First and foremost, I want to sincerely thank @jdettro, @nlanciani53 and @vanekatthedisco for manning the “Game of the Day” post while I was – as Pete put it – on IR recovering from oral surgery. I strive to keep this series as lively and up to date as possible, and they performed those tasks marvelously. Hats off to them!
I must admit, I also earned the golden opportunity to return to the series on an action-packed day, as the NHL has scheduled a solid eight games for our viewing pleasure.
The festivities begin, like they do most weeknights, at 7 p.m. with four tilts (Carolina at the New York Rangers, Vegas at Philadelphia [SN], Winnipeg at Washington [TVAS] and Montréal at Columbus [RDS/TSN2]), followed half an hour later by Ottawa at Florida (RDS2). The next wave of games doesn’t start until 10 p.m. when St. Louis at Anaheim drops the puck, while tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vancouver at Los Angeles and Detroit at San Jose – wait 30 minutes before completing the night’s slate. All times Eastern.
Since F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare spent his first three NHL seasons in the City of Brotherly Love before being selected by Vegas in the Expansion Draft, we’ll head to Eastern Pennsylvania to take in a tilt between two teams expecting to play more than 82 games this season.
Hailing from Le Blanc-Mensil, France (a suburb northeast of Paris), Bellemare was not one of the highly touted European prospects in his draft class. Instead, his story is one of paying his dues and climbing the ladder all the way from Ligue Magnus – the top hockey league in France – all the way to the best team in the Pacific Division.
Bellemare’s professional career began with French side Dragons de Rouen way back during the 2002-’03 season when he was 17-years old, albeit he won the Jean-Pierre Graff Trophy (Ligue Magnus’ Calder Trophy) during the 2004-’05 season. His tenure with the Dragons was capped by a dominant 2005-’06 season that saw him score a then career-high 12 goals and 29 points to lead the club to first place in the regular season, as well as an undefeated run to the Magnus Cup. In three best-of-five playoff rounds (nine games total), Bellemare averaged a point-per-game with 2-7-9 marks.
That success earned Bellemare the opportunity to climb the professional ranks into the more competitive HockeyAllsvenskan, the second-best league in Sweden, with Leksands IF.
Similar to Bellemare’s tenure with Rouen, Leksand only showed improvement while he was on the roster. In three seasons with the club, it finished third, first and first in the regular season, but could never advance out of Kvalserien to earn promotion into Elitserien (the top league in the country, renamed the Swedish Hockey League in 2013).
During his 2008-’09 campaign with Leksand, Bellemare discovered the best scoring form of his career. He scored incredible 31-18-49 totals in 41 regular season games, and followed that up by posting 5-5-10 marks in the 10-game Kvalserien round robin.
Since it was obvious Bellemare was worthy of playing in a better league, he joined Skellefteå AIK in the SEL at the start of the 2009-’10 season, the club he would spend five seasons with. It took Bellemare a couple seasons to adjust to playing against the best competition he’d ever faced on a nightly basis, but he rediscovered his scoring touch by the 2011-’12 campaign to register 19-17-36 totals in 55 games played. Skellefteå advanced to the championship series that season before falling to W Jakob Silfverberg‘s Brynäs IF in six games.
After Bellemare’s first 20-goal season in 2013-’14 since his final year in HockeyAllsvenskan (Skellefteå won the regular season and lost only two games en route to its second of four-consecutive Le Mat Trophies, for those that are wondering), he finally earned the promotion many hockey players only dream of: at 29-years-old, he signed a one-year, $600 thousand NHL contract with the Flyers.
The Frenchman didn’t exactly light North America on fire when he showed up, posting only 6-6-12 marks in 81 games played during his “rookie” season, but Philadelphia was obviously impressed enough to sign him to two more seasons on a $1.425 million contract. Bellemare rewarded the Flyers’ loyalty in 2015-’16 by improving his performance to 7-7-14 totals in only 74 games played, but he regressed last season to lowly 4-4-8 marks even though he didn’t miss a game.
Even still, the Flyers extended his contract another two seasons, locking him up through the 2018-’19 season for $2.9 million on March 1, 2017.
Though Philadelphia had signed that extension, it was a no-brainer why the 32-year-old was left exposed for the Expansion Draft. Bellemare’s production on the offensive end was far from awe-inspiring, as his tenure in the NHL had become most known for his defensive play (he finished 48th in Selke voting in 2016-’17).
Leave it to Head Coach Gerard Gallant and General Manager George McPhee to have a plan for that defensive effort, and of course that plan came up spades for the Golden Knights.
Even at 33-years-old (he just celebrated his anniversaire on March 6), Bellemare is easily having his best season in the NHL with his new team. With only 59 games played, the Frenchman has posted 5-8-13 totals and a +6 rating, his first positive goal-differential since joining the NHL – due in large part to career-high 43 takeaways in the league. He’s also enjoying an impressive 51.3 face-off win percentage.
If I had to guess as to why Bellemare is finding so much success in Vegas, I’d argue Gallant’s system fits his style of play far better than Head Coach Dave Hakstol’s. Fitting the French stereotype to a T, Bellemare’s talent is found in his quality stick work and heady play – a style that is far different than the brash shot-blocking, hit-throwing strategy employed by the Broad Street Bullies. The more Bellemare got away from that style in Philadelphia, the more success he found. Now that his defensive responsibilities have completely changed, he’s showing why he was brought to the NHL in the first place.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be playing on McPhee’s incredibly constructed brainchild known as the 44-19-5 Golden Knights. After a three-game losing skid, Vegas is back in the swing of things having posted a 3-1-0 record over its last four showings, all of which have been on the road.
Perhaps its just coincidence on a day where we’re featuring the defensively-minded Bellemare, but it’s been the Golden Knights’ effort in their own that has resulted in their turnaround. Whether it’s been the excellent play of C Cody Eakin (averaging one takeaway per game since March 4), D Deryk Engelland (1.5 blocks per game in his last four showings) or D Brayden McNabb (4.3 hits per game over this run), Vegas has limited 24-9-3 G Marc-Andre Fleury‘s workload to only 29 shots per game during this road trip, the ninth-best mark in the NHL since March 4.
Oh yeah: Fleury has been pretty incredible lately as well (in other news, grass is green). Taking advantage of his defense’s effort, Fleury has managed a solid .948 save percentage and 1.48 GAA over his last four starts, improving his season marks to unbelievable .929 and 2.16 heights.
Between Fleury and the Vegas defense, the Golden Knights have allowed only 1.75 goals per game since March 4, the (t)third-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.
Meanwhile, the 35-23-11 Flyers are in a bit of a slump right now, as they’ve managed only a 1-4-1 record over their past six outings, though they might have turned a corner Saturday when they beat the visiting Jets 2-1.
The injuries to Philadelphia’s two primary goaltenders are absolutely driving it into the ground, because the Flyers are completely altering the style that has brought them so much success this season to sell out on the defensive end.
That’s not to say the Flyers aren’t playing defense well. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as F Valtteri Filppula (seven takeaways in his last six games) and D Radko Gudas (3.7 hits and 2.2 blocks per game since March 1) have performed phenomenally to limit 12-10-4 G Petr Mrazek‘s workload to only 29.83 shots per game in the month of March, the (t)ninth-best mark in the league in that time.
However, that commitment to excellent defense has come at the cost of the Flyers’ usually imposing offense. For the entire regular season, Philly has averaged a solid 2.91 goals per game – the 13th-best mark in the league. However, that number has dropped to only 2.33 goals per game in March to be the sixth-worst mark in the NHL over the past 11 days.
To keep piling on the Flyers, it’s not like their defensive success has really slowed down opposing offenses all that much. With the exception of his 27-for-28 performance Saturday against Winnipeg, Mrazek has been rather uninspiring in his last five starts, posting a combined .874 save percentage and 3.75 GAA. With 21-11-7 G Brian Elliott and 8-7-3 G Michal Neuvirth no closer to returning to action, Mrazek needs to get his act in shape before he single-handedly destroys the Flyers’ playoff hopes.
With the Stanley Cup playoffs less than a month away, the Flyers’ future is still as cloudy as a smoggy Philadelphia day. In fact, though they’re currently in third place in the Metropolitan Division with a three-point edge on fourth-place New Jersey, only six points separate the Flyers from ninth-place Florida. As such, a win tonight could be very important – especially paired with a Capitals loss to Winnipeg, as it would pull Philly into a tie for second place that it would lose by only one more game played, keeping the pressure squarely on Washington to keep finding wins. Should the Flyers lose, they give the Devils a game in hand – a dangerous weapon should Mrazek continue playing the way he is.
As for Vegas, the top seed in the Western Conference has all but slipped out of its fingers considering the Predators have a five-point lead in 68 games played – one fewer than Vegas after tonight’s action. However, the Knights still have yet to lock up the Pacific Division, as the Sharks and Ducks are lurking with 81 and 80 points, respectively. As long as Vegas wins at least seven more games before the end of the regular season, it should clinch its first division title.
The way things have gone for the Golden Knights this season, I don’t think 14 points will be hard to come by.
We’ve heard stories of celebrities and bachelor parties trashing hotel rooms while in Vegas, and that’s kind of what the Flyers did when they visited T-Mobile Arena on February 11. Led in large part by C Sean Couturier‘s three-point night that included a game-winning assist in the second period, Philadelphia came away from the Silver State with a 4-1 victory.
Based on recent trends, this game is screaming to be two points for the Golden Knights. If Mrazek can build off Saturday’s victory and the Flyers can return to playing some solid offense, Philadelphia certainly has a shot at winning. However, I have my doubts about that happening considering the Golden Knights have F Jon Marchessault (22-43-65 totals), C William Karlsson (35-26-61) and W David Perron (16-45-61) at their disposal. Vegas should come away with the victory.
The New York Islanders showed no mercy in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat the Calgary Flames 5-2 at Scotiabank Saddledome.
By scoring three goals in the third period, the Isles registered their game-winning goal before departing for their dressing room for the first intermission. D Nick Leddy (C Casey Cizikas) opened the scoring with a wrist shot at the 2:14 mark, and Second Star of the Game D Johnny Boychuk (Cizikas and LW Ross Johnston) followed that up only 18 seconds later to give New York a 2-0 advantage.
Though LW Johnny Gaudreau (C Sean Monahan) was able to bury a wrister at the 7:29 mark to pull Calgary back within a score, RW Jordan Eberle (Boychuk and C John Tavares) apparently remembered his days with the Oilers and wanted to ensure he nipped any Flames comeback in the bud.
Only 3:02 after the horn stopped blaring for Gaudreau, Boychuk centered a pass from the left point to Eberle, who was camping in the slot in front of G Mike Smith‘s crease. Though the goaltender was able to make the initial save on Eberle’s initial redirection, he wasn’t able to catch up with the right wing’s recollect-turned-backhanded shot as he continued driving through the slot.
Though Eberle takes credit for the game-winning blow, F Anders Lee‘s (Boychuk and Leddy) clapper 50 seconds into the second period might have been the final blow to knockout the Flames. He set the score at 4-1, making any Calgary comeback a tall order.
Third Star D Mark Giordano (D Dougie Hamilton and Gaudreau) tried to get that comeback started at the 7:24 mark of the third period, but First Star G Christopher Gibson stopped the remaining 18 shots he faced in the third period to keep the Flames’ goal total at two. Lee (Tavares) capped the Isles’ scoring with with 11 seconds remaining in the game, burying a wrister into an empty net.
Gibson earned the victory after saving 50-of-52 shots faced (.962 save percentage), leaving the loss to Smith, who saved 22-of-26 (.846).
It’s been a bit of a resurgence of the road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day during my absence, as the past two featured tilts have gone the way of the squads wearing white. Because of that, the 83-49-19 hosts now have only a 31-point advantage in the series.