Tag Archives: Rutherford

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’.

October 29 – Day 26 – Welcome to the NHL

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 11 – Day Eight – Second round preview

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Penguins 2017-’18 Season Preview

Pittsburgh Penguins

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

Beat Nashville in the Stanley Cup Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason Grade: D

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

April 4 – Day 167 – Who gets Game 7?

After a quiet Monday in the NHL last night, the final Tuesday of the regular season should be absolutely stellar.

Barring some freak weather system or facilities complication, 13 contests will take place this evening. All but four teams will be in action tonight, including the entire Western Conference.

The action gets started at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [NBCSN/SN/TVAS], Philadelphia at New Jersey and Columbus at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by two more (Washington at Toronto and Detroit at Ottawa [RDS]). Another trio (Winnipeg at St. Louis, the New York Islanders at Nashville and Carolina at Minnesota) will be contested at 8 p.m., with Arizona at Dallas waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Chicago at Colorado is the only matchup to start at 9 p.m., which is the same for Calgary at Anaheim (SN1) at 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Los Angeles [NBCSN] and Vancouver at San Jose) will drop the puck at 10:30 p.m. to finish the night.

Short list:

  • Philadelphia at New Jersey: Both teams may be eliminated from the postseason, but that won’t take away from the Battle of the Jersey Turnpike, which was already heated before Dalton Prout‘s hit on Radko Gudas.
  • Columbus at Pittsburgh: While the rivalry status of this matchup is still in the air, one thing is certain: it will have an immediate impact on the Metropolitan Division with only six days remaining in the season.
  • Edmonton at Los Angeles: With a little help from the Flames, this old-timey rivalry could provide the Oilers a shot at first place in the Pacific Division.

Riding a two-game winning streak, it seems like the Penguins are getting healthy and returning to form just in time for the playoffs. They’ll need all the help they can get tonight to try to retain home ice in the Eastern Quarterfinals.

 

There’s a lot at stake tonight in this game. 48-19-11 Pittsburgh currently has a one-point advantage on 49-21-8 Columbus for the second seed in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. Of course, that second seed is ultra-important in the not-so-new-anymore playoff format the NHL is using nowadways.

Instead of a conference tournament where the best team was paired with the worst team in a given conference until the conference championship (effectively the NBA’s playoffs, except the NHL used to reseed after every round), the league now crowns two division champions, determined by three seven-game playoffs, to play for one of the conference titles.

Whether you’re a fan of the format or not (Hint: I’m not. #TeamOldFormat), it’s the world we live in. And that’s what makes this matchup so integral. As all sports fans know, a home ice/court/field advantage can be wildly important in deciding who wins a Game 7 and advances to the next round, or loses and schedules tee times a week later.

All that aside, this also acts as a week-early preview for a highly-probable first round playoff matchup. Considering what is on the table, I doubt either of the coaching staffs are too concerned about putting too much film in their opponent’s hands. Then again, we are talking about John Tortorella, so who knows?

While I’m in no way implying that I think the Jackets have lost their edge, they have hit a slight rough patch in the past week; since March 30, they’ve amassed only a 0-2-1 record. Given, their two regulation losses are in Chicago and against the Capitals, but beating playoff teams is relatively important when the postseason starts next week.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the best defenses in the league all season long, allowing only 2.28 goals-against per game – the second-best mark in the NHL. In the last three games, they’ve allowed eight goals – well above that mark.

Much of that season success has been due to a solid blueline. Unfortunately for 41-15-5 Sergei Bobrovsky (more on him in a minute), a blueline collapse is not the reason for Columbus‘ recent struggles. They’ve allowed only 28.3 shots-against in the past week, which is actually down from the usual 30.4 they’ve averaged all year.

No, the blame rests on Bobrovsky’s shoulders. While he’s been almost as far from horrible as one can get, he’s not been his usual super-reliable self. On the season, he has a .934 save percentage and 1.99 GAA (both are best in the league among goalies with more than eight games played), but he’s let his numbers drop to .906 and 2.56 in the past six days.

As showcased by Chicago and Washington, that extra sliver of space is all elite offenses need to capitalize.

With the postseason on the horizon, the important thing is that the penalty kill has remained healthy. The fact that the Jackets have allowed only one power play goal against since March 30 is proof enough that nothing needs to be retooled in Columbus; Bobrovsky just needs to focus back in and the Jackets should be set for an effective postseason.

The thing that does need to be checked for life is the power play. Usually successful on 19.9% of attempts – an above-average effort – the Jackets haven’t scored on the man-advantage in their past seven attempts. It is moments like these where Captain Nick Foligno and power play-mastermind Alexander Wennberg need to step up and provide the offensive spark for their club, a squad that desperately needs one with the extra-man.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if the Penguins are doing much better of late. Since March 23, they’ve gone 2-2-2, though their last two contests were victories against solid offenses in Carolina and New York.

Though I love statistics, Pittsburgh‘s drop in production can be attributed to one thing and one thing along: injuries. There’s still seven Penguins on the injury report, including the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz, who went down against the Rangers Saturday.

That explains why the best offense in the league has managed only 13 goals in six games, but why has Pittsburgh allowed so many goals of late?

I’m going to give  30-10-4 Matthew Murray a pass here and blame the blueline. Of course, the Penguins‘ defense is hurt too. Trevor Daley, Letang and Olli Maatta have not registered a game since at least February 21, all of whom average more than a shot block per game when healthy.

One of those pieces looks to be coming back soon though. The Penguins‘ official Twitter handle indicated that Daley returned to practice today, so it remains to be seen when he will see game action.

Until then, Pittsburgh needs to find a way to keep shots off Murray. In the past six games, the Pens blueline has allowed 213 shots (35.5) to reach their goaltender, which is worse than their already very bad 32.6 season average.

Both Justin Schultz and Ian Cole have been fantastic in their efforts, as they’ve combined for 26 shot blocks in the past six games. But it’s skaters like Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel that need to improve their effort.

It is hard to have such high expectations for Ruhwedel, who has bounced between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the fact that he has only one block in five games with the Penguins should be alarming to Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan, and could impact if he gets a contract of any kind this offseason.

Where Murray doesn’t get a pass is the penalty kill. He’s faced seven power play shots in the past six games, and has saved only four of them. Four. As you’d expect, a .571 power play save percentage has dropped the Penguins‘ penalty kill numbers to the bottom of the league in that stretch of time, as they’ve successfully stopped only 76.9% of opposing attempts in the last 13 days.

The current Penguins‘ brightest spot has to be a a power play that has managed to convert 30.8% of its opportunities since March 23, the seventh-best effort in that time. Though Phil Kessel, who has 29 power play points on the season, still leads the team’s man-advantage, it’s been a full-team attack of late as both lines have found the back of the net. In fact, even though the squad has managed four power play goals in this stretch, no player has more than two points to his credit.

Though the Blue Jackets have gone 2-0-1 against Pittsburgh this year, they still have yet to clinch the season series. The Pens could tie it all up tonight if they can best Columbus in regulation.

If February 17 is any indicator, the Penguins will have to work extremely hard to get that done. Columbus needed overtime to best Pittsburgh 2-1 the last time they met (Brandon Dubinsky scored the game-winner), though they had that pesky home ice we were talking about earlier in their favor.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include ColumbusCam Atkinson (34 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]), Bobrovsky (1.99 GAA on a .934 save percentage [both best in the NHL] for 41 wins [tied for the most in the league], including seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the NHL]) and David Savard (+30 [sixth-best in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Sidney Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 84 points [tied for fourth-most in the league]) and Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the NHL]).

Though wounded, Vegas has marked Pittsburgh a -130 favorite going into tonight’s game. I expect a tight game, but I’m actually leaning towards the Blue Jackets. I think their special teams are an even match for those of the Penguins and their offense should take advantage of a struggling Pittsburgh defensive corps.

Hockey Birthday

  • Pat Burns (1952-2010) – It may have been the shortest stop in his 14 years of head coaching, but Burns is most remembered for leading the 2003 Devils to the Stanley Cup.
  • Dale Hawerchuk (1963-) – Winnipeg selected this center with the top pick in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, and it turned out to be a good pick. In addition to winning the 1982 Calder Memorial Trophy, this Hall-of-Famer played in five All-Star Games over his 16 seasons.
  • Yanic Perreault (1971-) – Selected 47th-overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, this center played 14 seasons – most of which with Los Angeles. Though he appeared in only one All-Star Game, he scored 247 goals over his career.
  • Kevin Weekes (1975-) – Before working for NHL Network and starting his clothing line No5Hole, this goaltender was selected 41st-overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by Florida. He ended up playing 348 games over 11 seasons – most of which with Carolina – for a 105-163-39 record.
  • Roberto Luongo (1979-) – Another goalie, Luongo was picked fourth-overall by the Islanders in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Currently in his second stint with the Panthers, he’s played 494 of his 966 games with Florida. He has a career 453-365-117 record.
  • Evgeny Artyukhin (1983-) – Tampa Bay selected this right wing 94th-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he played most of his three-year career. He managed only 49 points before returning to Russia.
  • Doug Lynch (1983-) – Another player whose career didn’t last long, this defenseman was selected 43rd-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Edmonton. He only played two games with the Oilers, and has since played most of his career in the EBEL.
  • Cam Barker (1986-) – This defenseman was the third-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by Chicago, and that’s where he spent most of his eight-year NHL career. Most recently, he was playing in the KHL for HC Slovan Bratislava.

Led by Nazem Kadri‘s two-point effort, the Maple Leafs bested Buffalo 4-2 in the Battle of the QEW, yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Toronto took command of this game quickly, as it had a 3-0 lead by the 5:09 mark of the first frame. Third Star of the Game Leo Komarov (Kadri) took credit for the Leafs‘ first tally, tipping-in a shot 4:26 after the initial puck drop. 35 seconds later, First Star Auston Matthews (William Nylander and Jake Gardiner) doubled that lead by potting a wrist shot. That surge culminated with Second Star James van Riemsdyk (Tyler Bozak), who notched the game-winner only eight seconds after Matthews’ 39th tally of the season, the most ever by an American rookie.

Buffalo finally got on the board 1:51 into the second period. Though Marcus Foligno still had nine seconds remaining on his cross-checking penalty against Kadri at the end of the first period, Ryan O’Reilly (Brian Gionta) notched a shorthanded snap shot to pull the Sabres within two goals of their Canadian rivals.

That 3-1 score held until the 5:50 mark of the third period. That’s when Kadri (Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) buried his power play marker to reclaim a three-goal advantage for Toronto. Jack Eichel (Sam Reinhart) buried a backhanded shot with 56 seconds remaining in the game, but it was too little too late to effect Buffalo‘s fate.

Frederik Andersen earned the win after saving 20-of-22 shots faced (90.9%), leaving the loss to Robin Lehner, who saved two-of-five (40%). He was pulled after van Riemsdyk’s game-winning slap shot in favor of Anders Nilsson, who saved 39-of-40 (97.5%) for no decision.

Toronto‘s victory snaps the four-game winning streak by the 85-59-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Though hosts have still had more success when featured, their advantage over the visitors is now only three points.

March 10 – Day 142 – PETA made me change this title

Now that the week’s work is done, it’s time to settle in for a little hockey action. Tonight’s festivities start at 7 p.m. with Buffalo at Columbus, followed half an hour later by two more games (Chicago at Detroit [NHLN/SN] and Minnesota at Florida). Anaheim at St. Louis drops the puck at 8 p.m., with tonight’s nightcap – Pittsburgh at Edmonton (TVAS) – dropping the puck an hour after. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Chicago at Detroit: Everybody loves a little bit of Original Six action, right?
  • Pittsburgh at Edmonton: Justin Schultz joined the Penguins at last season’s trade deadline after four seasons with the Oilers.

Not only is Schultz’ return to northern Alberta worthy of watching, this should be an exemplary contest. To Rogers Place we go!

 

A University of Wisconsin product, this defenseman was selected 43rd-overall by Anaheim in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, but the two parties were unable to reach a contract after he decided to forgo his senior year.

Similar to Jimmy Vesey this offseason, Schultz was able to be courted as a free agent by the entire league and, well, when Wayne Gretzky shows up at your door asking you to don the blue-and-orange of Edmonton, you usually do what he says.

I mean, I would.

If the 2012-’13 lockout helped anybody as far as their playing ability is concerned, it would have to be the rookies. Shultz happened to be one of those youngsters to begin his professional career during that time, so he was assigned to the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton‘s AHL affiliate) where he was able to acclimate his game to that of the pros without holding back the Oil – as if they needed help in that department those days. In fact, he was so impressive during his time playing AAA hockey that he won the Eddie Shore Award, which is awarded annually to the AHL’s top defenseman.

Whether it was the initial plan before the lockout or not, that has been the only time Schultz has spent in the AHL during his career. When the Oilers opened their season on January 20, 2013, he experienced his first career NHL game and played nearly 21 minutes.

That was the beginning of a 248 game-career in Edmonton that spanned four seasons. Known for his offensive contributions from the blueline, Schultz truly shined brightest for the Oil during his sophomore season when he scored 11 goals for 33 points.

He could not maintain that success though, and his numbers dipped from 2014-’16. That prompted Peter Chiarelli to ship the defenseman to Pittsburgh for a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (the Oilers selected Filip Berglund, who has yet to depart for the NHL from Sweden).

To put it simply, whichever scout suggested to Jim Rutherford to make that trade deserves a hefty raise if he hasn’t received one already. Schultz scored eight points in his 18 regular season games with the Penguins, only two short of his total over 45 games in Edmonton in 2015-16. He added on another four assists en route to the Stanley Cup, including three on the road in San Jose and Tampa Bay.

After considering free agency over the offseason, he returned to the Steel City for this season – and the Penguins are glad to have him. He’s having a career year, already notching 12 goals (career high) for 45 points (career high by a dozen points) and notching his first positive +/- since entering the NHL. In fact, that +28 is seventh-best in the league.

He only signed a one-year contract with the Pens this year, so he’ll once again be a free agent this offseason. Something tells me he’ll be making more than $1.4 million on his next contract regardless of if he’s wearing black-and-gold or any other colors.

Pittsburgh will probably be very interested in retaining him. It may be simply coincidence, but Schultz is riding a three-game goal streak while the Pens are also enjoying a three-game winning streak. While Pittsburgh is not undefeated when he buries the puck, it’s pretty close – the Penguins are 11-2-0 when the blueliner finds the back of the net, and 11-1-0 on his multi-point nights.

Speaking of goal-scoring, that’s beyond a shadow of a doubt the way Pittsburgh has earned their 41-16-8 record – and that’s not intended to be a Maddenism. The Pens have managed 228 goals this year, the most in the league.

Just like it’s been since the 2006-’07 season, the offensive juggernaut that is the Pittsburgh Penguins has been headlined by the dynamic duo of Captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both of whom have 70 points to their credit. Arguably, Malkin has had the better season given the fact that he’s achieved that total on one-fewer game than Crosby, but Sid the Kid (he’s still under 30-years-old, he keeps the nickname a little longer) has the goals –  34, in fact – three more than Malkin to pace the squad.

As you’d expect from an offense of that caliber, Pittsburgh‘s power play cannot be taken lightly. Led by Phil Kessel‘s 27 man-advantage points, the Pens have converted 23.1% of their power plays – the third-best mark in the NHL. Crosby is still the one completing most of those plays though, as his 11 power play goals is one more than Malkin’s total to lead the club.

It’s a battle of strength vs. strength tonight, as the 35-23-8 Oilers are building a reputation for being one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. Edmonton ties for ninth-fewest in goals allowed, with only 170 pucks sneaking past Cam Talbot.

Remember last season when we though Chiarelli was an idiot for trading for Talbot? Yeah, that seems to be working out now for Edmonton, as he has a 33-19-7 record on a .919 save percentage and 2.4 GAA – the (t)eighth and 10th-best marks, respectively, in the league among the 35 netminders with at least 30 appearances this year.

Those numbers aren’t a major step up from last season, but the reason the Oil is finding so much more success is because the defense playing in front of Talbot has vastly improved. Last year, Edmonton‘s defense allowed 31.1 shots to reach his crease per game, the (t)fourth-highest rate in the league. This year, that number is down to 29.6, the (t)ninth-lowest. The addition of Kris Russell, who has really focused on his defensive play this season, has played a huge part in that improvement, as he leads the team with 153 shot blocks.

When the Oilers have everything under control, they’re a solid team. Put a skater in the penalty box, and all heck breaks loose. The youth on the blueline truly shows when Edmonton is forced to the penalty kill, as the Oilers‘ 79.2% penalty kill rate is eighth-worst in the NHL. Old Man Russell (he’s older than eight of the 11 defenseman that have skated for the Oilers this season) has tried his hardest with his 28 shorthanded shot blocks, but he could use more help from other experienced defensemen like Andrej Sekera.

What Edmonton gives up on the penalty kill, it gets back on the power play. Successful on 21.1% of attempts, the Oilers tie for the eighth-best attack in the NHL with the man-advantage. Leon Draisaitl has been the star of that effort with 20 power play points, as he also leads the team with his 10 extra-man goals.

As is the case with most East-West matchups this late into the season, tonight’s host has already made it’s annual visit to the opposite arena. It was not a good trip for the Oilers though, as they fell 4-3 on November 8 due to a Conor Sheary winner with 102 seconds remaining in regulation.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Edmonton‘s Connor McDavid (52 assists for 74 points [both most in the NHL]) and Talbot (33 wins [fourth-most in the league], including five shutouts [tied for fifth-most in the NHL]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (34 goals [most in the league] for 70 points [tied for second-most in the NHL]), Malkin (70 points [tied for second-most in the league] on 31 goals [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]), Matthew Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the league]) and Schultz (+28 [seventh-best in the NHL]).

Vegas has given Edmonton a +100 line for tonight’s game, which means they favor the Penguins. I have to agree with them, as Pittsburgh‘s strength is stronger than Edmonton‘s, and I think the Pens‘ penalty kill will be able to keep the Oil‘s power play in check.

As far as Schultz is concerned, he may not receive a special welcome from Edmontonians, but I get the impression he’ll want to prove Chiarelli and the Oilers made a poor decision trading him a season ago.

Hockey Birthday

  • Tuukka Rask (1987-) – Although selected 21st-overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, this goaltender has played each and every one of his 383 career games with the Bruins. Winner of the 2014 Vezina Trophy, he has a career 198-119-47 record on a .923 save percentage and 2.24 GAA, both of which tie with Cory Schneider for best in the NHL among goalies with at least 200 appearances since the 2007-’08 season.

Led by First Star of the Game Tyler Bozak‘s two-point contribution, Toronto bested the Flyers 4-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

It goes down as a come-from-behind victory for the Maple Leafs, as Wayne Simmonds (Second Star Shayne Gostisbehere and Claude Giroux) scored a power play slap shot 6:09 into the contest to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead. William Nylander (Jake Gardiner and Connor Brown) pulled Toronto even with a power play goal of his own, a wrist shot 7:48 later. The one-all score held into the first intermission.

Only one goal was struck in the second frame, and that’s where the First Star comes into play. Bozak buried his unassisted snap shot 9:28 into the period to give the Leafs a lead they would not yield the rest of the night.

With 6:16 remaining in regulation, Mitch Marner (Morgan Rielly and Bozak) scored a power play wrister for an insurance goal-turned-winner. Gostisbehere (Valtteri Filppula and Jakub Voracek) pulled Philly back within a goal 3:48 later, but an unassisted Nazem Kadri wrister on an empty net with a minute remaining in regulation ended any chance of the Flyers completing a comeback.

Third Star Frederik Andersen earned the victory after saving 36-of-38 shots faced (94.7%), leaving the loss to Michal Neuvirth, who saved 29-of-32 (90.625%).

Toronto‘s home victory is the second-straight by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, and pulls hosts within two points of the series’ 72-50-22 visitors.

December 14 – Day 68 – Trial by Fire

Yesterday’s Game of the Day was a Metropolitan beat-down, as the New York Islanders absolutely took it to the New Jersey Devils, winning on a four-goal shutout.

The game-winning goal belongs to First Star of the Game Marek Zidlicky, scored at the 7:43 mark of the opening period after being assisted by Mikhail Grabovski and Josh Bailey.  Third Star John Tavares notched the lone insurance goal of the first period at the 11:53 mark after being assisted by Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson.

It was another two-goal period for the Isles in the second, with Matt Martin notching the first one at the 7:28 mark, with assists going to Casey Cizikas and Calvin de Haan.  Zidlicky snuck his second goal of the game, and the final tally of the night, at the 19:17 mark, with assists belonging to Thomas Hickey and Steve Bernier.  The 4-0 lead held not only  into the second intermission, but to the final horn.

Second Star Thomas Greiss (9-3-2) earned the shutout victory on 27 shots faced, while Cory Schneider (13-8-4) earns the loss after saving only 15 of 18 (83.3%).  He was pulled from the game after 27:28 (the third goal of the game), with Keith Kinkaid finishing up the remaining 32:32, saving 11 of 12 (91.7%).

Tomorrow’s schedule consists of five games, and the action gets started at 7 p.m. eastern when three of them drop the opening puck (Edmonton at Boston [TVAS], Washington at Pittsburgh [NHLN] and Tampa Bay at Columbus), with the other two following only half an hour later (Los Angeles at Ottawa [RDS] and Buffalo at Detroit [Bell TV]).

Two of tonight’s games are between divisional rivals (Washington at Pittsburgh and Buffalo at Detroit), and only one is between two teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Los Angeles at Ottawa).  Then again, this information really doesn’t matter that much, as you probably knew which matchup is our Game of the Day today.

Washington Capitals LogoPittsburgh Penguins Logo

 

 

 

 

 

When Pittsburgh fired Head Coach Mike Johnston Saturday morning, you saw this one coming.  Johnston led the club to a 15-10-3 record so far this season (58-37-15 during his 110-game tenure), which has the Pens in fifth place in the division and ninth in the conference.

Even though Jim Rutherford went out and traded for Phil Kessel (nine goals [second-most on team]) as well as ascertained a few other offensive skaters, Johnston’s Penguins simply did not produce, which should take most of the blame for him being relieved of his duties.  So far this season, they’ve only scored 66 goals (led by Evgeni Malkin’s 13), but even more distressing is the 858 shots (led by Kessel’s 90) they’ve put on goal (trails the league average by 13).  While the number isn’t terribly under the league average, their 7.7% shot percentage speaks volumes, as it trails the league average by 1.2%.

Probably the biggest issue of Pittsburgh‘s game has been the power play.  They’ve scored only 15 goals (led by Malkin’s six) on 96 opportunities, for a 15.63% success rate that trails the league average by 3.49%.  One saving grace about the Pens‘ man-advantage has been that they have yet to give up a shorty all season.

What has kept Pittsburgh in the midst of the playoff hunt this season has been Marc-Andre Fleury (13-9-2) and the defense.  They’ve only given up 65 goals so far this season, a number that makes most teams jealous.  Not only have Fleury and co. saved 92.9% of the 887 shots they’ve faced this season, but they’ve also had Ian Cole’s team-leading 60 blocks to keep even more from reaching the net.

Even when a man-down, the Pens have still done well in keeping the opposition off the board.  They’ve only given up 15 power play goals on 95 attempts, saving a strong 84.21% of attempts.

Johnston’s replacement was found within the organization, albeit four hours up the road in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.  Mike Sullivan had only been the head coach of the Baby Pens for this season, but he had led his AHL squad to a 19-5-0 record (best winning percentage in the league) and the top of the Atlantic Division.  In addition to playing 12 years of professional hockey (including part or all of 11 seasons in the NHL) he was head coach of the Boston Bruins for two seasons from 2003-’06 (04-’05 was the lockout) where he amassed a total record of 70-56-15-23.  He also coached the Vancouver Canucks for six games during the ’13-’14 season when John Tortorella was suspended, earning a 2-4-0 record.

Another indicator that management is expecting more goals scored is Wilkes-Barre/Scranton‘s offensive strength.  The Baby Penguins have scored 89 goals so far this season, a total that is second in the conference and third in the league, while being backed by the second-best defense and goaltending in the league.  Sullivan will be expected to enact that same game plan with the senior squad, especially since the defense is already present.

It will be trial by fire for Sullivan’s first game though, as he is going up against the division-leading and second-best in conference 20-6-2 Washington Capitals.  Washington plays a tough game on both ends of the ice, but their defense and goaltending has been their strongest asset this season and will be a good test for Sullivan’s new system.

So far this season, Washington has given up only 62 goals, thanks in part to Karl Alzner’s 62 blocks and Braden Holtby (18-4-1) and co.’s incredible play.  Of the 766 shots that have made their way to the net (102 fewer than the league average, but on two-less games), Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have saved 92.4%.  Even when down a man, the Caps have still kept the opposition off the board 83.54% of the time, giving up only 13 tallies.

The offense has been no joke either, as they’ve put 854 shots (led by Alex Ovechkin’s 138) on goal so far this season for 83 tallies (9.7%), led by Ovechkin’s 14.  Probably the scariest facet of Washington‘s game is the power play, as they’ve scored on 21 of 90 opportunities (23.33%), led by Ovechkin’s four.

Some players to watch in tonight’s game include Pittsburgh‘s Fleury (13 wins [tied for fifth in the league], two shutouts [tied for seventh in the league] and .927 save percentage [eighth in the league]) and Washington‘s Holtby (18 wins [leads the league], 1.9 GAA [leads the league] and .93 save percentage [tied for sixth in the league]), Evgeny Kuznetsov (+15 [tied for second in the league]) and Ovechkin (14 goals [tied for seventh in the league]).

Based on the stats alone, Pittsburgh‘s weak offense should not be able to keep up with Washington‘s, but it is always hard to tell how a team will react to a new coach.  Unlike the first coaching change of the year in Columbus (which, interestingly, involved the coach he replaced in Vancouver), I think this one was a good move by management that will hopefully yield positive results for an organization that intends to be a part of the playoff discussion.