering he’s rocking a .907 save percentage after three starts.

Keeping in mind the Rangers’ offense has produced an 11th-best 33.3 shots-per-game so far this year, this may not end well for the Boys from Brooklyn.

And don’t let the Islanders confuse you by winning the Pat LaFontaine Trophy the past three seasons: the Rangers have been the better team of the two since the turn of the millennium. Since the 2000-’01 season, the Blueshirts have won 10 of their 16 season series against the Islanders, including an unrelenting 6-0-0 performance in 2003-’04. Making matters even worse for the Islanders in that season is the fact that none of those games required overtime.

But turning our attention back to present day, the 1-5-1 Rangers are absolutely floundering at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with Montréal (the Blueshirts win the ROW tiebreaker against the Habs, so at least they have that going for them… which is nice).

In a situation similar to the Isles’, nothing is going right for the Rangers as their defense and goaltending averages the ninth-most goals against (3.71) while the offense is seventh-worst by managing only 2.43 goals-per-game.

And this is the team that made it to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

If anything has gone right for the Rangers so far this season, I suppose it’s their power play. Though it’s far from the best in the league, a 24.1 percent success rate (11th-best in the NHL) is nothing to spit at. Having already scored a league-leading four power play goalsthis season (tied with F Filip Forsberg), if C Mika Zibanejad has the chance to employ the man-advantage, it’s a safe bet he’ll be able to at least give the Rangers a chance to find a win against the Isles.

This may not be an excellent game on paper, but rivalry games have a way of proving to be exciting. I’m leaning towards the Rangers winning this game with home-ice and the fact that they have G Henrik Lundqvist at their disposal.


Led by First Star of the Game F Jaden Schwartz‘ hat trick, the St. Louis Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 at Scottrade Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Notes needed only 4:46 of action to take a lead they would not yield. Schwartz (Third Star RW Vladimir Tarasenko and D Robert Bortuzzo) is the guilty party, and his backhanded shot was the lone goal of the first period.

The Schwartz Show continued 5:59 into the second period when he took an assist from G Jake Allen down the ice to bury a wrist shot on G Corey Crawford on the opposite end. 110 seconds after Schwartz’ second goal of the night, Tarasenko found what ended up being the game-winning goal on his stick.

St. Louis managed a fourth unanswered goal 7:01 into the third period when F Kyle Brodziak (LW Scottie Upshall and D Colton Parayko) buried his first goal of the season, but Schwartz’ (Parayko) third goal of the night – scored on an empty net with 52 seconds remaining – was not struck before Chicago registered two power play goals in the span of 80 seconds.

First was RW Richard Panik (D Duncan Keith and F Patrick Kane) scoring on a tip-in with the man-advantage, followed by W Ryan Hartman (F Alex DeBrincat and D Brent Seabrook) finding the back of the net on a controversial power play deflection with 3:53 remaining. Those two goals pulled the Hawks within a two-goal deficit, which explains why Crawford had abandoned his post late in the game.

Allen earned the victory after saving 22-of-24 shots faced (.917 save percentage), leaving the loss to Crawford, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

Though Allen played spectacularly, his defense deserves much of the credit for limiting the Hawks to 24 shots against. In particular, the D-corps allowed only four shots in both the first and second period before Chicago poured on the offense in the third. With his eight blocks, there’s a lot to be proud of for D Joel Edmundson.

That’s two-straight three-goal victories by the 10-5-1 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, who now have a seven-point lead on the visitors.

October 8 – Day Five – Selections are slim, Vol. I

What a day yesterday! 15 games of NHL action is the best way to spend an evening.

But all good things must come to an end, and this one in particular comes to a screeching halt. There’s only one game on the schedule today, making 1-1-0 Montréal’s 7 p.m.* visit to Madison Square Garden (NHLN/RDS/SN1) to face the 0-2-0 Rangers our de facto Game of the Day.

*Eastern time

 

Everybody loves a good Original Six matchup, especially when it’s a rematch from the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

It’s a postseason Habs fans would like to forget though. After winning the Atlantic Division by five points over Ottawa last season with a +26 goal differential, Montréal managed only 11 goals against the first wild card Rangers before being eliminated in six games.

Most noticeable in the Canadiens’ offensive struggles this April was the disappearance of LW Max Pacioretty. He managed .83 points-per-game for 35-32-67 totals to lead his squad in the regular season, but he registered only one assist – albeit on Game 2’s overtime game-winner – as his lone postseason offensive contribution.

Instead, it was RW Alexander Radulov that rose to the challenge, earning a team-leading seven points – including two goals – against G Henrik Lundqvist. But, there’s one problem with that going into tonight’s game: Radulov now wears a green Dallas Stars sweater after signing with them as a free agent this offseason.

To replace his scoring contributions, General Manager Marc Bergevin traded for F Jonathan Drouin‘s RFA rights and then signed him to a six-year, $33 million contract. Though it’s far too early to say it was a bad decision, Drouin has only provided a lone assist in two games played as the offense has deferred to RW Brendan Gallagher‘s 1-1-2 effort to start the season. Pairing that with Pacioretty’s two points in his past 10 non-preseason games, the Canadiens’ stars are struggling to find much attacking rhythm.

As a result, the Habs have not exited the gates as strongly as they were hoping for. They escaped with a shootout victory in Buffalo to open their season Thursday before going to Washington and getting whipped 6-1 last night by W Alex Ovechkin.

Of course, those two points are still miles ahead of where the Blueshirts are to start the year, as they lost 4-2 to Colorado, the presumed worst team in the NHL, in their first game followed by a wild 8-5 loss in Toronto last night. In fact, New York is the only club in the Eastern Conference to have not earned a point already this campaign, even though they have yet to depart the comforts of home.

Having managed seven goals in two games (led by Mats Zuccarello‘s 1-4-5 effort to start the season), offense is definitely the problem in The Big Apple. Instead, Head Coach Alain Vigneault‘s club is struggling on the defensive end, specifically between the pipes.

This is not the start to the 2017-’18 season Lundqvist envisioned. In two starts, he’s saved only 34-of-42 shots faced for a .809 save percentage and a whopping 6.13 GAA. Making those numbers even more alarming, he allowed five goals in the opening period last night against the Leafs before being pulled.

Though the Rangers’ defense looks far from perfect, Lundqvist can’t blame them for his struggles. Led by newcomer D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s team-leading five blocks, the blue line allows only 33.5 shots-per-game to reach the net, a number that ties for 13th-best in the league.

So, does Vigneault sit Lundqvist in favor of G Ondrej Pavelec tonight? Something tells me the answer is no.  Personally, I’d leave King Henrik in the net to face an offense that has yet to find its groove, especially since he sat the last two periods last night and should be rested enough to have another go at earning his first win of the season. Though he’s experienced enough that you wouldn’t think he needs a confidence boost, it’s that experience that gives Vigneault the belief he can bounce back.

As I stated in my Rangers offseason recap/preview, this Rangers club will go as Lundqvist goes. That’s great when he’s playing like his usual self, but until then New York could be in dire straits. With that in mind, whichever team can control Montréal’s offensive zone will win this game tonight.


With his second game-winning goal in as many games played this season, Second Star of the Game W Brandon Saad and the Blackhawks beat the visiting Blue Jackets 5-1 at the United Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Chicago wasted no time in taking command of this game, as First Star F Patrick Kane (W Ryan Hartman and D Gustav Forsling) buried a wrist shot only 93 seconds into the contest to take a quick 1-0 lead. Assisted by Third Star C Jonathan Toews and F Patrick Sharp, Saad followed up Kane’s score only 4:31 later with a power play wrister to beat G Joonas Korpisalo.

Saad was the beneficiary of an ugly free-for-all in front of Korpisalo’s crease.  Sharp started the scoring play by firing a shot on goal from above the right face-off circle. Though Korpisalo was able to make the save, both Toews and Saad collapsed on his crease to apply pressure. Toews had intentions of collecting the puck to score on his own, but couldn’t corral it and instead nudged it across the crease to Saad. Considering Chicago’s prodigal son was able to bury the goal to set a 2-0 score, he’ll be happy to settle for the assist.

Toews (Saad) did eventually find the back of the net for his first goal of the year to add to the Hawks’ lead with 9:46 remaining in the second period, but LW Sonny Milano (F Nick Foligno and D Gabriel Carlsson) pulled the Jackets back within two goals only 31 seconds later on a wrister. Unfortunately for Columbus, that goal could not provide enough of a spark as D Jan Rutta (Kane) buried a wrister with 7:09 remaining in the second frame to set the score at 4-1.

RW Richard Panik provided Chicago’s final insurance goal with 5:55 remaining in the game.

G Corey Crawford earned the victory after saving 32-of-33 shots faced (.97 save percentage), leaving the loss to Korpisalo, who saved 24-of-29 (.828 save percentage).

For those wondering, both of the Blackhawks’ victories have come against opponents from the Metropolitan Division, the best in the league last season. They’ve won those games by a combined score of 15-2. If that’s not an indication of the caliber of these Hawks, I don’t know what is.

Though not as comfortably as yesterday, the 3-2-0 road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series still hold a one-point advantage over their hosts.

New York Rangers 2017-’18 Season Preview

New York Rangers

48-28-6, 102 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

Eliminated in the Second Round by Ottawa

Additions: D Anthony DeAngelo, C David Desharnais, G Ondrej Pavelec, D Kevin Shattenkirk

Subtractions: W Taylor Beck (signed with Yekaterinburg), D Adam Clendening (signed with ARI), D Dan Girardi (signed with TBL), G Magnus Hellberg (signed with Kunlun), F Marek Hrivik (signed with CGY), W Nicklas Jensen (signed with Jokerit), D Kevin Klein (signed with Zürcher), F Brandon Pirri (signed with Zürcher), G Antti Raanta (traded to ARI), C Derek Stepan (traded to ARI)

Offseason Analysis: Before we jump into any analysis, allow me to soothe the fears of any casual Rangers fans: few of the 10 subtractions listed above played the entirety of last season with the Rangers. In actuality, only four spots needed to be filled this offseason.

Then again, General Manager Jeff Gorton did buy out the back half of Girardi’s six-year, $5.5 million AAV contract (keeping at least $1.1 million on the books through the 2022-’23 season), so some of these gaps were self-inflicted.

That’s apparently the price a team had to pay to get its hands on two-way blueliner Shattenkirk, 2017’s most-courted free agent. Though he failed to help the Capitals escape their second-round curse, he brings with him undoubtable scoring abilities that will only strengthen 2016-‘17’s fourth-best offense.

But how valuable is a two-way defenseman really? To put things in perspective, nine of the top 10 and 12 of the top 14 teams in defensive points last season made the playoffs (the Islanders and Flyers missed the playoffs by only a combined eight points, by the way), and Nashville and Pittsburgh  – the Stanley Cup Finalists – were two of the top-three clubs in the statistic.

The Rangers were one of those top teams last year before adding Shattenkirk, the former St. Louis Blue that has posted at least 40 points every season of his career (except the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 campaign). Given he’s replacing Girardi – a player that has posted only .23 points-per-game for the past two years – in the lineup, the Blueshirts will see an immediate improvement along their blue line, at least in scoring.

But is adding Shattenkirk enough to win 35-year-old G Henrik Lundqvist his first Stanley Cup? That remains to be seen, as the signing could hurt just as much as it helps. One of Girardi’s strongpoints was keeping shots of his goaltender, as he registered 166 blocks and 10 more takeaways last season. In comparison, New York’s new piece managed only 95 shot rejections, but also 36 steals. If Shattenkirk cannot rein in his propensity for attacking the opposing net, Captain Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and the rest of the defensive corps will have to take a cab home after games due to sheer exhaustion.

Of course, that was not what Shattenkirk was hired to do… see the dilemma here?

Though the 2012 Vezina winner will forever be King Henrik, his age is not doing him any favors. Add in the fact that new backup Pavalec (.888 save percentage, 3.55 GAA in eight starts last season) is no Raanta (.922 save percentage, 2.26 GAA in 26 starts last season), and the pressure will be on New York’s defense to keep Lundqvist as fit, healthy and well-rested as possible to ensure he plays as much as possible.

Offseason Grade: C+

The Blueshirts live and die by their incredible, hopefully ageless netminder. Without Lundqvist, this season is a waste of time for the Rangers (no offense Pavalec) – no matter how much Shattenkirk scores. Should Lundqvist be unable to cope with the potential added work, Mats Zuccarello (15-44-59 totals) and co. will be under fire to score even more goals to keep the Rangers in contention. While exciting to watch, playing barnburner-type games can grow taxing on teams and will certainly not be a feasible strategy in the playoffs.

Just ask the 2015-’16 Stars.