Tag Archives: Matthew Murray

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 27 – Day 54 – Battle of Pennsylvania

Welcome to the last week of November! I know you think you need to be doing your Christmas shopping, but you have all of December to do that. Instead, sit down this evening and watch some hockey.

If you’re wise and followed my instructions, the NHL has scheduled five games for your viewing pleasure. Two of them (Florida at New Jersey and Philadelphia at Pittsburgh [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) start at 7 p.m., followed by Columbus at Montréal (RDS/TSN2) half an hour later. Minnesota at Winnipeg continues the half-hour intervals by dropping the puck at 8 p.m., as does Anaheim at Chicago, which waits until 8:30 p.m. to close out the evening’s action. All times Eastern.

I know we just featured the Penguins Saturday, but there’s no way we can miss the season’s first iteration of the Battle of Pennsylvania.

 

To keep the story short, there’s only a few things these teams can agree on:

  1. Hockey is a good game.
  2. Pennsylvania is a good state commonwealth.
  3. Mark Recchi is a good guy.

Beyond that, there’s very little these rivals see eye-to-eye about. Of course, what should one expect from teams that have met 316 times in regular or postseason play (played to a 172-114-30 record in favor of Philadelphia, by the way).

Looking at the overall numbers, the Flyers have certainly had their way with this series. In addition to already owning the overall series by almost 60 games, they’ve also beaten Pittsburgh in four of their six playoff series, including winning three-straight from 1989-2000.

You’d think Pittsburgh having players like C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin would have had a way of leveling the playing field for the Pens of late, but every good rivalry has a way of dulling stars’ impact. Even though the Pens swept Philadelphia 8-0-0 during Malkin’s rookie season in 2006-’07, the Flyers have amassed a slightly superior 34-27-8 regular season record against the Penguins since Crosby first donned the black-and-gold.

The difference? Two points.

That’s right, a win by the Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena would level the Battle for Pennsylvania series during the Crosby Era – as if 12-10-3 Pittsburgh needed more motivation than it already had sitting a point outside of the playoff picture.

When we featured the Pens’ game against the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning a couple days ago, I mentioned that one of their problems seemed to be a dry spell by Crosby. Of course, he went out and proved me wrong, as he scored two goals and tacked on another assist to lead G Tristan Jarry to his first-ever NHL victory.

But there’s still another wound to poke on this squad: defense. Pittsburgh has allowed 3.4 goals-per-game this season, which is the fourth-highest in the entire NHL.

That being said, it seems even that problem might slowly be resolving itself. The Penguins search for a backup goaltender has been well documented, with offseason signing Antti Niemi failing miserably and already playing for his third team of the year. Since Jarry has been called up, the goaltending duo of him and starter 11-7-1 G Matthew Murray has found much more consistent play, as they’ve combined for a 2.89 season GAA.

Of course, it still seems probable that General Manager Jim Rutherford will eventually pursue a trade that allows him to send Jarry back to the AHL and resume playing consistently alongside fellow prospect Casey DeSmith, but his solid play has allowed management to take its time and find a good deal instead of rush into a bad decision.

Of course, that’s a discussion for another day, because it’s likely that Murray resumes starting duties this evening.

Compared to his rookie campaign and his 13 starts in 2015-’16, he’s left much to be desired in his first season as Pittsburgh’s undisputed number one, as he’s managed only a .906 save percentage and 2.94 GAA that ranks 14th and 11th-worst, respectively, among the 34 goalies with at least 10 starts.

But Murray is not the only contributor to Pittsburgh’s defensive woes. Even though D Kris Letang leads the team with 17 takeaways and RW Ryan Reaves throws 3.1 hits-per-game, Murray has already faced 595 shots this season, the eighth-most among that group of 34 goalies.

One of the odder things going on in Pittsburgh nowadays is D Ian Cole being a healthy scratch, as he leads the team with 1.8 blocks-per-game. He hasn’t dressed for the past two games, and word on the street from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey is that he’ll watch tonight’s game from the press box.

It’s peculiar that a defenseman so committed to keeping pucks away from his netminder that he’s only managed three points this season is the one being punished. Head Coach Mike Sullivan has yet to publicly show his hand (he claims Cole needs to improve his game), but the longer this goes on, the transaction rumors will only increase.

As for the 8-9-6 Flyers, they wish they were in as enviable a position as Pittsburgh to be unhappy with only being a point outside playoff position. For the umpteenth season in a row, Philly burst out of the starting gate to only find itself six points from the bottom of the conference.

A major reason for this slide has been the Flyers’ play over the second half of November. After beating the Blackhawks 3-1 on November 9, Philadelphia has earned only an 0-3-4 record since.

While the offense hasn’t been very good over this stretch (they’ve managed only 2.14 goals-per-game), it’s been the play on the defensive end that has been the true burden, as the Flyers have allowed 25 goals against in their past seven games.

Much of the responsibility for this struggle falls on the shoulders of 6-5-5 G Brian Elliott, who has started all but one of the games in this stretch for a .909 save percentage and 2.77 GAA that is actually better than his season marks of .905 and 2.85.

Unfortunately, that nominal improvement is simply not good enough behind an offense that scores only 2.83 goals-per-game on the season. Until the other three lines behind Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek decide to play hockey, General Manager Ron Hextall can only look forward to a trip to Dallas for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to see if he can find a skater that can actually contribute (shots fired, F Nolan Patrick).

The reason Murray can put up comparable numbers to Elliott and still win is because of the goal support he receives from RW Phil Kessel, and it’s for that reason that I believe Pittsburgh will snap its two-game losing skid to the Flyers and beat them for the first time since February 25.


Though they needed the shootout to do it, the New York Rangers were able to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Vancouver’s offense was ticking throughout this entire game, as it managed a goal in all three frames. W Loui Eriksson (C Henrik Sedin) took credit for the first period’s marker, burying a wrist shot 7:54 into the game.

The Canucks doubled their lead at the 7:21 mark of the second period courtesy of RW Jake Virtanen‘s third goal of the season, an unassisted wrister. However, this tally did not go unanswered, as Second Star of the Game RW Jesper Fast (D Nick Holden and D Brendan Smith) scored a wrister with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission to pull the Rangers back within a goal.

All the offensive action that ultimately mattered in the third period occurred in the opening 5:05 of the frame. W Michael Grabner (W Mats Zuccarello and D Kevin Shattenkirk) took his turn first, bagging a wrister only 19 seconds after emerging from the dressing room to level the game at two-all. The Rangers weren’t even for long though, as Third Star F Sam Gagner (W Thomas Vanek) returned the lead to Vancouver only 41 seconds later. First Star LW Jimmy Vesey (W Rick Nash and F Kevin Hayes) scored the final goal of regulation at the 5:05 mark, and it was an important one: Vesey’s backhanded shot tied the game at three-all and forced three-on-three overtime and, ultimately, the shootout.

As for how the shootout went down…

  1. Vanek took the opening attempt for the Canucks, but his wrister was saved by G Henrik Lundqvist.
  2. That provided Zuccarello an opportunity to earn a mini-break, but just like Vanek, his wrister was saved by G Jacob Markstrom.
  3. Vancouver’s second shooter was C Bo Horvat, but the shootout remained tied thanks to Lundqvist’s save.
  4. C Mika Zibanejad apparently grew tired of seeing all these saves, as he ensured Markstrom couldn’t get his mitts on his shot by sending it wide of the net.
  5. RW Brock Boeser finally found the first goal of the shootout for the Canucks, which forced a miss-and-lose situation for New York.
  6. Put in a pinch, Head Coach Alain Vigneault turned to Shattenkirk, who hadn’t scored a shootout goal since the 2015-’16 season. The defenseman ended that skid to continue the tiebreaker.
  7. Now in a sudden death situation, F Markus Granlund was sent out to win the game for the Canucks. Lundqvist had other ideas and was there to make the save.
  8. W Pavel Buchnevich‘s offering met the same fate: saved by Markstrom.
  9. LW Sven Baertschi started round five with a bang, as he beat Lundqvist to force New York’s second miss-and-lose situation.
  10. Cool under pressure, Nash sent the shootout on to the sixth round by beating Markstrom.
  11. Though he was able to score in regulation, Gagner couldn’t beat Lundqvist in the shootout.
  12. F J.T. Miller hasn’t scored a goal since November 2, and his luck didn’t change here. His offering was saved by Markstrom.
  13. Another skater, another save: this time, Lundqvist stopped D Ben Hutton in round seven.
  14. He was the one to force overtime, and he was the one to end the shootout: Vesey beat Markstrom to earn two points for the Blueshirts.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 29-of-32 shots faced (.906 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Markstrom, who saved 17-of-20 (.85).

After being on the wrong end of a two-game winning run two days ago, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a two-game winning streak of their own. That has elevated their record to 29-19-6, 10 points better than the visitors’.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 6

Player of the Week: Nathan MacKinnon

Remember that kid from the same town as Sidney Crosby that got drafted #1 overall by the Avs a few years ago? Yeah, I’m betting more of you than would care to admit didn’t.

MacKinnon has sort of fallen off the radar in recent years, though playing for a perennial also-ran in a smaller market can certainly take some blame. A promising rookie campaign was followed up by 3 less-than-stellar seasons, and MacKinnon sort of disappeared from the spotlight. Always producing enough to stay out of the doghouse, but never matching the lofty expectations, he seemed doomed to float around on a mediocre team and risk hearing the ‘bust’ associated with his name.

But this year MacKinnon has come out firing, and has helped the Avs to be…well, at least less bad than predicted. With 22 points in 19 games (in addition to eight on the power play, one shorthanded, and a rare +1 rating on a team that isn’t exactly the first word in positive goal differentials), he has shown flashes of the firepower that landed him that #1 draft spot.

In 3 games this week, MacKinnon tallied 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points, including a 5 point night during the Avs’ 6-2 shalacking of Washington, and the game-winning OT goal against Detroit Sunday night. Take out a scoreless effort against Nashville, and it becomes an even more impressive week for the 22 year old.

With Matt Duchene gone, the Avs will look to MacKinnon to continue to carry the offensive load, so let’s see if he can pull that spotlight back his way and remind a few people of his existence.

Team of the Week: Winnipeg Jets

*insert horrible cliche’ something akin to ‘flying high’ here*

What has gotten into these guys, eh?

Winnipeg soared (oh no) through their three-game week with a perfect 3-0-0 record on the back of a ridiculous string of “Iceman” (stop) Connor Hellebuyck performances. Stopping 97 of 102 shots faced, and never allowing more than two goals in any game, the young netminder backstopped his team right to fourth place in the league. Patrik Laine (1G, 2A) and Joel Armia (1G, 3A) carried point streaks through the week (resisting “Maverick” and “Goose” reference), but perhaps more impressive was the balance of scoring throughout the team, as only three players that played in all three contests were held scoreless over the week.

The Jets are in the discussion for Canada’s best team. I’m not actually sure why that’s significant, but I’ll (barrel) roll with it. Hard to say whether or not the success will continue, I mean, at some point they have to use Steve Mason in net again, but Winnipeg has the afterburners lit (please help) for now.

Fans are just hoping that things don’t end up going inverted.

Game of the Week: Buffalo Sabres 4 @ Pittsburgh Penguins 5 (OT), Tuesday November 14th, 2017

In a game that saw nine goals, 77 shots, 63 hits, eight power plays (with three resulting goals), and the winning team never officially having the lead for an actual amount of time, the Sabres gave the defending Cup champs all they could handle.

Only 3:45 into the first period it would be Evander Kane converting on a 2-on-1 with Jack Eichel that would set the tone of Pittsburgh chasing the game. Sam Reinhart would add to the Penguins’ deficit later in the period when, while on the power play, he would jump on a rebound created by Marco Scandella‘s shot hitting the end boards at approximately 17,000 mph. But with just 19 seconds remaining in the first Patric Hornqvist would capitalize on a weird bounce of his own, collecting a misplayed puck from Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner and firing it off the Ryan O’Reilly‘s leg and into the net to halve the Buffalo lead.

But just 16 seconds into the second Sidney Crosby would make a drop pass to no one behind his own net, allowing Jack Eichel to pick up the puck and deposit it into the Pittsburgh net before Matthew Murray had any inkling of impending doom. Conor Sheary would draw the Pens back to within one just over four minutes later, before Crosby would atone for his earlier sin to even the score with a PPG at the 17:15 mark of the middle frame. In the dying minutes of the second, however, Ryan Reaves would take an elbowing penalty, and Benoit Pouliot would capitalize on the power play with just seven seconds remaining in the period to regain the Buffalo lead.

Lehner and the Sabres spent most of the third period trying to hold onto their lead, getting outshot 13-6 in the final frame, but with just over six minutes to play Evgeni Malkin would send the most picture-perfect saucer pass you could ever hope to witness across the ice to Phil Kessel who would make no mistakes and draw the game even. Conor Sheary would then win the game just 16 seconds into overtime, after Crosby dominated board play behind the Buffalo goal and sent a feed directly to his tape, sending the Pittsburgh fans into a frenzy and this Jackets fan who remembers last year’s first round series-clinching goal far too clearly into the fetal position.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Radko Gudas got a 10-game suspension for being Radko Gudas, Luke Witkowski got a 10-game suspension for being Luke Witkowski, and Matthew Tkachuk got a two-game suspension for being Matthew Tkachuk.

The NHL announced that the 2019 Winter Classic will feature the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. This, partnered with the Flyers hosting the Penguins in the first announced Stadium Series game, goes to further prove that Gary Bettman acknowledges the existence of approximately 7-8 of the 31 teams in the league.

Speaking of underperforming teams that Gary Bettman loves, holy smokes are the Canadiens a dumpster fire. Complete disarray from the product on the ice all the way up to upper management, it’s almost like having possibly the worst defense corps in the league suddenly becomes extremely worrisome when you can no longer rely on the best goalie in the world to win every game for you because his limbs are falling off.

Some guy that apparently makes rap music (to steal a line from Dave Mustaine: “Two words combined that can’t make sense”) did a hockey-themed thing on SNL. I didn’t know who he was so I didn’t care.

Editor’s note: Poor Chance the Rapper.

Jason Zucker still hasn’t stopped scoring goals, but rest assured now that I’ve realized that he had been on the bench of my fantasy team throughout this entire hot streak, he’s 110% guaranteed to go colder than Red Deer in January.

Edmonton and LA made waves by trading Jussi Jokinen and Mike Cammalleri straight up for one another, in an absolute blockbuster of a deal circa 2009.

The Blue Jackets signed winger Cam Atkinson to a seven-year deal, mere hours after Aaron Portzline reported the two sides were apparently nowhere even remotely close to a deal. (This is newsworthy/funny to me, Cap’n, and pretty much no one else)

The Golden Knights used their 5th goalie of the season on Tuesday night, as Maxime Lagace seemed to be dealing with an injury during a blowout loss to the Oilers. WHL emergency call-up Dylan Ferguson played the final 9:14 of the 3rd period, allowing one goal, but living a dream in the process. Ferguson was all of us, citing that he was starstruck when Connor McDavid went out of his way to give the 19 year old netminder a tap on the pads and a “Good job, kid” at the end of the game. Lagace has played since, and Malcolm Subban is back off of IR, so it’s likely…okay, fairly likely…that Ferguson has seen the last of his NHL experience, at least for the time being.

November 11 – Day 39 – Stanley Cup rematch

First and foremost, I’m sure I speak for all of us here at Down the Frozen River in extending my thanks to each and every veteran on this Veteran’s Day. Whether American, Canadian or any other nationality that values freedom and democracy, we sincerely appreciate you and your service.

To ensure the best of Veteran’s Days, the NHL has scheduled a whopping 12 contests to take place today all around the world.

To start off, there’s two matinees (Edmonton at the New York Rangers and Colorado vs. Ottawa [NHLN/RDS/SN] in Stockholm, Sweden) scheduled for 1 p.m., followed by six (Toronto at Boston [CBC/CITY/NHLN], Buffalo at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Columbus at Detroit, Florida at New Jersey, Minnesota at Philadelphia and Chicago at Carolina) at the usual 7 p.m. starting time. 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two more contests (the New York Islanders at St. Louis and Pittsburgh at Nashville), and tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vancouver at San Jose (CBC) and Winnipeg at Arizona (SN) – get green-lit at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

As usual, there’s quite a few matchups worthy of being featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but we can only pick one. Let’s see some of our final options:

  • Colorado vs. Ottawa: It’s the second-half of the 2017 NHL Global Series.
  • Toronto at Boston: F Dominic Moore called the TD Garden home only a season ago. Now, he’s back to wearing white at this rink.
  • Buffalo at Montréal: Not only is this an Atlantic Division rivalry, but D Nathan Beaulieu is also returning to his old stomping grounds of five years.
  • Pittsburgh at Nashville: The Penguins return to Bridgestone Arena for the first time since hoisting their fifth Stanley Cup.

Since we didn’t feature the Predators’ visit to PPG Paints Arena at the beginning of the season, there’s no way we can skip this rematch.

Last postseason was a dream come true for the Predators. Though seeded eighth in the conference, they rode an incredible 7-0-1 home record at Bridgestone Arena to their first-ever Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and Stanley Cup Finals berth.

And then Pittsburgh happened.

Though the Penguins needed every second of six games to eliminate Nashville, the Preds suffered the same fate as the Sharks a season before: being forced to watch C Sidney Crosby and the Pens hoist the Cup and skate around the rink while wearing white road sweaters.

The Predators have already had one opportunity to exact revenge when they made their yearly trip to the Steel City on October 7, but it didn’t exactly go well for them. Though they fired 26 shots at G Matthew Murray, he stopped them all to earn what is still his lone shutout on the season. His effort combined with a Penguins attack that managed four goals courtesy of F Evgeni Malkin, F Jake Guentzel, RW Ryan Reaves and D Olli Maatta.

A lot has changed for 8-5-2 Nashville since that game, as it has climbed all the way into fifth place in the Western Conference and is riding a three-game winning streak since falling in San Jose on November 1.

In particular, the Predators have a much better offense than they showed Pittsburgh the last time they met up, as they’ve managed an impressive four goals-per-game during this hot streak. W Viktor Arvidsson specifically has been at the head of this scoring onslaught with his 3-1-4 totals, but I’ve also been impressed by third-line W Miikka Salomaki recently, who has managed 1-2-3 totals with one fewer game played during this stretch after being  a healthy scratch November 3 in Anaheim.

What makes Salomaki’s outburst so unexpected is his 1-2-3 totals in his last two games played comprise his entire 2017-’18 output. Heck, it even comprises all of last season’s contributions too (given, he only played five NHL games last year). It’s highly unlikely that this scoring streak will continue much longer, but the Predators certainly are not going complain about having added firepower for the time being.

As for the 9-7-2 Penguins, they enter this game on the heels of a defeat similar to the one they delivered the Predators last month, as they fell 4-1 in Washington last night. Of course, considering their lowly 2.56 goals-per-game and 3.5 goals against-per-game (both fifth-worst in the league), it’s a surprise the Pens are even in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

One of Pittsburgh’s biggest problems this season has been the position of backup goaltender, and that will probably come into play tonight since Murray played against the Capitals yesterday.

G Antti Niemi had the position at the start of the season, but his .797 save percentage and 7.5 GAA in only three starts led to him getting waived. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s G Casey DeSmith was then given an opportunity to earn his first NHL time, but he was only nominally better, managing a .8 save percentage and 4.29 GAA in 42 minutes.

The plan was originally for him and tonight’s presumed starter G Tristan Jarry to rotate as Pittsburgh’s backup and the Baby Pens’ starter, but DeSmith’s October 29 showing in Winnipeg may put that on hold.

That leads us to backup #3 in Jarry, himself a rookie that has only two NHL starts to his name. The first start occurred this April against the Rangers in the final game of the regular season. Since the game had no impact on the postseason, he was left out to dry behind a halfhearted defense to allow G Marc-Andre Fleury rest. He lost his NHL debut 3-2 on an .88 save percentage.

Fast-forward to November 2 when the Penguins were in Calgary.  Though he still has yet to earn his first win with the senior team, Jarry forced overtime with a much improved .941 save percentage. It seems that was enough to impress Head Coach Mike Sullivan, as he has yet to be sent towards Dunder Mifflin headquarters.

If the Penguins want to win, Jarry’s third career NHL start must look more like his second than his first, and his defense would be wise to do all they can to keep shots away from his crease. Considering Pittsburgh allows 31.3 shots against-per-game, that means more players are going to need to follow the lead of Reaves – whose 49 hits top the team – and D Ian Cole, who manages 1.8 blocks-per-game.

Unfortunately for Penguins fans, I simply don’t know if that’s going to happen. Everything – specifically a high-flying offense against a rookie goaltender – is leaning the Predators’ way in this contest, and that’s without taking into account the revenge Smashville so desperately wants to impart. Pittsburgh just might be in line for a second drubbing in as many nights.


Thanks to First Star of the Game RW Mark Stone‘s overtime goal, the Ottawa Senators beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden in yesterday’s back-and-forth DtFR Game of the Day.

This contest followed a nice pattern, as three goals were struck in the first period, two in the second and a final regulation marker in the third.

W Nail Yakupov (Second Star F Alexander Kerfoot and F Colin Wilson) got the scoring started by potting a power play snap shot 8:16 into the contest, but Colorado’s advantage lasted only 20 seconds before Third Star D Fredrik Claesson (F Mike Hoffman and Swede D Erik Karlsson) – a Stockholm native – scored to level the game. Finally, Stone (Stockholmare D Johnny Oduya and D Chris Wideman) tipped-in a goal with 4:50 remaining in the period to give the Senators a 2-1 advantage going into the first intermission.

The game was tied once again at the 9:41 mark of the second period courtesy of a Kerfoot (W Blake Comeau and D Samuel Girard) tip-in, and it remained level for 3:40 before F Chris DiDomenico (D Dion Phaneuf and F Tom Pyatt) claimed a one-goal lead for Ottawa once again. That 3-2 score held into the second break.

For those wondering, the only event that shows up on the box score involving the recently-traded F Matt Duchene occurred in the middle period when he was tripped by W Gabriel Bourque. The Senators could not convert either this nor their only other power play opportunity of the game.

The lone goal of the final frame was struck with 7:07 remaining in regulation. F Nathan MacKinnon (RW Mikko Rantanen and Stockholmare LW Gabriel Landeskog) is the lucky Av to take credit, as he leveled the game at three-all to force three-on-three overtime.

Overtime didn’t even last a full minute before Stone (C Derick Brassard and Karlsson) bagged his 11th goal of the season to earn the bonus point for the Sens. After resetting the play in the neutral zone to get Ottawa onside, Karlsson drove towards G Semyon Varlamov‘s net before dropping a pass to Brassard in the right face-off circle. Instead of firing the puck, he slid a quick pass across the slot to Stone, who buried a snapper on a gaping cage to end the tilt.

G Craig Anderson earned the victory after saving 16-of-19 shots faced (.842 save percentage), leaving the loss to Varlamov, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

Since the Senators were officially the road team in today’s DtFR Game of the Day, they helped visitors in the series pull within one point of the 19-15-5 hosts.

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.

October 31 – Day 28 – Wild Jets would be scary

So what you want to go to a Halloween party tonight? There’s hockey to be watched!

Okay, fine; you can go to the party, but make sure to keep tabs on the three games taking place tonight. First up on the schedule is Vegas at the New York Rangers (SN1) at 7 p.m., followed by Arizona at Detroit half an hour later. Finally, the nightcap finds an early start at 8 p.m. when Winnipeg visits Minnesota. All times Eastern.

Turns out Halloween is an important holiday to the NHL, because Tuesday schedules are usually filled to the brim. With a limited selection of matchups, it’s obvious we have to take in tonight’s festivities in St. Paul, Minn.

 

Who pegged the Jets to be ahead of the Wild in the standings at this point in the season?

I’m big enough to admit that I certainly didn’t. Minnesota was supposed to build off the positive momentum from last season’s unbelievable 12-game winning streak, while Winnipeg was expected to struggle after another offseason of relative inactivity.

Instead, all the 4-3-2 Wild has done is earn themselves last place in the Central Division (you know, the same division that has the Colorado Avalanche), and the reason is fairly easy to discern: a sparse schedule.

Wait, what?

Tonight’s game against the Jets is only Minnesota’s 10th game of the season, and the Wild are the last of the 31 teams in the NHL to reach that total of games played. In fact, the Wild have played so few games that even if they’d gone undefeated in their first nine games for 18 points, they’d still only be in second place in the Central Division behind St. Louis’ 21.

If we learn nothing else from the Wild, we should know that a points total is not always indicative of a team’s performance (Except in the case of the Coyotes. They look to be that bad).

So far, the key to success for the Wild has been their depth scoring. Led from the third line by W Chris Stewart and his 6-2-8 totals on the season, Minnesota has managed to score 3.33 goals-per-game, the ninth-best rate in the entire league. D Jared Spurgeon has also been very effective from the blue line, as he’s also produced a team co-high eight points.

But don’t be led to believe that there’s no problems with the Wild. Like any good head coach would, Bruce Boudreau will insist that play in his defensive zone needs to improve sooner than later. Even with D Jonas Brodin‘s team-leading 2.4 blocks-per-game, the Wild allow a (t)ninth-worst 33.4 shots against-per-game.

It’s because of this extra work that 3-3-1 G Devan Dubnyk hasn’t looked as good to start the year. Only a season removed from his wildly impressive (I have a tip jar if you feel so inclined) .923 save percentage and 2.25 GAA performance in 2016-’17 (that somehow earned him only eight votes towards the Vezina Trophy, nine fewer than Oilers G Cam Talbot), he’s managed a measly .905 save percentage and 3.03 GAA in seven starts this campaign.

I have faith that Dubnyk will trend towards his career .916 save percentage eventually, but until he finds his rhythm, any help he can get from his defense would certainly be welcome.

I made the mistake of using the word ‘sputtering‘ Sunday when describing the 5-3-2 Jets’ offense. Perhaps Head Coach Paul Maurice read my preview to his club (thanks for reading, Paul!), because they came out and scored a whopping seven goals against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

As you can probably guess, I won’t make the same mistake twice. Thanks in large part to their scoring outburst, the Jets now boast the 13th-best offense in the league by averaging 3.1 goals-per-game and will have every intention of keeping the positive energy flowing tonight. One of the biggest contributors – both Sunday and for the entire season as a whole – has been RW Blake Wheeler, who’s 4-8-12 totals top the team. Three of those goals were struck in the first period Sunday against the Pens for his second-ever NHL hat trick and first as a Jet.

What makes Winnipeg an interesting situation is it’s producing in the top-half of the NHL while managing only 29 shots-per-game, the fewest in the league. Though I’m sure RW Joel Armia, W Nikolaj Ehlers and C Mark Scheifele are all very proud of their shooting percentages at or above 20 percent, I expect the Jets to try to pressure Minnesota’s soft defense this evening and pepper Dubnyk as much as possible.

Even though their scoring outburst came against the combined efforts of goalies Matthew Murray (who was starting his second game in as many days) and Casey DeSmith (making his first-ever NHL appearance), I like the Jets to continue their positive momentum and beat the Wild tonight.


In F Patrick Marleau‘s first game at the SAP Center at San Jose as a member of the visiting team, the Sharks were able to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

What started as a slow affair – due in large part to San Jose’s squelching defense – ended in quite the offensive flurry in the third period, as two goals were struck in the final 2:13 of play.

The lone goal of the first period belonged to C Auston Matthews (D Nikita Zaitsev and F William Nylander), who buried a wrist shot to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first period. That advantage lasted until Third Star of the Game F Joe Pavelski (First Star D Tim Heed and C Joe Thornton) leveled the game at one-all 7:58 into the second frame on a deflection.

Heed (D Brent Burns and F Logan Couture) broke the tie 4:11 into the third period on a power play slap shot to give the Sharks their first lead of the night. San Jose would not yield that lead for the remainder of the night, but that fact owes much of its credibility to RW Joel Ward (C Chris Tierney and F Melker Karlsson), as he was the one that registered the empty-net insurance tally that eventually became the game-winning goal with 2:13 remaining in regulation.

Considering most empty-netters signal the end of most comebacks, many Toronto fans had probably already begun looking forward to Wednesday’s game against the Ducks. However, C Nazem Kadri (D Andreas Borgman and D Morgan Rielly) wasn’t quite ready to do that , as he sparked renewed life into the Leafs with his deflection with 70 seconds remaining in regulation. Though Head Coach Mike Babcock again pulled Second Star G Frederik Andersen for much of the remaining time, the Maple Leafs could not find a leveling goal to force overtime.

G Martin Jones earned the win after saving 16-of-18 shots faced (.889 save percentage), leaving the loss to Andersen, who saved 36-of-38 (.947).

That’s two-straight victories for home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Hosts now own an impressive 16-8-4 record that is 10 points superior to that of the roadies.

October 29 – Day 26 – Welcome to the NHL

With three games on tap today, the last Sunday of October won’t go quietly.

What makes today exciting, especially for fans with access to NHL Game Center, is that all three contests will be played independent of each other. With two hours separating the opening puck drop of each match, inspired hockey fans should be able to devote their entire attention to only one game at a time for almost the entirety of today’s schedule.

Of course, by me saying that, I’m asking for three shootouts today. That’d be my luck.

All three of today’s games are East-West matchups, so – barring a meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals – this is one of only two meetings between the clubs this season. First up is Anaheim’s yearly visit to Carolina at 5 p.m., followed two hours later by Pittsburgh at Winnipeg (NHLN/SN/TVAS) to complete their season series. Finally, Washington at Calgary (SN360) – tonight’s nightcap – finds its start at 9 p.m. to close out today’s festivities. All times Eastern.

After playing in Minnesota last night, the Penguins will be playing a second game in as many days. That means G Casey DeSmith is all but certain to get his first-ever NHL start. Let’s take it in, shall we?

 

DeSmith’s path to the NHL has been a quick but peculiar one. The 26-year-old native of Rochester, N.H. has been playing big kid, organized hockey since his days with the Indiana Ice, a now dormant team in the USHL junior league. Of particular note was that Indiana qualified for the playoffs both years DeSmith was a member of the club and that both postseason appearances ended with him owning a save percentage of at least .922.

After posting a .92 regular season save percentage in 2010-’11 during his second season with the Ice, DeSmith earned the opportunity to play for the University of New Hampshire. DeSmith played three years with the Wildcats, posting .926, .924 and .92 season save percentages in a total of 97 games. He was forced to forgo his senior season after not getting an NCAA waiver to transfer to a new school after being dismissed from the Wildcats for assault charges that were later dismissed.

After sitting out the 2014-’15 season entirely, DeSmith signed a contract with the Wheeling Nailers, Pittsburgh’s ECHL affiliate, and played 13 games in 2016 before being loaned within the Penguins’ system to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. DeSmith performed brilliantly with the Baby Pens to earn a 1.94 GAA and .925 save percentage in six regular season appearances, followed by a .919 save percentage, 2.44 GAA effort in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s nine playoff games before being eliminated from Calder Cup contention.

That strong performance earned DeSmith a full-time role with the Penguins as G Tristan Jarry‘s backup, and he didn’t disappoint. Playing in 29 games in his first full season as a pro, DeSmith posted a .926 season save percentage and 2.01 GAA. in 29 games. Impressive stuff.

Another season, another contract for DeSmith. This offseason, he signed a two-way deal with Pittsburgh to cement himself as the fourth-string goaltender within the Penguins organization behind goaltenders Matthew Murray, Antti Niemi and Jarry.

At the mention of Niemi, it’s now time to discuss why DeSmith is in Winnipeg tonight in the first place. Also signed this offseason, Niemi was brought in to replace fan-favorite G Marc-Andre Fleury as Murray’s backup, but he failed miserably. In only three starts, he allowed a whopping 16 goals for a .797 season save percentage and 7.5 GAA. That led to him being waived and eventually being claimed by the Florida Panthers to fill in for G Roberto Luongo, which created a hole in Pittsburgh’s lineup.

At first, it was expected Jarry would be called up like he was at the end of last season when Murray was injured. After all, one game of NHL experience surely trumps only one full season of AHL play, right?

Apparently not. General Manager Jim Rutherford elected to call up DeSmith instead for two reasons: (1) he wants to ensure Jarry continues to get playing time to further his development (that’s hard to do when earning only one start per week – at most), and (2) DeSmith has been nearly unbeatable to start this season.

In three games, 3-0-0 DeSmith has allowed only three goals against for a .98 GAA. Both his GAA and his .965 save percentage are top-four in the AHL and well superior to Jarry’s 3.18 GAA and .897 save percentage. Throw in his perfect performance against the shootout, and he’s certainly the hot hand in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and worthy of the call up.

Of course, even the worst NHL offense is all but certainly better than the top offense in the AHL, so DeSmith could be in for a long night behind a 7-4-1 Pittsburgh defense that allows a 14th-highest 32.6 shots against-per-game.

Fortunately for him, his first taste of the top hockey league in the world comes against a sputtering 4-3-2 Jets team that manages only a (t)eighth-worst 2.67 goals-per-game on a fourth-fewest 29.6 shots-per-game.

It’s surprising that Winnipeg’s offensive numbers are so low considering it has the incredible RW Patrik Laine at its disposal. Then again, is it any surprise that opposing defenses are concentrating their efforts on 2016’s second-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft that managed 36-28-64 totals in his rookie season? He’s only managed a 4-2-6 effort so far in nine games, but linemate W Nikolaj Ehlers has picked up the slack for the second line with his team-leading six goals.

Instead, it’s been the Jets’ top line – specifically C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler – that has provided most of Winnipeg’s limited offense. Both Scheifele and Wheeler have eight points to their credit to tie for the team lead, so shutting them down will be objective number one for D Ian Cole and the Penguins.

Should expectations be that high for DeSmith tonight? Probably not, though I’m sure he’d love to put his hat in the ring alongside G Oscar Dansk for best unexpected goaltending debut of the 2017-’18 season. In reality, stories like that are few and far between, so I like the Jets to pull things together tonight against a tired Pittsburgh club and earn two points at home.


With three goals in the third period, the Washington Capitals were able to beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-2 at Rogers Place in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This game belonged to Edmonton early, as the Oil had a 2-0 lead with two minutes remaining in the first period courtesy of tallies from LW Patrick Maroon (C Connor McDavid and F Leon Draisaitl) and Third Star of the Game D Adam Larsson (C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and LW Milan Lucic) after firing a game-high 16 shots at G Braden Holtby. That advantage would not last into the first intermission though, as W Devante Smith-Pelly (D John Carlson and Second Star W Alex Ovechkin) cut Edmonton’s lead in half with a snap shot to beat G Cam Talbot with 18 seconds remaining in the first frame.

The lone goal of the second period leveled the game for the Capitals. Just like Smith-Pelly, C Lars Eller (D Madison Bowey and Ovechkin) registered his first goal of the season on a slap shot with 9:28 remaining on the second period clock to set the score at two-all. It wasn’t exactly the best of games for Eller considering he earned two of his three seats in the penalty box for sending the puck over the glass, but hey, he scored, so that’s great.

A player who truly had a great game was First Star C Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored two of Washington’s three goals in the third period. His first, which proved to be the game-winner, was struck only 30 seconds into the frame after assists from Ovechkin and Bowey.

Ovechkin deserves a lot of the credit for the goal, as it was his initial shot from the top of the left face-off circle that did most the work. Seeing Kuznetsov streaking towards Talbot’s crease undefended, he centered the puck in a spot that forced Talbot to attempt to make a save, allowing the center to redirect the shot past the netminder’s right leg.

That wasn’t Kuznetsov’s only trick, as he also buried an unassisted insurance tally with 4:04 remaining in regulation to apply further heat to the Oilers. F Jay Beagle (Eller) tacked on Washington’s final goal with 19 seconds remaining in the game to set the 5-2 final score.

Holtby earned the victory after saving 38-of-40 shots faced (.95 save percentage), leaving the loss to Talbot, who saved 26-of-30 (.867).

The Capitals’ victory is the second straight by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series and pulls the visitors within six points of the 14-8-4 hosts.

October 11 – Day Eight – Second round preview

Now that all the fun of the opening week is behind us, it’s time to get focused for the two-month run to American Thanksgiving.

Don’t think the holiday is that important in the NHL? Maybe this will change your mind.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the five games on the schedule this evening. The action starts at 7:30 p.m. with two contests (New Jersey at Toronto [SN] and Pittsburgh at Washington [NBCSN]), followed two hours later by Boston at Colorado. Fixtures continue to fall in line every half hour as the New York Islanders visit Anaheim at 10 p.m. and tonight’s nightcap, Calgary at Los Angeles, drops the puck 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.

Tonight was supposed to be Brian Boyle‘s return to Toronto, but since his diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia has kept him off the ice to star the season, we’ll delay the celebration of the Leafs’ trip to the second round until his return in mid-November.

Instead, let’s take in one of the NHL’s best rivalries in recent years.

 

If not for the Capitals’ significant roster turnover this offseason, it would have been safe to pencil these two squads into a third-straight meeting in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Then again, given Washington’s 2-0-1 record to lead the Metropolitan Division after a week of play, maybe that assumption isn’t too far off the mark.

What has made Washington so deadly to start the season has been its ultra-efficient offense. Though the Capitals average 4.33 goals-per-game ([t]fourth-best in the NHL), they take the fewest shots-per-game in the league at 25.7.

In effect, the Caps are attacking opposing goalies with scalpels instead of battle axes.

At the head of that attack is head surgeon W Alex Ovechkin (.389 shooting percentage), who’s assisted by American Sniper F T.J. Oshie (.375) – both of whom are in the top-15 of shooting percentage and combine for 10 of Washington’s 13 goals. With two solid centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov feeding them passes, Head Coach Barry Trotz is optimistic his top-two lines won’t miss a beat after the offseason departures of F Marcus Johansson and RW Justin Williams.

Speaking of the title of “American Sniper,” Oshie should look out for Columbus’ LW Sonny Milano and his obnoxious .571 to start his rookie season. The kid’s going places with a shot like that, but we’ll worry about that when the Capitals and Jackets tangle in early December.

Back to our game tonight, Washington has felt its turbulent offseason most within the defensive corps. It’s a good thing G Braden Holtby moonlights as a brick wall, as his career .922 save percentage has been put to the test by facing an average of 37 shots-per-game, the (t)fourth-highest in the league. If the Pens want any chance of beating the reigning Jennings Trophy winner, they’ll need to attack him early and often.

All but two (D Nate Schmidt and D Kevin Shattenkirk) of the goalscorers from the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs have returned to Washington this season. Mentioned above as simply play-makers, Backstrom and Kuznetsov both found much success against Pittsburgh in May, as they both beat former Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury for four goals apiece.

Similarly, only two players (C Nick Bonino and F Matt Cullen) that scored on Holtby last postseason departed Pittsburgh. In particular, Holtby is least looking forward to seeing F Jake Guentzel again, as the 23-year-old scored on him four times five months ago.

The Penguins simply haven’t played the same way twice to start the season (most notably falling flat on their faces in Chicago, losing 10-1), though they’d like to repeat their performance from Saturday when they beat Nashville 4-0.

Beyond simply jumping out to a quick start (F Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal only 66 seconds into the game), Pittsburgh got back to playing a sound defensive game. The Predators managed to fire only 26 shots at G Matthew Murray, far below the Penguins’ average of 34.7 shots-against-per-game.

It was also in that game where the city of Pittsburgh fell in love with RW Ryan Reaves, similar to how St. Louis did seven years ago, as he provided a goal to go with his fights with W Cody McLeod and F Austin Watson. Fans and pundits alike questioned General Manager Jim Rutherford‘s decision to bring in an enforcer, but if he can manage to be a goon with a little bit of touch and put up similar numbers to his 7-6-13 performance last season, he’ll be a welcome addition to this lineup.

This is a tough game to pick, as it seemed the Penguins turned a corner last Saturday and are resuming the form we’ve come to expect from them year in and year out. That being said, I think this Capitals team matches up well against them. No matter how hard Pittsburgh’s defense tries, I believe that either Ovechkin or Oshie will be able to find just the right shot to beat Murray.


In an exciting and emotional night for the city of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights were able to beat the Arizona Coyotes 5-2 to win their first-ever home tilt at T-Mobile Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Knights absolutely blitzed the Coyotes out of the gates, as they scored four of their five goals in 10:42 of play. First up was F Tomas Nosek (F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and D Luca Sbisa) burying a wrist shot 2:31 after puck drop, followed by Second Star of the Game D Deryk Engelland (LW Brendan Leipsic) finding the back of G Antti Raanta‘s net only 107 seconds later. Scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal was none other than Third Star W James Neal (D Brayden McNabb and W David Perron), the same man who has now accounted for all three of Vegas’ winners to begin its inaugural season.

Within this sequence, the puck first made its way towards the goal off a shot by McNabb from the top of the offensive zone. It was casually blocked by D Jason Demers at the top of the crease, but Neal was able to collect the rebound and pivot towards the face-off circle to Raanta’s right. Once he finished his spin, he squeezed his wrister between the goaltender’s blocker and the near post.

But Neal wasn’t done. Thanks to F Mario Kempe interfering with Fleury, Vegas earned a power play that Neal (W Reilly Smith and F Erik Haula) was able to convert with a wrister from the crease to beat a fallen G Louis Domingue five-hole. Though F Tobias Rieder (D Niklas Hjalmarsson) was able to get the Coyotes on the board with 7:23 remaining in the first period, it did little to dampen the spirits of the newborn hockey fans.

After a wild opening frame, the second and third periods were much more tame. C Oscar Lindberg (Leipsic) and D Kevin Connauton (C Derek Stepan and F Clayton Keller) were able to score for Vegas and Arizona, respectively, but their tallies had little impact on the outcome.

Overall, the Knights absolutely dominated this game. To start with, they won 68 percent of face-offs, but they were further helped by sloppy play from the Yotes. Though the statistic is recorded as takeaways, most of Vegas’ 12 steals (led by Smith’s three) were a result of aimless passes from Arizona. The Coyotes supposedly improved on paper this offseason, but this showing was not evident of that.

Fleury earned his third victory in as many games played by saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to Raanta, who saved two-of-five (.4) before being pulled. He was replaced by Domingue 6:15 into the game, and saved 21-of-23 (.913) for no decision.

That’s a fourth-straight win by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, a series that now favors the 5-2-1 hosts by four points.

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

50-21-11, 111 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

Additions: D Matt Hunwick, G Antti Niemi, RW Ryan Reaves

Subtractions: C Nick Bonino (signed with NSH), F Matt Cullen (signed with MIN), D Trevor Daley (signed with DET), G Marc-Andre Fleury (drafted by VGK), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with CBJ), D Ron Hainsey (signed with TOR), LW Chris Kunitz (signed with TBL), C Kevin Porter (signed with BUF), D Mark Streit (signed with MTL), C Oskar Sundqvist (traded to STL), D David Warsofsky (signed with COL)

Offseason Analysis: After hoisting the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, is it ok to just write the Penguins into their third-straight Finals appearance?

To the joy of 30 other fan-bases, I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh is still the class of the Eastern Conference and has its eyes set on a three-peat. Though they had their fair share of departures this offseason, the Penguins return the “Sid and the Kids” line (Jake Guentzel, Captain Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary) as well as the dominant second line of Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, so last year’s best offense will expect to continue its scoring ways.

However, the potential chinks in the armor start appearing in the bottom-six as GM Jim Rutherford had to replace Bonino, Cullen and Kunitz – all of whom appeared in 91 or more regular and postseason games last season. In particular, I’m most concerned about the Pens’ third line center.

What needs to be remembered about recent Penguins third lines is that they don’t fit the typical mold. Few third lines are counted on to provide many goals, instead preferring to slow down the opposing offense. But in Pittsburgh, scoring depth extends beyond the top two lines. Bonino and Kunitz provided a combined 66 points last season from the third line, including 27 markers.

Something tells me Head Coach Mike Sullivan will expect their replacements to perform similarly, but who will they be?

As expected, Sullivan has played around with his bottom two lines throughout camp. In Pittsburgh’s most recent preseason contest, Tom Kuhnhackl, Greg McKegg and Bryan Rust made up the third line with the fourth including Scott Wilson, Carter Rowney and Reaves.

Rust can certainly continue the tradition of this new-age third line, but I have my doubts about Kuhnhackl’s career .37 points-per-game and McKegg’s nine points in 65 NHL games. Unless Sullivan gets pleasantly surprised by their performances or accepts a more typical third line, Rutherford might be testing the trade market early.

Considering Hainsey and Streit were trade deadline rentals, Pittsburgh’s main defensive loss was soon-to-be 34-year-old Daley, who managed 5-14-19 totals last season, but 32-year-old Hunwick should be a serviceable replacement having earned 19 points of his own in Toronto last year.

The Penguins also have the luxury of D Kris Letang returning to play. Letang managed only 41 games last year before his campaign was cut short by a mid-season neck injury. Though his 11-year career has been dotted with injuries, Letang has been a potent force when on the ice. He manages .83 points-per-game, including .259 power play points-per-game, for his career and will be a welcome reintroduction to a defensive corps that scored 177 points last season – the most of any Eastern Conference blue line.

Pens fans, you know what we have to discuss next. Ready tissues.

We turn our attention to Pittsburgh’s crease, a spot the first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft will no longer occupy. Instead, it is his protégé Matthew Murray that will assume the true starting role with Niemi as his backup as compared to last year’s “1A-1B” tactic.

Though it’s a bizarre idea to question a goalie that won two Stanley Cups before playing his second NHL season, I’m intrigued to see how Murray responds to undoubtedly being “the guy” for Pittsburgh. Gone are the days of a more-than-competent backup (sorry Niemi, but you’re not impressing anybody with your 2016-’17 .892 save percentage) to fall back on, so all the responsibility rests firmly on Murray’s shoulders. Judging from his 32-10-4 record last season, he’ll react just fine.

Offseason Grade: D

If a “C” is average, the Penguins have to score below it for simply not doing enough to solidify their third line. Maybe McKegg can surprise, but a team trying to win its third-straight Stanley Cup should not be taking such a risk on one of the main things that separates it from the competition. If Rutherford misses on his roll of the dice, the selling price for a viable piece could have dire consequences for the future.

Pens repeat as Stanley Cup Champs

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 6

 

Thanks to Sunday’s 2-0 Game 6 win against Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, the Penguins have retained the Stanley Cup for the second-straight year.

The Finals had been waiting all series for a true battle between the opposing goaltenders. It got what it wanted in Game 6, as Matthew Murray (27-for-27) and Second Star of the Game Pekka Rinne (.964 save percentage) combined to allow only one goal against on 55 shots against.

Play started out predominantly in Rinne’s end for the early minutes of the game, due in large part to the Pens dominating the face-off dot at that time. However, as Nashville began to take control of resumptions of play, the ice began to tilt more in their favor. In fact, the Predators ended the first period trailing the Penguins in shots on goal only 9-8.

The Predators had a much stronger start in the second period, and almost earned the first goal of the game 74 seconds into the frame. Filip Forsberg fired a shot on Murray that he was able to deflect, but not control. Colton Sissons collected the loose puck and fired it into the net, but the goal was disallowed because the referee had blown his whistle for incorrectly thinking Murray had possession of the puck.

But that did little to rattle the still-technically-a-rookie goaltender. He went on to save the remaining 10 shots he faced in the second period to maintain the scoreless draw.

Of all the saves made in the game, the biggest were in the third period. Though only a combined 15 shots were fired in the frame, it seemed the best scoring chances arose in the final 20 minutes. But as had been true for the first two periods, Murray and Rinne kept the opposition searching for its first marker in almost every situation.

In particular, the Predators had an excellent opportunity at the midway point of the period. Due to Olli Maatta tripping Viktor Arvidsson at the 7:19 mark, Nashville earned its third power play of the contest. That advantage grew even larger 1:28 later when Trevor Daley was caught roughing Ryan Ellis. What resulted was a 3:28 extra-man situation for the Preds that included 32 seconds of five-on-three play.

That proved to be the turning point of the game – but not for the original beneficiaries of the infractions. It’s been rumored by players and analysts that a successful penalty kill can reinvigorate a club in a way not even a power play goal could dream of.

That was exactly what happened for Pittsburgh. It played from the 7:19 mark until 9:13 remained in regulation with at least one defenseman in the penalty box and made it look easy. Not only did the Pens not allow a goal in that time, but they only yielded three shots to reach Murray.

7:38 after Daley returned to action, the Penguins began their attack.

The play started with Chris Kunitz behind Rinne’s net chasing the puck towards the far corner. He caught up with the rubber even with the face-off dot along the wall before getting it to Third Star Justin Schultz at the far point. The defenseman slightly slid towards the top of the zone before slinging a wrist shot towards the goal.

Schultz’ attempt missed its mark wide of Rinne’s glove to careen into the boards, but First Star Patric Hornqvist – who was acting as a screen on the blue liner’s shot – was not ready to give up on the play. The former Predator worked his way past the netminder to reach the puck near the far goalpost and smack a wrister off Rinne’s left elbow and into the twine.

Peter Laviolette challenged the goal for goaltender interference (Hornqvist and Rinne did make contact as the scorer dove towards the puck), but it was ruled he was capable of playing his position, therefore a good goal, leaving Nashville only 95 seconds on the clock to respond.

With his club facing elimination, Laviolette was forced to pull his goaltender almost immediately after Mike Fisher won the ensuing face-off  at center ice. But the Penguins defense would not give an inch. No shots reached Murray with Rinne off the ice, and Carl Hagelin (Brian Dumoulin) was able to ensure the Penguins’ fifth Stanley Cup by scoring an empty-netter with 14 ticks remaining on the clock.

Captain Sidney Crosby laid claim to his second-straight Conn Smythe Trophy for scoring 27 points, the second-highest total among all participants (Evgeni Malkin notched 28). With the exception of the Eastern Conference Finals, he registered seven points per round, but it was against Ottawa that he scored three goals – his highest total in a 2017 playoff series.

While the Penguins’ hoisting the Stanley Cup is an impressive feat – they’re they first club to do it since the 1997 and ’98 Detroit Red Wings – Crosby winning back-to-back Smythe Trophies is arguably even more impressive. He is the first to repeat as playoffs MVP since former Penguins player-turned owner Mario Lemieux claimed the trophy in both 1991 and ’92.

Looking ahead, the next big event on the NHL calendar is the NHL Awards Ceremony on June 21 – only 10 days away. Not only will numerous honors be distributed, but the Vegas Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft selections will be announced.