Tag Archives: Pens

November 11 – Day 39 – Stanley Cup rematch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Pittsburgh happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

October 29 – Day 26 – Welcome to the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 2

Player of the Week: Jaden Schwartz

Calm down, Lightning fans, you’ll get your turn.

I could have easily chosen either of the dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in Tampa, who have been going Harlem Globetrotters on every team they’ve come into contact with, but I think Schwartz deserves some props. The diminutive Blues winger has always been a very good under-the-radar guy, usually playing 2nd fiddle to his linemate Vladimir Tarasenko. But Schwartz made the headlines this week, with a hat trick against the Blackhawks on Wednesday, followed up the next night with another goal against Colorado, and finished off with an assist against Vegas Saturday night (more on that game later). All in all, a 4-goal, 5-point week in 3 games is more than enough to earn Schwartz this completely meaningless nomination.

Team of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning

Alright, we good, Bolts fans? We square? Cool.

The Lightning have looked borderline immortal so far this season, with a 7-1-1 record bolstered by this week’s 3-0-1 stretch. But it’s not just that near-flawless week putting them here, it’s how they did it. Tampa’s 3 victories came by a combined score of 12-3 (granted, a big part of that percentage was the 7-1 sha-lacking they put on Pittsburgh), and if not for a sweet little backhand move by Kyle Palmieri in the 3rd round of the shootout in New Jersey (oh, more on that game later, too), the Bolts could have walked away with a perfect week.

Game(s) of the Week: Tampa Bay Lightning 4 @ New Jersey Devils 5 (SO), Tuesday October 17th & St. Louis Blues 2 @ Vegas Golden Knights 3 (OT), Saturday October 21st

It simply wasn’t possible to leave either of these games out.

First up, we had the current Team of the Week squaring off with the former Team of the Week, in a battle of two of the league’s hottest clubs. What we got was 72 total shots on goal, 35 hits, 9 power plays (resulting in 3 goals), and a whole mess of fun. The game started with Cory Schneider making a terrific paddle-down save on Brayden Point just moments into the action, and just a few minutes later Drew Stafford let a seemingly harmless wrister go from the right wing boards that eluded a rusty Peter Budaj (his first game action since the preseason) and gave the Devils the 1-0 lead. Budaj would settle down a bit in the next few minutes making a few quality stops, eventually leading to his team tying the game, and taking the lead just minutes later, on the strength of goals from Vladislav Namestnikov and Ondrej Palat. It would be short-lived, though, as just 4 minutes later a top shelf power play rocket from Palmieri would even the score, and Brian Gibbons would follow suit in the final minute of the period to send New Jersey to the room with the lead.

Things settled down on the scoreboard for most of the 2nd period, although both goaltenders were still busy. Finally with just under 6 minutes to play Kucherov would fire a rocket directly from Russia with love and even the score, before linemate Stamkos would give the Lightning the 4-3 lead in the closing minutes of the 2nd. Tampa did their best to lock the game down the rest of the way, but finally with just over 4 minutes remaining Stafford would bury his own rebound to cap off a gorgeous passing play, score his 2nd of the night, and send it to overtime. A relatively tame 3-on-3 period would send it to the shootout, where Palmieri’s nifty mitts would deposit the only biscuit of the frame and send the Jersey faithful home happy.

Now onto a Saturday night in Vegas, where the upstart Golden Knights would look to make history by being the first franchise to ever start its inaugural season with 6 wins in 7 games.

Things weren’t looking great for the Golden Knights early on, as the Blues peppered young Malcolm Subban mercilessly in the opening frame, St. Louis eventually holding an 18-4 shot advantage when the period came to a close. But Subban managed to limit the damage to only a lone Magnus Paajarvi tally and get his team into the dressing room only down 1-0. Vegas would feed off of the strong play of their goaltender, and reward him in the 2nd period with power play tallies from both Reilly Smith and Colin Miller, and they’d take a 2-1 lead into the 3rd period.

Unfortunately for Vegas, just past the midway point of the 3rd period Subban would appear to strain his groin kicking out his right pad for a save, and would have to be helped from the ice, leaving the task of surviving the continued St. Louis onslaught to another youngster, former Blue Jackets prospect Oscar Dansk. Unfortunately for the young Swede, the first shot he faced would be an Alex Pietrangelo one-time bomb from the high slot with just over 5 minutes to play, drawing the game even once again on a shot that no goaltender could be expected to do anything about. The Blues would do everything in their power to get the winning goal past Dansk in the closing minutes, including a Schwartz tip that got behind the Vegas netminder but went wide of the net with just 8 seconds on the clock, but the youngster held the fort and took the game to extra time.

Overtime brought another golden opportunity for Schwartz, who found himself with all alone in the slot with a clear lane to shoot, only to be bested by the right leg of Dansk. Then Brendan Leipsic would jump on a turnover to break in all alone, but Jake Allen met his backhand with a flash of the leather to keep the game going. But just over a minute later, and with less than 30 seconds left, Smith would jump on a loose puck, glide into the St. Louis zone, and float a beautiful pass to a streaking William ‘Wild Bill’ Karlsson who ripped a one-timer over the two-pad stack of Allen to send the building into bedlam and the Golden Knights into the history books.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Despite their apparent ability to win with anyone wearing goalie pads in net (I could see a Twitter campaign for this being a hit), Vegas’ injury situation is no laughing matter. Marc-Andre Fleury is still dealing with the effects of a concussion (which as we know really doesn’t have a set recovery time), and Subban is out for at least a month. The goaltending duties now fall on Dansk and Maxime Lagace for the foreseeable future. If there’s any consolation to be found in this for the Golden Knights, it’s that they’ve had tremendous success with injury replacements so far. Subban played very well in Fleury’s absence, and Alex Tuch (who was called up to replace the injured Jon Marchessault) has 2 goals and 3 points in his first 3 games with the club.

Roman Polak has signed a 1 year deal with the Maple Leafs, in what was almost certainly just a plot to further shorten the useful lifespan of Steve Dangle’s heart.

Potential big-money bet: Does Montreal fire Claude Julien and replace him with Michel Therrien?

Side bet: Does Therrien walk into that press conference to Eric Bischoff’s “I’m Back” entrance music?

Side-side bet: Over/under on amount of sticks Carey Price destroys before Montreal’s next victory.

If you haven’t seen/heard/read any of Ed Olczyk‘s comments from his return to broadcasting (both on Wednesday in St. Louis for the NBCSN broadcast or Thursday in Chicago to call the Hawks/Oilers game) while in between chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer, please do yourself a favor and go find them. Truly inspiring stuff from one of the best in the business, and the standing ovations he received at both games are enough to give anyone chills.

On a somewhat related topic, Brian Boyle also made his return to action, this time on ice in a full-contact practice on Sunday. Boyle has been battling a form of cancer that attacks bone marrow, but cleared the final ‘hurdle’ in his treatment regimen to be able to get back on the ice with his teammates. Once he and his coaches feel he is fully into game shape, we should see the big man out of Boston College going back to work.

October 11 – Day Eight – Second round preview

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colby’s Corner Top five Players Poised to Breakout

A new season starts today, so it’s time for me to jump in and tell you five players to keep an eye out for as they could have breakout seasons. I didn’t limit myself to just rookies; I was also looking for players who could fill some big shoes or become a standout on their team.

First up,

  1. Oliver Bjorkstrand

This one may surprise a few, but after a strong preseason performance, Bjorkstrand could really step up this season and have a big role with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a highly rated prospect, I believe Jacket fans have been waiting for him to show up in a big way.

Bjorkstrand only has 38 games played over the past two seasons, recording 10 goals and 11 assists in that time. I remember watching him play in World Juniors a few years ago and he had the ability to take over a game and control his team’s offensive flow. If he can provide that for the Jackets, this would give them another weapon with a nice scoring touch. Bjorkstrand could be a name that you hear more of this season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 10-15 goals with another 10-20 assists.

Next up,

  1. Matthew Tkachuk

I have been a huge fan of Tkachuk for a long time – if you have listened to podcasts you know this. Tkachuk had a solid rookie season, recording 13 goals and 35 assists. If that’s what you get from a 6th Overall pick in his first year, you are not going to complain if you are the Calgary Flames. Tkachuk’s physical game and willingness to get into dirty areas allowed him to find some extra points this past season.

Last season in four playoff games, Tkachuk was held pointless and I think that left a bitter taste in his mouth. If he used that as a motivator in his offseason, than he should come back as an even better player. Not to mention the Flames signed the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal. Jagr can show Tkachuk how to use his big body to his advantage and give him other tips to have a great season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 20-25 goals with another 30-40 assists.

Next up,

  1. Alexander DeBrincat

Rookie Alert: Alex DeBrincat makes my list as a player that could be the next Artemi Panarin in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. DeBrincat has been one of the best junior players over the past few seasons trying to crack the Hawks roster, and has finally done that this season. Yes, he is a rookie – and a small one at that – but he has proven he knows were the net is. DeBrincat has scored over 100 points in three-straight OHL seasons, including his final year with the Erie Otters when he finished with 65 goals and 62 assists for a 127 points.

The argument that it won’t convert over is nonsense as junior players like Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk are finding goals in this league. Another reason he is so high on my list is the opportunity he could have to play with some of the best players in the league in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. If he can learn from either of them, this kid could become a star in no time.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 20-25 goals with another 35-45 assists.

Next up,

  1. Jake Guentzel

Now you can say Jake Guentzel is already a star from his Stanley Cup-winning performance last season. I agree, but I think he can play even better than he was in the playoffs. Guentzel had 13 goals and 8 assists in 25 playoff games last spring. It was a performance so strong that he deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy – only have it ripped from him by Sidney Crosby. We haven’t seen Guentzel in playoff form for a whole season, but this is that season.

Thinking about Guentzel, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin all performing in top form has me believing this team could be looking at a three-peat without question, as they are probably the favorite in the East again. Guentzel’s scoring touch and being on the same page and line as Crosby could see his numbers sky rocket and he could be an even bigger star in Pittsburgh.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 30-35 goals with another 40-50 assists.

Finally,

  1. Jack Eichel

Jack Eichel will look to keep pace with fellow 2015 first-rounder Connor McDavid‘s scoring this year after missing the start of last season with a high ankle sprain. In addition to ruining Jack’s chance to shine for all 82 games, his injury was also a major contributor to the Buffalo Sabres’ slow start that potentially cost them their first postseason appearance since 2011. And the fact that Eichel had to watch his buddies Auston Matthews and McDavid in the playoffs last season was surely his motivator this offseason. Just watching a few preseason games, Jack looks faster and smoother this than he did last year.

Eichel was very open about how he missed out on  a $1 million bonus for his points-per-game percentage last season. Jack had 57 points in 61 games played, but he hovered around one point-per-game for most of the season before finishing the season in a slump to fall short of his goal. After signing an 8-year, $10 million AAV Tuesday and with the potential to assume captaincy of this Sabres team and lead them to the playoffs, I bet Eichel will earn every cent of his bonus this season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 30-35 goals with another 40-50 assists.

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

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

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason Grade: D

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

NHL Schedule Analysis

Welcome to Down the Frozen River’s first-ever attempt at offering some schedule analysis of the upcoming NHL season.

I know what you’re thinking: these types of columns are usually associated with the NFL and not the NHL – or any other league, for that matter, where all teams play at least once per season. But when and where different clubs appear on the  schedule can still play a big role in a team’s success. An important home stand or an ill-timed extended road trip can determine if a club is a buyer or seller at the trade deadline, make or break a squad’s chances for playoff qualification in March or affect seeding in April.

For starters, I’d like to explain how I approach the season. Maybe it’s my varying degrees of affection for the NFL (the only other Big Four league in the United States that uses bye weeks), but I view a campaign in thirds.

Thirds?

Yes, thirds. They may not be perfect thirds, but each section takes on its own characteristics. Take a look at how the NFL arranges its 16-game, 17-week season. For example, during the 2017 season, the NFL’s byes will begin in Week 5 and extend to Week 11, effectively cutting the season into approximate thirds: (1) Weeks 1-4 featuring no byes, (2) Weeks 5-11 and (3) Weeks 12-17 (Week 12 corresponds with American Thanksgiving and the following Sunday/Monday, just to put things in perspective).

Now lets take that approach to the 2017-’18 NHL season, a campaign featuring 82 games for each of its 31 clubs. With the regular season beginning October 4, most teams will play approximately 21 games before American Thanksgiving, another 41 before the trade deadline and 20 to close out the season.

Pretty close to thirds, right? Well, maybe it’s fourths but the middle two are combined… Whatever. My degree isn’t in math.

But regardless of what they are, what do they mean?

Well, if you buy into the stat that teams in playoff position by American Thanksgiving qualify for the postseason over 75 percent of the time, that proves how important a quick start can be. If nothing else, it is certainly an early barometer of which teams are good and which should already be making plans for the 2018-’19 campaign.

Speaking of plans, that leads us to the second part of the season. It involves Christmas Break, the Winter Classic, bye weeks (more on those in a minute) and, of course, the All-Star Weekend in Tampa. Those are all fun and exciting, but most important are the transactions between clubs at this time, as contenders try to shore up chinks in their armor and the lesser clubs (*cough* Colorado *cough*) prepare for the future. This almost ho-hum, business-as-usual state of play is status quo for most of the season, which makes sense why this section is double the games of the other two phases of the year.

Then comes the final push. With the exception of the playoffs, this is some of the most exciting hockey of the season – night in, night out. Almost every game matters not only for playoff qualification and seeding, but also for fully integrating those deadline acquisitions before April 7,  the final day of the regular season, comes to a close.

Having more or less games in comparison to the rest of the league in any of the three sections can have its positives and negatives, but they’re impossible to predict given the unpredictability of hot or cold streaks, injuries and even the weather issues the league has had to deal with the past few years.

Another thing to keep in mind is the still relatively new change to the schedule: the addition of bye weeks. Making their debut only a season ago, the league has done a little tweaking to when each teams’ breaks occur on the calendar.

Last year, the first bye weeks began as early as New Year’s Day when the Islanders and Penguins began their five- and seven-day breaks, respectively, but Anaheim – the last club to take its 2017 hiatus – did not complete its vacation until early March.

What resulted was just over two months of action where fans had to keep track of which clubs had already taken their breaks and which hadn’t and trying to calculate how that affected the standings.

Sound like too much effort? Don’t worry, the league thought so too. This year, all bye weeks will take place in the span of two weeks in January, just before the All-Star Break.

I’m intrigued by this decision. With last year’s setup, the volume of games in a given week did not seem to change enough to be noticeable – which is good. Everybody wants to watch games all the time. But as I mentioned before, 2017’s situation required media, fans and teams to stay on top of which sides had or had not taken their week off.

Although condensing the bye week-schedule resolves that problem, it may also create a lull in the season only two weeks after Christmas Break and a week before the All-Star Break by having only 15 teams active at a time, potentially making January an overall anemic month. We’ll have to wait and see if that is the case, but if my prediction proves correct the NHL might have to find a happy medium between the two formats.

Perhaps the original reason the league condensed the bye week schedule was to account for the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, but that is no longer the case as the NHL has elected not to release its players to their national federations for the February 10-25 tournament. Though some players have said they intend to participate in the tournament regardless of the NHL’s decision to abstain (whether they actually do or not remains to be seen), everyone’s favorite international tournament will certainly have a different flair – especially involving the rosters of usual favorites: Canada and the USA.

The last final major date on the calendar is always the previously hinted at trade deadline. This year, the deadline is scheduled for February 26 at the usual 3 p.m. Eastern time. Like most Mondays, the schedule is fairly light that evening with only five contests taking place (Washington at Columbus, Philadelphia at Montréal, Toronto at Tampa Bay, Vancouver at Colorado and  Vegas at Los Angeles).

After last year’s Cody McLeod episode that featured him fighting and scoring against the Avalanche only a day after being being traded from that very team (he didn’t even leave Denver, instead meeting up with the Predators when they arrived in town), I’m looking forward to even more excitement at this deadline.

For those that enjoy the days where every team is in action, I regret to inform you that the addition of Vegas has made that impossible. Instead, you’ll have to settle for dates that feature 15 contests and leave one club inactive.

Five such days exist this season: October 7 (first Saturday of the season), November 22 (day before American Thanksgiving), December 23 (day before Christmas Eve), January 25 (day before the All-Star Break) and April 7. On those dates, don’t expect to catch Boston, St. Louis, Calgary, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh – respectively – as they’ll be just as glued to their televisions as you will be, taking in all the day’s action.

ANAHEIM DUCKS – Campbell Bowl runner-up, 105 points

Don’t tell anybody, but the Ducks have won the Pacific Division for five straight seasons. The main reason? An impressive 29-8-4 record at the Pond last season. But don’t let that distract you from a blemish growing in the Ducks’ armor: the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead they’re only 17-15-9 outside Orange County. That road trip to end November just so happens to occur right after Edmonton finishes a five-game home stand, meaning Anaheim may be forced to hold serve within the Pacific Division in an uncomfortable position.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (November 7-19)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 25-December 5)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. New Jersey, at Calgary, at Winnipeg, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Colorado, vs. Minnesota, vs. Dallas and at Arizona

ARIZONA COYOTES – 28th, 70 points

Remember in high school when the football team’s weakest opponent always aligned with homecoming? Keep that in mind when you realize that the Coyotes get to help the Golden Knights open T-Mobile Arena. Also keep in mind Arizona was 12-24-5 away from home last year.

BYE WEEK: January 7-11 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 17 days (February 15-March 3)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in nine days (March 21-29)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Buffalo, at Carolina, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, at Vegas, at Los Angeles, vs. St. Louis, at Calgary, at Vancouver and vs. Anaheim

BOSTON BRUINS – eliminated in first round, 95 points

Usually, rivalry series are supposed to take place over the course of an entire season. Instead, the NHL has elected to schedule all four matchups of one of its premier rivalries in the span of seven weeks, including three meetings in eight days. The Bruins should be relatively happy though, as they’ll get their bye week to prepare for their first visit to the Bell Centre and the Canadiens will have games in Washington and Brooklyn the night before their January 20 and March 3 matchups, respectively, while the Bruins get the nights off.

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (February 17-25)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (February 27-March 10)

LAST 10 GAMES: at St. Louis, at Dallas, at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Florida, at Philadelphia, at Tampa Bay, at Florida and vs. Ottawa

BUFFALO SABRES – 26th, 78 points

Some teams simply struggle on the road. The Sabres were one of those squads last year, amassing only a 13-22-6 record away from Upstate New York. Though a four-game trip in early December doesn’t seem too taxing on the surface, Buffalo will be hard pressed to come back with more than two points as it’ll visit Pittsburgh (December 2), Colorado (December 5), Chicago (December 8) and St. Louis (December 10) before returning home to host Ottawa.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (December 2-10)

BYE WEEK: January 12-17 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (March 10-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Arizona, vs. Montréal, at NY Rangers, at Toronto, vs. Detroit, at Nashville, at Toronto, vs. Ottawa, at Tampa Bay and at Florida

CALGARY FLAMES – eliminated in first round, 94 points

If only one team from the Western Conference gives up its playoff spot this season, I’d bet the house on it being the Flames. Last year’s side had an unimpressive 24-17-0 home record, including a 4-7-0 start over the first two months at the Saddledome. In a cruel bit of irony, the Flames’ longest home stand begins the last weekend of October, so Glen Gulutzan will need to get his troops in order in a hurry to avoid another backwards-step season similar to 2015-16.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 27-November 13)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 15-25)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Anaheim, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, vs. Columbus, vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Winnipeg and vs. Vegas

CAROLINA HURRICANES – 21st, 87 points

In terms of off-season moves, last year’s Predators are this year’s Hurricanes. And, just like last year, everyone will be watching the Canes’ first few games to see if their new additions will be an immediate success. Carolina will certainly be put to the test in those contests, as their opening five matchups are against Minnesota (October 7), Columbus (October 10), Winnipeg (October 14), Edmonton (October 17) and Calgary (October 19). As long as Carolina can head to its sixth game in Dallas with at least five points on the table, I have no doubt the squad can come together and be a real threat in the Metropolitan Division.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (December 5-15)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 15 days (January 30-February 13)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Ottawa, vs. Ottawa, at New Jersey, at Washington, vs. NY Rangers, at Florida, at Philadelphia and vs. Tampa Bay

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – Central Division Champion, 109 points

The Blackhawks have not missed the playoffs since 2008, and I don’t expect that to change this year. That being said, they’ll be tested early and often this year, starting with their first eight games – all against 2017 postseason clubs. In particular, Chicago will have October 14 circled on its calendar, as it represents an opportunity for the Hawks to avenge getting swept by the Predators in April.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 14 days (December 21-January 3)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (January 10-24)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. St. Louis, vs. Colorado, vs. Vancouver, at NY Islanders, vs. San Jose, vs. Winnipeg, at Colorado, at St. Louis, vs. St. Louis and at Winnipeg

COLORADO AVALANCHE – 30th, 48 points

If only the schedule was the only thing holding the Avalanche back from finding success. Instead, their last five games represent a gimme two points for Chicago (March 30), Anaheim (April 1), Los Angeles (April 2), San Jose (April 5) and St. Louis (April 7) – all teams that will be finalizing either a qualification push or establishing their seeding.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (December 27-January 6)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (January 22-February 3)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Chicago, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Vegas, at Vegas, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Chicago, at Anaheim, at Los Angeles, at San Jose and vs. St. Louis

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – eliminated in first round, 108 points

After last year’s dominant performance at the midway point of the season, Columbus won’t be taking any by surprise this campaign – especially with Artemi Panarin, 2016’s Calder Memorial Trophy winner, on the squad. The Jackets face an interesting schedule that doesn’t feature an extended West Coast trip in exchange for any home stand of much worth – their longest stay in Ohio is a measly nine days early in the season with only four games played. But, should this squad keep last year’s positive energy rolling through the summer and cash in on their frequent flyer miles, they could be the most prepared of any for a lengthy postseason and all the travel associated with it.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in nine days (October 19-27)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Three games in five days – 2x (November 2-6; March 27-31)

BYE WEEK: January 13-17 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Boston, at NY Rangers, vs. Florida, vs. St. Louis, at Edmonton, at Calgary, at Vancouver, vs. Detroit, vs. Pittsburgh and at Nashville

DALLAS STARS – 24th, 79 points

A season ago, Dallas was a horrendous 12-24-5 away from the American Airlines Center. That’s what makes a potential late-season playoff push daunting, as the end of March has the Stars departing the Lone Star State for an Eastern road trip that also bizarrely includes a visit to Winnipeg in the middle. As if the travel wasn’t scary enough, all five of the Eastern opponents qualified for the playoffs last year, so Dallas would be very wise to take advantage of a fairly easy October schedule (includes Vegas, Detroit, Colorado twice, Arizona twice and Vancouver) to pad themselves some points in the standings ahead of time.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 16 days (December 29-January 13)

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (March 11- 20)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Winnipeg, at Washington, vs. Boston, vs. Vancouver, vs. Philadelphia, at Minnesota, vs. Minnesota, at San Jose, at Anaheim and at Los Angeles

DETROIT RED WINGS – 25th, 79 points

Without even acknowledging the Red Wings’ roster troubles, they’re going to be hard pressed to get back into the playoffs this year given their extended trip away from Little Caesars Arena (that’s still weird to type) at the trade deadline. Between February 25 and March 18, Hockeytown will come to life only once when the Wings host Vegas on March 8. That contest splits what could have been a 10-game, 22-day road trip against steep competition into perfect halves, just for the Wings to get back on a plane to Columbus for another road game the next day.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (November 11-22)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days – 2x (February 25-March 6; March 9-18)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, vs. Washington, at Toronto, at Montréal, vs. Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Ottawa, at Columbus, vs. Montréal and vs. NY Islanders

EDMONTON OILERS – eliminated in second round, 103 points

As if the Oilers weren’t already poised for greatness, their schedule is arranged in a way that they should be competing for the top seed in the Western Conference. Edmonton has three five-game home stands spread throughout its schedule, including one right after the Oil’s six-day bye week that also includes the All-Star Weekend. Add in the fact that their longest road trip is behind them by Thanksgiving and you find a team prepared for anything or anyone that makes the mistake of wandering into Rogers Place.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 17 days (January 20-February 5)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (November 18-26)

BYE WEEK: January 14-19 (six days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Carolina, at Ottawa, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Anaheim, vs. Columbus, at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Minnesota, vs. Vegas and vs. Vancouver

FLORIDA PANTHERS – 23rd, 81 points

Florida opens up its season with a home-and-home series against Governor’s Cup rival Tampa Bay before hosting St. Louis and visiting Pittsburgh. It’s a tough start to what many expect to be another disappointing season for the Panthers, especially giving their awful 19-19-3 record in Sunrise a season ago.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days – 2x (December 11-19; February 12-20)

BYE WEEK: January 13-18 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (February 22-March 4)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Columbus, vs. Arizona, at NY Islanders, at Toronto, at Ottawa, at Boston, vs. Carolina, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston and vs. Buffalo

LOS ANGELES KINGS – 22nd, 86 points

Especially for a club that missed out on the playoffs last year, there is nothing more exciting than seeing the Avalanche twice in the last 17 days of the season. Add in the fact that the Kings also drew Arizona in that stretch and the Kings could be a well-rested club in the first round of the playoffs – if they qualify.

BYE WEEK: January 7-12 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 12 days (February 9-20)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (March 1-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, at Colorado, at Edmonton, vs. Calgary, vs. Arizona, at Anaheim, vs. Colorado, vs. Minnesota and vs. Dallas

MINNESOTA WILD – eliminated in first round, 106 points

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Scheduler gave to Minny… a tough, nine-game stretch!

Yes, I’m pretty proud of that.

In all seriousness, the Wild are certainly going to be looking forward to the three-day holiday break, as it will signal an end to the nine-game run of playing against eight playoff teams from a season ago. The gauntlet starts on December 8 in Anaheim, followed by a contest in San Jose on December 10 before returning home to host Calgary (December 12), Toronto (December 14) and Edmonton (December 16). The Wild take back to the road to play the Blackhawks (December 17), Senators (December 19), Panthers (Decmber 22) and Lightning (December 23) before hanging up their skates in exhaustion for a few days.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (October 24-November 4)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (December 17-23)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Los Angeles, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, at Nashville, vs. Dallas, at Dallas, vs. Edmonton, at Anaheim, at Los Angeles and at San Jose

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS – Atlantic Division champion, 103 points

March is looking like its going to be a taxing month on the Canadiens, a club that could lose control of a division its won twice in the past three seasons. After the Habs close out their season two-and-a-half month series with rival Boston on March 3, they’ll have to clean up a six-game road trip that involves visits to Tampa (March 10) and Columbus (March 12), host the Penguins (March 15), travel to Toronto (March 17), Pittsburgh (March 21) and Buffalo (March 23), host the Capitals (March 24) and travel to Pittsburgh again (March 31). That’s quite a gauntlet for an aging defense.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (November 7-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 15 days (December 16-December 30)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Florida, at Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Washington, vs. Detroit, at Pittsburgh, vs. New Jersey, vs. Winnipeg, at Detroit and at Toronto

NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Campbell Bowl winner, 94 points

Now that the Predators have cemented themselves as one of the big players in the NHL, they’ll need to back up last year’s postseason performance with a big target on their backs. That’ll be no more apparent than in their last 10 games (see below). With the exception of Florida, all of those clubs could be fighting for a playoff spot, making Nashville’s efforts to improve its seeding a difficult affair.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (November 1-7)

BYE WEEK: January 10-15 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in eight days (January 16-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at Minnesota, at Winnipeg, vs. Minnesota, vs. San Jose, vs. Buffalo, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at Washington and vs. Columbus

NEW JERSEY DEVILS – 27th, 70 points

Sometimes the scheduler has a cruel way of making a team a whipping post. That is the Devils’ fate over their last dozen games of the season. It’ll be no surprise that Jersey is solidly out of playoff contention by that time, but they’ll be squaring off with at least 10 teams (they play the Penguins twice) potentially in desperate need of two points to solidify a playoff spot or seed, which will make a tough season even harder for Jersey fans. Keep your heads up though, folks! Hopefully Nico Hischier can lead you back to the Promise Land!

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (December 15-29)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 14 days (March 10-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, at Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Carolina, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. NY Islanders, at Montréal, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Toronto and at Washington


NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 17th, 94 points

A year ago, the Islanders missed out on a playoff spot by only a point even though they ended their campaign on a six-game winning streak. The main reason? A slow, 8-10-4 start to the season (specifically a 1-6-1 road record through November) that eventually cost Jack Capuano his job. Surely Doug Weight is aware of this, so I expect him to have his club prepared for their California trip a week into the season. If the Isles aren’t up to snuff, Garth Snow may start fielding calls early.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (October 11-19)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days (December 16-27)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Chicago, vs. Florida, at Ottawa, vs. Toronto, at New Jersey, vs. Philadelphia, vs. NY Rangers and at Detroit

NEW YORK RANGERS – eliminated in second round, 102 points

There’s some mean scheduling going on in the Metropolitan Division this season, and that is no more apparent than with the Rangers. The Blueshirts play their last regular season game at Madison Square Garden on March 30, a full eight days before their season finale in Philadelphia. Then again, is any team better prepared to complete its playoff push wearing white than New York? Last season, the Rangers won an impressive 27 games beyond the shores of Manhattan – three more than Chicago, the second-best road team. Making the four-game road trip even less frightening, the Rangers will still be able to sleep in their own beds for at least six of those nights as two of the games are against Jersey and the Islanders.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (October 14-26)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (March 31-April 7)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Columbus, at Philadelphia, vs. Buffalo, vs. Washington, at Washington, vs. Tampa Bay, at Carolina, at New Jersey, at NY Islanders and at Philadelphia

OTTAWA SENATORS – Prince of Wales Trophy runner-up, 98 points

And the winner of the second annual bye week lottery is… the Ottawa Senators! For being runner-up for the Prince of Wales Trophy a season ago, the Sens earned the longest bye week of any club in the league by at least a day. The vacation will be especially useful for the Senators, as they’ll be able to effectively prepare for their imposing five games before the All-Star Break: vs. St. Louis, vs. Toronto, at Minnesota, at St. Louis and vs. Boston.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (October 17-26)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 14 days (November 29-December 12)

BYE WEEK: January 11-17 (seven days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Carolina, at Carolina, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Florida, at Detroit, vs. Winnipeg, at Buffalo, at Pittsburgh and at Boston

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – 19th, 88 points

It seems someone within the Flyers organization offended the schedule maker in the last year, because they have the unfortunate predicament of starting the season on a four-game Western road trip, culminating with a visit to Bridgestone Arena against the current owners of the Campbell Cup, the Nashville Predators. But every cloud has a silver lining, and Philly’s is twofold: not only is that (tied for) the club’s longest road trip, but they also come home to a nice long home stand.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in seven days (October 4-10)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 11 days (October 14-24)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Washington, at Detroit, vs. NY Rangers, at Pittsburgh, at Dallas, at Colorado, vs. Boston, at NY Islanders, vs. Carolina and vs. NY Rangers

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – Stanley Cup Champion, 111 points

At this point, I think the Penguins are only concerned with what day the Stanley Cup Finals begin. For those wanting to dig a little bit deeper, we need to look no further than Pittsburgh’s first five games of the season against clubs with playoff aspirations, including one that may or may not feel as if it was robbed of a goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals (*hint* they definitely were).

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 28-November 4)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (December 2-11)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, vs. New Jersey, vs. Philadelphia, at Detroit, at New Jersey, vs. Montréal, vs. Washington, at Columbus and vs. Ottawa

SAN JOSE SHARKS – eliminated in first round, 99 points

The Sharks have home stands aplenty throughout their schedule – but the best one may not be the one you’re thinking of. Sure, they get to spend the first half of March in the Bay Area and play six games, but I expect Brent Burns‘ club is licking its chops even more about its opening five games. Over the first two weeks of the season, San Jose hosts Philly, LA, Buffalo, the Islanders and Montréal – four teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs and one that fell in the first round. If the Sharks can find their rhythm early, they can carry that momentum into their Eastern road swing and try to stake their claim in the Pacific Division.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (October 20-28)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (February 27-March 12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. New Jersey, vs. Vegas, vs. Calgary, at Chicago, at St. Louis, at Nashville, at Vegas, vs. Dallas, vs. Colorado and vs. Minnesota

ST. LOUIS BLUES – eliminated in second round, 99 points

The Blues’ biggest games every year are against Chicago, and 2018 will be no different. This year the matchup earns added importance as the series is backlogged in the season schedule. Game 80 for both teams will take place at Scottrade Center (soon to be the Artist Venue Formerly Known as Scottrade Center), followed only two days later by another contest at the United Center. Given the fact that first and second place in the Central Division has been separated by an average of only 2.75 points over the last four seasons, first round home ice – and maybe even a banner – could be on the line.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 11 days (November 21-December 1)

BYE WEEK: January 10-15 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in 10 days (March 3-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Boston, vs. Vancouver, at Columbus, vs. San Jose, at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Washington, vs. Chicago, at Chicago and at Colorado

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – 18th, 94 points

As exciting as hosting the All-Star festivities is, there’s always one negative repercussion that sometimes gets overlooked: the extended time away from home. To allow arena staff and the NHL to prepare a venue for the event – and then return it to its original state – the Lightning will have to make two four-game road trips, before and after the event. That being said, they’ll be handsomely compensated for their time away from Amalie Arena with a long eight-game home stand for almost the entirety of March. But don’t mark those as wins yet, Bolts fans: six of those eight teams qualified for the playoffs last year.

BYE WEEK: January 12-17 (six days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Eight games in 17 days (January 20-February 5)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 18 days (March 3-20)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at NY Islanders, at New Jersey, vs. Arizona, at Boston, at NY Rangers, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, vs. Buffalo and at Carolina

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – eliminated in first round, 95 points

Remember last season when the Maple Leafs finally clinched their playoff spot in their penultimate game? That may be a bit harder to do this year as Toronto has only 18 contests following the trade deadline, tied with Anaheim for the lowest total over that stretch of time. Instead, Mike Babcock’s club will have to get their work done early this year with 23 games before Thanksgiving. Given Auston Matthews‘ four-goal debut a season ago, something tells me that won’t be too big a task.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 12 days (December 20-31)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 15 days (January 2-16)

BYE WEEK: January 11-15 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Tampa Bay, at Nashville, vs. Detroit, vs. Buffalo, vs. Florida, at NY Islanders, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Buffalo, at New Jersey and vs. Montréal

VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 29th, 69 points

Last season, Vancouver went a measly 12-26-3 away from Rogers
Arena, the second-worst road record in the league. That’s what makes January so frightening for the Canucks, even if their bye week occurs in the middle of their seven-game road trip. If Vancouver can survive that and is still in the playoff hunt at the end of March, it has a tough five-game home stand that should either more than properly prepare it for the playoffs or allow the squad to set up their April 8 tee times early.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 12 days – 2x (October 26-November 6; January 23-February 3)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 16 days (January 6-21)

BYE WEEK: January 15-19 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vegas, at Chicago, at St. Louis, at Dallas, vs. Anaheim, vs. Edmonton, vs. Columbus, vs. Vegas, vs. Arizona and at Edmonton

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

What better way to build quick interest in the NHL’s newest market than by having not one seven-game home stand in its debut season, but two? The first should certainly be the more exciting of the two, as four of the Golden Knights’ seven opponents failed to make the playoffs a season ago. The better Vegas capitalizes on this …ahem… golden opportunity, the better its chance of achieving the club’s primary on-the-ice objective: finishing ahead of Colorado.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 10-27)

BYE WEEK: January 8-12 (five days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (January 30-February 8)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Vancouver, at San Jose, at Colorado, vs. Colorado, vs. Arizona, vs. St. Louis, vs. San Jose, at Vancouver, at Edmonton and at Calgary

WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Presidents’ Trophy winner, 118 points

Washington’s roster may have taken a hit, but that doesn’t mean the Capitals’ goal has changed. The first four games on their schedule should give us a good impression of what to expect from them this year, as they’ll visit Ottawa, host Montréal, travel to Tampa Bay and host Pittsburgh – four quality sides in seven days that also have their eyes on the postseason.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (November 30-December 8)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (December 19-27)

BYE WEEK: January 13-17 (five days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Dallas, at Detroit, at Montréal, at NY Rangers, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Carolina, at Pittsburgh, at St. Louis, vs. Nashville and vs. New Jersey

WINNIPEG JETS – 20th, 87 points

After the All-Star festivities in Tampa have died down, make sure to turn your attention to Manitoba where Patrik Laine and the Jets could dominate the month of February. The club that missed the playoffs by only seven points a season ago will play 12 games before the trade deadline, the first 10 of which will be at The Phone Booth. If Winnipeg can’t improve on last year’s 22-18-1 home record over that stretch, it could signal an early end for the Jets’ quest to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

BYE WEEK: January 14-19 (six days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: 10 games in 22 days (January 30-February 20)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (March 4-13)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Los Angeles, vs. Anaheim, vs. Nashville, vs. Boston, at Chicago, at Toronto, at Ottawa, at Montréal, vs. Calgary and vs. Chicago

Pens repeat as Stanley Cup Champs

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 6

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home ice continues to pay off; Pens a win away

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 5

 

After giving up its two-game advantage on the road, Pittsburgh stomped the Predators 6-0 at PPG Paints Arena Thursday to pull within a victory of hoisting its second-straight Stanley Cup.

Whether it was the friendly confines of the Steel City or the extra day of rest, everything went right for the Penguins. Pittsburgh’s most noticeable success was converting a quarter of its 24 shots on goal into tallies, especially when six different skaters scored the markers.

One of those proved especially important – and not only because it proved to be the game winning-goal. With a slap shot from the blue line, Justin Schultz (First Star of the Game Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist) revived the Penguins’ dormant power play only 91 seconds into the contest by scoring between Austin Watson and Pekka Rinne‘s legs.

The extra-man opportunity was a direct result of the Pens’ early offensive onslaught. Even though Rinne faced only two shots on goal before Schultz’ marker, the first 50 seconds of play all took place in Nashville’s defensive zone. That prolonged Penguins possession directly led to Ryan Ellis holding Crosby to stop play at the cost of a seat in the penalty box. 31 seconds later, the Pens found themselves with a lead.

That man-advantage goal proved to simply be the tip of the iceberg for the Penguins. Bryan Rust (Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley) doubled Pittsburgh’s lead 5:12 after Schultz’ marker, and Evgeni Malkin (Second Star Phil Kessel and Third Star Ron Hainsey) took advantage of a four-on-four situation with 11 seconds before the first intermission to set the score at 3-0.

The cause of the four-on-four play was another chapter in the Crosby-P.K. Subban saga. With 1:32 remaining in the first period, both were officially charged with coincidental holding penalties when they fell to the ice behind Matthew Murray‘s net and – instead of getting up and rejoining play – continued their shenanigans.

First it was Crosby repeatedly shoving Subban’s head into the ice. Once the defenseman finally could separate himself, he did his best to repay the favor before play was stopped and they received early dismissal to their respective dressing rooms.

More than simply scoring pucks was involved in this effort. Aside from giving the puck away five times (due in large part to Smashville living up to its name and throwing 41 hits, including seven by Watson), the defense also played a major role in stopping a Predators club that was trailing for basically the entire game.

Led by Mattias Ekholm‘s four shots on goal, Nashville managed just as many shots on Murray as the Pens did against Rinne: 24. That number could have been significantly larger in favor of the Preds if not for the excellent play of the blue liners. Led by Schultz’ three rejections, the Pens blocked an impressive 16 shots to keep Murray’s workload relatively minimal.

Not that Murray needed much help. He saved all 24 shots he faced – including a few stops with his suspect glove – for his second shutout of the postseason. Pittsburgh has now won four games by shutout – two apiece by Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury – to double the effort of any other 2017 playoff team.

Murray’s solid play in net, especially in comparison to his performances in Nashville, was more than enough motivation for the Penguins to keep applying pressure offensively. After notching three goals in the opening frame to chase Rinne, Pittsburgh matched its effort in the second with tallies from Conor Sheary (Crosby and Jake Guentzel), Kessel (Olli Maatta and Crosby) and Hainsey (Malkin and Kessel) against Juuse Saros.

In particular, Sheary’s tally was important due to rookie Guentzel’s involvement in the play. With another secondary assist for his 21st point, the youngster has tied Dino Ciccarelli and Ville Leino for most playoff points by a rookie.

He’ll have at least one more opportunity to break the record and help his club hoist the Stanley Cup in Game 6 this Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. Just like all the others in this Finals series, that contest is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time and will be televised on NBC in the United States and CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.