Tag Archives: Orpik

“Highlight Reel” Holtby can’t stop Pens

 

Despite saving 21-of-23 shots faced for a .913 save percentage, G Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals fell 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena in Game 4 of their Eastern Semifinals matchup, tying the series at 2-2.

After his hit against F Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 that ended with the rookie suffering a concussion and broken jaw, RW Tom Wilson was suspended by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for three games (he’ll be eligible to play in Game 7 in Washington, if necessary). As such, many were interested to see which players would fill those holes in the lineups of their respective teams.

For Washington, the next man up was F Shane Gersich, who saw his Stanley Cup playoff debut after playing only three regular season games with the Capitals this season. He slid onto the fourth line with F Jay Beagle and RW Alex Chiasson, while W Devante Smith-Pelly earned a promotion into Wilson’s vacated role with the top-three.

Some might have been led to think F T.J. Oshie would slide from his second line spot into the vacancy, but Head Coach Barry Trotz elected to keep the Warroad graduate on C Nicklas Backstrom‘s line as he’d been all season.

As for the Penguins, they had the luxury of LW Carl Hagelin‘s upper-body injury healing just in time for him to rejoin the club in Aston-Reese’s place. Hagelin was slotted onto the second line with Third Star of the Game F Evgeni Malkin, who had only returned one match ago.

Of course, none of those lineup changes had any affect on Holtby or his black-and-gold clad counterpart in the first period, as they both refused to yield a goal.

While both Holtby and Second Star G Matt Murray performed valiantly in the opening 20 minutes, their success was due largely to the play of their defenses. Pittsburgh’s blue line allowed only seven shots to reach Murray, trailed only slightly by the nine offerings that came Holtby’s way.

Pittsburgh’s defense was a bit more subtle in its technique, but there was no hiding how the Capitals were keeping Holtby’s crease clean. In the first period alone, the Caps threw a whopping 22 hits- 11 more than Pittsburgh. Oshie was a major part of that effort, as his eight body checks accumulated by the end of regulation were a game-high between both clubs.

While we’re on the subject, one of his hits at the end of the game against D Kris Letang was highly questionable, as he clearly leaped at the defenseman with 61 seconds remaining on the clock. Letang was none too pleased and engaged Oshie in a quick fight, but it will be interesting to see what the Department of Player Safety does with this infraction after it just penalized Wilson.

Anyways, that defensive effort did not carry across the first intermission, as all three goals scored against a goaltender were registered in the middle frame.

First Star F Jake Guentzel (F Dominik Simon and C Sidney Crosby) got the scoring started at the 9:21 mark with the lone even-strength goal scored in the game. Simon attempted a shot on goal from the slot that deflected off D Matt Niskanen‘s knee right to Guentzel, who was waiting next to Holtby’s left goal post. After that, it was all the playoff’s leading scorer could do but sling a wrist shot towards the opposite post before receiving an un-penalized crosscheck frame from D Dmitry Orlov.

That advantage lasted only 3:34 before Oshie (Backstrom and F Evgeny Kuznetsov) converted a Guentzel tripping penalty against C Lars Eller into a power play goal. Backstrom waited and waited near the right face-off dot before sliding a pass to Oshie between the circles, and the former St. Louis Blue ripped a nasty snap shot over Murray’s glove hand to level the game at 1-1.

Pittsburgh’s game-winning goal was struck with 2:29 remaining before the second intermission, and it was due almost entirely to Oshie’s interference penalty against D Brian Dumoulin 1:21 earlier.

Making full use of their man-advantage, the Penguins’ eventual scoring possession spent a pass-filled 23 seconds in the offensive zone before Malkin (RW Patric Hornqvist and RW Phil Kessel) forced home a wrister to set the score at 2-1.

It was a case of deja vu for the Penguins when Malkin’s shot barely squeaked across the goal line before Holtby tried to sell that he’d made the save. Under the impression that he’d frozen the puck, play was halted before the officials, just like in Game 2, went to their monitors for further review.

Making matters even more excruciating for the home fans, even after the puck was ruled to have crossed the goal line, Head Coach Barry Trotz challenged the play once again, but this time for goaltender interference. Hornqvist did make contact with Holtby, but it was ruled he was pushed by D Brooks Orpik, acquitting the Swede of any crime.

Thus effectively ended the second period, but the Capitals were still far from defeated.

Unfortunately for them, the Penguins defense played incredibly in the final 20 minutes, allowing only three shots on goal – the last of which was an Orlov slap shot from the point with 9:11 remaining in regulation.

That forced Trotz to resort to drastic measures and pull Holtby with 1:23 remaining on the clock, but any positive energy the extra attacker was able to provide was swiftly ripped away only a dozen seconds later when the Caps were caught with seven skaters on the ice.

Holtby was pulled once again with 65 ticks remaining on the clock, eventually allowing Guentzel (Crosby and Letang) to score a power play empty netter for his league-leading 10th goal of the postseason.

Aptly scheduled on Cinco de Mayo at 7 p.m Eastern, Game 5 at Capital One Arena will determine which side has two opportunities to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The contest will be broadcast on NBC, SN and TVAS.

Caps halfway to Eastern Finals after 4-3 win

 

To reclaim home ice advantage, the Washington Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena in Game 3 of their Second Round matchup.

The biggest headline coming into this evening was that D Brian Dumoulin and F Evgeni Malkin would both be active for this game. Dumoulin was questionable after taking a hit up high from RW Tom Wilson in Game 2, while Malkin had been out since a Flyer landed awkwardly on his leg in Game 5 of the Pens’ First Round series.

A similar note pertaining to F Zach Aston-Reese will be necessary proceeding Game 4, and the fact that his perpetrator is the same as Dumoulin’s has resulted in Wilson drawing even more ire from Pittsburgh fans (if that was even possible). There’s no arguing that Wilson threw a high hit against Aston-Reese, but the referees were unable to make the determination if the Capital’s left shoulder met the rookie’s shoulder or head first, resulting in no penalty being called.

A particularly incriminating piece of evidence should Wilson receive any sort of discipline from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be the fact that not only was Aston-Reese dazed and bleeding on the ice even before knowledge of his injuries became known (according to the Penguins’ official Twitter account, Head Coach Mike Sullivan has since confirmed that Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw, which will require surgery, and a concussion as a result of the hit), but also that Wilson’s follow-through on the blow ended with him seated on the sideboards in front of Washington’s bench.

To this amateur official, that indicates that the 6-foot-4 Wilson was intentionally trying to throw a high hit on the 6-foot Aston-Reese, but the only opinion that matters now is George Parros‘ – the man that heads the player safety office.

As for the occurrences of this game that actually showed up on the scoreboard, the Penguins did everything short of score a goal in the first period as they effectively dominated the first 16:21 of action. With the help of two power plays before the midway point of the period, Pittsburgh led in shots on goal (9-7) and face-off wins (61 percent) at the first intermission to keep play almost exclusively in its offensive zone.

Fortunately for the Caps, G Braden Holtby was back to his usual Vezina-winning self after casting doubt on his performance for much of the regular season. Of the offerings that weren’t blocked (D Brooks Orpik took credit for two of the Caps’ three blocks in the frame), Holtby saved all of the Pens’ nine shots on goal to keep the game scoreless.

However, the Pens’ dominance began to fade with 3:39 remaining in the period when First Star of the Game W Alex Ovechkin ripped the puck off D Kris Letang‘s stick to set up a one-on-one opportunity against G Matt Murray. Similar to Holtby, Murray was able to make that save, but Letang’s interference against Wilson at the resolution of Ovechkin’s play started to turn the tables in Washington’s favor.

The Capitals didn’t manage a shot on goal with that man-advantage, but Malkin tripping D Matt Niskanen only 20 seconds after Letang was released from the penalty box didn’t let the Pens capitalize on that positive energy. Instead, Washington fired the final three shots on goal to close the period with a bang.

Since Malkin’s foul had occurred with 1:10 remaining in the first period, he remained in the penalty box at the start of the second frame. Two seconds before he was released, D John Carlson (Second Star C Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin) converted the penalty into the Caps’ league-leading 11th power play goal of the postseason.

Washington didn’t enjoy that lead too long though, as Third Star F Jake Guentzel (D Justin Schultz and C Sidney Crosby) leveled the game only 3:45 later by batting down Schultz’ long-range wrist shot from the blue line.

The Penguins took two one-goal leads in this game, and the first of those scoring plays started at the 5:36 mark of the second period when Orpik was caught hooking RW Patric Hornqvist. 1:13 later, Hornqvist (Malkin and RW Phil Kessel) struck back to convert the infraction into a goal, setting the score at 2-1 with the Pens’ first power play marker of the series.

The high-scoring second period found its fourth goal with 8:56 remaining before the second intermission, courtesy of F Chandler Stephenson (F T.J. Oshie and Backstrom). This goal in particular was one that made the home crowd very upset, as it occurred only 1:17 after play was stopped for Wilson’s hit on Aston-Reese. Had Wilson been charged with a penalty for his hit, the shorthanded Capitals would likely not have been able to level the game at two-all – at least at that moment.

Crosby (Guentzel and Letang) and the Penguins had one goal left in them to set the score at 3-2 before the close of the second period, but Washington’s solid defense ensured that the captain’s four-on-four snap shot with 3:33 remaining in the frame was the last strike they had in them for the rest of the game.

Pittsburgh managed only three shots on goal in the third period, due in large part to the Capitals’ five blocked shots in the frame (including two by D Dmitry Orlov) and a combined total of 28 hits thrown by both teams (the Penguins out-hit Washington 52-41 for the entire game).

Meanwhile, the Capitals’ attack just kept right on chugging along. Niskanen (Orlov and Wilson) leveled the game at three-all at the 5:06 mark of the third period with his first playoff goal since April 29, 2017 (coincidentally against Pittsburgh, of course).

Play proceeded under a tied score for much of the frame, to the point that many in the Steel City were prepared to settle in for an overtime game. However, Ovechkin (Backstrom) did not seem so interested in that, as he provided Washington’s game-winning goal with only 1:07 remaining in regulation by batting his initial shot that bounced off the right post out of mid-air and into the back of Murray’s net.

That forced Sullivan to pull Murray, but the Penguins couldn’t even manage one shot on goal with the sixth attacker to affect the 4-3 final score.

Holtby saved 19-of-22 shots faced (.864 save percentage) in the victory, while Murray saved only 18-of-22 (.818) in the loss.

Beyond needing better goalkeeping from Murray, the Penguins desperately need another line than their top-three to produce some offense. Malkin getting back into the swing of things is a valid-enough excuse for the second line, but Kessel and C Derick Brassard managed only two combined shots on goal in the entire game from the third line. Until Pittsburgh can get back to having three potent attacking lines like they’ve had the last two seasons, these dreams of a three-peat will need to be put on the back burner.

Game 4 between these clubs will be right back at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. at 7 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, March 3. To catch the match, viewers should tune their televisions to NBCSN, SN or TVAS.

Road team wins again, CBJ-WSH series leveled at two

 

After winning Game 4 at Nationwide Arena 4-1, the Washington Capitals have salvaged losing Games 1 and 2 to reclaim home-ice advantage in their Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The first two periods of this game were so exciting, even people with insomnia were falling asleep with ease. Whether that was due to lazy offense by Columbus or incredible defense by Washington (the Blue Jackets managed only 15 shots in opening 40 minutes), the fans at Nationwide Arena had very little to get excited about.

Playing a major role in hampering the Jackets’ offense all night was none other than D Brooks Orpik, who blocked a (t)game-high four shots (D Seth Jones matched him in that effort for Columbus), and Third Star of the Game RW Tom Wilson with his team-leading three hits.

Perhaps Columbus’ best scoring opportunity of either of the first two periods came with 5:37 remaining in the opening frame. LW Artemi Panarin had not one, but two shots from prime real estate right in front of G Braden Holtby‘s crease, but the netminder rejected both offerings to keep his young shutout alive.

However, that’s not so say there wasn’t any offense in those periods, as there were two goals struck – but both those markers belonged to the visiting Capitals. Wilson (First Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov) took credit for the first tally at the 6:16 mark of the first period with a slap shot from the top of the zone, followed by F T.J. Oshie‘s (Second Star W Alex Ovechkin and D John Carlson) power play wrist shot 23:03 later.

Oshie’s play started at the 8:49 mark of the second period when Panarin was caught slashing Kuznetsov. Washington’s resulting man advantage lasted only 30 seconds before its third-ranked postseason power play achieved its goal of setting the score at 2-0. After both Carlson’s and Ovechkin’s offerings were rejected by G Sergei Bobrovsky, Oshie collected the loose puck in the slot and beat the netminder’s glove to the far post.

While Oshie’s tally will go down as the game-winner (the fourth of his playoff career), Ovechkin’s (Kuznetsov and Wilson) wrister 2:49 into the third period proved to be the most important goal of the game. Not only was it the Caps’ purest snipe of the night (Ovi elevated his shot from the right face-off dot over Bobrovsky’s glove to beat him near side), but it also forced Head Coach John Tortorella to pull Bobrovsky for an extra attacker even earlier than he would have liked.

But more on that after we discuss the Blue Jackets’ lone goal of the game: a redirection on RW Josh Anderson‘s clapper from above the left face-off circle by F Boone Jenner. For the first time in 46:22 of action, Jackets fans finally had something to cheer about – and cheer they did. Nationwide Arena sounded like it did Tuesday during Game 3, and Columbus rode that positive energy to firing nine shots on goal in the third period – the most it managed in any frame all game.

Just when it seemed like the party was beginning to die down, Bobrovsky ramped the fans back up with an impressive glove save on Ovechkin at the 8:46 mark after The Great 8 earned a one-on-one matchup against the netminder with a long breakaway.

However, all good things must come to an end, and that end started when Tortorella pulled Bobrovksy with 3:29 remaining in regulation.

If only Ovechkin hadn’t scored scored earlier in the third period and the Jackets were only trailing by one instead of two, maybe the Russian goaltender would have still been in the net when Kuznetsov came up with the puck with 2:19 remaining in the game. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and that ended up in Kuznetsov’s favor as he buried an unassisted wrister from the blue line to set the score at 4-1 with his third goal of the series.

Holtby earned the victory after saving 23-of-24 shots faced (.958 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bobrovsky, who saved 29-of-32 (.906).

After winning two games in Washington and having the tempting “sweep” word on the mind, the Blue Jackets need to regroup in a similar way the Caps did when the series transitioned to Ohio. If they don’t show a positive effort in Game 5, Columbus may be forced to wait another year to taste a playoff series victory.

Scheduled for a 3 p.m. Eastern matinee puck drop, the aforementioned Game 5 will go down on Saturday, April 21 at Capital One Arena. Viewers should tune their televisions to NBC, NBCSN, SN or TVAS to catch the action.

Columbus sitting pretty with 2-0 lead

 

Another overtime game, another Columbus Blue Jackets victory, as they beat the Washington Capitals 5-4 to take a two-tilt advantage going into Game 3.

Even though it was challenged for offsides, First Star of the Game LW Matt Calvert (D Zach Werenski and RW Josh Anderson) scored his fourth career postseason goal – and second-ever playoff overtime winner – to etch his name into Jackets lore on an elevated wrist shot to the near post from along the goal line with 7:38 remaining in the first overtime period.

For a franchise that has never escaped the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blue Jackets are a mighty confident team right now. Going back to the regular season, Columbus has earned a 15-2-2 record in its last 19 games played and is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

That being said, tonight was not a game in which Columbus dominated play. That was made apparent right from the opening puck drop, as F Jay Beagle (D Brooks Orpik and D Jakub Jerabek) scored Washington’s first shot on goal to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage. That lead doubled to two 11:14 later when Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (D John Carlson and F T.J. Oshie) scored a power play slap shot from his usual spot in the left face-off circle.

In all, the Capitals out-shot the Blue Jackets 58-30, earning a dominating 28-shot differential that effectively demonstrated just how much action was taking place in G Sergei Bobrovsky‘s end.

However, it was the incredible play of Bobrovsky – who saved 54-of-58 shots faced (.931 save percentage) and earns the honorary DtFR Fourth Star – that not only kept the Jackets alive defensively, but also allowed Columbus to set up an effective counterattack on numerous occasions.

Enter Second Star RW Cam Atkinson with 1:35 remaining in the first period. Having been the Jacket called for the goalie interference penalty that allowed Ovechkin to find the back of the net 4:59 earlier, Atkinson (F Nick Foligno) collected a long stretch pass that crossed both blue lines to beat G Philipp Grubauer‘s left skate to the post with a wrister, pulling Columbus back within a goal.

Even though it came late in the period, Atkinson’s play signified a major turning point in this game. The tally came on the heels of the conclusion of two minutes of four-on-four play (F Pierre-Luc Dubois and F Evgeny Kuznetsov were charged with corresponding slashing minors) that certainly boosted the confidence of Columbus’ defense.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Washington to try to reclaim control after the intermission – and it did with a little help from F Brandon Dubinsky, who accidentally removed Carlson’s helmet with a hi-stick while hitting W Devante Smith-Pelly.

The power play is usually Ovechkin’s (C Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson) time to shine, and he didn’t disappoint by burying another one of his patented clappers at the 4:09 mark of the frame – only eight seconds after Dubinsky took his seat in the sin bin.

However, a two-goal advantage is all the Caps could manage, as the Jackets started to turn the tides in their favor to score three goals before the second intermission.

Getting back to the counterattack point from earlier, Anderson (Werenski and LW Artemi Panarin) was the next beneficiary at the 8:49 mark of the frame. After W Brett Connolly fell down in the corner to Bobrovsky’s right, Anderson pounced on the newly vacated puck to set up a five-on-two rush for Columbus. With such a man-advantage, it’s no surprise that the Jackets were able to pass the puck back-and-forth enough times to confuse Grubauer and pull themselves back within a one-goal differential.

The theme of Game 1 was unwise and untimely penalties, and the Capitals decided to reprise that story line for the remainder of the second frame with two such infractions that resulted in Columbus goals.

First was a RW Tom Wilson roughing penalty against D Seth Jones with 9:24 remaining in the period. Like so often happens in a hockey game – regardless of if it is in the regular season or playoffs – there was a little scrum in front of Grubauer’s net after he froze the puck. However, Wilson took offense to this one in particular and elected to literally jump into the fray and take Jones down to the ice. In turn, Atkinson (Panarin and Jones) made his stay in the penalty box only 37 seconds long after tying the game with a power play wrister.

Old habits die hard, so it only makes sense that Smith-Pelly was sent to the box with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission for a holding the stick penalty. This power play lasted 1:12, but the net result as the same: Werenski (RW Oliver Bjorkstrand and Panarin) scoring another goal for the Blue Jackets, giving them their first lead of the night.

With the rumored hockey gods distributing power play goals like Oprah gives away household appliances, it’s only logical that the Capitals would be handed one last opportunity to level the game when Werenski flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game infraction with 4:51 remaining in regulation.

Still looking for his first goal of the 2018 postseason, Oshie (Backstrom and Carlson) capitalized on the man-advantage to bury a power play snap shot, tying the game at 4-4 with 3:35 remaining in regulation.

But wait, there’s more! After Oshie scored, F Boone Jenner didn’t like him very much so he tripped him with 1:59 remaining in regulation. That’s right, ladies and gentleman: Jenner decided to give the regular season’s seventh-best power play a shot at winning this game in regulation.

Fortunately for Jenner, he escaped the wrath of Head Coach John Tortorella when Wilson absolutely whiffed on an excellent opportunity, allowing the game to advance into overtime which eventually ended in Columbus’ favor.

Though he didn’t start the game, G Braden Holtby takes the overtime loss after saving seven-of-eight shots faced (.875 save percentage) in the third period and overtime. He replaced Grubauer, who saved 18-of-22 (.818) and earned no decision, following the second intermission.

Of note, W Andre Burakovsky suffered an upper body injury on his first shift of the game, meaning the Capitals played almost the entire contest with only 11 forwards. It remains to be seen what his status for Game 3 and beyond will be for Washington.

After a short flight west to Central Ohio, Game 3 will take place at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, April 17 at Nationwide Arena. American viewers can catch the game on NBCSN, while Canada will be serviced by SN360 and TVAS.

March 3 – Day 143 – You can put your mind at ease

If Saturdays are good for nothing else, the joy of having hockey on for almost 12-straight hours makes a week at work almost worth it.

Almost.

Today’s action starts at 1 p.m. when Philadelphia visits Tampa Bay, followed an hour later by St. Louis at Dallas. The next matinee is a 4 p.m. tilt featuring Chicago at Los Angeles (NHLN), trailed by a pair of games (Montréal at Boston [SN/TVAS] and the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh) 60 minutes after. The evening’s festivities get underway at 8 p.m. with two matchups (Ottawa at Arizona [CITY] and Toronto at Washington [CBC/NBC/TVAS]), while the New York Rangers at Edmonton (CBC/SN/SN1) close out the night at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few important games on today’s schedule…

  • Chicago at Los Angeles: This rivalry was important when the Blackhawks were competitive.
  • Montréal at Boston: If you’re looking for a rivalry, this one…
  • New York at Pittsburgh: …and this one are the important ones on today’s schedule. You’re free to decide which should take precedence.
  • Toronto at Washington: Not only is this the much anticipated outdoor game being played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but it’s also a rematch of an Eastern Conference first round matchup from a season ago.

I suppose we can get into the spirit of things and see how the outdoor game goes. After all, it’s expected to be the evening’s most competitive match.

 

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first:

  • Capitals fans: Your organization is honoring the days of the mid-to-late ’90s when it was having an identity crisis. Instead of donning the customary red we’ve come to know Washington for, the Caps have elected to bust out blue threads this evening. Who cares that Toronto usually wears blue and red and white are also American colors ? This game is at the Naval Academy and – gosh darn it! – the hosts from the nation’s capital are going to wear navy blue!
  • Maple Leafs fans: Yes, we know your team is usually the blue one. Not tonight. Treat it like a game in Tampa – your team is the one clad in white. Blue is bad. White is winners.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can jump into the hockey.

39-20-7 Toronto ended February with a bang, as the Leafs are currently riding a six-game point streak and have posted a 9-1-2 record in their past 12 games.

The reason the the Maple Leafs’ recent winning ways is easily their offense, which has managed a fifth-best 3.67 goals per game since February 5. Mitch Marner has been nothing short of incredible over this run, as he’s posted 8-9-17 totals in 12 games to improve his season marks to 17-36-53. Joining him in averaging at least a point per game during this run is Nazem Kadri (6-7-13 in 12 games) and Auston Matthews (5-5-10 in nine games), who’s currently on injured reserve.

Kadri has managed to make himself right at home filling in for Matthews on the top line, and he’s become best friends with Marner. They’ve combined on nine scoring plays since early February, six of which were at even-strength. Mix in some Patrick Marleau (20-14-34 totals in 66 games) magic, and the Leafs employ one heck of a top line.

Defensively, the only person worth talking about for the Leafs is G Frederik Andersen, because his defense has been abysmal for the last month by allowing 37.08 shots per game – the second-most in the NHL since February 5.

Even with that onslaught, 32-16-5 Andersen has been phenomenal. Having started 10 of the Leafs’ last 12 games, he’s posted a .924 save percentage and 2.87 GAA to earn 15 points in the standings. On the season, he now has a .922 save percentage and 2.67 GAA.

Meanwhile, the 36-21-7 Capitals have struggled to find much consistency lately, alternating wins and losses to post a 4-4-0 record over their last eight games.

As might be indicated by such a mark in recent games, Washington has been little better than average since February 15. With 6-4-10 totals in the past eight games, Alex Ovechkin has been the only consistent presence on the offensive end, and the Caps’ resulting 2.75 goals per game in that time is only (t)15th-best in the league.

That puts pressure on the defensive end to perform well, but that’s only partially happened. The defensive skaters have played decently lately, as Brooks Orpik (2.8 blocks per game since February 15) and Tom Wilson (3.1 hits per game over this run) have led the way to limit the opposition to 32.25 shots against per game over the Caps’ past eight games, the (t)13th-best mark in the NHL in that time.

However, neither 28-14-4 G Braden Holtby nor 8-7-3 G Philipp Grubauer have held up their end of the bargain, as they’ve allowed 3.25 goals per game since February 15. In fact, Holtby – tonight’s starter – has actually been outplayed by his understudy, as his .832 save percentage and 5.77 GAA have been eclipsed by Grubauer’s .949 save percentage and 1.61 GAA.

Considering Grubauer can take credit for all four of the Caps’ most recent wins, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holtby – a former Vezina winner, mind you – is on a short leash this evening.

We’re getting to the part of the season when we can bust out the words “rubber match,” and this tilt definitely qualifies. In the first two games between Toronto and Washington, the Maple Leafs took an impressive 2-0 victory at Capital One Arena way back on October 17 (Andersen took First Star honors with his 30-save shutout), followed by the Caps besting the Leafs 4-2 on November 25 at Air Canada Centre (Ovechkin registered a hat trick to lead Washington’s attack) to level the season series at 1-1-0.

It would seem both of these teams are all but ensured playoff spots given how they’ve played this season, so they’re more interested in improving seeding tonight.

Washington currently leads the Metropolitan Division by one point over Philadelphia, which has two tilts this weekend to result in the Capitals having a game in hand by Monday morning. A win is obviously important in a division where the top six clubs are separated by only 10 points, but the Caps won’t be too disappointed if they end the weekend in second place in the division.

Meanwhile, Toronto is in a full-fledged war against Boston for the all-important second position in the Atlantic Division, as the team with home ice in their likely first round series will surely have the better chance of advancing to the Eastern Semifinals. The Leafs currently trail the Bruins by one point, but the fact that Boston has four games in hand on Toronto puts a major dent in Head Coach Mike Babcock’s plans.

If Washington is going to continue its run of alternating wins and losses, it’s probably not a good thing it beat the Senators in its last showing on Tuesday. Pair that with Toronto’s stellar offense and the road team winning the first two meetings between these clubs, and I’m leaning towards the Maple Leafs earning two points tonight.


Yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was a grind-it-out, defensive affair. Those are just the types of games the Carolina Hurricanes excel at, as they beat the New Jersey Devils 3-1 at PNC Arena.

With the exception of Carolina’s second period (13 shots on goal) and New Jersey’s third (12 SOG), neither offense was able to apply much pressure on its opposing goaltenders in terms of volume considering the remaining shot totals for either team in the remaining periods were all under 10. In particular, the Hurricanes’ defense played marvelously in the first period to limit the Devils to only six shots on goal.

That put a premium on precision scoring, and that was on full display when Third Star of the Game C Derek Ryan (F Victor Rask and D Noah Hanifin) scored the game’s opening goal with 8:10 remaining in the second period. Officially marked as a deflection scored by the center, he actually banked his shot off D Damon Severson‘s left skate to beat G Keith Kinkaid.

Another skilled scorer struck late in the second frame to tie the game at 1-1. With Ryan in the penalty box for holding him 27 seconds before and a measly 33 ticks on the clock separating him from the second intermission, F Taylor Hall (D Sami Vatanen and W Kyle Palmieri) scored a power play tip-in to extend his point streak to 24 appearances.

First Star F Teuvo Teravainen (D Brett Pesce and F Elias Lindholm) takes credit for the game-winning goal at the 9:37 mark of the final frame. Those guilty of blinking at the wrong time – like I was when watching this game live – likely missed this goal.

The play started when Lindholm slid a pass to Pesce at the center of the blue line from the right face-off circle. The defenseman one-timed a killer slap shot just wide of Kinkaid’s net that would have set up a juicy rebound off the boards, but that bounce proved unnecessary as the Finn was waiting in the corner of the slot to redirect the shot through the crease and into the goal, setting the score at 2-1.

With Jersey trailing by one and Kinkaid pulled for the extra attacker, RW Justin Williams (F Jordan Staal) scored an empty netter 22 seconds before the end of regulation to seal the Canes’ 29th victory of the season.

Second Star G Cam Ward earned the victory after saving 25-of-26 shots faced (.962 save percentage), leaving the loss to Kinkaid, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are rolling once again. After allowing road teams to go on a four-game streak of earning at least a point, the 77-47-19 hosts have won three in a row to take a commanding 24-point advantage in the series.

2018 Trade Deadline Preview: Metropolitan Division

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1. Washington Capitals– 31-17-5 (67 points, 53 GP)

After spending a couple of months figuring themselves out and weathering the storm that’s been Braden Holtby‘s second-to-last career worst season (his 2.76 goals against average and .915 save percentage in 39 games played are better and the same as his 2013-14 2.85 GAA and .915 SV% in 48 games played respectively).

It’s a bit of an off year for Washington, but even an off year for the Capitals is still a pretty good season, considering they’re currently first in a division that is more active than a lava lamp in terms of rising and falling.

Washington has a plus-11 goal differential through 53 games played despite the loss of Marcus Johansson in a trade with the New Jersey Devils this offseason and an injured Andre Burakovsky seeing limited time so far. That doesn’t even mention the loss of depth for the Capitals last July either– remember Justin Williams (signed with Carolina) and Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal)?

Luckily for the Capitals they only have about $412,000 in cap space as I write, so their trade deadline plans are pretty much already determined for them.

If they’re able to dump a guy like Brooks Orpik— and his $5.500 million cap hit that runs through next season– that would provide the organization with some much needed relief.

Potential assets to trade: F Jay Beagle, D Brooks Orpik

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), D Ian Cole (PIT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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2. Pittsburgh Penguins– 30-22-3 (63 points, 55 GP)

After bouncing around the Metropolitan Division standings, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are currently four points behind first place in the division.

Much like his rival in Washington, Matthew Murray is having a season to forget. Injuries and the death of his father have taken a toll on the two-time Cup winning goaltender, limiting Murray to just 34 games thus far with a 2.97 GAA and .903 SV% (again, both career worsts– though he is in just his second full season since his 13 GP in 2015-16).

Despite their plus-three goal differential and gifted scorer (turned 2018 All-Star snub), Phil Kessel (24-41–65 totals in 55 games), the Penguins have been porous on defense. Pittsburgh’s best defenseman, Kris Letang, is a minus-15 through 52 games played.

Only Justin Schultz (plus-5, 38 GP) and Jamie Oleksiak (plus-6, 20 GP– split between Dallas and Pittsburgh) are positive plus/minus blue liners.

Since November, Pittsburgh has been trying to move defenseman, Ian Cole– though head coach, Mike Sullivan, has been forced to play him (thereby keeping him on the Penguins roster) due to injuries affecting Schultz and friends.

Antti Niemi didn’t pan out and bring stable backup goaltending to the Steel City (he’s since departed via waivers to Florida, then Montreal). Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have been left to pick up the tab with some impressive performances at times.

Midseason acquisitions F Riley Sheahan, as well as Oleksiak, have not been enough to fill holes left by Nick Bonino (the forward signed with Nashville in July) and Trevor Daley (left via free agency, landed in Detroit) respectively.

But with roughly $425,000 in cap space to work with currently, the Penguins can’t afford to make much noise on February 26th– but they should definitely snag a defenseman and rental backup goaltender.

Potential assets to trade: D Ian Cole, D Brian Dumoulin, F Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carl Hagelin, D Matt Hunwick, F Riley Sheahan

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Nick Holden (NYR), F Derick Brassard (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Jason Garrison (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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3. New Jersey Devils– 27-17-8 (62 points, 52 GP)

New Jersey has almost $8.000 million to work with currently as things approach the trade deadline at the end of the month.

The Devils are one of the biggest surprises this season east of the Mississippi River.

First overall pick in the 2017 draft, Nico Hischier, has been quietly setting the tone with forwards, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha in the resurgence of youth. Travis Zajac is back in his dominant, physical, ways and the Sami VatanenAdam Henrique trade has worked out quite well for both teams.

And that’s not even mentioning Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.

Will Butcher is quite the offensive threat on the blue line and John Moore is firing on all cylinders. Despite Marcus Johansson’s concussion, New Jersey hasn’t faced much adversity in overcoming injuries this year.

There’s a lot of cap room to work with, but not a whole lot that this team can really give up to bring in the best guys on the trade market, like Evander Kane, unless the Devils are comfortable parting ways with prospects and draft picks (spoiler alert, they might be).

New Jersey really should be in the hunt for Kane, Rick Nash, Max Pacioretty, David Perron and other great offensive assets– either as the front-runner or the stealthy dark-horse that’ll make one or two big moves to carry them to glory.

The Devils have the time and space to add a veteran forward or defenseman that might eat some salary, but put them lightyears beyond their Metropolitan counterparts.

It’s a buyers market.

Potential assets to trade: F Ben Coleman, F Jimmy Hayes, D Ben Lovejoy, F Drew Stafford

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK), G Michael Hutchinson (WPG)

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4. Philadelphia Flyers– 25-19-9 (59 points, 53 GP)

Aside from the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights, the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Goaltender, Brian Elliott, has found his top-notch form once again while Travis Konecny and Claude Giroux are rolling along. With almost $3.000 million to spend at the deadline, the Flyers could make some improvements to their team.

Trading away Brayden Schenn was costly for Philadelphia this offseason, but thankfully Jakub Voracek and the rest of the roster decided to pick up some of the points left behind by Schenn’s departure.

Adding Jori Lehtera, on the other hand, was a big mistake– both in production value and in cap management.

The Flyers could really solidify their offense with one or two moves and probably should anchor their defense with at least a depth blue liner or two coming down the stretch. Someone like David Perron, Patrick Maroon or Nic Petan could flourish in the Philly system. Meanwhile, a defenseman like Cody Franson would help put them over the edge if someone’s injured.

Potential assets to trade: D Radko Gudas, F Jori Lehtera, F Matt Read, F Dale Weise

Potential assets to acquire: D Cody Franson (CHI), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), D Nick Holden (NYR), F David Perron (VGK), F Nic Petan (WPG)

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5. Columbus Blue Jackets– 27-22-4 (58 points, 53 GP)

After getting a fast start out of the gate the Columbus Blue Jackets have really cooled off. It’s not that they’re a bad team, but rather, they’re just average.

Sergei Bobrovsky can’t stop the puck and play every other position too. Otherwise, the Blue Jackets would probably be first in the division. But good news, Columbus, you’ve got some cap space to work with at the end of the month.

As I write, the Blue Jackets have about $5.000 million to work with in cap room.

That’s good enough to bring in just about any player without considering what the future impact on the team his cap hit might have (unless Jarmo Kekalainen brings in a clear-cut rental player that won’t be re-signed in July). The point is this, Columbus has enough room to mess around with something valuable at the deadline, but they’re going to have to re-sign a plethora of core/future core pieces of the franchise this offseason.

The Blue Jackets aren’t doomed– they know their future plans more than anyone else.

But what could they bring in to make this team better? Someone. Is there anyone they could snag now and really shake things up as a contender moving forward? Short answer, yes.

For all of the return of Rick Nash to Columbus talk, well, that’s not ideal. Kekalainen should consider someone like Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before taking back a guy like Nash– who will only break the franchise’s heart again in July when he goes back to the Rangers *bold prediction alert*.

Potential assets to trade: D Andre Benoit, D Jack Johnson

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), F Sam Reinhart (BUF)F Blake Comeau (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Thomas Vanek (VAN)

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6. New York Islanders– 26-22-6 (58 points, 54 GP)

The biggest question heading into the 2018 trade deadline for the New York Islanders is the same one that’s been asked since Steven Stamkos signed his extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning– will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

New York has expressed that they are not looking to trade Tavares should things go detrimentally south between now and February 26th, but if things do…

The Islanders have almost $1.500 million in cap space to play around with before the deadline. They also have 13 pending free agents at season’s end, meaning there’s plenty of options the franchise could pursue.

Should Tavares get a raise and a long-term deal? Absolutely.

The  Islanders could pack it up and go home on this season given their injuries, lack of defense and well, let’s just say, things aren’t going so great for the team that ranks 31st (out of 31 NHL teams) in average attendance this season.

Or they could be active in trying to scrap together a good team centered around their current stars (Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Joshua Ho-Sang and others).

Potential assets to trade: F Josh Bailey, F Jason Chimera, F Casey Cizikas, D Thomas Hickey, D Dennis Seidenberg

Potential assets to acquire: F Sam Reinhart (BUF), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Mike Green (DET), F Mark Letestu (EDM), F Patrick Maroon (EDM), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), F Tyler Bozak (TOR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), D Erik Gudbranson (VAN), F David Perron (VGK)

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7. Carolina Hurricanes– 24-21-9 (57 points, 54 GP)

New Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon, might call an audible heading into this year’s trade deadline and decide to spend money on the roster. With almost $15.500 million in cap space, the Hurricanes are in the best possible position to land not just one or two of the big names floating around the rumor mill, but rather three or four quality pieces.

The trouble is, who would they get rid of, since their prospects and youth are worth keeping for further development and overall organizational growth?

Jeff Skinner is someone to build around. So are Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask.

Lee Stempniak might make his annual trip around the league, but other than that, who are the Hurricanes actually going to offer up from their forwards? If anything, Carolina would move a guy like Noah Hanifin given the contract extensions (and pay raises) that kick in next season for Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

Regardless, though they’re not out of contention, the Hurricanes could really use a goaltender to pull them through the stretch. This whole Cam Ward/Scott Darling thing isn’t working out.

Potential assets to trade: G Scott Darling, D Noah Hanifin, F Lee Stempniak, F Derek Ryan, draft picks

Potential assets to acquire: F Evander Kane (BUF), G Robin Lehner (BUF), D Cody Franson (CHI), D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ),  D Mike Green (DET), G Petr Mrazek (DET), F Max Pacioretty (MTL), F Tomas Plekanec (MTL), F David Desharnais (NYR), F Michael Grabner (NYR), D Ryan McDonagh (NYR), F Rick Nash (NYR), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F Thomas Vanek (VAN), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

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8. New York Rangers– 25-24-5 (55 points, 54 GP)

Look, the New York Rangers are still (technically speaking) in contention– but they absolutely shouldn’t waste another year of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career in the National Hockey League without a Stanley Cup.

The team they have right now? Yeah, they aren’t winning.

They’ve aged out. The core’s been decimated by the Vegas expansion draft and some offseason moves (namely trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona after losing Oscar Lindberg to Vegas in June).

Not every player is washed up.

Some will find better homes and rejuvenate their careers before potentially signing with the Rangers in free agency and going back “home” *ahem, Rick Nash*.

Others will simply be a superb rental/long term participant in a franchise, like Michael Grabner.

Basically I’m saying that all the guys New York’s been rumored to trade should get traded and the team can pull off a quick turnaround with their up-and-coming youth, plus whatever they get in return for Nash, Grabner and Co.

And with only about $1.400 million in cap space, the Rangers could have some fun blowing things up (partially).

Build around Mika Zibanejad and friends. Do it, New York. Do it now.

Potential assets to trade: F David Desharnais, F Michael Grabner, D Nick Holden, D Ryan McDonagh, F Rick Nash, G Ondrej Pavelec, D Marc Staal, F Jimmy Vesey, F Mats Zuccarello

Potential assets to acquire: D Tyson Barrie (COL), D Jack Johnson (CBJ), F Alex Galchenyuk (MTL), F Mike Hoffman (OTT), F Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), F Zack Smith (OTT), G Aaron Dell (SJ), F James Neal (VGK), F David Perron (VGK)

January 31 – Day 112 – High Flyer-ing offense

There may only be three games on the schedule today, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a quality matchup.

The action starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time when the New York Islanders visit Toronto (SN/TVAS), and it is followed half an hour later by tonight’s co-nightcaps: San Jose at Detroit and Philadelphia at Washington (NBCSN).

As I discussed with @nlanciani53 in a recent podcast, it’s time to see just how good this Flyers team actually is, as they face a good test in a rivalry game with the Caps this evening. Let’s take a look into this matchup, shall we?

 

Since December 29, there have been few teams in the Eastern Conference as successful as the Flyers. They’ve posted a 9-3-0 record to surge into the second wildcard, with impressive wins coming against the Lightning in Tampa Bay, St. Louis, the Devils in New Jersey, Toronto, the Devils again and the Capitals in Washington (more on that below).

In other words, Philadelphia hasn’t been picking up wins against scrubs.

All credit for this success is due to the Flyers’ offense, which is scoring the puck at an unbelievable pace (3.33 goals per game, the fourth-best average in the league since December 29) and maintaining possession to limit 5-6-1 G Michal Neuvirth‘s – tonight’s starter with 19-11-7 G Brian Elliott on injured reserve –  workload to an average of only 27.83 shots per game (the lowest mark in the NHL during this run).

As for who’s been behind this attack, all signs point towards C Sean Couturier. Philly’s top center has posted 9-7-16 totals in his last 12 games played to improve his season marks to 26-23-49. In fact, his 26 markers are so impressive, they rank (t)fifth-best in the league.

F Claude Giroux and W Jakub Voracek have also been stellar during this run of success, as they’ve respectively posted 1-13-14 and 1-11-12 totals to join with Couturier in averaging at least a point per game since December 29. Of course, their success is no surprise considering they both rank among the league’s top-three in assists and top-10 in points.

Meanwhile, 29-15-5 Washington has been busy all season proving the doubters wrong, as all the team has done after a tough offseason is lead the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

However, the Caps did not have the best of runs leading into the All-Star Break. Though they earned points in four of their five games, they posted only a record of 2-1-2 in their last five games.

The biggest reason for this lull in an overall very successful season seems to be the play of 25-9-2 G Braden Holtby. Starting three of those five games, he led the Capitals to only one victory with a .91 save percentage.

Fortunately for him, his defensive corps played a big part in helping him post a 2.66 GAA in those tilts, which is exactly in line with his season mark. Behind the stellar efforts of D Dmitry Orlov (team-leading 1.4 blocks per game and five takeaways since January 12) and D Brooks Orpik (three hits per game over this run), the Capitals have limited his workload to only 30.8 shots against per game during this five-game stretch, the 13th-best effort in the NHL in that time.

Tonight’s tilt is Game 3 of four between the Caps and Flyers this regular season. Though Philly trails in the standings, it has had its way in this series so far, as it has won both the previous two games. They first met on October 14 at Wells Fargo Center, where the Flyers exploded to an 8-2 victory (Voracek took First Star honors with three assists). More recently, Philadelphia traveled to the capital on January 21 to post a 2-1 victory, courtesy of a F Travis Konecny overtime game-winner.

The Flyers have certainly been the more dominant team leading into the All-Star Break. Add in the fact that they haven’t lost to the Caps yet this year, and I have a hard time picking against Philly’s offense.


With three goals in the span of 53 seconds in the third period, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Calgary Flames 4-2 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This was an odd game in that the number of goals scored in each frame matched the period’s number, and that scoring in each frame was limited to only one team.

Make sense?

Allow me to explain: in the first period, only one goal was scored. Since W Reilly Smith‘s (First Star of the Game F Jon Marchessault and Third Star C William Karlsson) power play tip-in put the Golden Knights up 1-0 with 3:57 remaining in the frame, that meant Vegas was the only team to score in that frame.

Off to Period 2, which featured two markers. Both of those goals belonged to the Flames, as Second Star F Sam Bennett (RW Troy Brouwer) leveled the game 6:02 into the frame with a wrist shot. Calgary then earned its first – and only – lead of the game 12:41 later, courtesy of a LW Matthew Tkachuk (D Dougie Hamilton and F Michael Frolik) wrap-around shot. The 2-1 score held into the second intermission.

Things were looking very good for the Flames in the third period. They still had their one-goal lead with under two minutes remaining in regulation. Worst case scenario, this game went to overtime… right?

Unfortunately for them, the game’s pattern caught up to Calgary in a big way, starting with F Erik Haula‘s unassisted wrist shot with 1:46 remaining on the clock to tie the game at 2-2. The game-winning goal was struck only 10 seconds later, courtesy of Marchessault (Karlsson and Smith).

C Mikael Backlund thought he had this play all wrapped up along the boards in front of his own bench. Karlsson had the puck, but he was coming in to disrupt the play and potentially set his club up for a breakaway opportunity. However, just before he could engage, Karlsson backhanded a pass to Marchessault to set him up for a breakaway opportunity of his own. After getting around D Mark Giordano, Marchessault took advantage of his one-on-one opportunity against G Mike Smith to rip a wrister from the slot top-shelf over the netminder’s glove.

Now trailing by a goal instead of leading by that margin, Flames Head Coach Glen Gulutzan was forced to pull M. Smith with 59 ticks remaining in the game. He was off the ice for only six seconds before W David Perron (F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and D Shea Theodore) capitalized on the gaping cage to set the 4-2 final score with a wrister.

G Marc-Andre Fleury earned the come-from-behind victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to M. Smith, who saved 31-of-34 (.912).

Road teams are staging quite the comeback in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as they’ve won six of the last seven games. This streak has pulled them within 17 points of the 60-37-15 home teams.

January 11 – Day 96 – Seeing red

Usually Thursdays are among the busiest days of the week, but this particular edition doesn’t quite fit the bill with only three East Coast games to offer.

Like it usually does, the action begins at 7 p.m. with a pair of contests (Columbus at Buffalo [SN] and Carolina at Washington [NHLN]), but the nightcap – Calgary at Tampa Bay (TVAS) – gets an early start at 7:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, Nashville, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Toronto and Vegas.

Fortunately, all three tilts are being broadcast nationally so no one gets left out on tonight’s fun. However, it is citizens of the United States that are truly the lucky ones, because they get tonight’s best matchup.

 

Hidden within this tilt between Southeast-turned-Metropolitan Division rivals is the homecoming of Mr. Game 7 to Washington for the first time since returning to Raleigh this offseason.

RW Justin Williams played the last two seasons before this one with W Alex Ovechkin and company. Following a successful seven seasons in Los Angeles that earned him his second and third Stanley Cup rings (not to mention the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy), the Kings left him unsigned and he joined the Caps on a two-year, $6.5 million contract.

Beyond the simple offensive prowess he had shown throughout his NHL tenure (he’d averaged .63 points per game for his career leading up to the 2015-’16 season), Williams was brought into the Washington fold to bring the very thing it had missed in seasons past: the clutch factor. The ability to take the ice in a Game 7 knowing they had the experience and scoring touch to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.

Williams brought exactly what the Capitals expected as far as his scoring was concerned. Having scored .63 points per game for the first 14 seasons of his career, Williams managed a .62 in two seasons with the Caps to post 46-54-100 totals during his tenure.

However, Mr. Game 7 apparently didn’t travel from the West to East Coast, because he managed only 2-1-3 totals in five elimination games with Washington. In fact, even though the Capitals clawed their way back into last year’s Eastern Semifinal against Pittsburgh from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7, all Williams can claim for his last three postseason games are six shots on goal. No goals, no assists. Heck, he even has a goal-differential of zero.

While I’m sure the Caps’ dire cap situation is the primary reason he swapped out red sweaters this offseason, Williams not delivering in the postseason like he was expected to must have factored into the decision to not resign him at least a little bit.

Regardless of the reason, Williams was presented with the opportunity to resign with the Hurricanes, the club with which he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006, on a two-year, $9 million contract. He pounced on the opportunity immediately.

So far, Williams has continued his stellar offensive production. With 7-19-26 totals alongside LW Brock McGinn and C Victor Rask on the Canes’ third line, he’s posting his .62 points-per-game while while also providing a guiding hand for a team with an average age of 26.4-years-old – 1.3 years younger than the league average according to hockeyreference.com.

That guiding hand is apparently working, because Carolina has a 19-15-8 record that is only one point behind Pittsburgh for the second wildcard spot.

We already talked on Tuesday about the impressive surge the Canes have been on lately, earning 17 points over their past 13 games with an 8-4-1 record. However, the next step for this Carolina team is to start beating some of the best teams in the league with a little bit more consistency.

The last six games the Hurricanes have played have been against teams currently in playoff position. In those contests, they’ve managed only a 2-3-1 record, and it’s due in large part to the defense meeting their match against some of the best offenses the game has to offer.

Usually, Carolina is one of the soundest defenses in the NHL. On the season, F Jeff Skinner (42 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (2.1 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (2.4 hits-per-game) have led the Canes to allowing only 29.1 shots against per game, the fewest in the league by half a shot.

Statistically, that defense is still unmatched. Over its past six games, Carolina has allowed only 28 shots per game, the fewest in the league since December 29. However, 11-4-2 G Cam Ward‘s numbers are plummeting from his season marks of a .907 save percentage and 2.78 GAA. How can it be that he’s managed only an .883 save percentage and 3.18 GAA in his past five starts?

Answer: solid offenses.

It is worth mentioning who these current playoff teams are Carolina has played lately: Pittsburgh (2-1 win), at St. Louis (3-2 loss), Washington (5-4 overtime loss), at Pittsburgh (4-0 win), at Boston (7-1 loss) and at Tampa Bay (5-4 loss).

Of these offenses, three are in the top-10 in goals-per-game, and for good reason: they have some of the best scorers in the league. In short, players on these teams (think RW Nikita Kucherov and Ovechkin, just to name a couple) don’t need much room to find the back of the net.

That would put the onus on Ward to perform better against these top teams to keep games close, as well as the offense to find a way to break through these clubs’ defenses with a little bit more success. However, with Carolina and Washington playing a home-and-home series tonight and tomorrow, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of 8-11-6 G Scott Darling for this evening’s matchup.

Darling hasn’t exactly been all the Canes had hoped he’d be when they acquired him this offseason, but he’ll get another opportunity tonight against the Metropolitan Division-leading 27-13-3 Capitals. Washington is rolling right now, as they’ve won five-straight and earned points in 11 of their past 12 games with a 9-1-2 record.

Just like Carolina, Washington is finding much of its success on the defensive end with solid play from RW Alex Chiasson, 24-8-0 G Braden Holtby, D Dmitry Orlov, D Brooks Orpik and RW Tom Wilson, but we tackled that conversation Sunday.

Instead, let’s talk offense.

We’ve already mentioned Ovechkin and the stellar season he’s having. Posting 27-19-46 points (a goal total that ties Kucherov for most in the NHL), he’s well on his way to having his best season since the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 campaign where he registered 56 points in 48 games.

He’s certainly been the hero during this impressive run the Caps have been on since December 12, but he’s also received tremendous support from D John Carlson and C Nicklas Backstrom, who’ve earned respective 3-9-12 and 4-7-11 marks over their past dozen games.

This offensive explosion has been happening all season for Carlson, who must have gleaned a thing or two from D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s short stay in the capital. He’s already posted 5-29-34 totals for the season in his first 43 games played, and if he continues on his pace, he may very well have a season even better than his 12-43-55 career year in 2014-’15.

Tonight marks Game 2 of four between these clubs for the 2017-’18 regular season. The Capitals made the trip down I-95 on January 2. Even though Rask managed to post a two-goal night, Ovechkin was able to match him and score the most important tally of the game: the overtime game winner. Washington won the contest 5-4.

With Darling in net on the road in a usually hostile environment, I have a hard time of seeing the Canes pulling out the victory tonight. However, they will have more than their fair shot at evening the weekend series tomorrow when theses teams square off once again in Raleigh.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game road losing skid by beating the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center.

Making it all the sweeter, the victory was of the come-from-behind variety, as Third Star of the Game D Brent Seabrook (D Michal Kempny and C Nick Schmaltz) – coming off his first-ever healthy scratch when Chicago played in Ottawa the day before – scored a wrist shot with 7:36 remaining in the first frame to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

It took until the 9:58 mark of the second period for Minnesota to level the game. D Jonas Brodin (W Jason Zucker and D Mathew Dumba) was the guilty party, scoring a slap shot from the blue line for only his fourth tally of the season.

As for the game-winner, it was fired off First Star D Ryan Suter‘s (C Mikko Koivu and F Mikael Granlund) stick 3:03 into the third period during four-on-four play. Not usually known for his scoring touch (this was only his sixth goal of the year), Suter received a cross-ice pass from Koivu above the right face-off circle that he turned into a powerful top-shelf wrister that squeezed between G Anton Forsberg‘s left ear and shoulder – an area that is almost impossible to defend.

Another major player in the Wild’s victory was Second Star G Devan Dubnyk, who saved 34-of-35 shots faced (.971 save percentage) to earn the victory. That left Forsberg with the loss after he saved 25-of-27 (.926).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are showing life lately, as they’ve earned points in three of the last four contests. However, the series is still dominated by the 54-30-12 home teams, as they still have a 24-point advantage.

January 7 – Day 92 – Hutts; Holtbeast; hockey in D.C.

The NFL is out of the way, so it’s time to load up on Sunday hockey!

It’s a Sunday schedule full of matinees, as six of the 10 games are scheduled before 7 p.m. The action begins at 1 p.m. with a pair of contests (New Jersey at the New York Islanders and Buffalo at Philadelphia [SN]), followed by three more (Edmonton at Chicago [NHLN/TVAS], San Jose at Winnipeg and St. Louis at Washington [SN1]) two hours later. Florida at Columbus cleans up the day games at 5 p.m. to clear the way for the two tilts (Vancouver at Montréal [RDS/SN] and Tampa Bay at Detroit) slated for the usual 7 p.m. starting time. Boston pays a visit to Pittsburgh (NBCSN) at 7:30 p.m., while the New York Rangers at Vegas (SN360) closes out the evening at 9:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Dallas and Los Angeles.

There’s three games being contested between teams currently in playoff position today, but the one that strikes my fancy most is happening in the American capital! Off to Capital One Arena!

 

Don’t tell anybody, but this is only the second time all season that we’ve featured the Blues away from Scottrade Center. The first instance was a 5-4 overtime victory in Pittsburgh on Opening Day, but I’m sure the Caps are hoping for a better showing than their Metro rivals.

Of course, the biggest question for the past month has been which version of the 26-16-2 Blues is going to show up to play? Will it be the club that beat the Western Conference-leading Golden Knights 2-1 Thursday, or the squad that got schooled 6-3 yesterday in Philadelphia?

Before yesterday’s loss, it seemed St. Louis was on the upswing. After all, it had won its previous three games – all of which were against teams currently in playoff position – by allowing a total of only five goals against.

And then 18-13-2 G Jake Allen got a chance to play.

Even though he’s still among the top-10 in wins, Allen has been pretty miserable for the last month. He’s posted a 1-7-0 record over his past eight starts on a .907 save percentage and 3 GAA, well below his sliding .911 and 2.64 season marks.

As you might expect, he was the one in net for yesterday’s debacle against F Brayden Schenn‘s – who’s +20 is (t)fourth-best in the NHL – former club.

For that reason, Allen has lost his starting job to 8-3-0 G Carter Hutton for the time being, and the team is playing with much more confidence because of it. Hutton has been solid since assuming his new, albeit temporary role, posting a .94 save percentage and 1.62 GAA in his past three starts to elevate his season numbers to a .947 save percentage and 1.64 GAA – both of which are the best in the league among qualified netminders.

Hutton will face a tough task today against the W Alex Ovechkin-led, Metropolitan Division-leading 25-13-3 Capitals.

Washington is about en fuego as possible right now, as it has posted an 11-2-2 record since the beginning of December – and that run includes a four-game Western road trip.

Though Ovechkin’s (t)league-leading 26 goals certainly aren’t hurting the situation, the Caps have actually been finding their wins with solid work in the defensive zone. Washington has allowed only 36 goals against since December 1, the fourth-fewest in the league.

This has been far from a banner year for 23-8-1 G Braden Holtby. Though his win total – which is second-highest in the league – would indicate otherwise, he’s only managed a .917 save percentage and 2.68 GAA on the season, and those numbers have actually been hurt over this run of success by the Caps. Even though he’s finding wins, Holtby has managed only a .913 save percentage and 2.78 GAA since December 1.

Instead, the former Vezina and current Jennings Trophy-winner is getting the benefit of a stellar offense, which has scored a seventh-best 51 goals since December 1, and a defensive corps that is doing everything in its power to lessen his workload. Through those combined efforts, Washington has allowed only 475 shots to reach its net since the start of last month (31.7 per game), the sixth-fewest in the NHL in that time.

Defensively, the Capitals are led by fourth line RW Alex Chiasson (averaging a takeaway-per-game since December 1), defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik (both averaging two blocks-per-game over their past 15 contests) and second line RW Tom Wilson (3.07 hits per game since the start of last month).

This is the first of two times these clubs will square off this season barring a meeting in the Stanley Cup Finals. Just like last year, the Capitals will make their trip to St. Louis late in the season, but with this campaign’s meeting scheduled for April 2, there should be little chance of either side resting too many players for the postseason.

With Hutton in goal, the Blues have been winners of late, but Washington has been an unstoppable force itself. I think the Caps win today with the benefit of home ice and their four days of rest compared to St. Louis’ 23 hours.


The Colorado Avalanche absolutely dominated yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat the Minnesota Wild 7-2 at Pepsi Center.

It seems retiring RW Milan Hejduk‘s number got everyone excited to score, because a total of 11 Avs found their way onto the scorecard with either a goal or an assist. The first was W Gabriel Bourque (F Colin Wilson and F Tyson Jost), who scored his first goal of the season at the 7:38 mark of the first period. D Patrik Nemeth (Third Star of the Game F Nathan MacKinnon and Second Star RW Mikko Rantanen) followed that goal up 10:38 later with a slap shot to set the score at 2-0, but C Eric Staal (D Jonas Brodin and W Jason Zucker) pulled the Wild back within a one-goal deficit on a wrist shot with 33 seconds remaining before the first intermission.

The game-winning goal was buried 8:03 into the second period courtesy of First Star F Carl Soderberg (F Alexander Kerfoot). After a skirmish between LW Marcus Foligno and LW A.J. Greer that was a result of F Matt Cullen slashing D Erik Johnson, Colorado earned its first real power play opportunity of the night (it had a 12 second man-advantage in the first frame) at the 6:41 mark.

Minnesota’s F Daniel Winnik nearly scored a shorthanded wrister from the right face-off circle, but he found the crossbar. The ricochet from that shot landed right on Soderberg’s stick, and he set Kerfoot up to drive the puck into the Avs’ offensive zone. He ended up along the left boards at the goal line with nowhere to go… except centering a pass to Soderberg, who was waiting at the corner of G Devan Dubnyk‘s crease. Before the netminder could react to what was happening, Soderberg’s elevated snap shot was past his blocker and in the twine.

But the Avs weren’t done just yet. Rantanen (LW Gabriel Landeskog and MacKinnon) set the score at 4-1 with 3:41 remaining in the second frame, which would have held had Staal (Zucker and D Ryan Suter) not scored another tally with 38 seconds remaining before the intermission.

The Avalanche truly took command of this contest in a chippy third period that featured 18 of the game’s 32 penalty minutes. Zucker’s interference against Rantanen 4:29 into the frame proved to be the first infraction that cost Minnesota, as Soderberg (W Nail Yakupov and Kerfoot) buried a snapper with the man-advantage 44 seconds later to set the score at 5-2. Later, Dubnyk took exception to Kerfoot’s goalkeeper interference to earn not one but two roughing penalties, served by F Tyler Ennis and F Joel Eriksson Ek. In the resulting five-on-four, MacKinnon (D Samuel Girard and Rantanen) buried a wrister to chase Dubnyk and give Colorado its third insurance tally at the 7:17 mark, followed by Jost (Wilson and Bourque) setting the the 7-2 final score with 2:14 remaining on the clock.

G Jonathan Bernier earned the victory after saving 34-of-36 shots faced (.944 save percentage), leaving the loss to Dubnyk, who saved 26-of-32 (.813). G Alex Stalock assumed Dubnyk’s crease after MacKinnon’s goal, and he saved five-of-six (.833) in the remaining 12:43 of action for no decision.

Colorado’s victory in the DtFR Game of the Day gives home teams in the series a 52-29-11 record that is 24 points superior to that of the roadies.

December 30 – Day 84 – Seeing red

In preparation for New Year’s Eve tomorrow, the NHL has elected to schedule a light slate of games this Saturday.

Only half a dozen contests will be played this evening, starting with three (Boston at Ottawa [SN], Montréal at Florida [CBC/CITY/TVAS] and New Jersey at Washington) at 7 p.m. Two more games (Carolina at St. Louis and Minnesota at Nashville) drop the puck an hour later, while Los Angeles at Vancouver (CBC/SN) – tonight’s nightcap – waits until 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

Two of today’s contests have caught my eye…

  • Boston at Ottawa: It’s a rematch of one of last year’s Eastern Conference First Round matchups. The Sens won the series in six games.
  • New Jersey at Washington: Not only is this an important Metropolitan matchup, but F Marcus Johansson is also making his first return to the American capital after seven seasons with the Caps.

Considering the Senators have been a bit of a disappointment (that’s probably putting things lightly) this year, I think we have to make the trip to D.C.

 

Johansson’s presence in the NHL began during the 2009 Entry Draft when the Capitals selected him with the 24th-overall pick on the heels of a 3-2-5 performance in the 2008 IIHF World U18 Championships.

Though he didn’t immediately join the Caps, instead playing one more season with Färjestad BK in Sweden’s top league and posting 10-10-20 totals in 42 games played, he did eventually carve out a spot for himself on Washington’s roster during the 2010-’11 season, his first in North America.

Johansson posted rather unimpressive 13-14-27 totals during that rookie season, but it’s safe to say he’s improved with every season he spent in a Capitals sweater. With the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 season, Johansson earned a minimum of 44 points in each of the next six seasons he spent in Washington. No campaign was better than last year’s, as he established new career-highs in goals (24) and points (58). He also earned valuable playoff experience, playing in 69 postseason games for 9-21-30 totals.

Unfortunately for the Capitals, they faced some well-documented salary cap issues this offseason, and that forced them to make at least one move that would probably hurt their hockey team. Johansson proved to be one of those tough decisions, as General Manager Brian MacLellan opted to dump the forward’s remaining two-year, $4.58 million-per contract within the division in exchange for two 2018 draft picks.

So far, Johansson has not yielded the return New Jersey General Manager Ray Shero was expecting when he traded for him. He’s managed only 5-3-8 totals so far this season, but he’s been limited to only 19 games played. That puts his points-per-game at .42, which is barely better than his .39 points-per-game rookie season. After spending four mid-December games in the press box nursing an ankle injury, he’s regained his spot on the second line (and second power play unit, for that matter) and will be expected to begin converting more opportunities with linemates W Kyle Palmieri (5-7-12) and C Travis Zajac (2-0-2) sooner than later.

Of course, even though they’d prefer more production out of him, it’s not like the 22-9-6 Devils are really hurting for offense. The Metropolitan Division leaders have managed an impressive 3.14 goals-per-game to rank (t)seventh-best in the NHL this season, and they’ve been even better since December 12, scoring 29 goals (second-most) during their eight-game point streak (3.63 per game).

During this dominating run Jersey is on, no two players have been a more dominating force than F Brian Boyle (5-4-9 since December 12; 10-6-16 overall) and F Taylor Hall (3-4-7; 12-24-36 overall), both of whom are averaging more than a point-per-game since mid-December. Boyle’s success is especially exciting given not only his health concerns coming into the season, but also his position as the third line center.

One of the major reasons for the Devils’ stellar attack is they don’t miss on too many power play opportunities. Over their past eight games, the Devils have converted 28.6 percent of their man-advantages – the (t)third-best rate in the NHL – which is even better than their (t)eighth-ranked 21.4 percent conversion rate on the season.

If 23-13-3 Washington, the second place team in the Metro, wants a chance of beating the Devils, it’ll need to successfully employ a solid penalty kill or try its hardest to stay out of the penalty box. The latter will probably be the better game plan, because the Caps’ 80.1 percent kill rate is the 11th-worst in the NHL.

But don’t read that as the Caps being a bad team defensively, because that’s erroneously far from the truth. On the season, Washington has allowed a 14th-best 2.82 goals against-per-game, but that number has dropped to 2.38 since December 12 while the Capitals have earned points in seven of eight games.

Though the Capitals employ the reigning William M. Jennings Trophy winner, I’d argue that Washington’s defensive success has less to do with 21-8-0 G Braden Holtby (even though he has the second-most wins in the league) and more to do with the impeccable efforts of late by RW Alex Chiasson, D Dmitry Orlov and D Brooks Orpik, who’ve respectively posted eight takeaways, 15 blocks and 26 hits since December 12.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have W Alex Ovechkin playing on the same team either. Sometimes the best defense is stellar offense, and Ovi has provided that throughout his career. This season is no exception, as his 24 goals are tied for the most in the league.

Of note, Jersey did play last night to a 4-3 overtime loss against the Sabres at The Rock. That loss snapped a five-game winning streak for both the club and 17-6-5 G Cory Schneider (his 17 wins are the [t]eighth-most in the NHL). Since he was in net last night, I’d expect 5-3-1 G Keith Kinkaid, who’s lost his last two games, to assume starting duties this evening.

Another important note is that these teams have already met once this season, and that game went the Capitals’ way. On October 13, Washington descended upon New Jersey and dominated the Devils to a 5-2 win, thanks in large part to a four-point night by C Nicklas Backstrom.

But who takes the two points tonight? I’m leaning towards the Devils. Even though they’re playing on the road, I’m concerned that Washington’s inability to stay out of the penalty box (the Caps’ 136 times shorthanded is eighth-most in the league) will bite it in the butt. Look for Jersey to exact revenge for October 13’s home defeat.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Honda Center.

Though the score doesn’t indicate it, Anaheim absolutely dominated this game, as it out-shot the Flames 41-23. That was especially true in the first period, as the Ducks managed to fire a whopping 20 shots on goal compared to Calgary’s five. Third Star of the Game G Mike Smith was up for the task for most of that onslaught, but First Star D Cam Fowler (Second Star C Ryan Getzlaf and F Rickard Rakell) was able to sneak a backhanded shot past him at the 3:48 mark to give Anaheim an early lead.

Calgary’s best frame was easily the second, as it out-shot the Ducks 11-8. As a result, W Micheal Ferland (D Matt Bartkowski and Smith) was able to level the game with a snap shot with 8:05 remaining in the period.

With that pesky long change out of the way, the Ducks resumed their command of the game in the third period, and that control was only heightened when LW Matthew Tkachuk made the mistake of sending a puck over the glass to earn himself a seat in the penalty box. However, he was held out of action for only seven seconds, as Rakell (Getzlaf and W Jakob Silfverberg) was able to use the man-advantage to score a game-winning power play wrist shot at the 2:17 mark.

If tic-tac-goals are among your favorite things, you’ll like this tally. After Getzlaf won the face-off at the right dot in his attacking zone, C Adam Henrique tapped the puck back to Fowler at the point. The defenseman sent the biscuit back towards the crease to Silfverberg, who tapped back towards the slot to Getzlaf in a centering attempt. However, instead of taking the obvious snapper, the captain instead elected to shove the puck towards the left face-off circle to the waiting Rakell, who one-timed a wrister over a diving Smith.

G John Gibson earned the victory after saving 22-of-23 shots faced (.957 save percentage), leaving the unfortunate loss to Smith, who saved 39-of-41 (.951).

Mark it down as another win for the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts now have a 47-27-10 record that is exactly 20 points better than the visitors’.