Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

January 14 – Day 99 -Steel City Second Act

The league has scheduled a light, but very exciting slate of four games for us today. Thanks NHL!

The action starts at 12:30 p.m. with Detroit at Chicago (NBC/TVAS), followed by Calgary at Carolina at 3 p.m. The New York Rangers at Pittsburgh (NBCSN) is the next game on the schedule at 7:30 p.m., and it is trailed half an hour later by tonight’s nightcap: Vancouver at Minnesota (SN). All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Buffalo, Columbus, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Ottawa, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington and Winnipeg.

Is there any doubt of which game we’re featuring today? Let’s get to the City of Bridges!

 

This game was supposed to be NBC’s “Game of the Week” (a.k.a. the Sunday matinee time slot the Detroit-Chicago contest now occupies), but the Steelers’ 1 p.m. playoff game at Heinz Field changed those plans.

Don’t think the rescheduling plays into the decision to feature this game. That pick was made by 23-19-3 Pittsburgh – a club that many were wondering if it was reaching the end of its dynasty – having the opportunity to climb into the first wild card after being outside the playoff picture for the last month.

Since turning the calendar to 2018, there’s only been a handful of teams better than the Penguins, who have won four of their last five games – including three straight. The offense is humming near 2016-’17 efficiency by scoring a (t)fifth-best 3.8 goals per game, and the defense has allowed sixth-best 2.2 goals against per game.

It’s about time the Penguins’ top stars started performing. From opening day on October 4 through December 31, F Evgeni Malkin managed only 13-22-35 marks (one point per game) and C Sidney Crosby tacked on only 14-21-35 (.9 points per game). In fact, with RW Phil Kessel currently posting team-leading 19-31-50 totals, the Pens are in line for a new season points-leader not named Crosby or Malkin for the first time since D Dick Tarnstrom‘s 16-36-52 effort in 2003-’04.

However, since Head Equipment Manager Dana Heinze – who’s a solid follow on Twitter whether you’re a Pens fan, Flyers fan or anything in between – hung a new calendar in the Pens’ dressing room, Crosby and Malkin have regained their roles as leaders of Pittsburgh’s offense. Both have averaged two points per game in 2018, with Malkin leading the way with 5-5-10 marks.

One constant Pittsburgh is happy to carry over from its lackluster start to the season is its dominant power play. The Pens have converted a league-leading 46.7 percent of their man-advantages since the beginning of the new year, which pulls their season success rate up to an also league-leading 27 percent. The leader of that attack – whether for the season or of late – is none other than Kessel, who has registered a whopping 29 power play points this season, the best mark in the NHL. While Malkin might have more power play points in 2018, Kessel has him beat in extra-man goals with three to his credit in five games.

Of note, 8-3-2 G Tristan Jarry was in net for yesterday’s 4-1 victory over the Red Wings. With 15-12-1 G Matthew Murray taking a leave of absence for a personal matter, 0-1-0 G Casey DeSmith was probably hoping for a chance to earn his first NHL start. However, Head Coach Mike Sullivan has been reluctant to hand DeSmith the reins in the past when the Pens are in this situation, and he’ll stay true to form by giving Jarry – who saved 29-of-30 shots faced yesterday (.967 save percentage) – both starts of the weekend.

For the Penguins to move into the first wildcard spot, the club currently holding that position will have to get out of the way. Considering that team is the 22-16-5 Rangers, I doubt they’ll do that voluntarily.

Unfortunately, the Blueshirts don’t enter tonight’s game in top form. They’ve posted a measly 3-4-2 record over their past nine games, which includes their two most recent games: regulation losses by a combined score of 9-3.

It might seem like the goals against might be the issue based off the last two games, but New York’s biggest concern is an offense that has absolutely dried up. The Rangers have managed a (t)13th-best 2.95 goals per game for the entire season, but that effort has dropped to a (t)league-worst 1.78 goals per game since December 21.

The hard part with this scoring slump is no one person is responsible. 18 of New York’s 21 skaters since December 21 have registered at least one point, and eight have three or more points. LW Jimmy Vesey in particular has been giving it his all to try to resolve the Rangers’ scoring woes, as he’s scored three goals and tacked on another assist over these nine games. W Mats Zuccarello has also been strong, as he’s posted four assists in his last eight games.

Just like the Penguins, New York played its usual backup in yesterday’s game. 3-6-1 G Ondrej Pavelec saved 14-of-19 shots faced (.737 save percentage) in the 7-2 home loss against the Islanders. Even though 19-10-4 G Henrik Lundqvist was forced to play over half the game (saving 16-of-18 for a .889 save percentage) for no decision, he’ll get the start today.

Tonight’s meeting marks Game 3 of four between the Blueshirts and Pens this regular season. Both teams have won on road ice, but New York is winning the season series due to forcing extra time when it hosted October 17’s contest (the Penguins won 5-4 thanks to Malkin’s overtime goal, by the way). The Rangers then returned the favor on December 5, beating Pittsburgh 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena. W Pavel Buchnevich scored the game-winning goal near the midway point of the third period, but it was Zuccarello that took First Star honors with his two-point night.

The Penguins seem like they’re getting rolling at the right time this season, and it just so happens that the Rangers are slumping at the exact same moment. Jarry starting two consecutive games is certainly a plus for New York, but I think Pittsburgh’s offense will be enough to get it two points.


The Anaheim Ducks’ comeback tour is in full force, as they beat the Los Angeles Kings 4-2 at Staples Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Before we even jump into a recap of the goals scored, let’s discuss this rivalry. I predicted a fierce, nasty, scrappy game between these two, and the Freeway Face-Off did not disappoint.  A combined 38 PIM were handed out (led by the six players that took five for fighting in the first period) and 75 hits thrown (led by LW Kyle Clifford and C Ryan Getzlaf, both with five apiece) in what was undoubtedly the meanest game of the night in the Western Conference, if not the entire league.

Of course, those stats don’t earn wins – goals do. Two were struck in the first period, and both belonged to the Ducks. First Star W Ondrej Kase (F Rickard Rakell and Getzlaf) took credit for the first at the 6:14 mark, followed 12:36 later by F Ryan Kesler‘s (D Brandon Montour and Kase) second tally of the season, a power play snap shot that set the 2-0 score that held through the remainder of the first period and the entirety of the second.

Whoever said third-liners can’t provide offense hasn’t seen Anaheim’s stellar sophomore. Only 2:10 into the final frame, Kase (LW Nick Ritchie) buried a wrist shot that proved to be the game-winner.

As good as G Jonathan Quick has been this season, this is at least the second time he’s made a mistake in the DtFR Game of the Day series playing a puck behind his goal that has led to an opposing goal. This time, he was caught trying to settle the puck in the trapezoid with no teammates around him. That allowed Ritchie to drive behind the net and take possession, which he quickly dished to Kase in the left face-off circle. Try as he might, Quick just wasn’t quick enough to get back in his crease, as Kase’s wrister easily found the back of the net.

Facing a 3-0 deficit, the Kings finally decided to find some offense. C Nick Shore (D Christian Folin and F Trevor Lewis) scored their first 6:22 after the goal horn stopped blaring for Kase’s tally, and C Anze Kopitar (D Derek Forbort and Second Star F Alex Iafallo) pulled Los Angeles back within a goal with 6:14 remaining in regulation.

However, the offense dried up following Kopitar’s 18th tally of the season, to the point that Head Coach John Stevens was forced to pull Quick for an extra attacker. W Corey Perry (D Hampus Lindholm) never needs much of an invitation to score goals, so he took advantage of the empty cage with 1:28 remaining in regulation to set the 4-2 final score.

G John Gibson earned the victory after saving 23-of-25 shots faced (.92 save percentage), leaving the loss to Quick, who saved 18-of-21 (.857).

Though the 54-33-12 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series still have an 18-point advantage, they should beware the road teams right now. With Anaheim’s victory away from The Pond, that is the fourth-straight victory for visitors.

Hey, why isn’t (insert NHL team here) playing?

Still trying to figure out why your favorite team has games all next week, but your rival gets to take five-straight days off? Or maybe you’re most concerned about your fantasy hockey team? Either way, *NSYNC has the answer:

The NHL is in Year 2 of its experiment with bye weeks. Some things – like the average length of each team’s break – stayed the same. 19 of the 31 clubs are taking the minimum five days off, while 11 others get an extra sixth before returning to action. Of course, the winners of the bye week lottery are the Ottawa Senators, who get a whopping seven days to rest, regroup and rediscover the art of ice hockey before hosting St. Louis.

But there are a few differences from last year, most notably where these breaks occur within the league schedule. Last season when the bye weeks debuted, the Islanders and Penguins had already started and finished their breaks by now, while others wouldn’t see the gap in their schedule until well beyond the All-Star Break or even the trade deadline. In fact, the Ducks didn’t take their week off until the beginning of March.

It was probably because Anaheim is on Pacific Time. That’s how time zones work, right?

Anyways, all 31 bye weeks this season – whether five, six or seven days – will start and end in the span of the 18 days between today and January 19.

Though initial thoughts were that the bye weeks were consolidated in anticipation of the NHL potentially releasing its players to their respective national federations for the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, it instead will simply be an opportunity for the league’s scheduler to determine which format is better for business.

But we’re not worried about attendance, advertising dollars or TV ratings here at Down the Frozen River (actually, that’s a lie: we love to talk about that stuff during podcasts). Let’s talk about who’s going to be off when. Teams are presented in order of the league table as it stands entering play January 7, and you might find some notes from myself and @nlanciani53.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

29-9-3, 61 points, leading Presidents’ Trophy race

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: A hot team must cool off a bit and then play the Vegas Golden Knights on their first night back to action? Talk about a prison sentence. At least they’ve still got the Presidents’ Trophy (lead) as consolation.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

28-10-2, 58 points, leading the Western Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts the NY Rangers on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Son, where the Golden Knights are from, they don’t need no breaks. Polar opposites of the Tampa Bay Lightning bye week, Vegas plays a good team before taking time off. Then they play Edmonton. Next!

Connor’s Notes: That may be true, but there’s surely some concern among Gerard Gallant and his staff that the Knights just might lose some of this positive energy over the break. They’ve posted a 9-1-0 record over their last 10, and it’d be a shame if the only reason this club drops from Cloud 9 to Cloud 8 is just five little days off.

WINNIPEG JETS

24-11-7, 55 points, leading the Central Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Calgary on January 20

Nick’s Notes: The Winnipeg Jets are vying for first place in the Central Division this season after missing the playoffs last year. Their second best point-scorer (that’s right, point-scorer, not goal-scorer, Patrik Laine), Mark Scheifele‘s been nursing an upper body injury and this break won’t hurt the team for a week while he remains out of the lineup.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

24-11-6, 54 points, second in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 16

Nick’s Notes: Most people think the party never stops in Vegas, but they’re wrong. The party never stops in Smashville and let’s just hope none of the Predators players get carried away on Broadway in their week off.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

26-16-2, 54 points, third in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Florida on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Toronto on January 16

Connor’s Notes: Any way to avoid playing games while Jaden Schwartz‘ ankle is still healing is a good thing. While he won’t be ready to go until the end of the month, the Blues will hope to get out of a rut that has led to them posting a 4-6-0 record over their last 10 games entering Sunday.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

25-13-3, 53 points, leading the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 18

Nick’s Notes: It’s not that Braden Holtby‘s been bad, but he’s having his worst season since 2013-14, so like, maybe send him to a remote mountain top or whatever it takes for Holtby to regain his form and focus (a water bottle usually does the trick). Seriously though, his 2.68 GAA and .917 save percentage is not great, Bob.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

24-13-5, 53 points, second in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: Hosted Nashville on January 6, lost 4-3

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Anaheim on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Best of luck to the Los Angeles Kings who will smash bodies against the boards with Nashville leading into their bye week and then smash bodies all over again with the Anaheim Ducks fresh off their vacations. It’s a grueling game. Ice those bruises.

BOSTON BRUINS

23-10-6, 52 points, second in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Montréal on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Similar to Vegas’ current run of success, with an 8-0-2 record over their last 10 games played entering Sunday, the Bruins arguably have the most positive energy to lose by going on break of any team in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately for them, they’ll play in what I expect to be a rivalry game that’s even more heated than usual given the Habs’ position in the standings to get right back into the swing of things.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

25-16-2, 52 points, third in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Ottawa on January 10

Bye week: January 11-15 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 16

Connor’s Notes: While the Leafs aren’t currently certain he’ll be ready to go by then, the original hope was that sophomore defenseman Nikita Zaitsev‘s lower-body injury would be healed by the time Toronto returned to action against the Notes. If St. Louis’ offense is ticking that day, his presence in the defensive zone will be a big help to Frederik Andersen

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

22-11-7, 51 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At the NY Islanders on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Philadelphia January 13

Nick’s Notes: The New Jersey Devils have been quietly good as of late. They’re this year’s biggest surprise outside of the Golden Knights. Nico Hischier just turned 19, so unless he’s going outside of the United States for his break, he can’t (legally) party hard.

DALLAS STARS

24-16-3, 51 points, fourth in the Central Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Edmonton on January 6, won 5-1

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Colorado on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Wouldn’t it be mean if nobody tells Kari Lehtonen when the break is so he just drives up to the practice rink on the first day like “where’d everybody go”? Just a thought.

NEW YORK RANGERS

22-14-5, 49 points, third in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Great, another week off means Henrik Lundqvist has to wait even longer for a Stanley Cup.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

23-16-3, 49 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Dallas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Columbus Blue Jackets have been the St. Louis Blues of the Eastern Conference this season. One week they’re amazing, the next week they’re losing. A lot.

Connor’s Notes: Nick is right, and the Jackets are in one of their losing funks right now. Entering Sunday, they’ve posted a 3-5-2 record over their last 10 games played. They won’t regain any of their four injured players during the break, but perhaps John Tortorella can find a way to regroup his troops before they lose any more ground in the Metro.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

21-12-6, 48 points, third in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Winnipeg on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Arizona on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Joe Thornton should use this break to regrow that part of his beard that got torn off his face by Nazem Kadri in Toronto.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

22-16-3, 47 points, fifth in the Central Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Minnesota on January 6, won 7-2

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Dallas on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Goaltender Semyon Varlamov should be prepared to return to action following the bye week after suffering a lower body injury on January 2, and there’s a possibility J.T. Compher get back into the lineup too. However, considering the Avs’ unbelievable position in the standings, does Jared Bednar even think about pulling Jonathan Bernier?

MINNESOTA WILD

22-17-3, 47 points, sixth in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19

First game out of the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Oft-injured and finally healthy, the Minnesota Wild should place everyone in bubblewrap for their bye week. Just a suggestion.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

19-15-9, 47 points, fourth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Calgary on January 6, lost 3-2

Bye week: January 7-12

First game out of the bye: At Los Angeles on January 13

Connor’s Notes: With Corey Perry returning to action last night against the Flames, Anaheim is effectively at 100 percent once again after losing basically every star at one point or another this season. After seeing what an injured Ducks team was capable of, the Pacific Division should get ready, because a rested and healthy Ducks team just might wreck havoc against weak competition.

CALGARY FLAMES

21-16-4, 46 points, fifth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Winnipeg on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Whoever’s running the airport gates in Calgary should make sure that wherever the player’s are going doesn’t actually say “Seattle” on their ticket. Unless the gate agent is originally from Seattle. *dramatic Twin Peaks music plays in the background*

CAROLINA HURRICANES

19-14-8, 46 points, fifth in the Metropolitan Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Detroit on January 20

Nick’s Notes: One thing’s for sure, even with their potential new majority owner, none of the Carolina Hurricanes players are going back to Hartford for their break. What a shame.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

21-19-3, 45 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Boston on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Phil Kessel doesn’t like time off (remember the 2016 World Cup of Hockey?) and Matthew Murray should probably go to the same place as Braden Holtby for a week. Murray’s goals-against average is almost a 3.0.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

19-15-6, 44 points, last in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Jeff Glass is the feel good story of 2018 so far, so why would anyone want to see him take five nights off? *Checks standings* Oh, right, this team isn’t in playoff worthy right now.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

18-15-8, 44 points, seventh in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Buffalo on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Someone make sure the Philadelphia Flyers don’t try to move to the Atlantic Division over their bye week. They’ll do anything to make the playoffs this season.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

20-18-4, 44 points, last in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts New Jersey on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 13

Connor’s Notes: The reason the Islanders have been making by with their horrendous defense, which was made worse by Calvin de Haan requiring a season-ending shoulder surgery, has been their explosive offense. Josh Bailey should be back at 100 percent following New York’s bye to reunite the BLT Line, allowing the Isles to get back to their version of Russian Roulette: finding out which goaltender is going to allow just one more goal than the other.

DETROIT RED WINGS

17-16-7, 41 points, fourth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 13

Nick’s Notes: If the Detroit Red Wings were a young, rebuilding, team I’d recommend a five-day long pizza party at The Pizza Box (Little Caesar’s Arena). Maybe they can figure out the right way to tank during their time off instead of winning a lot before the break.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

17-18-5, 39 points, fifth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 12

Bye week: January 13-18 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 19

Connor’s Notes: Just as James Reimer is beginning to run out of steam, Roberto Luongo is expected to return to the Panthers’ crease with his club seven points outside playoff position. Whether he resumes his starting job before or after the bye, the break allows both of them to be fully rested.

EDMONTON OILERS

18-21-3, 39 points, sixth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Peter Chiarelli can’t possibly figure out how he’s going to save his team in six days when he spent $21 million on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in about that amount of time over the summer.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

16-19-6, 38 points, seventh in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Edmonton on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Like Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets, Bo Horvat and the Vancouver Canucks haven’t seen each other in a little while due to injury. Take some time and rest up.

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS

17-20-4, 38 points, sixth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Boston on January 13

Nick’s Notes: I’m pretty sure you can’t trade players during your bye week, so don’t try to move Max Pacioretty while nobody’s paying attention, Montreal.

OTTAWA SENATORS

14-17-9, 37 points, seventh in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Toronto on January 10

Bye week: January 11-17 (seven days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Ottawa Senators will find a way to lose games over their seven day break. Meanwhile, Eugene Melnyk will have just enough time to figure out an escape plan while nobody’s at Canadian Tire Centre.

BUFFALO SABRES

10-22-9, 29 points, last in the Eastern Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts Columbus on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Sabres should hold an exhibition matchup with some bantam teams while on their break. You know, so they can get better.

ARIZONA COYOTES

10-27-6, 26 points, last in the NHL

Final game before the bye: Hosted the NY Rangers on January 6, won 2-1 in a shootout

Bye week: January 7-11 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 12

Nick’s Notes: Wait, you mean Arizona hasn’t already been taking time off all season?


Final notes: I strongly dislike how the NHL is abandoning entire markets for a week at a time. This is most noticeable in the United States’ two biggest cities: New York and Los Angeles. All five teams that play in those markets will be dormant for the same five days (January 8-12). Why didn’t they stagger these byes so those important markets would still have at least one squad active at all times? After all, if there’s one thing Devils fans love to see as much as a Jersey win, it’s a Rangers loss. Whether they take in that loss at Madison Square Garden or from their couch doesn’t ultimately matter. The fact that those markets could turn their attention away from the NHL to either the Clippers, Knicks or Friends reruns on TBS does.

But this extends further. The entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be shut off from NHL hockey from January 8-12 (The same days as New York and Los Angeles? Who is making these decisions?), as neither the Flyers nor Penguins will be in action. Boston and Montréal? Nope, they’re both on the bye at the same time too (you guessed it, January 8-12). The Blues and Predators can vacation together as well – though I doubt they’d want to – as they are both out of action from January 10-15.

I’m sure the league’s competition committee is going to claim that they’re trying to reduce the possibility of one particular team getting too much of an advantage, but this just seems silly from a business perspective. If that is truly the case, perhaps one day when the league reaches 32 teams it will simply shut down an entire conference for five days and then the other (the odd number of teams right now makes scheduling a little… interesting in that scenario), or – the more likely of these two options – perchance expand the distribution of byes over the course of three weeks instead of just two. Who knows?

Beyond this issue, while I don’t necessarily like where it is in the schedule, I do like that the NHL has condensed the time period for bye weeks in the season. Keeping track of which teams had and hadn’t taken their week off last season was a bother, and this system eliminates that. Of course, we’ll know how NBC and Sportsnet react based on how these byes are arranged next year.

As for my final complaint, the byes have the possibility of creating a very staggered January. We just got out of the three-day holiday break 12 days ago. Each team has played an average of only 5.4 games since then. Now we have these bye weeks of at least five days, and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29) is only 20 days out. If those sentences were confusing, I’m concerned that’s how the month of January is going to feel – scattered hockey thoughts until Groundhog’s Day.

The NHL Players’ Association demanded these bye weeks in return for the league turning the All-Star Game into the divisional three-on-three format we have had for the past two years. They’re not going anywhere: the players obviously like the idea of getting some time off, and putting it near the midway point of the season seems like a logical idea.

However, how this change is impacting the league’s product is still being understood. Unless we could see a plausible situation where bye weeks don’t happen until the end of February or March (remember, that’s likely after the trade deadline), the existence of the midway-point byes could be yet another reason the NHL could axe the All-Star Game, eliminating that break altogether.

Throw in the fact that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement could expire as soon as 2020’s offseason – should either party opt out early – and no later than the summer of 2022 and we could be looking at a whole heap of changes  – or a whole heap of no hockey – within the next four years.

January 5 – Day 90 – Break out the Beastie Boys

It’s the first Friday of 2018! Whether you worked all week or haven’t started back yet, you deserve to watch some hockey tonight!

The festivities begin at 7 p.m. when Pittsburgh visits the New York Islanders (SN/TVAS), followed half an hour later by a pair of contests (San Jose at Ottawa [RDS2] and Florida at Detroit). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Buffalo at Winnipeg, while tonight’s nightcap – Vegas at Chicago (SN1) – waits 30 minutes before getting underway. All times Eastern.

There’s only one rivalry game on the schedule today, and with both participants having fallen outside the playoff picture, it should be an exceptionally competitive and important matchup. We’re off to Brooklyn!

 

Oh boy, where to start with this game? Both clubs have had reason for optimism at different points this season, yet – if things stay the way they currently stand – they could be scheduling tee times on April 8.

Of course, after winning two consecutive titles, 20-19-3 Pittsburgh figured to be in far better position than 10th in the Eastern Conference. Playoff qualification was supposed to be a given! Adding insult to injury, if they had simply beat Carolina at home last night instead of lose 4-0, the Pens would at least be in the postseason picture as the second wild card.

There’s reasons galore for why the reigning champs find themselves in the position they do, ranging from front office decisions to injuries and performance to plain bad luck, but we don’t have time to tackle all those things.

The biggest thing that is missing from this Penguins team is the very thing that has made the club so dominant for the last decade: offense. Pittsburgh averages only 2.71 goals per game through 42 games, the 10th-worst in the NHL.

However, the issue isn’t that simple. This offense has proved it is still capable of figuring things out, because the Penguins’ power play is actually the best in the league. Similar to the Sabres of the last two years, Pittsburgh can convert when the game is supposedly at its easiest – converting 25.7 percent of its man-advantage opportunities – but has only a league-worst 56 five-on-five goals to its credit.

That’s right, the Penguins were just compared to the Sabres. That hasn’t happened since the ’90s, and it was a compliment then.

So where did the offense go?

The easiest person to point at is C Sidney Crosby and his 14-22-36 totals. Managing only .857 points per game (regardless of the number of players on the ice), he’s on pace for the worst season of his career. Even his 36-49-85 effort in 2015-’16 season is superior, as he managed 1.06 points per game that year.

Oh yeah, and the Pens did more than simply qualify for the playoffs that year.

So far this season, Crosby has posted 17 points at even-strength and another 19 on the power play. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not too far off the pace of RW Phil Kessel, who’s managed 17-27-44 totals to lead the team. 19 of Kessel’s points have come at even-strength (only two more than Crosby’s) and 25 on the power play, a total that actually leads the league.

But points are very different than goals, and that’s where Crosby has slipped. He’s scored only eight goals at even-strength (compared to Kessel’s 11), a total that is tied with F Jake Guentzel for third-most on the team (13-10-23 totals) and one fewer than W Conor Sheary‘s – who’s having an absolutely miserable 11-5-16 third year while occupying a spot on the top line – nine.

Before we pick on the Islanders, don’t think F Evgeni Malkin escapes judgement. He’s posted 14-24-38 totals through 38 games played this season, which in and of itself is stellar. Averaging at least a point-per-game is the goal of all elite players in this league.

However, when we start breaking his stats down, he follows the same trend as Crosby. Eight of Malkin’s 14 tallies have been struck on the power play, meaning he’s scored only six times at even-strength. Centering Kessel’s second line has elevated his even-strength point total (20 of his points have come in five-on-five situations), but the fact that both of Pittsburgh’s franchise players aren’t finding the back of the net in the very situation most of the game is played is having ripple effects throughout the roster.

Road trips are hard, and the 20-17-4 Islanders – who currently sit in ninth place and two points outside playoff position – just got back from a tough one. New York has played three of its last four games away from the comforts of Barclays Center, and it returns home riding a four-game losing skid.

For most of the season, the Isles’ top line of F Josh Bailey (12-38-50 totals), F Anders Lee (24-15-39) and C John Tavares (22-28-50) has worked miracles to cover for the sins of their teammates, but it seems even they have run out of whatever secret sauce was keeping them on the scorecard.

Now that they aren’t bearing the load as well, New York’s atrocious defense is getting lit up. Since December 29, the Islanders have allowed a league-high 155 shots against, and that’s resulted in a whopping 21 goals against in four games played (5.25 per game), far and away the worst effort over that stretch.

It’s hard to blame 11-11-2 G Jaroslav Halak for his poor performance of late considering his insane workload, but he hasn’t been able to keep the Isles competitive during this run, managing only a .881 save percentage and 4.94 GAA in his last three starts.

What’s truly alarming about New York’s defense is that four defensemen – Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech – are managing at least two blocks-per-game over this losing skid. If I were Halak, I’d be truly frightened imagining my workload without their efforts.

Tonight’s tilt is the second in a four-game season series. Game 1 on December 7 went the way of the Penguins, who needed an overtime goal from D Matt Hunwick to beat New York 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena. Meetings 3 and 4 won’t take place until March, so both clubs will want to leave a positive impression on the other before diverging paths for two months.

Who wins a game between a sputtering offense and an anemic defense? Probably the team that can find success on the other end of the ice. Given the Isles’ home ice and their usually dynamic offense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see New York earn two points in the standings tonight.


Though they needed the shootout to get it done, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 3-2 at Air Canada Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though two goals were struck in the first period, they were both scored in the last two minutes before intermission. The first tally belonged to First Star of the Game C Auston Matthews (D Connor Carrick and F William Nylander) with 1:23 remaining on the clock, followed only 31 seconds later by D Brenden Dillon (D Brent Burns and W Timo Meier) leveling the game with a snap shot, his first goal of the season.

Two more tallies were struck in the second period, but C Nazem Kadri (F Mitch Marner and D Morgan Rielly) didn’t wait until until the end of the frame to make his mark. He buried a power play tip-in with 7:20 remaining before intermission to give Toronto a 2-1 lead. However, San Jose would once again manage to find a leveling goal, this one courtesy of C Chris Tierney taking advantage of Second Star G Frederik Andersen misplaying the puck in front of his crease 5:38 later.

As no goals were struck in the third period or three-on-three overtime, the game was thrust into the shootout. As hosts, the Maple Leafs elected to go first.

  1. Who else is Head Coach Mike Babcock to send out than Matthews? The second-year stud converted the fourth shootout opportunity of his career, setting his mark as a pro at 4-for-12.
  2. Facing an early hole, F Logan Couture was the first Shark to participate. However, his backhanded shot was saved by Andersen, giving Toronto a 1-0 advantage through the first round.
  3. With the opportunity to force a miss-and-lose situation for San Jose, Marner’s wrist shot was saved by Third Star G Martin Jones.
  4. Unfortunately for the Sharks, F Joe Pavelski‘s wrister met the same fate: saved by Andersen. Toronto led 1-0 through two rounds.
  5. What a weird situation for F Patrick Marleau to be in: if he scored a goal, he’d defeat the very club he played with for 19 years. Whether he wanted that honor or not, he found iron, giving San Jose the opportunity to continue the shootout.
  6. And that’s exactly what RW Kevin Labanc did. He beat Andersen to tie the shootout 1-1 through three rounds, forcing extra frames.
  7. You probably noticed that the goaltenders played pretty well tonight. That trend continued when Jones saved Nylander’s wrister.
  8. With his back against a wall, Andersen duplicated Jones’ performance by saving RW Joonas Donskoi‘s wrister to maintain the 1-1 tie.
  9. Consider this a ditto for Jones, but this time against a LW James van Riemsdyk wrister.
  10. Make it a double for Andersen as well, as he saved Burns’ wrister to extend the shootout to six rounds.
  11. Finally someone found the back of the net! C Tyler Bozak sneaked his shot past Jones to force a sudden death situation for San Jose.
  12. Tierney came as close as he could to continuing the shootout, but his attempt found iron to give the bonus point to Toronto.

Both goaltenders performed marvelously, but only one could come away with the victory. That proved to be Andersen, as he saved 33-of-35 (.943 save percentage) through 65 minutes of play. That left Jones with the shootout loss after he stopped 26-of-28 (.929).

Home ice has been a big deal in the DtFR Game of the Day series this year, as the 51-28-11 hosts, who have earned points in seven of the last eight games, have a 24-point advantage on the visitors in the series.

Merkle’s Christmas Bumblings

I will now attempt to write a coherent article as I lay near-comatose full of grilled chicken, hamloaf, turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, rolls and whatever else I might have eaten that my holiday-overloaded mind can’t recall. Thumbs up, let’s do this.

Skater of the Week: Mathew Barzal

I told myself I wouldn’t pick Josh Bailey again, so this time I picked his teammate. I promise you I’m not actually an Islanders fan.

The Isles continue to score at a torrid pace, and while John Tavares and Bailey both matched Barzal’s six-point output in this week’s three games, I’m giving the nod to the rookie. A bit of a dark horse to even make the squad at the beginning of the year, I did make note of Barzal in my preseason preview article about the Isles, and he’s making me look smarter than I actually am.

With 35 points in 36 games so far this season, the 20-year-old from Coquitlam, B.C. has really come into his own in recent weeks. Currently riding a four-game point streak, Barzal chipped in four goals and two assists in three contests this week, including a hat trick Saturday night at Winnipeg.

If guys like Barzal and Bailey (not to mention Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle) continue to produce the way they are, the Isles look to be very dangerous, as they finally possess the complimentary firepower to free up some space for Tavares.

Tendy of the Week: James Reimer

Chill, Bruins fans (looking at you, Lanciani), I know Tuukka Rask had a crazy good week himself. But, considering their major stats were nearly identical, I’m giving the nod to Reimer based on him grabbing a shutout when Rask didn’t, and the fact that he faced 23 more shots than the Boston netminder.

Smilin’ Reimer was truly on it this week. Winning all three games, he allowed just four total goals, scooping up a 1.33 GAA and a .964 save percentage across the contests. With Roberto Luongo still on the shelf, the Panthers desperately need Reimer to continue playing at a high level for them to have any real shot at keeping pace in the Atlantic. At least for the time being, he’s doing just that.

Game of the Week: Basically the entire night of Thursday, December 21st

10 games. Seven of them needed OT or the shootout to decide them. Even the three regulation games were at least weird if nothing else. The Hurricanes toppled the Predators, the Stars blanked the Blackhawks, and the Oilers upset the juggernaut Blues.

Among the games decided in extra time, you had everything from defensive struggles (Bruins over Jets 2-1 in the shootout, Kings over the Avs 2-1 in OT), offensive showcases (Ducks over Isles and Sharks over Canucks, both 5-4 contests), and a couple rivalry showcases (Devils take out the Rangers 4-3, and Penguins edge the Jackets 3-2 in an extremely heated affair, both in shootouts).

Just one of those strange nights where the hockey gods decide that everything gets an extra sprinkling of awesome.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Radko Gudas got suspended for about 137 games for a slash, because at this point he has to be doing stupid stuff on purpose.

Boone Jenner had a game misconduct penalty retroactively rescinded (because that’s apparently worth something) by the league after being kicked from the CBJ/PIT game by possibly the softest game misconduct ever issued.

Alexander Burmistrov has ‘retired’ from the NHL to return to his native Russia and play in the KHL. A once-promising prospect of the Atlanta/Winnipeg organization, Burmistrov left the NHL for the KHL back in 2013 before returning in 2015. His NHL career never really blossomed into what was hoped, and it sounds like the 26-year-old simply enjoys playing at home much more than playing in North America.

Zac Rinaldo again finds himself amid controversy, staring a likely-lengthy suspension in the face. After laying a hard (though seemingly clean) hit on Nathan MacKinnon, Rinaldo sucker punched Avs rookie Samuel Girard who had come over to confront him after the hit. Erik Johnson then stepped in and used the fact that he is the size of a Chevrolet Silverado to his advantage, but by this point things had already entered into the category of line brawl. Girard never dropped his gloves, or even looked as though he had any intention of actually fighting Rinaldo, so it’s easy to see where the impending punishment has grounds to stand on (particularly in the case of oft-suspended Rinaldo), but counter-points have been made by more than a few people, most notably former NHL tough guy Paul Bissonnette, most to the tune of ‘Girard probably shouldn’t have gone after someone he didn’t intend to fight’. Regardless, expect to see a lot less of Rinaldo over at least the next few games.

Ken Hitchcock reached the 800-win plateau as a head coach when his Dallas Stars beat the Blackhawks in the aforementioned Thursday night 4-0 blanking. Hitch is only the 3rd coach in NHL history to reach the milestone, with just that night’s opposing coach Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman ahead of him.

Editor’s note: The common thread between those coaches? All three have coached the St. Louis Blues, yet none could lead the Notes to the Stanley Cup.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 10

The prodigal son has returned, and it is time, once again, for me to assault your reading receptacles with my meaningless awards and incessant ramblings. Thanks to Cap’n for stepping in for me while I was off going to random ECHL games and concerts.

A special note: I’ve dropped the ‘Team of the Week’ section of these articles in favor of a new bit of weekly content that will be debuting here shortly. It will be replaced by a split of the ‘Player of the Week’ section, now giving one award to a skater, and one to a goaltender.

Skater of the Week: Josh Bailey

Heyyyyyyyyyy, HEYYY BAI-LEY, ooh…ahh, I wanna KNOWWWWOhhohhohh-Ohhoh, if you’ll score my goals…and assists…

Anyway, in the season’s first repeat performance, Josh Bailey again earns the nod for being the only Islander better at being underappreciated league-wide than John Tavares. The New York centerman is on a five-game point streak, four of those taking place this week. In those four games, he has four goals and four assists, including a hat trick in a losing effort to the Columbus Blue Jackets (the first time in franchise history the CBJ allowed a hat trick and won the game, a stellar 1-32-1 record for my boys in blue), and has a scarcely-believable 40 points in just 33 games this season. For reference, Bailey has previously topped the 40-point plateau only twice in a full season in his entire career. 28 years old seems a bit late for a coming-out party, but Isles fans are hardly going to complain about finally giving JT some depth scoring support.

Tendy of the Week: Brian Elliott

Possibly the only thing hotter than the Philadelphia Flyers of late is their own goaltender. Riding a six-game winning streak overall, including a perfect three-win performance this week, Ells has drastically altered the fortunes of the once-floundering Flyers, and has the Philly Phaithful at least starting to bother watching anything but Eagles games.

Starting off the week with 20 saves on 22 shots to down the Leafs, Elliott followed that up with single-goal games against Buffalo and Dallas to carry a superb .943 save percentage and 1.31 GAA through the week. The Flyers are still a few games back from the current Wild Card teams, but they hold games in hand on a good portion of the conference, and are much closer than any team that at one point lost 10 consecutive games should realistically be.

Game of the Week: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ Vegas Golden Knights 2, Thursday December 14th, 2017

I’m not even going to bother with the advanced stats, or play-by-play, or whatever else you think pertains to being the game of the week. This game was basically from a movie script. Recently-returned Marc-Andre Fleury facing the only team he had ever known prior to this season, he gets a hug from opposing goaltender Matthew Murray, who’s reasoning was simply “I missed the guy!”, and if you don’t love that you have no friends.

Four total former Penguins have found refuge with the upstart Knights, who continue to crush every single expert’s opinion about what an expansion team is capable of and are slowly shedding their ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ appearance in favor of being a legitimate contender.

Fleury stops 24 of 25, two of the three other former Pens tally points, and the franchise that didn’t exist last year beats the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. Somebody call Disney.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Longtime Senator Chris Neil decided to hang up the skates this week, after a career spanning 15 seasons and over 1,000 games. One of the last of the ‘enforcer’ breed remaining, Neil was always known as one of the most complete players to wear the tough guy label, and was a highly-respected player both within his own locker room and throughout the league. All the best to Chris in his future endeavors.

In other Senators news, owner Eugene Melnyk said this week that while he has no aspirations of selling his team, he would consider relocating the franchise. While I’d imagine this resulted in numerous flaming bags of feces being placed upon his doorstep by Ottawa residents, I’m sure Quebec City natives happily sacrificed their shoes for their new hero.

Devan Dubnyk went down with a lower-body injury this week and is considered ‘week-to-week’, and if you open your window and listen very carefully, you can hear the screams of Wild fans from hundreds of miles away. (Note: If you’re in the Eastern Time Zone and north of the Ohio-Michigan border, these screams do mix in with the screams of Nordiques fans trying to remove their flaming pants.)

Oh, also in Ottawa news, holy frigg did that NHL 100 Classic look cold. I mean, I know with it being Ontario there were probably shirtless locals in attendance, but I was more than happy to watch from home.

Seattle looks poised to be the next expansion city, which is great, but I’m only going to really get on board if they decide to go with popular opinion and name the team the Seattle McSeattle Faces.

Kari Lehtonen joined a fairly exclusive club this week, as one of just 33 goaltenders to earn 300 wins in an NHL career. All the props in the world to him, because as someone who has spent his entire career with mostly-lackluster teams (I mean, he played for the Thrashers), it’s one hell of an accomplishment. Kari also surpassed Miikka Kiprusoff for most games played by Finnish goaltenders in the same contest, and trails only Kipper in wins by Finns. But with Preds stud Pekka Rinne at 285 career wins, the race to catch that record could be interesting. Cam Ward also reached 300 wins this week, but only managed to hold on to the distinction of ‘Most Unlikely 300-win Goalie’ for about 24 hours before Lehtonen would steal the distinction.

December 7 – Day 64 – More Metro mayhem

It’s time for me to keep the promise I made Tuesday.

We have a relatively busy schedule today, as there’s nine of a maximum 15 games to be played. Like it does almost every night, the action begins at 7 p.m. with two contests (Arizona at Boston and the New York Islanders at Pittsburgh [SN/TVAS]), followed by three more (Calgary at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Colorado at Tampa Bay and Winnipeg at Florida) half an hour later. Dallas at St. Louis is the only tilt to drop the puck at 8 p.m., and the next game, Philadelphia at Vancouver, doesn’t get underway until 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Ottawa at Los Angeles [RDS] and Carolina at San Jose) get started at 10:30 pm. to close out the evening. All time Eastern.

I hinted Tuesday that this was a big week for the Metropolitan Division. Phase two of that claim occurs tonight in the Steel City.

 

 

 

 

 

Making this relatively important matchup even more exciting is knowing how much these teams don’t get along. Whenever this series comes up on the calendar, I remember the first time I saw the fights between these organizations in February 2011 that led to 346 PIM, including 16 major penalties and 21 misconducts.

With that in mind, it almost makes the record between these clubs moot – except for the fact that playoff position is not determined by most or least penalties.

While this series has been relatively evenly matched since it began in 1973 (Pittsburgh owns only a 116-106-22 record against the Isles all-time), the Pens has absolutely dominated the New York since the 2004-’05 lockout. Over the past 12 seasons, the Penguins have won 10 of the past 12 season series, including winning seven-straight series from 2007-’08 to 2013-’14.

Of note, last year’s series between these clubs did end in a 2-1-1 tie, but the Penguins won the series based on the regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker 2-1.

This rivalry has also extended into the postseason four times. This is where New York has really put its foot on Pittsburgh’s throat, as the Islanders have advanced to the next round three of the four times they’ve run into the Penguins.

Playoff series between these teams have been an absolute thrill in the past. The first time they squared off was in the 1975 Quarterfinals. This series was dominated by the Penguins early, as they jumped out to a 3-0 advantage. But RW Ed Westfall wasn’t interested in losing to the higher seeded Pens, so he scored three goals, including the series clincher in at Civic Arena, to lead New York to four-straight wins arrange a date with the other Pennsylvanian team, with which they played another seven-game series.

Another incredible series occurred between these sides in the 1993 Patrick Division Finals. With neither team able to take control of the back-and-forth series (even though the road team won both Game 1 and Game 3), they required a deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh to settle the matter.

Further stressing how evenly matched these clubs were, regulation was not enough to determine which side was to advance to the Prince of Wales Conference Finals against Montréal. 5:16 into the first overtime period, W David Volek, who had scored only eight goals during the regular season, snapped the 3-3 tie to eliminate the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions.

Even in the series they lost, the Islanders were still a tough out for Pittsburgh. During the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the top-seeded Penguins needed six games to beat the Islanders, due in large part to the combined efforts of C John Tavares (3-2-5 totals) and future Penguin D Mark Streit (2-3-5).

Anyways, enough talk about the past. It’s time to figure out who has the upper-hand in the opening meeting of the four-game series between these clubs this year.

Let’s start with the 16-9-2 Islanders, who currently occupy the East’s top wildcard spot and are winners of eight of their past 11 games.

For both the entire season as a whole as well as this recent run of success, offense has been the name of the game in Brooklyn. Only one team – the Tampa Bay Lightning – can claim an offensive proficiency better than the Isles’ 3.66 goals-per-game, and New York has posted an even better 4.09 goals-per-game since November 11.

The man leading this vaunted attack is none other than Captain Tavares, who has managed 17-14-31 totals to position himself in third place in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

Of course, he also has the luxury of playing the role of misunderstood fruit on everyone’s favorite line in hockey: New York’s Sandwich Line. Named after the classic BLT, F Josh Bailey (5-26-31 totals) and F Anders Lee (16-12-28) join with Tavares to form the unstoppable trifecta at the top of the Islanders’ roster.

Add in the solid efforts of rookie C Mathew Barzal (7-19-26 totals) on the second line and you have a scary good group of forwards, even without mentioning RW Jordan Eberle (11-9-20) and F Joshua Ho-Sang (2-10-12).

The second wild card 15-11-3 Penguins are another team that likes to do their work on the offensive end, but they’ll need a little bit of help from the Isles’ D Scott Mayfield and his team-leading 23 penalty minutes to get the opportunity to employ their fourth-ranked power play.

What makes Pittsburgh so successful with the man-advantage is that it is so unpredictable. Led by RW Phil Kessel‘s 3-14-17 effort on the power play, five players have at least 10 extra-man points to help the Pens convert 25.68 percent of their man-advantage opportunities into goals. Of that group, C Sidney Crosby and RW Patric Hornqvist have been stellar, scoring six power play goals apiece.

Unfortunately, that success hasn’t translated into even-strength play. For the entire season, Pittsburgh averages only 2.96 goals-per-game to rank 15th-best in the NHL, well below last season’s league-leading 3.39 goals-per-game.

That’s why I feel like RW Ryan Reaves might be one of the bigger keys to the game for the Penguins this evening. With his team-leading 88 hits, perhaps he can find a way to get under Mayfield’s skin to earn the Pens a power play opportunity. If the Pens can get to the man-advantage, they should be able to convert given New York’s (t)second-worst 75 percent kill rate.

Since the Islanders are shorthanded 3.26 times-per-game (the 12th-fewest in the NHL), I think they’ll be able to keep their cool this evening and earn two points on the road.


Though they needed a shutout, the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Air Canada Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Calgary’s lone regulation goal was struck in the first period. Thanks to W Matt Martin getting caught holding RW Garnet Hathaway at the 9:27 mark, D Mark Giordano (C Sean Monahan and W Troy Brouwer) was able to take advantage of the ensuing power play to bury a wrist shot 1:10 later.

The Maple Leafs leveled the game in the waning minutes of the second frame courtesy of D Morgan Rielly‘s unassisted snap shot with 1:13 remaining before the second intermission. It was Rielly’s fourth goal of the season.

The Flames especially tried to end the game in regulation, as they fired 17 shots at First Star of the Game G Frederik Andersen, but neither they nor the Leafs could break the tie in either regulation or the five minute three-on-three overtime period.

As the home team, Head Coach Mike Babcock had the option to shoot first or second in the shootout.

  1. He chose first and sent out C Auston Matthews. As you’d expect from a player of his caliber, he beat Third Star G Mike Smith to give the Leafs an early 1-0 lead.
  2. Head Coach Glen Gulutzan called on Monahan to level the shootout score. After converting his first two opportunities of the season, he was unable to make his third as fired his shot over the net.
  3. Next up for Toronto was F Mitch Marner, who had the opportunity to force a miss-and-lose situation for the Flames if he could get a shot past Smith. The netminder knew the situation as well, because he was able to save the snapper.
  4. With the opportunity to make yet another headline, LW Matthew Tkachuk was tapped as the Flames’ next shooter. He didn’t disappoint and leveled the shootout at one-all.
  5. With the opportunity to win the game against his old Pacific Division rivals, F Patrick Marleau did what I’d probably do in that situation: he sailed his attempt over the net.
  6. Now it was LW Johnny Gaudreau‘s turn to end the game. He did a little better than Marleau by putting his shot on frame, but Andersen was able to save the wrister.
  7. Second Star F William Nylander went two NHL seasons without scoring a shootout goal, but last night ended the skid. He set the shootout score at 2-1, setting up a miss-and-lose situation for Calgary.
  8. Looking at the stats, it’s a wonder C Mikael Backlund represented the Flames’ best opportunity to continue the game. Last night marked the sixth shootout opportunity of his career, and Backlund has missed all six.

Andersen saved 47-of-48 shots faced (.979 save percentage) to earn the victory, leaving the shootout loss to Smith, who saved 28-of-29 (.966).

For the seventh consecutive day, home and road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have exchanged victories (it must be everyone’s holiday spirit). With yesterday being the home team’s turn, they’ve improved their record to 36-22-6, 15 points better than the visitors’.

DtFR Overtime: Where’s the Star Power?

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

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

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

OK, I think you get the idea.

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

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

It sounds basic, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stars are leaders.

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

Success breeds success.

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

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

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

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

November 27 – Day 54 – Battle of Pennsylvania

Welcome to the last week of November! I know you think you need to be doing your Christmas shopping, but you have all of December to do that. Instead, sit down this evening and watch some hockey.

If you’re wise and followed my instructions, the NHL has scheduled five games for your viewing pleasure. Two of them (Florida at New Jersey and Philadelphia at Pittsburgh [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) start at 7 p.m., followed by Columbus at Montréal (RDS/TSN2) half an hour later. Minnesota at Winnipeg continues the half-hour intervals by dropping the puck at 8 p.m., as does Anaheim at Chicago, which waits until 8:30 p.m. to close out the evening’s action. All times Eastern.

I know we just featured the Penguins Saturday, but there’s no way we can miss the season’s first iteration of the Battle of Pennsylvania.

 

To keep the story short, there’s only a few things these teams can agree on:

  1. Hockey is a good game.
  2. Pennsylvania is a good state commonwealth.
  3. Mark Recchi is a good guy.

Beyond that, there’s very little these rivals see eye-to-eye about. Of course, what should one expect from teams that have met 316 times in regular or postseason play (played to a 172-114-30 record in favor of Philadelphia, by the way).

Looking at the overall numbers, the Flyers have certainly had their way with this series. In addition to already owning the overall series by almost 60 games, they’ve also beaten Pittsburgh in four of their six playoff series, including winning three-straight from 1989-2000.

You’d think Pittsburgh having players like C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin would have had a way of leveling the playing field for the Pens of late, but every good rivalry has a way of dulling stars’ impact. Even though the Pens swept Philadelphia 8-0-0 during Malkin’s rookie season in 2006-’07, the Flyers have amassed a slightly superior 34-27-8 regular season record against the Penguins since Crosby first donned the black-and-gold.

The difference? Two points.

That’s right, a win by the Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena would level the Battle for Pennsylvania series during the Crosby Era – as if 12-10-3 Pittsburgh needed more motivation than it already had sitting a point outside of the playoff picture.

When we featured the Pens’ game against the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning a couple days ago, I mentioned that one of their problems seemed to be a dry spell by Crosby. Of course, he went out and proved me wrong, as he scored two goals and tacked on another assist to lead G Tristan Jarry to his first-ever NHL victory.

But there’s still another wound to poke on this squad: defense. Pittsburgh has allowed 3.4 goals-per-game this season, which is the fourth-highest in the entire NHL.

That being said, it seems even that problem might slowly be resolving itself. The Penguins search for a backup goaltender has been well documented, with offseason signing Antti Niemi failing miserably and already playing for his third team of the year. Since Jarry has been called up, the goaltending duo of him and starter 11-7-1 G Matthew Murray has found much more consistent play, as they’ve combined for a 2.89 season GAA.

Of course, it still seems probable that General Manager Jim Rutherford will eventually pursue a trade that allows him to send Jarry back to the AHL and resume playing consistently alongside fellow prospect Casey DeSmith, but his solid play has allowed management to take its time and find a good deal instead of rush into a bad decision.

Of course, that’s a discussion for another day, because it’s likely that Murray resumes starting duties this evening.

Compared to his rookie campaign and his 13 starts in 2015-’16, he’s left much to be desired in his first season as Pittsburgh’s undisputed number one, as he’s managed only a .906 save percentage and 2.94 GAA that ranks 14th and 11th-worst, respectively, among the 34 goalies with at least 10 starts.

But Murray is not the only contributor to Pittsburgh’s defensive woes. Even though D Kris Letang leads the team with 17 takeaways and RW Ryan Reaves throws 3.1 hits-per-game, Murray has already faced 595 shots this season, the eighth-most among that group of 34 goalies.

One of the odder things going on in Pittsburgh nowadays is D Ian Cole being a healthy scratch, as he leads the team with 1.8 blocks-per-game. He hasn’t dressed for the past two games, and word on the street from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey is that he’ll watch tonight’s game from the press box.

It’s peculiar that a defenseman so committed to keeping pucks away from his netminder that he’s only managed three points this season is the one being punished. Head Coach Mike Sullivan has yet to publicly show his hand (he claims Cole needs to improve his game), but the longer this goes on, the transaction rumors will only increase.

As for the 8-9-6 Flyers, they wish they were in as enviable a position as Pittsburgh to be unhappy with only being a point outside playoff position. For the umpteenth season in a row, Philly burst out of the starting gate to only find itself six points from the bottom of the conference.

A major reason for this slide has been the Flyers’ play over the second half of November. After beating the Blackhawks 3-1 on November 9, Philadelphia has earned only an 0-3-4 record since.

While the offense hasn’t been very good over this stretch (they’ve managed only 2.14 goals-per-game), it’s been the play on the defensive end that has been the true burden, as the Flyers have allowed 25 goals against in their past seven games.

Much of the responsibility for this struggle falls on the shoulders of 6-5-5 G Brian Elliott, who has started all but one of the games in this stretch for a .909 save percentage and 2.77 GAA that is actually better than his season marks of .905 and 2.85.

Unfortunately, that nominal improvement is simply not good enough behind an offense that scores only 2.83 goals-per-game on the season. Until the other three lines behind Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek decide to play hockey, General Manager Ron Hextall can only look forward to a trip to Dallas for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft to see if he can find a skater that can actually contribute (shots fired, F Nolan Patrick).

The reason Murray can put up comparable numbers to Elliott and still win is because of the goal support he receives from RW Phil Kessel, and it’s for that reason that I believe Pittsburgh will snap its two-game losing skid to the Flyers and beat them for the first time since February 25.


Though they needed the shootout to do it, the New York Rangers were able to beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 at Madison Square Garden in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Vancouver’s offense was ticking throughout this entire game, as it managed a goal in all three frames. W Loui Eriksson (C Henrik Sedin) took credit for the first period’s marker, burying a wrist shot 7:54 into the game.

The Canucks doubled their lead at the 7:21 mark of the second period courtesy of RW Jake Virtanen‘s third goal of the season, an unassisted wrister. However, this tally did not go unanswered, as Second Star of the Game RW Jesper Fast (D Nick Holden and D Brendan Smith) scored a wrister with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission to pull the Rangers back within a goal.

All the offensive action that ultimately mattered in the third period occurred in the opening 5:05 of the frame. W Michael Grabner (W Mats Zuccarello and D Kevin Shattenkirk) took his turn first, bagging a wrister only 19 seconds after emerging from the dressing room to level the game at two-all. The Rangers weren’t even for long though, as Third Star F Sam Gagner (W Thomas Vanek) returned the lead to Vancouver only 41 seconds later. First Star LW Jimmy Vesey (W Rick Nash and F Kevin Hayes) scored the final goal of regulation at the 5:05 mark, and it was an important one: Vesey’s backhanded shot tied the game at three-all and forced three-on-three overtime and, ultimately, the shootout.

As for how the shootout went down…

  1. Vanek took the opening attempt for the Canucks, but his wrister was saved by G Henrik Lundqvist.
  2. That provided Zuccarello an opportunity to earn a mini-break, but just like Vanek, his wrister was saved by G Jacob Markstrom.
  3. Vancouver’s second shooter was C Bo Horvat, but the shootout remained tied thanks to Lundqvist’s save.
  4. C Mika Zibanejad apparently grew tired of seeing all these saves, as he ensured Markstrom couldn’t get his mitts on his shot by sending it wide of the net.
  5. RW Brock Boeser finally found the first goal of the shootout for the Canucks, which forced a miss-and-lose situation for New York.
  6. Put in a pinch, Head Coach Alain Vigneault turned to Shattenkirk, who hadn’t scored a shootout goal since the 2015-’16 season. The defenseman ended that skid to continue the tiebreaker.
  7. Now in a sudden death situation, F Markus Granlund was sent out to win the game for the Canucks. Lundqvist had other ideas and was there to make the save.
  8. W Pavel Buchnevich‘s offering met the same fate: saved by Markstrom.
  9. LW Sven Baertschi started round five with a bang, as he beat Lundqvist to force New York’s second miss-and-lose situation.
  10. Cool under pressure, Nash sent the shootout on to the sixth round by beating Markstrom.
  11. Though he was able to score in regulation, Gagner couldn’t beat Lundqvist in the shootout.
  12. F J.T. Miller hasn’t scored a goal since November 2, and his luck didn’t change here. His offering was saved by Markstrom.
  13. Another skater, another save: this time, Lundqvist stopped D Ben Hutton in round seven.
  14. He was the one to force overtime, and he was the one to end the shootout: Vesey beat Markstrom to earn two points for the Blueshirts.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 29-of-32 shots faced (.906 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Markstrom, who saved 17-of-20 (.85).

After being on the wrong end of a two-game winning run two days ago, home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a two-game winning streak of their own. That has elevated their record to 29-19-6, 10 points better than the visitors’.

November 25 – Day 52 – Kunitz and the City of Champions

Aren’t holiday weekends great? There’s leftover Thanksgiving food for turkey sandwiches, you get to spend time with your family (ok, maybe that one’s not always super) and there’s sports abound.

It’s no different for the NHL. Even though 28 of the 31 teams in the league were active yesterday, there’s still a whopping 11 games on today’s slate. Six of those contests (Washington at Toronto [CBC/NHLN], Buffalo at Montréal [SN/TVAS], the New York Islanders at Ottawa [CITY], Detroit at New Jersey, Chicago at Florida and Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh) will drop the puck at 7 p.m., followed by two more (Vegas at Arizona and Minnesota at St. Louis) an hour later. When the clock reads 10 p.m., a pair of tilts (Winnipeg at San Jose [SN] and Calgary at Colorado [CBC]) find their starts, with tonight’s nightcap – Anaheim at Los Angeles – waiting half an hour before cleaning up another exciting day’s action. All times Eastern.

Who would’ve thunk it: there’s a few games I had already planned on taking note of today. Some that stick out to me include…

  • Washington at Toronto: It took the Capitals six games and six overtime periods to defeat the Maple Leafs in last season’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
  • Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh: For nine years LW Chris Kunitz was a Penguin. Today marks his first return to the Steel City as a member of the Lightning.
  • Minnesota at St. Louis: Hey, it’s another conference quarterfinals rematch, but this one occurred in the Western Conference.
  • Anaheim at Los Angeles: No playoff rematch here; just a good old-fashioned rivalry that dates way back to 1993.

We haven’t featured the Bolts or Pens in at least two weeks. Since I’m sure this will be an emotional night for Kunitz, let’s head up to PPG Paints Arena.

 

Kunitz’ career didn’t begin in Pittsburgh, but it might as well have. After five seasons and one Stanley Cup with Anaheim, Kunitz switched coasts as a result of being traded with F Eric Tangradi a week before the 2008-’09 deadline for D Ryan Whitney.

Former Penguins General Manager Ray Shero made the trade in efforts to create depth scoring on Pittsburgh’s roster behind C Sidney Crosby and F Evgeni Malkin, and boy did it ever work. In the final 20 regular season games of the year, Kunitz managed 7-11-18 totals with his new club, not to mention adding 14 points in the playoffs en route to his second ring and the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Considering Tangradi and Whitney have played a combined 625 games between them for their entire careers, I’d say the Penguins came out on top of that trade.

Of course, the legend of Kunitz in the Steel City continues beyond his efforts in the 2009 postseason. Over the course of his nine seasons wearing the black and gold, Kunitz amassed 169-219-388 totals (.682 points-per-game) while playing on any one of the Pens’ top three lines.

Though Kunitz spent most of his time on Pittsburgh’s third line last year, his presence was almost always felt as he morphed his game from one of the club’s top scorers to reliable depth players. As his offensive numbers have gone down (he posted only 9-20-29 totals last season), his efforts on the defensive end have only increased, as he managed 480 hits (3.18 hits-per-game) in his final two regular seasons with the Penguins that both culminated in Stanley Cups, his third and fourth.

It’s that willingness to do anything to help his team win that still makes him a desirable piece to any club in this league. That’s why General Manager Steve Yzerman felt the 38-year-old was worth paying $2 million this season to join the Lightning’s fourth line. So far, Kunitz has found moderate success in Tampa with 3-3-6 totals, but it’s his work ethic and the leadership in the dressing room that makes him such a valuable addition.

Of course, it’s not like the league-leading 16-4-2 Lightning needed all that much help scoring anyways. With a top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov leading the way, any offensive contributions Kunitz can make is just icing on the cake that is a league-best 3.77 goals-per-game offense.

While the normal five-on-five attack is scary enough, no other team in the league capitalizes on the power play like the Bolts do. With both Kucherov and Stamkos contributing 14 or more points with the man-advantage, Tampa Bay has converted a league-best 27.4 percent of its power plays.

Meanwhile, life could be going better for the 11-10-3 Penguins, a team that has now lost three-straight games following yesterday’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

Though they managed three goals in the second period yesterday, offense has absolutely dried up for the Pens during this skid, as they’ve scored only six goals since November 18 – the (t)fourth-fewest in the NHL. While F Jake Guentzel has been impressive from his spot on the second line (he’s scored three goals in his past three games), a major name that is missing from Pittsburgh’s points list is Malkin, who has missed the Pens’ last two tilts with an upper-body injury.

Even when Malkin returns to health, he’ll still be in search of his scoring form. He hasn’t found the back of the net since November 7 against the Coyotes, resulting in a five-game goalless skid.

With Crosby and Malkin not scoring goals, it’s tough for the Penguins to find too many wins – hence the 3-5-2 record over their past 10 games. Considering there’s been no indication Malkin will return to the ice this evening, it would seem likely the Lightning should get out of Pittsburgh with two points.


On the back of First Star of the Game G Pekka Rinne‘s shutout, the Nashville Predators were able to defeat the St. Louis Blues 2-0 at Scottrade Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Rinne performed excellently to earn his second shutout of the season, as he stopped all 34 shots on goal the Blues sent his way. Second Star G Carter Hutton also played brilliantly, but his one goal allowed on 27 shots faced (.963 save percentage) proved to the deciding marker in this game.

On only Nashville’s second shot on goal and 2:32 into the game, Third Star F Ryan Johansen (F Filip Forsberg and D P.K. Subban) provided the most important play of the game. Subban sent a pass around the boards that ended up on Forsberg’s stick near the right face-off dot, and the forward proceeded to drive towards Hutton’s net. Once he reached the goal line, he centered a pass to Johansen, who was waiting inside the right face-off circle to rip a snap shot over Hutton’s right shoulder.

Austin Watson (Johansen) tacked on an insurance goal on an empty net with 48 seconds remaining in regulation to ensure the Predators’ victory.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have now won two-straight games, but they still trail the 27-19-6 hosts by seven points.