Off The Draw
A few notes, and one hot sports opinion, ahead of a busy hockey Thursday:
• Some great games on the schedule tonight but none are more compelling than the Bruins and Senators at the Canadian Tire Center (7:30 p.m. EST; NESN, RDS2, TSN5). Ottawa coach Dave Cameron won’t call it a must-win, but there’s no getting around that’s exactly the case. With four straight wins the hard-charging Sens have pulled to within four points of the B’s, who currently hold the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference, so this one has massive playoff implications. A regulation victory draws Ottawa within two points with one game in hand. A regulation loss drops the Sens six back with just 12 games remaining.
There’s also a bit of history on the line for Ottawa goaltender Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond. The rookie sensation has a chance to break a record set in 1938-39 by Hall of Famer (and Bruins legend) Frankie “Mr. Zero” Brimsek, who was the first netminder to start an NHL career with 12 straight games of allowing two goals or fewer. Hammond, who made 35 saves in a 2–1 overtime win over Carolina on Tuesday, comes into this one sporting a spiffy 1.35 GAA and a .956 save percentage to go along with his 11-0-1 mark. He’ll be up against Tuukka Rask, who is playing some of his best hockey of the season. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner has held opponents to two goals or fewer in nine of his past 10 starts, nearly matching Hammond’s efforts. Considering everything that’s on the line, this one should be a beauty.
• The option of video review for possible goaltender interference won’t come into play until next season at the earliest ... not quite soon enough for the Kings’ liking. The potential rule change, recommended earlier this week by the league’s general managers, might have spared Los Angeles from another third period meltdown if it had been available to the Kings for last night’s 3–2 loss to the Ducks. Anaheim’s Nate Thompson made contact with Kings netminder Jonathan Quick just ahead of the Jakub Silfverberg snipe that gave Anaheim a 2–1 lead 7:35 into the final frame. It appeared from every angle to be a minimal brush at most, and the contact was a direct result of Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin pushing Thompson toward his goaltender. Still, at a critical moment in a must-win game, that’s exactly when we would have seen the option exercised. (In our view, the goal almost certainly would have stood.)
• If the coach’s challenge is enacted, it needs to be burdened with the same risk as a stick-measurement request. If a coach asks for one and the call on the ice stands, his team should be assessed a delay of game penalty. That way the option is there in obvious cases, but it won't become a clock strangling nightly time waste.
• Has any off-season trade paid off more handsomely than Anaheim’s acquisition of Ryan Kesler? The Ducks now have four wins in five games against the Kings this season and the big center has been a clear difference maker, scoring five goals and seven points including the OT winner in last night’s 3-2 victory. “He’s been a dominant player, for sure, in these five games against us,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. The inability to match the center depth of their opponents has been an issue in recent playoff failures for the Ducks. Shouldn’t be a problem this year.
• New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello says he’d like to add a couple of offensive-minded players to his roster this summer, which makes sense given that the Devils rank 28th in goals scored this season (2.23 per game). The question is, where will he find them? The free-agent market has some decent middle-six options (Curtis Glencross, Erik Cole) but no real game-breakers—and even if those players were available, there’s little reason to think they’d want to go to an organization that makes no secret of its defense-first philosophy. It follows then that he’ll look for answers via the trade route. You have to think he'll be in touch with the Maple Leafs, who have Phil Kessel’s bags all but packed, as soon as the season’s over.
What to watch tonight
Don’t be surprised if this one has a distinct playoff feel. It’ll be the third meeting between these two teams in just 11 days, including that crazy March 10 contest that saw the Blues squander a three-goal third period lead only to win 5–4 when Barret Jackman beat Ondrej Pavelec with a final-minute floater from center ice.
St. Louis comes in playing some of its best hockey of the season, winning three of its past four via shutout. Brian Elliott, tonight’s expected starter, set a franchise record with his 25-save whitewashing of the Flames on Tuesday night. The effort was his 21st blanking as a Blue, which also stands as the second most in the league since the start of the 2011-12 season, one behind Jonathan Quick of the Kings. Elliott is now 6-2-0 in his past eight starts with a 1.48 goals-against average. Makes for a nice lead-in to the playoffs.
Winnipeg comes into this one clinging to the second wild card berth in the Western Conference, one point ahead of Calgary but five wins behind in the tiebreaker. Breathing room is something the Jets haven’t got a lot of, so this game is critical. The Jets have won their past two, knocking off Tampa Bay and San Jose, and could get a big boost tonight with the return of Big Buff. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury. Pavelec, with a 1.48 GAA in his past four appearances, is the likely starter for the Jets.
Rest of the schedule: Sharks at Maple Leafs (7:30 p.m. EST; TVA, CSN-CA, TSN4); Hurricanes at Canadiens (7:30 p.m. EST; FS-CR, RDS, SNE); Red Wings at Panthers (7:30 p.m. EST; NHLN-US, FS-D, FS-F); Capitals at Wild (8 p.m. EST; CSN-DC, FS-N, FS-WI); Penguins at Stars (8:30 p.m. EST; SN360, ROOT, FS-SW); Flyers at Flames (9 p.m. EST; CSN-PH, SNW); Blue Jackets at Canucks (10 p.m. EST; FS-O, SNP); Avalanche at Coyotes (10 p.m. EST; ALT2, FS-A PLUS)
What you missed
• Latest GoPro video features a dazzling one-on-one battle between Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
• Jonathan Quick’s temper got the best of him again, leading to another smash performance by the Kings netminder.
• Henrik Lundqvist says he’s in no rush to return from his serious neck injury. Frankly, the Rangers don't seem to miss him.
The numbers game
• The Ducks lead the NHL with 12 wins when trailing after two periods (12-20-0)—the Flames (10-19-3) are the only other team with at least 10 such wins this season—and also pace league with a 28-1-7 mark in one-goal games.
• On Wednesday night, Scott Darling became the fifth rookie in Blackhawks history to post a 1-0 shutout on the road—the others are Mike Karakas (1935-36 vs. Rangers), Dave Dryden(1967-68 vs. Seals), Tony Esposito(1969-70 vs. Bruins and Red Wings) and Ed Belfour(1990-91 vs. Canucks)—as Chicago blanked the Rangers for the first time since Oct. 22, 1997, also a 1-0 victory at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers meanwhile lost in regulation for only the second time in their past 19 games (14-2-3), but allowed no more than one goal in regulation for the eighth consecutive match—a franchise record.
• The Canucks, who take on the Blue Jackets tonight, are 20-9-1 this season against Eastern Conference teams, including a 12-2-0 mark versus Metro Division clubs.
• This hockey photo is up for a Canadian national newspaper award. Looks like a winner to us.
• Just two years after breaking his neck, this Flyers prospect is ready to make his pro debut.
• Former NHL ref Paul Stewart says the coach’s challenge proposed this week by the league’s general managers is a step in the wrong direction.