Welcome back to another night of action in the National Hockey League. Before we get into tonight's games, however, let's talk About Last Night....
Canucks 6-Avalanche 4
(My Prediction: Canucks 5-3)
My marquee match-up looked at first like it was going to be a dud of a game last night, as Colorado jumped out to a very early 3-0 lead. But just like they've done all season long, Vancouver battled back for their NHL-leading 10th win when trailing after two periods, and are now sitting 2nd in offense in the NHL. Plenty of people expected the Canucks to be a good team this year, but it was their defense & goaltending that was supposed to carry them. If you had the Canucks in 2nd in offense, well, congratulations Nostradamus, because you're the only one. A big part of that has been their deft off-season signing of Mikael Samuelsson from the Red Wings, who had a hat trick in this game. A great win for Vancouver to keep the young Avalanche at bay in the battle for the Northwest crown, and the Canucks' record in their epic 14-game road trip is now 8-5-0 with only one more game (@ Phoenix) to go before it's finally over.
Flames 4-Red Wings 2
(My Prediction: Flames 5-4 in a shootout)
The Red Wings at times last night looked surprisingly flat at home battling a team that was just one point below them for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West, allowing the Flames to leapfrog over them. Everytime the Red Wings finally look like the Wings again this season (see: beating the Hawks in Chicago on Sunday), they seem to stumble like they did tonight. Not a good sign for a team that's life-and-death to make the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
Canadiens 5-Lightning 3
(My Prediction: Habs 3-1)
Unlike the Red Wings, the Habs got things done against a team just below them in the playoff race on home ice, and they're looking more and more like a playoff team with each game.
Flyers 3-Islanders 2
(My Prediction: Flyers 5-1)
I'll give the Isles some props here: they made this far closer than I ever thought it would be, and even had a 2-1 lead for a while as they were trying to snap the Flyers' epic 15-game winning streak against them. But it just wasn't to be, as the Flyers rallied in the third to pick up yet another win over their divisional rivals.
With last night out of the way, let's get into tonight. Just to recap on what these picks all mean:
Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.
The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.
Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.
Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.
Wednesday March 10th
Overall: Even though there's four fewer games than last night, tonight's line-up is overall much more strong when it comes to the match-ups. So let's get right into it.
Marquee Match-Up: Los Angeles Kings (39-22-4, 82 points, 3rd in Pacific, 5th in West) at Chicago Blackhawks (43-17-5, 91 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in West)
8:30 pm EST/5:30 pm PST
Playing the Kings tonight should provide a little bit of deja vu for the Hawks, as the Kings are pretty much exactly where Chicago was last year. They're a team with a great young nucleus built the right way through the draft who went out and made some big off-season acquisitions to help them take the next step. And like Chicago, instead of battling it out for 8th or 7th, they've skipped right ahead to fighting for home ice advantage in the first round. The Hawks finished 4th in the West last year, and the Kings are in a great position to do the same thing this year, just 1 point behind the Coyotes with a game in hand. If you're going to miss the playoffs for almost a decade, might as well charge into the playoffs in style. The Hawks, of course, have taken another big step forward this year, with the Central division all but wrapped up. They're trying to chase down San Jose for 1st overall in the West, but they're also coming off a shaky game against their Central rivals on Sunday afternoon. Expect a big bounce-back game for the Hawks, and expect a young Kings team who wants to have a much better effort than they did the last time they were in Chicago (when they were largely beaten up by the Hawks). Add those two things together and you have the potential for one hell of a hockey game.
Prediction: Hawks 5-4 in OT
Runner-Up: New York Rangers (29-28-9, 67 points, 4th in Atlantic, 9th in East) at New Jersey Devils (38-23-3, 79 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
It's always a big deal when these two cross-river rivals meet up, especially in Newark when the crowd has a tendency to be split almost evenly. Despite being in completely different places in the standings, both these teams have been struggling. Kovalchuk has been just OK since the Devils picked him up from the Thrashers, and they've quietly watched the Penguins pass them up for 1st in the Atlantic by 5 points (though the Devils do have 2 games in hand). The Rangers, meanwhile, have struggled coming out of the Olympic break and now sit 3 points behind 8th place Boston, with the Bruins still having a game in hand to boot. If the Rangers can start putting some wins together, however, the Bruins are significantly weaker with the loss of Marc Savard, so all is not lost in Ranger-land just yet. Tonight would be a great place to start against their most hated rivals, and it's very rare for these two teams to come together and not produce a very entertaining game. However, I just couldn't bump it above the Hawks-Kings game just because both these teams have struggled of late. Definitely a game you want to check out too, though.
Prediction: Rangers 3-2
Under the Radar: Vancouver Canucks (41-23-2, 84 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West) at Phoenix Coyotes (39-22-5, 83 points, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
National TV: TSN (Canada)
As I mentioned before, tonight is Vancouver's final game in their NHL-record-setting 14-game road trip, and you have to wonder just what they have left in the tank coming into Phoenix tonight. I'm bumping this game slightly above the two others (both of which have the potential to be great games, as well) for the Under the Radar award just because I think it will be very interesting to see how the Canucks come out against the 'Yotes. Will they be looking to finish their road trip on a high note, or will exhaustion finally set in? Let's not take anything away from the Coyotes, either. Phoenix is a huge surprise in a year full of them in the NHL, and they've got a lot to play for tonight with the battle for 4th place and home-ice in the first round against the Kings really heating up as of late.
Prediction: Coyotes 3-1
No Ice Dancing award tonight, as there's really no stinkers on tonight's five-game schedule. So with that said, let's talk about....
Stars @ Sabres, 7:00 pm EST: This is a hard game to judge the entertainment value of: the Stars tend to play an up-tempo brand of hockey and should have a lot to play for with their playoff hopes still very much alive (5 points separate them from 8th place Calgary, and they're playing their game in hand tonight). On the other hand, the Sabres tend to play a very stifling brand of hockey and the Stars have been the model of inconsistency this year (they STILL haven't won more than 2 games in a row this year, which for a real playoff-contending team is just mind-boggling). You can probably guess what verdict that adds up to. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Hurricanes @ Capitals, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV on the NHL Network, US only) I almost went with this game for my Under the Radar pick, but the Caps' are just too far ahead of the Canes right now for me to assume this will be competitive. Still, you've got a lot of intrigue here: the Caps' bouncing back off a rare home-ice loss to the Stars (albeit in a shootout), the Canes looking to continue their improbable march back towards playoff contention (9 points out still, but who really thought they'd even be in single digits a few months back?), and Joe Corvo & Scott Walker playing against their former team. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Tonight's shaping up to be a great night of hockey, so enjoy it folks, and I'll be back with you again tomorrow.