Thursday’s NHL action was as good as advertised, if not better.
For starters, the Panthers continued their rise to the top of the Eastern Conference by shutting out the defending champs in Boston. After 57 scoreless minutes, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg each scored to seal an exceptional 2-0 win. Florida netminder Jose Theodore saved all 40 shots send his way on the evening.
A little ways down the road in Philadelphia, the Flyers sustained their brilliant play to defeat Pittsburgh, 3-2. The win pushes the Flyers to the top spot in both the Atlantic Division, and Eastern Conference.
And, a fantastic night in the league cannot be complete without a few wild finishes. In New Jersey, the Senators scored the tying goal with five seconds left in the contest only to be defeated by the Devils in a shootout. Also, Nashville shocked the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. The Predators scored two goals in the final two minutes to tie up a game that they would eventually win in overtime.
Overall, seven of the 12 matchups were decided by one goal, and only two of the other five weren’t fairly competitive until the end.
Friday will be a much slower night across the NHL. In all, only eight teams are in action, and only one of the scheduled games pits two current playoff teams against each other. However, don’t be fooled, you won’t want to miss this action.
Game of the Night: Florida Panthers at Buffalo Sabres
What’s not to love about the Florida Panthers?
After 10 consecutive years without a playoff appearance and two straight last place finishes in the Southeast Division, this team finally looks like a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.
However, despite the Panthers (16-8-4) surprising rise to the top, many continue to write them off as irrelevant. But, instead of being offended by this, Florida has responded with more winning. This includes a current string of three straight victories in San Jose and Boston and at home against the Capitals — All known contenders in the NHL.
Friday night, the Panthers will look to add another impressive win to their resume as they travel to the First Niagara Center to face the Buffalo Sabres (14-11-2). Historically, this road trip hasn’t treated Florida well. Buffalo is 23-13-3 in the 36 all-time visits from the Panthers.
Yet, this season isn’t the same as the past. On October 29th, in front of a sold out arena, Florida rallied for two goals in the final four minutes to shock the Sabres, 3-2. Since that victory, the Panthers have gone 10-4-4 and have build a comfortable seven point lead in the division.
Admittedly, defeating Buffalo tonight will likely be an even more challenging task. Florida is playing back-to-back games after an absolute battle in Boston on Thursday. Also, Buffalo is finally getting a little more healthy, as star goaltender Ryan Miller is back between the pipes. Miller is 1-0-1 in his two starts since returning from injury and will prove to be a difficult obstacle.
The Panthers possess the better offensive (11th in NHL) and defensive (7th) team to this point in the year. Nevertheless, for me, this matchup will come down to power play efficiency. Florida is 4th in the league on the power play, while Buffalo is 5th in penalty kill. If either club can dominate this statistical category, they should gain the advantage in what will be a close game.
Prediction: Panthers 3, Sabres 2
Other Games to Watch
Toronto Maple Leafs (15-10-3) at Washington Capitals (14-12-1)
Even though Toronto and Washington are in playoff contention, they are excellent examples of why some defensive effort is needed to be a championship team in the NHL — I mean, not everyone can have the offensive attack that the Flyers do. The Maple Leafs are 6-7-2 in their last 15 games and have fallen to 24th in goals allowed per contest. Similarly, the Capitals are 5-9-1 during the same stretch and are giving up a shocking 3.2 goals (27th) each time they take the ice. But, while tonight’s matchup is partially about getting back on track defensively, it also has a sliver of revenge involved. On November 19th, Toronto blasted Washington with six goals in the first two periods, on its way to a 7-1 victory. The multiple goal defeat was one of eight so far this season for the reeling Capitals. Fortunately for Washington fans, I envision an inspired effort in front of the home crowd this time around. The Capitals are 9-4-1 at the Verizon Center this season.
Prediction: Maple Leafs 3, Capitals 5
Colorado Avalanche (13-15-1) at Edmonton Oilers (13-12-3)
This has become an intriguing game only because of the Oilers current collapse from the top of the Western Conference. Edmonton has dropped five of six, including a disappointing 5-3 defeat on Wednesday to the struggling Carolina Hurricanes. During the string of poor play, the Oilers — who are typically a strong defensive team — have given up 23 goals and fallen to 13th in goals allowed per game. The Avalanche, on the other hand, have been difficult to figure out this season. After putting together an impressive three-game winning streak last week, Colorado has crumbled again. They were smothered in Vancouver on Tuesday, 6-0; and last night lost in Calgary, 3-2. Ultimately, this contest should come down to home ice. Edmonton is 8-5-2 at the Rexall Palace, and the Avalanche are 0-6-1 in their last seven road games.
Prediction: Avalanche 2, Oilers 4
Player to Watch
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, Right/Left Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs
Imagine where Toronto would be without Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The two have combined for 30 goals, 37 assists and 67 points this season — the most for any pair of teammates in the NHL. The Maple Leafs are also the only club with two players ranked in the top five in points. Kessel and Lupul make the Toronto offensive attack as dangerous as it is — ranked 6th in the league, averaging 3.1 goals per contest. If they continued at this current pace, they would finish the year with an impressive 197 points.
Tonight, the Maple Leafs face off with the Washington Capitals’ 27th ranked defense, so you can assume that Kessel and Lupul are salivating at the mouth just thinking about this matchup. I fully expect lots of scoring from both teams, which means it could be a memorable night for these two. They are a fun group to watch (win or lose), so don’t miss it.
OMG Stat of the Night
The Colorado Avalanche are on the verge of losing their eighth straight game on the road. This would be a feat that the franchise hasn’t accomplished since the 1991-1992 season… when they were still based out of Quebec! Interestingly, the Av’s current struggles on the road come immediately after they began the year with six consecutive road victories. Follow this game tonight, because there could be a new record (for losing) in Colorado.