Tag Archives: Wheeler

Vegas escapes whiteout with 3-1 victory

 

With a 3-1 Game 2 victory at Bell MTS Place, the Vegas Golden Knights have leveled their Western Conference Finals series with the Winnipeg Jets at one game apiece.

As would be expected from the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd, all the energy was with the Jets at the opening puck drop. In fact, the fan-power almost resulted in a Jets goal only 33 seconds into the game when C Mark Scheifele‘s backhanded shot leaked through Second Star of the Game G Marc-Andre Fleury and laid exposed in the blue paint, but D Nate Schmidt was there to clean up the situation to keep the game from turning into a potential barn-burner early.

Even though Winnipeg almost got that first laugh, it was the Golden Knights who eventually took command of the first frame. With 6:37 remaining in the period, F Tomas Tatar (D Shea Theodore and F Ryan Carpenter) drew Game 2’s first blood, scoring his first goal of the playoffs to give his side a lead a lead it would not yield.

Tatar’s tally was an excellent example of commitment to a play, as his first shot bounced off G Connor Hellebuyck‘s left post and careened into the end boards. However, Tatar maintained control of the situation by reclaiming possession and returning to the original scene of the crime, this time beating Hellebuyck to the near post.

3:59 later, some incredible defense by the Golden Knights in the neutral zone yielded First Star F Jon Marchessault‘s (W Reilly Smith) first goal of the game. Marchessault was the fortuitous recipient of Smith’s work against Third Star LW Kyle Connor at the red line, eventually earning a breakaway opportunity against Hellebuyck that he buried five-hole.

A scoreless second period was due in large part to some solid defense played by both sides. Both Vegas and Winnipeg fired only eight shots apiece in the middle frame.

In terms of overall stats for the entire game, Winnipeg certainly made its presence known along the boards by throwing 19 hits to Vegas’ seven. Leading that effort was none other than F Adam Lowry, who threw a game-high four checks.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights made an excellent habit of getting in the way of the Jets’ shots, as they blocked a whopping 21 shots in Game 2. Though D Josh Morrissey led the game with five shot blocks, Smith paced Vegas in the statistic with his three rejections (not to mention his game-high three takeaways).

We all know the expression “third time’s the charm,” and that was true yet again in regards to Winnipeg’s power play. After failing to convert a too many men on the ice penalty in the first period and D Brayden McNabb‘s tripping infraction against RW Blake Wheeler late in the second, the Jets finally got on the scoreboard at the 7:17 mark of the third period.

Taking advantage of D Luca Sbisa tripping W Brandon Tanev 1:38 before, Connor (W Nikolaj Ehlers and D Tyler Myers) flung a prayer of a wrist shot at Fleury’s chest that managed to roll off his chest protector and into the goal, pulling Winnipeg back within a one-goal deficit.

As would be expected, the Whiteout was fully rejuvenated after its club finally showed some offensive life, but the Winnipeg faithful reclaimed their seats only 1:28 later when Marchessault (Smith and C William Karlsson) buried a backhander to set the 3-1 score that held to the end of regulation.

With only one day off to make the approximately three-hour flight from Southern Manitoba to Southeastern Nevada, Game 3 to snap the 1-1 tie is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern this Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena. Television viewers can catch the contest on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crashville: Preds crumble after strong start, Jets take 2-1 series lead

 

So, uh, which one of these teams is supposedly the one with the roster full of seasoned vets that have been there before and can’t be rattled, again?

In a series that was just about as hyped as Avengers: Infinity War, we expected to see plenty of crazy, unexpected stuff. But, much like with the film, I’m not sure many people expected to see (spoilers) half of the cast crumble to dust. Or, at least not the half that did in this game.

After answering an anomalous Game 1 drubbing by taking a thrilling double-overtime victory in Game 2, it looked like the Preds were back on track as the series shifted to Winnipeg’s raucous home ice. Clearly now with the early stumble in the past, the defending Western Conference champs would be able to rely upon their experience and battle-tested mental toughness to grab a hold of the series against a young, unproven Winnipeg roster.

In the first period, that narrative seemed pretty well spot-on.

Quickly and effectively quieting the thunderous atmosphere in the early going (shoutout to the crowd for a mid-anthem ‘TRUE NORTH’ that I’m pretty sure I felt here in Ohio), the Preds found paydirt just 4:53 into the game with a new-look fourth line featuring Ryan Hartman, Mike Fisher, and Miikka Salomaki (in for a banged up Calle Jarnkrok) when 37-year-old Fisher banged home a loose puck as it squeaked out from underneath of Connor Hellebuyck after he thought he had made the stop on a quick point shot set up by Hartman (who got buried by Dustin Byfuglien for his troubles).

The Jets tried to answer a few minutes later, as Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny combined on a beautiful criss-cross play entering the zone, eventually setting up Stastny all alone behind the defense, but Pekka Rinne had the answer for his backhand attempt.

Winnipeg’s momentum would be stifled shortly after, though, as the Predators would head to the power play. P.K. Subban (showered in the ever-present boos that I’m still not-at-all sure of the reason for) took a perfect one-time feed from Filip Forsberg at the top of the left circle and spanked it home through Hellebucyk. (It’s worth noting that the confusing boos became much less enthusiastic after this)

The energy of the play seemed to follow the energy of the building for the next few minutes, with very little of note outside of an unsuccessful Viktor Arvidsson breakaway attempt and a nearly-successful fake dump-in by Patrik Laine the only real highlights until Austin Watson picked up the puck on a bad Winnipeg change, walked in one-on-one against Josh Morrissey, and let go a seemingly-harmless wrister from a tough angle that eluded Hellebuyck, caught the far post and went in to give the Preds the 3-0 lead with 2:24 to play.

Rinne made a few solid stops in the waning minutes (including a stellar left pad stretch to deny Blake Wheeler as he picked up a deflected shot and tried to tuck it inside the left post) to preserve the lead and keep the crowd quiet heading into the first intermission. Predators leading 12-10 in shots after 20.

In the second period the tone changed immensely, and it began very early.

Jacob Trouba leveled Forsberg just inside the blueline in the first 30 seconds of the game to give the crowd some jump, and his team seemed to feed off of that. 3:38 into the period Winnipeg finally got on the board (although nobody besides Stastny noticed at the time) when a Byfuglien point shot caught Stastny’s skate and deflected past Rinne to bring the deficit to two goals.

Wheeler found himself staring at a yawning cage just under two minutes later when the puck came to him off of a Rinne misplay behind the net, but he fired the puck over the net trying to lift it over the top of a sprawling Rinne and Nick Bonino. As Wheeler tried to corral the puck along the boards, he was leveled by Watson, who got jumped by Mark Scheifele for his efforts. Both players went to the box, and just over 30 seconds into the resulting four-on-four it would be Big Buff blasting home the 3-2 goal after a beautiful zone entry and puck movement by Tyler Myers and Bryan Little. Then just 14 seconds later the roof came off of Bell MTS Place when Stastny, Wheeler, and Trouba connected for a gorgeous tic-tac-goal to tie the game at three with still over 14 minutes remaining in the second.

With his team rattled, Rinne seemed to take it upon himself to settle things back down, first gloving down a laser from Laine on a two-on-one, then later denying Wheeler on a point blank attempt on a beautiful passing play.

Despite the best efforts of the Nashville netminder, though, Winnipeg would take their first lead of the night with 44.7 seconds remaining in the period when Laine (locked and loaded taking a pass from Stastny who grabbed the puck on the rebound of a prior Laine shot) fooled everyone by firing the puck across the ice to Byfuglien who hammered home the one-timer from distance to put the Jets up 4-3. They’d carry that score (and a 16-6 shot advantage in the period) to the dressing room, looking to put away the Preds in the third.

The third period started with quite a few bangs. Trouba and Bonino got into a shoving match early on that eventually became a fairly lengthy fight between the two. Byfuglien just missed erasing Arvidsson from existence, then made up for it by stapling Hartman to the glass as the Nashville forward went to clear the puck out of his zone while killing a Winnipeg power play.

Unfortunately that hit would be about the only positive result for Winnipeg on their man advantage, and when Colton Sissons returned to the ice after serving his time, he immediately redeemed himself by drawing a penalty that would give the Predators the momentum swing they needed. Forsberg walked the line at the point before firing home a gorgeous wrist shot that beat a screened Hellebucyk and knotted the score at four with 12:20 remaining.

Nashville looked to have an opportunity to regain the lead shortly after the power play goal when Trouba mishandled the puck at his offensive blueline, giving Arvidsson a clear-cut breakaway. But Hellebuyck confidently and emphatically snagged the puck out of the air with his glove, bringing the arena back to life.

Byfuglien nearly had himself a hat trick a few minutes after the save (and resulting momentum switch), pouncing on a loose puck to create a two-on-one but having his bid denied by Rinne. He then once more narrowly missed demolishing a Predators player, this time being Subban who managed to avoid the hit at the last possible moment.

Ryan Ellis‘ tough series continued, this time taking a Byfuglien shot to the side of his face that didn’t get hacked open by a skate blade in Game 1. Luckily it was just a high-rising wrist shot without a ton of power behind it, and he’d shake it off fairly quickly.

Unfortunately for his team, though, it came when they were down a man and it took one of their best penalty killers off the ice. On the very next shift the Jets retook the lead for the final time when Wheeler buried the rebound of a Scheifele one-timer that he set up, giving Winnipeg the 5-4 lead with 4:59 to play.

Rinne was upset, as earlier in the sequence he had take a shot to the mask that seemed to break one of the straps of the helmet, but play was not called. Shortly after the goal, Adam Lowry attempted to steal the puck away from Rinne behind the net, and the Predators’ goaltender responded with a claymore-swing of his goal stick to the back of Lowry, putting Nashville down a man for the third time in quick succession in the final minutes of the game, this time when they were down a goal.

Bonino nearly played hero with a shorthanded goal, jumping on a loose puck in front of the Jets’ goal that no one but him seemed to be able to find, but Hellebucyk was able to blocker it away just in time.

Nashville was unable to mount much of an attack with the extra man after pulling Rinne, and Wheeler and Brandon Tanev (who extended his goal scoring streak to four games) added a pair of empty netters to seal a 7-4 Winnipeg victory in front of the hometown faithful.

In the end, it was Hellebucyk’s ability to settle down after a shaky start, and Nashville’s inability to counter momentum swings (and stay out of the box at crucial times) that played the biggest role in this one. It also didn’t hurt that Byfuglien may have played his best playoff game since his Cup run with the Blackhawks. What looks to be a very important Game 4 comes to you at 9:30 p.m. ET this Thursday (May 3) on NBCSN, and @nlanciani53 will have your DTFR recap coverage.

Hellebuyck steals Game 1 for Winnipeg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whiteout Whitewashing: Jets take the series with Game 5 shutout victory

 

For the first time since the birth of the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise 19 years ago, the team will see the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the city of Winnipeg, a 31-year wait has ended with thunderous applause.

For Minnesota, however, an arduous struggle has ended in back-to-back blankings at the hands of a Jets squad that far outclassed them. The Wild fought as best they could, but with the absence of Ryan Suter on defense, and the loss of Zach Parise after Game 3, the tools for them to compete with a stacked Winnipeg roster just weren’t there. Pile on some notably lackluster performances from key players like Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle (all held scoreless in the series) and there was really no hope to overcome the juggernaut Jets.

The Wild knew to have any shot at surviving Game 5 they’d need to play the perfect road game and try to keep the Jets from building momentum and getting the raucous crowd involved. This strategy lasted all of 31 seconds.

A strong opening shift was capped off when Jacob Trouba received a cross-ice pass from Mark Scheifele at the top of the right circle, took a few strides towards the net and ripped a wrist shot past Devan Dubnyk to ignite Bell MTS Place in the first minute.

A Winnipeg penalty shortly after the goal threatened to kill the energy, but strong work on the PK kept the tide in the Jets’ favor, and shortly after the conclusion of the penalty Trouba (who had himself a game) nearly scored on an odd-man rush, before nearly tipping home a follow-up shot right after. Dubnyk was trying desperately to keep his team alive and settle things down.

Unfortunately for the Minnesota netminder, his efforts were for nothing, as on the following faceoff Dustin Byfuglien let go a wrist shot from the right point that Bryan Little redirected beautifully past an unsuspecting Dubnyk for the 2-0 lead, still just 5:42 into the game.

Still the Jets kept coming, and the Wild had no answer. A Brandon Tanev shot nearly went in off the skate of Dubnyk after bouncing off of the end boards. Then Niederreiter tried to create a scoring opportunity by dancing around one Winnipeg defender only to get blown up by Big Buff as he attempted to let the shot go. Then Tanev, apparently upset at his previous failure, stripped a fumbling Jonas Brodin of the puck at his defensive blueline and fired a quick turnaround wrister through Dubnyk before he had time to react, Winnipeg taking a 3-0 lead with 8:50 to play. Tanev’s first career playoff goal.

Just 49 seconds later things went from calamity to catastrophe when an initial attempt from Andrew Copp rebounded out high to a locked and loaded Byfuglien, who proceeded to unload a bomb that redirected off of Joel Armia (his first playoff goal, just to stick with the theme) and into the net.

It was now 4-0 with 8:01 to play in the first period, and a mercy pulling was in order. Bruce Boudreau sent Alex Stalock in to relieve Dubnyk of his nightmare, and he returned to the bench to a standing reception from his teammates. Captain Mikko Koivu walked down to the end of the bench after Dubnyk sat down, seemingly to say “We’re sorry, this is on us.” to his visibly emotional goaltender.

Winnipeg fans, however, did not share in Koivu’s sympathies, as a chant of “We Want Dubnyk” rang out not long after the resumption of play. Apparently even after a long, cold winter, Winnipeg still has plenty of salt to go around.

The period ended with the Jets outshooting Minnesota 13-7, but the play was even more lopsided than that would indicate.

Early in the second Minnesota got their proverbial “This one just isn’t going to go your way” sign from the hockey gods, as a Mikael Granlund rush drew Connor Hellebuyck out of his net, giving Granlund an open cage to tuck a wraparound into, only to see the puck sail across the crease along the goal line and bounce off of multiple Winnipeg skates just inches from paydirt, only to be cleared away.

Minnesota did finally gain some offensive traction to their credit, though the second notable opportunity was a Niederreiter rush that was met with a shot block and subsequent leveling hit by Trouba. Ironically even though they controlled a lot of the play early in the second, the Wild would not record a shot for nearly eight minutes of play.

The game’s only real notable save came from the left pad of Stalock who denied a seemingly sure-thing one-timer right on the doorstep at the bottom of the left circle from Scheifele just past the game’s halfway mark.

A Wild power play around the 11:00 mark brought some more offensive traction to the visitors, who had a few quality chances on the power play followed up by a Niederreiter breakaway all turned aside. Jason Zucker found iron on a later power play, but Hellebucyk simply couldn’t be solved.

The Jets put a stamp on the game just 32 seconds into the third with a beautiful high-low-high passing sequence from Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, and Scheifele capped off by a beautiful one-time rip from #55 into the net from the low slot.

Sensing victory was now firmly in hand, the Winnipeg Whiteout crowd started to take over the third period. Multiple renditions of Bananarama’s ‘Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye’ were belted out in perfect harmony at numerous points in the frame, starting with the initial performance just after the puck had dropped following the 5-0 goal.

When Hellebucyk made a great stop on Matt Cullen off of a Marcus Foligno rebound, the crowd responded with the wave, then some more Bananarama.

Blake Wheeler nearly made it 6-0 on a beautiful backhand tip of a Scheifele centering pass, but the hockey gods had decided enough was enough, so it found the crossbar and vacated the goal crease without further incident.

‘We Want Nashville!’ is now the chant. Bold, Winnipeg. Bold.

Later in the period a fan took a deflected puck to the face, only to be tossed a towel by Matt Hendricks (making his series debut) and signal to everyone in attendance that they were still very much alive, drawing a rousing round of applause.

The standing ovation started with 2:30 to play, and was only interrupted by an obligatory singalong to ‘Sweet Caroline’ at 2:10. The final minute of play was basically just one long explosion of noise as the city erupted into a party that I assume will still be occurring when the sun rises. On Monday.

In the end, Connor Hellebucyk posted his second-consecutive shutout to seal the series, and the Parise-less Wild fail to score a single goal. It’s hard for Minnesota to argue that injuries were the only reason they couldn’t climb this mountain, as Winnipeg faced games without Tyler Myers, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey among others, and played the entire series without Toby Enstrom. It just speaks to their incredible depth that even when missing key contributors they could still trounce Minnesota with relative ease.

Now with a long rest ahead of them to get healthy before a likely (at least as of this writing) Second Round matchup for the ages with Nashville, the Jets have a little time to celebrate before looking towards what lay ahead.

Special shoutout to 20-year veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen, who may have just played the final game of a fantastic career.

True North Stronger: Jets edge Wild to open series; win first-ever playoff game

 

For those expecting this to be a one-sided series, Game 1 would like to have a word with you.

On the opening night of the 2018 NHL Playoffs (also known as the most wonderful time of the year) the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets treated us to exactly what we expect from playoff hockey: a hard-hitting, fast-paced, raucous affair with something for everyone.

In the end, it would be Winnipeg firing the opening salvo in the series, treating the thundering crowd at Bell MTS Place to the first playoff victory in franchise history. What a victory it was.

The city of Winnipeg hosted its first playoff series Game 1 since 1985 (insert joke about how many current players weren’t even alive) and they did not disappoint. The legendary Winnipeg Whiteout was as incredible a sight as ever, there may have been more people filling the downtown streets around the arena than there were in the arena (it’s a small venue joke and also a legitimate observation), and the Jets took the ice to an earth-shaking ovation. Pregame festivities were actually slightly delayed by a crowd that simply refused to cease their chant of ‘Go Jets Go!”

For Minnesota, the uphill battle was obvious. On the wrong end of some heavy betting odds, missing top defenseman Ryan Suter (28+ minutes of ice time suddenly unaccounted for), and likely unable to hear themselves think, the Wild’s gameplan was to hopefully control the pace and take the crowd out of it.

That did not go well in the early minutes.

Winnipeg came out flying. After buzzing offensively for the first couple minutes, they turned their focus to their other greatest weapon: Physicality. First it was a booming open ice hit on Daniel Winnik by Ben Chiarot. On the very next shift, Brandon Tanev stapled Eric Staal to the boards at one end, then linemate Adam Lowry crushed Jared Spurgeon (in his first game back from injury) at the opposite end.

Lowry was a standout in this game. He and Tanev combined for multiple quality scoring chances, and he played most of the game with the apparent mindset that if it was wearing white, it needed to die. He did leave the ice with about 50 seconds left in the first period, but returned for the second and played the rest of the game without issue. If Minnesota wants to change their fortunes (and potentially save the lives of some of their players) going forward, they’ll need to find a way to neutralize #17.

Potentially as a result of Lowry’s play, the first tv timeout was extended due to some maintenance on a pane of glass in the Minnesota end. After play resumed it was all Winnipeg for the rest of the period. If not for stellar play by Devan Dubnyk (including a spectacular robbery of Andrew Copp after he picked up a deflected point shot at the side of the net) and a great effort by Minnesota to keep most of the chances to the outside, the score could have been out of hand within the first 20 minutes.

My personal highlight of the first was Dubnyk snagging a left wing shot in his glove, before delivering a beautiful Booker T-esque spinebuster to a net-crashing Mathieu Perreault. Not much came of it, but it looked awesome and Dubnyk talking to the referee and very visibly laughing was terrific.

The shot clock read 13-4, but the scoreboard said 0-0 after 20 minutes.

Things picked up slightly in the second, as just 20 seconds in it would be Eric Staal taking the game’s first penalty (a trip on Mark Scheifele). The power play was mostly uneventful, but did include a shorthanded bid by Joel Eriksson Ek that was first negated by Patrik Laine, before ‘J.E.E.’ was absolutely obliterated by a backchecking Dustin Byfuglien.

After the power play it was Hellebucyk’s turn to save his team’s skin, as a terrible giveaway by Jacob Trouba behind his own net gave the Wild essentially a stationary 2-on-0, that luckily the Winnipeg goaltender was able to negate with a blocker save. Eriksson Ek would get another breakaway opportunity, this time avoiding being murdered by Big Buff, but would not find paydirt. The puck then went the other way and saw Kyle Connor unleash a beautiful toe-drag wrist shot from the high slot only to have Dubnyk windmill his hopes and dreams.

Just when it was starting to really look like we would see another scoreless period, Winnipeg would repeat a play they had tried on their previous power play to no avail and find success, with Mark Scheifele taking a sneaky centering feed from Blake Wheeler and ripping a one-timer past Dubnyk to finally break through with 2:23 to play.

Ironically, the Wild would outshoot the Jets in the 2nd, but find themselves trailing 1-0. But Winnipeg found itself down by one in its own right, having lost Mathieu Perreault to an upper body injury, after the diminutive centerman seemed to be the focus of some physical play throughout the period. After taking a huge open ice hit from Mikko Koivu, a tie-up and subsequent body slam from Nick Seeler seemed to be the final blow to end Perreault’s night.

After two periods of goaltenders stealing the show and solid defensive work, the doors got blown wide open in the third.

It started off the opening draw, with Winnipeg executing a perfect set play to spring Connor on a breakaway only to be denied by Dubnyk. The Wild quickly turned the tables, however, as less than two minutes into the frame it would be rookie Jordan Greenway tallying his first ever playoff point in his first ever playoff game by feeding three-time Cup winner and oldest man in the playoffs Matt Cullen for a beautiful one-timer over the shoulder of Hellebucyk to tie the game at one.

A two-minute track meet ensued, before a bad pinch by Dustin Byfuglien allowed Mikko Koivu (who got blown up by Lowry just as he chipped the breakout pass ahead) to feed Mikael Granlund to lead a 2-on-1 with Zach Parise. Granlund showed shot all the way, before feeding a pass to Parise’s stick at the last possible instant for a back-door tap-in to complete the two-goal swing and give Minnesota the lead just over two minutes after tying the game.

The once-booming Winnipeg crowd fell silent. Briefly.

Then Paul Stastny left a drop pass for Patrik Laine just inside the blueline and the 19-year-old phenom ripped a shot from the top of the circle that Dubnyk simply couldn’t catch up to. 2-2, just like that, less than a minute after the second Wild goal.

On the very next shift it looked like Winnipeg was going to take the lead right back, as Joel Armia took the puck on a cross-ice feed and got robbed blind by Dubnyk. The puck squeaked behind the Minnesota goaltender, but his teammates piled on to make sure it couldn’t find the promised land, and a big scrum followed.

The Jets would fire 15 consecutive shots on net after the second Minnesota goal, dominating most of the third period. Then with just over seven minutes left in the game, Joe Morrow would net his first ever playoff goal (and first career game-winner of any kind) with a blast from the point that deflected off of a Minnesota stick and fooled Dubnyk.

Hellebucyk and his teammates would fend off the Minnesota attack for the final minutes, including stops on a beautiful rush by Koivu, and a combined effort from Mathew Dumba and Jason Zucker to hold the fort and secure the 3-2 victory.

Minnesota has nothing to hang its head about, however. It gave a fired-up, heavily-favored Winnipeg team all it could handle, and Dubnyk showed the kind of form that can steal some games. Throw in the abundant physicality, and we’ve got ourselves a very entertaining under-the-radar series to watch.

Speaking of which, Game 2 will come to you Friday at 7:30pm Eastern on USA Network, SN and TVAS2. If you happen to miss it, though, do not fret. Our very own @kephartc will have a recap for you.

February 27 – Day 139 – Atop the Central

The GMs had their fun yesterday. Now it’s time to see how their decisions pan out, as most teams have only 20 games separating them from the end of the regular season.

It’s a Tuesday in the NHL, so you know it’s going to be busy. Today’s slate of games includes nine fixtures, including three at 7 p.m. (Carolina at Boston, New Jersey at Pittsburgh [SN/TVAS] and Ottawa at Washington [RDS]) and Toronto at Florida half an hour later. A pair of tilts (St. Louis at Minnesota [NBCSN] and Nashville at Winnipeg) drop the puck at 8 p.m., while Calgary at Dallas waits 30 minutes before getting underway. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps – Los Angeles at Vegas (NBCSN) and Edmonton at San Jose – close out the night at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

There’s two playoff rematches on tonight’s schedule, both involving the Western Quarterfinals from a year ago. The Blues eliminated the Wild in five games last year, while the Oilers needed six to knock off the Sharks.

However, last playoffs are in the rear-view  mirror at this point. Instead, the only game that can qualify as today’s featured is matchup is going down in Manitoba! To Canada we go!

 

Things have certainly been going 38-14-9 Nashville’s way lately, as it is currently riding a four-game winning streak.

The reason? The most imposing offense in the Western Conference since February 19 paired with the indomitable G Pekka Rinne.

Let’s start on the offensive end, where D Roman Josi (1-6-7 totals in his past four games) and D Ryan Ellis (1-5-6) are headlining an offense that has averaged an unbelievable 4.75 goals per game for the past week.

Of course, those first pair blueliners are just providing assists. Important as they may be, someone has to complete those plays.

Enter W Viktor Arvidsson, who’s posted 4-1-5 totals since February 19 to elevate his season marks to 22-20-42 – the best numbers of any forward in Nashville (of course, he has 12 more games played with the same number of points as F Filip Forsberg, but who’s keeping track of those kinds of things?).

What’s most inspiring about Arvidsson is knowing he has so much more to give. In only his third full season in the NHL, he’s coming off a 31-30-61 campaign last season that is statistically superior to the marks he’s earned so far this year in terms of points per game. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Arvidsson that scored 13 points in last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final still has yet to show up, and the rest of the league should be very concerned when the Swede puts his foot firmly on the gas.

In total, six players are averaging at least a point-per-game during this winning streak: Josi, Ellis, Arvidsson, W Kevin Fiala (2-2-4 totals), F Ryan Johansen (1-3-4) and F Craig Smith (1-3-4).

Speaking of excellent players, 32-9-4 Rinne undoubtedly qualifies. He’s started three of Nashville’s last four games and posted an incredible .97 save percentage for a 1 GAA in spite of his defense allowing a (t)13th-worst 33.75 shots against per game since February 19. Not only has he improved his season numbers to a .928 save percentage and 2.27 GAA, but he’s also led the Preds to allowing only 1.25 goals against per game over this run, the best in the NHL in that time.

The 37-16-9 Jets have been pretty good themselves lately, as attested by their 5-1-0 record over their past six tilts.

Just like in Nashville, the primary reason for Winnipeg’s recent success has been an incredible offense. Since February 13, no attack in the Western Conference has been better than the Jets’, as they’ve averaged an impressive 4.82 goals per game in that time.

In that time span, no Jet has been better than American RW Blake Wheeler, who’s earned 4-8-12 totals in his last six showings and is riding an eight-game point streak.

Though Wheeler has been good, it hasn’t been just him providing the offensive sparks. D Dustin Byfuglien (1-10-11), C Mark Scheifele (4-6-10), RW Patrik Laine (6-3-9), D Tyler Myers (1-6-7) and W Nikolaj Ehlers (3-3-6) join the captain in averaging a point per game since February 13, forming three powerful lines of forwards and two stellar blueline pairs.

Where Winnipeg sets itself apart from its Central Division rival is on the defensive end, as the Jets have allowed only 31.17 shots against per game since February 13, the ninth-fewest in the league in that time. F Matt Hendricks (2.5 hits per game in the Jets’ last six games) and D Josh Morrissey (2.2 blocks per game during this run) have played major roles in that effort, and their success has made life very easy on 32-9-8 G Connor Hellebuyck, who’s been able to post a .934 save percentage and 2 GAA with his lighter work load to improve his season numbers to a .924 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.

There’s a lot on the line in this game. Not only are the Predators interested in putting some distance between themselves and the second-place Jets, but they’re also eyeing the Western Conference’s top seed. Should Smashville win and Vegas lose to Los Angeles in regulation, the Predators will pull into a tie for first place in the West. After taking tiebreakers into account, the Preds would take the lead in the conference based on their game in hand on the Knights.

As for Winnipeg, it can’t take the Central lead with a win tonight, but two points would certainly put even more pressure on the Predators than is already present. The Jets currently trail Nashville by only two points in the standings, but the Preds have a game in hand.

The Predators and Jets have squared off twice already this season, and they’ll meet up two more times after tonight before the end of the regular season. This is Nashville’s first trip to Manitoba this season, as it hosted the first two tilts. Home ice was indeed an advantage on November 20, as the Preds won 5-3 (Johansen took First Star honors with his two-point effort), but the Jets managed to win December 19’s tilt 6-4 (injured F Brandon Tanev scored the game-winner with 1:26 remaining in regulation) to level the season series at 1-1-0.

Big games like these come down to the small details and which team limits the opposition’s opportunities. With that in mind, I think Winnipeg’s defense will play a major role in leading the Jets to a home victory.


Though they needed a shootout to get the job done, the Tampa Bay Lightning defended Amalie Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

Whatever the second round of the playoffs looks like for the Atlantic Division, it’s sure to be a thriller. That much was apparent through only one period of action as a combined 18 shots were fired on goal. Three of those ended up on the scoreboard, starting with LW Chris Kunitz‘ (D Andrej Sustr and C Steven Stamkos) tip-in only 101 seconds into the game. Toronto pulled the score back even 7:08 later when LW James van Riemsdyk (D Ron Hainsey and D Morgan Rielly) buried a backhanded shot, followed by Second Star of the Game F Mitch Marner (D Jake Gardiner and D Nikita Zaitsev) setting the score at 2-1 at the 9:52 mark.

No more goals were struck until the 3:52 mark of the second period when C Tyler Johnson (First Star F Yanni Gourde) leveled the game with a wrap-around shot, and Third Star LW Adam Erne completed the frame’s scoring with an unassisted wrist shot with 4:42 remaining on the clock.

C Tyler Bozak‘s (Marner and Rielly) game-tying wrister was set up by D Braydon Coburn holding F Zach Hyman at the 4:40 mark of the third period. Only 47 seconds later, Bozak was taking advantage of the man-advantage to force three-on-three overtime.

Even the overtime frame lived up to the hype, as a total of seven shots on goal were fired between the two clubs. However, neither G Frederik Andersen nor G Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed one by, leading the game into the dreaded shootout.

  1. As home team, Tampa elected to take the first shot of the shootout, sending RW Ryan Callahan to center ice. Tried as he might, he wasn’t able to beat Andersen.
  2. F William Nylander met a similar fate when challenging Vasilevskiy, leaving the shootout score at 0-0 through the first round.
  3. F Brayden Point went five-for-seven in the shootout during his rookie season. Though he hasn’t quite found that success this year, he did beat Andersen this time to give Tampa the lead.
  4. Though he only has six points to show for his NHL career, RW Kasperi Kapanen was Head Coach Mike Babcock’s choice to level the shootout. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the youngster’s attempt was saved by Vasilevskiy.
  5. That set up a score-to-win situation for the Bolts, and it’s no surprise they turned to Gourde. However, his offering missed the net, setting up a miss-and-lose for Toronto.
  6. Van Riemsdyk was tasked with forcing extra frames, but he met the same fate as his teammates: saved by Vasilevskiy.

Vasilevskiy earned the victory after saving 27-of-30 shots faced (.9 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Andersen, who saved 39-of-42 (.929).

Last night’s Game of the Day was the third-consecutive featured matchup to require more than 60 minutes to determine a winner. With the 74-46-19 hosts winning, they’ve now earned a 20-point advantage over the roadies in the series.

February 9 – Day 121 – Blue Angels

Fridays are the bomb.com. This one is no exception, as the league has eight games on the schedule.

Like most nights, the action finds its start at 7 p.m. when three games drop the puck (Detroit at the New York Islanders, Calgary at the New York Rangers and Columbus at Washington), followed half an hour later by two more (Los Angeles at Florida and Vancouver at Carolina). Next up is St. Louis at Winnipeg at 8 p.m., while Pittsburgh at Dallas (SN1) waits 30 minutes before getting underway. Finally, Edmonton at Anaheim closes out the evening at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

In addition to those NHL tilts, the women’s hockey tournament at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang is also getting underway, as Japan is taking on Sweden in Group B play at 2:40 a.m. Eastern time Saturday morning.

Among the games that stick out, here’s a few I selected…

  • Pittsburgh at Dallas: Drafted in 2011, D Jamie Oleksiak spent six seasons within the Stars organization. Tonight marks his first return to American Airlines Center since being traded in December.
  • Edmonton at Anaheim: It’s a rematch of last year’s Western Semifinals! One team looks capable of making a return to that round, one… doesn’t.
  • Japan vs. Sweden: I mean, this is hockey’s opening act of the 2018 Olympics we’re talking about here. How can this not be an important game?

However, there’s one more NHL game that sticks out above the rest, so it looks like we won’t be headed to Pyeongchang today. Maybe tomorrow!

 

In all honesty, if the Blues’ offense had performed yesterday like it did against Minnesota on Tuesday, we very well might be focusing on the Japan vs. Sweden game.

And that’s coming from somebody who will be wearing the Note at work this evening.

Instead, Head Coach Mike Yeo worked some magic with his line blender to lead his Notes to an explosive 6-1 victory against the Avs, the most goals they’ve scored in a game since another six-marker performance on December 9 in Detroit.

Don’t let C Paul Stastny‘s two points in last night’s game fool you: St. Louis’ top line is still a work in progress. In both instances when he found the scoresheet, he was the only forward listed, as he and D Vince Dunn assisted D Alex Pietrangelo to the captain’s second period goal and D Jay Bouwmeester and D Carl Gunnarsson assisted Stastny to his third period insurance tally.

Instead, it would seem that these new look Blues’ most dominant line might be its second, as F Patrik Berglund and F Brayden Schenn seemed to show some chemistry on the former Flyer’s second period goal. That line was completed by F Jaden Schwartz, whose +24 is (t)seventh-best in the league.

The fourth line also found the scorecard in the second frame when D Colton Parayko and LW Scottie Upshall provided helpers on F Ivan Barbashev‘s game-winner.

It will be interesting to see if Yeo lets his current lines play another game as they currently are (I’d put my chips in that pile) or if he’ll shake things up again tonight.

Though offense has certainly been a struggle of late for St. Louis, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been finding wins. In fact, the Blues have won seven of their past 10 games to hold on to third place in the Central Division and keep the surging Stars at bay.

Logic would lead us to believe the Notes have been one of the best defensive teams in the league during that run, but that’s only half true. The defensive skaters have been nothing worth writing home about considering their 30.9 shots against-per-game since January 16 is only 13th best in the league in that time, but 15-5-1 G Carter Hutton has been incredible in spite of that considerable workload.

Few goaltenders in the NHL have been as dominant as Hutton since January 16. He’s posted a 7-2-0 record in his past nine starts with an outstanding .95 save percentage and 1.47, improving his season numbers to a .944 save percentage and 1.7 GAA – both of which are best in the league. In fact, with the exception of G Tuukka Rask‘s 1.43 GAA since mid-January, no goaltender with more than six starts in that time even comes close to Hutton’s performance.

In other words, Hutton has been the Blues’ biggest weapon for the past two weeks – if not longer.

Of note, Hutton was in net last night in St. Louis for the Blues’ victory over the Avalanche. That leads me to believe the likely starter this evening will be 18-15-2 G Jake Allen, who has lost five consecutive decisions since December 27 with a combined .892 save percentage. If he does in fact draw the start, the Blues’ offense had better be prepared to keep pace with the Jets’ otherworldly firepower (aka RW Blake Wheeler, who’s 44 assists are sixth-most in the league).

Whichever netminder is in the crease, he has the unenviable job of trying to slow down 32-13-9 Winnipeg, who has posted a dominant 6-0-2 record over its past eight games to keep pace with the Central Division-leading Predators (the Jets are tied in points, but have one more game played than Nashville).

Of course, the Jets simply haven’t looked the same since C Mark Scheifele went down with an upper-body injury on December 27. In his absence, they’ve become a bit of a defensive team, allowing only 1.88 goals per game since January 20, the third-best mark in the NHL in that time.

While 28-6-8 G Connor Hellebuyck has looked extremely solid over this stretch (more on him in a moment), I’ve been most impressed with the efforts of his defense. Led by the efforts of D Josh Morrissey (2.9 blocks per game over this run), D Dustin Byfuglien and F Mathieu Perreault (both with seven takeaways since January 20, and Perreault with 2.1 hits per game in that time), Winnipeg has allowed only 29.5 shots against per game over this streak, the fifth-fewest in the NHL in that time.

With a workload that light, it’s hard for the league’s second-best goaltender in terms of wins to do much besides succeed. He’s started all but one of the Jets’ past eight games, earning a 5-0-2 record with a solid .934 save percentage and 1.94 GAA to improve his season numbers to .924 and 2.32, both of which are eighth-best in the NHL this season.

Halfway through the four-game series between these two clubs, we’re knotted at one game apiece with both teams winning their first home game against the other. St. Louis was the first to don its home colors, and Hutton shutout the Jets’ potent offense to a 2-0 victory on December 16 (Hutton’s three shutouts on the season are [t]seventh-most in the NHL). However, Hellebuyck and Winnipeg matched the Blues’ shutout with one of its own the next day (one of a [t]second-best five on the season), as the Jets won 4-0 at Bell MTS Centre.

In what looked like a battle of the offenses when the season started, this game will be decided by which offense can simply manage to muster up a goal against these two stellar defensive efforts. Since the Jets are playing at home this evening and they didn’t have to travel overnight like St. Louis, I’m leaning towards them earning two points tonight to surpass Nashville for the division lead (at least for a night) and pull within a point of Vegas for the Western Conference lead.


An explosive three-goal second period is all the Calgary Flames needed to beat the New Jersey Devils 3-2 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Prudential Center.

Since no goals were struck in the first period, First Star of the Game C Sean Monahan‘s (D Dougie Hamilton and D Mark Giordano) wrist shot 4:16 into the second frame gave the Flames a one-goal lead. Second Star F Taylor Hall provided an unassisted wrister only 3:07 later to level the game, but Calgary was just getting its scoring started. Third Star LW Johnny Gaudreau (W Micheal Ferland) reclaimed the lead with 5:27 in the frame, but it was Monahan’s (Gaudreau and D T.J. Brodie) second marker of the period that proved to be the game-winner.

Just like Flames play-by-play announcer Rick Ball said, “persistence pays off.” After receiving a pass from Gaudreau at the blue line, Monahan attacked up the boards and through the left face-off circle before trying to beat G Keith Kinkaid near side. His initial shot found the goal post, but Monahan’s momentum carried him behind the net to Kinkaid’s left, just in time for him to collect his own aerial rebound. He one-timed his own miss-turned-assist (I mean, it was intentional, right?) past Kinkaid’s glove, clipping the left goal post before finding the back of the net 1:55 before the end of the frame.

C Pavel Zacha (F Brian Boyle and Hall) took advantage of D Travis Hamonic‘s hi-stick against F Blake Coleman to score a power play backhanded shot 7:23 into the third period, but Jersey could not find a third goal to level the game.

G David Rittich earned the victory after saving 30-of-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage), leaving the loss to Kinkaid, who saved 22-of-25 (.88).

That’s three points in the last two games for road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. As such, they’ve pulled within 26 points of the 67-39-15 hosts.

January 20 – Day 105 – Break out your synthesizer music

Every team’s bye has come and gone, so let’s get back to playing some hockey!

There’s four matinees on the schedule today: one pair (Dallas at Buffalo and New Jersey at Philadelphia) drop the puck at 1 p.m., and the other two (the New York Rangers at Colorado and Winnipeg at Calgary [CBC/NHLN/SN]) will follow suit two hours later. The next three tilts (Boston at Montréal [NHLN/SN/TVAS], Toronto at Ottawa [CBC/CITY/TVAS2] and Carolina at Detroit) drop the puck at the usual 7 p.m. starting time, followed by three more (Pittsburgh at San Jose, Arizona at St. Louis and Florida at Nashville) an hour later. 8:30 p.m. marks the beginning of the New York Islanders at Chicago, while Tampa Bay at Minnesota waits until the top of the hour to get underway. Finally, Vancouver visits Edmonton (CBC/SN) at 10 p.m. to close out the evening’s festivities. All times Eastern.

It’s so nice having the whole gang back together again. With so many games, I’m back to having at least four rivalry games that stand out above the rest.

  • New Jersey at Philadelphia: The Battle of the Turnpikes is never a dull affair, and tensions will only be heightened by the Flyers’ current hot streak.
  • Winnipeg at Calgary: Back in the 1980s, this was one of the best rivalries in the Western Conference. Perhaps more sparks will fly today.
  • Boston at Montréal: For the third time in basically one week, these historic rivals will tangle. This could get nasty.
  • Toronto at Ottawa: The Battle of Ontario rages on between Canada’s capital and its biggest city.

Somehow, the Jets have not been featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series since the holiday break. Let’s resolve that by seeing how they handle a red-hot Calgary club.

 

The streaky 25-16-4 Flames have jumped in and out of playoff position all season, and this seven-game winning streak they were riding before their five-day bye has propelled them all the way into third place in the Pacific Division.

Calgary has been dominant on both ends of the ice during this run. Since New Year’s Eve, the Flames have employed the league’s third-best offense – averaging 3.86 goals per game – and the (t)fourth-best defense – averaging only two goals against per game.

On the defensive end, the answer is simple: 20-13-3 G Mike Smith. The (t)eighth-most winningest goaltender of the season started all but one of the Flames’ past seven games, posting an impressive .941 save percentage and 1.99 GAA. Those numbers are already good in comparison to his season marks of .924 (the [t]eighth-best mark in the league) and 2.46, but what makes his effort in his last six starts really stand out is the fact that his defense is allowing a fifth-worst 35.43 shots against per game during this winning streak. Without Smith playing at the top of his game, this Flames team is a totally different – and far uglier – product.

However, it’s not just Smith that is performing above expectations. With the offense managing only 2.87 goals per game for the entire season, Calgary is producing a full goal better thanks to the positive energy of its goaltender.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the Flames’ leader during this surge has been none other than LW Johnny Gaudreau. The very player that has 39 assists ([t]third-most in the league) and 54 points ([t]fourth-most in the league) to his credit has continued his play-making ways to post 2-11-13 totals during this seven-game winning streak, averaging almost two points per game.

Gaudreau makes everyone around him better, which makes sense why linemates W Micheal Ferland (19-10-29 totals) and C Sean Monahan (21-21-42) have both posted four goals since New Year’s Eve. However, the scorer that really takes the cake during this run is sophomore LW Matthew Tkachuk (13-18-31). The 20-year-old has already matched his goal total from his rookie season, and that’s due in large part to his team-leading five tallies in the last seven games.

As Calgary is proving, when both the top lines are firing on all cylinders, this club is a very tough out. After all, the Flames just handled the Lightning in Tampa Bay on January 11, winning 5-1.

Of course, one of the toughest outs all season has been 26-13-7 Winnipeg, the second-best team in the Central Division. Today marks the Jets’ first game after their six-day bye week, and they’ll be looking to get back to their winning ways.

Though Winnipeg was technically riding a two-game losing skid going into the bye, the Jets are actually 6-2-1 in their last nine games. A major reason for that success is Winnipeg’s offense, which has averaged 3.56 goals per game since December 27.

Just like Gaudreau has led his team both during its winning streak and the overall season, the same can be said for F Blake Wheeler. The captain has posted impressive 5-7-12 totals in the last five games to improve his season marks to 14-39-53, the (t)third-most assists and (t)seventh-most points in the NHL.

Making Wheeler’s performance even more impressive, he’s been able to maintain his performance even while C Mark Scheifele (15-23-38 totals) has been on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Of course, what should we expect when the captain has linemates like RW Patrik Laine (20-17-37), who’s filling in for Wheeler as the top-line right wing while he slides into Scheifele’s vacated center position, and LW Kyle Connor (15-13-28)? Both Connor and Laine have provided eight points over the last nine games, and Wheeler has provided six primary assists since December 27.

On the defensive end, no name is greater in Manitoba than G Connor Hellebuyck. He’s posted a 23-6-6 record this season (the third-most wins in the league) that includes three shutouts – the (t)fourth-mots in the NHL. He’s started all but one of the past nine games, posting a .93 save percentage and 2.24 GAA in the process to raise his season numbers to .922 and 2.4 (the ninth-best GAA in the league).

Calgary and Winnipeg have tangled only once before this season, and it was at the Saddledome – the site of today’s matchup – way back on October 7. The Flames performed perfectly to defend home ice, as D T.J. Brodie registered a 2-2-4 night to lead Calgary to a 6-3 victory after it had trailed 3-1 through the first period.

With both teams coming into this game well-rested, it’s hard to tell which will have the upper hand. Since the Flames have home ice, I’m leaning towards Calgary taking this one, but I truly believe its anyone’s guess.


Thanks to First Star of the Game D Aaron Ekblad‘s overtime game-winner, the Florida Panthers beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 at BB&T Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

W Jamie McGinn (F Nick Bjugstad) opened the scoring for the Panthers, burying a backhanded shot only 3:15 into the contest. That 1-0 advantage lasted 11:07 before W David Perron (D Brad Hunt and F Erik Haula) leveled the game with a snap shot, but Second Star C Aleksander Barkov (F Vincent Trocheck) would return the lead to Florida with 4:05 remaining in the frame on a shorthanded backhander.

Vegas would once again tie the game, but C William Karlsson (D Shea Theodore and W Reilly Smith) would not score his tip-in until the 6:54 mark of the second period. That tally proved to be the lone marker of the middle frame, meaning the score read 2-2 through the second intermission.

Staying true to the pattern, the Panthers were next up to tickle the twine. W Evgeni Dadonov (Barkov and D Keith Yandle) was the guilty party, burying a wrist shot 3:35 into the third period. Third Star W James Neal (Haula) waited until 2:09 remained in regulation to score his wrister and level the game at three-all. As neither the Golden Knights nor Panthers could level the game in the remaining time, their final tilt of the regular season advanced into three-on-three overtime.

As stated before, Ekblad (Barkov and F Jonathan Huberdeau) provided the game-winner (his first winner of the season), but it’s arguably more notable that he needed only 40 seconds to score it. The Panthers dominated the overtime frame to out-shoot Vegas 2-0, and that was no more noticeable than when Ekblad fought off D Nate Schmidt in his own defensive zone to eventually set up Huberdeau for a breakaway opportunity. The forward raced into the offensive zone, passing around Smith to Barkov. Barkov’s backhander couldn’t beat G Malcolm Subban, but the puck flew into the air and eventually ended up in the high slot – perfectly centered for Ekblad. The defenseman one-timed a slap shot over Subban’s glove, earning the bonus point for the Panthers.

G James Reimer earned the victory after saving 33-of-36 shots faced (.917 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Subban, who saved 22-of-26 (.846).

There’s no stopping the 59-34-12 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series lately. They’ve won four-straight contests to reclaim a 24-point advantage over the roadies in the series.

December 19 – Day 76 – Predator drones

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

Have I lost you yet?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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