Tag Archives: Ovechkin

DtFR Overtime: Have your break and eat it too

In this week’s edition of DtFR Overtime, I’ll tackle one of the things we highlighted in the most recent podcast: the bye weeks.

As was outlined in a previous post, the NHL is in Year 2 of implementing bye weeks into its schedule. Starting January 7, all teams will have a five-day minimum break that will begin no later than today. Everyone will be back in action no later than January 20.

Within that post, I outlined some of the things I like about this year’s iteration of the byes (specifically, their being compacted into a span of 13 days instead of strewn over the course of more than two months), but also touched on some of my concerns.

One of my biggest complaints was that the entire month of January would feel very thin in terms of games played. That is no more obvious than in my “Game of the Day” column, as I’ve repeated three teams twice in the span of six days.

Of course, there’s bigger issues than my daily writings. Time off abounds at this stage of the schedule, as the NHL has added bye weeks between its already existing three-day holiday break (December 24-26) and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29).

This choppiness, among other reasons, is one of the reasons the NHL has been floating the idea of eliminating the All-Star Game entirely, apparently wanting to find a way to expand its reach in foreign markets.

Among the DtFR crew, we’d been discussing how we felt interest in the All-Star Game among fans was declining. However, with just a little bit of research, I discovered that, according to SB Nation, last year’s All-Star Game brought in a 1.6 TV rating for NBC, reaching over 2.5 million Americans (sorry Canada, your results didn’t pop up in the first return).

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot when you compare it to such sports broadcasts as Super Bowl LI, which garnered 111.3 million views, but it is actually a solid number in relation to recent NHL All-Star spectacles. The 2017 All-Star Game was the highest-viewed edition of the event since the 2004 festivities in St. Paul, Minn., and marked a second-consecutive year of growth in viewership.

The NHL saw a steep decline when the All-Star Game moved from ABC to NBCSN (dropping from a 2.5 rating in 2004 to a .5 in 2007), but the move back to broadcast television last year seems to have been a good move. So good, in fact, that 2017’s 1.6 rating is superior to both the 2017 (1.5) and 2018 Winter Classics (1.4).

And don’t think TV numbers are the only thing important here. All-Star Games are still must-see events for fans in the host markets. In fact, by compiling All-Star Game attendances and comparing it to stadium capacities over the past 28 editions of the event, the NHL has reached max capacity – if not exceeded it – 21 of the 28 times.

That’s why I’m of the opinion that the NHL shouldn’t be thinking of scrapping the All-Star Game. The fans, which is a growing number in and of itself (I mean, who would’ve expected a hockey team to actually work out in Vegas?), still want to see the best of the best compete with and against each other.

However, the spectators are just one part of the puzzle. More than a handful of players (C Sidney Crosby, C Pavel Datsyuk, D Nicklas Lidstrom, W Alex Ovechkin and C Jonathan Toews come to mind, just to name a handful) have skipped the All-Star Game in recent years – some with more believable excuses for their absences than others – and I think that is where the real problem lies. Many players do not want to risk expending energy, getting hurt or further straining an existing injury in an exhibition game that ultimately does not matter, to the point that they are willing to serve a one-game suspension that only extends their time off.

Therefore, we have two parties: one that wants to see the best hockey players in the world compete with no “less-thans” holding them back, and another that wants time off to heal and prepare for the final push of the season.

This dichotomy does not seem to be prevalent in the other two “Big Four” North American sports that play their All-Star Games mid-season. Perhaps they can provide a hint as to how to solve this problem.

It might have been just how I was raised, but I am under the impression that no athlete feels more honored to be a part of an All-Star Game than a baseball player. You can feel free to disagree with me, but the difficulty of achieving consecutive appearances, plus the storied tradition – not to mention the lower risk of injury – make it a very desirable experience and honor. There’s obviously players who have skipped the Midsummer Classic (SS Derek Jeter, P Stephen Strasburg, etc.), but it is not something that happens often for sportsmen that play at least 150 games per regular season.

This summer, MLB will give almost every team (the Cardinals and Cubs are the exception, as the league is experimenting with highlighting one game in a sort of “Opening Day to the Second Half of the Season” this year) a four-day break before resuming play following the festivities in Washington, D.C., an eternity in a 162-game season. Even the All-Stars themselves will take at least two days off, and most will get three since only eight participate in the Home Run Derby.

Of course, baseball is the least strenuous sport of the “Big Four,” but there’s still enough time for even those selected to the All-Star Game to take a moment to rest before the second half of the season, especially since most play only an inning or two in the exhibition.

Next up is the NHL’s redheaded stepchild-turned-attention hog of the winter months, the NBA (Don’t believe me, NBA fans? Time for you to read up on why professional basketball exists).

The Association’s All-Star Break is scheduled a little bit later than the NHL’s and won’t take place until February 16-21 this season, with the action taking place in Staples Center – the site of last year’s NHL All-Star Game.

Just like in hockey and baseball, the NBA stages a skills competition the day before its actual All-Star Game, but that still leaves four days for the players involved in the festivities to rest and recoup, and six for the scrubs (not really, there’s tons of deserving players that get left off the two 12-men rosters). You know, because most of them there don’t request nights off at least once a month.

Shots fired NBA.

All jokes aside, I’m sure you noticed something both these leagues have that the NHL doesn’t: an actual break. The NHL All-Star Break lasts only four days, as all but the Kings will be in action on January 16 (only because there isn’t a 32nd team for them to play – yet) and most will jump right back to the fray on January 30.

Perhaps this is why the NHLPA requested bye weeks when the league wanted to switch to the three-on-three backyard pickup-style tournament?

And so, at long last, I present an option that could potentially save the All-Star Game from extinction while also preserving the time off the players desire: we simply need to expand the All-Star Break to an actual week.

In a perfect world, my solution can resolve both concerns facing the league and its players. By extending the break, the players – even those elected into the weekend’s festivities – get to take more time off the ice to rest and recuperate, and coaches could probably convince the NHLPA to allow them to recommence light installation practices the last day before resuming play.

Another problem this might fix is the NHL’s ratings during the All-Star Game. While a 1.6 rating is good, you have to believe the league would like to see higher numbers. Maybe – just maybe – the league can create enough of a “hockey famine” that fans would tune in to get a sampling of the sport before their favorite clubs returned to the ice.

My plan?

Have play commence until the Wednesday before the All-Star Game (within this season’s calendar, that would be January 24). The league can decide whether it wants this to be a normal Wednesday with only two or three games, or if wants to cash in like the day before the break begins this year and schedule as many games as possible. I’m not picky.

Continuing the presumption we’re editing this year’s schedule, the All-Star Festivities would still take place in Tampa on January 27 (Skills Competition) and 28 (63rd All-Star Game), but players would not be back in action with their actual clubs on January 30 like they’re currently slated to be. Instead, the NHL would not schedule play again until the next Tuesday or Wednesday (January 30 or 31).

This would allow at least four days of rest for all players whether they’re All-Stars or not, and six days for those not involved in the weekend’s festivities. I feel, with that amount of time off, the league might be able to go back to a time without bye weeks, circa 2016.

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’.

December 11 – Day 68 – No sleep ’til!

Thank goodness for hockey, or else this would’ve been another one of those brutal Mondays.

There’s a half-dozen games on the schedule today, starting with three (Washington at the New York Islanders, Dallas at the New York Rangers and Colorado at Pittsburgh [SN/TVAS]) at the usual time of 7 p.m. and Florida at Detroit half an hour later. 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Vancouver at Winnipeg, while tonight’s nightcap – Carolina at Anaheim – waits until 10 p.m. to get underway. All times Eastern.

It’s hard to find action better than the two games taking place in the Big Apple this evening, but lets head south from The City, cross the Manhattan Bridge and take in an important Metropolitan Division rivalry taking place in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

Before you start complaining, yes: we did already feature this matchup this once this season on November 2. In fact, it was a stellar 4-3 game at Capital One Arena won by C Lars Eller and the Capitals with only 3:21 to spare before three-on-three overtime.

I’m expecting more of the same when these rivals square off tonight at the Barclays Center, because second place in the division is on the line this evening.

The 18-11-1 Capitals are not only the current owners of that second-place spot, but they’ve also won seven of their last eight games – including a current four-game winning streak.

Both ends of the ice have been impressive during this run, especially considering Washington’s offense has averaged four goals-per-game since November 22 (led by none other than W Alex Ovechkin and his 8-5-13 totals). However, I’ve been most impressed by the Caps’ defensive effort of late, as they’ve allowed only 18 goals over this run to tie Boston for second-fewest in the NHL in that time.

Now, when you have a Vezina-winning goaltender on your team, the job of defenseman is usually not a tough one. G Braden Holtby has posted a .92 season save percentage and 2.57 GAA to rank among the top 11 netminders in the NHL with at least 11 starts.

He’s been just as good of late too, as he’s managed a .92 save percentage and 2.34 GAA since November 22, both of which rank among the top 10 of the 26 goaltenders with at least six starts since then.

But don’t read into Holtby’s performance as a reason for the defense to mail in their efforts, because it’s been in fact the opposite. Over the past eight games, Washington’s defensive corps has allowed only 241 shots against – the third-fewest in the NHL. That incredible defensive effort has been spearheaded by D John Carlson‘s 2.75 blocks-per-game, as well as D Brooks Orpik and RW Tom Wilson‘s 3.37 hits-per-game.

That defense will prove especially important tonight when Washington takes on the 16-10-3 Islanders, who currently occupy fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and the first wild card. When New York has found its success, it has employed one of the most potent offenses in the game.

So far this season, the Islanders have scored a whopping 103 goals, which averages into 3.55 per game. Pick your favorite offense that doesn’t wear a lightning bolt as its crest, and the Islanders are better (in laymen’s terms, New York is second-best).

I’ve said it multiple times this season, but the core of this attack is the Isles’ incredible Sandwich Line. F Josh Bailey (5-27-32 totals), F Anders Lee (17-12-29) and C John Tavares (17-12-29) are the three leading point earners on this club, though they are followed close behind by rookie sensation C Mathew Barzal (8-20-28).

One of the best ways to get past the Caps’ defense is to take one of their players off the ice, as their 79.43 penalty kill rate is the 12th-worst in the league. While New York’s power play isn’t exactly the league leader its base offense is, I have a sneaking suspicion it’ll improve on its 11th-ranked 20 percent success rate if it earns to points tonight.

Though it’s not exactly that important right now, the Caps and Isles won’t resume their four-game season series until they play a two-day home-and-home series in mid-March. Of course, head-to-head record is the second tiebreaker if these clubs are tied come

As for who wins this evening, I’m having tough time picking against the Caps. The fact that they have Ovechkin at their disposal should be enough to propel them to their fifth-straight win.


Though the San Jose Sharks were able to mount a tremendous two-goal comeback in the third period to force overtime, the Minnesota Wild was able to hold on for a 4-3 victory at the SAP Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Usually, the “tale of two halves” expression is used to describe a basketball, football or soccer match, but it applied to yesterday’s featured hockey game quite well as the Wild were able to score the first three goals of regulation.

Minnesota started its attack 4:19 into the game on a D Ryan Murphy (W Jason Zucker and Second Star of the Game C Eric Staal) power play wrist shot, his first goal of the season. That goal was followed 6:08 later by Staal (D Ryan Suter and F Mikael Granlund) burying a wrister of his own to set the score at 2-0.

Staal (Murphy and Granlund) further expanded the Wild’s lead at the 4:58 mark of the second period, but his wrap-around tally proved to be the final one Minnesota could manage in regulation.

After that, it was all San Jose.

Third Star D Brent Burns (C Joe Thornton and F Tomas Hertl) was the first Shark to register a goal, as he banged home a power play slap shot with 53 seconds remaining before the second intermission to pull San Jose back within a 3-1 deficit.

Someone must have told Burns how much catching up he needs to do to match his performance from last season, because 2:41 after he returned to the ice, he (F Joe Pavelski) scored another power play clapper to trim Minnesota’s lead to one. Hertl (D Dylan DeMelo and D Tim Heed) completed the comeback with 5:01 remaining in regulation with a wrister.

Speaking of people saying things to players, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was probably furious with his squad for squandering a 3-0 advantage, and I’ll bet he let them know it during the break before three-on-three overtime. Apparently First Star W Nino Niederreiter took that message to heart, because he scored an unassisted wrister with 1:34 remaining before the shootout to earn Minnesota the bonus point.

G Alex Stalock earned the victory after saving 31-of-34 shots faced (.912 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to G Martin Jones, who saved 20-of-24 (.833).

If all it takes to constitute a good game is one that extends beyond regulation, we’ve gotten some real treasures the past five days in the DtFR Game of the Day series as all of them have required either overtime or a shootout to determine a winner. With the road team winning yesterday, visitors have pulled within 15 points of the 38-22-8 hosts.

December 9 – Day 66 – Mirror images

After your busy Saturday of holiday shopping is complete, sit down; take a load off; watch hockey. You know, exactly what we were created to do.

There’s only one matinee on the schedule, and it takes place at 1 p.m. when St. Louis makes its annual trip to Detroit (SN1). The rest of the action gets started at 7 p.m. with the puck drop of seven games (the New York Islanders at Boston, Edmonton at Montréal [SN/TVAS], Winnipeg at Tampa Bay [CITY], Colorado at Florida, New Jersey at the New York Rangers, Toronto at Pittsburgh [CBC/NHLN] and Arizona at Columbus), followed by Vegas at Dallas an hour later. The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. with the start of two contests (Ottawa at San Jose [SN] and Vancouver at Calgary [CBC]), followed by Carolina at Los Angeles – tonight’s nightcap – half an hour later. All times Eastern.

As regular readers have come to expect, I have circled more than a few games on my calendar on days like today.

  • St. Louis at Detroit: This rivalry might have lost some heat when the Wings jumped to the Eastern Conference, but a rivalry it is nonetheless.
  • New Jersey at New York: The Battle of the Hudson River is truly special when both parties involved are playing well.
  • Toronto at Pittsburgh: The day has finally arrived for D Ron Hainsey to collect his championship ring.
  • Vancouver at Calgary: There’s no love lost in this rivalry.

Of course, I couldn’t predict the magnitude of the night’s events in Central Florida. Since we’ve already featured Canucks-Flames once this season, let’s take in this exciting Jets-Lightning matchup.

 

Even with the advice of our very own Colby Kephart, I’ve made the unforgivable sin of featuring the best team in the league only three times before today. While I cannot go back and change the past, I can only try my best to feature the 20-6-2 Lightning more often.

Where to start with what makes the Bolts great? We could discuss their incredible offense that averages a league-leading 3.75 goals-per-game, or we could turn our attention to a defense that allows only 2.5 goals against-per-game, the fourth-lowest average in the NHL.

It’s more fun to talk offense, so we’ll do that. Besides, I would argue that 18-4-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s .93 save percentage and 2.21 GAA ([t]best and third-best, respectively, among the 45 goaltenders with at least eight starts) are helped just as much by an offense that possesses the puck at will as they are by D Dan Girardi‘s team-leading 2.32 blocks-per-game.

Perhaps you’ve heard, but C Steven Stamkos is pretty darn good at his job. After all, his 12-29-41 totals, the most by any player in the NHL this year, is made even more impressive considering he played only 94 games over his past two season.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have coworkers like RW Nikita Kucherov, who has managed an equally mesmerizing 19-21-40 effort to rank second in the league in both points scored and goals (dang you, W Alex Ovechkin, and your 21 tallies), and breakout fourth-year player F Vladislav Namestnikov playing on the same line.

With 12-15-27 totals currently to his name this season, Namestnikov is on track to post 35-44-79 marks by the end of the regular season. If he can continue on that pace, he will effectively double the 33-46-79 career totals he had coming into this season.

Welcome to the big time, Vladdy.

There’s some stellar teams in the Central Division this season, but one of the two that has mirrored Tampa’s style is the 17-8-4 Jets. Just like the Lightning, Winnipeg utilizes a commanding offense that manages 3.37 goals-per-game (fifth-best in the league) to keep pucks out of their defensive zone. The strategy has worked almost as seamlessly as the Bolts’, as they’ve allowed only 2.82 goals-per-game, the 10th-fewest in the NHL.

Of the pucks that have made their way to 15-3-3 G Connor Hellebuyck, he’s been more than able to make the necessary stops. He’s managed a .92 save percentage and 2.43 GAA performance that ranks him in the top-10 goaltenders with at least 11 starts to their name.

Beginning to see some similarities yet? Maybe you’d be interested to know that Winnipeg also has a top line focused around its potential All Stars: C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler.

That’s right, even the starred positions are the same.

Wheeler has absolutely stolen the show in Winnipeg this year. In the 11th year of his career, he’s managing a team-leading 8-29-37 points that is tied for third-most in the NHL.

As you can see, most of those points are assists, and most of those apples have turned into Scheifele goals. Scheifele has scored 14 of them this season en route to 14-20-34 totals. Sticking with the theme of career years, Scheifele could manage 39-57-96 totals if he keeps up this pace, well better than last year’s 32-50-82 effort.

If there’s one thing the Jets have that the Bolts don’t, it’s a commanding presence at the second line’s right wing position. RW Patrik Laine isn’t getting quite the amount of headlines he did last year due to the improved play of those around him, but that hasn’t stopped him from posting similar numbers. After a 36-28-64 rookie campaign, he’s already managed 15-10-25 totals this season and is on his way to a 43-28-71 performance if he continues on his pace.

So much for a sophomore slump.

This game has the potential to be the matchup of the season so far. It features two dominant offenses led by impressive centers and right wings intent on keeping possession. Tonight’s game should be a Lightning victory, but they might face one of their toughest tests yet in the Jets.


The Vegas Golden Knights weathered an impressive third period resurgence by the Nashville Predators to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Bridgestone Arena 4-3 in a shootout.

Only one goal was struck in the first period, and F Craig Smith was largely responsible. Due to him getting caught hi-sticking W David Perron, C William Karlsson (RW Alex Tuch and D Nate Schmidt) was able to score a power play snap shot 6:55 into the game to give Vegas an early lead.

The Knights doubled that lead with 5:23 remaining in the second period courtesy of W James Neal (D Luca Sbisa and Schmidt), playing his first game in Nashville since being selected in the expansion draft. However, the score was trimmed to 2-1 only 63 seconds later on C Calle Jarnkrok’s (W Pontus Aberg and F Filip Forsberg) wrist shot.

Nashville completed its comeback at the 8:04 mark of the third period on a wrister by First Star of the Game W Viktor Arvidsson (W Kevin Fiala and C Kyle Turris), followed 6:52 later by Second Star C Nick Bonino‘s (Arvidsson) sixth goal of the season to give the Predators their first lead of the night. That 3-2 lead almost held to the end of regulation, but F Erik Haula (D Colin Miller and Perron) was able to bury a wrister with 40 seconds remaining in regulation to level the game and force three-on-three overtime.

Since no goal was stuck in overtime, this game entered the shootout. As host, the Predators had the choice of shooting first or second…

  1. Head Coach Peter Laviolette chose first and sent Turris to center ice. Usually a decent penalty shooter (he now has a .365 career shooting percentage in this situation), he missed wide of the net.
  2. The Homecoming King had an opportunity to give the Golden Knights a mini-break, but Neal’s offering was saved by G Pekka Rinne, who had probably seen every trick Neal had up his sleeve over the last three years of practice.
  3. Fiala was next up for Nashville, but he performed just like Turris: he missed wide of the net.
  4. If only saves forced was a deciding factor in shootouts, because Vegas would have won after Rinne saved Tuch’s wrister.
  5. Of the Preds’ first three shooters, Forsberg was easily the best. Though he didn’t score, he did manage to force G Malcolm Subban to make a save.
  6. With the opportunity to win the game, Perron’s backhanded shot… was saved by Rinne. To sudden death!
  7. Up next for Nashville was Smith, but he continued the Predators’ tradition of blatantly missing the net, though he did at least catch iron.
  8. Here comes Haula! He fired a wrister on net, but Rinne was there to make the save.
  9. Tell me if you read this already: another Predator missed the net – this time it was Arvidsson. I guess one goal in this game was enough.
  10. Vegas’ fifth shooter was none other than Karlsson, who had scored the opening goal of the game way back in the first period. That experience didn’t help him here, because his backhander was saved by Rinne.
  11. Round six started with Bonino firing a wrister at Subban’s net, but the netminder was there to make the save.
  12. Finally, everyone’s prayers were answered by Third Star W Reilly Smith, who was the lone goalscorer of the shootout to earn the bonus point for Vegas.

Subban earned the victory after saving 41-of-44 shots faced (.932 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Rinne, who saved 36-of-39 (.923).

This was the third-straight game in the DtFR Game of the Day to require more than 60 minutes to determine a victor. With the visitors coming out on top of this one, they pulled within 15 points of the 37-22-7 hosts.

DtFR Overtime: Where’s the Star Power?

Welcome to DtFR Overtime, where somebody on the most recent podcast offers some deeper thoughts on one of the points of discussion.

Today’s subject: Star power and the absence of it.

We all know the list of current NHL stars: LW Jamie Benn, D Brent Burns, C Sidney Crosby, G Braden Holtby, F Patrick Kane, D Erik Karlsson, G Henrik Lundqvist, C Auston Matthews, C Connor McDavid, W Alex Ovechkin, G Carey Price, G Jonathan Quick, C Steven Stamkos, D P.K. Subban, RW Vladimir Tarasenko, C John Tavares

OK, I think you get the idea.

But how important are these stars really? I mean, of the skaters listed above, they play an average of only 21 minutes – or barely over a third of a game.

While the top NHL teams put a strong value on depth scoring, I would argue that, over the course of a season, it is necessary for Team X’s star to be the best player on the ice for that team to have success.

It sounds basic, right?

It is, but even the clubs that seem to be built to withstand the unfortunately inevitable scoring droughts from its top players are struggling this season.

My first example is the 12-11-5 Chicago Blackhawks, a club that currently sits in 12th place in the Western Conference and is at risk of missing the postsesaon for the first time since the 2007-’08 campaign.

I brought up Kane in the list of stars earlier, but his team-leading 10-17-27 totals are not the reason Chicago finds itself on the outside looking in. Instead, this star-laden team is struggling to find leadership from its captain.

Getting outplayed by rookie F Alex DeBrincat‘s 11-9-20 effort, C Jonathan Toews has only 8-11-19 totals to his credit and is on track for the worst offensive production of his professional career. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Blackhawks have an 11-2-2 record when Toews finds his way onto the scorecard, but a 1-9-3 record when he doesn’t.

That was fun, especially for a fan of a Central Division team that hasn’t worn a lick of red since the 1997-’98 season. Let’s head east and examine another city where it looks like the local club is in an even more dire situation

Welcome to Ottawa, the national capital of Canada.  Expectations were high after forcing a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series with Pittsburgh back in May, but all the 9-11-6 Sens, who currently sit third-to-last in the conference, have done this season is disappoint.

To be fair, Karlsson at least has the excuse of an injury to partially explain his slump. The hard part in figuring out Karlsson’s 1-16-17 effort is that he’s mostly on track from a points-per-game standpoint. Given he missed the Sens’ first five games, his .81 points-per-game is, while not exemplary by his standards, still a solid output.

Unfortunately, this is where points can distract from goals. You probably noticed he only had one tally to his credit, which is where I think his team needs him most.

The 14-10-2 Sharks are facing a similar situation with their star defenseman Burns, who has managed only 1-11-12 totals in 26 games a year after posting 29-47-76 numbers to win the Norris Trophy. As such, San Jose does not have the solid footing in the standings it would like, as the Sharks are holding onto their second wild card position by winning only a games-played tiebreaker.

Now, I’m not going to sit here on my couch and pontificate about how to score a goal in the NHL against the 30-something best goaltenders in the world. I mean, I live in the South and can barely keep my skates underneath me the entire time I’m at the rink. But, I am going to say that Karlsson’s .05 goals-per-game for the season and Burns’ .04 is – you guessed it – the worst performances of their careers.

Last year, Karlsson scored 17 of the Sens’ 212 regular season goals. That may only be eight percent of the total, but Ottawa earned a 12-3-3 record when he personally put a goal on the scoreboard, including a perfect 2-0-0 record in the postseason. Similarly, Burns’ career-high 29 goals earned the Sharks an 18-7-1 record last season, though it might be of bigger note that Edmonton did not allow him to find the back of the net in their six-game first round matchup, the Sharks’ only playoff series of the 2017 postseason.

Now, don’t read this as all doom-and-gloom for these respective squads. All of these teams can get right back into the playoff discussion (yes, even Ottawa thanks to a weak Atlantic Division) or better cement their position in the tournament if their biggest players can simply rediscover their mojo.

Take for example Montréal, where as recently as two weeks ago it looked like the 13-13-3 Canadiens had never seen, much less used hockey sticks before. Then Price came back from his lower-body injury, and the Habs look better than ever.

Of course, things weren’t exactly peachy in Québec before Price took time off. In his 11 appearances before retreating to the press box, Price had managed only an .877 season save percentage and 3.77 GAA to earn a 3-7-1 record, forcing Habs fans and bloggers alike to wonder when exactly this injury occurred.

But since Price’s return on November 25, Price and the Habs have been almost unbeatable, as they’ve won five of their last six games with him in net. The goaltender himself has been extremely successful as well, as he’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.67 GAA in that time.

But the turnaround hasn’t been simply in the defensive end. Even the offense is gelling now that its true leader is back (Sorry LW Max Pacioretty, but this is Price’s team. You’re captain by technicality), as success breeds success and positive energy. Since Price’s return, Montréal’s offense has managed a whopping 4.5 goals-per-game, highlighted by Saturday’s 10-1 shellacking of the Red Wings. Even taking out that major outlier, the Habs’ 3.4 goals-per-game is much better than the 2.32 goals-per-game they’d managed before Price’s return. This surge has propelled the Canadiens from sixth place in the Atlantic Division into third – a playoff spot.

Since we’re on the topic of Montréal and its stars and I already brought up Pacioretty, we might as well discuss my concerns over this team. Pacioretty is struggling something fierce right now. He’s only managed 8-8-16 totals so far this season, and is on pace for his worst professional season since his first two years with the Habs.

Unfortunately for Canadiens fans, this scoring skid is not limited to just this season. I don’t need to remind them of the magic disappearing act he performed in the playoffs against the Rangers, managing only a lone assist. In fact, since March 14 of last campaign, he’s managed only 10-14-24 totals in games that count (aka everything but the preseason).

While I belittled the letter Pacioretty wears on his sweater, he is still one of the leaders on this team. For the Habs to sustain this recent success, Pacioretty is going to need to snap out of his slump – even if it means he has to become a play-maker before resuming a goalscorer role.

Another team that has had more struggles than it would like is the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions. While they’ve had trouble finding depth scoring and are now facing even bigger goaltending issues than they had before, the 15-11-3 Penguins have held onto a playoff position for most of the year.

Now, the operative word here is ‘most.’ There was a point in late November when the Penguins had fallen outside the playoff picture, and – as you might guess from the other examples – I would pin a lot of the club’s struggles on Crosby.

It is very hard to point at a player that is contributing a point-per-game on the season and say he is not doing enough for his team. After all, isn’t this the same team that supposedly embodies the speed-based future of the sport while also trotting out RW Ryan Reaves onto the ice every game? Why can’t his lousy 1-2-3 totals be the problem?

And yet, it’s hard to ignore that Pittsburgh’s slump aligned almost perfectly with Crosby’s goal-scoring slump. Between October 21 and November 22, Crosby managed only 1-6-7 totals in 15 games, which led the Penguins to earning only a 6-7-2 record in that time.

You might say that 6-7-2 isn’t a terrible run while one of the league’s top players is on the schneid, and I’d agree if that team wasn’t in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. The Penguins also have the luxury of employing RW Phil Kessel and F Evgeni Malkin, who were able to keep the team mostly afloat with their combined 10-18-28 effort.

If that stat does nothing other than stress the importance of Crosby to his team, I don’t know what does. The fact that the Penguins were losing, or at least treading water, while two players created nearly 30 goals in 15 games is unbelievable.

Anyways, Crosby has rediscovered his scoring ways since then, and the Pens are all the better for it. Starting with November 24, the captain has earned 6-6-12 totals that are closer to what fans expect from him. As such, the Penguins have found their way back into the win column, earning a 4-2-0 record in spite of G Matthew Murray missing Pittsburgh’s last three games with a lower-body injury.

Of course, the Penguins are doing a great job of poking a hole in my argument by falling from third in the division back into the second wild card spot while Murray is healing, but I’m still going to hold firm that G Tristan Jarry has earned a 3-1-0 record filling in not because of his solid .926 season save percentage (though that doesn’t hurt), but because Crosby has scored a goal in every game but – you guessed it – Jarry’s one regulation loss.

Confidence – which I am led to believe is the word people are actually looking for when they discuss momentum in sports (I mean, “momentum” is technically mass x velocity, so the momentum of a sports team cannot change without either a plane or a player transaction) – is like hitting in baseball: it’s a contagious thing.

Star players are not star players simply because they can score or stop goals no one else can. Stars are stars because they can make those plays and make the athletes associated with them feel like they too can contribute to the ultimate goal and find wins and success.

Stars are leaders.

And that’s why stars have to perform their best. That’s why they have to have the best numbers on their team. It’s not to belittle the third and fourth liners, but it’s their success that should drive a team to achieve more.

Success breeds success.

In that same train of thought, leaders can’t create success from the rest of their team while they themselves are struggling to find their groove. Stars are stars because they find that motivation to excel within themselves, and then use that flame to light the others’ torches.

You might have noticed the thread that connects all of the players called out in this column: Toews, Karlsson, Burns, Pacioretty and Crosby are all captains. These players have been selected by their coaches and peers based not only on their undoubted skills, but also on their work-ethic and leadership abilities. They were honored with that distinction, so it is time for them to step up and serve the letter and crest on the front of their sweaters and get/keep their squads on track.

These teams are capable of winning; it just takes a little input from a star.

December 4 – Day 61 – They’re currently in line for the postseason, but…

For the second day in a row, the NHL has scheduled only four games in a row. While a limited schedule makes it easier to keep an eye on everything, it does make it a slow night for our fantasy teams, doesn’t it?

What’s really nice about tonight’s slate is that all four games have a different starting time, which should hopefully ensure that there’s at least one contest being actively played from 7 p.m. – when San Jose makes its yearly visit to Washington (NHLN) – until Philadelphia at Calgary, which drops the puck at 9 p.m., wraps up around midnight. Starting between those games are the New York Islanders at Florida at 7:30 p.m., followed by Boston at Nashville (SN/TVAS) half an hour later. All times Eastern.

The only game I had circled on my calendar since the start of the season is taking place in the Saddledome, as G Brian Elliott is making his return to Calgary – his home for the 2016-’17 season – but I can’t say that matchup gets me all that excited. Instead, I think we need to wander towards The Capital of the Free World.

 

Though both these clubs currently occupy playoff positions, I wouldn’t go so far as to assume they are two of the top 16 teams in the NHL.

I find that especially apparent with tonight’s visitors, the 14-9-2 Sharks. Even though they’re in third place in the Pacific Division, they sport an offense that manages a third-worst 2.56 goals-per-game, putting them in the same conversation as Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Philadelphia in terms of offensive inefficiency – all teams currently sitting on the outside looking in at the tournament for the Stanley Cup if it started today.

Of course, having a winning record with an offense as bad as San Jose’s makes the defense look really, really good. In fact, it’s because the Sharks allow only 2.24 goals against-per-game (second in the NHL) that this team is able to thrive.

A major player in that effort is 10-6-1 G Martin Jones, who has managed a solid .926 season save percentage for a 2.23 GAA to rank sixth and fourth, respectively, in those statistics among the 34 goaltenders with at least 10 starts to their names.

But it’s not simply Jones. The Sharks’ physical defense has also been among the league’s strongest, allowing only 29.7 shots against-per-game to rank second-best in the NHL. Stand-out skaters include D Justin Braun (2.2 blocks-per-game), F Logan Couture (team-leading 27 takeaways) and D Brenden Dillon (2.8 hits-per-game), but it’s the entire team’s commitment to excellence in their own zone that really makes this San Jose team a tough out.

Meanwhile, the best word to explain the 15-11-1 Capitals is “average” (we’ll be generous and not tack on any adverbs). Gone are the days of dominating both ends of the ice, as Washington manages the (t)13th-fewest goals (2.89 per game) while allowing the 12th-most against (3.07 per game).

If anyone is going to take the blame for Washington’s struggles, it’s not going to be its stars. W Alex Ovechkin has been stellar this season with his league leading 19 goals (ok, he’s tied for the with Tampa’s RW Nikita Kucherov), while F Evgeny Kuznetsov has been equally stellar on the second line with his 9-20-29 totals.

14-6-0 G Braden Holtby has also been solid, posting a .919 save percentage for a 2.63 GAA to rank (t)12th and 11th, respectively, among the group of 34 netminders mentioned when we discussed Jones.

Instead, what seems to be holding the club back is simply the absence of yesteryear’s stars, specifically those on the blueline. With the exception of D John Carlson and his stellar 2-18-20 totals, there are no defensemen contributing on the offensive end anymore.

Though D Kevin Shattenkirk has moved on to the Big Apple, I think the major reason for this decline is the departure of D Karl Alzner to Montréal. No, Alzner was never a major offensive threat: he managed only 19-98-117 totals in his nine seasons with the Caps (.2 points per game, 13 per campaign). But it’s the fact that Alzner can dominate the defensive zone almost single-handedly that allowed the offense – and his defensive partner – the freedom and versatility to take chances when they had the puck on offense.

Should the Capitals desire to hold on to their playoff spot, I bet they’ll find a way to bring in another solid defenseman of Alzner’s mold. Until then, the Caps are a living example of what can happen when you overpay too many players.

Apparently below average is enough to get by in the Eastern Conference right now, because Washington currently occupies seventh place in the conference and the second wild card position. That being said, I think Washington’s offense has enough in it to get past the Sharks’ vaunted defense and earn two points tonight.


The Dallas Stars didn’t skip a beat playing in back-to-back DtFR Game of the Days, as they beat the Colorado Avalanche 7-2 at the Pepsi Center.

Though it took him a moment to get going, the first period ended up being dominated by First Star of the Game F Tyler Seguin, who buried an unassisted backhanded shot with 5:16 remaining in the frame, followed 4:26 later (RW Alexander Radulov and Third Star D John Klingberg) by a tip-in to set the score at 2-0 going into the first intermission.

In my preview for this game, I commented on RW Mikko Rantanen scoring fewer goals since making the trip to Stockholm, Sweden. He apparently read the column (thanks for reading, Mikko), as he scored a wrist shot (F Nathan MacKinnon) 39 seconds into the second period to pull Colorado back within a goal.

C Jason Spezza (C Devin Shore and Klingberg) returned the two-goal advantage to the Stars 6:09 later with what proved to be the game-winning tally. For a contest clincher, it was far from an incredible marker, but more a reward for good work in the defensive zone. D Erik Johnson and Shore battled along the boards for a solid five seconds before the center was able to move the puck back to Klingberg in the left corner. When the defenseman returned the pass, Shore was off to the races, screaming up the boards before sliding a centering pass to Spezza, who redirected a the puck through G Jonathan Bernier‘s five-hole.

Another player I brought up in my preview was D Greg Pateryn, though it was for his efforts on the other end of the ice. This evening, he was rewarded for his hard work with his first goal of the season (Radulov and LW Jamie Benn), a slap shot scored at the 7:52 mark of the second period to set the score at 4-1. W Blake Comeau (W Matthew Nieto and F Carl Soderberg) was able to net a wrister with 7:15 remaining in the frame, but it proved to be the Avalanche’s final goal of the night.

Second Star RW Brett Ritchie (LW Curtis McKenzie), Shore and Ritchie (C Radek Faksa and D Esa Lindell) again for a second time provided the Stars’ three insurance goals in the final frame to set the 7-2 final score.

G Kari Lehtonen earned the victory after saving 25-of-27 shots faced (.926 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved five-of-nine (.556). Bernier was replaced by G Semyon Varlamov following Pateryn’s goal, who saved 16-of-18 (.889) for no decision.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series seem to be finding their groove again, as they’ve earned points in three-consecutive games. That being said, they’ll need quite a few more wins to catch up with the 34-21-6 hosts, who lead the series by 14 points.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 7

Player of the Week: William Karlsson

The kid the Jackets bribed Vegas to take in the expansion draft is making Jarmo Kekalainen and John Davidson sweat, and CBJ fans like myself weep.

Karlsson’s 13 goals in 22 games this season already far surpass his previous best effort of 9 in 81 games with Columbus 2 years ago, and he is only 3 points off of a career high of 25 last year with the Jackets. Those eye-catching stats are due in large part to his current scorching stretch of 5 consecutive multi-point games (and 6 multi-point games in his last 7 contests), as the young Swede has really found his offensive game in an increased role with the expansion Golden Knights.

This week’s 3-game stretch saw ‘Wild Bill’ tally 4 goals and 6 points, including just his 2nd power play goal of the year (Karlsson has as many shorthanded tallies as he does PP markers), and he’s a major reason that Vegas is riding a 5-game winning streak and have found themselves suddenly propelled to 4th place in the entire league.

Team of the Week: New York Islanders

…what? Oh, right, sorry, I was still watching that John Tavares setup on Josh Bailey‘s OT goal.

A pair of exciting games capped with OT wins against the Flyers and a 2-1 victory over the Senators took the suddenly-streaking Islanders to a 3-0-0 week and 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. The Isles are starting to show signs of the balanced attack I hinted at in the season preview I wrote a few months ago, with 14 different players tallying at least 1 point this week, led by Josh Bailey’s 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists). Bailey’s lone goal was an overtime game-winner, which was made possible by John Tavares absolutely ruining Sean Couturier‘s reputation as a defensive stud with the prettiest bit of 1-on-1 puck protection you’re likely to see by anyone not named Pavel Datsyuk.

Questions loom over the legitimacy of the Isles as contenders, but for now they’re as hot as their arena is terrible.

Game of the Week: Nashville Predators 3 @ Carolina Hurricanes 4 (SO), Sunday November 26, 2017

This week had a helluva lot of potential choices for this award, but I’m giving the nod to Preds/Canes on the basis that it’s not a traditional matchup that you’d expect to see produce a fantastic game, but that’s exactly what it did.

Two teams that don’t see much of each other certainly didn’t play like strange bedfellows, with a combined 71 hits. Tack on 71 shots for good measure, and you’ve got all the makings of a spectacular Sunday matinee.

Josh Jooris would kick things off just 3:37 into the 1st period, receiving a stretch pass from Marcus Kruger and using his speed to create just enough separation from Mattias Ekholm (boo for my fantasy team) to sneak a backhander through the legs of Juuse Saros that would just squeak across the goal line to give the Canes the early lead. Both netminders were extremely solid for the bulk of the first (and the entire game for that matter), but with just over 4 minutes remaining Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would find Viktor Arvidsson with a stretch pass of his own, and Arvy would go to work from there. Gliding across the blueline on the left wing side, Arvidsson gave Noah Hanifin the old howdoyado with a gorgeous toe-drag, before collecting the puck on his forehand and burying a quick wrister bar-down over the glove of Scott Darling to knot the game at 1.

The first half of the 2nd period saw a goaltending duel, before finally just past the 10 minute mark Ekholm (yay for my fantasy team) would blast home a power play goal to give the Preds their first lead of the game. But just 1:04 later Victor Rask would collect a bouncing puck at the side of the Nashville net and bury the equalizer.

The two netminders again duked it out until Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams would collect the rebound of Mr. Jersey Number 7 Derek Ryan and give the Canes the lead once again at 5:49 of the 3rd period on a power play goal. Then just over 5 minutes later it would be Craig Smith once again tying the game, capitalizing on a netmouth scramble after a hectic odd-man rush and tallying the goal that would eventually send the game to extra time.

A relatively tame 3-on-3 period was highlighted by a heroic penalty kill shot block by Joakim Nordstrom on P.K. Subban, but the game was eventually settled in the shootout by a pair of Finns, as Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen would both score on countryman Saros to send the Raleigh crowd home happy.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Hockey Fights Cancer month continues to destroy everyone’s ability to be negative, as this week we saw Brian Boyle score the night the Devils had their HFC promotional game, as well as Alex Ovechkin tripling the wish of cancer survivor and new best friend Alex Luey, who asked for a goal from his buddy and was rewarded with 3.

Carey Price returned to the Montreal lineup, and promptly reminded the Sabres that they’re still worse than the Habs, with a 36-save blanking in a 3-0 win. Oh, and in case you thought you were done reading this article through tear-blurried eyes, he did so on a night where he was joined for the anthems by 11-year-old Charlotte Richard, a cancer patient who was attending her first ever Canadiens game and meeting her hero in the process. Break the tissues back out, no shame in it.

In a complete 180 from heartwarming stories like those, the Anaheim Ducks posted (then promptly deleted and apologized for) a video of a naked Ryan Kesler strolling through their offices, apparently celebrating the NHL’s 100th birthday in his birthday suit. I’m not sure who’s idea this one was, but I wouldn’t be shocked to find out they were no longer gainfully employed.

Apparently Andy Andreoff has never been on the internet, because he seemed to think challenging Kevin Bieksa to a fight was a solid strategy. Much like Radko Gudas, Andreoff waded in to the deep end without his water wings, and found himself on the receiving end of Bieksa’s 2nd superman punch KO of the season. Andy tried to pop right back to his feet and look tough, but we all saw those Bambi legs, bud. You’re not fooling us.

November 1 – Day 29 – Brian Boyle’s debut?

Halloween is great, but it’s the first couple of weeks in November that are truly great because you get to eat your candy. What better way to watch a hockey game?

Speaking of which, you’ll have a few more contests to choose from while experiencing your sugar high than your typical Wednesday. The action starts at 8 p.m. when Philadelphia visits Chicago (NBCSN), followed half an hour later by Pittsburgh at Edmonton (SN1/TVAS). The real meat of tonight’s schedule occurs on the West Coast, as two matchups (New Jersey at Vancouver [SN360] and Toronto at Anaheim) are slated for 10 p.m., 30 minutes before tonight’s nightcap: Nashville at San Jose (NBCSN).

The Predators-Sharks game should be nothing short of excellent considering they’re tied for eighth place in the Western Conference, but we just featured San Jose Monday. With that in mind and the fact that F Brian Boyle could make his season debut tonight, let’s take a look at the Devils’ yearly trip to British Columbia.

 

These two clubs have been some of the best stories to start the season. Though I think it’s still too early to be adjusting playoff predictions for either of them, the fact that they are both among the top four in their respective conferences a month into their campaigns is certainly an admirable feat.

If either of these teams are to hold on to their position in the standings, I’d put my money on the 8-2-0 Devils that are currently leading the Metropolitan Division.

Few were better in the month of October with the puck on their sticks, as Jersey has laid claim to the third-best scoring offense in the league through 28 days of action. Led by the incomparable F Taylor Hall and his 3-10-13 totals in his second season with the team, New Jersey has scored an impressive 3.8 goals-per-game.

Though Hall is certainly deserving of any and all praise he receives, one of my favorite players for New Jersey is rookie D Will Butcher. Not only are his 11 assists most on the team (not to mention the second-highest point-total), but he’s also been heavily involved in a Devils power play that has already scored 11 man-advantage goals in 10 games played for a 27.5 percent conversion rate that is fifth-best in the NHL.

Maybe you didn’t hear me: Fifth-best in the league. We’re talking better than the high-flying Maple Leafs, better than W Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, and even better than the Sabres who ended last season with the top special teams in the NHL.

Anyways, back to Butcher. Seven of his 11 assists have been struck while the Devils have a man-advantage, which makes him the strongest contributor to Jersey’s power play by a mile (rookie W Jesper Bratt and Hall tie for second with five power play points).

What has made New Jersey’s man-advantage so spectacular is Butcher has had more than his fair share of options to pass to. Playing on the Devils’ top power play unit, he’s been able to pass to Bratt, Hall or C Adam Henrique – all of whom have scored two goals on the man-advantage. Tack on W Drew Stafford‘s two power play goals from the second unit, and you have a squad that G Jacob Markstrom can’t wait to see leave Rogers Arena.

Speaking of Markstrom, Vancouver has found most of its wins this season by playing some stellar defensive hockey. Having allowed only 2.36 goals-per-game through 11 showings, the Canucks are the third-best defense in the NHL.

It’s pretty tough to allow goals when not too many shots are reaching your goaltender. That’s the exact approach being taken by Head Coach Travis Green. Even though he was a center during his playing days with the Islanders (what does he know about defense?), his team has allowed only 29 shots against-per-game, the third-fewest in the league.

The Canucks have been so good defensively, it’s hard to decide where to start. We could discuss D Ben Hutton‘s 11 takeaways in as many games played, or we could talk about RW Derek Dorsett‘s more physical approach to forcing a change in possession, as he leads the team with 2.3 hits-per-game. And even if those methods don’t work, D Michael Del Zotto has been there to block loads of shots, averaging 2.5 per game.

Regardless of how they’re doing it, Markstrom is not complaining one bit that his defense is keeping lots of pucks out of his crease. And much to the delight of Vancouverites, Markstrom has been no slouch in his own right when the occasional shot comes his way. So far this season, he’s managed a solid .911 save percentage and 2.4 GAA, both of which rank inside the top-15 among goaltenders with at least five starts.

It’s a game of strength-on-strength, which usually leads me to predicting how things will go on the opposite end of the ice to help me make my pick. Go figure that Vancouver’s offense and New Jersey’s defense both rank 11th-worst in goals for or against.

Therefore, I’m leaning towards the Canucks winning this game and snapping the Devils’ two-game winning streak on the simple basis of being the home team. This should be a very competitive and exciting game that could require more than 60 minutes to determine a winner.


In what proved to be a very defensive game, the Winnipeg Jets were able to beat the Minnesota 2-1 at the Xcel Energy Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Only one goal was struck in the first two periods, and it belonged to LW Kyle Connor (C Mark Scheifele and D Tyler Myers) 7:10 into the first period. His wrist shot remained alone on the scoreboard for the next 33:33 of play, much to the delight of the Jets.

In the time between goals, First Star of the Game G Connor Hellebuyck played like an absolute stud. He faced a total of 17 shots in the first period and second period, and saved them all. For the entire evening, he saved 28-of-29 shots faced for an impressive .966 save percentage.

Only 43 seconds after returning from the second intermission, Second Star W Nikolaj Ehlers decided that it was time Winnipeg had an insurance goal. Ehlers came in possession of the puck after a terrible decision by D Matt Dumba to perform a no-look backwards pass in his own defensive zone. Ehlers took advantage of the unattended puck, maneuvered around F Mikael Granlund and buried a backhanded shot after deking G Alex Stalock.

Though Third Star F Luke Kunin (W Nino Niederreiter and C Eric Staal) was able to pull the Wild back within a goal at the 5:36 mark of the third period, Minnesota could not find a second goal in the remaining time to force overtime.

In the home loss, Stalock saved only 17-of-19 shots faced for an. 895 save percentage.

Speaking of home losses, that’s the first in the past three days in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Home teams now have a 16-9-4 record that is only eight points better than the visitors’.