Tag Archives: Saros

2018-19 NHL Schedule Analysis

It’s that time of year again – it’s time to analyze the NHL’s schedule for the upcoming season.

As mentioned in last year’s edition of this post, these sorts of columns aren’t usually associated with the NHL due in large part to the fact that every team plays every other team at least twice – once at home and once on the road – for a fairly even strength of schedule for each and every club. However, there’s more than a few benchmarks on the league’s calendar, as well as some important stretches in each organization’s individual schedule, that makes each team’s campaign unique.

In terms of how the schedule can be divided, the NHL’s offering for this upcoming season is very similar to the one we just completed in June in that it can be divided into fourths. One quarter of the season – approximately 21 games played for every team – is compacted between Opening Day (scheduled for October 3) and American Thanksgiving, the second of nine days this year without any regular season play.

American Thanksgiving is not an arbitrarily picked date, mind you. Longtime fans of DtFR know there’s more than a few stat-heads in residence around here, and one of our favorites is that teams in playoff position by American Thanksgiving qualify for the postseason over 75 percent of the time. For those wondering, last season was a bit wild in regards to that statistic, as only 11 (instead of the usual 12) of the teams in playoff position by the Thanksgiving Break punched tickets to the dance.

I’m not here to point fingers, but the St. Louis Blues were on top of the Western Conference when they sat down for their 2017 turkey feasts. Maybe the tryptophan stuck around for the remainder of the season?

Excuse this Blues fan’s digressions.

I usually consider the second and third quarters as one group (for those bad at math, that’s half the schedule), meaning Black Friday (November 23) to February 24 provides the main bulk of the season – approximately 41 games per team (funny how that works out to half an 82-game season, isn’t it?). Just like Thanksgiving, February 24 is not a date simply drawn out of a hat. Instead, that is the last day of play before February 25’s trade deadline.

It is in this chunk of the season that a team truly proves itself in the face of a grinding schedule, as clubs will be playing at least three games a week for 13 weeks with only two major breaks – the standard three-day Christmas holiday and the All-Star Break/bye week (more on that in a moment).

After the trade deadline, the NHL’s regular season schedule is hot and heavy until it comes to a close on April 6 (You hear that Boston? No extending the season this year!). With every club packing approximately 20 games into only 41 days, teams will effectively be in action every other day as they scramble to complete their playoff qualification or improve upon their seeding.

Of course, there’s always a few wildcards that try to mess with this system. Take, for example, the Florida Panthers, who for the second season in a row have a backlogged schedule. With only 19 games on their calendar before Thanksgiving, the Panthers will play a whopping 22 games after the deadline to close out the season, meaning they just might complete they playoff push they came so close to pulling off last season.

On the flip side, Nashville is a team that has potential to see a stellar position in the standings – say, possession of the Presidents’ Trophy like Tampa Bay had for much of the season – slip through its fingers at the bitter end. The Predators will lace up their skates only 18 times after the trade deadline for the fewest number of tilts in that time span of any club in the NHL.

In terms of spacing their games evenly across the season, the teams with the most-balanced schedules include the Avalanche, Blackhawks, Bruins, Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning, Rangers, Senators, Sharks, Stars and Wild.


This season marks the third season of bye weeks in the NHL, and the league is continuing to make adjustments on the breaks to maximize the benefits for players while minimizing the impact on its overall product.

Year 1 featured byes scattered throughout the schedule from New Year’s all the way into March, creating confusion among fans and, presumably, opposing coaching staffs alike as we tried to keep track of which organizations had taken their breaks already and which were still playing on tired legs.

To alleviate that concern, the NHL condensed all byes into the span of two weeks in January last season with relative success. Gone was the chance of catching a team that had played for four-straight months without much of a break, as well as the chance a team could enter the playoffs with any sniff of an edge due to enjoying their bye later in the season. However, what that design created was a month book-ended by the Christmas and All-Star Breaks that lacked much action, as it’s tough to have games taking place when literally half the league is resting.

In my opinion, the league just might have found a winning formula in its third try. This year’s schedule sees every team’s bye week attached to the All-Star Weekend in San Jose. 21 clubs will enjoy the majority of their breaks following the festivities on January 24-27, while the remaining 10 will take their byes before the weekend or have it split on either side of the break.

What results is a minimum of four days off for all players regardless of their participation in San Jose, plus the four days allocated to the All-Star events that only a handful of players will attend. In addition, by selecting a majority of the 10 teams that will take their byes before the All-Star Break from the Eastern Conference, the NHL can schedule those sides for enough games to fill the scheduling void since travel between those cities is far shorter than in the West.

The players get their breaks and the NHL keeps hockey in arenas and on TV: I’d say everybody wins.


My favorite days of the regular season are always when there’s 15 games on the schedule, leaving only one team inactive. I guess that means I’ll have to do my Christmas shopping on a different day, because the first of those dates is November 23 – right after American Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately for Kings fans, their favorite club will be left out in the cold that day (who am I kidding, is there ever a cold day in Los Angeles?), but they’ll get to participate in December 29’s loaded schedule at the expense of Columbus.

Finally, the last 15-game day of the calendar is on April 6 – the final day of the regular season. Just like the Kings were the first team to be absent on a slammed schedule, the Ducks will be the odd team out, as their 82nd and final game of the regular season will take place the day before against Los Angeles at Honda Center.

ANAHEIM DUCKS – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

It’s hard to tell: did the Ducks have the worst road record of any 2018 Pacific Division playoff team because of all their injuries, or because their style of play is on the verge of extinction in the NHL’s current era of speed and skill?

I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll know soon enough, as four of Anaheim’s first six games are away from Honda Center. Should the Ducks struggle in Glendale against the potentially up-and-coming Coyotes in Game 2 of the regular season on October 6, there just might be cause for concern in Orange County.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (December 15-27)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (December 29-January 11)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Colorado, vs. Florida, vs. Winnipeg, vs. San Jose, at Los Angeles, at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Edmonton, vs. Calgary, vs. Los Angeles

ARIZONA COYOTES – 29th, 70 points

Going 0-10-1 in your opening 11 games is going to have a majorly detrimental effect on more than your overall record, so it’s no surprise the Coyotes ended the season with the worst home and road records of any club in the Western Conference. However, Arizona posted an 11-7-2 record in its last 20 games to close the campaign, so perhaps the Yotes aren’t as far off the mark as they seem on the surface.

Just like last season, Arizona’s first 11 games could answer a lot of questions about this organization moving forward, as the Coyotes have drawn a balanced schedule to open their season. Six of their first 11 opponents qualified for the playoffs last season (including Winnipeg [Oct. 20] and the Lightning [Oct. 27]), but almost all of the other five were nowhere close to the playoff bubble (Dallas [Oct. 4] was closest, but still missed the postseason by three points). Now, the Coyotes don’t necessarily have to have a winning record by the time October is through, but at least a .500 record would be reason enough to begin believing in this squad.

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 14 days (February 24-March 9)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at New Jersey, at NY Islanders, vs. Chicago, at Colorado, vs. Minnesota, vs. Los Angeles, at Vegas, vs. Winnipeg

BOSTON BRUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 112 points

Known for its brutal winters and Nor’easters, few look forward to making the trip to Boston during the wintertime. Count hockey players in particular among the professionals unexcited about a visit to New England, as TD Garden was home to the best home team in the Atlantic Division.

The Bruins fell just one point short of claiming the Eastern Conference crown last regular season, but they’ll have a chance to take an early lead this year when they open the season with eight-straight games against teams that failed to miss the playoffs. After visiting Washington D.C. for the Capitals’ banner raising ceremony on October 3, Boston will head to Buffalo (Oct. 4) before returning home to host the Senators (Oct. 8), Oilers (Oct. 11) and Red Wings (Oct. 13). Then, they’re off to Canada, taking on Calgary (Oct. 17), Edmonton (Oct. 18), Vancouver (Oct. 20) and Ottawa (Oct. 23) before returning home.

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (February 15-23)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (February 26-March 9)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Islanders, at New Jersey, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Florida, at Detroit, at Columbus, at Minnesota, vs. Tampa Bay

BUFFALO SABRES – 31st, 62 points

Is it a surprise that the worst home team of the NHL ended up being the worst team at the end of the season? KeyBank Center was not a friendly place for the Sabres last year, but that’s sure to change with first-overall draft pick D Rasmus Dahlin joining the club to excite the loyal Buffalo fans.

Surely to the surprise of many, the Sabres did not finish the 2017-18 season with the worst road record in the league (that belonged to division rival Montréal). 14-20-7 away from home is far from pretty, but is is certainly something to build off of as Buffalo tries to return to the postseason for the first time in eight years.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 17 days (January 14-30)

BYE WEEK: January 19-28 (10 days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 15 days (February 1-15)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at Montréal, at New Jersey, at Ottawa, vs. Detroit, at NY Islanders, vs. Columbus, vs. Nashville, vs. Ottawa, at Detroit

CALGARY FLAMES – 20th, 84 points

Teams with outstanding road records in the regular season are usually pretty dangerous in the postseason – but only if they qualify. Enter the curious case of the Calgary Flames last season, as they tied St. Louis for the honor of Best Road Team among those that failed to qualify for the playoffs with a 20-15-6 mark away from the Saddledome.

If new Head Coach Bill Peters can maintain that success in white, he’ll need to make sure his troops are in tip-top shape at the start of the New Year when the Flames begin their longest home stand. During that extended stay in Alberta, Calgary will host tough competition of the likes of the Avalanche (Jan. 9) and Panthers (Jan. 11), as well as the improving Coyotes (Jan. 13) and Sabres (Jan. 16).

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (January 9-18)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (February 9-16)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Columbus, vs. Ottawa, at Vancouver, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. Anaheim, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, at Anaheim, vs. Edmonton

CAROLINA HURRICANES – 21st, 83 points

Upon first glance at their 36-35-11 record, you might think you would want the Hurricanes to be traveling to your favorite team’s arena in hopes of them earning two points. However, just the opposite was true, as the Canes tied Florida for the best road record of any Eastern Conference club to miss the postseason.

With that in mind, Metropolitan rivals Pittsburgh (Feb. 5) and New Jersey (Feb. 10) cannot afford to rest on their laurels when Carolina takes to its longest road trip of the season just after the bye week, as the Hurricanes are going to be more than eager to defend their Road Warrior title.

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (February 5-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Minnesota, vs. Montréal, at Washington, vs. Washington, vs. Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, at Toronto, vs. New Jersey, at Philadelphia

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 25th, 76 points

My, how the mighty have fallen. After winning its most recent Stanley Cup only three years ago, Chicago took a massive tumble last season to end up in last place in the Central Division, only six points removed from the bottom of the Western Conference. To add insult to injury, the Hawks’ 18-18-5 record at home and 15-21-5 record on the road qualified them for the division’s worst in both categories.

Playoff teams take care of business at home, so that is where the Blackhawks should focus most of their energy at the start of the season. It won’t take United Center very long to spring back to life if the Hawks can earn at least 10 points on home ice in October – an easy task considering four of their seven visiting opponents that month failed to qualify for the playoffs last season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in seven days (December 12-18)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Three games in five days – 3x (February 1-5; February 27-March 3; March 26-30)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, at Colorado, vs. Colorado, at Arizona, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, vs. Winnipeg, vs. St. Louis, vs. Dallas, at Nashville

COLORADO AVALANCHE – eliminated in first round, 95 points

This might be intrinsic of any 16 seed, but the Avs had the worst home record of any Central Division playoff team and the worst road record of all playoff teams.

Excitement in Denver for the Avalanche is growing by the minute, so I think it’s a safe assumption that Colorado will improve on its 28-11-2 mark at Pepsi Center this season. However, it’s the Avs’ 15-19-7 away record that I’m most concerned with, and they’ll get a nice, balanced road trip in January to work out the kinks in their white sweaters. That road swing starts in Winnipeg with a tough match against the Jets (Jan. 8), followed by two softer tilts against the Flames (Jan. 9) and Canadiens (Jan. 12). The intensity gets ratcheted up again with a stop in Toronto (Jan. 14) before culminating with a visit to Ottawa (Jan. 16). If Colorado can come home with at least seven points from that Canadian swing, it will be more than set up for another playoff appearance.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (January 8-16)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 18 days (January 19-February 5)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Minnesota, at Dallas, vs. Chicago, at Chicago, vs. Vegas, vs. Arizona, at St. Louis, vs. Edmonton, vs. Winnipeg, at San Jose

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – eliminated in first round, 97 points

A 2-0 advantage heading back to Nationwide Arena wasn’t enough to get the Blue Jackets their first playoff series victory, so it’s back to the drawing board again this season.

Going off last year’s table, the toughest stretch in Columbus’ schedule is surely its six-game run leading up to the Christmas break. The Jackets host the Kings (Dec. 13), Ducks (Dec. 15), Golden Knights (Dec. 17) and Devils (Dec. 20) before heading east to take on Philadelphia (Dec. 22) and New Jersey (Dec. 23). Since those last three matchups are in the division, they’re obviously more important, but if Columbus is as good as I think it is, it should come away with at least eight points over that stretch.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (December 8-20)

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (March 16-24)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, at Nashville, at Buffalo, vs. Boston, at NY Rangers, at Ottawa

DALLAS STARS – 19th, 92 points

Dallas’ 26-12-3 home record tied with Columbus for the 13th-best home mark in the NHL last season, yet the Stars failed to qualify for the postseason (in fact, the Stars had the best home record of any Western Conference club to miss the playoffs).

That’s what draws me to the Stars’ Halloween road trip throughout the Eastern Conference. If American Airlines Center is going to maintain its status as one of the tougher places to play in this league, the Stars are going to need to expel some ghosts and improve on their road effort if they want to extend their season beyond 82 games.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (October 28-November 6)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 21 days (January 12-February 1)

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Florida, vs. Colorado, vs. Pittsburgh, at Winnipeg, at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Philadelphia, at Chicago, vs. Minnesota

DETROIT RED WINGS – 27th, 73 points

How nice is it that the league is letting the W Filip Zadina Era officially get underway with his NHL debut taking place at home? That game might be against a solid Blue Jackets team, but there shouldn’t be an empty seat in Little Caesars Arena on October 4 in anticipation of seeing what this kid is capable of.

Unfortunately for the rebuilding Red Wings, there’s 81 more games remaining on their schedule that might not be met with quite the same fanfare. Even if Detroit is still in contention late in the season, it’ll be hard pressed to make up any ground in the standings as six of its last 10 games – including five straight – are on the road.

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (March 19-28)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Rangers, at St. Louis, at Vegas, at San Jose, at Buffalo, vs. New Jersey, vs. Boston, vs. Pittsburgh, at Pittsburgh, vs. Buffalo

EDMONTON OILERS – 23rd, 78 points

With one of, if not the best player in the game in C Connor McDavid on their team, the Oilers surely have to be better than last season, right? If that is the case, Edmonton’s comeback story will find an interesting start when it squares off against New Jersey at Sweden’s Scandinavium – the home nation of LW Pontus Aberg, D Oscar Klefbom, D Adam Larsson and RW Jesse Puljujarvi – on October 6.

However, the point of the Oilers’ schedule I’m most interested in is the seven games leading up to their bye week. All seven of those tilts will be against clubs that missed the playoffs last year, with all but one taking place at Rogers Place where the Oil were the best home team in the Pacific Division that failed to qualify for the postseason. If Edmonton can’t capitalize on a juicy stretch like that, this team is beyond hope.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 14 days (December 18-31)

BYE WEEK: January 23-February 1 (10 days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (February 25-March 4)

LAST 10 GAMES: at St. Louis, vs. Columbus, vs. Ottawa, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. Anaheim, at Vegas, at Colorado, vs. San Jose, at Calgary

FLORIDA PANTHERS – 16th, 96 points

Though finishing in ninth place in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18 is usually reason enough to predict the Panthers could qualify for the playoffs this season, there’s even more evidence for those willing to dig a little bit deeper.

The Devils (Nov. 26), Ducks (Nov. 28), Lightning (Dec. 1), Bruins (Dec. 4) and Avalanche (Dec. 6) may be coming to Sunrise during Florida’s longest home stand, but the fact that the Panthers were the NHL’s best home team to miss the playoffs will surely play in their favor. Similarly, there will be no fear in the Cats’ eyes when they travel to Philadelphia (Nov. 13), Columbus (Nov. 15) or Tampa Bay (Nov. 21) during their longest sabbatical from BB&T Center, as Florida also boasts (along with Carolina) the best road record of any Eastern Conference team to fail to qualify for the 2018 postseason.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 13-23)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 15 days (November 24-December 8)

BYE WEEK: January 22-31 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Dallas, vs. Arizona, vs. Boston, at Toronto, at Montréal, at Ottawa, at Boston, vs. Washington, vs. NY Islanders, vs. New Jersey

LOS ANGELES KINGS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

This year’s winner of the 2018-19 Bye Lottery is none other than the Kings of Tinseltown, who’ll get a whopping 11 days off the ice to rest and recuperate for the final 32 games of their regular season.

Speaking of byes, keep an eye on the Kings in the days following American Thanksgiving. From November 24-December 4, they’ll play seven games, all of which are against competition who’s 2017-18 campaigns ended after 82 games last season. Making that slice of their schedule even sweeter, six of those sides are from within Los Angeles’ own division, meaning the Kings could start staking a real claim for the Pacific before Christmas if they take care of business – something they didn’t exactly do a good job of last season (the Kings had the worst home record of any playoff team last season).

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 17 days (October 28-November 13)

BYE WEEK: January 22-February 1 (11 days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (February 2-11)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. San Jose, vs. Anaheim, at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Chicago, vs. Calgary, at Arizona, at Anaheim, vs. Vegas

MINNESOTA WILD – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

Every team looks forward to its bye week, but none will need it as much as the Wild. The toughest stretch of Minnesota’s schedule is the six games leading up to the festivities in San Jose, as all of those matchups are against clubs that qualified for the playoffs a season ago.

Minnesota starts that run in Philadelphia on January 14, followed only a day later by a visit to Xcel Energy Center by the Kings. After that, the Ducks (Jan. 17) and Blue Jackets (Jan. 19) both make trips north before the Wild head west to take on Vegas (Jan. 21) and Colorado (Jan. 23). It’s a tough run (especially the game against the Avs, against whom the Wild lost three of four games last season by a combined 19-4 score), but this Minnesota club is a veteran group that should rise to the occasion.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 14 games (October 29-November 11)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (March 11-19)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. NY Islanders, vs. Colorado, at Washington, at Carolina, vs. Nashville, at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Boston, at Dallas

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS – 28th, 71 points

The start of the season has a decent chance of being painful for the Habs (they open their campaign at Toronto [Oct. 3] and Pittsburgh [Oct. 6] before returning home to host the Kings [Oct. 11] and Penguins [Oct. 13]), but they’ll then have five-straight tilts against teams that missed the playoffs last season to warm up in anticipation of their first meeting of the year against arch-rival Boston (Oct. 27).

If the Canadiens are going to improve this campaign, they’re going to need to figure out their road woes from a season ago. Finishing the season with a league-worst 11-26-4 record away from Bell Centre is simply not going to cut it – unless Montréal is planning on drafting D Bowen Byram, F Cole Caufield or C Jack Hughes with another lottery pick next summer.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (December 19-31)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 22 days (January 19-February 9)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Philadelphia, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Buffalo, at Carolina, vs. Florida, at Columbus, at Winnipeg, vs. Tampa Bay, at Washington, vs. Toronto

NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Presidents’ Trophy winner, 117 points

The Predators had their sights on something a little bit bigger than the Presidents’ Trophy last season (the Capitals know all about that plight), but their championship window is still wide open – just as long as they figure out when they want to hand the crease over to G Juuse Saros.

Of the many games and series I’m looking forward to this season, few shine as bright as the Preds’ four showdowns with Winnipeg. Fortunately for us, the first of those is scheduled for October 11 – only nine days into the 2018-19 season – but the series will really heat up in March when the final two meetings take place in the span of 23 days. Though Winnipeg is known for its home-ice advantage, Nashville has full intentions of improving on a NHL-best of its own: a 25-9-7 road record.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (November 25-December 3)

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, vs. Toronto, vs. Pittsburgh, at Winnipeg, at Minnesota, at Pittsburgh, vs. Columbus, at Buffalo, vs. Vancouver, vs. Chicago

NEW JERSEY DEVILS – eliminated in First Round, 97 points

Like a top-flight college football team, the Devils are playing a neutral-site game to open their regular season. However, what sets New Jersey apart from Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and the likes is that its tilt against the Oilers will not take place in North America, but instead at Scandinavium in Gothenburg, Sweden (homeland of W Jesper Bratt and F Marcus Johansson).

Talk about a truly impartial crowd.

Few teams are going to be looking forward to the Christmas break quite like Jersey. Starting with a showdown in Washington on November 30, the Devils will begin a series of 10-straight games against teams that were in the playoffs last season – none more anticipated than a home rematch against the Lightning on December 3.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in eight days (October 11-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 13 days (October 30-November 11)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Colorado, vs. Washington, vs. Boston, vs. Arizona, vs. Buffalo, at Detroit, vs. St. Louis, vs. NY Rangers, at Carolina, at Florida

NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 22nd, 80 points

As someone who’s never visited either Barclays Center or Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, I do not know if the Isles’ three homecoming games are going to be awesome because (a) the team returns to the building where they won four-straight Stanley Cups or (b) they’re playing in a building actually built for hockey, but I do know they’ll be awesome nonetheless.

Another thing I know is that the Islanders’ longest home stand (five games, all of which will be contested in Brooklyn) will likely not be a fun one, as C Mathew Barzal‘s side will be hosting the Maple Leafs on February 28 (complete with former captain C John Tavares), Capitals (Mar. 1) and Flyers (Mar. 3) in the span of four days, all of which were playoff teams only a few months ago. That tough stretch will do the Islanders no favors as they try to shed the label of the Metropolitan Division’s worst home team.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (October 13-20)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in eight days (February 26-March 5)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Boston, at Montréal, at Philadelphia, vs. Arizona, at Columbus, at Winnipeg, vs. Buffalo, vs. Toronto, at Florida, at Washington

NEW YORK RANGERS – 24th, 77 points

There’s a few fans and analysts out there that think the Rangers can complete their rebuild and get right back into the playoffs this season. That remains to be seen, but we’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from these Blueshirts by the end of November.

No, I’m not talking about the American Thanksgiving thing that was mentioned earlier – though that is mathematically backed. Instead, I offer this note: good teams can beat other good teams, but great teams almost always defeat the clubs they’re supposed to. In that strain, eight of New York’s last nine tilts before Thanksgiving are against sides that failed to make the playoffs last year, with a majority of those tilts taking place in the Big Apple. If the Rangers can earn at least 12 points during that run, I’ll buy in that this team is for real. For them to do that, they’ll need to improve on a Metropolitan Division-worst 13-23-5 record away from Madison Square Garden.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days – 2x (October 25-November 1; February 12-19)

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (February 2-10)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Detroit, at Toronto, vs. Pittsburgh, at Boston, vs. St. Louis, at Philadelphia, at New Jersey, vs. Ottawa, vs. Columbus, at Pittsburgh

OTTAWA SENATORS – 30th, 62 points

We shared our hot-like-a-Canadian-Tire-fire takes in the season previews earlier this summer, but I always have my concerns about a team enjoying its longest home stand before October even comes to a close. That means much of the Senators’ travels will be condensed into six months without the opportunity for an extended series of nights sleeping in their own homes.

If Ottawa can, by some unpredictable act of God, manage to get back on track this season, it has a very favorable schedule to close the campaign. Seven of its last 10 opponents failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, and the three that did all have to come to Canadian Tire Centre. If the Sens are within six points of a playoff spot by mid-March, they could be just the team to squeak into a fifth postseason berth in the last eight seasons.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 14 days (October 10-23)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (February 14-21)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Edmonton, vs. Buffalo, vs. Florida, vs. Toronto, vs. Tampa Bay, at NY Rangers, at Buffalo, vs. Columbus

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

To all Flyers season ticket holders: consider grabbing a holiday ticket package to the 76ers this December, because you’re going to be hard pressed to watch much hockey at Wells Fargo Center that month. Of the 14 games Philadelphia will play in the final month of the year, a whopping 10 will be away from Broad Street.

Making matters even more difficult, eight of those December games will be against clubs that qualified for the postseason last year, including two contests against division rival Columbus. By midnight of January 2 (the Flyers are in Nashville on New Year’s Day), we will surely know if this season’s Philadelphia club can build upon last year’s success. If last year’s campaign is any indication, these Flyers should return to the City of Brotherly Love in good shape, as they had the best road record of any team in the Metropolitan Division last season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days – 2x (November 8-17; February 2-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (December 23-January 1)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Montréal, at Chicago, vs. NY Islanders, at Washington, vs. Toronto, at Carolina, vs. NY Rangers, at Dallas, at St. Louis, vs. Carolina

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

Last season, Penguins fans bemoaned the number of back-to-back games on their favorite club’s schedule. The NHL must have heard those complaints, because there’s only 11 instances of that occurring this season, the first of which isn’t until November 23 (at Boston) and 24 (vs. Columbus) – the weekend following American Thanksgiving when every team but Minnesota and Ottawa plays two games in three days.

However, what Pittsburgh got in fewer back-to-backs, it gave up in home stands. The most consecutive home games the Pens will play this season is three, which they do a whopping six times in a 41-game home schedule at the toughest arena in the Eastern Conference (at least according to the Pens’ home record last season). That’ll lead to a lot of plane rides and hotel stays, which could wear on the squad as the season progresses.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Three games in eight days (October 4-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (January 11-19)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, at Carolina, at Nashville, at Dallas, at NY Rangers, vs. Nashville, vs. Carolina, at Detroit, vs. Detroit, vs. NY Rangers

SAN JOSE SHARKS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

Good luck finding a more balanced schedule in the Pacific Division, if not the entire NHL. The Sharks have two five-game road trips to go with their six-game home stand, and it’s rare that they have only a one-off stay at SAP Center. That means the Sharks should spend more nights in their own beds than other clubs, which will surely pay dividends later in the season when other teams are getting tired after a full season of play.

Based on last year’s standings, one of the toughest stretches of San Jose’s schedule looks like it will occur in mid-March, as the Sharks will host the Predators (Mar. 16) and Golden Knights (Mar. 18) before heading south to take on their California brethren on back-to-back days (Mar. 21 and 22). With that in mind, I’d expect San Jose to be in the mix for its seventh Pacific Division title and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the top seed in the Western Conference.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (October 5-14)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (November 11-23)

BYE WEEK: January 23-February 1 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Vegas, at Los Angeles, at Anaheim, vs. Detroit, vs. Chicago, vs. Vegas, vs. Calgary, at Vancouver, at Edmonton, vs. Colorado

ST. LOUIS BLUES – 18th, 94 points

One of the most striking things about the Blues’ schedule is that, of the five times they play Chicago all season, three of those showdowns are scheduled in October. If that doesn’t get F Ryan O’Reilly excited to play for the Notes, I don’t know what will.

Undoubtedly, one of the most important six-game stretches in St. Louis’ schedule occurs around American Thanksgiving, as the Blues will square off with five of last season’s Western Conference playoff teams, including a home-and-home series with the Predators on Thanksgiving Eve and Black Friday. For the Blues’ sake, hopefully G Jake Allen will choose any other time of the season for his annual month-long meltdown.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 25-November 11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 18 days (January 21-February 7)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Detroit, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Vegas, at NY Rangers, at New Jersey, vs. Colorado, at Chicago, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Vancouver

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – Prince of Wales Trophy runner-up, 113 points

There’s no way to start a campaign quite like an extended home stand, and that’s just what the Lightning have the privilege of this season. However, the Bolts can’t afford to get too comfortable (even if the toughest competition they’ll face during that home stay is Columbus on Oct. 13), as they’ll immediately embark on their longest road trip (a tour of the Western Conference) after a division tilt against the Red Wings (Oct. 18). Fortunately, they boasted the Eastern Conference’s best road record last season, so that surely won’t be a problem for them.

Coincidentally, we can combine a Californian road trip and the Blue Jackets to find the toughest stretch of Tampa Bay’s schedule – at least in terms of last season’s standings. The Bolts will head to Orange County for a New Year’s Eve showdown against the Ducks, followed three days later by a Tinseltown tilt and a jaunt up to San Jose on January 5. When C Steven Stamkos and co. return to the friendly confines of Amalie Arena on January 8, Columbus will be waiting for them to cap a four-game streak against playoff teams from a season ago – the longest such run on Tampa’s schedule.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (October 6-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 20-27)

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Arizona, at Washington, at Carolina, at St. Louis, vs. Boston, vs. Washington, at Ottawa, at Montréal, at Toronto, at Boston

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – eliminated in First Round, 105 points

The Maple Leafs were good before Tavares showed up, but now Torontonians have Stanley Cups dancing in their dreams. We’ll have a discussion about the Leafs’ chances in their season preview later this summer (spoiler: that defense still hasn’t been fixed), but first it’ll be worth mentioning that they seem to have a balanced schedule in front of them.

Toronto gets a nice and easy initiation into its 2018-19 campaign by playing its first five games against clubs that failed to qualify for the 2018 postseason, but the pedal hits the metal on October 13 when five of the Maple Leafs’ next six opponents finished in the NHL’s Sweet 16. In fact, from Opening Day until American Thanksgiving, just under 60 percent of Toronto’s first 22 games will be against 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff teams, meaning the Leafs will need to be ready right out of the gate if they want to avoid playing catch-up in the standings for the remainder of the regular season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in 10 days (December 29-January 7)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (February 9-19)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Nashville, at Buffalo, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Florida, at Philadelphia, at Ottawa, at NY Islanders, vs. Carolina, vs. Tampa Bay, at Montréal

VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 26th, 73 points

With RW Brock Boeser and C Bo Horvat already in Vancouver and F Elias Pettersson champing at the bit to fulfill the Canucks’ Swedish quota, it’s hard to believe British Columbia’s NHL representative can remain at the bottom of the table for many more seasons.

Pretending, if only for a moment, that this is the year the Canucks start their upward climb, their seven-game home stand that effectively closes the season (Games 81 and 82 are in Nashville [Apr. 4] and St. Louis [Apr. 6]) will play a major role in determining their postseason fate. That series starts slow with visits from the Senators (Mar. 20) and Flames (Mar. 23), but picks up some real steam when Columbus (Mar. 24), Anaheim (Mar. 26), Los Angeles (Mar. 28), Dallas (Mar. 30) and San Jose (Apr. 2) roll into town. Every point is precious that time of year, so the blue-and-green’s extended time in their own beds could provide just the edge they need to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in six seasons.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (October 6-18)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 14 days (March 20-April 2)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Chicago, vs. Ottawa, vs. Calgary, vs. Columbus, vs. Anaheim, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. San Jose, at Nashville, at St. Louis

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS – Stanley Cup runner-up, 109 points

In their inaugural season, the Golden Knights got blessed with an unbelievable seven-game home stand to open T-Mobile Arena (the venue that proved to be the best home-ice advantage in the Pacific Division). It looks like it’s time for the NHL to cash that $500 million check, as Vegas will embark on a five-game road trip only three days into the season after hosting the Flyers on October 4 (much to the chagrin of the rest of the league, Vegas finished last season tied with Los Angeles for the honor of “Best Visitor in the Pacific Division,” as they both had matching 22-14-5 records away from home).

Speaking of five-game runs, an important one for Vegas will get underway on Valentine’s Day. The Golden Knights host Toronto that night, followed by a visit from the Predators two days later. Then Vegas is off to Colorado (Feb. 18) before returning home to host the Bruins (Feb. 20) and Jets (Feb. 22). That is Vegas’ longest stretch of consecutive games against 2018 playoff teams, and the fact that three of those clubs are Western Conference foes means postseason seeding could be on the line.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 6-13)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (October 16-28)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Detroit, at St. Louis, at Colorado, vs. Minnesota, at San Jose, vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Los Angeles

WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Stanley Cup champion, 105 points

Winning a championship is hard, but successfully defending that title can be even harder. That’s the next challenge facing W Alex Ovechkin‘s crew, and we’ll see if they’re up to it after their first five games – all of which are against clubs that qualified for the playoffs last season, including rival Pittsburgh (Oct. 4) and the reigning Western Champion Golden Knights (Oct. 10).

Even if the Caps don’t come out with a solid record after that series, they’ll still have more than enough time to whip their play under new Head Coach Todd Reirden into shape, as their next eight opponents all failed to extend their seasons beyond 82 tilts.

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (February 1-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 12 days (February 12-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: at New Jersey, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Minnesota, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Carolina, at Carolina, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, vs. Montréal, vs. NY Islanders

WINNIPEG JETS – Campbell Bowl runner-up, 114 points

RW Blake Wheeler and the Jets took a major step forward last season to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals before falling in five games to Vegas. Expectations in Manitoba are going to be extremely high this campaign, but it’ll be interesting to see if this young roster can perform with a large target on its back.

A good indication of how Winnipeg will perform under that pressure will come in the first month of play. After a nice, long home stand that ends with a major matchup against the Maple Leafs (Oct. 24) at the league’s most intimidating home arena, the Jets will take to the road for a back-to-back in Detroit (Oct. 26) and Toronto (Oct. 27), then fly to Finland (RW Patrik Laine‘s homeland) for another back-to-back against the up-and-coming Panthers (Nov. 1 and 2). If G Connor Hellebuyck and co. can come away with a winning record after that extended, 9328-mile (that’s 15 megameters, Canadians) road trip, I have no doubt these Jets will be challenging for their first division title since 2006-07’s Southeastern title as the Atlanta Thrashers.

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

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in 13 days (January 17-29)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Anaheim, at Vegas, vs. Nashville, vs. Dallas, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, at Chicago, at Minnesota, at Colorado, at Arizona

Jettisoned: Predators bow out in Game 7, Jets punch Conference Finals ticket

 

Well there you have it, folks. The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs has come to a close with an almost-fitting end to the series that played out exactly how we thought it would without ever really playing out how we thought it would.

Perhaps the most hyped matchup of the postseason, it was nearly-universally agreed upon that Winnipeg/Nashville would go seven games, but how we got there was anything but predictable. A seven-game series that saw only two games end in one-goal margins (those in fact being the only games that ended with a margin of less than three tallies) and was more a story of attack/counter-attack. Nearly every game swung wildly to one team’s favor, usually on the back of explosive starts that took the wind out of the sails of the opponent before they knew what had happened.

Game 4 was a tight 2-1 affair, though hardly memorable on the back of a 7-4 gongshow victory in Game 3 for Winnipeg on home ice. Game 1 and Games 5-7 were all complete visiting team dominations silencing notoriously loud buildings. Game 2 was really our only look at what many expected from this series, with Nashville grabbing a thrilling 5-4 victory in double-overtime on home ice.

But since we’re here, let’s take a look at how this strange series came to a close.

Winnipeg controlled things early, hemming Nashville on their own side of center ice for most of the opening minutes. The Predators looked to be skating in deep sand, oftentimes unable to advance the puck forward at all, thanks to a stifling forecheck from the Jets and some careless puck control of their own doing. Surely, though, Pekka Rinne would be able to help his team survive the early problems and gain their footing…

Then Tyler Myers sent up a prayer from below the goal line to Rinne’s left that deflected into the net off of the stunned Nashville netminder, and just like that we had a 1-0 game 8:41 into the first period. But, again, no problem. We’re less than halfway through the first period, it’s just a one-goal deficit, Rinne will obviously shake this one off and…

2:06 later Rinne inexplicably abandons the near post after stopping a Paul Stastny stuff attempt, the rebound landing right back on his blade for him to chip over the pad and into the net for a Charmin Ultra-Soft 2-0 goal. Has anyone seen the wheels for this bus lately? We seem to have misplaced them.

Peter Laviolette, either wishing to settle things down without wasting a precious timeout, or knowing enough about his goaltender’s complete inability to recover from shaky starts in playoff games to realize that this ship needed immediate abandoning (third pull in the series for Rinne, you be the judge), yanked the big Finn in favor of the little Finn, inserting Juuse Saros into the net for the remainder of the game.

To their credit, the Predators responded to the move by finally picking up their game. P.K. Subban first drew a penalty, then fired a one-time Howitzer off the post and in on the resulting power play, bringing his team back within one with just over four minutes to play in the first.

Unfortunately for Nashville, this only seemed to fire up the opposition, with the Winnipeg defense vacuum-sealing their end from that point on, and Connor Hellebuyck dispelling any further offensive chances that came his way. The two goaltenders spent the next 20+ minutes countering everything thrown their way (which admittedly was not a lot as the two teams were basically stuck in a neutral zone traffic jam).

Late in the second period the Jets grabbed the momentum back when Blake Wheeler jumped on a turnover (a theme in this one, with the Predators committing 24 vs Winnipeg’s paltry 10) and hung Subban out to dry in no man’s land, sending a pass over to Scheifele who quickly lifted one over the shoulder of Saros to regain the two-goal lead with 2:10 left to play in the second frame.

The second period was really the finest display of a brilliant tactic Winnipeg utilized all night long, essentially using their team speed to actually slow the game down. No matter what Nashville tried to do, every puck carrier was instantly met by at least one, often multiple Jets. Passing lanes were non-existent due to some incredible defensive stickwork, and even when there appeared to be open space, it would close up immediately, leaving the Predators dumbfounded, and holding them to just six shots in the second period.

The Preds did gain some offensive traction in the third, but Hellebuyck always had the answer and the defense in front of him made sure he had a clear line of sight to every shot and limited follow-up opportunities for anything that their goaltender didn’t manage to grab onto. Of note, Dustin Byfuglien played a lights-out game defensively, basically making it impossible for any Predators player to get to the front of the net to set up screens. Toby Enstrom was also stellar, making countless beautiful stick and positioning plays throughout the night to break up some of the few rushes Nashville was able to start.

Nashville fought and clawed for every chance all throughout the third period, but their efforts came to a screeching halt at the 11:59 mark when Paul Stastny tallied his second goal of the game on Winnipeg’s lone power play of the night, banging home the rebound from a Laine blast before Saros could close down the five hole. That was Stastny’s fifth goal of this series, continuing a terrific playoff run for the deadline acquisition (lol remember that time the Blues traded him to the Jets for a lottery-protected first round pick?).

Mark Scheifele would add the 5-1 empty netter to tally his league-leading 11th goal of the playoffs with 2:33 remaining, but even with the extra man on the ice the Predators were just lost trying to find the answer to Winnipeg’s flawless defensive scheme.

So Winnipeg takes the series largely on the strength of winning three-of-four games in Nashville, all by convincing scores (4-1, 6-2, 5-1), and move on to face probably the only team in the Western Conference that can match their speed, the ‘Remember when we didn’t exist last year?’ Vegas Golden Knights in the Conference Finals. Game 1 of that series comes to you this Saturday night (May 12th) at 7 p.m. ET with DTFR recap coverage brought to you by @nlanciani53.

Hellebuyck steals Game 1 for Winnipeg

 

With 47 saves from First Star of the Game and Vezina finalist G Connor Hellebuyck, the Winnipeg Jets beat the Nashville Predators 4-1 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal.

Hockey is a bizarre, incredible game in that one side can absolutely dominate play by out-shooting the opposition 20-4 (yes, you read that correctly: only four shots on goal) in one period, yet it only takes one player to completely neutralize that assault.

Enter Hellebuyck, who came into the Second Round on the coattails of two consecutive shutouts to close out the Jets’ series against Minnesota.

Hellebuyck rejected every single offering that came his way in that first frame, including three power play shots while W Nikolaj Ehlers was in the penalty box for tripping Third Star W Kevin Fiala.

Admittedly, he benefited from the Predators failing to connect on at least two passes that would have provided the recipient a prime scoring opportunity on an open net, but it could also be argued that the Jets defense, though porous, did stand up at the biggest moments to help Hellebuyck keep the Preds at bay – especially by clearing most rebounds off the netminder’s pads.

Making things even better for the Jets, their fourth shot on goal of the game ended up being the first marker of this highly anticipated Central Division showdown series. With 5:09 remaining in the frame, W Brandon Tanev (F Bryan Little) collected the rebound of Little’s shot off G Pekka Rinne‘s stick and right skate, beating the netminder’s blade to the near post to give the Jets a one-goal lead.

A similar storyline continued in the second period. Hellebuyck was charged with making 16 more saves after the first intermission, and he performed beautifully – albeit with the help of his right post when F Filip Forsberg should have buried a power play slap shot on a gaping cage.

And just like in the first frame, the Jets rewarded him with goals at the other end of the rink. 9:01 into the second period, C Paul Stastny (RW Patrik Laine and Ehlers) completed Ehlers’ powerful drive into the offensive zone by scrapping out a wrister in the slot after two Rinne saves.

And only 1:22 after Forsberg missed his opportunity to snap Hellebuyck’s shutout, C Mark Scheifele (RW Blake Wheeler and LW Kyle Connor) turned Winnipeg’s successful penalty kill into a wrister with 2:09 remaining in the period. This goal was a stellar example of Winnipeg’s counterattack, as Wheeler sped into the offensive zone to give the Jets a three-on-three opportunity. After dropping a pass to Scheifele, it was all the center could do but rip his wrister past Rinne’s blocker for the Jets’ third goal.

Following the second intermission, Head Coach Peter Laviolette elected to lift Rinne – who’d saved 13-of-16 shots faced (.813 save percentage) through two periods – in favor of G Juuse Saros to try and send a message to his club.

That message was more than received, as Fiala (C Kyle Turris and D Ryan Ellis) finally squeaked a wrister past Hellebuyck 1:23 into the third frame to end his perfect run. Fiala was the recipient of a stellar centering touch pass from Turris along the goal line, quickly potting his second goal of this postseason to set the score at 3-1.

However, Nashville couldn’t build any positive energy from that tally. Even though the Preds fired another 10 shots at Hellebuyck in the remaining 18:37 of regulation, they simply couldn’t replicate that winning formula to pull any closer to Winnipeg.

That led to Saros departing his crease for an extra attacker, which allowed Scheifele (Wheeler) to close out the match by burying an empty-netter with 36 seconds remaining in regulation.

Statistically, there’s few things the Predators did wrong in this game. They dominated the face-off dot (Nashville won 66 percent of draws) and threw more hits (29-22) even though they easily out-shot Winnipeg 48-19.

Instead, Nashville’s focus should be on duplicating Fiala’s goal if it wants any chance of besting Hellebuyck and his 47-of-48 (.979 save percentage) in Game 2.

Speaking of, that contest is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, April 29. For those that don’t have the pleasure of being in attendance at Bridgestone Arena that night, they may view the game on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.

Avs score three in first period, take Game 3

 

The old saying goes that a team is never behind in a playoff series until it loses a home match. With that in mind, the Colorado Avalanche beat the Nashville Predators 5-3 to win Game 3 and pull within a victory of leveling their First Round series.

The good news for the Predators is that G Juuse Saros saved all 18 shots he faced in his 33:34 of action.

The bad news is, of course, that he didn’t start the game.

Instead, that honor was bestowed upon G Pekka Rinne, who saved only 11-of-15 (.733 save percentage) before being lifted at the 4:25 mark of the second period.

Going back to the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, this was the third-consecutive road playoff game that saw Rinne get chased from the crease, not to mention his fourth-consecutive road playoff loss.

The Avs have made a living in this series pouncing on Rinne early, and that trend was only magnified with the luxury of home ice when they buried three markers before the first intermission.

Just like in Games 1 and 2, the Avs scored the first goal when Third Star of the Game W Blake Comeau (F Carl Soderberg and W Matthew Nieto) buried a tip-in only 1:50 into play – Colorado’s first shot on net in the contest. That advantage doubled to two goals with 6:36 remaining in the frame when W Gabriel Bourque (D Patrik Nemeth and F J.T. Compher) scored another tip-in from a similar position as Comeau’s tally: right in front of Rinne’s crease.

Not to be outdone by his own bottom-six, First Star F Nathan MacKinnon made sure to get on the scoreboard 4:43 after Bourque’s marker by scoring a wrist shot with a breakaway-springing assist from Second Star LW Gabriel Landeskog.

MacKinnon’s next act not only proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rinne, but it also ended up as the game-winning goal by the time the Predators’ comeback attempt was said and done.

4:22 into the second period, RW Mikko Rantanen did his best Serge Savard spin-o-rama impression to fire a centering pass from along the goal line. However, Landeskog was not able to corral the pass and the puck trickled towards the high slot. C Kyle Turris had an opportunity to take possession of the loose puck, but it bounced over his stick to MacKinnon, who was sure to pocket his wrister over Rinne’s right shoulder.

Now with a comfortable 4-0 advantage, Colorado made it its job to weather whatever resurgence Nashville was going to assuredly muster up. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t work to perfection when Nemeth and D Nikita Zadorov were both sent to the penalty box at the 9:27 mark of the second frame for respective cross checking and hooking penalties.

Handed a full two minutes of five-on-three play, the Preds did exactly what any good squad would do and took advantage of that opportunity. Nashville finally got on the scoreboard with 9:37 remaining in the second period to pull within a 4-1 deficit courtesy of a F Ryan Johansen (F Filip Forsberg and D Ryan Ellis) wrister.

While Nemeth was serving up the remainder of his penalty, G Jonathan Bernier decided it would be really neat to make a save with his neck. Ellis’ shot rode up on him and would have sneaked by had the netminder not squeezed the puck between his head and shoulder pads. As would be expected, Bernier took a second to recover from the play, but he stayed in the game.

Even though no more scoring occurred in the second frame after Johansen’s marker, Pepsi Center’s scoreboard operator still had much to do. Four more penalties occurred before the second intermission. Three of those infractions were against the Predators, including negating holding penalties between MacKinnon and D P.K. Subban. What doesn’t make the scorecard is why MacKinnon was holding Subban in the first place, as the Nova Scotian was on the receiving end of a questionable elbow. These teams are growing increasingly displeased with each other, and that is made even more apparent when the heavily-favored Predators struggle to get past Bernier and the Avs.

The closest Nashville got to a third period comeback occurred at the 7:12 mark when F Colton Sissons (D Roman Josi and Ellis) buried a wrister, but the Predators couldn’t make anything more out of that positive energy. That forced Head Coach Peter Laviolette to pull Saros for an extra attacker, allowing Landeskog (Rantanen and D Mark Barberio) to score an empty-netter with 1:36 remaining in regulation.

F Austin Watson did score a wrister 21 seconds later that was challenged for goaltender interference, but Toronto ruled it to be a good goal. Of course, it didn’t ultimately matter, as the Predators were unable to score two goals to level the game.

The Avalanche’s comeback is far from done, however. Game 4 is still an important match in this playoff series, as the Predators could go home with either a 2-2 tie or needing only one more win to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. Game 4 is scheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, April 18 at Pepsi Center. Fans can catch the game on NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

January 23 – Day 108 – Stanley Cup preview?

Even for a Tuesday, a dozen games on the schedule is a crazy high number! Count me among the thankful!

Like it does most nights, the action begins at 7 p.m. with two contests (New Jersey at Boston [SN] and Carolina at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by another pair (Colorado at Montréal [RDS/TSN2] and Philadelphia at Detroit [NBCSN]). A third pair of fixtures (Ottawa at St. Louis [RDS2] and Tampa Bay at Nashville [TVAS]) will get underway at 8 p.m., while Florida at Dallas will wait 30 minutes before seeing the green light. Next up is Buffalo at Edmonton at 9 p.m., trailed an hour after by three games (Los Angeles at Vancouver, Columbus at Vegas [SN360] and the New York Rangers at Anaheim). Finally, Winnipeg at San Jose finishes the night out with their game starting at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

As might be expected, there’s a few games that have some added narrative associated.

  • New Jersey at Boston: After two seasons wearing black and gold, RW Jimmy Hayes returns to TD Garden for the first time as a member of the Devils.
  • Florida at Dallas: Though this is year two of F Colton Sceviour‘s tenure with the Panthers, he has yet to return to Dallas, where he spent the first five seasons of his NHL career.
  • Buffalo at Edmonton: Journeyman LW Benoit Pouliot spent three seasons before this one in Edmonton. Tonight, he returns for the first time as a member of the Sabres.

However, since I’ve remained steadfast in my prediction of a Nashville-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final for most of the season, I think we have to take in the Bolts’ visit to Music City.

 

Of course, don’t let me convince you that I’m the only one to think this is a very likely Finals matchup. According to an ESPN article on August 14, the Bolts had 12-1 odds to win for the championship series, trailed closely behind by Nashville’s 14-1 mark. For reference, the Pens were Vegas’ favorites at 6-1.

Then again, the Devils and Golden Knights were two of five teams to have 200-1 odds that day, so what did anybody know almost two months before the season began?

Of course, based on how it’s played lately, 32-12-3 Tampa Bay has not exactly lived up to expectations. Before yesterday’s 2-0 win in Chicago, the league-leading Lightning had lost three-straight games in a skid that started before their bye week.

The biggest reason for that losing skid was an offense that absolutely disappeared on the Lightning. Even though the Bolts still own a league-leading 3.49 goals per game on the season, they managed only a 1.5 goals-per-game since January 11 – the fourth-worst in that time.

Perhaps no stat is more telling of Tampa Bay’s struggles than this one: Over their past four games, F Brayden Point has been the Lightning’s leading scorer.

That’s certainly not a knock on Point’s effort, either of late or on the season. He’s averaged a point-per-game in his past four outings with 3-1-4 totals, and his 19-24-43 marks have already exceeded those of his 68-game rookie season that earned him a 10th-place finish in the race for last year’s Calder Trophy. In fact, he’s (t)ninth in the league with his +20 rating.

However, Point is no W Nikita Kucherov, who leads the league in points (61), is (t)second in goals (27) and 10th in assists (34); or C Steven Stamkos, who’s (t)sixth in points (54) and eighth in assists (37). Together, they’ve combined for only three assists over these last four games, and their team has obviously suffered without their leadership. In a big game tonight, they will need to perform well to ensure their club’s return to form last night is not short-lived.

With the Bolts in action last night, the goaltending situation is never set in stone until puck drop. However, I have a hard time believing 1-6-0 G Louis Domingue will steal 28-9-2 G Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s crease away from him given the magnitude of tonight’s tilt. The league’s wins and shutouts (seven) leader’s .93 save percentage is third-best in the NHL, and his 2.21 GAA fifth-best.

If the Lightning are trending down lately, 28-11-6 Nashville – the Central Division’s second-best team – is definitely heading in the right direction. The Preds have won five-straight games to pull within a point of division-leading Winnipeg, on whom they have three games in hand.

If Nashville’s winning streak belongs to any one player, it has to be 23-8-3 G Pekka Rinne. Even though his defense has allowed an unimpressive 33.4 shots against-per-game over this five-game run (11th-worst average in the league since January 6), he’s won all four of his starts with a .927 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. Add 5-3-3 G Juuse Saros‘ shutout victory against the league-leading Golden Knights last week into the mix, and the Preds have allowed only 1.8 goals against-per-game – the third-best mark in the NHL since January 6.

As we all know, this stellar performance by Rinne is nothing new. Not only has he won the (t)fourth-most games in the NHL, but his three shutouts are (t)fifth-most and his .925 season save percentage is eighth-best. Is there nothing he can’t do?

A sputtering offense taking on a goaltender having a Vezina-caliber season is never a good matchup, however I think we all know better than to count the Lightning out of any game. That being said, I believe Bridgestone Arena’s home-ice advantage will propel the Predators to a well-earned victory.


With a 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Colorado Avalanche have extended their winning streak to 10 games.

Only one goal was struck in the first period, and it belonged to Third Star of the Game W Gabriel Bourque (F Tyson Jost and F J.T. Compher). He buried a wrist shot 2:19 into the game to give the Avs an early one-goal advantage.

Colorado’s lead lasted until the 19 second mark of the second period. That’s when F Patrick Marleau (F Leo Komarov and D Jake Gardiner) scored a slap shot to level the game. 8:58 later, Second Star C Auston Matthews (F William Nylander and D Andreas Borgman) gave the Leafs their only lead of the night with a wrister. However, that advantage didn’t last long, because W Nail Yakupov (F Alexander Kerfoot) tied the game at 2-2 only 1:34 later. That score held into the second intermission.

Both defenses took over the third period, as only a combined 15 shots were fired. However, the Colorado offense was the one to break through and score two goals – the most important of which was First Star W Blake Comeau‘s (F Carl Soderberg and D Erik Johnson) game-winning tip-in with 7:43 remaining in regulation.

After Comeau brought the puck to center ice, he passed to Soderberg to complete the entry into the offensive zone from his left wing position. While Soderberg was working to get around D Connor Carrick, Comeau continued to advance towards G Frederik Andersen‘s crease, allowing him to redirect a centering pass through the five-hole.

With his club trailing by only one goal late in the game, Head Coach Mike Babcock was forced to pull Andersen with 2:27 remaining in regulation. LW Gabriel Landeskog (RW Mikko Rantanen) took advantage of the gaping cage only 1:33 later to set the 4-2 final score.

G Jonathan Bernier won his return to the ACC after saving 29-of-31 shots faced (.935 save percentage), leaving Andersen with the loss, saving 23-of-26 (.885).

Road teams have won three-consecutive games in the DtFR Game of the Day, but they still trail the 59-36-13 hosts by 19 points.

January 2 – Day 87 – Ellis in, Forsberg out

After yesterday’s boring schedule with only one game, it’s time to get the league back in action with a dozen contests tonight.

As it usually does on a weeknight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with four matchups (Tampa Bay at Toronto [TVAS], Boston at the New York Islanders [SN], Pittsburgh at Philadelphia [NBCSN] and Washington at Carolina), followed half an hour later by San Jose at Montréal (RDS/TSN2). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of the next two games (New Jersey at St. Louis and Florida at Minnesota), while Columbus at Dallas waits 30 minutes before getting underway. Winnipeg at Colorado is the next contest to get started at 9 p.m., followed half an hour later by Los Angeles at Edmonton (NBCSN) and tonight’s co-nightcaps – Anaheim at Vancouver and Nashville at Vegas – at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few of today’s contests that stick out…

  • Pittsburgh at Philadelphia: If rivalries are what get you going, this is the game for you.
  • Los Angeles at Edmonton: Maybe F Jussi Jokinen‘s trade can reignite this C Wayne Gretzky-era rivalry? That’s probably super optimistic.
  • Anaheim at Vancouver: Speaking players making a return to a former home arena, G Ryan Miller spent the last three seasons calling Rogers Arena home.
  • Nashville at Vegas: D Alexei Emelin was a Golden Knight for 10 days this summer, so does this count as a homecoming?

Of that list, there’s no matchup more exciting than the Predators’ visit to Sin City!

 

I know we’ve featured both these clubs in the past seven days, but how can we possibly ignore a matchup between two of the top four teams in the NHL?

If there’s one thing to expect from this game, it’s offense. The 26-9-2 Golden Knights and 23-10-5 Predators are both among the top-seven offenses in the league, averaging more than three goals per game.

For Vegas, which averages a second-best 3.51 goals per game and has won seven-straight games, that attack is led by none other than F Jon Marchessault and his team-leading 14-22-36 totals. Although he started the season with only a 3-3-6 effort in eight October games, he’s exploded in the past two months to be the only Knight to average more than a point-per-game on the season.

Of course, that does disrespect C William Karlsson at least a little, because he’s been absolutely exemplary himself. No one on Vegas’ roster has scored more goals than Karlsson, and his 20 tallies are good enough to put him in sixth-place in the race for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

Meanwhile, the Predators’ offense – which is usually very strong and manages a seventh-best 3.16 goals-per-game – may be in disarray this evening with F Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Forsberg still leads the team with his 15-19-34 totals, but his departure leaves D P.K. Subban as the club’s active leading scorer with 9-20-29 totals.

Fortunately for the Preds, they have already played a game without Forsberg against Minnesota. Nashville was able to win that game 3-0 at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday, but the Wild are definitely an inferior opponent in comparison to Vegas. The main reason for that victory was undoubtedly the stellar play of 4-3-2 G Juuse Saros (he saved all 29 shots he faced), and 19-7-3 G Pekka Rinne may need to duplicate that performance for Nashville to earn points from tonight’s contest.

Of course, if anybody can do it, I’d put my money on Rinne. After all, he’s already managed three shutouts this season ([t]fourth-most in the league) in addition to his other 16 wins (fifth-most in the NHL) on the back of his .924 save percentage (seventh-best in the league) and 2.47 GAA (10th-best in the NHL).

I’ll just let all those stats sink in for a moment. Yes, he’s good.

But don’t think Rinne is the only solid goaltender in today’s game. G Marc-Andre Fleury is the one that comes in with three Stanley Cup rings and a 7-1-1 record on the season. He’s posted a .938 save percentage for a 1.96 GAA on the season, both of which are superior to Rinne’s numbers.

These teams have already tangled once before this season, and that contest was a real thriller. In W James Neal‘s first game back in Nashville on December 8, he and W Reilly Smith led the Golden Knights to a 4-3 shootout victory. I feel safe in saying we might be in line for an equally competitive game tonight.

With Forsberg being out of the lineup, I question if Nashville’s offense will be able to keep up with the Golden Knights. Even with D Ryan Ellis making his season debut tonight, unless Rinne simply plays out of his mind – which is certainly a possibility – all signs are pointing towards a Vegas victory.


The New York Rangers needed overtime, but they beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in the Winter Classic yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Citi Field.

The Blueshirts exploded out of the gate, as they scored both their regulation goals in the first period. F Paul Carey (RW Jesper Fast and F Boo Nieves) opened the scoring 4:09 into the period and W Michael Grabner (Third Star of the Game F Kevin Hayes and First Star F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-0 only 4:11 later.

The next two goals were struck by Buffalo, and both tallies took place within the first minute of each of the remaining periods. F Sam Reinhart (RW Kyle Okposo and D Rasmus Ristolainen) was the first Sabre to find the back of the net, but he got some help from D Nick Holden when he was caught hooking Okposo with 23 seconds remaining in the first period. 56 ticks into the middle frame, Reinhart buried a power play wrist shot to pull the Sabres back within a goal.

Ristolainen (F Ryan O’Reilly and Okposo) needed no such advantage when he scored 27 seconds into the third period. It wasn’t exactly a strong wrister from the blue line, but it was enough to get past G Henrik Lundqvist and level the game.

It seems power play goals were the way to take control of scoring in this game, because New York found its game-winner while on the man-advantage. At the 2:15 mark of the five minute three-on-three overtime period, F Jacob Josefson was caught tripping W Jimmy Vesey to earn himself a seat in the penalty box.

That’s what set up the four-on-three advantage that led to Miller’s (D Kevin Shattenkirk and W Mats Zuccarello) backhanded goal that beat Second Star G Robin Lehner. Only 28 after play had resumed from Josefson’s infraction, Shattenkirk fired a wrist shot on goal that Lehner was able to deflect with ease. However, he wasn’t able to contain the rebound, which allowed Miller to collect the puck and tap it into a gaping cage.

Lundqvist earned the victory after saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Lehner, who saved 39-of-42 (.929).

Even though the game was played in Queens and not the Queen City, the Rangers played the role of road team in this season’s Winter Classic, meaning they snapped the three-game winning streak DtFR Game of the Day hosts were riding in the series. However, those home teams still lead the series by 23 points with a 49-27-11 record.

December 19 – Day 76 – Predator drones

If you only went off the NHL schedule, you might think that today is a Saturday, but it is in fact a Tuesday.

Have I lost you yet?

Allow me to explain: the day’s first game, Carolina at Toronto, is slated to drop the puck at 2 p.m. today, five hours before you’d expect for a week game. Once the matinee is out of the way, three games (Detroit at the New York Islanders, Anaheim at the New York Rangers and Minnesota at Ottawa [RDS]) will get started at 7 p.m., followed by Boston at Buffalo (NBCSN/SN/TVAS) half an hour later. Winnipeg at Nashville finds its start at 8 p.m., trailed 30 minutes later by Washington at Dallas and Florida at Arizona at 9 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – Montréal at Vancouver (RDS/TSN2) and Tampa Bay at Vegas (SN1) – get green lit at 10 p.m. to close the evening out. All times Eastern.

The Bruins-Sabres rivalry comes to life tonight, and W Jamie McGinn and RW Radim Vrbata are making their first return to Gila River Arena since joining the Panthers this offseason. However, it’s hard to ignore the action in Tennessee, so it’s off to Nashville with us!

 

You’re hard pressed to find many better teams in the NHL than these two.

Of course, after a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, 21-7-4 Nashville leading the Western Conference wasn’t exactly unexpected. The Preds’ month of December has been a shining example of their style of play, as they’ve earned a commanding 6-0-1 record.

18-4-3 G Pekka Rinne has been nothing short of exemplary since flipping to the last page of his calendar. Having earned five starts this month, he’s posted a .948 save percentage and 1.74 GAA (both top-five efforts among the 41 goalies with at least three starts since December 2) to elevate his season numbers to a .93 save percentage and 2.25 GAA, making him the third-best goaltender in the NHL so far this campaign.

Making Rinne’s effort even more incredible is the fact that his defense, given its offensive contributions, leaves him more than his fair share of work. Even with D Alexei Emelin‘s team-leading 3.42 hits-per-game, F Filip Forsberg‘s seven takeaways and D Roman Josi‘s 2.28 blocks-per-game (all over the past seven games), he and 3-3-1 G Juuse Saros have faced 263 shots this month, the seventh-most in the NHL.

Of course, if any team is going to break through Rinne and Nashville’s defense, I’d bank on 19-10-5 Winnipeg, the Central Division’s third place team. Though they don’t come into tonight’s game on quite the hot streak the Predators are experiencing, the fact that the Jets’ offense enters the night averaging 3.26 goals-per-game to rank fifth in the league shows that they’re capable of going any night of the week that ends in -day.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 1000 times: The Jets’ first line – specifically the talents of C Mark Scheifele (15-21-36 totals) and RW Blake Wheeler (8-31-39) – needs to be in the discussion for the most dominant in the Western Conference, if not the NHL as a whole (yes, Tampa Bay, we know you exist). Scheifele and Wheeler on their own might be able to take on most lines in the league, while adding LW Kyle Connor (10-9-19) into the mix to complete the line is not too shabby either.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Winnipeg is fortunate enough to employ W Nikolaj Ehlers (15-10-25 totals), RW Patrik Laine (16-11-27) and F Bryan Little (5-14-19) on the second line. Between the efforts of these two lines, Nashville’s defense just might be forced to consider performing their primary job descriptions a bit more than they would like this evening.

Given how often these teams have been featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series (a combined 19 times), it’s probably no surprise that I really enjoy watching both of these clubs and am confident they’ll be mighty forces in the postseason. However, only one team can win this evening, and I’m siding with the Preds. They’ve been nigh unstoppable this month, and the fact that they’re playing within the friendly confines of Bridgestone Arena should ensure they continue leading the conference for at least another night.


Even though C Adam Henrique buried a nifty backhanded shot in his return to the Prudential Center, the New Jersey Devils beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The first period was a defensive affair, as only a combined 13 shots were fired. That being said, the scoreboard read 2-0 at the first intermission in favor of the Ducks thanks to C Ryan Getzlaf‘s (F Rickard Rakell and D Josh Manson) snap shot at the 6:44 mark and W Jakob Silfverberg‘s (F Andrew Cogliano and Henrique) snapper 3:46 later.

New Jersey finally got on the board at the 8:11 mark of the second period on a power play tip-in by Second Star of the Game LW Miles Wood (D Sami Vatanen and Third Star W Jesper Bratt). Henrique (Manson) lobbed the puck over Vatanen to effectively assist himself to a backhander 3:10 later to set the score at 3-1, but the Devils pulled themselves back within a goal on Wood’s (C Pavel Zacha) second tally of the night, a wrist shot with 1:44 remaining before the second intermission.

If the Ducks controlled the first period, Jersey absolutely dominated the third, as they scored three unanswered goals to earn the victory. The first of those was buried at the 5:49 mark courtesy of Bratt (F Blake Coleman and F Brian Boyle) to level the game at three-all. That tie held until 4:07 remained in regulation when First Star RW Stefan Noesen (Boyle and D Andy Greene) scored the game-winning marker.

After Boyle centered a pass to him from the blue line, Noesen tried to rip a wrister past G Ryan Miller, but the netminder aggressively deflected the puck away. Unfortunately for him, that move left his cage yawning, and Noesen was able to collect the loose puck and bury it into the back of the net.

With seven seconds remaining in the game, Noesen (Boyle) scored a wrister on an empty net to secure the Devils’ second-consecutive victory.

G Cory Schneider earned the victory after saving 21-of-24 shots faced (.875 save percentage), leaving the loss to Miller, who saved 29-of-33 (.879).

There’s no stopping home teams lately in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as hosts have won four consecutive contests. This run of success has improved their record to 43-24-9 in the series, 20 points better than the visitors.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 7

Player of the Week: William Karlsson

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

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

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

Team of the Week: New York Islanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

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

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

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

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

Home ice continues to pay off; Pens a win away

2017 Stanley Cup Finals – Game 5

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preds’ power play perplexes Pens

2017 Stanley Cup Final – Game 3

 

After returning home to the friendlier environment of Bridgestone Arena, Nashville dominated the Penguins Saturday night with a 5-1 victory to pull within a game of leveling the Stanley Cup Finals.

One of the biggest story lines coming into Game 3 was which goaltender Peter Laviolette would play: usual starter Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros, who played the remaining 16:32 of Game 2. It should have been no surprise that Rinne maintained his position between the pipes, just as it was no surprise that the Penguins tried to test him early.

Though Pittsburgh fired only a half-dozen first period shots at Rinne, none were better than Jake Guentzel‘s (Ian Cole and Sidney Crosby) wrist shot 2:46 into the contest. The lone goal of the first period, he took advantage of Rinne being unable to contain the rebound off Cole’s slap shot from the near point and squeezed his five-hole attempt underneath the netminder for an early Pens lead.

With his 13th tally since April 12, Guenztel has surpassed Jeremy Roenick for second-most playoff markers by a rookie is only a goal short of tying Dino Ciccarelli‘s record for most all-time.

It was only Rinne’s second shot faced of the night and gave an early impression that he was still fighting the same demons he was in the Steel City. As it would turn out, he was more than deserving of his First Star of the Game honor.

Following the rough start to the evening, Rinne would save 26-straight Penguins shots to close the remaining 57:14 of play with an overall .964 save percentage.

But after allowing a goal early in the game, it does not matter how well a goalie performs if his offense cannot find the back of the opposition’s net.

Then again, who needs an offense when Nashville has such a productive defense?

With Justin Schultz in the penalty box for holding Harry Zolnierczyk at the 4:13 mark of the second period, Second Star Roman Josi (Calle Jarnkrok and Mattias Ekholm) fired a slap shot from the far face-off circle with 22 seconds remaining in the man advantage to level the game with the first of the game – but certainly not the last – to beat Matthew Murray‘s glove.

That power play goal, paired with the rejuvenated support from Nashville’s “Seventh Man,” proved to be exactly the spark the Preds needed. Only 42 seconds after Josi’s game-tying marker, Third Star Frederick Gaudreau (Austin Watson and Josi) found what proved to be the game-winner: a breakaway wrister that turned a defending Cole into a screen against his own netminder to beat him – once again – glove side.

The second period couldn’t end quickly enough for Pittsburgh, but it couldn’t get to the dressing room before getting officially reacquainted with an old friend. With 23 seconds remaining before the second intermission, former Penguin James Neal (Viktor Arvidsson and Josi) completed the Predators’ fantastic frame by banking an insurance wrister off the back of Murray’s glove and into the net.

Just as the night’s scoring began for the Predators, it would also find its conclusion on the power play. This time, Crosby (for boarding Ryan Ellis), Filip Forsberg (for cross checking Evgeni Malkin) and Malkin (for cross checking Forsberg) were all in their respective penalty boxes to set up a five-on-four opportunity for Nashville. Ekholm (Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons) waited only 27 seconds before ripping a slap shot top shelf over Murray’s stick shoulder.

Though Ekholm’s marker would prove to be the last yielded by Murray, the damage was more than done. He saved only 23-of-26 shots faced (.848 save percentage) for five goals allowed, but his most striking statistic is his performance against the power play.

Even though Murray faced only two shots while short a skater, both offerings found their way past him. The fact that the Penguins penalty kill allowed only two shots on three Predators power plays proves that it is Murray that needs to improve on this aspect of his game before Game 4.

Not all of Murray’s goals allowed were directly his fault though. The goaltender was able to stop the Preds’ first breakaway opportunity in the third period – an offering by Gaudreau 2:27 into the period – but he couldn’t save the second. After Chris Kunitz bounced the puck off Phil Kessel‘s skate to give it to Craig Smith at center ice, it was all the wing could do but attack Murray’s unreliable glove side with a wrister from between the face-off circles to set the score at 4-1 with 15:06 remaining.

Offensively for the Penguins, it should be very concerning to Mike Sullivan that his primary striking corps of Crosby, Kessel and Malkin managed only three shots on goal among them (all by Kessel). Though the story of Guentzel is exciting, it is these men that are expected to spearhead their club – not the rookie. If the Penguins cannot get this issue resolved, they could find the same fate awaiting them in Game 4.

If the Penguins did anything well, it was block shots. Though the Predators led the shots-on-goal statistic 33-28, that differential could have been much higher if not for Pittsburgh’s impressive 20 rejections. In particular, Olli Maatta stood out from the rest by leading his club with three blocks – a total matched in Game 3 only by Nashville’s Ellis.

Bridgestone Arena will come alive once again this Monday – country singers, catfish and all –  at 8 p.m. Eastern time. For those that don’t have tickets, you’re encouraged to tune your television to NBC if you reside in the United States or CBC, SN or TVAS in Canada.