Tag Archives: Wild

February 22 – Day 134 – Russian to Czechmate

It’s the best day of the hockey week! A dozen games are on this Thursday’s schedule!

We begin today’s slate in North America with 11 NHL tilts, starting with three (the New York Islanders at Toronto, Minnesota at New Jersey and Columbus at Philadelphia) at 7 p.m. and four more (the New York Rangers at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Tampa Bay at Ottawa [RDS2], Buffalo at Detroit and Washington at Florida [TVAS]) half an hour later. San Jose at Nashville drops the puck at 8 p.m., followed an hour later by a pair of Western Conference matchups (Colorado at Edmonton [SN1] and Calgary at Arizona). Finally, Dallas visits Los Angeles at 10:30 p.m. to close out the league’s action. All times Eastern.

Of course, there’s also the Olympics to keep in mind. The first men’s semifinal between the Czech Republic and the OAR is scheduled for 2:40 a.m. Eastern time Friday morning.

Of those games, I’ll have my eye on three:

  • New York at Montréal: Not only is this an Original Six rivalry, but it’s also a rematch from last season’s Eastern Quarterfinals.
  • Calgary at Arizona: G Mike Smith (injured) and D Michael Stone are making their first trips back to Glendale to take on the Coyotes, the team they both spent six seasons with before joining Calgary.
  • Czech Republic vs. the OAR: The top two remaining seeds are going at it for a chance to play for a gold medal!

We’ve featured Olympic action the past six days, and I see no reason to stop that trend now. Let’s see who’s advancing to the gold medal game!

 

Let’s start with the 3-1-0-0 Czech Republic, which posted a 2-1-0-0 record in Group A against the likes of Canada (3-2 SO), Switzerland (4-1) and South Korea (2-1) to clinch a first round bye into the quarterfinals, where it beat the United States in a 3-2 shootout victory.

Offensively, there are few teams in this Olympic tournament that can rival the Czechs, as their three goals-per-game is (t)third-best among all 12 participating nations and (t)second-best of the four squads remaining.

For those wondering: no, you will not witness any of the Czech Republic’s legendary right wings in this game. Instead of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Prochazka and David Vyborny, you should be looking forward to witnessing F Michal Repik (3-1-4 totals) and F Jan Kovar (2-2-4) continuing their stellar tournaments, as both are averaging a point per game.

29-year-old Repik’s performance is of particular interest, as he’s managed his impressive marks from the Czechs’ fourth line and, more importantly, from both special teams. All three of his goals have been scored in different situations: one at even strength, one on the power play and one on the penalty kill. He’s a dangerous Swiss army knife of a player that should be taken seriously on every shift.

The Czechs have also played decently in their own zone, as they’ve held their opponents to an average of only 25 shots against per game – the (t)fifth-lowest mark of all Olympic teams and third-lowest among the semifinalists.

That’s left G Pavel Francouz to shine, and shine he has. Having been the lone goaltender Head Coach Josef Jandac has employed throughout this tournament, he’s posted a solid .94 save percentage for a 1.41 GAA.

Mix all that defensive work together and you get a Czech Republic team that has allowed only 1.5 goals per game for the entire tournament, the (t)third-best mark in comparison to all 12 teams that have participated in PyeongChang and (t)second-best among the semifinalists.

One final advantage the Czech Republic has in its back pocket is its support in the stands. With the exception of the South Koreans, no team has enjoyed larger crowds than the Czechs, who average 5460.25 fans in attendance at each game – almost 450 more than the Russians, who rank fourth in attendance. With both teams bringing their large fanbases, Gangneung Hockey Centre could very well sell each and every one of its 10,000 seats.

Of course, that’s not a knock on fans of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, who’ve had the pleasure of cheering one of the most dominant teams in South Korea. After dropping their first tilt against Slovakia 3-2, the OAR has earned a 3-0-0-1 overall record, beating Slovenia (8-2) and the United States (4-0) to win Group B, and then Norway (6-1) in the quarterfinals.

Not a bad rebound for Красная Машина – The Red Machine – after pundits were already accusing them of choking as favorites at a second-consecutive Olympic tournament.

The strength in the OAR’s game relies heavily on their dominant offense maintaining almost constant possession of the puck, similar to the style the Boston Bruins have employed in the NHL this season. Not only is this a great way to generate goals – which the OAR does, averaging an Olympic-leading five goals per game – but it also limits opposing opportunities. The 19.25 shots faced per game by G Vasili Koshechkin are the fewest any of the 12 defenses in South Korea have allowed, and he’s been able to post a cool .929 save percentage for a 1.37 GAA as a result.

Pair all that together, and the 1.5 goals against per game the OAR has allowed in their first four games is the (t)third-best mark at the Olympics and (t)second-fewest among the final four.

Anyways, back to the offense. The OAR has more than a few stellar skaters at its disposal, but none have been better than F Nikita Gusev, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect should he choose to join them when his contract expires after next season. During this stint with the Red Machine, he’s posted incredible 1-6-7 totals to average almost two points per game.

But the Czechs shouldn’t focus all their efforts on Gusev, or else one of the other six Russians averaging at least a point per game will fly right by them. F Ilya Kovalchuk, Minnesota Wild prospect F Kirill Kaprizov, F Sergei Mozyakin, D Vyacheslav Voinov, F Sergei Andronov and F Pavel Datsyuk have united to form what may be the strongest Russian team since its days as the USSR.

It’s like they should have been favored to win this tournament or something.

Usually this is where I jump into recent matchups, but I’d instead like to point out how each team handled a common opponent: Team USA. The OAR manhandled the United States in their Group B finale, dominating the game to a 4-0 final score. By comparison, the Czechs required not just overtime, but also a shootout to knock off the Americans 3-2 in the quarterfinals.

There’s certainly much to be said about how the Americans approached either game. The US appeared nervous when playing the OAR, remembering the stories their parents, coaches and just about any other American hockey fan had told them about that fateful day 38 years ago.

There was no second act of the Miracle on Ice for Team USA in this tournament against the OAR, and the Russians made them pay for their inability to string together more than a pass or two.

Comparatively, the rivalry between Team USA and the Czech Republic ranks just above the rivalry between the American and Mexican hockey teams – in other words, its non-existent. Pairing the lack of heightened emotion with G Ryan Zapolski’s excellent play, the Americans rode out the Czechs’ stellar play and countered at just the right times to stave off elimination as long as they could.

Now, this is not supposed to be a summary of Team USA, even if it did seem that way. Instead, I simply pose the question: if the Americans weren’t so riled up to play this game, would they have been as big a thorn in the Russians’ side as they were to the Czechs?

I feel the answer is yes, but the OAR still would not have needed a shootout to knock them off. With that in mind, I feel safe in my prediction that the Olympic Athletes from Russia will be playing for the gold medal after beating the Czech Republic.


With a 3-2 shootout victory in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the curse has been lifted on the United States’ women’s hockey team as it beat Team Canada to clinch the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Penalties were the big story in the first period, as Team USA earned a whopping three power plays. The first two opportunities amounted to only a combined two shots on goal, but F Sarah Nurse’s interference infraction with 1:34 remaining in the frame turned into a F Hilary Knight (D Sidney Morin and F Brianna Decker) deflection 68 seconds later to give the American’s a 1-0 advantage going into the first intermission.

It didn’t take long for the Canadians to level the game. Only two minutes into the second period, F Haley Irwin (F Blayre Turnbull) set the score at 1-1 by deflecting a Turnbull pass pass past G Maddie Rooney out of mid-air. 4:55 later, who else to give Team Canada than F Marie-Philip Poulin (F Meghan Agosta and F Melodie Daoust)? With Agosta firing a reverse pass from the goal line, Poulin lifted her snap shot from the left face-off circle to the near post.

That 2-1 Canadian advantage lasted into the second intermission and through the midway point of the final frame. If any doubt was beginning to creep into the Americans’ minds that they couldn’t beat G Shannon Szabados one more time to level the game, it was dashed with 6:21 remaining in regulation when F Monique Lamoureux-Morando (F Kelly Pannek) scored to tie the game and force overtime.

With no goal struck in the 10-minute four-on-four overtime period, the gold medal would be awarded to the team that won the six-round shootout.

  1. F Natalie Spooner was the first Canadian to try to beat Rooney, but the netminder stood tall to keep her off the board.
  2. F Gigi Marvin gave Team USA an early lead in the shootout by beating Szabados.
  3. Facing an early hole, Agosta leveled the shootout score at one-apiece, but Szabados still had to face her second shooter to complete the turnaround.
  4. She did just that by keeping F Hannah Brandt’s attempt out of the back of her net. The shootout score read 1-1 through two rounds.
  5. Having already beaten Rooney in regulation, Poulin was Canada’s third shooter. However, she didn’t find the same success, as the American kept her net clean.
  6. Usually playing defense, Emily Pfalzer was given her opportunity to make an offensive contribution in the third round. Her shot was saved by Szabados, leaving the shootout tied through three rounds.
  7. Canada’s next hope was Daoust, and she made good on her opportunity by beating Rooney.
  8. However, that advantage didn’t last long, as F Amanda Kessel was able to level the shootout at 2-2 in her half of the fourth round.
  9. With the opportunity to force a miss-and-lose situation for the Americans, F Brianne Jenner’s attempt to set the shootout score at 3-2 were nullified by Rooney.
  10. That gave Team USA its first opportunity to win the shootout. Who else to send to center ice than Knight? However, her attempt was saved by Szabados, forcing an extra shootout frame.
  11. The Americans won the coin toss and elected to shoot first. F Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson made good on that decision, employing a triple move against Szabados to force a miss-and-lose on Team Canada.
  12. The Canadians called on Agosta to find the leveling goal, but Rooney was there to clinch the Americans’ second gold medal in women’s ice hockey.

Rooney earned the shootout victory after saving 29-of-31 (.935 save percentage), leaving the shootout loss to Szabados, who saved an impressive 39-of-41 (.951).

February 17 – Day 129 – No collusion here

Get ready to take in some hockey, because there’s a deluge of 15 games on today’s slate!

The men’s Olympic action continues this morning at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time when the OAR squares off against Team USA to determine the winner of Group B, not to mention a tilt between Slovenia and Slovakia at the same time.

Back in North America, there’s a whopping 11 games of NHL action on the schedule. The festivities begin at 1 p.m. when Los Angeles visits Buffalo (NHLN), followed an hour later by a pair of tilts (Anaheim at Minnesota and the New York Rangers at Ottawa [TVAS]). The final matinee featuring Edmonton at Arizona drops the puck at 4 p.m. Three games (Montréal at Vegas [CITY/SN360/TVAS], New Jersey at Tampa Bay and Toronto at Pittsburgh [NHLN/SN]) get underway at the usual 7 p.m. starting time, followed an hour later by Detroit at Nashville and Washington at Chicago at 8:30 p.m. Finally, the last two NHL games of the day (Boston at Vancouver [SN/SN360] and Florida at Calgary [CITY]) find their starts at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

Back in South Korea, there’s only four games left to be played in the men’s group stage – two of which will be played tonight. Germany takes on Norway at 10:10 p.m. in Group C action, followed by the Czech Republic vs. Switzerland at 2:40 a.m. in Group A. All times Eastern.

Some of the games that stuck out to me when the schedule was released include…

  • OAR vs. USA: If the Olympic Athletes from Russia win this game, they could earn an automatic entry into the Olympic quarterfinals. Should they lose, they could fall all the way to fourth in the four-team Group B.
  • Slovenia vs. Slovakia: Those scenarios are dependent on the result of this game, as Slovakia – having beaten the OAR – would clinch the group with a victory and an American loss of any variety.
  • New York at Ottawa: Though these teams look nothing like they did this time last year, tonight is a rematch of the 2017 Eastern Semifinals.
  • Montréal at Vegas: D David Schlemko was a member of the Golden Knights for less than a day before he was shipped to Montréal for a fifth-round pick in next year’s draft.
  • Germany vs. Norway: It’s a battle for third place in Group C!
  • Czech Republic vs. Switzerland: Umm… I wrote this post before Group A’s second games, so I don’t know important or unimportant this game will be. I guess we’ll just hope its a good match!

Beyond those games at the Olympics, I’m most drawn to the tilt between Anaheim and Minnesota, as the winner of that game will take a major step towards qualifying for the playoffs. However, since no club is officially qualifying or being eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention today, I think we have to take in the important game in Group B!

 

Before you say it: yes, I know the Russians are officially the “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” meaning the Russian flag shouldn’t be used. However, I am way too scared of the International Olympic Committee to be throwing the Olympic Rings around on this website.

We ain’t playing that game.

Anyways, back to the hockey. With a 1-0-1-0 record, Team USA is currently atop Group B – though only by a  slim one-point margin. If they can hold onto that position (easiest done with a regulation victory in this game), the Americans would earn a first-round bye and automatic entry into the quarterfinals.

Through two games, I’ve been most impressed with the United States’ effort on the defensive end – especially the effort of G Ryan Zapolski. Though his overall form has left more to be desired by this American fan, he’s managed to post a .915 save percentage and 1.99 GAA. Pair that with the group’s second-best defense, which has allowed an average of 23.5 shots against in its first two showings, and the Stars and Stripes have allowed only two goals per game – the (t)best in Group B.

Speaking of leaving much to be desired, the Americans’ offense has been nothing short of anemic by scoring only two goals apiece in their first showings.

That being said, F Ryan Donato (the Bruins’ second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft) has been far and away the most exciting skater Team USA has to offer. His 2-1-3 totals lead the squad, and he owns the distinction of being the only American to score in the USA’s 2-1 victory over Slovakia Thursday night, both on the power play.

Joining Donato in averaging a point-per-game are F Brian O’Neill (1-1-2 totals) and F Chris Bourque (0-2-2). Bourque was a major part of Donato’s two-goal performance a couple days ago, as he provided the secondary assist on both of the youngster’s markers.

As for the 1-0-0-1 Olympic Athletes from Russia, it’s a question of which side is going to show up for this morning’s tilt: the team that lost 3-2 in regulation to Slovakia, or the team that dominated Slovenia to a frightening 8-2 victory.

Considering I wasn’t alone in pegging the OAR – which currently occupies third place in the group – to come away with gold medals at the end of the tournament, I’m sure the Americans are planning on another positive showing from today’s opposition.

Even factoring in the statistics from their disappointing showing against the Slovaks, the OAR still ranks among the best in Group B. That is no more apparent than when looking at Красная Машина‘s (The Red Machine) offense, which has averaged a group-leading five goals per period.

If these Olympic Games are a proper representation, it looks like the Minnesota Wild found a steal of a player in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by selecting F Kirill Kaprizov, as he’s posted dominating 4-0-4 totals in only two games played.

Hold on, I want to make sure you caught that. By averaging two goals per game, Kaprizov has single-handedly matched the entirety of Team USA’s offensive effort. If that doesn’t make American Head Coach Tony Granato‘s heart beat a bit faster, he doesn’t deserve his job anymore.

Another major player in the Russian attack is F Nikita Gusev, who’s matched Kaprizov’s four goals with four assists of his own – three of which were apples on Kaprizov markers. In total, a whopping nine OAR skaters are averaging a point per game, including the likes of F Ilya Kovalchuk (2-1-3 totals), Columbus’ sixth-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft D Vladislav Gavrikov (1-1-2) and F Pavel Datsyuk (0-2-2).

Allowing an average of only 2.5 goals against per game, the Red Machine is just as strong in its defensive end, as its 17 shots allowed per game is far and away the best performance of the group. That’s allowed G Vasili Koshechkin a pretty easy tournament so far, as even though his .852 save percentage is far from impressive, it’s been good enough for him to post a 2.43 GAA.

The last time Team USA and the Russians squared off was on May 16 in group play of the 2017 IIHF World Championship in Cologne, Germany. The Americans won that game 5-3, thanks in large part to a two-goal game – including the game-winner – by F Kevin Hayes.

Perhaps the most important hint to how this game will end is found in the fact that Hayes, who provided the big goals in the last meeting between these sides, is in Ottawa today instead of PyeongChang. With that in mind, the OAR should be able to pull off the victory this morning.

However, perhaps the USA’s biggest weapon in this game is its goaltender. As Jokerit’s starter in the KHL, Zapolski has seen many of the OAR’s players. Considering he’s posted a .932 save percentage and 1.73 GAA with his professional club, perhaps he can bring that edge against the skaters he sees on a regular basis.


In yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, Finland’s women’s hockey team dominated Sweden to a 7-2 victory at Kwandong Hockey Centre, setting up a rematch against the United States in the Olympic semifinals.

Everything was going the Lady Lions’ way from the opening puck drop, as they found their game-winning goal in the first period by entering the first intermission with a 3-0 advantage. F Petra Nieminen (F Venla Hovi) scored the game’s opening goal at the 6:12 mark, followed only 5:20 later by F Riikka Valila (D Isa Rahunen) scoring to set the score at 2-0.

The game-winning play started with 4:10 remaining in the frame, as that’s when Sweden’s F Maria Lindh was caught tripping a Finn to earn herself a seat in the penalty box. With the five-on-four advantage, Suomi did not disappoint, scoring with only six seconds remaining before Lindh was released. F Susanna Tapani (F Noora Tulus and F Linda Valimaki) was the one to complete the play, beating G Sara Grahn to set to give the Lady Lions a three-goal advantage.

When play resumed in the second period, Finland’s winning ways continued as it needed only 7:14 of action for F Michelle Karvinen (D Minnamari Tuominen and D Ronja Savolainen) to score what was at the time a third insurance tally. Sweden finally got on the scoreboard at the 8:53 mark when F Emma Nordin (F Erika Grahm and D Annie Svedin) sneaked a shot past G Noora Raty, but Finland once again had a four-goal advantage only 36 later when Valila (Karvinen and Tapani) scored her second goal of the match. The second period ended with a 5-2 score thanks to F Rebecca Stenberg (D Maja Nylen Persson) burying  a shorthanded goal with 48 seconds remaining before the second intermission.

Any chance of a comeback by the Lady Crowns was demolished in the third period when F Emma Nuutinen (Tulus and Rahunen) and F Sanni Hakala (F Annina Rajahuhta) scored Finland’s final insurance braces, setting the score at the 7-2 final.

Raty and her defense performed marvelously in this game, as she saved 19-of-21 shots faced (.905 save percentage) for the victory. Meanwhile, Grahn took the loss after saving only eight-of-11 (.727). Following her poor performance in the first period, G Sarah Berglind took over goaltending duties for the final two frames, and she saved 16-of-20 (.8) for no decision.

Officially listed as the visitor in yesterday’s quarterfinal, the road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have pulled back within 24 points of the 70-42-17 hosts in the series.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 18

Skater of the Week: Connor McDavid

It feels sort of wrong that he hadn’t won this until now. Just doesn’t seem possible, right?

Likely a byproduct of the abysmal season Edmonton is having, McDavid has been enjoying a solid if less-than-stellar season (he’s still put up 64 points in 54 games, we’re just talking about the arguable best player in the world) and hadn’t made this esteemed list until now. But with eight points in four games this week (including a four-goal, five-point performance against the almighty Lightning), Edmonton’s lord and savior has claimed the throne.

McDavid saw a five-game point scoring streak (seven goals, 11 points) come to an end in Edmonton’s final game of the week, but managed to put up eight points in the week’s three prior contests, so he definitely is worthy of the nod.

Tendy of the Week: Devan Dubnyk

In a week of slim standout goaltending performances (apart from Andrei Vasilevskiy making what might actually be the greatest save in the history of hockey), Dubnyk’s 2-0-1 record manages to stand out, particularly paired with his .950 save percentage and 1.96 GAA.

Apart from giving up four goals in the overtime loss to Arizona (which came on 40 shots, allowing Dubnyk to still manage a .900 save percentage), Dubnyk backstopped two victories over division rivals to cap a stellar week, turning aside 35-of-37 shots faced against St. Louis, and posting a 44-save blanking of Chicago.

The lanky Saskatchawinian (I have no idea if that’s a real word, but it was fun to say) hasn’t quite matched his ridiculous numbers from last season to this point, but he’s still been more than solid and has the Wild poised for another playoff run.

*Editor’s note: It’s “Saskatchewanian,” Pete. But close enough.*

Game of the Week: Detroit Red Wings 6 @ New York Islanders 7 (OT), Friday February 9th, 2018

Someone pick up the damn phone, the 1980s are calling.

This was one of those games that just made you laugh, because nothing about it made any sense. Three goaltenders played in the game, none of them posting a save percentage higher than .857 (Petr Mrazek had a frankly disturbing .759 and played for the team that DIDN’T switch goaltenders). Nine, count them, nine skaters had multi-point games, including a hat trick for Brock Nelson, a four-point outing for Henrik Zetterberg, and Mathew Barzal‘s five-assist performance making him the first rookie in 100 years to post three five-point games in a season.

But perhaps the zaniest stat of all was the way the goals were posted.

Detroit was all over the Isles early, dominating the first period and taking a 3-0 lead into the locker room. New York could only answer one time in the second period, before drawing to within one early in the third, only to have the Wings score twice more in a 2:12 span to regain a three-goal lead. But with about six minutes to play, Tyler Bertuzzi would attempt to chop off the leg of Cal Clutterbuck, giving the Islanders a five-minute major power play opportunity. An opportunity they would capitalize upon thoroughly.

Brock Nelson. 5-3. Anders Lee. 5-4. Nick Leddy. Tie game. Josh Bailey. The Isles now somehow lead this game 6-5 with 1:49 to play after scoring four times on a single power play. Who could have predicted this? Who could even believe this? Who is writing the script for this movie? Who’s got Mike Green in the slot? Oh, nobody does, and with 29 seconds to play the Red Wings complete the circus act to tie the game at six and force overtime.

Nelson would complete his hat trick to finally end the chaos 3:15 into the extra frame, but if we’re honest, everyone who watched this game were the real winners*.

*Except my father, who is still questioning how his team could score six goals and lose a hockey game.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Sidney Crosby scored the 400th goal of his career on Sunday against the Blues. I can only speak positively of him for so long at any given time, so I’ll just end this right here.

Lars Eller got himself a five-year, $17.5M extension with the Capitals, making him probably the highest-paid person in the world named Lars that doesn’t play drums.

Alexandre Burrows decided not to appeal his 10-game suspension for being an absolute piece of…err…I mean kneeing Taylor Hall in the head…a lot. Personally, I was really hoping he would appeal the suspension, and the league would respond by making it an 11-game suspension, just because it’s Alex Burrows.

Mark Scheifele is back off of IR, adding even more firepower to a Jets squad that might just screw around and grab a Presidents’ Trophy.

The Rangers basically announced in a letter to their fans that they are dropping the franchise on a landmine and starting over, which is probably disheartening to the fanbase, but New York was only one point behind my Blue Jackets when the letter was published so, like, I’m definitely not thinking about that when I try to go to sleep or anything.

Jack Eichel is out for at least a month after suffering a high-ankle sprain. This is devastating news for the Sabres, as they lose a key piece in their pursuit of a playoff spot. (Nobody say anything and let’s see if any Buffalo fans know that was sarcasm)

February 3 – Day 115 – Green with envy

With as many games as are on a Saturday schedule, there’s always a possibility of something special happening. Let’s just see if one of the 13 games on today’s slate can fit the bill.

There’s two matinees on tap today (Anaheim at Montréal [RDS/TSN2] and Ottawa at Philadelphia [NHLN/RDS2]), both of which drop the puck at 1 p.m. The NHL kicks into high gear at 7 p.m. with a half-dozen tilts (Colorado at Winnipeg [SN], Toronto at Boston [CBC/CITY/NHLN/TVAS], St. Louis at Buffalo, Detroit at Florida, Pittsburgh at New Jersey and Columbus at the New York Islanders), followed by two more (the New York Rangers at Nashville and Minnesota at Dallas) an hour later. Next up is the 10 p.m. time slot, which features another pair of matchups (Tampa Bay at Vancouver [CBC] and Chicago at Calgary [SN]), while Arizona at Los Angeles waits half an hour before closing the evening out. All times Eastern.

What a selection of games! Here’s just a couple that caught my eye for reasons other than the standings:

  • Toronto at Boston: Not only is it an Original Six matchup, but the Leafs are only three points back of the Bruins for second in the Atlantic Division.
  • New York at Nashville: W Cody McLeod was traded to the Predators and they made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Does that mean the Rangers are going to the Finals this year?

Of those listed, the Toronto-Boston game is obviously the most enticing, but we just featured the Bruins two days ago. Instead, I think we turn our attention to an important Central Division battle.

 

In a wild turn of events, 28-18-5 Minnesota started play yesterday on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Beating Vegas 5-2 propelled the Wild past Colorado into the second wild card, but Minnesota can continue its climb tonight with a victory against the 29-19-4 Stars.

Let’s start with the Wild, who have been screaming up the standings lately by going 6-1-2 over their past nine games. As you might be able to tell by that recent run, everything seems to be going right in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, as the Wild are (t)fifth in both goals-for (3.11 per game) and goals-against (2.33 per game) since January 9.

With players like F Mikael Granlund and C Eric Staal on the same team, magic can happen any given night. Fortunately for Minnesota, that magic has been in abundance over the last nine games, as they’ve respectively posted 4-6-10 and 3-6-9 totals to average at least a point-per-game over this run to elevate their respective season marks to 15-25-40 and 22-24-46.

If there’s any problem with Granlund and Staal, it’s that there’s not six of them apiece. That’s not a knock on the rest of the Wild as much as it’s a compliment to the superb streak those two players are currently riding.

However that should be taken, it is of note that – even during this run of success – Minnesota gives up more than its fair share of shots against (30.67 per game since January 9, to be exact – the 14th-best in the league in that time). That’s where 20-10-3 G Devan Dubnyk comes into play, who’s posted a .921 save percentage and 2.26 GAA in his last seven starts. Both of those numbers are superior to his .917 and 2.63 marks on the season and are a testament to how well he’s been playing of late, and he’ll need to be on top of his game once again this evening against one of the better attacks in the NHL (more on that in a moment).

Dunyk’s three shutouts are the (t)seventh-most in the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t bet on him adding another this evening. Not only is Dallas’ offense one of the better corps in the league (again, we’ll get there in a second), but he was also in net for yesterday’s 5-2 victory against the Golden Knights. Though I would usually err on the side of caution on back-to-back games when it comes to netminders, I still expect him to start over 8-8-2 G Alex Stalock.

As for Dallas, the current fourth-best team in the Central Division and first wild card, everything has been going right over the past 18 days, as it is ranked third in goals-per-game (3.25), goals against-per-game (1.88) and shots against-per-game (27.88) since January 15. As might be expected with one of the most complete performances in the league in that time frame, the Stars have posted a solid 5-2-1 record in those eight games.

If you prescribe to my opinions on how the game should be played, I think we’ll agree that this almost unbelievable success is a direct result of nearly unbeatable puck possession in the offensive zone, which in and of itself yields goals.

Since I have yet to find a source that consistently tracks zone time, let’s go off the assumption that the team that spends more time in the offensive zone should fire more shots than the defending team. That seems like sound logic, right?

If that’s the case, the Stars have out-shot their last eight opponents 258-223 – a rate that approximately works out to 15 Stars shots for every 13 they’ve allowed during this run. That doesn’t seem like much of an advantage, but it equals 35 more shots for Dallas than it has allowed, which breaks down into a differential of 4.375 per game.

Does your head hurt yet? Then let’s talk about what’s ultimately matters: the scoreboard.

As mentioned before, the Stars are averaging 3.25 goals per game since January 15. That’s a lot of scoring, and RW Alexander Radulov and D John Klingberg have been responsible for much of it. Respectively posting 4-5-9 and 0-9-9 totals over these last eight games, they’ve increased their respective season marks to 20-28-48 and 6-43-49 – the two highest point totals in Big D.

What makes both of them averaging more than a point-per-game over this run most impressive is the fact that they’ve joined together on one scoring play only once since January 15. That means these two players have had a hand in creating or scoring 17 of the Stars’ last 26 individual goals – more than 65 percent.

Talk about presence creating presents.

Of course, talking exclusively about Klingberg (who’s 43 assists lead all defensemen and ranks [t]second among all skaters) and Radulov totally ignores the fact that F Tyler Seguin also wears victory green. Seguin has been nearly unstoppable all season, as his 24 goals are (t)eighth-most in the NHL.

Dominating the offensive zone also has the luxury of creating a safe defensive end. After all, the opposition can’t challenge 8-5-1 G Kari Lehtonen if it doesn’t have the puck!

You’ll notice I brought up Lehtonen and not 21-14-3 G Ben Bishop. That’s because Bishop will be unavailable this evening due to taking a puck to the face Thursday night while sitting on the bench. Considering Lehtonen’s .915 season save percentage is a little bit lower than Bishop’s .917, Dallas’ skaters limiting Minnesota’s opportunities will be of the utmost importance if the Stars want to keep the Wild below them in the table.

Tonight’s game is only the second meeting between these division rivals this season. The first occurred December 27 at Xcel Energy Center, and the Wild came away with a 4-2 victory thanks to D Jared Spurgeon‘s one-goal, four-block game that earned him First Star honors.

Bishop being out this evening is a major blow to the Stars. Even though Lehtonen is riding a three-game winning streak, I just don’t see him being able to slow down a Minnesota offense that has found a nice groove.


The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 7-4 yesterday at PPG Paints Arena in an expected barn burner of a DtFR Game of the Day.

Don’t mistake the final score for Pittsburgh dominating the entire game. While it is true the Pens didn’t trail in this game, it was in fact a very competitive matchup, as the clubs were tied 3-3 entering the third period.

The first period ended in favor of Pittsburgh, as Second Star of the Game RW Phil Kessel (C Riley Sheahan and F Jake Guentzel) buried a wrist shot 2:11 into the frame, followed 13:39 later by an unassisted LW Carl Hagelin wrister. However, it wasn’t just the Penguins that found success in the frame, as Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (D Christian Djoos) sneaked a wrister between the pipes with 1:50 remaining in the period to pull the Caps within a 2-1 deficit.

If my imagination is correct, Kessel stood in the middle of the dressing room during the first intermission and challenged his teammates to score faster than him in the second period. RW Patric Hornqvist (C Sidney Crosby and First Star F Evgeni Malkin) heeded that call, as he scored his power play snap shot only 26 seconds after the initial puck drop. However, that was the only goal the Pens struck in the middle frame, as D Dmitry Orlov (C Lars Eller and D Matt Niskanen) scored a slap shot only 2:42 later to pull Washington back within a goal. F Evgeny Kuznetsov completed the comeback with 8:03 remaining in the second period, setting the score at 3-3 on a wrister.

Two exciting periods set the table for a thrilling third, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Things started quickly, as Malkin (Kessel and D Olli Maatta) returned the lead to the Pens only 1:01 into the frame, but an Ovechkin (Kuznetsov and Orlov) snapper pulled Washington right back into a 4-4 tie only 49 seconds later.

The Capitals’ decline began when C Nicklas Backstrom was sent to the penalty box at the 4:40 mark for hi-sticking W Bryan Rust. As luck would have it, Rust (D Kris Letang and Sheahan) would be the one to take advantage of the man-advantage, cleaning up a saved Letang wrister by tapping the loose puck past G Braden Holtby‘s left skate only 32 seconds before Backstrom was to be released from the sin bin.

At the 7:59 mark, the Penguins added their first insurance goal courtesy of a Kessel (Malkin and Hagelin) snapper. 2:01 later, Malkin (Crosby and Guentzel) made use of the man-advantage caused by D Madison Bowey tripping F Dominik Simon to score the final goal of the game, a power play tip-in, to set the 7-4 final score.

G Matthew Murray earned the victory after saving 29-of-33 shots faced (.879 save percentage), leaving the loss to Holtby, who saved 27-of-33 (.818). After Kessel’s insurance goal, Holtby was lifted in favor of G Philipp Grubauer for the final 12:01 of play. The backup saved five-of-six (.833) for no decision.

Home teams are standing their ground in the DtFR Game of the Day series of late, as they’ve won the last three matchups. As a result, they’ve improved their record in the series to 63-37-15, which is 23 points better than the visitors’.

January 25 – Day 110 – Daddy’s home!

Unless you’re headed to a game, make sure to sit down in front of your TV tonight because there’s much to be watched!

As hinted at yesterday, the NHL is closing out the unofficial first half of the season with a bang today, as all but Los Angeles is in action (and believe me, the Kings are 100 percent happy with this situation). Like it does most weeknights, the action begins at 7 p.m. with three games (Nashville at New Jersey, Tampa Bay at Philadelphia [SN1] and Minnesota at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by four more (Carolina at Montréal [RDS/TSN2], Boston at Ottawa [RDS2], Chicago at Detroit [NBCSN] and Washington at Florida). Next up is Colorado at St. Louis in the 8 p.m. time slot, with Toronto at Dallas dropping the puck 30 minutes later. 9 p.m. marks the beginning of a pair of tilts (Calgary at Edmonton and Columbus at Arizona), while three contests (Buffalo at Vancouver, the New York Islanders at Vegas [SN1] and Winnipeg at Anaheim) wait until 10 p.m. to get underway. Finally, the New York Rangers at San Jose close out the evening as the 10:30 p.m. nightcap. All times Eastern.

There’s more than a few of tonight’s games that I’ll have my eye on…

  • Minnesota at Pittsburgh: It’s the return of F Matt Cullen to PPG Paints Arena. Time for him to grab his third Stanley Cup ring!
  • Boston at Ottawa: No matter how poor the Sens are this year, it doesn’t take away from their playoff run from a season ago – which began with a six-game series with the Bruins.
  • Chicago at Detroit: Original Six matchups are always fun, right?
  • Colorado at St. Louis: Welcome back to the Gateway City, W Nail Yakupov.
  • Calgary at Edmonton: This rivalry always has the chance of getting truly nasty.

It’s been a while since we’ve featured either the Pens or the Wild, so let’s head to the Steel City.

 

Remember when you were little and you would run to your dad every night when he got home from work?

That’s kind of what happened at the Penguins’ morning skate today when Cullen showed up – and yes, all of them probably did call him “dad.”

Cullen has been a bit of a journeyman over the course of his career. Since being selected 35th-overall in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by Anaheim (back when they were the Mighty Ducks), he’s worn eight different sweaters, including two stints with both the Hurricanes (with whom he won the 2006 Stanley Cup) and the Wild.

One of those teams is, of course, Pittsburgh. After not being offered a deal after two years in Nashville, he signed a one-year, $800 thousand contract with the Pens to be their fourth-line center, as well as provide a veteran voice in the dressing room, for the 2015-’16 season.

It goes without saying that it was a marvelous relationship. He posted 16-16-32 totals (all top-eight marks on the team that season) from his bottom-six position during the regular season, followed up by decent 4-2-6 marks in the postseason to help the Pens to their fourth Stanley Cup.

In fact, the pairing was so good that General Manager Jim Rutherford offered Cullen another one-year deal to stay with the club for the 2016-’17 season, this time with a $1 million price tag.

The results came up spades once again for Pittsburgh, as the resident father figure posted even better 13-18-31 totals (all top-11 on the squad) in 10 fewer games played, followed by a 2-7-9 effort in the playoffs as the Penguins beat Cullen’s former team for their second-consecutive and fifth-overall title.

However, this offseason wasn’t as simple as the year before’s. Not only did Rutherford have to figure out how to successfully navigate multiple signings, but Cullen was mulling retiring from the NHL. That forced the Penguins to look elsewhere to fill their holes at center on the third and fourth line (with a roller coaster of results, ranging from the highest heights to the lowest lows), making Cullen’s decision on whether he would return to the club or not for him.

With Cullen on the outside looking in, Minnesota General Manager Chuck Fletcher caught wind that he was interested in at least one last ride and signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal to play the same veteran fourth-line center role he did in Pittsburgh.

I can’t vouch for his presence in the dressing room, but the Virginia, Minn. native’s solid performance on the ice has not followed him back to his hometown team. Missing only one game so far this season, Cullen has posted only 4-7-11 totals for .23 points-per-game, well under the .41 he managed in 154 regular season games in Pittsburgh. If he continues scoring at this pace, Cullen is in line for 19 points in 81 games played. It’d be the worst season of his career.

Fortunately for 26-17-5 Minnesota – the sixth-best team in the Central Division – it has 18-9-3 G Devan Dubnyk at its disposal. When he’s on fire like he is right now, he keeps the Wild in every game they play. As a result, Minnesota has earned a point in six-straight games with a 4-0-2 record.

Dubnyk has started four of the Wild’s last six games, and with much success. He’s posted a .94 save percentage and 1.73 GAA to improve his season numbers to .919 and 2.59. As a result of his winning ways and the opportunity to play behind a defense that has allowed only a 12th-fewest 30.5 shots against-per-game since January 9, the Wild have allowed a (t)second-best average of 1.83 goals against per game during this solid run.

As mentioned before, Cullen rejoining the Wild was a result of the Penguins turning to other players to fill the third and fourth-line center positions. Currently, those players are C Riley Sheahan and F Jean-Sebastien Dea, and it seems Pittsburgh is starting to find success with them in those positions.

However, the real reason 26-21-3 Pittsburgh – the Eastern Conference’s second wild card – has been wining lately is because of some stellar play in net. Over their past eight games, the Pens have gone 6-2-0 by allowing only 2.13 goals per game, the fourth-best mark in the league since January 5.

Specifically, much of that defensive success has occurred in the crease since the Pens’ defense has allowed 30.88 shots against during this run. Of the three goaltenders that have played since January 5, 2-2-0 G Casey DeSmith has easily been the most impressive and will be in net this evening for the Pens.

In line for the fourth start of his NHL career tonight, DeSmith has posted an imposing .96 save percentage and 1.35 GAA since January 5 in three starts. In fact, he’s been so solid lately that, to make room for 15-12-1 G Matthew Murray returning to the roster, the Penguins sent 9-4-2 G Tristan Jarry back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL instead of him. After starting the season as Jarry’s backup with the Baby Pens this season, that is certainly a major compliment to DeSmith and the potential Head Coach Mike Sullivan sees in him.

The Penguins have already made their annual trip to St. Paul this season, but it is not a trip they look back upon fondly. Minnesota ended up winning the October 28 game 2-1 thanks to First Star C Mikko Koivu‘s game-winning goal at the 9:03 mark of the third period.

If picking winners of games was as simple as choosing the team with the superior overall record, Minnesota would be in line for two points this evening. However, the Wild have a miserable 9-13-1 record on the road this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can perform well away from the State of Hockey.


With an overtime winner from Third Star of the Game LW Tanner Pearson, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The Flames’ lone goal of the game was struck with 5:57 remaining in first period, courtesy of Second Star C Sean Monahan (LW Johnny Gaudreau and W Micheal Ferland). The wrist shot is Monahan’s 22nd goal on the season, the most on the club.

Including this game, Calgary’s average of 10:52 penalty minutes per game is fifth-most in the league. The Flames certainly lived up to their reputation, as they served a whopping 22 PIM, including a C Mikael Backlund misconduct. Most of those infractions took place in the second period, as both squads committed four infractions each.

However, the penalty that led to the Kings’ game-tying goal didn’t take place until the 3:23 mark of the final frame when C Mark Jankowski was caught tripping C Anze Kopitar. 46 seconds later, D Jake Muzzin (Kopitar and D Drew Doughty) buried a power play slap shot to tie the game at one-all.

With neither squad able to break the draw, the contest advanced into the five-minute three-on-three overtime period.  Almost all five of those minutes were necessary, but Pearson (Doughty and W Dustin Brown) was able to avoid the shootout with 27 seconds to spare. The main action on the scoring play occurred when Doughty faked a clapper from above the face-off circles. That fake made G Mike Smith commit just long enough that he wasn’t able to react in time when Doughty set up the Pearson wrister, which beat him five-hole.

First Star G Darcy Kuemper earned the victory after saving 30-of-31 shots faced (.968 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Smith, who saved 25-of-27 (.926).

The road teams are coming in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Visitors in the series have won five in a row and earned points in seven-straight, pulling them within 17 points of the 59-36-15 hosts.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 14

Skater of the Week: Mathew Barzal

These bye-weeks are making things weird.

Barzal gets the nod for this week’s award having only played one game during that span. But what a game it was.

Helping his Islanders to a 7-2 rout of the rival Rangers, young Barzal tallied his second five-point game of his breakout rookie campaign with two goals and three helpers. Perhaps more amazing is the fact that all five points were scored at even-strength, no power play help needed. This also landed Barzal a perfect +5 rating for the night, to go along with a .5 shooting percentage and even tallying the official game-winning goal (probably not worth much in a rout, but it pads the stats all the same).

With 44 points in 44 games to this point in the season, Barzal continues to make a very strong case for a Calder Trophy nod come season’s end.

Tendy of the Week: Mike Smith

Posting a perfect 3-0-0 record this week on the strength of just four goals allowed in those contests to rack up a .963 save percentage and a GAA just a smidge over 1.30, Smith has his Calgary Flames scorching. (Pun entirely intended)

Smith started the week stopping 33-of-35 shots faced in an overtime victory against the Wild, before nullifying 33-of-34 against the league-leading Lightning and 38-of-39 against Carolina to extend his winning streak to six games.

Calgary went out and got Smith to fill the one glaring weakness they felt they had, and if he can keep this level of play up, they could be deadly.

Game of the Week: Boston Bruins 4 vs Montreal Canadiens 3 (SO), Saturday January 13th, 2018

The 739th all-time meeting between the Original Six arch-rivals had a little something extra to offer, as it was the first meeting of the two squads since Claude Julien‘s firing from Boston and hiring by Montreal late last season. A little bit of extra hype that this tilt ended up living up to.

In total this one saw seven goals, 62 shots, 77 hits, and two power play goals on five opportunities.

Max Pacioretty would get things rolling just 3:22 into the game, collecting the rebound from a deflected Victor Mete point shot and stuffing it just inside the near post behind Tuukka Rask to give the Habs the early advantage. Most of the first period would then pass by with little affair until Brad Marchand would streak in on the back door and receive a gorgeous Patrice Bergeron centering feed from the far board and bury it top shelf to even the score at the 17:40 mark on the power play, and the two teams would carry the 1-1 score into the first intermission.

The second period would see things really open up, starting with a Jake DeBrusk breakaway tally just 2:55 into the frame. Charlie McAvoy caught the Montreal defense standing still and fed a gorgeous tape-to-tape pass to a streaking DeBrusk who made no mistake en route to his 10th goal of the year. Just 2:50 later, though, Nic Deslauriers would pounce on a Zdeno Chara turnover at center ice and streak past the stumbling Boston captain into the high slot, where he would unleash a laser of a wrist shot past the blocker of Tuukka Rask to draw his Habs back even. Then just 3:06 later Montreal would retake the lead on the power play, as Alex Galchenyuk would receive a cross-ice pass from Jonathan Drouin, take a couple strides towards the net, and absolutely smoke a wrist shot over the shoulder of Tuukka Rask into the top of the net to put his team up 3-2. The Bruins controlled a lot of the play throughout the rest of the 2nd, but were met with some solid Carey Price saves at every opportunity until at the 17:42 mark David Krejci was able to corral a bouncing puck in the slot and wire it past a surprised Price and even the game at three heading into the second intermission.

 

The third period would see both teams register the most shots of any period (12 for Boston, 10 for Montreal), but strong play by both goaltenders (and a few clutch saves by the goalpost to the right of Rask) kept things knotted at three to end regulation and send the proceedings to three-on-three overtime. Montreal looked to have it won in the waning seconds when a Jakub Jerabek shot found it’s way up and over Rask, but a diving Torey Krug managed to bat the puck out of the blue paint before Pacioretty or Plekanec could get a stick on it.

So off to the shootout we went. Both Paul Byron and Jake DeBrusk would score in the first frame, but after that the two goaltenders shut things down for the remaining two shooters a side to force shootout overtime, where Rask would shut the door on Galchenyuk to allow Brad Marchand to streak in and bury the game-winner right through the five hole of Carey Price and directly into the hearts of the Montreal faithful.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

I saved the Phillip Danault story from the Boston/Montreal game for this section, because it definitely deserves to be highlighted. Danault is reported to be doing alright and was released from the hospital Sunday after an overnight evaluation. The Habs forward took a Zdeno Chara slapshot off the side of the head in Saturday night’s contest, and was eventually stretchered off of the ice. A truly sombering scene in a very exciting contest, Chara was one of the first to Danault’s aid and appeared to apologize to him as he was loaded up and carried off the ice. Between this and the Girardi/Frk incident last week, I’m thinking maybe people should stop trying to block the hardest shots in the game with their faces.

Speaking of near-disasters, Milan Lucic came millimeters from life-threatening danger himself when he tangled with Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek and, upon the two falling to the ice, had his neck cut by Nosek’s skate. The picture of the stitch job is pretty unnerving, and according to Lucic the cut was mere millimeters too shallow to open up his jugular vein.

One of the NHL’s most impressive streaks is coming to an end. After 830 consecutive games, Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano will be forced to miss the next two contests after being suspended for a very-not legal hit on Kings forward Adrian Kempe. A very heated contest led to a lot of physicality, and the play was certainly very out of character for Cogliano, who sacrifices a streak that could have broken the NHL record next season had it continued.

The Vegas Golden Knights have formed their first rivalry, but not exactly the sort you’d expect. The United States Army has filed a copyright challenge to the franchise on the grounds that they already possessed the rights to the name ‘Golden Knights’ for its West Point parachute jump team. The franchise’s response? A spectacularly sarcastic tweet, obviously.

Jack Johnson has requested a trade out of Columbus. A pending UFA, it is generally believed that Johnson wants to be traded to a team where he will have a chance at seeing more playing time in an effort to raise his stock on the market, after seeing his minutes plummet in recent weeks. While many CBJ fans (myself included) hold ‘JMFJ’ in high regards as a person, trading the defender had become a very common topic in Columbus long before the player’s request, as his production has dipped significantly, highlighting his defensive shortcomings and bringing about the argument for his replacement by younger options within the CBJ system.

Tampa has lost star defender Victor Hedman for 3-6 weeks with a lower body injury. I’m pretty sure if they lost every game in that time they would still be like 4th in the league, but still, it’s a bummer.

Am I the only one who thinks these Olympic Games are actually gonna be pretty fun? As rosters get released, obviously the star power we’re used to isn’t there, but convince me that these lesser-known guys, most of them being players who probably never even dreamed they’d get this chance, aren’t going to play their absolute hearts out every single second of every single game. I think it’s gonna be great.

On a final note, we learned this week via Doc Emrick that Pierre McGuire has undergone successful surgery to remove a cancer-infected prostate. He is recovering and is hopeful to rejoin the broadcast team in time for the Olympics. Now I, like many, can admit to yelling at Pierre to stop yapping on about whatever ridiculous stat or story he knows about some third-line player on a team I don’t like, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that cancer should take a Chara slapshot to the mush and a few skates to its main artery. So get well, Pierre, Eddy-O and everyone else that has to fight this miserable disease.

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.

Hey, why isn’t (insert NHL team here) playing?

Still trying to figure out why your favorite team has games all next week, but your rival gets to take five-straight days off? Or maybe you’re most concerned about your fantasy hockey team? Either way, *NSYNC has the answer:

The NHL is in Year 2 of its experiment with bye weeks. Some things – like the average length of each team’s break – stayed the same. 19 of the 31 clubs are taking the minimum five days off, while 11 others get an extra sixth before returning to action. Of course, the winners of the bye week lottery are the Ottawa Senators, who get a whopping seven days to rest, regroup and rediscover the art of ice hockey before hosting St. Louis.

But there are a few differences from last year, most notably where these breaks occur within the league schedule. Last season when the bye weeks debuted, the Islanders and Penguins had already started and finished their breaks by now, while others wouldn’t see the gap in their schedule until well beyond the All-Star Break or even the trade deadline. In fact, the Ducks didn’t take their week off until the beginning of March.

It was probably because Anaheim is on Pacific Time. That’s how time zones work, right?

Anyways, all 31 bye weeks this season – whether five, six or seven days – will start and end in the span of the 18 days between today and January 19.

Though initial thoughts were that the bye weeks were consolidated in anticipation of the NHL potentially releasing its players to their respective national federations for the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, it instead will simply be an opportunity for the league’s scheduler to determine which format is better for business.

But we’re not worried about attendance, advertising dollars or TV ratings here at Down the Frozen River (actually, that’s a lie: we love to talk about that stuff during podcasts). Let’s talk about who’s going to be off when. Teams are presented in order of the league table as it stands entering play January 7, and you might find some notes from myself and @nlanciani53.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

29-9-3, 61 points, leading Presidents’ Trophy race

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: A hot team must cool off a bit and then play the Vegas Golden Knights on their first night back to action? Talk about a prison sentence. At least they’ve still got the Presidents’ Trophy (lead) as consolation.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

28-10-2, 58 points, leading the Western Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts the NY Rangers on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Son, where the Golden Knights are from, they don’t need no breaks. Polar opposites of the Tampa Bay Lightning bye week, Vegas plays a good team before taking time off. Then they play Edmonton. Next!

Connor’s Notes: That may be true, but there’s surely some concern among Gerard Gallant and his staff that the Knights just might lose some of this positive energy over the break. They’ve posted a 9-1-0 record over their last 10, and it’d be a shame if the only reason this club drops from Cloud 9 to Cloud 8 is just five little days off.

WINNIPEG JETS

24-11-7, 55 points, leading the Central Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Calgary on January 20

Nick’s Notes: The Winnipeg Jets are vying for first place in the Central Division this season after missing the playoffs last year. Their second best point-scorer (that’s right, point-scorer, not goal-scorer, Patrik Laine), Mark Scheifele‘s been nursing an upper body injury and this break won’t hurt the team for a week while he remains out of the lineup.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

24-11-6, 54 points, second in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 16

Nick’s Notes: Most people think the party never stops in Vegas, but they’re wrong. The party never stops in Smashville and let’s just hope none of the Predators players get carried away on Broadway in their week off.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

26-16-2, 54 points, third in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Florida on January 9

Bye week: January 10-15 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Toronto on January 16

Connor’s Notes: Any way to avoid playing games while Jaden Schwartz‘ ankle is still healing is a good thing. While he won’t be ready to go until the end of the month, the Blues will hope to get out of a rut that has led to them posting a 4-6-0 record over their last 10 games entering Sunday.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

25-13-3, 53 points, leading the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 18

Nick’s Notes: It’s not that Braden Holtby‘s been bad, but he’s having his worst season since 2013-14, so like, maybe send him to a remote mountain top or whatever it takes for Holtby to regain his form and focus (a water bottle usually does the trick). Seriously though, his 2.68 GAA and .917 save percentage is not great, Bob.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

24-13-5, 53 points, second in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: Hosted Nashville on January 6, lost 4-3

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Anaheim on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Best of luck to the Los Angeles Kings who will smash bodies against the boards with Nashville leading into their bye week and then smash bodies all over again with the Anaheim Ducks fresh off their vacations. It’s a grueling game. Ice those bruises.

BOSTON BRUINS

23-10-6, 52 points, second in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Montréal on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Similar to Vegas’ current run of success, with an 8-0-2 record over their last 10 games played entering Sunday, the Bruins arguably have the most positive energy to lose by going on break of any team in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately for them, they’ll play in what I expect to be a rivalry game that’s even more heated than usual given the Habs’ position in the standings to get right back into the swing of things.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

25-16-2, 52 points, third in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Ottawa on January 10

Bye week: January 11-15 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 16

Connor’s Notes: While the Leafs aren’t currently certain he’ll be ready to go by then, the original hope was that sophomore defenseman Nikita Zaitsev‘s lower-body injury would be healed by the time Toronto returned to action against the Notes. If St. Louis’ offense is ticking that day, his presence in the defensive zone will be a big help to Frederik Andersen

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

22-11-7, 51 points, second in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At the NY Islanders on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Philadelphia January 13

Nick’s Notes: The New Jersey Devils have been quietly good as of late. They’re this year’s biggest surprise outside of the Golden Knights. Nico Hischier just turned 19, so unless he’s going outside of the United States for his break, he can’t (legally) party hard.

DALLAS STARS

24-16-3, 51 points, fourth in the Central Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Edmonton on January 6, won 5-1

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Colorado on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Wouldn’t it be mean if nobody tells Kari Lehtonen when the break is so he just drives up to the practice rink on the first day like “where’d everybody go”? Just a thought.

NEW YORK RANGERS

22-14-5, 49 points, third in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Great, another week off means Henrik Lundqvist has to wait even longer for a Stanley Cup.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

23-16-3, 49 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division – first wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 12

Bye week: January 13-17 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Dallas on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Columbus Blue Jackets have been the St. Louis Blues of the Eastern Conference this season. One week they’re amazing, the next week they’re losing. A lot.

Connor’s Notes: Nick is right, and the Jackets are in one of their losing funks right now. Entering Sunday, they’ve posted a 3-5-2 record over their last 10 games played. They won’t regain any of their four injured players during the break, but perhaps John Tortorella can find a way to regroup his troops before they lose any more ground in the Metro.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

21-12-6, 48 points, third in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Winnipeg on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Arizona on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Joe Thornton should use this break to regrow that part of his beard that got torn off his face by Nazem Kadri in Toronto.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

22-16-3, 47 points, fifth in the Central Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosted Minnesota on January 6, won 7-2

Bye week: January 7-12 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At Dallas on January 13

Connor’s Notes: Goaltender Semyon Varlamov should be prepared to return to action following the bye week after suffering a lower body injury on January 2, and there’s a possibility J.T. Compher get back into the lineup too. However, considering the Avs’ unbelievable position in the standings, does Jared Bednar even think about pulling Jonathan Bernier?

MINNESOTA WILD

22-17-3, 47 points, sixth in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19

First game out of the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Oft-injured and finally healthy, the Minnesota Wild should place everyone in bubblewrap for their bye week. Just a suggestion.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

19-15-9, 47 points, fourth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Calgary on January 6, lost 3-2

Bye week: January 7-12

First game out of the bye: At Los Angeles on January 13

Connor’s Notes: With Corey Perry returning to action last night against the Flames, Anaheim is effectively at 100 percent once again after losing basically every star at one point or another this season. After seeing what an injured Ducks team was capable of, the Pacific Division should get ready, because a rested and healthy Ducks team just might wreck havoc against weak competition.

CALGARY FLAMES

21-16-4, 46 points, fifth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Carolina on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Winnipeg on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Whoever’s running the airport gates in Calgary should make sure that wherever the player’s are going doesn’t actually say “Seattle” on their ticket. Unless the gate agent is originally from Seattle. *dramatic Twin Peaks music plays in the background*

CAROLINA HURRICANES

19-14-8, 46 points, fifth in the Metropolitan Division – second wild card

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Detroit on January 20

Nick’s Notes: One thing’s for sure, even with their potential new majority owner, none of the Carolina Hurricanes players are going back to Hartford for their break. What a shame.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

21-19-3, 45 points, sixth in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Boston on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Phil Kessel doesn’t like time off (remember the 2016 World Cup of Hockey?) and Matthew Murray should probably go to the same place as Braden Holtby for a week. Murray’s goals-against average is almost a 3.0.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

19-15-6, 44 points, last in the Central Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Detroit on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts the NY Islanders on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Jeff Glass is the feel good story of 2018 so far, so why would anyone want to see him take five nights off? *Checks standings* Oh, right, this team isn’t in playoff worthy right now.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

18-15-8, 44 points, seventh in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Buffalo on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At New Jersey on January 13

Nick’s Notes: Someone make sure the Philadelphia Flyers don’t try to move to the Atlantic Division over their bye week. They’ll do anything to make the playoffs this season.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

20-18-4, 44 points, last in the Metropolitan Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts New Jersey on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 13

Connor’s Notes: The reason the Islanders have been making by with their horrendous defense, which was made worse by Calvin de Haan requiring a season-ending shoulder surgery, has been their explosive offense. Josh Bailey should be back at 100 percent following New York’s bye to reunite the BLT Line, allowing the Isles to get back to their version of Russian Roulette: finding out which goaltender is going to allow just one more goal than the other.

DETROIT RED WINGS

17-16-7, 41 points, fourth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Tampa Bay on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Pittsburgh on January 13

Nick’s Notes: If the Detroit Red Wings were a young, rebuilding, team I’d recommend a five-day long pizza party at The Pizza Box (Little Caesar’s Arena). Maybe they can figure out the right way to tank during their time off instead of winning a lot before the break.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

17-18-5, 39 points, fifth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Calgary on January 12

Bye week: January 13-18 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vegas on January 19

Connor’s Notes: Just as James Reimer is beginning to run out of steam, Roberto Luongo is expected to return to the Panthers’ crease with his club seven points outside playoff position. Whether he resumes his starting job before or after the bye, the break allows both of them to be fully rested.

EDMONTON OILERS

18-21-3, 39 points, sixth in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Vegas on January 13

Bye week: January 14-19 (six days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Peter Chiarelli can’t possibly figure out how he’s going to save his team in six days when he spent $21 million on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in about that amount of time over the summer.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

16-19-6, 38 points, seventh in the Pacific Division

Final game before the bye: At Minnesota on January 14

Bye week: January 15-19 (five days)

First game out of the bye: At Edmonton on January 20

Nick’s Notes: Like Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets, Bo Horvat and the Vancouver Canucks haven’t seen each other in a little while due to injury. Take some time and rest up.

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS

17-20-4, 38 points, sixth in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: Hosts Vancouver on January 7

Bye week: January 8-12 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Boston on January 13

Nick’s Notes: I’m pretty sure you can’t trade players during your bye week, so don’t try to move Max Pacioretty while nobody’s paying attention, Montreal.

OTTAWA SENATORS

14-17-9, 37 points, seventh in the Atlantic Division

Final game before the bye: At Toronto on January 10

Bye week: January 11-17 (seven days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts St. Louis on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Ottawa Senators will find a way to lose games over their seven day break. Meanwhile, Eugene Melnyk will have just enough time to figure out an escape plan while nobody’s at Canadian Tire Centre.

BUFFALO SABRES

10-22-9, 29 points, last in the Eastern Conference

Final game before the bye: Hosts Columbus on January 11

Bye week: January 12-17 (six days)

First game out of the bye: At the NY Rangers on January 18

Nick’s Notes: The Sabres should hold an exhibition matchup with some bantam teams while on their break. You know, so they can get better.

ARIZONA COYOTES

10-27-6, 26 points, last in the NHL

Final game before the bye: Hosted the NY Rangers on January 6, won 2-1 in a shootout

Bye week: January 7-11 (five days)

First game out of the bye: Hosts Edmonton on January 12

Nick’s Notes: Wait, you mean Arizona hasn’t already been taking time off all season?


Final notes: I strongly dislike how the NHL is abandoning entire markets for a week at a time. This is most noticeable in the United States’ two biggest cities: New York and Los Angeles. All five teams that play in those markets will be dormant for the same five days (January 8-12). Why didn’t they stagger these byes so those important markets would still have at least one squad active at all times? After all, if there’s one thing Devils fans love to see as much as a Jersey win, it’s a Rangers loss. Whether they take in that loss at Madison Square Garden or from their couch doesn’t ultimately matter. The fact that those markets could turn their attention away from the NHL to either the Clippers, Knicks or Friends reruns on TBS does.

But this extends further. The entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be shut off from NHL hockey from January 8-12 (The same days as New York and Los Angeles? Who is making these decisions?), as neither the Flyers nor Penguins will be in action. Boston and Montréal? Nope, they’re both on the bye at the same time too (you guessed it, January 8-12). The Blues and Predators can vacation together as well – though I doubt they’d want to – as they are both out of action from January 10-15.

I’m sure the league’s competition committee is going to claim that they’re trying to reduce the possibility of one particular team getting too much of an advantage, but this just seems silly from a business perspective. If that is truly the case, perhaps one day when the league reaches 32 teams it will simply shut down an entire conference for five days and then the other (the odd number of teams right now makes scheduling a little… interesting in that scenario), or – the more likely of these two options – perchance expand the distribution of byes over the course of three weeks instead of just two. Who knows?

Beyond this issue, while I don’t necessarily like where it is in the schedule, I do like that the NHL has condensed the time period for bye weeks in the season. Keeping track of which teams had and hadn’t taken their week off last season was a bother, and this system eliminates that. Of course, we’ll know how NBC and Sportsnet react based on how these byes are arranged next year.

As for my final complaint, the byes have the possibility of creating a very staggered January. We just got out of the three-day holiday break 12 days ago. Each team has played an average of only 5.4 games since then. Now we have these bye weeks of at least five days, and the four-day All-Star Break (January 26-29) is only 20 days out. If those sentences were confusing, I’m concerned that’s how the month of January is going to feel – scattered hockey thoughts until Groundhog’s Day.

The NHL Players’ Association demanded these bye weeks in return for the league turning the All-Star Game into the divisional three-on-three format we have had for the past two years. They’re not going anywhere: the players obviously like the idea of getting some time off, and putting it near the midway point of the season seems like a logical idea.

However, how this change is impacting the league’s product is still being understood. Unless we could see a plausible situation where bye weeks don’t happen until the end of February or March (remember, that’s likely after the trade deadline), the existence of the midway-point byes could be yet another reason the NHL could axe the All-Star Game, eliminating that break altogether.

Throw in the fact that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement could expire as soon as 2020’s offseason – should either party opt out early – and no later than the summer of 2022 and we could be looking at a whole heap of changes  – or a whole heap of no hockey – within the next four years.

January 6 – Day 91 – Hej baby

With the NHL’s bye weeks starting up tomorrow, there’s lots of action for us to take in today!

Making today even more amazing, the league has scheduled two matinee games for our enjoyment. The first involves St. Louis at Philadelphia (SN) at 1 p.m., followed two hours later by Edmonton at Dallas. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. has three contests for us (Carolina at Boston, Vancouver at Toronto [CBC/NHLN/SN] and Tampa Bay at Ottawa [CITY/SN1/TVAS]), while the New York Rangers at Arizona waits until 8 p.m. to drop the puck. Minnesota visits Colorado at 9 p.m., with Anaheim at Calgary (CBC/SN) trailing an hour later and Nashville at Los Angeles closing the evening off at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Though there’s more than a few stellar matchups on tap today, three caught my eye before even the first puck was dropped on the season.

  • St. Louis at Philadelphia: The Blues and Flyers swapped C Jori Lehtera and F Brayden Schenn this summer. Considering Schenn has posted 17-25-42 totals this season compared to Lehtera’s 0-2-2, I’d say the winner of the trade is self-evident.
  • Minnesota at Colorado: Tonight at the Pepsi Center, RW Milan Hejduk‘s 23 is being lifted to the rafters to reside with five other Avalanche greats.
  • Anaheim at Calgary: There’s no love lost here: this is a rematch from the Western Conference’s first round that the Flames would rather forget.

It might surprise you, but one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now is actually the Colorado Avalanche. Let’s see if they can keep this positive energy rolling for Hejduk’s special night.

 

What an exciting day for the Avalanche franchise. There are few former members of the Avs more deserving of this honor, to the point that your favorite humble hockey blog predicted tonight’s festivities over two years ago.

Selected by Québec in the fourth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft from the Czech Republic, Hejduk made his NHL debut on opening day of the 1998-’99 season. It wasn’t an overly impressive rookie season for Hejduk (though he was named to the All-Rookie Team), posting only 14-34-48 totals and finishing a distant third behind teammate C Chris Drury in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy, but Hejduk would have the last laugh of a far superior career.

Some players experience a sophomore slump, but Hejduk was quite the opposite. He started the 1999-’00 season with a bang by scoring the first goal in the history of the Pepsi Center, and that campaign ended up being the fourth-best of his career, as he posted 36-36-72 totals that became his baseline for almost every season until 2007-’08.

Hejduk’s third season is probably the one he remembers the fondest, as that’s the year Colorado hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Czech continued his growth at the professional level to reach the 40-goal plateau for the first time en route to his second-consecutive appearance at the All-Star Game (which the Avalanche hosted), and he earned 79 points to help the Avs to a 52-16-10-4 record good enough for the Presidents’ Trophy. He followed that effort up with a 7-16-23 performance in the postseason – second-best behind C Joe Sakic – that included the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Western Quarterfinals in a 2-1 victory over the Canucks.

Short of the Stanley Cup, the biggest achievement of Hejduk’s career was winning the 2003 Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy after scoring a career-high 50 goals. He had a two-goal advantage on runner-up LW Markus Naslund, and a whopping 21 more that the Avs’ second-best goalscorer that season, C Peter Forsberg, with whom he shared the now discontinued NHL Plus-Minus Award that season after they both posted a franchise-best +52.

Hejduk is far and away the longest tenured player in the history of the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise, as he played 1020 regular season games over 14 seasons with the burgundy and blue, not to mention another 112 playoff contests. Over those 1020 games, he registered 375 goals and 805 points – both the fourth-most in in team history – and a fifth-most 430 assists.

Hejduk’s 23 will be Colorado’s first retired number since D Adam Foote‘s 52 was raised to the rafters on November 2, 2013. Hejduk joins D Ray Bourque, Foote, Forsberg, G Patrick Roy and Sakic – and I guess technically C Wayne Gretzky too, though the closest he came to playing in Denver was his 18 games with St. Louis in 1996.

For those that believe these types of trends can predict the future, Colorado has a 4-1-0 record and a +7 total goal differential in games when it retires a number, so Minnesota should be worried about its chances tonight.

Of course, this Avs team – which has a 21-16-3 record that is good enough for 10th in the Western Conference, two points behind Minnesota in the second wildcard spot – is nowhere near the caliber of those Hejduk played for in years past. However, that’s not to say this squad can’t find success. In fact, Colorado enters tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak and having earned a 6-1-1 record over its past eight games, which is the third-best mark in the NHL since December 18.

How have the Avs been finding this success? Where to start?

Let’s start with the offense, which has scored 27 goals since December 18 to rank (t)fifth-best in the NHL in that time. The first line has been nigh unstoppable during this run, as both F Nathan MacKinnon (2-9-11 totals) and RW Mikko Rantanen (5-6-11) are headlining the teams scoring, and LW Gabriel Landeskog is only a step behind with his 3-4-7 effort.

But Colorado hasn’t only successful on the offensive end; the defense – even with G Semyon Varlamov nursing a lower-body injury – has played exceptionally, allowing only 15 goals against, the (t)fifth-fewest since December 18.

Varlamov was playing well before he went down on January 2, as he’d posted a .931 save percentage and 2.14 GAA in his six last starts. But G Jonathan Bernier has been even better, earning an incredible .965 save percentage and 1.2 GAA since starting New Year’s Eve’s game against the Islanders. Bernier is coming off a 34-save shutout against the Blue Jackets Thursday.

As for Minnesota, it is quietly in the second wildcard position with a 22-16-3 record. The Wild have also been playing well lately, as they’ve won four of their past five contests.

The Wild’s offense has come alive during this run, as they’ve scored 19 goals since December 27 to rank (t)second-best in the league since then. F Mikael Granlund is finally starting to look like he did last year when he posted career-high 26-43-69 totals. He started slow in 2017 to post only 11-16-27 totals, but he’s managed a 4-4-8 effort from the second line over his last five games to lead his team’s surge. D Jared Spurgeon has also performed well, posting 1-5-6 totals over this run.

Tonight’s meeting marks the second in the four-game series between the Avalanche and Wild. Game 1 took place in St. Paul on November 24, with Minnesota winning 3-2 on a shootout.

Considering the festivities of the evening and the fact that the Avs could surge into playoff position with a victory tonight (Anaheim would need to lose in regulation to Calgary for that to happen), this should should be an excellent game. Considering how well Colorado has played of late, I think it is capable of beating the Wild.


Only a day after being shutout 4-0, the Pittsburgh Penguins used their good luck in the DtFR Game of the Day series to beat the New York Islanders 4-0 at Barclays Center yesterday.

While it was an evenly contested first period between the Pens and Isles (they combined for 21 total shots on goal), Pittsburgh absolutely dominated the Brooklynites in the second by scoring three goals.

The first belonged to Third Star of the Game RW Daniel Sprong (First Star C Sidney Crosby and F Dominik Simon), scoring his first NHL goal since November 6, 2015 with a wrist shot 41 seconds into the frame for what proved to be the game-winner.

Crosby did most of the leg work on the goal, stealing the puck off LW Andrew Ladd‘s stick along the boards in the Islanders’ offensive zone. The Captain then screamed up the ice towards G Jaroslav Halak‘s crease with Sprong to his right, setting up a two-on-one play against D Nick Leddy. Once Halak committed to saving a shot from Crosby, he crossed a pass to Sprong, allowing him to easily bury his wrister into a gaping cage.

F Evgeni Malkin (Crosby and RW Phil Kessel) doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage with a power play snap shot 2:49 later, followed by Crosby (Sprong and Simon) setting the score at 3-0 with 4:10 remaining in the frame.

Sprong’s night wasn’t through with his game-winner. He tacked on his own insurance goal (D Justin Schultz and Crosby) with 6:32 remaining in regulation to set the 4-0 final score.

Second Star G Tristan Jarry saved all 31 shots he faced to earn the second shutout victory of his young NHL career, while Halak – who saved 34-of-38 (.895 save percentage) – was forced to take the loss.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are starting to find some mojo. They’ve earned points in three-consecutive games to pull within 22 points of the 51-29-11 hosts.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 10

The prodigal son has returned, and it is time, once again, for me to assault your reading receptacles with my meaningless awards and incessant ramblings. Thanks to Cap’n for stepping in for me while I was off going to random ECHL games and concerts.

A special note: I’ve dropped the ‘Team of the Week’ section of these articles in favor of a new bit of weekly content that will be debuting here shortly. It will be replaced by a split of the ‘Player of the Week’ section, now giving one award to a skater, and one to a goaltender.

Skater of the Week: Josh Bailey

Heyyyyyyyyyy, HEYYY BAI-LEY, ooh…ahh, I wanna KNOWWWWOhhohhohh-Ohhoh, if you’ll score my goals…and assists…

Anyway, in the season’s first repeat performance, Josh Bailey again earns the nod for being the only Islander better at being underappreciated league-wide than John Tavares. The New York centerman is on a five-game point streak, four of those taking place this week. In those four games, he has four goals and four assists, including a hat trick in a losing effort to the Columbus Blue Jackets (the first time in franchise history the CBJ allowed a hat trick and won the game, a stellar 1-32-1 record for my boys in blue), and has a scarcely-believable 40 points in just 33 games this season. For reference, Bailey has previously topped the 40-point plateau only twice in a full season in his entire career. 28 years old seems a bit late for a coming-out party, but Isles fans are hardly going to complain about finally giving JT some depth scoring support.

Tendy of the Week: Brian Elliott

Possibly the only thing hotter than the Philadelphia Flyers of late is their own goaltender. Riding a six-game winning streak overall, including a perfect three-win performance this week, Ells has drastically altered the fortunes of the once-floundering Flyers, and has the Philly Phaithful at least starting to bother watching anything but Eagles games.

Starting off the week with 20 saves on 22 shots to down the Leafs, Elliott followed that up with single-goal games against Buffalo and Dallas to carry a superb .943 save percentage and 1.31 GAA through the week. The Flyers are still a few games back from the current Wild Card teams, but they hold games in hand on a good portion of the conference, and are much closer than any team that at one point lost 10 consecutive games should realistically be.

Game of the Week: Pittsburgh Penguins 1 @ Vegas Golden Knights 2, Thursday December 14th, 2017

I’m not even going to bother with the advanced stats, or play-by-play, or whatever else you think pertains to being the game of the week. This game was basically from a movie script. Recently-returned Marc-Andre Fleury facing the only team he had ever known prior to this season, he gets a hug from opposing goaltender Matthew Murray, who’s reasoning was simply “I missed the guy!”, and if you don’t love that you have no friends.

Four total former Penguins have found refuge with the upstart Knights, who continue to crush every single expert’s opinion about what an expansion team is capable of and are slowly shedding their ‘Island of Misfit Toys’ appearance in favor of being a legitimate contender.

Fleury stops 24 of 25, two of the three other former Pens tally points, and the franchise that didn’t exist last year beats the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs. Somebody call Disney.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Longtime Senator Chris Neil decided to hang up the skates this week, after a career spanning 15 seasons and over 1,000 games. One of the last of the ‘enforcer’ breed remaining, Neil was always known as one of the most complete players to wear the tough guy label, and was a highly-respected player both within his own locker room and throughout the league. All the best to Chris in his future endeavors.

In other Senators news, owner Eugene Melnyk said this week that while he has no aspirations of selling his team, he would consider relocating the franchise. While I’d imagine this resulted in numerous flaming bags of feces being placed upon his doorstep by Ottawa residents, I’m sure Quebec City natives happily sacrificed their shoes for their new hero.

Devan Dubnyk went down with a lower-body injury this week and is considered ‘week-to-week’, and if you open your window and listen very carefully, you can hear the screams of Wild fans from hundreds of miles away. (Note: If you’re in the Eastern Time Zone and north of the Ohio-Michigan border, these screams do mix in with the screams of Nordiques fans trying to remove their flaming pants.)

Oh, also in Ottawa news, holy frigg did that NHL 100 Classic look cold. I mean, I know with it being Ontario there were probably shirtless locals in attendance, but I was more than happy to watch from home.

Seattle looks poised to be the next expansion city, which is great, but I’m only going to really get on board if they decide to go with popular opinion and name the team the Seattle McSeattle Faces.

Kari Lehtonen joined a fairly exclusive club this week, as one of just 33 goaltenders to earn 300 wins in an NHL career. All the props in the world to him, because as someone who has spent his entire career with mostly-lackluster teams (I mean, he played for the Thrashers), it’s one hell of an accomplishment. Kari also surpassed Miikka Kiprusoff for most games played by Finnish goaltenders in the same contest, and trails only Kipper in wins by Finns. But with Preds stud Pekka Rinne at 285 career wins, the race to catch that record could be interesting. Cam Ward also reached 300 wins this week, but only managed to hold on to the distinction of ‘Most Unlikely 300-win Goalie’ for about 24 hours before Lehtonen would steal the distinction.