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2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

Hat tricks abound, but Guentzel’s leads Pens to Second Round

 

Philadelphia Flyers fans will argue (with some validity) that it was with some help from the officials, but the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully punched their ticket into the Second Round with an 8-5 victory at Wells Fargo Center in Game 6.

This was a wild back-and-forth affair that wasted no time in getting started, as Second Star of the Game C Sean Couturier needed only 2:15 of action to give Philadelphia an early lead. When D Jamie Oleksiak failed to collect W Bryan Rust‘s pass along the boards, Couturier pounced to beat D Chad Ruhwedel to the corner to G Matt Murray‘s left and took possession.

Couturier backhanded a centering pass towards Murray that he blocked into the center of the zone. That ended up being a very poor decision, as W Wayne Simmonds was able to continue applying the pressure with a wrist shot from right in front of the crease. Murray slowed the puck, but it ended up sitting loose in the blue paint, allowing Couturier to force it home with a wrister.

In all, the Flyers absolutely dominated play for the opening 6:26 of action, as they out-shot Pittsburgh seven-to-two.

That all changed after the first TV timeout though, as Third Star C Sidney Crosby (D Kris Letang and D Brian Dumoulin) cleaned up Letang’s slap shot from the blue line to level the game at the 6:30 mark. G Michal Neuvirth was able to make the initial save, but the Penguins’ set play was designed to give Crosby a rebound opportunity in case the netminder yielded one to his glove side.

Only 47 seconds after Crosby tied the game for the Pens, LW Carl Hagelin (RW Phil Kessel and C Riley Sheahan) took a quick pass from Kessel to give Pittsburgh the advantage. The Flyers defense was largely to blame for this play, as there were two players crashing on Kessel inside the trapezoid to leave the center of the zone wide open for Hagelin. Waiting at the left corner of the crease for Kessel’s pass, Hagelin took advantage of the open shot to beat Neuvirth to the far post.

But the Flyers were far from ready to give up that easily, as they were able to level the game at 2-2 4:12 before the intermission courtesy of D Andrew MacDonald‘s (D Ivan Provorov and Couturier) clapper from the point. MacDonald had the luxury of Simmonds and Oleksiak screening Murray, allowing him to beat the netminder glove side with ease.

Only one penalty was charged in the first period, and it is there where Philadelphians’ critiques of the zebras will begin. It was a wild play around the 17:30 mark of the frame that started with a W Conor Sheary snap shot. With the help of the near post, Neuvirth was able to make the save, and the resulting scrum in front of his crease quickly became a dog-pile of all players Pennsylvanian.

Somehow, only C Scott Laughton was charged with an infraction (interference against C Derick Brassard) with 1:25 remaining in the period, but fortunately for the Flyers it did not cost them their third goal against.

Riding the positive energy from completing the kill in the second period (35 seconds carried across the intermission), Philadelphia reclaimed the lead at the 40 second mark when Couturier (W Matt Read) scored his second of the game. Similar to the first, he had to grind this tally out, as Murray initially appeared to survive the center’s patient pull across his crease. However, Couturier’s backhanded shot eventually squeaked under the netminder and into the back of the net.

In a game filled with goals, the fact that there was 11:34 between Couturier’s tally and Laughton’s (Couturier) long-range snapper was unbelievable. However, the Flyers weren’t complaining one bit, as they earned the first two-goal game of the lead.

Of course, we all know what is said about two-goal leads, so it didn’t take long for the Penguins to begin storming back. RW Patric Hornqvist (First Star F Jake Guentzel and Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within one goal 1:21 after the horn stopped blaring for Laughton by completing some stellar passing with a wrister. Hornqvist had the luxury of a gaping cage due in large part to Guentzel’s well-earned reputation for clutch playoff performances (a point he’d further cement in the third period), as Neuvirth fully committed to stopping any shot the sophomore could attempt on his blocker side.

Speaking of Guentzel’s playoff scoring abilities, he (D Olli Maatta and Hornqvist) was the one responsible for tying the game at 4-4 with 54 seconds remaining in the second period.

Also in that category, Guentzel scored Pittsburgh’s fifth (assist from Kessel at the 30 second mark), sixth (assists from Crosby and Letang at the 12:48 mark) for his second-ever hat trick (both in the playoffs) and seventh goals of the game (assists from Hornqvist and Letang at the 12:58 mark).

It was the game-winning goal where officiating started to look a little fishy. Having already been sent to the penalty box for cross checking Couturier with 9:23 remaining in regulation (then setting up 1:28 of four-on-three play for the Flyers), it seemed like Letang was guilty of a fairly obvious tripping penalty against Couturier along the boards in Philadelphia’s defensive zone. However, play was allowed to continue, allowing Guentzel to bury his slap shot from between the face-off circles past Neuvirth’s glove.

Let the boo birds begin their song.

Surely mad at not getting the call he thought he deserved, Couturier (F Claude Giroux) set the score at 7-5 with 2:53 remaining in regulation to complete his hat trick. Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan challenged for goaltender interference, but it was ruled that Murray was able to play his position after the slight contact from the eventual goalscorer.

Couturier scored with Neuvirth pulled for the extra attacker, and – with his club facing elimination – Head Coach Dave Hakstol employed that strategy once again for any glimmer of hope that his team could score two more goals.

They would not be able to pull that off, but one goal was left to be scored: an empty netter by Rust with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.

Of course, this being the Battle of Pennsylvania, even this simple play could not go off without some gritty play. However, it was Maatta’s blatant cross check against a Flyer at center ice immediately before Rust’s goal that once again drew the ire of the Philly crowd.

Similar to Letang’s, this infraction went “unnoticed” by the officials and the orange-clad fans let them know about – not only with a chorus of boos, but also with rally towels and beer cans of various volumes.

While it is unwise to condone such behavior from fans, it’s hard to argue with their judgement. This was a built-up frustration stemming from the missed Letang penalty (at minimum) that truly could have influenced the outcome of this game, and it boiled over when Maatta’s penalty also went uncalled.

With one rivalry behind them, the Penguins now await the winner of the Columbus-Washington series for Round Two in their quest for a three-peat. The Capitals own a 3-2 advantage going into Game 6, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night. Pens fans should tune their televisions to CNBC, SN or TVAS2 to find out which capital their club will square off against next: Ohio’s or the nation’s.

Flyers stave off elimination with gutsy performance

 

Even though the Philadelphia Flyers were out-shot 32-25, they held on to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 at PPG Paints Arena in Game 5 of their first round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to force Game 6 back at Wells Fargo Center.

After 7-0, 5-1, 5-1 and 5-0 final scores in the first four contests, this rivalry series was more than due for a competitive, back-and-forth game.

Though Philly takes credit for one of those lopsided victories, Game 5 was easily the Metropolitan’s third-place team’s best effort of the postseason so far, and that might be due in large part to the stellar play of G Michal Neuvirth. Earning his first start of the series, he stopped 30-of-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage), including a dazzling glove save against C Sidney Crosby with 51 seconds remaining in regulation to preserve the Flyers’ then 3-2 lead.

Another Flyer that put it all on the line was First Star of the Game C Sean Couturier. After sitting out Game 4 with an injury suffered in practice at the hands of D Radko Gudas, Couturier (W Wayne Simmonds) scored the game-winning goal with 75 seconds remaining in regulation.

In G Matt Murray‘s defense, Couturier’s goal was a bit of a fluke. However, luck counts just as much as snipes do when they reach the back of the net, so Couturier’s wrister bouncing off D Brian Dumoulin‘s left skate and past the netminder’s glove was what proved to be the deciding tally.

Murray departed the ice for the extra attacker with one minute remaining on the clock (nine seconds before Neuvirth robbed Crosby), and W Matt Read (Second Star F Valtteri Filppula) took advantage with 18 ticks left in the game to score an empty-netter for his first playoff goal since April 25, 2014.

However, all this talk about the Flyers implies they dominated this contest. That is as far from the truth as it gets, as Pittsburgh certainly had its fair share of scoring opportunities. That was no more true than the first period, but the solid play by Neuvirth meant Philly was the only side to register a marker in the frame.

F Claude Giroux (RW Jakub Voracek and Filppula) took credit for the tally with a slap shot from between the face-off circles with 2:31 remaining in the period. It was an opportunistic goal for the Flyers, as the stoppage of play before Giroux’ tally was to allow F Evgeni Malkin to get off the ice after C Jori Lehtera landed awkwardly on his left leg.

Malkin would return to action following the first intermission, but was not able to score even one point to help Pittsburgh’s predicament.

Instead, it was Third Star W Bryan Rust (W Conor Sheary and C Derick Brassard) that snapped Neuvirth’s 13-save shutout with eight minutes remaining in the second period to tie the game at 1-1.

Though PPG Paints Arena never fell fully silent, Rust’s goal brought the crowd roaring back to life, and that positive energy translated to the ice 4:45 later when F Jake Guentzel (Crosby and F Dominik Simon) buried a wrister on Neuvirth to give Pittsburgh a one-goal advantage.

However, that excitement was sucked out of the building just as fast, as Guentzel’s tally was not the final one of the frame. Even though Gudas’ holding penalty against F Zach Aston-Reese with 2:58 remaining in the period had given the Penguins the man-advantage, a sloppy giveaway by RW Phil Kessel ended with Filppula flying towards Murray’s crease. The 2008 Stanley Cup Champion dropped a pass to Lehtera, but he ended up being the one scoring the shorthanded goal by scrapping out a wrister from within the crease.

Still facing elimination, the Flyers will host Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday, April 22. Puck drop is scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern, and fans not in attendance can catch the action on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Having spoiled the opportunity to clinch a spot in the Eastern Semifinals on home, the Penguins will surely be a bit angry when they travel east this weekend. However, they have the luxury of knowing they’ve won four-straight games at Wells Fargo Center and will continue to play with the confidence expected from a reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champion.

Broad Street Broadsided: In pivotal Game 4, Flyers decimated with ease

 

That one hurt to watch.

A game that should have been Philadelphia’s chance to take a stand and show they weren’t going away ended up in a more lopsided loss than even the 5-0 final score would indicate.

Yes, the Flyers were without top center Sean Couturier, who was injured in practice this week in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas (because it’s always Gudas), and the hole he left in the Philly lineup was significant. But the lack of effort shown by the Flyers in the face of adversity was frankly just sad.

In an attempt to indicate to those who didn’t watch just how little the Flyers cared throughout the game, I will attempt to recap the game in accordance with how much effort they were showing in their play at coinciding points in the game.

First period:

Wells Fargo Center is rocking. Sidney Crosby can’t touch the puck without being showered in boos. Philadelphia rookie Nolan Patrick starts the opening shift off by laying a hit on the Pittsburgh captain, much to the delight of the home crowd. Brian Elliott starts the game off strong with a great save on a bang-bang play between Tom Kuhnhackl and Zach Aston-Reese, giving his team some confidence in their goaltender, much like they had in Game 2 when they beat up the Pens.

Then just 4:33 into the frame the wheels came right off when Crosby sent a backhand pass directly between the legs of Brandon Manning to the tape of Evgeni Malkin who buried the easy one-timer on the power play to put the Penguins up 1-0.

But it’s okay, right? Just a one-goal deficit early in the first period. Elliott makes a great glove save on a labeled wrister from Phil Kessel less than two minutes later and the tide starts to turn again. First it’s Michael Raffl nearly scoring on the doorstep after receiving a pass from behind the net, then comes a near-two minute complete domination shift by the Philadelphia top line that creates numerous high-quality chances, but all are answered by Matt Murray.

Then just after that shift ends it would be Malkin jumping on a turnover and leading a breakout with Kessel. Travis Sanheim is unable to match the speed of Kessel, and Malkin gets him the puck in stride allowing him to bury the 2-0 goal just under the arm of Elliott, effectively erasing any positives the Flyers had going for them and completely vacuuming the life out of the arena.

Philadelphia managed to kill off a penalty (a rarity for them in this series) and Claude Giroux finds Travis Konecny right out of the box for a clean breakaway, but Murray calmly blockers the attempt away, leaving Konecny infuriated as he returned to the bench. Olli Maatta accidentally clears the puck over the glass when cleaning up the Konecny rebound, giving the Flyers a power play of their own, that Wayne Simmonds promptly ends with a slash just seven seconds into the man advantage. This basically seemed to kill any idea of a comeback that the Flyers might have had.

Second period:

The first eight minutes are completely meaningless, then at 8:04 Kris Letang fires a wrister off of the stick of Andrew MacDonald and past Elliott, who looked none-too-happy about his own defenseman aiding in his demise. Dave Hakstol decided he had seen enough and pulled Elliott (for the second time in four games) in favor of just-returned Michal Neuvirth, hoping to spark his team. It would be another minute of play before the Flyers even managed their first shot on goal of the frame.

Less than three minutes after the goaltending switch Crosby became the Penguins’ all-time leading playoff scorer, breaking his 172-point tie with Mario Lemieux with a goal scored off of a forced turnover by Jake Guentzel behind the net, who quickly handed it over to Crosby who tucked it in the net before Neuvirth had even realized the puck had been turned over. 30 seconds later Conor Sheary got a breakaway, but Neuvirth decided he should stop it for some reason.

The Flyers closed the period by doing literally nothing of any consequence on a four-minute power play (high sticking on Malkin) and basically showing everyone they’d rather be golfing.

Third period:

Nolan Patrick gets a breakaway on the opening shift, but Murray turns it aside (obviously).

Some hockey things happen for a while.

Riley Sheahan decides he’s bored and would like to score a playoff goal, taking a misplayed puck from Konecny, walking in alone and beating Neuvirth high stick side.

The game ends. Matt Murray posts his sixth shutout in 36 playoff games.

(That third period summary was only slightly lazier than the third period play of the Flyers)

This one is over and done with before the puck drops in Game 5. The Flyers have completely mailed it in at this point, and are being firmly outclassed by the Pens in every measurable aspect. Possibly the craziest thing to me in this series is the almost complete lack of any hint of the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia rivalry. Little physicality, almost no scrums or pushback to speak of. Just the Penguins running through a Flyers team that looks completely undeserving of their playoff spot. Sorry, Florida Panthers, you probably should have been given Philly’s place in the show.

Flyers even series with dominant effort by Elliott

 

No matter how many shots the Pittsburgh Penguins fired at Second Star of the Game G Brian Elliott, he would not yield as he led the Philadelphia Flyers to a 5-1 victory at PPG Paints Arena in Game 2.

When Head Coach Dave Hakstol elected to start his second line at the opening puck drop, C Sidney Crosby and the Penguins took advantage to fire two quick shots on goal. It seemed like the Pens were in line to dominate this game in a similar fashion as Game 1.

However, Elliott was there to make both saves, as well as 32 others. In all, the man known as Moose saved 34-of-35 shots faced, earning an impressive .971 save percentage.

The lone goal Elliott allowed belonged to RW Patric Hornqvist (D Justin Schultz and D Brian Dumoulin) at the 5:27 mark of the third period, then setting the score at 4-1 and not putting the final result of this tilt into question.

At the other end of the rink, this game was all about the numerous goals G Matt Murray and his defense allowed – especially when First Star C Sean Couturier, who scored three points, was on the ice.

There were major concerns coming into these playoffs that either Pittsburgh’s defense or goaltending  – and perhaps a combination of both – could be its ultimate demise. Even though Murray quelled some of those worries with his shutout in Game 1, those doubts were fully realized when Philadelphia converted 25 percent of its 20 shots on goal into tallies on the scoreboard.

The first of those belonged to D Shayne Gostisbehere (F Claude Giroux and Couturier), who took advantage of F Zach Aston-Reese sitting in the sin bin for boarding Third Star D Ivan Provorov to redirect a power play shot past Murray with 37 seconds remaining in the first period.

Couturier (Provorov and W Michael Raffl) bounced a shot off D Kris Letang to set the Flyers’ advantage at 2-0 47 seconds into the second period, but Philadelphia did most of its offensive damage in the third frame.

F Travis Konecny (RW Wayne Simmonds and Provorov) needed only 89 seconds of third period play to find the Flyers’ third goal of the game. 2:21 after Konecny’s tally, Hornqvist found a seat in the penalty box for roughing C Nolan Patrick to set up Philly’s final goal against Murray. As luck have it, Patrick (Couturier and RW Jakub Voracek) cashed in on the power play, scoring a wrist shot to set the score at 4-0.

The Flyers’ final goal of the contest belonged to D Andrew MacDonald (C Jori Lehtera), who scored a long-range wrister on an empty net to set the 5-1 final score.

Murray saved only 15-of-19 shots faced (.789 save percentage) in the loss. He’ll obviously need to improve on that mark if Pittsburgh wants any chance of advancing beyond the first round.

After making the quick trip across the commonwealth, Game 3 will take place at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, April 15 at 3 p.m. Eastern and will be broadcast on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Crosby nets hat trick, Pens take Game 1

 

During the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins scored five goals in each contest against the Philadelphia Flyers to sweep the four-game series. In Game 1 at PPG Paints Arena, they continued their dominance of their bitter rivals by beating them 7-0.

No player was brighter than First Star of the Game C Sidney Crosby, who registered his first hat trick since March 19, 2017 and his first in the postseason since May 17, 2013 by registering the final three tallies of the game.

Crosby’s (D Brian Dumoulin and Second Star F Jake Guentzel) first goal was struck at the 9:01 mark of the second period, and it just might be his most exemplary of the season. Dumoulin attempted to fire a shot on goal from the left point, but it was deflected into the air by W Wayne Simmonds. However, that was no matter for Crosby, who backhanded the puck over G Brian Elliott‘s left shoulder to then set the score at 5-0.

Having chased Elliott following his first goal, the captain completed his performance with two third period markers in the span of 3:01 against G Petr Mrazek. A Crosby (D Justin Schultz and Guentzel) wrist shot at the 7:41 mark gave Pittsburgh a six-goal advantage, and he (Dumoulin) followed it up with a tip-in with 9:18 remaining in regulation to earn himself some free headwear.

Of course, by scoring the final three goals of a lopsided game, it’s hard to say that Crosby’s effort was little more than icing on the cake for Pittsburgh. Instead, W Bryan Rust (D Kris Letang and Guentzel) takes credit for the game-winner by scoring a wrister 2:38 into the game.

The Pens continued applying the pressure 7:29 later when LW Carl Hagelin (RW Patric Hornqvist and C Riley Sheahan) scored a slick deflection to the near post, followed by F Evgeni Malkin‘s (Hagelin) backhander with 5:51 remaining in the frame.

Guentzel (C Derick Brassard and W Conor Sheary) took credit for the final goal before Crosby took command of the attack, then setting the score at 4-0 with a power play tip-in.

At risk of being forgotten in all this offense is Third Star G Matt Murray, who also played a major role in this game. He saved all 24 shots he faced – including more than a few beauties – to register his third-consecutive postseason shutout, going back to Game 5 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals against the Nashville Predators.

By comparison, Elliott saved 14-of-19 shots faced (.737 save percentage) in the loss, while Mrazek took no-decision after saving 12-of-14 (.857).

The Flyers are going to learn very quickly that out-hitting the Penguins is a one-way trip to booking tee times at Merion Golf Club. Even though Philadelphia outhit Pittsburgh 39-27, the Flyers were unable to slow down their speedy rivals.

This is no surprise to Penguins fans. Going back to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, Pittsburgh now has a 6-4 postseason record in games where its opponent throws more hits, including a perfect 3-0 mark when the Pens are out-hit by eight or more.

Game 2 is scheduled for Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m. Eastern. For those that can’t make it to PPG Paints Arena, the tilt will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN and TVAS.

March 25 – Day 165 – Battle of the Keystone State

Only five games are on the schedule today, but there’s some good ones!

The first puck drop of the day is at 12:30 p.m., featuring Philadelphia at Pittsburgh (NBC/TVAS) as the afternoon’s lone matinee. Two games get underway at 7 p.m. (Vancouver at Dallas and Nashville at Winnipeg [SN360]), followed by Boston at Minnesota (NBCSN) half an hour later. Finally, Anaheim is in Edmonton (SN1) at 9:30 p.m. to close out the weekend’s activity. All times Eastern.

Two games in particular stuck out to me when the schedule was released before the season…

  • Philadelphia at Pittsburgh: Few rivalries get the publicity of this one, so let’s see if this particular contest lives up to the hype.
  • Anaheim at Edmonton: Though rivalry is certainly too strong a word, there’s nothing the Oilers would like to do more than to harm the Ducks’ postseason chances since it was Anaheim that eliminated them in last year’s Western Semifinals.

I know we just featured the Penguins Friday night, but the Battle of the Keystone State is just too big to ignore!

 

After putting together an unsightly 1-6-1 record over the first half of March, the 38-25-12 Flyers have gotten their skates back under them over their last four games to post a much better 3-0-1 mark.

A major reason for Philadelphia’s previous bad luck was its game plan and strategy. With today’s starter 4-2-1 G Alex Lyon and 5-5-1 G Petr Mrazek filling in for 21-11-7 G Brian Elliott and 8-7-3 G Michal Neuvirth, all the skaters were playing back and reacting to opposing offenses.

However, that’s all changed since March 17, and the Flyers are reaping the rewards.

Instead of reacting to the opposition, Philly is now being proactive and keeping pucks in its offensive zone. Results have extended beyond simply a better record, as the Flyers impressive 4.5 goals per game since March 17 has been the best mark in the Eastern Conference in that time, as well as (t)best in the entire NHL. Additionally, this stellar play in the offensive zone has also limited opposing shots on goal, as Philadelphia’s 30 shots allowed per game since March 17 is (t)ninth-best in the league.

An impressive five Flyers are averaging a point per game over their last five showings, with none more impressive than F Claude Giroux‘ 0-7-7 marks to improve his season totals to 26-64-90. Of course, without any goals, he has linemates C Sean Couturier (1-4-5 since March 17) and F Travis Konecny (4-0-4 since March 17) for getting him on the scorecard.

However, Philadelphia’s offensive success does not stop at the first line, as RW Jakub Voracek has found the goal quite often lately on the second line with 3-2-5 totals since March 17. The third line line has also been extremely productive, thanks in large part to W Wayne Simmonds and his 2-2-4 effort in his last four games.

Meanwhile, 42-27-6 Pittsburgh is also rounding into form in preparation for the playoffs, as it has posted a decent 3-1-2 record in its last six showings.

The main reason the Pens are rediscovering their winning ways lately is because of their solid effort on the defensive end. Pittsburgh has allowed only 29.17 shots per game since March 11, the fifth-best mark in the league in that time.

D Brian Dumoulin (two blocks per game since March 11), F Evgeni Malkin (seven takeaways in his last six games) and D Jamie Oleksiak (three hits per game over this run) have played major roles in this defensive success, and they’ll certainly be under pressure this afternoon given the Flyers’ offensive resurgence.

Of course, anything the Penguins’ defense don’t stop will become the responsibility of 23-14-3 G Matt Murray, who will be making his third start since returning from injury. Though he has a .908 save percentage and 2.86 GAA to show for the entire season, he has yet to resume that form, as he’s managed only a .904 save percentage and 3.5 GAA in his last two showings.

With the Capitals owning a five-point advantage on the Penguins, odds are growing increasingly slim that Pittsburgh can win its first division title since 2013-14. However, the Pens would be unwise to take their foot off the gas just yet, as Columbus is sitting only one point behind them in third place. Since this game is Pittsburgh’s current game in hand on the Jackets, it needs to get at least one point to maintain its advantage for home ice in the first round of the playoffs (Pittsburgh has all but clinched the tiebreaker over Columbus should it be necessary at season’s end).

Speaking of Columbus, that’s exactly the team the Flyers are trailing in the playoffs right now, but that can all change with a victory today.  Additionally, a regulation win by Philly can also pull it into a tie with Pittsburgh for second place, but – similar to Columbus – the Pens have all but clinched the necessary regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker, meaning the only way the Flyers can earn home ice in the first round is by beating Pittsburgh outright in the standings.

For those that are of the opinion that this is the best rivalry in the NHL, I regret to inform you that this is the final meeting of the season between these clubs. Flyers fans are not complaining about that fact, as Pittsburgh has dominated this series to score five goals apiece in its three victories.

Game 1 was way back on November 27, and was undoubtedly the most competitive of the series so far as the Pens needed overtime to knock off the Flyers 5-4 (C Sidney Crosby provided the game-winning goal) at PPG Paints Arena.

Since then, the Penguins have hardly broken a sweat in their two trips to the City of Brotherly Love, as they beat the Flyers 5-1 on January 2 (RW Ryan Reaves earned First Star honors with his two-point second period that included potting the game-winning goal) and 5-2 on March 7 (Crosby’s three assists earned him First Star recognition).

Rivalry games are always tough to predict, and both clubs’ winning ways of late make this prediction no easier. However, Murray’s still recent return has me leaning towards the Flyers winning this tilt.


It was an impressive goaltending spectacle in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, but the Colorado Avalanche escaped with a 2-1 shootout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at Pepsi Center.

First Star of the Game G Semyon Varlamov and Second Star G Marc-Andre Fleury were both incredible in this game, as – including the shootout – they allowed only a combined three shots past them. Varlamov earned the victory after saving 39-of-40 shots faced (.975 save percentage) – plus another three in the shootout – leaving the shootout loss to Fleury, who saved 29-of-30 (.967).

The Avalanche scored their regulation goal first, due in large part to a F Erik Haula tripping penalty against D Nikita Zadorov with 7:39 remaining in the first period. 1:31 later, Third Star F Carl Soderberg (F J.T. Compher and F Alexander Kerfoot) converted the man-advantage into a power play wrist shot.

That 1-0 advantage lasted through not only the remainder of the first period, but all the way through the second as well. However, F Jon Marchessault (D Shea Theodore) needed only 1:15 of play in the third frame to level the game with a wrister.

With no goals struck in the remaining 18:45 of regulation nor the five-minute three-on-three overtime period, this game advanced into the shootout. As home team, Colorado elected to shoot second.

  1. That sent W David Perron to center ice, but his wrister was saved by Varlamov.
  2. F Nathan MacKinnon failed to get on the scoresheet in 65 minutes of play, and that trend continued in the shootout as his offering sailed over the crossbar. Through one round, the shootout was still tied 0-0.
  3. Being partially responsible for the Avs’ regulation goal, Haula was provided an opportunity to redeem himself. Unfortunately for Vegas, he couldn’t do that as his wrister was saved by Varlamov.
  4. RW Mikko Rantanen has been Colorado’s second-most dynamic scorer this season, but it’s hard to beat a goalpost. Another round complete, the shootout score still read 0-0.
  5. Having already beaten Varlamov once, Head Coach Gerard Gallant turned his team’s fate over to Marchessault to see if he could work his magic again. Apparently, he shouldn’t go to the well twice, as the netminder was able to make his third-straight shootout save.
  6. Only one member of Colorado’s first line remained, so it only makes sense that LW Gabriel Landeskog took the Avalanche’s third shot. He apparently should have been deployed earlier, because he was the lone shooter to beat a netminder, earning the Avs the bonus point.

The Avs’ home victory makes it three-straight games with points for hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Home teams now have a 91-53-21 record in the series, 35 points better than that of the roadies.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Weeks 16 & 17

Another two-week special, courtesy of a trip to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Skater of the Week(s): Evgeni Malkin

Hey, so, you know that thing the Penguins do where they trick everyone into thinking they’re not very good and then right around February they just start crapping in everyone’s Wheaties? Yeah, keep those cereal boxes sealed.

The Pens are 4-1-0 in five games over this two-week span, and Geno is a major reason why. With eight goals and 11 points over the five contests, Malkin leads the league by two points in overall scoring in that span, and teammate Phil Kessel is the one trailing him. Possibly even more impressive is the fact that in the first game of the five, he was held scoreless, so he’s actually put up those numbers across just four contests. Throw in three power play tallies, a game-winner, and a cartoonish .40 shooting percentage, and it’s not hard to see why Malkin gets the nod here.

Tendy of the Week(s): Carter Hutton

I’m honestly very glad I checked the stats page on this, because I was jotting down Tuukka Rask‘s name when I saw he had actually been bested.

Hutton continues an absolutely ridiculous run this season with a perfect 4-0-0 record and seemingly-impossible advanced stats with a .984 save percentage and 0.50 GAA over the past two weeks. He’s given up two goals on 123 shots, and I literally cannot even come up with anything witty for that.

The 32-year old career journeyman now boasts a 14-4-1 record on the season with a .947 save percentage and 1.61 GAA. When the Blues traded Brian Elliott, it was because they felt they now possessed a true #1 goaltender for the future. But I’m pretty sure Hutton was not the name they were thinking of at the time.

Game of the Week: Super Bowl LII

The empire has fallen. Behold a god that bleeds.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Rick Nash has submitted his list of teams that he would not accept a trade to upon the Rangers’ request. The former Rocket Richard winner is now in his mid-30s and has seen his production dip signficantly, though some think a change of scenery could reinvigorate his career. The popular narrative is that he returns to Columbus, but I think I speak for most intelligent CBJ fans when I say ‘Dear god please no’.

Jaromir Jagr retired from the NHL and returned to his native Czech Republic to continue his career back home. There were many touching sendoffs from around the NHL, but I’m honestly not sure why considering he’ll just come back in about three years and be a productive player for a few more teams.

Filip Forsberg was suspended for three games following a very illegal hit, a decision that has apparently shocked and upset his teammates. Now I will definitely say the Department of Player Safety has been less than stellar with some decisions this year, and I am certainly of the opinion that good clean hits cause far too much hooplah anymore, but I don’t know how anyone can defend a hit as late and dirty as this one.

Rookie sensation Charlie McAvoy made his triumphant return to the Bruins lineup just 12 days after undergoing a procedure on his heart to treat an abnormal rhythm. I’m not a doctor, but that sounds like a pretty heroic comeback effort to me after literally having the thing that keeps you alive fixed.

Radko Gudas is back at the center of controversy, because of course he is. The oft-suspended Flyers defenseman made airborne contact with Kyle Palmieri after attempting to avoid leg-on-leg contact with teammate Wayne Simmonds by leaping out of the way, only to be met by a backchecking Palmieri. I am actually of the belief that this was truly an accident, but Gudas’ history probably doesn’t help his case.

No one knows what goaltender interference actually is anymore, so everybody get your licks in on that guy who always stones you on breakaways while you can.

January 12 – Day 97 – Gagner is “to win” in French, so…

There’s one more day until the first wave of byes end! Get ready for an explosion of games tomorrow!

However, that still means today’s list of matchups is rather short. Only five pucks are going to be dropped this evening, starting with two at 7 p.m. (Vancouver at Columbus and Calgary at Florida) and Washington at Carolina half an hour later. Next up is Winnipeg at Chicago at 8:30 p.m., followed by Edmonton at Arizona acting as tonight’s nightcap. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, Nashville, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Vegas.

You’ll notice none of these games are being broadcast nationally in either Canada or the USA, which is a real bummer. Hopefully you live in one of these 10 markets.

As for which tilt we’ll feature here, my list of two candidates was trimmed to one by the still ongoing saga between RW Jaromir Jagr and the Calgary Flames, who was scheduled to make his return to Sunrise today. Since we featured the Canes and Caps yesterday (you can just use that preview for today’s contest), let’s take in F Sam Gagner‘s return to Ohio.

 

Life is not always easy for a first-round pick.

Just ask Gagner, who was the sixth-overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft – you know, the same draft with LW Jamie Benn, F Patrick Kane, LW Max Pacioretty, D Kevin Shattenkirk, W Wayne Simmonds, D P.K. Subban, RW Jakub Voracek… the list goes on to include a total of 93 skaters and four goaltenders that have seen time in the NHL.

It was a good draft class with some exceptional talent, but not a great one – look to 2003 for a better example of a draft with more depth.

By simply arranging the draft class by points they’ve scored so far in their careers, Edmonton picking him sixth is right on the money. He’s posted 149-272-421 totals over the course of his 11 seasons in the league, which puts him behind Kane (797 points), Benn (556), Voracek (539), Pacioretty (434) and Simmonds (424).

However, how is it Gagner, who provides .57 points-per-game, is one of the three players listed above that is no longer with the club that drafted him?

The obvious answer is just to say “Oilers” and move on, but Gagner’s story did not immediately end up in Columbus.

Gagner signed a three-year extension with the Oil before the 2013-’14 season, but he played only one year of that deal before being shipped to Tampa Bay for RW Teddy Purcell. The Bolts apparently never wanted him, because he was shipped off only an hour later to Arizona for a sixth-round pick.

Year two of that three-year deal was spent with the Coyotes as a right wing – not his usual center position. The results of that experiment in 2014-’15 were fairly poor given his 15-26-41 totals playing off the puck, but General Manager Don Maloney insisted Gagner could not play his natural position in the NHL and decided to trade him to Philadelphia that offseason for D Nicklas Grossmann and D Chris Pronger – who, by the way, hadn’t seen the ice since the 2011-’12 season even though his contract expired this most recent offseason.

For those counting at home, Arizona received 58 games played in the 2015-’16 season out of that trade.

Oh yeah, and Maloney was fired after that year. There’s also that.

And so, Gagner completed a hat trick of teams in as many seasons all on the same contract. It was a miserable campaign in Philly that saw him register only 16 points in 53 games (he spent time in the AHL that season as well), and he was allowed to test free agency.

No one wanted Gagner. Nobody. Free agents can begin signing contracts on July 1, but he didn’t earn a spot on a team until August 1. The former first-rounder signed a one-year, $650 thousand contract with Columbus, making $225 thousand fewer than he did during his first three seasons in the league.

The Jackets had nothing to lose in this situation and everything to gain. They had missed the 2016 playoffs entirely, falling all the way to last in the Metropolitan Division and 15th in the Eastern Conference a year after missing the postseason by only nine points. If Gagner failed to produce, the Jackets could easily waive him and he’d almost assuredly end up in Cleveland with their AHL affiliate.

To put things plainly, Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen looked like a genius after this deal. The Blue Jackets enjoyed their greatest season of all-time by reaching the 100-point plateau for the first time in franchise history, and Gagner was one of the biggest players. He posted fifth-best 18-32-50 totals, setting a career-high in points and tying his career-best in goals.

However, the money just wasn’t there for the Jackets to keep Gagner around for this season. For the second offseason in a row, he was a free agent. But this time, Gagner was one of the first players signed. He was brought into the Vancouver fold on a three-year, $3.15 million deal, and is currently centering the Canucks’ top line.

Unfortunately, Gagner hasn’t been able to bring along the Jackets’ spark to the 16-21-6 Canucks, who currently occupy second-to-last in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. Short of his stint with the Flyers, he’s having the worst season of his career, posting only 7-12-19 totals through 43 games played (.44 points per game).

Of course, it’s hard to say that Gagner is having a bad year on his own accord. His 19 points are enough to place him sixth on the team, and rookie sensation RW Brock Boeser is the only player on the squad with more than 30 points to his credit.

Vancouver is experiencing an especially rough patch in its season right now, as it is in the midst of a seven-game road trip (tonight is Game 4) while also suffering a five-game losing skid that has seen it earn only one point.

As you might expect from a team where 19 points is good enough for sixth-most on the squad, offense is a major issue for the Canucks. During this five-game losing skid, they’ve managed only eight goals, meaning they’re averaging a third-worst 1.6 goals per game since December 30.

What makes things even more frustrating is that the little offense the Canucks are getting is coming from only two players: the legends themselves, LW Daniel Sedin and C Henrik Sedin. D. Sedin has been extremely impressive over his last three games, as he’s managed 2-2-4 totals for a three-game point streak, and H. Sedin has thrown in three assists in that span as well.

Meanwhile, this hasn’t been the best of runs for 25-17-3 Columbus either. The Jackets have earned only a 3-4-1 record over their past eight games, and they now trail Washington, which has a game in hand, by four points for the Metropolitan Division lead.

It’s not very often that I’m disappointed with Columbus’ overall defensive effort, but for the second time in a row of me featuring the Jackets, that’s where I’m having concerns.

Over their past eight games, the Blue Jackets have allowed 24 goals. Those astute at math notice that is an average of three goals per game (well over the 2.69 Columbus has averaged all season), which ties Chicago for 12th-worst since December 27.

One of, if not the biggest issue over this run has been the penalty kill. Over its past eight games, Columbus has successfully defended only two-thirds of its 18 shorthanded situations, making the Jackets the fifth-worst kill over the past 16 days.

G Sergei Bobrovsky has posted only an .844 save percentage against the power play since December 27 (the 22nd-worst among the 61 netminders to face a power play situation in that time), but he’s also had to face a fifth-most 32 power play shots.

With D David Savard being the only Blue Jacket with more than three shorthanded blocked shots and a total of only four total takeaways in that situation, Columbus needs to find a way to get its penalty kill under control in a hurry.

Bobrovsky played yesterday to a 3-1 loss in Buffalo, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see 4-4-0 G Joonas Korpisalo draw tonight’s start. That being said, I’ve made that prediction once already this week and it didn’t pan out, so we’ll see what Head Coach John Tortorella decides to do.

With the Canucks sporting a 20.7 power play conversion rate that is 12th-best on the season, this may not be the easiest of home games for Columbus. Throw in the fact that Korpisalo, who hasn’t faced an NHL shot since December 31, could be in net tonight, and Vancouver has a very real shot at earning two points this evening.


With a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Carolina Hurricanes have moved into the Eastern Conference’s second wild card.

This was a game full of solid defense and counterattacking by the Canes. Even though they out-shot the Capitals 33-28 for the night, it felt like Washington was earning much stronger possessions and longer time in the offensive zone.

That was no more apparent than in Carolina’s first goal of the night. With F Josh Jooris in the penalty box for holding D Madison Bowey, the Caps were on the power play. However, when D John Carlson attempted to reset the play to W Alex Ovechkin at the blue line, C Jordan Staal intercepted the pass to set himself up for a one-on-one duel with G Braden Holtby. Staal won that battle, squeezing a backhanded shot between the netminder’s legs for his second shorthanded tally of the season, the most he’s scored in one campaign as a Hurricane.

Carolina took the lead with 8:27 remaining in the second period, but that advantage wouldn’t last for long. Third Star of the Game C Lars Eller (F T.J. Oshie and D Christian Djoos) was able to level the game 4:32 later with a slap shot from above the face-off circles. The one-all score held into the second intermission.

What other line to score the game-winning goal than RW Justin Williams‘? The former Capital didn’t earn a point on the play, but his protégé Second Star C Victor Rask did with his unassisted wrist shot with 9:06 remaining in regulation.

Because the Caps were facing a delayed penalty, it was a six-on-five situation for the Canes. D Justin Faulk fired an initial wrist shot from above the face-off circles that Holtby was able to deflect, but neither he nor any other skater clad in red could take possession of the loose puck. That’s what allowed Rask to one-time a wrister from the left face-off circle, beating Holtby short side.

Washington tried valiantly to find another leveling goal up its sleeve, but Head Coach Barry Trotz was eventually forced to pull Holtby as regulation was beginning to come to an end. That’s what allowed W Sebastian Aho (F Elias Lindholm) to bury a wrister with 89 seconds remaining in regulation to set the score at the 3-1 final.

While the Canes executed their game plan to a T, the player most deserving of praise was First Star G Scott Darling. Having lost his last two starts, he won this one by stopping 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage). Holtby took the loss, saving 30-of-32 (.938).

That’s the second-consecutive win by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The 54-31-12 home teams still hold the advantage in the series, but the visitors have now pulled within 22 points.

March 9 – Day 141 – Talk about a playoff push

What happens when you mix one of the best days of the week with one of the greatest sports and leagues in the world? I don’t know the answer, but it probably looks something like hockey on a Thursday night.

The New York Rangers at Carolina gets things started at 7 p.m., followed half an hour later by two more games (Philadelphia at Toronto [NHLN/TVAS] and Minnesota at Tampa Bay). Anaheim at Chicago drops the puck at 8:30 p.m., trailed by a trio of contests (New Jersey at Colorado, Montréal at Calgary [RDS] and Ottawa at Arizona [RDS2]) 30 minutes later. The final wave of games drop the puck at 10 p.m. with the New York Islanders at Vancouver, followed half an hour later by tonight’s co-nightcaps: Nashville at Los Angeles (SN360) and Washington at San JoseAll times eastern.

While tonight’s action features three matchups between teams currently qualifying for a playoff position, the contest my attention is drawn to most is between two teams currently on the outside looking in.

 

Only eight of the 16 Eastern Conference clubs earn the opportunity to compete beyond the regular season for the Stanley Cup. While that means half the teams move on, the other half are sentenced to their couches to watch the postseason move on without them.

Currently, both of tonight’s squads find themselves in that second set of teams – on the outside of the playoff picture peering in. Even more frustrating for them, they aren’t missing the mark by much. Both have their sights set on the Islanders‘ 73-point mark, which eludes either team by less than four points.

29-22-14 Toronto certainly has the best shot of surpassing New York for that playoff spot, as they are only a point out of eighth-place in the Eastern Conference. While they probably won’t admit it externally, the Maple Leafs are well ahead of schedule in terms of returning to the top of the hockey landscape, and they have their imposing offense to thank for that.

Yet it’s been its defense that has prevented Toronto from maintaining a playoff position. The Leafs have allowed 187 goals against in 65 games – the eighth-worst rate in the NHL. 25-14-13 Frederik Andersen has been in net for most of those goals, even though his season .916 save percentage is tied for 13th-best in the league among the 37 netminders with at least 27 appearances.

That’s because his 2.72 GAA is only 28th in the league in that same group. That’s where the defense comes into play – or apparently not, as the Leafs‘ blueliners allow 32.6 shots to reach Andersen’s crease per night – the third-highest rate in the league.

As is the case with the entire Toronto roster, it’s a young defensive corps that should hopefully improve with time, but in the meantime Nikita Zaitsev, himself a rookie at 25-years-old, will be expected to continue his impressive play. He leads the group with 116 shot blocks, the most on the team.

Even though defense may not be the club’s strong-suit, don’t just assume that the Maple Leafs are always pushovers. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as Toronto is home to the ninth-best penalty kill in the league, successful on 83.5% of disadvantages. Roman Polak has been front-and-center when the Leafs have a man in the sin bin, as his 30 shorthanded shot blocks are most on the team – as are his 24 shorthanded hits.

The penalty kill is bordering on great and trying to catch up to an exemplary power play. Led by rookie William Nylander‘s 20 power play points, Toronto has scored on 22.9% of their man-advantages – the third-best rate in the NHL. Nylander has been good, but it’s Nazem Kadri that opposing goalies have to keep an eye on – he has a team-leading 11 power play goals, which ties for sixth-most in the league.

Although they have two more wins than the Leafs, the 31-26-8 Flyers are actually in worse shape than tonight’s opposition in terms of catching up to the Isles (those extra-time losses sure add up), as New York has a three-point lead on 10th-place Philadelphia.

Philly‘s reason for falling out of postseason contention is the exact opposite of Toronto‘s. Instead, the Flyers struggle to consistently get on the scoreboard, as they’ve managed only 164 goals this season – the ninth-lowest total in the league.

At the start of the season, there were few offenses more potent than that of high-flying Philadelphia. While they certainly had their slump, it seems Jakub Voracek and his team-leading 53 points is trying to get things back to what they were. Over their past five games, the Flyers have averaged three goals-per-game, which rivals Chicago‘s seventh-best rate on the season.

While it may be a much smaller sample size, any time a team can be mentioned in the same breath as the Blackhawks, they’re usually doing something right.

Two of those goals belonged to Wayne Simmonds, who will be extremely important in the Flyers‘ playoff push. He’s managed 27 markers already this year, eight more than second-place Brayden Schenn. Should Simmonds continue on his current pace, he should manage 34 games by the time the season ends – the highest total of his nine-year career.

In the previous two games between these clubs, it’s been all about the home-ice advantage as both teams have won a game in their colored sweaters and, arguably more importantly, lost in regulation in their road whites. They last met in Philly on January 26, where the Flyers won 2-1, but the Leafs handily won 6-3 when they last hosted Philadelphia on November 11.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Philadelphia‘s Voracek (36 assists for 53 points [both lead the team]) and Toronto‘s Auston Matthews (31 goals [tied for fourth-most in the league]).

With the recent meetings in mind, it’s hard to pick against Toronto tonight, especially when Vegas has already marked the Leafs a -138 favorite. The Leafs have full control of the special teams play in almost every game they play, and I have full faith in their offense to dominate Philadelphia‘s blueline.

Hockey Birthday

  • Harry Neale (1937-) – After seven years of WHA coaching experience, Neale transitioned to the NHL in 1978, a year before the merger. Predominantly spending his time with the Canucks, he led Vancouver to a 142-189-76 record and three-straight playoff appearances.
  • Paul MacLean (1958-) – St. Louis may have selected this French right wing in the seventh round of the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, but he spent most of his career with the Jets. He earned his lone All-Star appearance in 1985 during a 101 point season, by far the best effort of his career. After more than three seasons as the Senators‘ head coach, he’s in his second year as an assistant coach in Anaheim. Also, he and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid are probably really good friends, if not twins.
  • Phil Housley (1964-) – This Hall of Fame defenseman was selected by Buffalo with the sixth-overall pick in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. He certainly did not disappoint, as he ended up being a seven-time All-Star with 1232 points over his 21 seasons.
  • Radek Dvorak (1977-) – The 10th-overall pick in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft by Florida, this right wing spent most of his 18-year career, albeit over two stints, with the club that selected him. His best season was by far his 2000-’01 campaign with the Rangers when he accounted for 67 points, including 31 goals (both career highs).
  • Brent Burns (1985-) – There were a few good players selected before the 20th-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but I’d venture to say that at least 15 scouts whiffed on Burns. Somehow only a two-time All-Star, the six-year Shark has accounted for 490 points over his 13-year career, and he doesn’t look like he’s stopping anytime soon.
  • Colin Greening (1986-) – Ottawa selected this forward in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he’s spent most of his career. He has yet to make his NHL debut this season, but he was last seen during the 2015-’16 campaign for Toronto.
  • Morgan Rielly (1994-) – Speaking of the Maple Leafs, they selected this defenseman fifth-overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He’s accounted for 114 points and a -70 over his four year career. Also, I’m five weeks older than him. Pick the more successful of us, I dare you.

There’s no other word than disrespectful to describe how Boston took advantage of the Red Wings in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day. With four unanswered goals in the first period, the Bruins won 6-1.

The scoring onslaught began with 8:53 remaining in the first period. First Star of the Game David Krejci (Drew Stafford and Third Star Zdeno Chara) took credit for the opening tally with a wrist shot, followed 61 seconds later by a Second Star Brad Marchand (David Pastrnak and Chara) wrister – the eventual game-winner. Stafford buried his fifth tally of the season with 6:28 remaining in the frame, and Krejci notched his second of the contest 15 seconds before the period came to a close.

Marchand (Colin Miller) set the score at 5-0 with 3:05 remaining in the second period before Tuukka Rask finally ceded a goal. Niklas Kronwall (Mike Green and Dylan Larkin) is the lucky Red Wing, as his club could not find the back of the net again the rest of the night.

Pastrnak (Krejci) notched the finally tally of the game 34 seconds into the third period to set the 6-1 final score.

Rask earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (96.3%), leaving the loss to Jared Coreau. He saved five-of-eight (62.5%) before getting pulled after Stafford’s tally. He was replaced by Petr Mrazek, who saved 18-of-21 (85.7%) for no decision.

Boston‘s win is the third in four days for the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. That victory pulls them within four points of the 72-49-22 visitors.