Tag Archives: Slavin

January 11 – Day 96 – Seeing red

Usually Thursdays are among the busiest days of the week, but this particular edition doesn’t quite fit the bill with only three East Coast games to offer.

Like it usually does, the action begins at 7 p.m. with a pair of contests (Columbus at Buffalo [SN] and Carolina at Washington [NHLN]), but the nightcap – Calgary at Tampa Bay (TVAS) – gets an early start at 7:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

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

Fortunately, all three tilts are being broadcast nationally so no one gets left out on tonight’s fun. However, it is citizens of the United States that are truly the lucky ones, because they get tonight’s best matchup.

 

Hidden within this tilt between Southeast-turned-Metropolitan Division rivals is the homecoming of Mr. Game 7 to Washington for the first time since returning to Raleigh this offseason.

RW Justin Williams played the last two seasons before this one with W Alex Ovechkin and company. Following a successful seven seasons in Los Angeles that earned him his second and third Stanley Cup rings (not to mention the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy), the Kings left him unsigned and he joined the Caps on a two-year, $6.5 million contract.

Beyond the simple offensive prowess he had shown throughout his NHL tenure (he’d averaged .63 points per game for his career leading up to the 2015-’16 season), Williams was brought into the Washington fold to bring the very thing it had missed in seasons past: the clutch factor. The ability to take the ice in a Game 7 knowing they had the experience and scoring touch to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998.

Williams brought exactly what the Capitals expected as far as his scoring was concerned. Having scored .63 points per game for the first 14 seasons of his career, Williams managed a .62 in two seasons with the Caps to post 46-54-100 totals during his tenure.

However, Mr. Game 7 apparently didn’t travel from the West to East Coast, because he managed only 2-1-3 totals in five elimination games with Washington. In fact, even though the Capitals clawed their way back into last year’s Eastern Semifinal against Pittsburgh from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7, all Williams can claim for his last three postseason games are six shots on goal. No goals, no assists. Heck, he even has a goal-differential of zero.

While I’m sure the Caps’ dire cap situation is the primary reason he swapped out red sweaters this offseason, Williams not delivering in the postseason like he was expected to must have factored into the decision to not resign him at least a little bit.

Regardless of the reason, Williams was presented with the opportunity to resign with the Hurricanes, the club with which he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006, on a two-year, $9 million contract. He pounced on the opportunity immediately.

So far, Williams has continued his stellar offensive production. With 7-19-26 totals alongside LW Brock McGinn and C Victor Rask on the Canes’ third line, he’s posting his .62 points-per-game while while also providing a guiding hand for a team with an average age of 26.4-years-old – 1.3 years younger than the league average according to hockeyreference.com.

That guiding hand is apparently working, because Carolina has a 19-15-8 record that is only one point behind Pittsburgh for the second wildcard spot.

We already talked on Tuesday about the impressive surge the Canes have been on lately, earning 17 points over their past 13 games with an 8-4-1 record. However, the next step for this Carolina team is to start beating some of the best teams in the league with a little bit more consistency.

The last six games the Hurricanes have played have been against teams currently in playoff position. In those contests, they’ve managed only a 2-3-1 record, and it’s due in large part to the defense meeting their match against some of the best offenses the game has to offer.

Usually, Carolina is one of the soundest defenses in the NHL. On the season, F Jeff Skinner (42 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (2.1 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (2.4 hits-per-game) have led the Canes to allowing only 29.1 shots against per game, the fewest in the league by half a shot.

Statistically, that defense is still unmatched. Over its past six games, Carolina has allowed only 28 shots per game, the fewest in the league since December 29. However, 11-4-2 G Cam Ward‘s numbers are plummeting from his season marks of a .907 save percentage and 2.78 GAA. How can it be that he’s managed only an .883 save percentage and 3.18 GAA in his past five starts?

Answer: solid offenses.

It is worth mentioning who these current playoff teams are Carolina has played lately: Pittsburgh (2-1 win), at St. Louis (3-2 loss), Washington (5-4 overtime loss), at Pittsburgh (4-0 win), at Boston (7-1 loss) and at Tampa Bay (5-4 loss).

Of these offenses, three are in the top-10 in goals-per-game, and for good reason: they have some of the best scorers in the league. In short, players on these teams (think RW Nikita Kucherov and Ovechkin, just to name a couple) don’t need much room to find the back of the net.

That would put the onus on Ward to perform better against these top teams to keep games close, as well as the offense to find a way to break through these clubs’ defenses with a little bit more success. However, with Carolina and Washington playing a home-and-home series tonight and tomorrow, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of 8-11-6 G Scott Darling for this evening’s matchup.

Darling hasn’t exactly been all the Canes had hoped he’d be when they acquired him this offseason, but he’ll get another opportunity tonight against the Metropolitan Division-leading 27-13-3 Capitals. Washington is rolling right now, as they’ve won five-straight and earned points in 11 of their past 12 games with a 9-1-2 record.

Just like Carolina, Washington is finding much of its success on the defensive end with solid play from RW Alex Chiasson, 24-8-0 G Braden Holtby, D Dmitry Orlov, D Brooks Orpik and RW Tom Wilson, but we tackled that conversation Sunday.

Instead, let’s talk offense.

We’ve already mentioned Ovechkin and the stellar season he’s having. Posting 27-19-46 points (a goal total that ties Kucherov for most in the NHL), he’s well on his way to having his best season since the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 campaign where he registered 56 points in 48 games.

He’s certainly been the hero during this impressive run the Caps have been on since December 12, but he’s also received tremendous support from D John Carlson and C Nicklas Backstrom, who’ve earned respective 3-9-12 and 4-7-11 marks over their past dozen games.

This offensive explosion has been happening all season for Carlson, who must have gleaned a thing or two from D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s short stay in the capital. He’s already posted 5-29-34 totals for the season in his first 43 games played, and if he continues on his pace, he may very well have a season even better than his 12-43-55 career year in 2014-’15.

Tonight marks Game 2 of four between these clubs for the 2017-’18 regular season. The Capitals made the trip down I-95 on January 2. Even though Rask managed to post a two-goal night, Ovechkin was able to match him and score the most important tally of the game: the overtime game winner. Washington won the contest 5-4.

With Darling in net on the road in a usually hostile environment, I have a hard time of seeing the Canes pulling out the victory tonight. However, they will have more than their fair shot at evening the weekend series tomorrow when theses teams square off once again in Raleigh.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game road losing skid by beating the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center.

Making it all the sweeter, the victory was of the come-from-behind variety, as Third Star of the Game D Brent Seabrook (D Michal Kempny and C Nick Schmaltz) – coming off his first-ever healthy scratch when Chicago played in Ottawa the day before – scored a wrist shot with 7:36 remaining in the first frame to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

It took until the 9:58 mark of the second period for Minnesota to level the game. D Jonas Brodin (W Jason Zucker and D Mathew Dumba) was the guilty party, scoring a slap shot from the blue line for only his fourth tally of the season.

As for the game-winner, it was fired off First Star D Ryan Suter‘s (C Mikko Koivu and F Mikael Granlund) stick 3:03 into the third period during four-on-four play. Not usually known for his scoring touch (this was only his sixth goal of the year), Suter received a cross-ice pass from Koivu above the right face-off circle that he turned into a powerful top-shelf wrister that squeezed between G Anton Forsberg‘s left ear and shoulder – an area that is almost impossible to defend.

Another major player in the Wild’s victory was Second Star G Devan Dubnyk, who saved 34-of-35 shots faced (.971 save percentage) to earn the victory. That left Forsberg with the loss after he saved 25-of-27 (.926).

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are showing life lately, as they’ve earned points in three of the last four contests. However, the series is still dominated by the 54-30-12 home teams, as they still have a 24-point advantage.

January 9 – Day 94 – It was a dark and Stormy night

With only one game on the schedule, yesterday was kind of boring. Darn you college football!

Fortunately for us, every day for the remainder of the regular season – barring the All-Star Break – has at least two games on tap, and today has way more. as it usually does, the action starts at 7 p.m. with a pair of games (Winnipeg at Buffalo and Vancouver at Washington), followed half an hour later by two more (Chicago at Ottawa [RDS] and Carolina at Tampa Bay). To clean up the evening’s festivities, the three remaining tilts (Florida at St. Louis, Edmonton at Nashville [NBCSN/SN1/TVAS] and Calgary at Minnesota) drop the puck at 8 p.m. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Vegas.

None of these games really excite me all that much, but the one that should prove to be the best of the bunch will be taking place in Central Florida this evening.

 

We all know the 30-9-3 Lightning are good. After all, they have a three-point lead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and an eight-point advantage on Washington for the Eastern Conference lead.

But they’ve been even better lately. Tampa has posted a 6-3-1 record over its last 10 games, and earned points in all but one of its five-game road trip (darn those pesky Senators) that it just completed Sunday.

What’s it take to win like that on the road these days in the NHL? Apparently stellar offense, because that’s exactly how the Bolts pulled it off. Over their past five games, the Lightning have scored an impressive 16 goals. That’s the (t)seventh-most in the league since December 31.

I know what you’re thinking: “Duh the Lightning won on their offense. I mean, they average a league-best 3.64 goals per game.”

I have two notes on that:

  1. Good for you for knowing exactly how potent Tampa Bay’s attack is.
  2. The leader of the offense over this run is not who you think it is, and you probably wouldn’t pick him if I gave you five guesses.

Over their last five games, no one has been a more dominant force for the Lightning than F Yanni Gourde. Yes, Tampa’s favorite third-liner has been thunderstruck of late, as he’s posted 3-3-6 totals during the road trip to elevate his season numbers to 14-16-30.

Of course, Gourde didn’t take the weekly scoring title from a lack of effort by anyone else. Usual suspect RW Nikita Kucherov, who has league-leading 27 goals and 59 points to his credit on the year, performed just as he typically does, posting 3-2-5 totals to average a point-per-game over the past 10 days.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have 26-6-2 G Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. The second-year starter has been nothing short of phenomenal, as he tops the chart in almost every statistical category. His six shutouts (two of which occurred on the recent road trip) and 26 wins are both the best marks in the league, and his .935 season save percentage and 2.04 GAA put him in third place in those respective statistics. Pairing his stellar work with an unstoppable offense has yielded three (D Victor Hedman, F Brayden Point and D Anton Stralman) Bolts with top-10 +/- ratings, a total that is matched only by the Bruins.

And to think, we had that whole discussion without mentioning two-time Richard Trophy-winner C Steven Stamkos. If that’s not an indicator of how good this Tampa Bay team is, I don’t know what is.

Suffice to say, 19-14-8 Carolina has a tough task on its hands to climb back in front of the Penguins for the second wild card tonight (they can do it with any result except a regulation loss). However, don’t count these Canes out: they’ve posted an 8-3-1 record since December 12 on the back of a solid defense.

Let’s play that game where I know what you’re thinking again. I bet you’re looking at me like, “Good defense? Don’t the Canes allow three goals per game?”

Man, you are so good at statistics. You should write a daily hockey blog.

Yes, it’s true: Carolina’s season numbers aren’t all that impressive. Averaging three goals against per game puts the Canes among the 12 worst on the year. However, what’s hidden within goals-per-game is responsibility. Who’s been bad: the defense or the goaltender?

Answer: goaltender.

On the season, Carolina has allowed only 29 shots against per game, easily the best in the league. F Jeff Skinner (40 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (2.1 blocks per game) and F Jordan Staal (2.39 hits-per-game) have performed phenomenally through their first 41 games to achieve that impressive mark. However, 8-11-6 G Scott Darling proved that he is not ready to assume a starting role, having posted a .893 save percentage for a 2.97 GAA after Carolina traded a third-round pick to Chicago for him to assume that position this offseason, wasting that solid effort.

Enter 11-3-2 G Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe winner during Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup run a dozen years ago. Since reclaiming his starting role once again, all the Hurricanes have done is win (well, almost). With that still solid defense playing in front of him, he’s posted a 7-1-1 record since December 12 with a .917 save percentage and 2.18 GAA that, while nothing to write home about, is enough for W Sebastian Aho‘s (team-leading 13-20-33 totals) offense to get the job done.

These teams have already squared off once before, but it is not a memory Carolina remembers fondly. On October 24, the Lightning wandered into PNC Arena and smacked the young Hurricanes around more than a little bit, beating them 5-1 in the midst of a four-game winning streak. Vasilevskiy saved 31-of-32 (.969 save percentage) and F Tyler Johnson paced the offense with his 1-1-2 night. Slavin scored the only goal for the hosts.

For those wondering: yes, Darling was in net that night.

With Ward in action, it seems anything is possible for the Canes right now. However, it’s hard to pick against the league’s best when they’re at home, so I have to pick the Bolts to win this one. Perhaps Carolina can find a way to force overtime so they can get back inside the playoff bubble.


Facing a 2-0 defect going into the third period, the Columbus Blue Jackets staged an impressive late comeback to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in overtime in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre.

Though a 2-0 advantage through 40 minutes of play might indicate the Leafs had the game in hand, that was not the case. Columbus actually out-shot Toronto 25-22 in the first and second periods, but it was the Maple Leafs who had the lead. They finally broke through Second Star of the Game G Sergei Bobrovsky with 8:51 remaining in the second period courtesy of a tip-in from Third Star LW James van Riemsdyk (D Roman Polak and C Tyler Bozak), followed 4:53 later by F William Nylander (D Jake Gardiner) bagging a power play snap shot.

Knowing the Blue Jackets would come out of the second intermission with goals on the mind, Toronto’s defense performed phenomenally to allow only four third period shots. The Leafs’ offense did their part too, keeping the puck in Bobrovsky’s end and making him stop 13 shots.

However, they couldn’t hold off the Jackets forever. F Nick Foligno (F Jordan Schroeder and D Markus Nutivaara) finally got Columbus on the board with a tip-in, leaving his squad 4:35 to find a leveling goal. F Pierre-Luc Dubois (D Seth Jones) found that leveling tally with 2:47 remaining in regulation, beating G Frederik Andersen with a wrist shot.

Since neither defense allowed another shot on goal, the game advanced into the five-minute three-on-three overtime period. With 1:49 remaining of those five minutes, First Star LW Artemi Panarin (D Zach Werenski and Jones) had had enough and ended the game with a tip-in.

Panarin entered the zone along the left boards, but because Gardiner was covering him, he slid a pass across the zone to Werenski. The uncovered defenseman immediately drove towards the net until he was on Andersen’s front porch, forcing the netminder advance towards him to defend any possible shot. However, that left a gap between Andersen’s left skate and his goal post that doubled as the passing lane Werenski used to get the puck back to Panarin, setting up a wide open shot that was impossible to miss.

Bobrovsky earned the victory after saving 35-of-37 shots faced (.946 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Andersen, who saved 30-of-33 (.909).

Though the road team won this one, the DtFR Game of the Day series is still dominated by home teams. The hosts have a 53-29-12 record that is 24 points superior to the visitors’.

November 22 – Day 50 – Decision day, beta version

The big day is finally here! If stats are right – and, I mean, they usually are – the way the standings read after tonight’s action should include 78 percent of this April’s postseason participants.

Making this evening even more exciting, today is the second day of the 2017-’18 season that features the maximum 15 games. Of course, that means one team has to be left off the schedule, which is why members of the Blues are already consuming their turkey dinners.

As for teams on the clock tonight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with nine of those games (Minnesota at Buffalo, Edmonton at Detroit, Toronto at Florida, Boston at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders, Vancouver at Pittsburgh, Ottawa at Washington [TVAS], the New York Rangers at Carolina and Calgary at Columbus [SN360]) and Chicago at Tampa Bay (NBCSN) half an hour later. Montréal at Nashville (RDS/SN1) drops the puck at 8 p.m., while a pair of contests (Dallas at Colorado and San Jose at Arizona) wait until 9 p.m. before getting underway. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – Vegas at Anaheim and Winnipeg at Los Angeles – close out what I consider the first quarter of the season at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

One of the games I had circled on my calendar today was Minnesota at Buffalo due to the returns of F Tyler Ennis and LW Marcus Foligno to the Queen City after being traded this June. Combined, they played 14 seasons in Buffalo.

But, considering how important tonight’s action could be when the regular season comes to a close, I don’t have it in me to make the trip to Upstate New York. Instead, I’m far more interested in a game featuring two teams that started slow, but now are only a point outside of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

 

This matchup at PNC Arena is always a special one to me, because it was my first – and still only – NHL hockey game.

But I’m not featuring it simply for personal nostalgic reasons. As mentioned before, these teams are fighting for their playoff lives after rebounding from very slow starts to the season.

After beginning their campaign with a 2-6-2 record, the 10-9-2 Rangers have exploded in the month of November (and Halloween) to win seven of their last nine games.

The biggest impetus for this resurgence has been the Rangers’ offense making the decision to dominate games. Not only does possessing the puck give New York a better chance of scoring – which it does with ease, by the way, managing 32 goals since Halloween to rank (t)fifth-best in that time – but it also alleviates the pressure on the defense and 9-6-2 G Henrik Lundqvist, whose .91 save percentage since the start of last season is noticeably lower than his career .92 effort.

Leading that offensive charge in the Big Apple is none other than C Mika Zibanejad, whose 10 points in the last nine games top the clubhouse leader board. With seven of those points being assists, Zibanejad’s chemistry with Pavel Buchnevich is almost palpable, as the sophomore winger has warmly embraced his role as the first line’s goalscorer.

In 41 games last season, Buchnevich scored eight goals – a decent enough total for a rookie drafted in the third round. Only 21 games into this campaign, he’s raised his game another level to already match that total, and I’d argue it’s a safe assumption to say he’ll find more than a few more. I could be over-hyping Buchnevich, but I think he has the potential to compete with the likes of Aaron Judge and Kristaps Porzingis for the title of best scorer in town.

Of course, he’ll also need to compete with a member of his own team, at least for the time being. Though W Michael Grabner is only a lowly third-liner, he’s actually been the most potent depth weapon the Blueshirts have at their disposal, as his six goals since Halloween lead the team over that stretch.

There’s just something about playing in New York City that brings out the best in Grabner, because joining the Rangers last year lit a flame that had been dormant since his days with the Islanders. While playing for the blue-and-orange, the Austrian averaged .3 goals-per-game over the course of his five seasons. That attracted the attention of Toronto, who traded for him but received only 18 points out of the transaction in the 2015-’16 season.

Since returning to The Big City, Grabner has gotten right back to his scoring ways much to the Rangers’ delight. He’s scored .37 goals-per-game in a Rangers sweater, giving him decent 9-2-11 totals given his spot on the depth chart.

If any team is capable of slowing down New York, I’d bet on the 9-6-4 Hurricanes, whose 2.68 goals against-per-game is the third-lowest in the Eastern Conference and seventh-best in the entire NHL.

No team in the East plays defense like Carolina. Led by the impressive efforts of F Jeff Skinner (team-best 18 takeaways), D Jaccob Slavin (club-leading 2.5 blocks-per-game) and F Jordan Staal (team-high 2.2 hits-per-game), the Canes allow only 29.2 shots to reach 6-4-4 G Scott Darling, which is important considering the 29-year-old’s .909 season save percentage is nowhere near the .924 he posted last year in Chicago.

Of course, the source of this season’s momentum was the offense’s performance at the end of last season. While averaging 2.95 goals-per-game is not exactly dominant (it’s the [t]15th-worst effort in the league, after all), it seems like the Canes are starting to find momentum a month into the season. Led by F Teuvo Teravainen‘s 5-7-12 effort since November 7, Carolina has managed 25 goals –  the fourth-most in the NHL in that time.

Another weapon the Rangers need to keep an eye on is the wing opposite Teravainen on the top line: Sebastian Aho. After starting the season on a 14-game goalless skid, he’s finally found his touch to score a goal in each of his last four games. With Staal having a scoring renaissance à la his last season in Pittsburgh in 2011-’12 (you know, basically his only good year when he managed 25-25-50 totals), this line has – at least at the moment – few peers (shh, stop talking Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov).

When the Hurricanes’ offense is gelling like this, they’re tough to stop – hence the 5-1-1 record over their past seven games. Should they continue that momentum and keep playing the sout defense they have all year, the Canes should be a lock to win tonight’s game and potentially pull into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.


Scoring continues to be a problem for the Montréal Canadiens, as they lost 3-1 to the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

While it’s good to find success on the power play, it must be partially embarrassing to the Habs to know their only goal in this game was struck as the result of a man-advantage. With RW Brett Ritchie serving time in the penalty box for hi-sticking D Joseph Morrow, RW Brendan Gallagher (LW Charles Hudon and Morrow) broke the scoreless draw with 7:56 remaining in the second period.

After that, this game almost entirely belonged to the Stars. That was made no more apparent than in the final 100 seconds before the second intermission when Dallas scored two quick goals to take the lead. The first belonged to First Star F Devin Shore (D John Klingberg and D Esa Lindell) courtesy of a wrist shot struck with 1:38 remaining in the period, followed only 59 seconds later by a wrister from Third Star F Jason Spezza (F Tyler Seguin and Shore) that proved to be the game-winner.

Just like Spezza has been taught his whole life, good things happen when you hang out near the net. Just before Seguin ripped his snap shot from between the left face-off circle and the goal line, Spezza moved from screening G Charlie Lindgren to moving to the top of the crease, pushing Morrow out of position in the process. Though the netminder was able to block Seguin’s shot with his left shoulder, the loose puck was prime for the taking for a relatively uncovered Spezza. Even though Morrow tried to knock him down before he could take possession, Spezza had just enough time to tap the puck to the far post before Lindgren’s left skate sealed the gap.

Both defenses really clamped down in the third period, as a total of only 14 shots were fired between the two teams. As a result, Montréal was unable to find a goal to level the game and Head Coach Claude Julien was forced to pull Lindgren for an extra attacker. With 27 seconds remaining in regulation, Seguin (RW Alexander Radulov) took advantage of the gaping cage to score an insurance empty netter and set the 3-1 final score.

Second Star Ben Bishop earned the victory after saving 29-of-30 shots faced (.967 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lindgren, who saved 26-of-28 (.929 save percentage).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a five-game point streak thanks to Dallas’ victory last night. The win sets the hosts’ record at 27-17-6, which is 11 points better than that of the roadies.

November 13 – Day 41 – Lookin’ for the Promised Land

Everybody makes a big deal about Fridays that are the 13th day of a month. Since Monday is everybody’s most-dreaded day of the week, shouldn’t Monday the 13th be the unluckiest day of the year?

Think about it and get back to me.

With two games on tonight’s schedule, there’s four teams hoping I’m wrong in my assessment. The first of those – Dallas at Carolina (TVAS) – is scheduled for 7 p.m., followed by St. Louis at Calgary two hours later. All times Eastern.

We could feature a game between two teams that are already in decent position in the league table, but I’m actually more interested in the Stars-Hurricanes game if for no other reason than to say we’ve finally featured Carolina in the DtFR Game of the Day series.

 

It’s time for me to back up the heaps of praise I poured on the Hurricanes this offseason.

As ridiculous as it sounds, the real reason for my confidence in Raleigh’s 2017-’18 team goes way back to the 2015-’16 season. In March of that year, the Canes went on a quietly solid 6-2-6 run that actually ranked 10th-best in the league. Whether by F Jordan Staal‘s gritty physical play (he averaged 2.4 hits-per-game that month) or D Jaccob Slavin‘s 1.8 blocks-per-game in March, that squad played solid team defense to keep shots off G Cam Ward and earn points in six-straight games.

The Canes pulled within four points of the then-second wild card Bruins (Philadelphia eventually qualified as the eighth seed), but that momentum died and they could not improve from 10th-place in the Eastern Conference. While surely disappointing at the time, the young Hurricanes showed promise for the future.

If that comeback story sounds familiar, it’s because the Hurricanes did almost the exact same thing last year. During March of the 2016-’17 campaign, Carolina was even better than it was the previous campaign, going an incredible 10-2-5 to lay claim to the best record of the month.

What makes this surge different than the one the year before is that it was absolutely driven by the offense. The Canes scored 54 goals in the month of March, six more than both Chicago and Pittsburgh (for those wondering, doing anything offensively better than the Blackhawks or Penguins – much less both – is a very good sign). F Jeff Skinner was the primary impetus behind that attack, as he registered 12-5-17 totals – and not a one of them occurred on the power play.

Once again, the playoffs were not in the cards for Carolina. Even though they climbed into 10th-place in the Eastern Conference and trailed – who would have guessed it – the Bruins by only four points for the second wild card, the Hurricanes could not find any success in April and ended the 2016-’17 season the same way they have since 2009-’10: watching the first round on TV.

The optimism remained as strong as ever though. This still young team has now performed brilliantly in crunch time of the NHL season two years in a row, showcasing both ends of the ice. Add in the fact that Skinner, Slavin, Staal and even Ward  are all still members of this year’s club (Ward and RW Justin Williams are the only two Canes still remaining on the team from their 2006 Stanley Cup season), and Carolina seemed poised to take the next step as a franchise and return to the postseason.

That’s what inspired General Manager Ron Francis to acquire talents like G Scott Darling, D Trevor van Riemsdyk and Williams this offseason. Surely adding these solid players – who between them have five Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy – would lead Carolina to the Promised Land!

As it turns out, the 6-5-4 Hurricanes have done just what they’ve done in previous seasons: get off to a slow start that necessitates those late-season pushes. For a season of excitement, 13th-place in the Eastern Conference was not exactly in the Canes’ plan.

It certainly has not been a lack of effort on the defensive end that has held Carolina back. Staal (2.3 hits-per-game) and Slavin (2.3 blocks-per-game) are still as busy as ever, and have led the Hurricanes to allowing only 29.2 shots against-per-game, the best effort in the conference and third-best in the NHL.

Instead, it’s Head Coach Bill Peters’ offense that is holding the Hurricanes back from glory. Even with Williams (2-11-13 totals) and Skinner (8-2-10) leading the way, Carolina has managed only 2.67 goals-per-game, the ninth-fewest in the league.

That all being said, perhaps the Canes are starting to turn a corner. After a rough October, Carolina is 2-1-2 in the month of November and has earned points in its last four games, including a 3-1 victory in Columbus Friday and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks Saturday. LW Brock McGinn in particular has been on fire during this run, as he’s supplied four of the Canes’ 10 goals since November 4 from the third line.

Another team looking to make a return to the playoffs this season is the 9-7-0 Stars, and they’re off to a much better start in achieving their goal considering they occupy seventh in the Western Conference after 16 games played.

I know I say it every time we talk about Dallas, but it still feels so weird to think about: the Stars are winning on the efforts of their defense.

*shivers*

Told you it’s weird.

The Stars have allowed only 28.8 shots to reach 7-4-0 G Ben Bishop, which is tied for the fewest in the entire league. Though his play has not indicated it’s necessary, keeping a solid netminder with a .914 season save percentage under-worked sounds like an excellent way to earn two points most nights you strap on the skates.

Whether it’s been the work of fourth-liner RW Brett Ritchie and his 2.6 hits-per-game or D John Klingberg‘s 1.8 blocks-per-game, that work in the defensive zone may prove important tonight. After the completion of tonight’s game, the Stars board a plane for Sunrise, Fla. (ok, they’re probably going to fly into Miami) for a Tuesday night tilt with the Panthers.

What that means for tonight’s game is Head Coach Ken Hitchcock has to choose which game to start backup G Kari Lehtonen, who has a 2-3-0 record on a .914 save percentage and 2.4 GAA. Considering the Panthers’ offense scores a solid 3.31 goals-per-game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lehtonen take on the Canes tonight, especially since he beat Carolina in both meetings last season.

With two teams playing some of the best defense around, this game is going to boil down to who has the better offense. Since that is the case, I’m going to bet on forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin every time. Dallas should win tonight.


With two goals in the third period, the San Jose Sharks pulled off the 2-1 comeback victory against the Los Angeles Kings in the Staples Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

If not for D Tim Heed‘s hooking penalty against F Tyler Toffoli at the 7:49 mark of the first period, perhaps the Kings never would have found their lone goal. Instead, W Dustin Brown (C Anze Kopitar and D Drew Doughty) took advantage of the man-advantage only 41 seconds later to give Los Angeles a lead it would hold for nearly 40 minutes.

Though the Sharks fired 19 shots at Second Star G Jonathan Quick through the first two periods, they didn’t find their first goal of the game until the 5:42 mark of the third period. F Melker Karlsson (F Tomas Hertl and F Logan Couture) took credit for breaking through Quick’s defenses with a wrist shot to level the game at one-all.

With 7:10 remaining in regulation, fourth-liner RW Joel Ward (F Barclay Goodrow and D Joakim Ryan) scored the third-and-final goal of the night with his left skate. Caught in the corner by Doughty and F Brooks Laich, Ward shoved a pass up the far boards to Ryan at the point that he returned back down the boards to Goodrow, who was near the left face-off circle. The forward than tried to snap a pass to W Timo Meier on the opposite side of Quick’s crease, but it was intercepted by Ward’s skate and redirected right into the net.

First Star G Martin Jones earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (.963 save percentage), leaving the loss to Quick, who saved 31-of-33 (.939).

The Sharks’ road win is a big one in the DtFR Game of the Day series, as it pulls the 21-17-3 road teams even with the 20-16-5 hosts.

March 27 – Day 159 – Red hot

It happened again. The very day we detest the most: Monday.

Fortunately, the NHL is a true pal and hooked us up with a half-dozen hockey games to make it better. The action starts with three contests (Detroit at Carolina, Florida at Buffalo and Nashville at the New York Islanders [SN]) at 7 p.m., followed by Chicago at Tampa Bay (NBCSN/TVAS) half an hour later. 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Arizona at St. Louis, trailed an hour later by Colorado at Calgary, tonight’s nightcap. All times eastern.

A game of note this evening is the Red Wings‘ first of two straight visits to PNC Arena, as this is the game that had to be postponed in mid-December due to an issue with the arena’s surface cooling equipment.

Since we haven’t featured the Hurricanes all season and they’re quietly in contention for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, let’s make a trip to Raleigh!

 

You may not believe me, but it’s true: 33-27-13 Carolina is still in the playoff conversation with nine games left in their regular season. It may not look like it at quick glance since the Hurricanes have only 79 points, but that’s due in part to the reason they are active tonight.

Eleventh-place Carolina has two games-in-hand on 39-30-6 Boston (84 points) because of its rescheduled contest against Detroit. Should the Canes have played that game and lost, they’d be in much worse shape. Instead, they’ll trail the Bruins by only a point if they win both their games-in-hand and could be in prime position to end their seven-season playoff drought.

Of course, that ignores what the ninth and 10th place Islanders and Lightning do, but I don’t see them featured today!

Much of the reason the Canes are in the position they’re in right now is due to their three-game winning streak and their 7-0-3 record in their last 10 games. Carolina has been an offensive juggernaut since March 9, as their 37 goals for is the highest total in the league since then.

Though Jeff Skinner and his 54 points have been the Hurricanes‘ offensive leader for the entirety of the season, he’s been joined of late by rookie Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm, who both have 11 points during this recent streak.

Don’t read too much into that last graf though. Skinner is still the primary threat for 16-20-8 Petr Mrazek to focus on tonight. 10 of the left wing’s dozen points since March 9 have been goals, doubling Aho’s five and tying Nikita Kucherov for most in the league over that stretch.

To focus on Aho for a minute, the Fin has made a living on the power play with his five man-advantage points during this run – a top-five effort in that time-frame. That success has led the Canes to a 28% success rate with the extra man since earlier this month, the eighth-best mark in the NHL in that time and second-best in a dominant Metropolitan Division that features some elite offenses.

This offensive prowess is a change from what has been Carolina‘s priority all season: defense. In fact, the Canes have allowed only 203 goals against this year, which ties for the 16th-best mark in the NHL.

Nothing tells this story better than Carolina‘s 85.3% season penalty kill rate, the second-best mark in the league. The PK has been a major point of focus for second-year defenseman Jaccob Slavin. The Hurricanes selected him from Colorado College in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and all he’s done is lead the team with 37 shorthanded shot blocks this year. Not bad, kid (he’s almost exactly three months younger than me, I get to call him kid).

In fact, Slavin and Co. has been so good, 24-20-11 Cam Ward has faced only 155 shots against while his club is shorthanded, the lowest total among the 30 netminders with at least 39 appearances.

Other than Joe Louis Arena’s farewell season, the biggest story about the 30-32-12 Red Wings this season has been the prediction-turned-reality that they’ll miss the postseason for the first time in 25 years.

But that doesn’t mean the Wings are entirely incapable of good hockey. Though not as impressive as the Canes‘, Detroit is also riding a three-game streak of earning at least a point, and has a 4-1-1 record since March 16.

All but one of those six contests have been one-goal affairs, and it’s been a resurgent 9-8-1 Jimmy Howard, who just celebrated his 33rd birthday yesterday, that has led the charge. Sidelined for much of the season with a knee injury, he’s earned a .953 save percentage and 1.29 GAA since mid-March, the sixth and seventh-best marks in the league, respectively, during that stretch.

Howard has been especially exceptional when faced with an opposing power play. Though he’s faced 12 man-advantages since March 16, he has yet to allow a power play goal after saving all 12 shots he’s faced while his club is shorthanded.

As of publication of this article, it remains to be seen if Jeff Blashill will continue alternating goaltenders this evening. It’d be an odd time to stop the recent practice since the Wings played – and won – an overtime game yesterday before traveling from Michigan to North Carolina. I’d bank on seeing Mrazek in net this evening.

Offensively, nothing paints a picture like a 14% season success rate on the power play. It’s the second-worst rate in the NHL that still features Thomas Vanek – a current member of the Florida Panthers – as the third-best point-earner. Frans Nielsen and Henrik Zetterberg have been able to create symmetry at times this year, but now is not one of those moments. They’ve earned a combined three power play points since March 16. Three.

Thanks to the postponement of what became today’s game, these clubs have only met once this season. In what was the Canes‘ final visit to The Joe, Dylan Larkin scored two of Detroit‘s goals to lead the Wings to a 4-2 victory on October 25.

These teams will complete their three-game season series tomorrow night on the same surface, which adds even a bit more intrigue to tonight’s game.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Carolina‘s Skinner (30 goals for 54 points [both lead the team]) and Slavin (149 blocks for +19 [both lead the team]) & Detroit‘s Zetterberg (46 assists [eighth-most in the league]).

There’s not few, if any, hotter than the Hurricanes right now, and they’re doing it at the right time of the year. Especially given the fact that the Wings were involved in an overtime game yesterday, I like Carolina to continue its playoff push with a win today.

Hockey Birthday

  • Bryan Campbell (1944-) – Though this center spent most of his career in the WHA, he began his professional hockey career in the NHL. He played five seasons in the league, and spent most of that time in Chicago. He scored 106 points over 260 games, including a decent 1970-’71 season with 17 goals for 54 points.
  • Dustin Byfuglien (1985-) – It’s hard to believe, but this season marks this defenseman’s seventh season with the Thrashers/Jets organization. It seems just yesterday he was hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head with the 2010 Blackhawks.

Last night’s 6-3 DtFR Game of the Day Duck victory over the Rangers was a big one, as they converted a game-in-hand on their fellow competitors for the Pacific Division title for two points to create a two-point lead with seven games remaining to be played.

The busiest period was the first, as it featured four goals. The icebreaker belonged to Rick Nash (Marc Staal and Mika Zibanejad) and New York on a wrist shot 5:54 after the initial puck drop. That lead didn’t last too long though, as Third Star of the Game Patrick Eaves (Second Star Cam Fowler and First Star Ryan Getzlaf) pulled Anaheim even 3:01 later on a wrister. Once again the Blueshirts took a lead, this time off a Derek Stepan (Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello) slap shot, but the Ducks had another answer. Ryan Kesler (Getzlaf and Fowler) scored a power play tip-in with two minutes remaining in the frame to tie the game at two-all, which held into the first intermission.

At the 9:39 mark of the second period, Anaheim finally claimed its first lead of the game when Josh Manson (Getzlaf) scored a wrister. Making that goal even more impressive, the Ducks were shorthanded. That didn’t seem to phase New York though, as Brady Skjei (Jimmy Vesey and Zibanejad) buried only his fifth goal of the season 3:31 later to pull the Rangers even at three-all. That score held into the second intermission.

Whatever Randy Carlyle said in the dressing room, it worked because Anaheim buried three tallies and held the Rangers scoreless for the final 20 minutes. Andrew Cogliano (Kesler) takes credit for the game-winner 2:19 after the beginning of the final frame, followed only 2:04 later by an insurance tally from Eaves (Rickard Rakell and Getzlaf). To ensure the Rangers could not stage a late comeback, Nick Ritchie (Corey Perry) scored a wrister on an empty net with 98 ticks remaining on the clock to clinch the win.

Jonathan Bernier earned the victory after saving 25-of-28 shots faced (89.3%), leaving the loss to Henrik Lundqvist, who saved 28-of-33 (84.8%).

Thanks to the Ducks defending home ice, hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series now trial the 81-57-23 road teams by only a lone point.