Unless you’re headed to a game, make sure to sit down in front of your TV tonight because there’s much to be watched!
As hinted at yesterday, the NHL is closing out the unofficial first half of the season with a bang today, as all but Los Angeles is in action (and believe me, the Kings are 100 percent happy with this situation). Like it does most weeknights, the action begins at 7 p.m. with three games (Nashville at New Jersey, Tampa Bay at Philadelphia [SN1] and Minnesota at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by four more (Carolina at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Ottawa [RDS2], Chicago at Detroit [NBCSN] and Washington at Florida). Next up is Colorado at St. Louis in the 8 p.m. time slot, with Toronto at Dallas dropping the puck 30 minutes later. 9 p.m. marks the beginning of a pair of tilts (Calgary at Edmonton and Columbus at Arizona), while three contests (Buffalo at Vancouver, the New York Islanders at Vegas [SN1] and Winnipeg at Anaheim) wait until 10 p.m. to get underway. Finally, the New York Rangers at San Jose close out the evening as the 10:30 p.m. nightcap. All times Eastern.
There’s more than a few of tonight’s games that I’ll have my eye on…
- Minnesota at Pittsburgh: It’s the return of F Matt Cullen to PPG Paints Arena. Time for him to grab his third Stanley Cup ring!
- Boston at Ottawa: No matter how poor the Sens are this year, it doesn’t take away from their playoff run from a season ago – which began with a six-game series with the Bruins.
- Chicago at Detroit: Original Six matchups are always fun, right?
- Colorado at St. Louis: Welcome back to the Gateway City, W Nail Yakupov.
- Calgary at Edmonton: This rivalry always has the chance of getting truly nasty.
It’s been a while since we’ve featured either the Pens or the Wild, so let’s head to the Steel City.
Remember when you were little and you would run to your dad every night when he got home from work?
That’s kind of what happened at the Penguins’ morning skate today when Cullen showed up – and yes, all of them probably did call him “dad.”
Cullen has been a bit of a journeyman over the course of his career. Since being selected 35th-overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by Anaheim (back when they were the Mighty Ducks), he’s worn eight different sweaters, including two stints with both the Hurricanes (with whom he won the 2006 Stanley Cup) and the Wild.
One of those teams is, of course, Pittsburgh. After not being offered a deal after two years in Nashville, he signed a one-year, $800 thousand contract with the Pens to be their fourth-line center, as well as provide a veteran voice in the dressing room, for the 2015-’16 season.
It goes without saying that it was a marvelous relationship. He posted 16-16-32 totals (all top-eight marks on the team that season) from his bottom-six position during the regular season, followed up by decent 4-2-6 marks in the postseason to help the Pens to their fourth Stanley Cup.
In fact, the pairing was so good that General Manager Jim Rutherford offered Cullen another one-year deal to stay with the club for the 2016-’17 season, this time with a $1 million price tag.
The results came up spades once again for Pittsburgh, as the resident father figure posted even better 13-18-31 totals (all top-11 on the squad) in 10 fewer games played, followed by a 2-7-9 effort in the playoffs as the Penguins beat Cullen’s former team for their second-consecutive and fifth-overall title.
However, this offseason wasn’t as simple as the year before’s. Not only did Rutherford have to figure out how to successfully navigate multiple signings, but Cullen was mulling retiring from the NHL. That forced the Penguins to look elsewhere to fill their holes at center on the third and fourth line (with a roller coaster of results, ranging from the highest heights to the lowest lows), making Cullen’s decision on whether he would return to the club or not for him.
With Cullen on the outside looking in, Minnesota General Manager Chuck Fletcher caught wind that he was interested in at least one last ride and signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal to play the same veteran fourth-line center role he did in Pittsburgh.
I can’t vouch for his presence in the dressing room, but the Virginia, Minn. native’s solid performance on the ice has not followed him back to his hometown team. Missing only one game so far this season, Cullen has posted only 4-7-11 totals for .23 points-per-game, well under the .41 he managed in 154 regular season games in Pittsburgh. If he continues scoring at this pace, Cullen is in line for 19 points in 81 games played. It’d be the worst season of his career.
Fortunately for 26-17-5 Minnesota – the sixth-best team in the Central Division – it has 18-9-3 G Devan Dubnyk at its disposal. When he’s on fire like he is right now, he keeps the Wild in every game they play. As a result, Minnesota has earned a point in six-straight games with a 4-0-2 record.
Dubnyk has started four of the Wild’s last six games, and with much success. He’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.73 GAA to improve his season numbers to .919 and 2.59. As a result of his winning ways and the opportunity to play behind a defense that has allowed only a 12th-fewest 30.5 shots against-per-game since January 9, the Wild have allowed a (t)second-best average of 1.83 goals against per game during this solid run.
As mentioned before, Cullen rejoining the Wild was a result of the Penguins turning to other players to fill the third and fourth-line center positions. Currently, those players are C Riley Sheahan and F Jean-Sebastien Dea, and it seems Pittsburgh is starting to find success with them in those positions.
However, the real reason 26-21-3 Pittsburgh – the Eastern Conference’s second wild card – has been wining lately is because of some stellar play in net. Over their past eight games, the Pens have gone 6-2-0 by allowing only 2.13 goals per game, the fourth-best mark in the league since January 5.
Specifically, much of that defensive success has occurred in the crease since the Pens’ defense has allowed 30.88 shots against during this run. Of the three goaltenders that have played since January 5, 2-2-0 G Casey DeSmith has easily been the most impressive and will be in net this evening for the Pens.
In line for the fourth start of his NHL career tonight, DeSmith has posted an imposing .96 save percentage and 1.35 GAA since January 5 in three starts. In fact, he’s been so solid lately that, to make room for 15-12-1 G Matthew Murray returning to the roster, the Penguins sent 9-4-2 G Tristan Jarry back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL instead of him. After starting the season as Jarry’s backup with the Baby Pens this season, that is certainly a major compliment to DeSmith and the potential Head Coach Mike Sullivan sees in him.
The Penguins have already made their annual trip to St. Paul this season, but it is not a trip they look back upon fondly. Minnesota ended up winning the October 28 game 2-1 thanks to First Star C Mikko Koivu‘s game-winning goal at the 9:03 mark of the third period.
If picking winners of games was as simple as choosing the team with the superior overall record, Minnesota would be in line for two points this evening. However, the Wild have a miserable 9-13-1 record on the road this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can perform well away from the State of Hockey.
With an overtime winner from Third Star of the Game LW Tanner Pearson, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
The Flames’ lone goal of the game was struck with 5:57 remaining in first period, courtesy of Second Star C Sean Monahan (LW Johnny Gaudreau and W Micheal Ferland). The wrist shot is Monahan’s 22nd goal on the season, the most on the club.
Including this game, Calgary’s average of 10:52 penalty minutes per game is fifth-most in the league. The Flames certainly lived up to their reputation, as they served a whopping 22 PIM, including a C Mikael Backlund misconduct. Most of those infractions took place in the second period, as both squads committed four infractions each.
However, the penalty that led to the Kings’ game-tying goal didn’t take place until the 3:23 mark of the final frame when C Mark Jankowski was caught tripping C Anze Kopitar. 46 seconds later, D Jake Muzzin (Kopitar and D Drew Doughty) buried a power play slap shot to tie the game at one-all.
With neither squad able to break the draw, the contest advanced into the five-minute three-on-three overtime period. Almost all five of those minutes were necessary, but Pearson (Doughty and W Dustin Brown) was able to avoid the shootout with 27 seconds to spare. The main action on the scoring play occurred when Doughty faked a clapper from above the face-off circles. That fake made G Mike Smith commit just long enough that he wasn’t able to react in time when Doughty set up the Pearson wrister, which beat him five-hole.
First Star G Darcy Kuemper earned the victory after saving 30-of-31 shots faced (.968 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Smith, who saved 25-of-27 (.926).
The road teams are coming in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Visitors in the series have won five in a row and earned points in seven-straight, pulling them within 17 points of the 59-36-15 hosts.