To commemorate the final Thirsty Thursday of the regular season, make sure to pour one out for the best day of the hockey week. Fortunately, that should be pretty easy to do considering there’s a dozen games spread out across the continent.
The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with five contests (Toronto at New Jersey, the New York Rangers at the New York Islanders, Carolina at Philadelphia, Nashville at Washington [NBCSN] and Pittsburgh at Columbus), followed half an hour later by two more (Montréal at Detroit [RDS/TSN2] and Boston at Florida [TVAS]). Calgary at Winnipeg drops the puck at 8 p.m., while Vegas at Edmonton (SN1) waits an hour before doing just the same. Next up is Arizona at Vancouver (SN360) at 10 p.m., with tonight’s co-nightcaps – Minnesota at Los Angeles and Colorado at San Jose – cleaning up the festivities 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.
There’s rivalries galore tonight!
- New York at New York: The Battle of New York looked so good at the beginning of the season, but neither team was able to maintain that positive energy and make the playoffs.
- Pittsburgh at Columbus: Pens fans don’t want to admit that this is a rivalry, but important games like this one might be just the trick to change their minds.
- Montréal at Detroit: It’s the penultimate Original Six matchup of the season.
- Calgary at Winnipeg: This rivalry might be dated, but the Jets just might run up the score for fun anyways.
Even though it’s not on national television, there’s only one game worthy of begin watched after the first round of The Masters is done. In fact, it just so happens to be taking place in Jack Nicklaus’ hometown.
The past month has been pure bliss for Ohioan hockey fans, as the 45-29-6 Blue Jackets have gone on a 13-1-1 record to improve from outside the playoff picture to competing for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
The biggest reason for that success has been Columbus’ unstoppable offense – specifically the spectacular play of the first line. Combined, LW Artemi Panarin, F Pierre-Luc Dubois and RW Cam Atkinson have managed incredible 25-36-61 totals since March 4 to lead the Jackets to averaging a league-best 4.27 goals per game in that time.
Of those three, Panarin is certainly deserving of the most attention. Though all three members of the top line are averaging at least a point per game over their last 15 outings (Dubois barely makes the grade with his 6-9-15 marks), the Russian has been the class of the bunch with his 9-18-27 totals sine March 4, averaging 1.8 points per game in that time to improve his season numbers to 27-53-80 – new career-highs in assists and points with two games left to play.
Another major player on this offense has been D Seth Jones – to the point that he might as well be considered a fourth member of the first line. Since March 4, he’s posted impressive 6-10-16 totals (16-41-57 overall), with all but three of those points occurring with at least one member of the top line also participating on the play.
One team that knows all about that story of resurgence is the 45-29-6 Penguins, who were also falling on on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff early in the season. Since then, Pittsburgh has climbed into the second position in the division that Columbus is searching for, and it has done its best to hold onto that spot with a 2-1-0 record in the past week.
The position most under the microscope in Pittsburgh lately (you know, other than the gaping hole in center field that should be occupied by Andrew McCutchen if not for Robert Nutting’s questionable business practices) has been the Penguins’ goaltending. Completing his comeback from another injury, 26-16-3 G Matt Murray looks like he is rounding back into form just in time for another playoff run. In his past three starts, Murray has managed a .912 save percentage and 2.67 GAA – both marks that are well better than his season numbers of .907 save percentage and 2.9 GAA.
Of course, Murray will be facing arguably his toughest test tonight since returning to action on March 20. Any help he can get from his defense – which has allowed a 13th-best 30.33 shots against per game since March 29 – will go a long way towards Pittsburgh stealing another win at Nationwide Arena.
With both teams tied at 96 points with two games remaining, saying this is a huge fixture just might be the understatement of the season. With 43 regulation+overtime wins to Columbus’ 39, the Penguins have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Jackets should it be necessary at the end of the campaign. As such, a regulation win tonight would clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division for Pittsburgh – the same position from which it has won back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Of course, that means anything better than a regulation loss keeps the Blue Jackets alive for swiping second, but the fact that their final game of the season is in Nashville compared to the Penguins hosting the D Erik Karlsson-less Senators makes this even more of a must-win for Columbus.
Unfortunately, tonight’s opponent hasn’t exactly been very generous to Columbus all season, as Pittsburgh has swept the Blue Jackets through the first three meetings this year – even if a couple of those games were won by the skin of its
Similar to the potential playoff series between these clubs, Games 1 and 2 both took place in the Steel City before transitioning west for the second half of the series. They first met on December 21, playing to a 3-2 shootout victory (F Evgeni Malkin earned First Star honors for his regulation and shootout goals). The Jackets were back in Pittsburgh only six days later, but they once again fell in a shootout – this time by a 5-4 final score (Malkin stole headlines again with three points and another shootout goal).
Most recently, the Penguins made the trip to Nationwide Arena on February 18, claiming a dominant 5-2 victory on the back of C Riley Sheahan‘s two-goal effort.
It feels weird to say, but with every offense in the NHL chasing Columbus’ lately, the Penguins’ attack might have to work to keep up in this tilt should Murray be unable to keep the Jackets’ top line under control. Since I have to make a pick, I think the Blue Jackets earn two points tonight.
With their 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Honda Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth-consecutive season.
All credit goes to the goaltenders for keeping the first frame a scoreless affair. Even though First Star of the Game G Ryan Miller faced 13 Wild shots and G Devan Dubnyk faced 11 Anaheim offerings, both nets remained empty.
Thanks to C Ryan Getzlaf tripping F Mikael Granlund 5:16 into the second period, that scoreless draw ended at the 6:08 mark courtesy of D Mathew Dumba (D Jonas Brodin and W Jason Zucker) burying a power play slap shot. Minnesota’s one-goal advantage lasted 6:47 before LW Nick Ritchie (D Francois Beauchemin and Third Star D Josh Manson) leveled the game with a snap shot.
Another pair of goals were registered in the third period, but much to the disappointment of Minnesotans everywhere, they both belonged to the Ducks. Second Star W Ondrej Kase (Manson and C Adam Henrique) takes credit for the first, as he tapped home a shot with 3:56 remaining in regulation to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.
Not every goal is a pretty one, but Kase isn’t complaining with his 20th tally of the season – not a bad mark for an NHL sophomore playing on a third line. Manson fired an initial clapper from the point, but Dubnyk was able to make a miraculous save considering all the bodies he had to track the puck through (I counted at least two, but would accept arguments as high as five). However, pads aren’t very good at preventing saves from becoming juicy rebounds, which is exactly what led to Kase completing the play with a tip-in.
Now facing a deficit with little time remaining on the clock, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to pull Dubnyk for the extra attacker. That left the Wild’s net wide open, allowing F Andrew Cogliano (W Jakob Silfverberg and Beauchemin) to score his 11th goal of the season to set the 3-1 final score with 2:13 remaining.
Miller earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (.963 save percentage), leaving the loss to Dubnyk, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).
Anaheim’s win is the third in a row for home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The series’ hosts now have an imposing 101-54-21 record that is 50 points better than the visitors’.