Tag Archives: Toews

DtFR Overtime: Have your break and eat it too

In this week’s edition of DtFR Overtime, I’ll tackle one of the things we highlighted in the most recent podcast: the bye weeks.

As was outlined in a previous post, the NHL is in Year 2 of implementing bye weeks into its schedule. Starting January 7, all teams will have a five-day minimum break that will begin no later than today. Everyone will be back in action no later than January 20.

Within that post, I outlined some of the things I like about this year’s iteration of the byes (specifically, their being compacted into a span of 13 days instead of strewn over the course of more than two months), but also touched on some of my concerns.

One of my biggest complaints was that the entire month of January would feel very thin in terms of games played. That is no more obvious than in my “Game of the Day” column, as I’ve repeated three teams twice in the span of six days.

Of course, there’s bigger issues than my daily writings. Time off abounds at this stage of the schedule, as the NHL has added bye weeks between its already existing three-day holiday break (December 24-26) and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29).

This choppiness, among other reasons, is one of the reasons the NHL has been floating the idea of eliminating the All-Star Game entirely, apparently wanting to find a way to expand its reach in foreign markets.

Among the DtFR crew, we’d been discussing how we felt interest in the All-Star Game among fans was declining. However, with just a little bit of research, I discovered that, according to SB Nation, last year’s All-Star Game brought in a 1.6 TV rating for NBC, reaching over 2.5 million Americans (sorry Canada, your results didn’t pop up in the first return).

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot when you compare it to such sports broadcasts as Super Bowl LI, which garnered 111.3 million views, but it is actually a solid number in relation to recent NHL All-Star spectacles. The 2017 All-Star Game was the highest-viewed edition of the event since the 2004 festivities in St. Paul, Minn., and marked a second-consecutive year of growth in viewership.

The NHL saw a steep decline when the All-Star Game moved from ABC to NBCSN (dropping from a 2.5 rating in 2004 to a .5 in 2007), but the move back to broadcast television last year seems to have been a good move. So good, in fact, that 2017’s 1.6 rating is superior to both the 2017 (1.5) and 2018 Winter Classics (1.4).

And don’t think TV numbers are the only thing important here. All-Star Games are still must-see events for fans in the host markets. In fact, by compiling All-Star Game attendances and comparing it to stadium capacities over the past 28 editions of the event, the NHL has reached max capacity – if not exceeded it – 21 of the 28 times.

That’s why I’m of the opinion that the NHL shouldn’t be thinking of scrapping the All-Star Game. The fans, which is a growing number in and of itself (I mean, who would’ve expected a hockey team to actually work out in Vegas?), still want to see the best of the best compete with and against each other.

However, the spectators are just one part of the puzzle. More than a handful of players (C Sidney Crosby, C Pavel Datsyuk, D Nicklas Lidstrom, W Alex Ovechkin and C Jonathan Toews come to mind, just to name a handful) have skipped the All-Star Game in recent years – some with more believable excuses for their absences than others – and I think that is where the real problem lies. Many players do not want to risk expending energy, getting hurt or further straining an existing injury in an exhibition game that ultimately does not matter, to the point that they are willing to serve a one-game suspension that only extends their time off.

Therefore, we have two parties: one that wants to see the best hockey players in the world compete with no “less-thans” holding them back, and another that wants time off to heal and prepare for the final push of the season.

This dichotomy does not seem to be prevalent in the other two “Big Four” North American sports that play their All-Star Games mid-season. Perhaps they can provide a hint as to how to solve this problem.

It might have been just how I was raised, but I am under the impression that no athlete feels more honored to be a part of an All-Star Game than a baseball player. You can feel free to disagree with me, but the difficulty of achieving consecutive appearances, plus the storied tradition – not to mention the lower risk of injury – make it a very desirable experience and honor. There’s obviously players who have skipped the Midsummer Classic (SS Derek Jeter, P Stephen Strasburg, etc.), but it is not something that happens often for sportsmen that play at least 150 games per regular season.

This summer, MLB will give almost every team (the Cardinals and Cubs are the exception, as the league is experimenting with highlighting one game in a sort of “Opening Day to the Second Half of the Season” this year) a four-day break before resuming play following the festivities in Washington, D.C., an eternity in a 162-game season. Even the All-Stars themselves will take at least two days off, and most will get three since only eight participate in the Home Run Derby.

Of course, baseball is the least strenuous sport of the “Big Four,” but there’s still enough time for even those selected to the All-Star Game to take a moment to rest before the second half of the season, especially since most play only an inning or two in the exhibition.

Next up is the NHL’s redheaded stepchild-turned-attention hog of the winter months, the NBA (Don’t believe me, NBA fans? Time for you to read up on why professional basketball exists).

The Association’s All-Star Break is scheduled a little bit later than the NHL’s and won’t take place until February 16-21 this season, with the action taking place in Staples Center – the site of last year’s NHL All-Star Game.

Just like in hockey and baseball, the NBA stages a skills competition the day before its actual All-Star Game, but that still leaves four days for the players involved in the festivities to rest and recoup, and six for the scrubs (not really, there’s tons of deserving players that get left off the two 12-men rosters). You know, because most of them there don’t request nights off at least once a month.

Shots fired NBA.

All jokes aside, I’m sure you noticed something both these leagues have that the NHL doesn’t: an actual break. The NHL All-Star Break lasts only four days, as all but the Kings will be in action on January 16 (only because there isn’t a 32nd team for them to play – yet) and most will jump right back to the fray on January 30.

Perhaps this is why the NHLPA requested bye weeks when the league wanted to switch to the three-on-three backyard pickup-style tournament?

And so, at long last, I present an option that could potentially save the All-Star Game from extinction while also preserving the time off the players desire: we simply need to expand the All-Star Break to an actual week.

In a perfect world, my solution can resolve both concerns facing the league and its players. By extending the break, the players – even those elected into the weekend’s festivities – get to take more time off the ice to rest and recuperate, and coaches could probably convince the NHLPA to allow them to recommence light installation practices the last day before resuming play.

Another problem this might fix is the NHL’s ratings during the All-Star Game. While a 1.6 rating is good, you have to believe the league would like to see higher numbers. Maybe – just maybe – the league can create enough of a “hockey famine” that fans would tune in to get a sampling of the sport before their favorite clubs returned to the ice.

My plan?

Have play commence until the Wednesday before the All-Star Game (within this season’s calendar, that would be January 24). The league can decide whether it wants this to be a normal Wednesday with only two or three games, or if wants to cash in like the day before the break begins this year and schedule as many games as possible. I’m not picky.

Continuing the presumption we’re editing this year’s schedule, the All-Star Festivities would still take place in Tampa on January 27 (Skills Competition) and 28 (63rd All-Star Game), but players would not be back in action with their actual clubs on January 30 like they’re currently slated to be. Instead, the NHL would not schedule play again until the next Tuesday or Wednesday (January 30 or 31).

This would allow at least four days of rest for all players whether they’re All-Stars or not, and six days for those not involved in the weekend’s festivities. I feel, with that amount of time off, the league might be able to go back to a time without bye weeks, circa 2016.

January 10 – Day 95 – There’s no place like home

There’s only two games on the schedule today, but for once I’m not complaining about either failing to live up to NBC’s promotion of “Wednesday Night Rivalry.”

The action starts in Toronto when Ottawa pays the Maple Leafs a visit at 7:30 p.m. (SN/TVAS) and Minnesota at Chicago (NBCSN) cleans up the evening’s festivities half an hour later. All times Eastern.

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

Is there any question of which game we’re featuring tonight? The winner of the Wild-Blackhawks game will be the eighth seed in the Western Conference! It’s off to the Windy City with us!

 

Tonight’s tilt is Game 4 in a five-game series between these clubs. Chicago owns a 2-1-0 record against the Wild so far this season, and another win tonight would clinch the season series – an important note considering it is the second tiebreaker at the end of the season and both of these clubs are currently competing for the last wild card.

Obviously, the 23-17-4 Wild, who currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference due to losing a games-played tiebreaker with both Chicago and Calgary, will have high hopes of leveling the series this evening. But do they have much of a chance of pulling it off?

I’m worried for them the answer is no. Minnesota has lost five of its last six road games (including one at United Center less than a month ago), including an active skid of four-straight. That run since December 17 makes the Wild the fourth-worst road team in the league, and it’s all because their defense simply doesn’t travel well.

Given, it’s not like Minnesota’s defense is all that spectacular in and of itself. The Wild allow 2.91 goals against per game for the season as a whole, the 14th-worst mark in the league.

However, in their six road games since December 17, the Wild have allowed a league-worst 25 goals against, or a second-worst 4.17 per game (the Wild would like to take this opportunity to thank the Islanders for allowing 16 goals in only three road games).

A major problem is Minnesota, even with LW Marcus Foligno throwing three hits per game, D Jared Spurgeon blocking 2.67 shots per game and W Jason Zucker averaging a takeaway-per-game, has allowed an average of 35 shots in each contest away from Xcel Energy Center since mid-December, a mark that is sixth-worst in the NHL in that time.

While Foligno’s, Spurgeon’s and Zucker’s efforts are impressive on their own, it seems to me to be a lack of commitment by the rest of the team on the defensive end – especially in terms of physicality. Foligno has not been afraid to rough up the opposition along the boards, but Matt Dumba has averaged the second-most hits-per-game during this section of games with only 1.67 to his credit. While physicality is only one aspect of playing defense, it seems to be lacking from Head Coach Bruce Boudreau‘s squad.

The icing… err, frosting, since icing is a penalty… on the cake though is the fact that the Wild’s defense has allowed all these shots of late against 7-8-2 G Alex Stalock. Most of this run came while 15-9-2 G Devan Dubnyk was recovering from his lower-body injury. Given how much he was getting peppered while filling in, I’d say Stalock did pretty well in his five most recent road starts. He posted a .914 save percentage and 2.93 GAA.

Dubnyk will be in goal tonight in only his second road game since returning to action. His first was that drubbing at the hands of the Avalanche where, due in large part to posing a .813 save percentage and 7.61 GAA, he lost his cool and tried to smash F Alexander Kerfoot‘s face into the ice. Perhaps the former Masterton Trophy-winner can keep his cool tonight, because his team desperately needs him to cover up for its defensive inefficiencies.

If last night’s 8-2 performance in Ottawa is any indication, it seems the 21-15-6 Blackhawks are starting to figure things out. Having won four of their past six games and earned a point in one of those losses, Chicago has surged into the second wild card and has pulled within three points of first wild card Dallas.

Since December 29, no offense has scored more goals than Chicago. The Hawks have managed an impressive 28 goals in six games, which averages into a second-best 4.67 per game behind Boston’s unbelievable 5.5 (for those that care, three of the top-five teams in goals-per-game since December 29 are in the Central Division).

While the usual suspects of C Jonathan Toews and F Patrick Kane have been impressive over this run, posting respective 5-4-9 and 3-6-9 totals, the Blackhawk that truly takes the cake is sophomore C Nick Schmaltz, who’s currently riding a four-game goal streak. He’s done it all for the Hawks lately, posting 5-5-10 totals to elevate his season marks to 12-19-31. Having already surpassed last year’s numbers, Schmaltz is poised to join the ranks of recent dominant Chicago forwards. How does one club get W Alex DeBrincat, Kane, LW Artemi Panarin (well, last season), Schmaltz and Toews all on the same team?

Just like Minnesota saved its top goaltender for the Hawks, 2-1-1 G Jeff Glass will probably be in net tonight for Chicago after 3-5-3 G Anton Forsberg played yesterday against the Sens. Playing his rookie season at 32-years-old, Glass has posted a .908 save percentage and 3.51 GAA in his first four NHL starts.

The United Center hasn’t been the imposing threat to road teams as it was only a year or two ago, but with an 11-6-2 record at home this season, I think the Blackhawks can find a way to pull this one out.


Though the Carolina Hurricanes gave them all they had, First Star of the Game F Tyler Johnson and the Tampa Bay Lightning was able to win yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day 5-4 at Amalie Arena.

Johnson was an unstoppable force throughout the entire game, as he registered a goal in each frame. However, before he struck his tally for the first period, three others found the net. First was LW Brock McGinn (RW Justin Williams and D Jaccob Slavin), who gave Carolina the advantage 3:23 into play with a power play wrist shot. Tampa pulled the game back even 6:39 later courtesy of a wrister from D Victor Hedman (RW Nikita Kucherov and C Steven Stamkos). The exchange of goals continued with 7:50 remaining in the period when W Sebastian Aho bagged an unassisted wrister, but Johnson (D Anton Stralman and Second Star F Brayden Point) set the score at 2-2 on a tip-in 4:16 later.

In terms of playing time, Johnson didn’t have to wait too long to find his second goal of the night. Only 1:58 into the second period, he (Third Star D Jake Dotchin and Point) gave Tampa its first lead of the night with a backhanded shot. However, Carolina continued to show its resilience when D Justin Faulk (F Teuvo Teravainen and F Jordan Staal) scored a power play wrister 8:38 later, leveling the game at three-all.

The 3-3 tie held for a considerable time, even though both clubs combined to fire 26 shots in the second period. However, the draw was finally broken when Dotchin (Point and W Ondrej Palat) tickled the twine with a snap shot. 5:27 later, the Bolts went up what proved to be an insurmountable two goals when Johnson (Hedman) completed the hat trick with a wrister.

Johnson’s final goal was simply a pure spectacle of his superior speed to that of D Noah Hanifin. Hedman dumped the puck towards center ice from his defensive zone to enact a line change, but Johnson decided to race Hanifin to ensure there was no chance for icing. Once he realized he could take possession, Johnson squeezed past the defenseman, upending him in the process, to set up a one-on-one battle with G Cam Ward. The netminder fended off the first backhander from within his crease, but he couldn’t stop an immediate second try by Johnson: a wrister over his left blocker.

That’s not to say the Canes gave up on the remaining five minutes of regulation. In fact, the exact opposite is true, as F Elias Lindholm (Faulk and Teravainen) pulled Carolina back within a one-goal deficit with 1:18 remaining in the frame, but even with six attackers the Hurricanes couldn’t find a leveling marker.

G Andrei Vasilevskiy saved 28-of-32 shots faced (.875 save percentage) to earn the victory, leaving the loss to Ward, who saved 29-of-34 (.853).

It’s no surprise, but the 52-29-12 home teams are absolutely dominating the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts’ record in the series is 26 points better the roadies’, the same advantage Tampa Bay has on the Oilers for the Presidents’ Trophy.

DtFR Overtime: Where’s the Star Power?

Welcome to DtFR Overtime, where somebody on the most recent podcast offers some deeper thoughts on one of the points of discussion.

Today’s subject: Star power and the absence of it.

We all know the list of current NHL stars: LW Jamie Benn, D Brent Burns, C Sidney Crosby, G Braden Holtby, F Patrick Kane, D Erik Karlsson, G Henrik Lundqvist, C Auston Matthews, C Connor McDavid, W Alex Ovechkin, G Carey Price, G Jonathan Quick, C Steven Stamkos, D P.K. Subban, RW Vladimir Tarasenko, C John Tavares

OK, I think you get the idea.

But how important are these stars really? I mean, of the skaters listed above, they play an average of only 21 minutes – or barely over a third of a game.

While the top NHL teams put a strong value on depth scoring, I would argue that, over the course of a season, it is necessary for Team X’s star to be the best player on the ice for that team to have success.

It sounds basic, right?

It is, but even the clubs that seem to be built to withstand the unfortunately inevitable scoring droughts from its top players are struggling this season.

My first example is the 12-11-5 Chicago Blackhawks, a club that currently sits in 12th place in the Western Conference and is at risk of missing the postsesaon for the first time since the 2007-’08 campaign.

I brought up Kane in the list of stars earlier, but his team-leading 10-17-27 totals are not the reason Chicago finds itself on the outside looking in. Instead, this star-laden team is struggling to find leadership from its captain.

Getting outplayed by rookie F Alex DeBrincat‘s 11-9-20 effort, C Jonathan Toews has only 8-11-19 totals to his credit and is on track for the worst offensive production of his professional career. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Blackhawks have an 11-2-2 record when Toews finds his way onto the scorecard, but a 1-9-3 record when he doesn’t.

That was fun, especially for a fan of a Central Division team that hasn’t worn a lick of red since the 1997-’98 season. Let’s head east and examine another city where it looks like the local club is in an even more dire situation

Welcome to Ottawa, the national capital of Canada.  Expectations were high after forcing a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series with Pittsburgh back in May, but all the 9-11-6 Sens, who currently sit third-to-last in the conference, have done this season is disappoint.

To be fair, Karlsson at least has the excuse of an injury to partially explain his slump. The hard part in figuring out Karlsson’s 1-16-17 effort is that he’s mostly on track from a points-per-game standpoint. Given he missed the Sens’ first five games, his .81 points-per-game is, while not exemplary by his standards, still a solid output.

Unfortunately, this is where points can distract from goals. You probably noticed he only had one tally to his credit, which is where I think his team needs him most.

The 14-10-2 Sharks are facing a similar situation with their star defenseman Burns, who has managed only 1-11-12 totals in 26 games a year after posting 29-47-76 numbers to win the Norris Trophy. As such, San Jose does not have the solid footing in the standings it would like, as the Sharks are holding onto their second wild card position by winning only a games-played tiebreaker.

Now, I’m not going to sit here on my couch and pontificate about how to score a goal in the NHL against the 30-something best goaltenders in the world. I mean, I live in the South and can barely keep my skates underneath me the entire time I’m at the rink. But, I am going to say that Karlsson’s .05 goals-per-game for the season and Burns’ .04 is – you guessed it – the worst performances of their careers.

Last year, Karlsson scored 17 of the Sens’ 212 regular season goals. That may only be eight percent of the total, but Ottawa earned a 12-3-3 record when he personally put a goal on the scoreboard, including a perfect 2-0-0 record in the postseason. Similarly, Burns’ career-high 29 goals earned the Sharks an 18-7-1 record last season, though it might be of bigger note that Edmonton did not allow him to find the back of the net in their six-game first round matchup, the Sharks’ only playoff series of the 2017 postseason.

Now, don’t read this as all doom-and-gloom for these respective squads. All of these teams can get right back into the playoff discussion (yes, even Ottawa thanks to a weak Atlantic Division) or better cement their position in the tournament if their biggest players can simply rediscover their mojo.

Take for example Montréal, where as recently as two weeks ago it looked like the 13-13-3 Canadiens had never seen, much less used hockey sticks before. Then Price came back from his lower-body injury, and the Habs look better than ever.

Of course, things weren’t exactly peachy in Québec before Price took time off. In his 11 appearances before retreating to the press box, Price had managed only an .877 season save percentage and 3.77 GAA to earn a 3-7-1 record, forcing Habs fans and bloggers alike to wonder when exactly this injury occurred.

But since Price’s return on November 25, Price and the Habs have been almost unbeatable, as they’ve won five of their last six games with him in net. The goaltender himself has been extremely successful as well, as he’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.67 GAA in that time.

But the turnaround hasn’t been simply in the defensive end. Even the offense is gelling now that its true leader is back (Sorry LW Max Pacioretty, but this is Price’s team. You’re captain by technicality), as success breeds success and positive energy. Since Price’s return, Montréal’s offense has managed a whopping 4.5 goals-per-game, highlighted by Saturday’s 10-1 shellacking of the Red Wings. Even taking out that major outlier, the Habs’ 3.4 goals-per-game is much better than the 2.32 goals-per-game they’d managed before Price’s return. This surge has propelled the Canadiens from sixth place in the Atlantic Division into third – a playoff spot.

Since we’re on the topic of Montréal and its stars and I already brought up Pacioretty, we might as well discuss my concerns over this team. Pacioretty is struggling something fierce right now. He’s only managed 8-8-16 totals so far this season, and is on pace for his worst professional season since his first two years with the Habs.

Unfortunately for Canadiens fans, this scoring skid is not limited to just this season. I don’t need to remind them of the magic disappearing act he performed in the playoffs against the Rangers, managing only a lone assist. In fact, since March 14 of last campaign, he’s managed only 10-14-24 totals in games that count (aka everything but the preseason).

While I belittled the letter Pacioretty wears on his sweater, he is still one of the leaders on this team. For the Habs to sustain this recent success, Pacioretty is going to need to snap out of his slump – even if it means he has to become a play-maker before resuming a goalscorer role.

Another team that has had more struggles than it would like is the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions. While they’ve had trouble finding depth scoring and are now facing even bigger goaltending issues than they had before, the 15-11-3 Penguins have held onto a playoff position for most of the year.

Now, the operative word here is ‘most.’ There was a point in late November when the Penguins had fallen outside the playoff picture, and – as you might guess from the other examples – I would pin a lot of the club’s struggles on Crosby.

It is very hard to point at a player that is contributing a point-per-game on the season and say he is not doing enough for his team. After all, isn’t this the same team that supposedly embodies the speed-based future of the sport while also trotting out RW Ryan Reaves onto the ice every game? Why can’t his lousy 1-2-3 totals be the problem?

And yet, it’s hard to ignore that Pittsburgh’s slump aligned almost perfectly with Crosby’s goal-scoring slump. Between October 21 and November 22, Crosby managed only 1-6-7 totals in 15 games, which led the Penguins to earning only a 6-7-2 record in that time.

You might say that 6-7-2 isn’t a terrible run while one of the league’s top players is on the schneid, and I’d agree if that team wasn’t in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division. The Penguins also have the luxury of employing RW Phil Kessel and F Evgeni Malkin, who were able to keep the team mostly afloat with their combined 10-18-28 effort.

If that stat does nothing other than stress the importance of Crosby to his team, I don’t know what does. The fact that the Penguins were losing, or at least treading water, while two players created nearly 30 goals in 15 games is unbelievable.

Anyways, Crosby has rediscovered his scoring ways since then, and the Pens are all the better for it. Starting with November 24, the captain has earned 6-6-12 totals that are closer to what fans expect from him. As such, the Penguins have found their way back into the win column, earning a 4-2-0 record in spite of G Matthew Murray missing Pittsburgh’s last three games with a lower-body injury.

Of course, the Penguins are doing a great job of poking a hole in my argument by falling from third in the division back into the second wild card spot while Murray is healing, but I’m still going to hold firm that G Tristan Jarry has earned a 3-1-0 record filling in not because of his solid .926 season save percentage (though that doesn’t hurt), but because Crosby has scored a goal in every game but – you guessed it – Jarry’s one regulation loss.

Confidence – which I am led to believe is the word people are actually looking for when they discuss momentum in sports (I mean, “momentum” is technically mass x velocity, so the momentum of a sports team cannot change without either a plane or a player transaction) – is like hitting in baseball: it’s a contagious thing.

Star players are not star players simply because they can score or stop goals no one else can. Stars are stars because they can make those plays and make the athletes associated with them feel like they too can contribute to the ultimate goal and find wins and success.

Stars are leaders.

And that’s why stars have to perform their best. That’s why they have to have the best numbers on their team. It’s not to belittle the third and fourth liners, but it’s their success that should drive a team to achieve more.

Success breeds success.

In that same train of thought, leaders can’t create success from the rest of their team while they themselves are struggling to find their groove. Stars are stars because they find that motivation to excel within themselves, and then use that flame to light the others’ torches.

You might have noticed the thread that connects all of the players called out in this column: Toews, Karlsson, Burns, Pacioretty and Crosby are all captains. These players have been selected by their coaches and peers based not only on their undoubted skills, but also on their work-ethic and leadership abilities. They were honored with that distinction, so it is time for them to step up and serve the letter and crest on the front of their sweaters and get/keep their squads on track.

These teams are capable of winning; it just takes a little input from a star.

Weekly Bumblings for Week 8 with Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

While Peter is out enjoying a trip to see some hockey games in person, I’m filling in with a recap of the past week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week:  Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has been the definition of streaky, of late, but this week was the good side of the coin.  He broke a four-game pointless drought last Monday against Minnesota, getting one goal and two assists.

After being held without a point against Colorado, he put in another three-point performance (all assists) against Vegas.

But he would save his best for Sunday against the Ottawa Senators.  In a game that saw the Jets beat the Senators 5-0, Wheeler had a point on all but one of the goals, putting up one goal and three assists.  He had a beautiful cross ice pass to set up Mark Scheifele on the first goal of the night and the Jets never looked back tallying three of their goals on the power play.

Wheeler has passed Steven Stamkos to take the league lead in assists with 28 and has helped power the Jets to the top of the Western Conference, something few expected as the season began.

 Team of the Week: Los Angeles Kings

Just when it looked like the Kings might be fading after a hot start, they went 4-0 this week and moved six points ahead of the second-place Vegas Golden Knights in the Pacific Division, exactly as the media expected before the season began, right?  The Kings won the first three of those games by three goals each.

After one period of play in their Tuesday game in Detroit, the Kings found themselves down 1-0, but Dustin Brown, who has had a heck of a comeback season, evened it up at 1 and Anze Kopitar then put them ahead 2-1 before the second period was over.  LA would add two more in the third on goals from Adrian Kempe and Kopitar’s second of the night.

Next up for the Kings was another road game against the Caps.  Again, the Kings gave up an early lead on a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Marian Gaborik would even it up, only for Kuznetsov to get a second goal.  Jonny Brodzinski would tie it again and nine seconds later Jussi Jokinen would put the Kings ahead.  After that, it was all Kings.

The Kings continued their road trip Friday with a visit to play the St. Louis Blues, one of the best teams in the league to this point in the season.  This time the Kings got the early lead on a Tyler Toffoli tally. Kopitar would then bang home a rebound to make it 2-0.  Before it was over, Kempe and Toffoli would add goals and the Kings would win 4-1 despite being outshot 40-28 on a stellar performance by backup goaltender, Darcy Kuemper.

The Kings finished their week and their road trip in Chicago on Sunday.  Through two periods the game was scoreless.  Christian Folin finally put the Kings up with just over 10 minutes left in the game.  Then things got a little weird with just over two minutes left in the game.  First, Brown would get an empty net goal.  Then the Hawks would answer on a goal from Jonathan Toews with 1:46 left to end Quick’s shutout bid.  But Kopitar would put the final nail in the coffin with 51.5 seconds left in the game with a final empty net goal.

As long as the Kings continue to get these types of performances from Brown, Kopitar and solid goaltending, they will have a very good chance to lock down the Pacific Division.

Game of the Week: Edmonton Oilers 7 @ Calgary Flames 5, Saturday, December 2, 2017

One of the first NHL games I can remember watching on TV was Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers against Lanny McDonald’s Flames.  This game was a throwback to that era when goalies for some reason spent much of their time standing up and, consequently, watching pucks go past them.  This is the type of game you hope to see with all of the offensive talent on these two teams and the reason you stay up to watch the late game on Hockey Night in Canada if you live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Connor McDavid skated around the Flames zone early and his persistence led to Jesse Puljujarvi cashing in on the rebound. The Oilers then had what looked like their second goal of the night from Patrick Maroon taken off the board as the goal was kicked.  Eric Gryba then set up Puljujarvi for his second of the night on a redirection of Gryba’s point shot.

Mikael Backlund then forced a turnover on the penalty kill that set up Michael Frolik for a short-handed goal to pull the Flames within one goal.  But the Oilers scored again before the first period ended to go up 3-1.  In the second period, Mark Letestu scored on a short-handed breakaway to expand Edmonton’s lead.  Gryba made another shot from the point which was tipped in, this time by Milan Lucic, to go up 5-1.

As the third period started, Mike Smith was replaced in net by David Rittich.  Unfortunately for the Flames, Rittich bungled a handoff behind the net and the Oilers capitalized to go up 6-1.  One might assume this is where the Flames might call it a night.  But Sam Bennett made a tough angle shot to get the score to 6-2.  Next, Micheal Ferland notched a power play goal to bring the Flames within three goals.  Bennett added a second goal on a 2-on-1 where he took the puck top shelf.  Suddenly the score was 6-4 with a lot of time left in the game.  Johnny Gaudreau then made another tough angled shot off a stretch pass, taking advantage of young Oilers netminder, Laurent Brossoit.  The impossible seemed possible with the score 6-5.  But Brossoit would make a key save on Gaudreau on a two-on-one to prevent the tying goal.

With 1:01 left, the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tried to center a pass, but it bounced into the net off T.J. Brodie’s stick to salt away the win for Edmonton by a final of 7-5.  While the Flames couldn’t quite finish their comeback, it was the sort of game that reminded you why the Battle of Alberta was once such a big deal.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Trade Rumors seem to be starting earlier than normal and we have already seen one blockbuster and several smaller trades.

This past week saw Anaheim and New Jersey make a significant hockey trade if not a true blockbuster.  The Ducks sent right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional pick to the Devils in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.  The move was a much-needed improvement on the back end for the Devils, who are one of the surprises of the early season.  As for the Ducks, with Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler still out, Henrique can help at center and, when they return, he can provide forward depth.

Who is next?

Well, the name that seemed to be coming up repeatedly during the past week was Pittsburgh’s Ian Cole.  The left-handed defenseman was a healthy scratch and several sources had stated that his relationship with Mike Sullivan had been rocky, leading the Pens to consider a trade.  However, their asking price may be higher than what a willing buyer will give them for Cole—Pittsburgh is still seeking an improvement at center for their third line after Riley Sheahan has failed to impress.  Toronto is a destination that has been mentioned with Tyler Bozak falling out of favor and the Leafs wanting to upgrade their defense, but to this point nothing seems imminent.

The Edmonton Oilers have also been frequently mentioned in trade rumors.  While Ryan Nugent-Hopkins name has probably been mentioned the most, more recently the Oilers have been mentioned in connection with smaller trades that might see them shipping out the likes of Pat Maroon.  It is hard to see how Maroon would produce the sort of return that might get the Oilers back into contention in the Western Conference.

Another name that has been brought up repeatedly is Evander Kane.  Buffalo is one of the few teams clearly out of the hunt at this early date, but it seems most likely they will wait until the deadline to move Kane when they might extract the highest possible return for the wing, who will be a free agent this summer.

December 2 – Day 59 – My exes used to live in Texas

Welcome to another Saturday in the NHL. With everybody else watching the college football conference championships, that leaves more hockey for you and me.

Oh, that’s not how television works?

While I get that figured out, the first Saturday of December brings with it a big bag of presents from the NHL, as there’s a dozen games on today’s schedule. The action starts at 1 p.m. with Boston at Philadelphia (SN), followed by the only other matinee of the day: St. Louis at Minnesota at 6 p.m. The usual 7 p.m. starting time is chock-full of action with six games (Toronto at Vancouver [CBC/CITY], Detroit at Montréal [SN/TVAS], San Jose at Tampa Bay, Buffalo at Pittsburgh [NHLN], Columbus at Washington and Florida at Carolina) slated to drop the puck, with two more (New Jersey at Arizona and Anaheim at Nashville) in tow an hour later. 9 p.m. marks the start of Chicago at Dallas, while tonight’s nightcap – Edmonton at Calgary – will get underway 60 minutes after. All times Eastern.

What a collection of games! All but two matchups are between teams separated by eight points or less in the standings. As for our Game of the Day, I had a few picked out at the start of season…

  • Boston at Philadelphia: Ever since the Flyers beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals to become the first expansion team to win a title, these clubs have not gotten along.
  • St. Louis at Minnesota: Speaking of playoff rematches, this one was far more recent – as in, last year’s Western Conference Quarterfinals, recent.
  • Detroit at Montréal: To keep the Stanley Cup theme going, no clubs have hoisted the trophy more than these two Original Six teams.
  • Anaheim at Nashville: The Ducks and Predators squared off in a gritty, nasty seven-game series for the right to represent the Western Conference in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.
  • Chicago at Dallas: F Patrick Sharp‘s two tenures with the Blackhawks was divided by two seasons spent with the Stars. Tonight marks his first trip back to Texas since moving back to the Windy City.
  • Edmonton at Calgary: In this rivalry, the teams don’t only represent only themselves, but also a stark feud between two Albertan cities.

Let me say it again for everybody in the back: What. A slate. Of games.

This is a tough pick today, because I don’t like featuring the same teams all the time (*cough* take a hint NBC and NHL *cough*). That being said, the contest that attracts my attention the most is taking place in the Lone Star State.

 

For those concerned, I’m not drawn to this game simply because of the Sharp story, though I suppose it is one worth noting.

After being a third-round pick by Philadelphia in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Sharp was traded to the Blackhawks during the 2005-’06. He would proceed to play 10 seasons in Chicago, scoring 511 points – including 239 goals – over 679 games en route to three Stanley Cup championships.

As seems to be the case following many championship seasons nowadays, Chicago faced some serious salary cap issues after the 2014-’15 season, which led to Sharp and D Stephen Johns getting shipped to Dallas in exchange for D Trevor Daley and C Ryan Garbutt.

Sharp spent the last two seasons with the Stars, but they only really got one good season out of him. During the 2015-’16 campaign, the forward provided 20-35-55 totals to help get Dallas back to the playoffs for only the second time since the 2007-’08 season when the Stars were Western Conference finalists.

Unfortunately, Sharp’s second season with the club was nowhere near as good as his first. Limited to a measly 48 games, he provided Dallas only 18 points and a -22 rating as the Stars failed to earn a postseason berth. Though I’m not going to argue that Sharp is the reason the Stars struggled last year (*cough* G Kari Lehtonen and G Antti Niemi *cough*), he was not renewed for this season, allowing him to return to his beloved Blackhawks on a one-year contract.

So far, Sharp has been rather uninspiring from Chicago’s third line, as he’s managed only 3-4-7 totals playing alongside young studs F Alex DeBrincat (11-8-19) and F Ryan Hartman (4-9-13). Considering he’ll turn 36-years-old before you hang up your 2018 calendar, his recent bodies of work might force him to consider the dreaded “R” word once this campaign is through.

In the meantime, he’ll try to help his 12-9-4 Hawks get back into the Western Conference playoff picture.

Figuring out why Chicago is on the outside looking in is a difficult task. After all, they back up a ninth-ranked offense (3.16 goals-per-game) with an even better defense (2.68 goals against-per-game) that’s ranked fifth-best in the NHL.

One of my biggest complaints with the Blackhawks is their incredibly unsuccessful power play. Converting only 17.1 percent of their man-advantage opportunities, the Hawks are tied with San Jose for the eighth-worst extra-man attack in the NHL.

This struggle has led Head Coach Joel Quenneville to try some crazy units to resolve his club’s problem. As of Friday’s practice, DeBrincat, D Gustav Forsling, D Duncan Keith, RW Richard Panik and C Jonathan Toews made up Chicago’s top power play team, with F Artem Anisimov, D Cody Franson, F Patrick Kane, W Brandon Saad and F Nick Schmaltz taking second-team duties.

Let’s see, what’s weird about Chicago’s first unit? Oh, maybe that there’s a rookie earning solid power play minutes alongside two defensemen… or maybe that Kane isn’t on the unit…

Like I said, crazy things.

One thing I really like about putting Anisimov, Kane and Schmaltz on the same unit is that it puts Kane in what I’m considering the “joker” position. Take into account that all seven of Anisimov’s power play points are goals (the most on the team), while all five of Schmaltz’ are assists – that makes them a logical pair.

Meanwhile, Showtime has earned a team-leading nine points this season with the man-advantage, but only two of them have been goals. Of course, with 295 career regular season goals to his name, Kane is far from a “pass first” player. Putting Kane with Anisimov and Schmaltz, he’s able to take on the role of goal-scorer or join Schmaltz as another play-maker.

If I’m an opposing goaltender, in this case G Ben Bishop, that versatility is a very scary threat.

Meanwhile, things seem like they’re going 14-10-1 Dallas’ way. They’re currently riding a three-game winning streak, including a 4-3 overtime victory over these Blackhawks Thursday night (more on that later).

We came into the season celebrating what the Stars’ offense could be capable of with LW Jamie Benn, RW Alexander Radulov and F Tyler Seguin combining to form an ultimate super-line. Instead, the story of late has been Dallas’ defense, which has allowed only seven goals since November 24, the (t)second-fewest in that time span.

12-7-0 Bishop has been solid over this run – he’s managed a .925 save percentage in these last three games – but I’ve been much more impressed with the defensive corps playing in front of him.

Behind the unexpected leadership of D Greg Pateryn – who’s thrown eight hits and blocked seven shots during this run – from the second defensive pair, Dallas’ D- corps has allowed only 94 shots to reach Bishop in the past week, the third-fewest in the NHL.

What makes this game especially fun – you know, beyond the Blackhawks trying to get past Dallas for fourth place in the Central Division – is that it’s a rematch of Thursday’s matchup. In that game, F Mattias Janmark scored two goals – including the game-winner – to earn the Stars a 4-3 overtime victory against the Hawks at the United Center. Something tells me Chicago would like to return the favor of sending the home fans at the American Airlines Center away unhappy.

That being said, I’m leaning towards the Stars taking this contest with their excellent defense.


The Los Angeles Kings showed no mercy in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they beat the St. Louis Blues 4-1 at Scottrade Center.

In fact, the Kings were so on top of their game that they registered their game-winning goal before a full seven minutes had ticked off the clock. First Star of the Game F Tyler Toffoli (C Nick Shore and LW Tanner Pearson) opened the scoring with a wrist shot 1:43 after the opening puck drop, followed 4:29 later by Third Star C Anze Kopitar‘s (F Alex Iafallo and D Jake Muzzin) fourth game-clincher of the year.

The play that led to Kopitar’s goal stretched the entire length of the rink. Muzzin started with the puck in his own defensive zone and fed a quick pass to Kopitar at the red line. Once he established the offensive zone, Kopitar dished to Iafallo along the right boards, who fired a snap shot towards G Carter Hutton. Hutts made the save with his pads, but the rebound bounced right to the Slovenian, who deftly pocketed his wrister in the back of the net.

St. Louis finally got on its shiny new scoreboard with 4:43 remaining in the second period courtesy of a power play deflection from F Patrik Berglund (D Colton Parayko and D Vince Dunn), his first goal of the season. Unfortunately for the Notes, that positive momentum was erased 3:39 later when F Adrian Kempe (D Alec Martinez and D Drew Doughty) set the score at 3-1 going into the second intermission.

Only one goal was struck in the third period, but it was enough to signal defeat to the home fans. Toffoli (Pearson and Muzzin) scored his second goal of the game with a deflection 9:06 before the end of regulation, setting the 4-1 final score.

Second Star G Darcy Kuemper earned the victory after saving 39-of-40 shots faced (.975 save percentage), leaving the loss to Hutton, who saved 18-of-21 (.857) before being pulled in favor of G Jake Allen for the third period. Allen saved six-of-seven (857) for no decision.

Los Angeles’ road victory snaps a six-game winning streak by home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series, but the visitors still trail the 33-20-6 hosts by 15 points.

November 28 – Day 55 – Welcome to Smashville

If you’re a hockey fan and don’t look forward to Tuesdays, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. This is one of the busiest and most exciting days of the week!

The final Tuesday of November is no exception, as the NHL as scheduled 10 games to take place today. Like it usually does on a weeknight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with five contests (Tampa Bay at Buffalo, Vancouver at the New York Islanders, Florida at the New York Rangers [TVAS], San Jose at Philadelphia and Carolina at Columbus), trailed half an hour later by Los Angeles at Detroit. Chicago at Nashville (NBCSN) drops the puck at 8 p.m., with two more tilts (Toronto at Calgary and Arizona at Edmonton) in tow an hour after. Finally, tonight’s nightcap finds its start at 10 p.m. when Dallas visits Vegas (SN1). All times Eastern.

Like every busy day, I have already circled a few games on my personal calendar (it’s actually an Excel spreadsheet, if we want to get really technical).

  • Chicago at Nashville: This rematch of a Western Quarterfinal has already occurred twice this season, but it’s yielded two stellar games.
  • Dallas at Vegas: D Marc Methot was a Vegas Golden Knight for five days this offseason before being traded to Dallas. But what a Knight he was!

Since the Chicago-Nashville series has already yielded two stellar games this season, I see no reason why we shouldn’t expect a third.

 

Somehow, 14-6-3 Nashville having only a four-point advantage over the 12-8-3 Blackhawks in the Central Division still undersells how competitive the games between these teams have been.

As hinted at before, these clubs are already well into their season series, having already played two of their four games this year. Game 1 at the United Center went the way of Chicago thanks to an overtime goal by W Brandon Saad, but home ice didn’t work in the Blackhawks’ favor 13 days later when the Predators beat them 2-1 on G Pekka Rinne‘s almost-perfect night. Those results mean Nashville has a 1-0-1 advantage against the Hawks so far this year.

Exactly one month has passed since the Predators made their second trip to the Windy City, but not much has changed in either team’s style. Nashville still plays stellar defense backed by Rinne – though the Preds’ offense has climbed to 11th-best in the NHL – while the Hawks continue to rely on the incredible play of G Corey Crawford to find wins.

Let’s jump into that for a minute, starting with tonight’s hosts, who currently occupy third place in the Central Division.

Averaging only 31.3 shots against-per-game to rank 11th-best in the NHL, the Predators play an above average defense that isn’t enough to write home about.

That being said, above-average is all Head Coach Peter Laviolette really needs when he has 13-3-2 Rinne in goal. It seems the Finn has finally bucked the trend of the past five seasons where he alternated yearly between success and misery, as he has followed up last season’s .918 save percentage and 2.42 GAA with superior .926 and 2.31 marks this campaign. Under Rinne’s leadership, the Predators have allowed only 2.78 goals against-per-game to rank ninth-best in the NHL.

Knowing Rinne can effectively dominate the defensive end on his own means the Preds’ blueliners can turn their attention to contributing on the offensive end. As such, defensemen Mattias Ekholm (6-9-15 totals), Roman Josi (5-10-15) and P.K. Subban (4-14-18) have all earned at least 15 points to rank among Nashville’s top-six point-earners. Mix in the incredible F Filip Forsberg (11-13-24 totals), and you have an offense that averages an 11th-best 3.09 goals-per-game.

No discussion about the Preds’ offense is complete without mentioning their special teams, as Nashville is home to the third-best power play in the NHL and best in the Western Conference. Of the players listed above, Forsberg and Subban are the brightest when the Predators have the man-advantage as both have at least nine power play points. The forward deserves special recognition for his seven power play goals, as he’s tied with the likes of C Sean Monahan, F T.J. Oshie and C Steven Stamkos for most in the NHL.

Facing the tall task of taking down a very complete team are the Blackhawks, who could use two points to hold off three teams trying to move into the top wild card position Chicago currently occupies.

When Chicago is at the top of its game, it’s the toughest team to score against in the division, as the Hawks allow only 2.61 goals against-per-game to rank fourth-best in the NHL. A major reason for that success has been the brilliant play of 11-7-1 Crawford, who has managed a .933 save percentage and 2.21 GAA (both second-best among goaltenders with at least 18 starts) behind a defense that allows a fourth-worst 34.1 shots against-per-game.

Unfortunately for Chicago, it seems unlikely that Crawford will see the ice tonight, as he played to 7-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks last night at the United Center. Instead, the start will probably go to 1-1-2 G Anton Forsberg, who has earned only a .904 save percentage and 3.81 GAA.

I was surprised to see Crawford given last night’s start, considering the injury-riddled Ducks sport an offense vastly inferior to Nashville’s. Forsberg will need to put up a performance similar to his 40-for-42 (.952 save percentage) showing against the Oilers on October 19 to give the Hawks a chance in this game.

Since the odds of that aren’t exactly likely, the onus falls on Chicago’s eighth-ranked offense to find a way to earn a victory.

Usually this is when most would start talking about F Patrick Kane and C Jonathan Toews – and with good reason. Kane has managed 9-16-25 totals to lead the team, followed by Toews’ 6-10-16 effort for third-most points on the team.

However, it would be highly irresponsible to not highlight rookie F Alex DeBrincat. Having yet to celebrate his 20th birthday, DeBrincat has earned the second-most points for the Blackhawks this season with his 10-7-17 totals and is coming off the game of his life. Yesterday against Anaheim, the youngster had a four-point night that included the first hat trick of his career. Whether or not he can duplicate at least half of that effort tonight could determine the result of this contest.

If Vegas (the bettors, not the Golden Knights) is right, the Predators should be in line for a win tonight, as they’re favored at a -160 money line by most bookies. I’m siding with the bookies on this one since I believe Head Coach Joel Quenneville made a mistake in playing Crawford last night against the Ducks. The Predators’ offense should feast on A. Forsberg tonight.


In a game chock-full of momentum swings, the Pittsburgh Penguins emerged from overtime at PPG Paints Arena victorious over the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

All in all, the game started calmly enough with only one goal struck in the first period. First Star of the Game F Jake Guentzel (D Justin Schultz and G Matthew Murray) is the guilty party, as his snap shot with 3:57 remaining before the first intermission gave Pittsburgh the lead.

It was in the second period when all heck broke loose, which played right into the hands of the Flyers. For starters, both D Brian Dumoulin and D Olli Maatta earned seats in the penalty box to allow D Shayne Gostisbehere (F Nolan Patrick and F Claude Giroux) to score a five-on-three power play slap shot 3:40 into the frame. Philadelphia then took the lead with 4:55 remaining in the second period courtesy of a F Travis Konecny (D Brandon Manning and Third Star W Michael Raffl) tip-in.

The next major play took place only 34 seconds after Konecny’s goal, but it won’t show up on the score sheet. RW Jakub Voracek blew an edge and crashed into Murray with, according to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his skates directed towards the netminder’s midsection. Whatever the injury was, it forced G Tristan Jarry to enter the game, who proceed to allow C Sean Couturier (D Ivan Provorov and Giroux) to set the score at 3-1 with 32 seconds remaining before the second intermission.

It seems power play goals are the way to steal momentum, because that’s exactly how RW Patric Hornqvist (Guentzel and Second Star C Sidney Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within a goal 67 seconds into the third period. The Penguins completed their comeback 39 seconds later courtesy of a W Bryan Rust wrist shot.

Courtesy of an unassisted backhanded shot by Raffl, Philly reclaimed a one-goal lead with 3:41 remaining in regulation to put the pressure on the hosts, but the Pens were up to the task. Guentzel (Schultz and Crosby) leveled the game at four-all with 64 seconds remaining before the final horn to force three-on-three overtime.

The overtime period lasted only 1:48 before Crosby (D Kris Letang and RW Phil Kessel) top-shelfed a redirection to win the game. Following Kessel returning the puck to the point while the Penguins were still on a four-on-three power play, Letang blasted a clapper intentionally wide of the goal to Crosby, who was waiting near the right post, at the same time the door opened to allow Voracek back onto the ice. The captain angled his stick just right to elevate the shot over G Brian Elliott and into the top of the netting.

Jarry earned the victory after saving eight-of-10 shots faced (.8 save percentage) in place of Murray, who saved 20-of-22 (.909) before exiting the game. Elliott, DtFR’s honorary Fourth Star, takes the overtime loss after saving 47-of-52 (.904).

Don’t all look at once, but home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are now riding a three-game winning streak. That elevates the hosts’ record to 30-19-6, which is 11 points better than the visitors’.

November 15 – Day 43 – Heading in opposite directions

We’re halfway through the month of November and only a week away from American Thanksgiving, an important benchmark in the NHL for separating the men from the boys in terms of probable playoff teams. Though it wouldn’t seem it with over four months of play remaining, this is a pivotal week.

Calgary makes its yearly visit to Detroit (SN/TVAS) to get this stretch started at 7:30 p.m., followed half an hour later by the New York Rangers at Chicago (NBCSN). Finally, this evening’s nightcap of Boston at Anaheim (SN360) will drop the puck at 10 p.m. to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

All three games should be very competitive, as they are being contested by opponents separated by only two points or less in the league table. That being said, there’s going to be no game more exciting than the one between Original Six clubs taking place in the Windy City.

 

I apparently really like these Central vs. Metropolitan matchups, because this is the fourth game we’ve featured between these two divisions in the last five days.

9-7-2 New York’s wild ride through the month of November continues since the last time it was featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Starting with Halloween night against the Golden Knights, the Rangers have yet to drop a point in any of their past six contests, including tilts against Tampa Bay (you know, the best team in the NHL) and Columbus.

In fact, the Blueshirts have played so well they’ve converted their goal-differential, which was once an ugly -10 on October 23, into a positive number for the first time this season. And with that success, the Rangers find themselves in a tie with their crosstown rivals for eighth-place in the Eastern Conference.

This may seem elementary, but the best way to improve a goal differential – and by default, win – usually involves burying some goals. Offense has been all the rage at Madison Square Garden lately, as the Rangers have scored a league-high 26 goals since October 31, averaging 4.33 per game.

In the league-wide list of top-10 point earners since Halloween, there is only one defenseman listed: Kevin Shattenkirk. Managing 3-5-8 totals in his past six games, the New Rochelle, N.Y. native and first-year Ranger has been a major driver in this surge. Of note, half his points – both for the season and during this run – have come on the power play (an effort the Rangers rank third-best for the season with a 25.8 percent conversion rate), indicating his impact in all situations.

Not to be overshadowed too much, top-line C Mika Zibanejad has also earned eight points over this stretch, but he’s been earning his pay more as a play-maker than a goalscorer, as he’s buried only one goal in this stretch. His favorite player to assist of late has been sophomore W Pavel Buchnevich, who has scored four goals in six games – an effort eclipsed only by fourth-liner W Michael Grabner.

It’s also been a tale of two months for the 8-8-2 Blackhawks, but they’re not exactly as happy with the change as the Blueshirts. Going back to October 24’s 4-2 loss in Vegas, Chicago is an uninspiring 3-6-0. That includes losses to the Avalanche, Canadiens and Flyers, who among them have a combined 24-24-5 record and a -15 goal-differential.

What should be truly concerning for the Blackhawks is their record in meaningful games since April 1 of last season. They went 0-2-2 to finish out the 2016-’17 regular season campaign, followed by an 0-3-1 performance in the playoffs. Add that in with this year’s record and Chicago has gone 8-13-5 in its last 26 competitive matches.

If this is an April Fools’ Day joke, it should go down in the Guinness World Records as the longest and most convoluted, because this Hawks team should be in much better position than 11th in the Western Conference.

After all, the Hawks boast players such as F Patrick Kane (winner of 2016’s Hart, Lindsay and Ross Trophies), D Duncan Keith (a two-time Norris Trophy winner) and C Jonathan Toews (the 2013 Selke Trophy winner), all of whom have thrice hoisted the Stanley Cup.

What’s most frustrating is that the Hawks aren’t really doing anything wrong statistically. Sure, the offense’s 2.94 goals-per-game for the season could technically be better (it’s only [t]13th-best in the league, after all), but allowing a (t)ninth-fewest 2.72 goals against-per-game should be more than enough to keep Chicago competitive.

Of course, season averages have a way of camouflaging recent momentum – or lack thereof. Since October 24, the Blackhawks have scored only 21 goals, tying Detroit for sixth-fewest in that stretch.

Perhaps the most telling point about this squad during this nine-game stretch is that W Alex DeBrincat, a rookie on the third line, is leading the attack with his 5-2-7 totals (6-5-11 for the season), followed close behind by F Artem Anisimov‘s – a player that’s never scored more than 45 points in a season – 5-1-6 effort. Not Kane; not Toews; heck, not even W Brandon Saad.

DeBrincat and Anisimov.

Head Coach Joel Quenneville will never complain about depth scoring. Depth scoring is one of the top things that separates the best teams in this league from pretenders. But you can’t have depth scorers without stars like Kane and Toews doing their jobs as the primary forwards. Until they rediscover their groove, Chicago will continue to struggle.

It’s with that in mind that I’m forced to favor the Rangers in this contest. Though I’m sure G Corey Crawford – who’s having a Vezina-caliber season so far – will prove a solid test against New York’s red-hot offense, I don’t think the Blackhawks’ offense will be able to break through G Henrik Lundqvist and his defense.


A combined seven goals were struck in the second period of yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, but the Nashville Predators weathered the storm to beat the Washington Capitals 6-3 at Bridgestone Arena.

Though the middle act of this three-ring circus was the wildest, the first period still provided some excitement for the home fans when F Craig Smith (First Star of the Game LW Kevin Fiala and D Anthony Bitetto) scored a tip-in with 8:12 remaining before the first intermission. 5:55 later, Third Star C Nick Bonino (D Roman Josi and F Calle Jarnkrok) doubled the Preds’ advantage to 2-0.

It took only 6:28 of play in the second period for the Caps to level the game. Aided by Jarnkrok earning a seat in the penalty box for hooking him 45 seconds earlier, F T.J. Oshie (D John Carlson and F Evgeny Kuznetsov) scored Washington’s first goal of the night at the 4:29 mark with a power play tip-in. 1:59 later, RW Alex Chiasson (W Brett Connolly and Carlson) tied the game at two-all with a slap shot. That tie lasted exactly 17 seconds before F Filip Forsberg buried an unassisted wrist shot to reclaim a lead for Nashville.

Scoring subsided for almost two-and-a-half minutes before Fiala (Second Star D Mattias Ekholm) decided to get things ramped back up with a tip-in that proved to be the game-winner at the 9:04 mark to set the score at 4-2, but his tally was quickly answered by Oshie’s (F Chandler Stephenson and C Nicklas Backstrom) wrister 17 seconds later to pull Washington back within a 4-3 deficit.

Now that we’ve reached the midway point of the frame, let’s take a second and recap: five goals have already been scored in this second period! There’s still 10 more minutes to play! Meanwhile, the last three teams to face Wild G Devan Dubnyk have not been able to score even one goal against him.

Hockey is a fickle game.

Anyways, only two more goals were struck in the period, and they both belonged to the Preds. W Miikka Salomaki (C Colton Sissons and D Matt Irwin) scored his second goal of the season with 5:54 remaining in the frame, and Ekholm (C Kyle Turris and Sissons) finished the period off with a power play clapper two minutes before the second intermission.

It seems both teams used up all their offense in the second period, because not a single goal was struck in the third period. That left G Pekka Rinne with the victory after saving 26-of-29 shots faced (.897 save percentage) and G Braden Holtby, who saved 19-of-25 (.76), with the loss. Holtby was lifted for G Philipp Grubauer at the start of the third period, and he saved all six shots he faced.

Nashville’s victory is the second-straight by the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. With their record now improved to 22-16-5, hosts now own a four-point advantage over the roadies.

October 24 – Day 21 – It’s Showtime in Las Vegas

It’s been a few days since we’ve had a busy schedule, but Tuesday fixes that by bringing us almost a dozen contests.

As it usually does, tonight’s action finds its start at 7 p.m. with four puck-drops (Arizona at the New York Islanders, Anaheim at Philadelphia, Edmonton at Pittsburgh [SN1/TVAS] and Tampa Bay at Carolina), with another set of three games (Detroit at Buffalo [NBCSN], Florida at Montréal [RDS/TSN2] and Los Angeles at Ottawa [RDSI]) waiting half an hour before getting underway. 8 p.m. brings with the start of two more games (Calgary at Nashville and Vancouver at Minnesota), trailed by Dallas at Colorado at 9 p.m. and Chicago at Vegas an hour after that to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

It’s hard to believe, but W Thomas Vanek hasn’t been back to Xcel Energy Center since being bought out following the 2015-’16 season. Though it might be fun to see him take on his former team, I’m actually more interested in tonight’s activities in the desert.

 

 

 

 

 

These two teams that are both second place in their respective divisions have become DtFR Game of the Day series favorites, as they’ve been featured a total of six times before tonight. So, when the Blackhawks make their first-ever trip to Sin City, what else are we supposed to do besides focus on their matchup?

Things have changed quite a lot for the 6-1-0 Golden Knights since the last time we featured them when they opened T-Mobile Arena to a 5-2 victory. For starters, they’ve actually lost a game (darn those Red Wings and their sneaky offense), but more importantly, it was that contest that cost them their starting goaltender.

G Marc-Andre Fleury was off to an impressive start with his new team, managing a .925 save percentage and 2.48 GAA through four games played. But in that Detroit game, he suffered a concussion that has sent him to injured reserve with no timetable for his return.

That’s pretty disappointing for an expansion team that’s proving everybody wrong. But, the story unfortunately takes another turn for the worse.

In the Golden Knights’ last game played on Saturday against the Blues, G Malcolm Subban – who himself was also off to a solid start to the season, managing a .936 save percentage and 2.06 GAA after being waived by Boston at the start of the year – suffered a lower-body injury that has also landed him on injured reserve for the next four weeks.

To put it lightly, things could be going a lot better in the Knights’ crease. Who is next up for a franchise that didn’t have a single player four months ago?

I’d put my money on G Oscar Dansk, who I expect will be making his first-ever NHL start tonight. He was the one who completed the Blues game for Subban. His career had a rough start, as the first shot he faced was a D Alex Pietrangelo game-tying slap shot, but he quickly rebounded to save the remaining 10 shots he faced in that game to win it in overtime.

But here’s the problem for Dansk: the Blues’ offense is nowhere near as successful as Chicago’s. Though the Hawks fire only a 10th-fewest 30.7 shots per game, they’re pretty accurate with those attempts, scoring a seventh-best 3.56 goals per game.

At the forefront of that attack is none other than Showtime himself, F Patrick Kane. Though he hasn’t scored the most goals on Chicago’s roster (that honor belongs to W Brandon Saad, who’s managed six in nine games played), his 4-7-11 totals are certainly best on the team.

And to think Kane, W Ryan Hartman and C Nick Schmaltz only play on the Hawks’ second line. There’s a whole ‘nother line of scoring studs Dansk has to worry about. With the likes of C Jonathan Toews and his 3-5-8 totals leading that charge, Dansk may just fall asleep in his crease at the completion of this game out of sheer exhaustion.

Assuming Dansk can hold his own, we’d be remiss not to at least discuss the play of G Corey Crawford. He’s been nothing short of exceptional, as his .945 save percentage and 1.86 GAA are both best in the league among netminders with at least four starts. If W James Neal (6-2-8 totals), W Reilly Smith (2-5-7) and co. can manage to get past him, they’ll deserve every bit of praise heaped on them.

Goaltending and clutch scoring have been the main reasons the Golden Knights have found success so far this season. Though it’s no fault of 23-year-old Dansk, he’s no Subban – much less Fleury. Upsets happen all over this league, but I think the Blackhawks will be very disappointed if they don’t depart Fabulous Las Vegas with two points in hand.


Scoring a goal per period was the plan for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they executed it to a T to beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 at the Air Canada Centre in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The first period’s goal was struck 5:46 into the game from the unlikeliest of sources. Scoring his first of the season, W Matt Martin (D Roman Polak and First Star of the Game F Mitch Marner) buried a slap shot on G Jonathan Quick to give Toronto a lead it would not yield.

A power play wrist shot from C Tyler Bozak (LW James van Riemsdyk and Marner) with 5:16 remaining in the second period doubled the Leafs’ advantage to 2-0, but F Adrian Kempe (F Trevor Lewis and D Drew Doughty) pulled the Kings back within a goal 58 seconds later with a wrister of his own.

At the 2:54 mark of the final period, F Patrick Marleau (D Morgan Rielly and C Nazem Kadri) found what proved to be the Maple Leafs’ winning goal. Unable to corral a centering pass from Marleau in front of Quick’s crease, Kadri collected the loose puck in the far corner and sent it to Rielly at the point. From there, the blue liner one-timed a snapper well above the crossbar, but Marleau was there to deflect the offering past Quick’s right shoulder and into the net.

Third Star F Trevor Lewis found the back of Second Star G Frederik Andersen‘s net with 7:41 remaining in regulation with a backhanded shot, but Los Angeles could not find a leveling goal in the remaining time.

Andersen earned the victory after saving 36-of-38 shots faced (.947 save percentage), leaving the loss to Quick, who saved 30-of-33 (.909).

Toronto’s home win snaps a four-game winning streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The hosts now have an 11-6-4 record that is four points better than the roadies.

October 14 – Day 11 – Sweep, sweep revenge

It’s another great day (well, night, technically speaking) in the world of hockey, as there’s a whopping 14 games on the schedule.

With no matinees, we have to wait until 7 p.m. to get the action started. It turns out to be well worth the wait, as there’s six contests (Carolina at Winnipeg [CITY/SN1], Toronto at Montréal [CBC/NHLN/TVAS], St. Louis at Tampa Bay, New Jersey at the New York Rangers, Washington at Philadelphia and Florida at Pittsburgh) on tap with another pair (Colorado at Dallas and Columbus at Minnesota) an hour later. 8:30 p.m. marks the puck drop for Nashville at Chicago, followed half an hour later by Boston at Arizona, and then the West Coast gets involved with two games (Calgary at Vancouver [CITY/SN1] and Ottawa at Edmonton [CBC/TVAS]) at 10 p.m. and another couple (Buffalo at Los Angeles and the New York Islanders at San Jose) 30 minutes after. All times Eastern.

There’s a good reason to watch almost every fixture on tap this evening. Here’s a few I’ve thought of…

  • Toronto at Montréal: This is way more than an Original Six rivalry.
  • New Jersey at New York: Speaking of rivalries… Battle of the Hudson River, anyone?
  • Washington at Philadelphia: Is there a team in Pennsylvania that doesn’t have a rivalry with the Capitals?
  • Nashville at Chicago: If anyone has forgotten the Predators made the Stanley Cup Finals last season, it’s definitely not the Hawks.
  • Calgary at Vancouver: It’s rivalry night in Western Canada.

We’ve made an unfortunate habit of repeating teams rather quickly lately, but there’s one must-watch game that sticks out above the rest.

 

Just in case you’ve forgotten, the Predators’ run to the finals began in Chicago, where they beat the Blackhawks in a tight 1-0 game. Then they won again, this time by a much more commanding 5-0.

And then the series went to the Bridgestone Center, where the Preds won 3-2 in a tight Game 3 that required overtime. And, of course, Smashville completed the sweep with a dominating 4-1 victory in Game 4.

But you knew all that.

Though I needed to look up the scores to those games, I’ll bet G Corey Crawford, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and every other hockey player from the Windy City can recite all those numbers without blinking, and will be able to until they reach their graves.

It’s that burning desire for revenge that makes this game so exciting. It’s that rare instance where, no matter what any coach says otherwise, what happened last year may actually have an impact on how tonight plays out.

Scoring only three goals last postseason – including getting shutout twice – the Blackhawks will be expected to show no mercy this evening when they have the puck on their stick. Though the usual culprits of Kane and Toews are always important to defend especially well, Nashville will also have its hands full with prodigal son Brandon Saad and 23-year-old Ryan Hartman.

Led by Hartman’s eight points (2-6-8 totals), those top four Blackhawks forwards have combined for 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 total points. Add in the fact that the other two players that complete the top two lines, Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik, are no slouches either and the Predators’ defense will certainly be busy.

Similar to Chicago wanting to exact revenge, the Predators will try to use this game to really get back into the groove they found last postseason.

It took Nashville a couple games to get their skates under them this season, as they started with an 0-2-0 record. But, since then, the Predators have won two-straight, most recently a 4-1 victory over Dallas Thursday.

A year after their defense was all the rage, it’s been the Preds’ offensive prowess that has really stolen the limelight so far this season – even if a lot of that offense has come from a defenseman. Currently, both Filip Forsberg and P.K. Subban spearhead the team with six points apiece, more than enough to lead the club towards an 11th-best 2.9 goals-per-game.

But it’s truly a full effort from the entire top line that is making this club tick right now. With a second line consisting of Scott Hartnell, Nick Bonino and Pontus Aberg (they’ve combined for only five points), the Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidson ensemble that has already managed 13 points is going to be expected to produce until the former builds more chemistry.

There’s a lot more to this game than what’s on paper – unless of course you’re reading a recap from their playoff series last season. That being said, I feel pretty confident in picking the Blackhawks to take two points at home.


The offensive powerhouse that is the Washington Capitals struck Newark in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as the Caps beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2.

Both squads needed a 20 minute warmup to start the game as only one goal was scored. Unfortunately for the home fans, that goal was struck by Second Star of the Game T.J. Oshie (First Star Nicklas Backstrom), as he buried a snap shot with 5:11 remaining in the frame to give Washington a lead it would not yield.

Following intermission, Alex Ovechkin (Backstrom and John Carlson) scored his NHL-leading ninth goal of the season with a power play wrist shot 8:01 after resuming play. Though Taylor Hall (Third Star Kyle Palmieri and Will Butcher) was able to get the Devils on the board with 3:32 remaining in the frame with a power play goal, neither of those tallies proved to be the biggest of the period.

Instead, the Capitals were able to once again register a late-period goal, but this one proved even more important than the last: this one proved to be the game-winner. It was struck courtesy of Jakub Vrana (Devante Smith-Pelly and Evgeny Kuznetsov), his first of the season.

The play started behind G Cory Schneider‘s net when D Andy Greene misplayed a pass from D Steven Santini. Kuznetsov collected “the loose biscuit,” as it was described by play-by-play announcer Steve Cangialosi, at the goal line before advancing it along the far boards toward the point. He passed to Smith-Pelly in the middle of the zone, who fired a shot towards Schneider. But, before the netminder could make play on the puck, Vrana deflected it five-hole with the shaft of his stick.

Palmieri (Damon Severson and John Moore) did pull Jersey back within a goal 53 seconds into the third period, but Oshie (Backstrom and Kuznetsov) and Backstrom (Ovechkin and Oshie) both scored power play goals to quell any chance of a Devils comeback.

G Braden Holtby earned the victory after saving 21-of-23 shots faced (.913 save percentage), leaving the loss to Schneider, who saved 23-of-28 (.821).

With Washington’s victory, road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have now pulled within two points of the 6-4-1 home clubs.

Colby’s Corner Top five Players Poised to Breakout

A new season starts today, so it’s time for me to jump in and tell you five players to keep an eye out for as they could have breakout seasons. I didn’t limit myself to just rookies; I was also looking for players who could fill some big shoes or become a standout on their team.

First up,

  1. Oliver Bjorkstrand

This one may surprise a few, but after a strong preseason performance, Bjorkstrand could really step up this season and have a big role with the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a highly rated prospect, I believe Jacket fans have been waiting for him to show up in a big way.

Bjorkstrand only has 38 games played over the past two seasons, recording 10 goals and 11 assists in that time. I remember watching him play in World Juniors a few years ago and he had the ability to take over a game and control his team’s offensive flow. If he can provide that for the Jackets, this would give them another weapon with a nice scoring touch. Bjorkstrand could be a name that you hear more of this season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 10-15 goals with another 10-20 assists.

Next up,

  1. Matthew Tkachuk

I have been a huge fan of Tkachuk for a long time – if you have listened to podcasts you know this. Tkachuk had a solid rookie season, recording 13 goals and 35 assists. If that’s what you get from a 6th Overall pick in his first year, you are not going to complain if you are the Calgary Flames. Tkachuk’s physical game and willingness to get into dirty areas allowed him to find some extra points this past season.

Last season in four playoff games, Tkachuk was held pointless and I think that left a bitter taste in his mouth. If he used that as a motivator in his offseason, than he should come back as an even better player. Not to mention the Flames signed the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal. Jagr can show Tkachuk how to use his big body to his advantage and give him other tips to have a great season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 20-25 goals with another 30-40 assists.

Next up,

  1. Alexander DeBrincat

Rookie Alert: Alex DeBrincat makes my list as a player that could be the next Artemi Panarin in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. DeBrincat has been one of the best junior players over the past few seasons trying to crack the Hawks roster, and has finally done that this season. Yes, he is a rookie – and a small one at that – but he has proven he knows were the net is. DeBrincat has scored over 100 points in three-straight OHL seasons, including his final year with the Erie Otters when he finished with 65 goals and 62 assists for a 127 points.

The argument that it won’t convert over is nonsense as junior players like Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk are finding goals in this league. Another reason he is so high on my list is the opportunity he could have to play with some of the best players in the league in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. If he can learn from either of them, this kid could become a star in no time.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 20-25 goals with another 35-45 assists.

Next up,

  1. Jake Guentzel

Now you can say Jake Guentzel is already a star from his Stanley Cup-winning performance last season. I agree, but I think he can play even better than he was in the playoffs. Guentzel had 13 goals and 8 assists in 25 playoff games last spring. It was a performance so strong that he deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy – only have it ripped from him by Sidney Crosby. We haven’t seen Guentzel in playoff form for a whole season, but this is that season.

Thinking about Guentzel, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin all performing in top form has me believing this team could be looking at a three-peat without question, as they are probably the favorite in the East again. Guentzel’s scoring touch and being on the same page and line as Crosby could see his numbers sky rocket and he could be an even bigger star in Pittsburgh.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 30-35 goals with another 40-50 assists.

Finally,

  1. Jack Eichel

Jack Eichel will look to keep pace with fellow 2015 first-rounder Connor McDavid‘s scoring this year after missing the start of last season with a high ankle sprain. In addition to ruining Jack’s chance to shine for all 82 games, his injury was also a major contributor to the Buffalo Sabres’ slow start that potentially cost them their first postseason appearance since 2011. And the fact that Eichel had to watch his buddies Auston Matthews and McDavid in the playoffs last season was surely his motivator this offseason. Just watching a few preseason games, Jack looks faster and smoother this than he did last year.

Eichel was very open about how he missed out on  a $1 million bonus for his points-per-game percentage last season. Jack had 57 points in 61 games played, but he hovered around one point-per-game for most of the season before finishing the season in a slump to fall short of his goal. After signing an 8-year, $10 million AAV Tuesday and with the potential to assume captaincy of this Sabres team and lead them to the playoffs, I bet Eichel will earn every cent of his bonus this season.

Player’s goal: I think a successful season for him could be 30-35 goals with another 40-50 assists.