Tag Archives: Tampa Bay

Game of the week: October 29-November 4

As the calendar flips from October to November, the NHL’s powers are beginning to flex their muscles while the league’s less-talented members are already counting the days until April 6.

Some of that can be seen in the games already played this week (take a look at what a good Devils team suffered in its trip to Tampa), while there’s more than a few games coming up in the remaining four days that will help us better predict some teams’ playoff potentials.

NHL SCHEDULE: OCTOBER 29-November 4
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, October 29
7 p.m. Calgary Toronto 3-1
10 p.m. Minnesota Vancouver 2-5
Tuesday, October 30
7 p.m. Calgary Buffalo 2-1 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3
7 p.m. Boston Carolina 3-2
7 p.m. Detroit Columbus 5-3
7:30 p.m. Dallas Montréal 4-1
7:30 p.m. New Jersey Tampa Bay 3-8
8 p.m. Vegas Nashville 1-4
9 p.m. Minnesota Edmonton 4-3
10 p.m. Ottawa Arizona 1-5
10 p.m. Philadelphia Anaheim 3-2
10:30 p.m. New York Rangers San Jose Sharks 4-3 (SO)
Wednesday, October 31
10 p.m. Chicago Vancouver 2-4
Thursday, November 1
2 p.m. Winnipeg Florida NBCSN
7 p.m. Dallas Toronto
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Penguins New York Islanders SN360
7:30 p.m. Washington Montréal RDS, TSN2
7:30 p.m. Buffalo Ottawa RDS2
7:30 p.m. New Jersey Detroit
7:30 p.m. Nashville Tampa Bay
8 p.m. Vegas St. Louis
9 p.m. Colorado Calgary SN1
9 p.m. Chicago Edmonton
10 p.m. New York Rangers Anaheim Ducks
10:30 p.m. Philadelphia Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. Columbus San Jose
Friday, November 2
2 p.m. Florida Winnipeg NHLN
10 p.m. Colorado Vancouver NHLN
10 p.m. Carolina Arizona
saturday, November 3
2 p.m. Ottawa Buffalo RDS
7 p.m. Tampa Bay Montréal CITY, SN360, TVAS
7 p.m. Edmonton Detroit SN
7 p.m. New Jersey Devils New York Islanders
7 p.m. Toronto Pittsburgh CBC, NHLN, SN1
7 p.m. Dallas Washington
8 p.m. Minnesota St. Louis
8 p.m. Boston Nashville
10 p.m. Carolina Vegas
10 p.m. Chicago Blackhawks Calgary Flames CBC, CITY, SN, SN1, SN360
10:30 p.m. Columbus Los Angeles
10:30 p.m. Philadelphia San Jose
SunDay, November 4
7 p.m. Tampa Bay Ottawa NHLN, SN, TVAS
7 p.m. Buffalo Sabres New York Rangers
9 p.m. Columbus Anaheim

As usual, there’s more than a few tilts that caught my attention on this week’s slate. I’m always a big fan of rivalries (New York at Pittsburgh, Chicago at Vancouver, Pittsburgh at New York, Buffalo at Ottawa and Ottawa at Buffalo) and players returning to their former home arenas (W Tom Kuhnhackl and F Joakim Nordstrom made their first trips back to Pittsburgh and Carolina, respectively, on Tuesday, while D Roman Polak is heading back to Toronto tonight), but we also get the added benefits of this year’s NHL Global Series between Florida and Winnipeg in Finland as well as an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal rematch between New Jersey and Tampa Bay.

However, with all of that being said, there’s another huge matchup happening this Thursday that rivals last week’s Toronto-Winnipeg showdown.

The reigning regular season conference champions are going at it tonight, so grab your popcorn and settle in to enjoy a great game!

Wait, what? This showdown isn’t on national T.V. in either Canada or the States, but a game between two one-win NFL teams is?

This is lunacy.

I’m not saying to stream this tilt by any means necessary, but I’m not saying not to stream this tilt by any means necessary.

Regardless of the legality of your decision, it’s a choice you certainly won’t regret as both the Preds and Bolts are off to hot starts this season, surely inspired at least somewhat by dreams left unfulfilled during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both were their respective conferences’ No. 1 seeds this spring, but they both got knocked off on home ice in a winner-take-all Game 7 (the Predators fell to Winnipeg in the Second Round, while Tampa lost to Washington in the Eastern Conference Final).

At least Smashville got the Presidents’ Trophy, right? Not to mention its prestigious “Regular Season Western Conference Champions” banner.

Sorry, that’s the last time I’ll point out the Predators’ unprecedented award that should probably be penalized for excessive celebration.

Hopefully.

Just as they did last season, the 9-3-0 Predators currently sit atop the Central Division, the Western Conference and the NHL with the best record of all 31 teams.

The major reason for the Preds’ success is undoubtedly their goaltending tandem of 3-1-0 Pekka Rinne and 6-2-0 Juuse Saros. Even though they do have the luxury of playing behind the league’s 11th-best defense in terms of shots against per game (W Viktor Arvidsson‘s 12 takeaways, D Ryan Ellis‘ two blocks per game and F Zac Rinaldo‘s 2.3 hits per game have been major factors in Nashville’s 29.92 shots against per game), both have been integral in keeping the Predators’ goals allowed per game at 2.42 – the (t)third-best mark in the league. Both boast save percentages better than .915 and GAAs at or below 2.5, not to mention a shutout apiece.

After being activated from Injured Reserve yesterday (G Troy Grosenick made room on the roster by heading back to Milwaukee), it seems likely that Rinne will be the starter this evening. In his first five starts this season before going down with an undisclosed ailment, the Finn posted a .929 save percentage and 2.1 GAA – both of which are top-six among the 36 netminders with at least five starts to their credit.

Regardless of who’s in net, don’t focus too much on that or you’ll miss Nashville’s outstanding offense that ranks second-best in the conference and (t)sixth-best in the league by averaging 3.5 goals per game. In particular, no Predator has been as dominant as F Filip Forsberg, who’s 10-4-14 totals leave no doubt as to who’s the best scorer in Tennessee.

Forsberg’s 10 goals are (t)third-most in the NHL, trailing league-leaders F Patrick Kane (CHI) and RW David Pastrnak (BOS) by only one marker. After scoring a hat trick against Edmonton on Saturday (he scored all of Nashville’s goals in a 5-3 loss), the Swede was totally kept off the scoreboard Tuesday against Vegas, so he’ll be extra motivated to notch another tally tonight.

The team the Predators are leading for the Presidents’ Trophy are none other than the 8-2-1 Lightning, last season’s preseason darlings that have been ignored – rather unwisely, I might add – by the media in favor of division-rival Toronto so far this year.

The Leafs might be getting all the attention, but it’s business as usual in central Florida as the Bolts are leading the Eastern Conference just like last campaign. Tampa still boasts a dominant offense, not to mention a stellar goaltender and overpowering special teams.

Led from the second line by F Brayden Point and his 7-7-14 totals – not to mention RW Nikita Kucherov and F Yanni Gourde‘s respective 5-7-12 and 4-8-12 efforts – Tampa’s attack is among the most feared in the league, scoring 3.64 goals per game to rank third-best.

Only two days ago against New Jersey in an 8-3 victory, Point notched an outstanding five-point game, but if recent performances are any indication, he likely won’t find the scorecard tonight: his last five games saw him score 5, 0, 1, 0 and 3 points respectively.

Defensively, there’s not much to talk about with the Lightning since D Victor Hedman is still on Injured Reserve. The Bolts’ blue line has suffered during his absence, allowing a 12th-worst 32.36 shots against per game for the season.

However, who needs a defense when you have 6-1-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy playing for your team? Vasilevskiy has already been confirmed to be starting this game and will look to improve upon his .935 save percentage and 1.98 GAA that both already rank top-five among the 36 goalies with at least five starts to their names.

If this game boils down to special teams, there’s no way the Lightning aren’t coming away with two points. Tampa Bay leads Nashville in both statistics, including owning the league’s top-rated penalty kill (93.2 percent) that will be more than enough to counteract anything the Preds’ fourth-worst power play (13.3 percent) can muster.

Similarly, Tampa Bay’s power play will be a Halloween hangover to the Predators tonight, as a 29.3 success rate is good enough to rank sixth-best in the NHL – especially when it gets to go to work against the 10th-worst penalty kill (75 percent).

If Nashville’s penalty kill is going to have any success, it should probably try to keep F J.T. Miller under wraps as much as possible. Of his 3-7-10 totals on the year, 3-2-5 have occurred with the man-advantage. If those numbers don’t communicate just how potent he’s been, Miller’s .571 power play face-off winning percentage and .429 power play shooting percentage should do the trick.

An interesting note surrounding this game is its location. While it would be assumed that the Lightning would have the advantage considering they are at home, their 5-1-0 record at Amalie Arena is challenged by the Predators’ outstanding 5-0-0 road mark. With that in mind, there is no doubt Smashville is going to throw everything it has at tonight’s host.

There’s no doubt that this is going to be a showdown of the ages, just as should be expected from the top two teams in the league. But which one wins?

That’s the tough question.

I’m going to go out on a limb and take the Predators tonight. I think their offense is more than good enough to take advantage of the Lightning’s weakened defense corps. That being said, Vasilevskiy is going to be a difficult wall to break (as should Rinne be for the Bolts), so I’m predicting only a 2-1 victory for the visitors.

2018-19 NHL Schedule Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

Excuse this Blues fan’s digressions.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

ANAHEIM DUCKS – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARIZONA COYOTES – 29th, 70 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOSTON BRUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 112 points

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

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

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

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

BUFFALO SABRES – 31st, 62 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 19-28 (10 days)

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

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

CALGARY FLAMES – 20th, 84 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

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

CAROLINA HURRICANES – 21st, 83 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

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

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 25th, 76 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

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

COLORADO AVALANCHE – eliminated in first round, 95 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – eliminated in first round, 97 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

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

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

DALLAS STARS – 19th, 92 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

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

DETROIT RED WINGS – 27th, 73 points

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

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

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

EDMONTON OILERS – 23rd, 78 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLORIDA PANTHERS – 16th, 96 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 22-31 (10 days)

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

LOS ANGELES KINGS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

MINNESOTA WILD – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

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

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS – 28th, 71 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Presidents’ Trophy winner, 117 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

NEW JERSEY DEVILS – eliminated in First Round, 97 points

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

Talk about a truly impartial crowd.

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

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

NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 22nd, 80 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

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

NEW YORK RANGERS – 24th, 77 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

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

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

OTTAWA SENATORS – 30th, 62 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

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

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

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

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

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

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

SAN JOSE SHARKS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

ST. LOUIS BLUES – 18th, 94 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

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

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – eliminated in First Round, 105 points

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

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

VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 26th, 73 points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Stanley Cup champion, 105 points

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

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

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

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

WINNIPEG JETS – Campbell Bowl runner-up, 114 points

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

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

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

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

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

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

Burakovsky and Holtby lead Caps to Cup Finals

 

With his second-straight shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, First Star of the Game G Braden Holtby lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals entered this game with a 7-2 record away from Capital One Arena this postseason, but a 4-11 all-time record in Game 7s for their franchise history.

One of these records had to give.

Doing his best to turn the tables in Washington’s favor, Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (F Evgeny Kuznetsov and RW Tom Wilson) provided one of his patented slap shots from above the left face-off circle only 62 seconds into the contest to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage.

That goal proved to be the game-winner, due in large part to the excellent performance of Holtby. He saved all 29 shots he faced during regulation, with 22 of those being struck in the first two periods.

While Holtby is certainly deserving of credit, it is not without some fortuitous bounces that he held on to his clean sheet. There were more than a few occasions in this tilt that a puck initially beat him between his legs or rang off the post, but he was fortunate that his defense was there to keep the Lightning from scoring off the rebound.

D John Carlson‘s unbelievable five shot blocks (a game-high) played a major role defensively for Washington, as did Ovechkin’s five hits (tied with D Victor Hedman and LW Chris Kunitz for a game-high) and C Lars Eller‘s two takeaways (you guessed it, another game-high).

Additionally, all this talk about Holtby is not to discredit the work done by G Andrei Vasilevskiy. Playing in the second Eastern Finals Game 7 of his young career, the Russian’s 19-for-22 stat line (.864 save percentage) is not reflective of his performance, as he made more than his fair share of awe-inspiring saves.

In fact, the two insurance goals scored in the second period by Second Star W Andre Burakovsky could largely be pinned on Vasilevskiy’s defense, as both were buried as a result of one-on-one matchups.

At the 8:59 mark of the second period, Burakovsky took advantage of D Dan Girardi mishandling the puck in his own zone to register his first playoff tally since May 8, 2017 – another two-goal performance. After wrapping his way around the defenseman, the Austrian slid towards Vasilevskiy’s crease before sneaking a wrist shot under the netminder’s right arm to the far post.

7:32 later, Burakovsky was on the receiving end of another play by a defenseman, but this blueliner was one of his own. Carlson intercepted a Lightning pass off the boards in his own defensive zone and quickly sprang his waiting teammate at the red line, setting Burakovsky up for his second breakaway opportunity of the frame. Just before D Ryan McDonagh caught up to him, the winger slid his wrister past Vasilevsky five-hole, setting the score at 3-0 with 23:29 remaining in regulation.

The final goal of the game belonged to C Nicklas Backstrom, who scored an empty netter with 3:43 remaining in the Lightning’s season.

No Game 7 is complete without tempers flaring, and that box was checked early. With 7:01 remaining in the first period, a seemingly innocent meeting of the minds in Vasilevskiy’s crease – following an incredible save, no less – proved to be nothing of the sort, as the ensuing shoving match between D Braydon Coburn and Kuznetsov resulted in the former possessing two sweaters: the one he was wearing and his opponent’s.

That ignited the fury of Wilson, who tried his hardest to rush Coburn but was intercepted by an official. Both Coburn and Wilson were charged with matching unsportsmanlike penalties, setting play at even-strength four-on-four for two minutes.

However, this was not a simple cool-down period in the penalty box. Immediately upon their release, Coburn and Wilson elected to engage in an exciting bout of fisticuffs. Coburn won by virtue of Wilson falling first, but both earned “five for fighting” major penalties and were sent to their respective dressing rooms for the remainder of the frame.

If Coburn elected to fight Wilson to inspire his club, it did little to do that. After his bout, the Bolts managed only one more shot on goal in the frame, and only 20 for the remainder of the game. Throw in the excellent form that Holtby was sporting, and there was little Tampa – the preseason favorite in many’s eyes – could do to stave off elimination.

With the Prince of Wales Trophy in hand, Washington will wage war against the Vegas Golden Knights in a Stanley Cup Final that features two teams searching for their first title. Game 1 is scheduled for Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern from the theatrical confines of T-Mobile Arena and will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN1 and TVAS.

An early note regarding these Finals in relation to these playoffs: In the First Round, the Boston Bruins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, but were eliminated in the Second Round. Similarly, the Second Round featured the Winnipeg Jets besting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in Game 7, but falling in the Western Conference Finals.

After the Caps required seven contests to eliminate Tampa Bay, will they suffer a similar fate against Vegas? Or will they buck yet another trend?

Only time – and at least four hockey games – will tell.

Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Victor’s Bolts “Heded” in right direction after Game 3 win

 

On a dark and stormy night in the District of Columbia, the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled off the Eastern Conference Finals’ third-straight road victory by beating the Washington Capitals 4-2 at Capital One Arena in Game 3.

Just like Game 2 was all about the Capitals’ offense, the same can be said about Tampa’s in Game 3. In particular, the Bolts’ power play was cruising early, as it provided two of Tampa’s goals en route to a 3-0 advantage.

Taking advantage of G Braden Holtby‘s trip against F Yanni Gourde (RW Alex Chiasson served the penalty) with 7:03 remaining in the first period, C Steven Stamkos (Second Star of the Game D Victor Hedman and F Brayden Point) ripped a Little Einsteins (Americans with the privilege of hearing Pierre McGuire’s analysis should know what I’m talking about) slap shot past Holtby to give Tampa the lead only 56 seconds after Chiasson took his seat.

Considering the score only read 1-0 in the first intermission, Washington seemed like it had kept things under control in the opening 20 minutes. After all, the Capitals fired a game-high 14 shots on goal in the first period – all of which were saved by First Star G Andrei Vasilevskiy.

However, that hypothesis was torn to shreds only 1:50 into the second frame, thanks in large part to C Lars Eller‘s unwise penalty for closing his hand on the puck. After only 16 seconds of five-on-four play later, Third Star RW Nikita Kucherov (Hedman and Stamkos) set the Bolts’ lead at 2-0 with a clapper from the right face-off dot.

An easy snap shot is all Hedman (Kucherov and W Ondrej Palat) needed to find his first goal of the 2018 postseason. With Holtby shading towards Kucherov in the right face-off circle, a quick pass allowed Hedman to capitalize on the gaping net and set the score at 3-0 only 1:47 after the Bolts’ first brace.

Keeping the offense going, Washington finally got on the board with 9:29 remaining in the second period. Taking advantage of Hedman’s failed clear, F Chandler Stephenson dished to W Brett Connolly (Stephenson and D Matt Niskanen) to set him up for a solid one-touch snap shot that beat Vasilevskiy stick side.

However, any positive energy caused by that goal was quickly nullified 5:32 later when Point (F Tyler Johnson and D Braydon Coburn) squeaked a wrist shot past Holtby’s right pad to set the score at 4-1.

With the Caps entering the third period trailing by three goals, logic would lead us to believe they would be firing as many shots on goal as possible to try and shrink that gap. Unfortunately for them, Tampa’s defense was not interested in the slightest in allowing many scoring opportunities.

Due in large part to Tampa Bay’s 18 blocks over the course of the entire game, Washington managed only 13 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes. D Ryan McDonagh played a large role in that effort with his game-high four blocks in the match.

Of course, the Lightning’s solid defense was at its best during five-on-five play. Once Head Coach Barry Trotz upped the ante a bit by pulling Holtby for the extra attacker, the playoff’s best offense finally found its second goal of the game when F Evgeny Kuznetsov (F T.J. Oshie and Eller) scored a wrister with 3:02 remaining in regulation. However, the 4-2 score held until the end of the contest, securing the Bolts’ first Conference Finals victory since May 22, 2016.

The biggest takeaway from this game is that the Tampa Bay team that many pegged to win the Stanley Cup last summer is still well and alive in this tournament. The Lightning’s offense finally found its footing against Holtby and Washington’s defense, and it was paired by a solid defense that stood tall when the Caps’ offense put the pedal to the metal. If Tampa is allowed to dominate Game 4 like it did Game 3, the Capitals will spoil their solid work at Amalie Arena just like Columbus did against them in the First Round.

Speaking of that Game 4, the Bolts’ opportunity to level the Eastern Finals at 2-2 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern. The contest will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Caps’ attack too much for Bolts; win Game 1 4-2

 

After a 4-2 victory at Amalie Arena over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1, home ice in the Eastern Conference Finals now belongs to the Washington Capitals.

Between the actual 2-0 score and the fact that the Caps led 9-2 in shots on goal, we get a rather accurate impression of how the first 20 minutes went down.

The Caps almost exclusively dominated possession from the opening draw to the first TV timeout. They might have managed only two shots on goal in that time (which still exceeded Tampa’s zero), but the fact that they kept the puck in their offensive zone did a lot to wear out the Bolts’ defensemen early.

That pressure paid off in spades at the 7:28 mark when Washington drew first blood in the Eastern Finals. D Michal Kempny (Second Star of the Game F Evgeny Kuznetsov and D John Carlson) did the dirty work with a wrist shot from the blue line, his first-ever North American postseason marker.

Of course, the best weapon against possession is a stellar counterattack. RW Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning though they had done just that with seven seconds remaining before the first intermission, but it was ruled Tampa Bay had too many men on the ice, negating the goal and awarding a power play to Washington.

Entering the game with the best power play in the postseason (converting 30.9 percent of man-advantages into goals), the Caps completed their stellar command of the first frame by burying a man-advantage tally with only six seconds remaining in the frame.

Who else to score that power play goal than First Star W Alex Ovechkin (Kuznetsov and F T.J. Oshie)? Almost unexpectedly, Ovechkin departed from his usual spot in the left face-off circle and scored his patented one-touch slap shot from the blue line on a set play from Oshie’s face-off victory.

Washington picked up right where it left off 2:40 into the second period. Third Star F Jay Beagle (W Brett Connolly and D Dmitry Orlov) beat G Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole from the slot, receiving an unintentional assist from D Braydon Coburn after Connolly’s centering pass bounced off his skate.

4:02 later, the score read 4-0 when C Lars Eller (Oshie and Ovechkin) converted a Kucherov roughing penalty into yet another power play goal – Washington’s final tally of the game.

What started as a 2-0 shot differential early in the first period became a 25-10 domination by the second intermission. It could be argued that LW Jakub Vrana‘s game-high five shots on goal is a major part of that, but I would instead point to Oshie’s two takeaways over the course of the game, as well as both Kucherov and FJ.T. Miller yielding two giveaways by the end of regulation.

Additionally, Washington was also excellent at blocking shots, as it managed 19 before retreating to its hotel that evening. Co-led by Carlson and D Matt Niskanen‘s three blocks apiece, the Caps’ blue line was a major reason for Tampa’s struggle to establish anything close to an offensive presence in the opening 40 minutes.

However, all that turned on its head in the third period when Head Coach Jon Cooper elected to bench Vasilevskiy, who saved 21-of-25 shots faced for a .84 save percentage, in favor of G Louis Domingue.

While Vasilevskiy could have certainly been better in this game, he didn’t give up any blatantly soft goals (looking at you, G Pekka Rinne). Instead, his benching was intended to be a message for his team, and the Lightning certainly responded just as Cooper wished.

It took 43:45 of play and RW Alex Chiasson sitting in the penalty box for slashing F Alex Killorn, but Tampa Bay finally got on the scoreboard when C Steven Stamkos (Kucherov and D Victor Hedman) did his best Ovechkin impression and scored a clapper from the left face-off circle, pulling the score to 4-1.

That was certainly more than enough to get the positive energy surging in the arena. Tampa out-shot the Capitals 11-7 in the third period, proving just how much of the game was  played in its attacking zone.

Keeping hope alive, another goal trickled by with 6:57 remaining in regulation when W Ondrej Palat (F Tyler Johnson and D Anton Stralman) beat G Braden Holtby short side with a wrister from the slot.

However, hope ran short in that remaining time due in large part to the solid effort of Holtby. Though it wasn’t his best game of the season, Holtby posed an imposing challenge even after the Bolts pulled Domingue for the extra attacker. In all, he saved his last four shots faced in the game, posting an 19-for-21 (.905 save percentage) overall performance.

If the Lightning learned one thing from this game, it is that they cannot continue committing penalties like they have been in these playoffs. Washington’s power play, which converted 50 percent tonight, is just too potent for the Bolts to continue serving the 14:41 penalty minutes per game that they’ve managed through the first two rounds.

Tampa’s first opportunity to resolve that issue is in Game 2, which is right back at Amalie Arena and scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern this Sunday. Fans unable to make it to Western Florida can catch the live broadcasts on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

A (forked) Tale of 3 Periods: Devils drop Game 2 to Lightning, but can build on strong play.

 

Often times, hockey games can be looked at as stories. Three separate periods of play strung together as a single narrative, often carrying a common theme among them.

Then, there are games like this one. Games where each 20 minute segment is entirely its own, almost entirely unrelated to one another. In a way, Game 2 could be considered a short story compilation.

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

After dropping Game 1, the Devils and young goaltender Keith Kinkaid (who had not lost back-to-back starts since February) were hungry for redemption, knowing a win before heading back to home ice for Games 3 and 4 could swing momentum greatly in the underdogs’ favor.

With some bad blood boiling over at the end of the first contest, it wasn’t surprising to see the two teams again start their fourth lines, and it didn’t take long for the action to pick up, as Tampa’s Cedric Paquette and Jersey’s Stefan Noesen had a coming-together at the end of an energetic first shift. Unfortunately, the tensions stalled out as when the first set of line changes were made, one of the Lightning bench doors suffered a broken latch and play had to be halted for about five minutes for a repair. When play resumed, Dan Girardi (apparently not a fan of the tempered tone) laid a booming hit on Miles Wood around three minutes in to get the crowd back in it.

A few minutes later it would be Girardi’s former-turned-current teammate Ryan McDonagh firing a wrister in from the point that took a dramatic change of direction right in front of Kinkaid, who somehow managed to stretch out his left pad to deny J.T. Miller‘s bid, having had the deflected shot come right to his tape for a prime scoring opportunity.

This seemed to briefly turn things in the Devils’ favor, as they’d kill off a Tampa power play shortly after, and have two quality chances in quick succession. First it would be Taylor Hall taking a hail mary pass for a partial breakaway, then John Moore stepping up to intercept an attempted clear to walk in and make a strong backhanded bid on the following shift. Unfortunately for the Devils, Andrei Vasilevskiy was equal to the task on both occasions.

After the Vasilevskiy save on Moore, the puck would make it’s way to center ice, where Ondrej Palat would corral the bouncer in traffic and feed a quick pass to Brayden Point breaking in on the right wing. Point walked in and patiently waited for Kinkaid to go down in the butterfly before shelving a quick shot crossbar – left post – and in to put the Lightning on top 12:15 into the period.

Jersey would quickly turn things back in their favor though, first with a quality chance for Travis Zajac on an oddman rush with Blake Coleman. Coleman would take an extra whack at Vasilevskiy as he covered the puck, causing Victor Hedman to come over and have a few words with the young Devils forward.

On the next shift, just 1:23 after the Point goal, a dominant shift by the New Jersey top line would be capped off by Nico Hischier scoring his first career playoff goal, gathering up the rebound of a Damon Severson shot and burying it over top of a sprawled Vasilevskiy.

The two teams would grind out the final 6 minutes and head to the first intermission tied at 1-1. New Jersey limited Tampa to just six shots, firing 10 of their own at the Lightning goal.

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

After going 1-for-1 in Game 1, the Tampa power play was held shotless on their only first period opportunity in this one. In the second period, however, they went off.

First it was a Steven Stamkos one-timer ripping just wide of the cage, bouncing off the end boards directly to the tape of Nikita Kucherov on the opposite wing, and #86 would quickly fire a pass to Alex Killorn waiting in the slot to tip home the 2-1 goal at 3:14, moving Tampa’s power play to two-for-three in the series.

The Bolts’ fourth line followed up the power play with a strong shift that would see Ryan Callahan ring a shot off the goalpost to Kinkaid’s right, narrowly missing the 3-1 goal. However on the next shift it would be the dominant second line making up for Callahan’s miss when Tyler Johnson slipped into the high slot to perfectly redirect a McDonagh point shot past Kinkaid at 4:35.

Hall would attempt to negate some momentum on the following shift, flying in and using a Tampa defender as a partial screen to rip a wicked wrister at Vasilevskiy, who flashed the left leg and stopped the puck with the toe of his skate, before having to cover up when the rebound careened dangerously off the stick of teammate Anton Stralman.

Hall’s efforts were rendered all-for-not when again on the very next shift it would be Kucherov dangling Sami Vatanen at the blueline, retrieving the puck and throwing it at the front of the net, where the chasing Vatanen would accidentally kick the puck past Kinkaid into his own net, putting the Lightning up 4-1 with 13:59 still to play in the second. Ironically, this goal did not count as a shot on net, giving the Bolts four goals on 10 shots.

The Lightning then turned their focus to physical play, first with Miller leveling Ben Lovejoy twice in a sub-10 second span, then Ondrej Palat throwing a big hit on Moore on the shift after.

With 6:48 to play in the second, Killorn would tally his second power play goal of the period (third goal in two games after scoring two in the final 15 of the regular season), again after a Kucherov feed, this time fighting off multiple checkers to lift it over a scrambling Kinkaid. John Hynes had seen enough and pulled his young netminder in favor of Cory Schneider.

Whether it was the Lightning slowing down, or the Devils being reignited by the goaltending change, it was at that coaching decision where the tide began to turn. The final six minutes and change saw Tampa held without another shot, as New Jersey began to pour it on.

Finally with just 25 seconds left, Vatanen would rip home a beautiful wrist shot from the high slot after leading the rush himself. It was a solid redemption shift for Vatanen, who made up for his earlier gaffe by leveling Callahan (who would not return to the game after the hit) to create the turnover that eventually led to his goal.

Outscored 3-1 in the period, New Jersey still managed to widen their advantage on the shot clock to 25-17 after their dominant final six minutes.

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

The third period was all-out domination by New Jersey at both ends of the ice.

Early in the frame it was Schneider showing spectacular form (and likely laying claim to the starting job from here on out) by first stopping a beautiful tip play orchestrated by Stralman and executed by Kucherov, then making a pair of spectacular stops a few minutes later on a Chris Kunitz redirect and follow-up attempt by a driving Paquette.

Then it was basically an uninterrupted offensive assault by the Devils for the final 15 minutes.

Wood found a goalpost at one point, and lost the puck on a breakaway forehand-backhand move at another. Vasilevskiy made a handful of sparkling saves on a Jersey power play. Maroon and Hall linked up on a two-on-one that was denied, followed up shortly after by a great redirect from Pavel Zacha on a Will Butcher slap shot which was again gobbled up by the big Tampa netminder.

Zacha got another golden opportunity with 8:45 to play but was handcuffed by a cross-ice pass that had him staring at a yawning cage. Luckily for both him and his team, later in that same shift it would be Blake Coleman finally beating Vasilevskiy with a laser of a one-timer from the top of the left circle to make the score 5-3 with just over eight minutes remaining.

After the third goal the attack only strengthened for New Jersey. Hischier rang one off the post at the four minute mark, and Miles Wood thought he scored on the very next shift, but video review showed no conclusive evidence of the puck (tangled in the gear of Vasilevskiy) ever crossing the line.

Pat Maroon made a great save on a Stamkos bid for the open net right after Schneider made his way to the bench, keeping hope alive for the Devils, but they just couldn’t solved #88 in net.

Things got scrappy with nine seconds left when everyone piled on Taylor Hall after he took an aggressive charge at the net when Vasilevskiy stopped a Vatanen blast, and it took a few minutes to get things settled down before the final nine seconds could pass without incident.

So, to review:

A closely-contested, grind-it-out first period where both teams looked very evenly matched.

Tampa blows the doors open in the second until the goaltending change turns the momentum.

Schneider lays claim to his net and New Jersey shows that Tampa is very mortal in the third.

The Lightning may lead this series 2-0 on two multi-goal difference victories, but there’s much more to this story. If Schneider plays the way he did in this one, and the Devils can get a boost from their home crowd, they have a lot to build on after this game. This could definitely be a series to watch going forward.

For those wondering, Game 3 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and @kephartc will have our recap coverage for you.

Deal(t) with the Devil: Tampa fends off scrappy New Jersey to take Game 1

 

Funny thing, hockey.

In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.

In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?

Well. Color me interested.

The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.

New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.

Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.

First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.

The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.

Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.

Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.

Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.

With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.

Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.

The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.

The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.

Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.

The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.

Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.

Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.

But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.

*The other was Andy Greene

Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?

Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.

Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.

Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.

Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.

At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.

The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.

First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.

Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.

Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.

Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.

Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.

Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.

Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.

April 3 – Day 174 – Five days later…

For those wondering: yes, the title was supposed to be read in the SpongeBob SquarePants time card voice.

A trio of games (the New York Rangers at New Jersey, Philadelphia at the New York Islanders and Detroit at Columbus) get the honor of getting the night underway at 7 p.m., and they’re followed by another three showdowns (Winnipeg at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Tampa Bay [NBCSN/SN1/TVAS] and Nashville at Florida) half an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the puck drop of Arizona at Calgary, while Vegas at Vancouver waits an hour before starting. Finally, Dallas at San Jose (SN1) closes out the night with a 10:30 p.m. tilt. All times Eastern.

Previously in the season, I’d marked the Battle of the Hudson River as a potential featured matchup. And, even though the Rangers fell off this season, it is still an important rivalry considering it very well could be the game that clinches a playoff spot for the Devils.

However, the fixture that draws my attention for the second time in five days has to be the Bruins-Bolts showdown atop the Eastern Conference.

 

Having climbed all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 49-17-12 record, the Bruins have more than earned the right to be discussed first in today’s preview. Boston is currently on a solid nine-game run, boasting a 5-0-4 record to close the second-half of March with 14 more points.

During this run, no team in the East has been playing defense quite like the Bruins. Led in large part by D Kevan Miller, who has averaged 2.1 blocks per game and managed a team-high seven takeaways since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.78 shots against per game – a mark that’s well better than Detroit’s 29.38 shots allowed per game since March 17 that claims second-best in the conference and is just behind St. Louis’ 27 shots against per game that tops the NHL in that time.

Head Coach Bruce Cassidy can try to claim that he’s the happiest person in the organization about his club’s defensive success, but that gent would actually be 34-11-5 G Tuukka Rask, who’s been confirmed to be starting tonight’s game to the surprise of no one.

With a .919 save percentage and 2.28 GAA (fifth-best in the league among qualified goaltenders) for the entire season, Rask has been having his best campaign since the 2014-15 season. However, when we take a closer look at his last six starts, Rask boasts an even more impressive .937 save percentage and 1.82 GAA – due in large part to that incredible defensive effort.

Regardless of where they finish this regular season in the standings, a defensive zone as bolstered as the Bruins’ will be a tough egg to crack for any opposition. Over their past nine games, Boston has yielded only 2.33 goals against per game, the fourth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.

As for trying to crack that egg tonight, we turn to the 52-23-4 Lightning. Tampa Bay might be experiencing its worst point of the season right now, as it has only a lowly 1-4-0 record to show for its last five games.

Unfortunately for the Bolts, their biggest struggle of late has been on the offensive end. Even with D Victor Hedman averaging a point per game over this run with 1-4-5 totals (15-45-60 overall), the Lightning have averaged only 2.4 goals per game since March 24, the (t)sixth-worst mark in the NHL in that time.

The two gaping holes in the Lightning’s last five scorecards involve some longtime members of the club: C Tyler Johnson and C Steven Stamkos. With 21-28-49 totals on the season, Johnson is riding a five-game pointless skid and has managed only one goal in his last 10 outings.

Of course, Stamkos’ struggles are the most surprising of the two. The captain claims 27-59-86 totals on the season to rank second on the team in points, but he’s failed to find the scoreboard in his last four games. He missed the tilt against Arizona on March 26 with a lower-body injury, and that ailment is surely the leading cause of this skid – to the point that he’s being held out of tonight’s game in hopes that he can recover for a deep playoff run.

Even though the Lightning spent almost the entire season atop the NHL, they’re still looking for their first victory against Boston in their fourth try.

The Bruins claimed a 3-2 victory at TD Garden on November 29 (D Torey Krug provided the game-winner at the 5:59 mark of the second period, then setting the score at 3-0) which they only improved upon March 17, winning 3-0 at Amalie Arena (Rask earned the shutout, thanks in large part to his defense limiting the Lightning to only 23 shots on goal). Most recently, Boston claimed another home victory at TD Garden, this time besting the Bolts 4-2 only five days ago on March 29 (C Patrice Bergeron managed a three-point night that included the game-winning goal).

With Toronto already locked into third place in the Atlantic Division, both Boston and Tampa Bay have clinched home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs. Of course, there’s a vast difference between hosting those Maple Leafs and the East’s second wild card in the first round, and that’s what tonight’s game is all about.

Currently trailing the Bruins by two points, the Lightning are currently slated to be hosting those Leafs when the playoffs begin next week. While a win tonight would go a long way towards resolving that issue, Tampa will not see an immediate change in the standings due to the Bruins’ game in hand. In other words, a Bruins loss tonight could be inconsequential if they win their remaining three games this week.

Beyond the Eastern Conference, both the Lightning and Bruins are both still eligible for this season’s Presidents’ Trophy. However, odds of ripping that award out of Nashville’s clutch are growing slim, as the Preds have 113 points coming into tonight’s tilt with Florida. A Predators win tonight – regardless of how Tampa performs – eliminates the Bolts from the competition for that trophy. Meanwhile, a Bruins win paired with a Nashville regulation loss puts Boston in control of its own destiny for claiming its first regular season championship since 2014.

A struggling offense without its fearless leader is no form to assume when squaring off with the Bruins. Because of that, I think Boston cruises to the season sweep of the Bolts tonight.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 at Staples Center.

This was a win the Avalanche desperately needed, but Los Angeles squelched those hopes with two first period goals. F Torrey Mitchell (F Nate Thompson and D Drew Doughty) provided the Kings’ first tally on a wrist shot 9:29 into the game, followed by a shorthanded wrister by Second Star of the Game W Dustin Brown (C Anze Kopitar and First Star D Alec Martinez) that proved to be the game-winner.

Shorthanded goals are almost always a result of a turnover by the team on the power play, and this tally is no exception. RW Mikko Rantanen fed an unwise pass to F Tyson Jost between Kopitar and Martinez, but Jost’s botched attempt to reset the play to D Tyson Barrie at the point resulted in Brown ending up with possession and screaming down the ice. Using Barrie as a screen, Brown ripped his wrister through the defenseman’s legs and over G Jonathan Bernier‘s glove.

With Mitchell in the penalty box for tripping D Samuel Girard, F Alexander Kerfoot (W Sven Andrighetto and F Colin Wilson) buried a power play wrister at the 4:31 mark of the second frame to pull Colorado back within a goal, but the fact that the Avs couldn’t muster up another goal – paired with LW Kyle Clifford‘s (F Trevor Lewis and F Adrian Kempe) backhanded shot two minutes into the third period – left the Kings with a relatively stress-free win.

Third Star G Jonathan Quick earned the victory after saving 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage), leaving the loss to Bernier, who saved 22-of-25 (.88).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series now have a 99-54-21 record that is 46 points superior to that of the roadies.

March 29 – Day 169 – To the top of the East

It’s Thursday in the NHL, so you know what that means: games galore!

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [SN/TVAS], Detroit at Buffalo and Pittsburgh at New Jersey), followed half an hour later by Florida at Ottawa (RDS). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of two tilts (San Jose at Nashville and Dallas at Minnesota [NBCSN]), while Winnipeg at Chicago waits 30 minutes before following suit. Columbus at Calgary is next up at 9 p.m., with Edmonton at Vancouver (SN1) waiting until 10 p.m. and Arizona at Los Angeles closing up shop at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

I’d love to beat around the bush and act like I considered every game for tonight’s distinct honor of being the DtFR Game of the Day, but there’s only one game the entire hockey world should be focusing on this evening.

 

A lot of people outside of New England may not want to hear this, but this looks like another one of those magical runs by a Boston-based sports team.

Oh wait, and the Celtics are good too?

Accurate representation of DtFR meetings when @nlanciani53 shares Boston sports news.

The 47-17-11 Bruins’ current run is an excellent example. After managing only 22 points by Thanksgiving – the NHL’s cutoff, at least statistically speaking, playoff qualification – to claim 11th place in the conference, Boston has posted a league-best 38-10-7 record to climb all the way into second place in the East.

But second place is not good enough for these Bruins, as evidenced by the six-game point streak they’re currently riding that has pulled them within one point of top spot in the East.

While the Bruins’ offense has been their strongest weapon all year (Boston’s 3.28 goals per game for the entire season is fifth-best in the NHL), it has taken a major blow in production lately due to the numerous injuries plaguing the roster. In fact, the 2.83 goals per game the Bruins have averaged over their past six showings is (t)13th-worst in the league since March 17.

So how are the Bruins winning?

The answer can be found in some incredible defensive play. Since March 17, Boston has allowed only 27.83 shots against per game – the fifth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time. D Kevan Miller (three hits per game and 2.5 blocks per game since March 17) and F Riley Nash (five takeaways in his past six showings) have been the brightest stars in that effort, but holding the opposition under 30 shots against is usually an indicator of the entire club’s effort and not just the results of two or three stellar players.

Of course, there’s nothing that makes a goaltender happier than a solid defense in front of him, even if it is one that likes to listen to Finnish death metal. 32-11-5 G Tuukka Rask has thrived with the limited work load coming his way, posting an impressive .93 save percentage and 1.97 GAA over his past four starts. This solid run has improved his season stats to a .918 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA that is fifth-best among qualified goaltenders – numbers befitting the goalie with the (t)sixth-most wins this season.

Between Rask and his defense, the Bruins have allowed only 2.33 goals against per game since March 17, the eighth-fewest in the league in that time.

Boston’s point streak is bad news for the 51-21-4 Lightning, because their last two outings at New Jersey and at home against the Coyotes haven’t exactly been confidence builders, as they lost both by a combined score of 6-2.

As evidenced by only averaging a goal per game, Tampa’s offense over its past two showings is a major issue, especially since it has averaged a league-leading 3.51 goals per game all season.

The Lightning are hoping that the return of C Steven Stamkos to action should be just the fix for these offensive ails. The captain was held out of Monday’s game against the Coyotes with a lower body injury, but Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times has indicated that Stamkos – as well as D Victor Hedman, who took a nasty hit late against Arizona – should be available for tonight’s important tilt.

With no disrespect to Hedman and his 14-42-56 totals in 71 games played this season, Stamkos will certainly be the most anticipated injection into the lineup tonight. Having posted 27-59-86 marks in his first 75 games of the season, Stamkos has already ensured his second-straight season of averaging more than a point per game. If that trend continues this evening, the Bolts should be able to hang at least two goals on the Bruins in this game, right?

With the average team in the NHL having only five games remaining on its schedule, it’s baffling that the season series between these clubs has only reached its halfway point. In the same turn, it just makes today and April 3’s meetings all the more dramatic!

So far, the Bruins have looked like the better of these squads in their previous two meetings, as they’ve earned four points at the expense of Tampa. They earned their first victory against the Bolts on November 29 with a 3-2 score (D Charlie McAvoy earned First Star honors with a one-goal, two-point effort) at home and followed it up with an impressive 3-0 win (Rask made 23 saves in the shutout) on March 17 at Amalie Arena.

With these teams separated by only one point at the top of the conference, a regulation win by either is a major step towards clinching home ice throughout the Eastern playoffs.

However, the Bruins can do far more damage this evening by earning two points as compared to Tampa Bay, due in large part to Boston’s game in hand. Because of the game against the Panthers that had to be postponed until the day after the originally scheduled regular season finale, the Bruins can claim first place in the conference with any variety of win tonight.

Of course, the Lightning have grown quite fond of their spot on top of the mountain, so don’t expect them to give it up easily. The Bolts cannot afford to allow Boston to earn even one point tonight, or else they risk blowing the window through which the Bruins can surpass them even wider than they have with their two-game losing skid.

Tampa has chosen a very inopportune time to struggle on offense, because Boston isn’t planning on allowing many goals by tonight. Fortunately for the Bolts, the Bruins’ offensive injuries should slow them down enough to keep this game manageable for the Lightning’s defense. However, I still feel like Boston comes away with the victory tonight in this extremely important contest.


The Florida Panthers showed great resolve in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Air Canada Centre, but they couldn’t complete their comeback and fell 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The biggest reason Toronto was able to win this game was because it completely caught the Panthers off guard by scoring three goals in the first period. First Star of the Game F Mitch Marner (D Morgan Rielly and C Tomas Plekanec) began the onslaught with a wrist shot 3:05 into the frame, and C Auston Matthews (F William Nylander and D Jake Gardiner) followed suit only 6:19 later with a snap shot to set the score at 2-0. With 6:05 remaining in the period, F Patrick Marleau (Marner) completed the Maple Leafs’ blitz with a tip-in, giving the hosts a 3-0 advantage.

While the net result of the first period was the domination of the Leafs, the entire frame didn’t belong to the club in blue. In fact, Second Star F Jonathan Huberdeau (F Denis Malgin) was able to score a snapper 2:11 before the first intermission to pull the Panthers back within two goals.

That positive energy paid massive dividends for the visitors, as the Leafs’ lead was trimmed to one by the second intermission. Huberdeau (F Vincent Trocheck and D Mark Pysyk) once again provided the important play for Florida, scoring a snapper with 4:52 remaining in the second period to set the score at 3-2.

If only the Panthers would stop waiting until the waning moments of the frame to score, they just might have won this game. Instead, their struggles early in frames led to their downfall, as Third Star LW James van Riemsdyk (C Tyler Bozak and RW Connor Brown) was able to score what proved to be the game-winning goal with 8:12 remaining in regulation.

Somewhere in New Jersey, there might still be a midget hockey coach grinning from ear-to-ear after van Riemsdyk scored, as the ninth-year pro earned every bit of his 200th regular season NHL marker after exhibiting some serious commitment and sticktoitiveness. After receiving Bozak’s pass from below the goal line in the slot, van Riemsdyk one-timed a snapper towards the gaping cage to G Roberto Luongo‘s glove side. The netminder was able to block the initial attempt with his glove, but the rebound fell right back to van Riemsdyk’s stick, and he backhanded a successful shot into the back of the net while he was getting pushed from behind by F Maxim Mamin and tripping over Luongo’s glove.

However, the Panthers weren’t ready to give up hope yet, as W Evgeni Dadonov (D Keith Yandle and D Aaron Ekblad) buried a backhander 6:46 after van Riemsdyk’s marker to pull Florida back within a tally. However, that left only 1:26 remaining in the game for the Panthers to level the game, and they weren’t able to do so.

G Frederik Andersen earned the victory after saving 30-of-33 shots faced (.909 save percentage), leaving the loss to Luongo, who saved 31-of-35 (.886).

Can home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series do no wrong? The 95-53-21 hosts have now won five-consecutive tilts in the series, not to mention riding a seven-game point streak. As such, they now have a 41-point advantage on the roadies in the series.