Yes, it's a very, very early edition of Today's Games to Watch, as yours truly actually has something to do on a Friday night. But hey, that doesn't mean I'm not here for you: if you're home tonight needing a game to watch, as always let me be your guide. But first....
About Last Night...
Hurricanes 4-Penguins 3 (OT)
(My Prediction: Pens 5-2)
There's bee a lot of hand-wringing this season, especially from the so-called "experts" from the NHL's television partners, about the Washington Capitals' defense not being good enough to win a Stanley Cup. However, I haven't heard much of anything this season (with the exception of the NHL Network's On the Fly, which usually is good at pointing out things other networks miss) about the so-called favorites to repeat, the Penguins, and their own defensive problems. The Caps are ranked 16th in the league with a 2.76 GA/PG....not a good stat, but not horrible. Guess which team is ranked below them? That's right, those Pittsburgh Penguins are sitting at 20th with a 2.87 GA/PG. The Goals For, meanwhile, is much farther spread (3.88 for the Caps to 3.09 for the Pens). The Pens' defensive deficiencies showed up in force last night, as the 14th-place Hurricanes took advantage of some untimely breakdowns in defensive zone coverage to pick up a huge win in overtime in Pittsburgh. True, the Pens did pick up a point, but at home against a team they soundly swept in last year's Conference Finals, you have to believe that's not much of a consolation prize. And now they head into New Jersey tomorrow night....more on that in a second.
Flames 2-Senators 0
(My Prediction: Sens 3-2)
Woof, so sorry for picking this clunker as my runner-up game. Not much happened here, it was your standard defensive lockdown win from the Flames to maintain a 1-point lead for 8th in the Western Conference. Amazing that a team like Calgary can win four in a row and still only have a 1 point lead, but that should tell you something about just how great the West has been this year.
Red Wings 5-Wild 1
(My Prediction: Red Wings 5-2)
That's probably the closest I've been yet to picking an exact score, kind of proud at myself at that one. The Wings were at home against a team chasing them, needed a big effort from their suddenly healthy team, and got it. Good on them. With both the 9th place Wings and the 8th place Flames on relatively hot streaks, this is shaping up to be one hell of a playoff race down the stretcch.
Maple Leafs 4-Lightning 3 (OT)
(My Prediction: Lightning 5-1)
Boy did I get this one wrong folks: not only did I get the score completely wrong, but I also picked this for my Ice Dancing award thinking it would be Tampa Bay's traditional thrashing of the Leafs. Instead, the Leafs young players did indeed come to play, and pulled out a very nice 4-3 overtime victory in an exciting clash at the Air Canada Centre.
All in all, last night was not quite as boring as I thought it would be. I guess that's why they play the games, folks. Now it's time to dig into a six-game schedule on a Friday night. Here's the awards we'll be giving out:
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.
Friday March 12th
Overall: Doesn't look like much on first glance, beyond one obvious huge game, but dig beneath the surface and some of these games are a bit more interesting than you might think. So let's get going.
Marquee Match-Up: Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-5, 85 points, 1st in Atlantic, 2nd in East) at New Jersey Devils (39-23-3, 81 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm EST
National TV: RDS (Canada, French only)
This was as much of a no-brainer as you'll probably ever see for the Marquee award. With all due respect to the other five games, this one has far and away the most interest. Two teams battling it out for 1st in the Atlantic division as well as 2nd overall in the Eastern Conference do battle, and this is a season series that has been dominated by the Devils so far. Everyone forgets last year that while of course the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, they did NOT win the Atlantic division. Everyone, that is, except the team who took that division title, the New Jersey Devils. And although the Devils have stumbled quite a bit in the second-half of the season so far, they're coming off a huge 6-3 win over their cross-river rivals the New York Rangers, and they still have a sleeping giant. Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't done much for the Devils since they picked him up, but you have to believe that he's going to pick it up at some point as we head down the stretch. The Devils are currently 4 points back and they will still have 2 games in hand on the Penguins after tonight, so tonight's game is obviously huge. Either they will be just 2 points back of the Pens, still with those 2 games in hand, or the Pens can put a bit of separation between them and go up 6 points instead. You also can't discount the fact that the Pens are playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
Prediction: Devils 4-2
Runner-Up: Nashville Predators (36-26-5, 77 points, 2nd in Central, 7th in West) at Anaheim Ducks (30-28-8, 68 points, 5th in Pacific, 13th in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
Like I said, this isn't a strong night for marquee-type games other than the obvious pick, so I'm going with this one as my runner-up, and here's why: desperation tends to breed great hockey, and both these teams have every single reason to be desperate right now. The Predators had a 4-2 lead on the San Jose Sharks last night before giving up a stunning SIX third-period goals to the Sharks to fall 8-5. Now, they find themselves sitting tied in points with 8th place Calgary, and they're fighting for their Western Conference playoff lives just one point up on 9th place Detroit. Anaheim, meanwhile, is coming off a far more disastrous 5-2 loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets at home on Tuesday night. They're just 4-5-1 in the last ten, and now a team that many expected to make a huge surge back into the post-season is hanging on for their playoff lives, 9 points back of Detroit & Nashville. This is the very definition of a 4-point game: either Anaheim will close their gap with Nashville to a much more manageable (but still difficult) 7 points, or Nashville can throw some dirt on the Ducks and make it a deadly 11-point gap instead. Should be exciting hockey, folks.
Prediction: Ducks 4-1
Under the Radar: Los Angeles Kings (39-22-5, 85 points, 3rd in Pacific, 5th in West) at Dallas Stars (29-25-12, 70 points, 4th in Pacific, 10th in West)
8:30 pm EST/5:30 pm PST
This isn't exactly a game that jumps off the page at you: the very good Kings into Dallas to face a Stars team that has been the textbook definition of mediocrity, and in fact Fox Sports West isn't even airing the game at all. But there's a couple of admittedly King-centric reasons why you might want to watch this game: first of all, Justin Williams will finally return to the Kings' lineup coming off his horrible broken leg injury. For those of you who weren't following the Kings closely earlier in the season, the top line of Williams-Kopitar-Smyth was unbelievably great early in the season, putting up points in bunches and dominating games. Unfortunately, first it was Smyth who went down to injury in late-November, and then in Smyth's very first game back, Williams had his horrific leg injury in Phoenix! Terry Murray has immediately put these three back together in Williams' first game back, and if they can refind the chemistry they had earlier in the season, it's downright scary how much better this already great LA team can be. Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick is at home with his wife as she prepares to give birth to his first child. That means that the Kings' OTHER great young goalie named Jonathan, AHL-leading Jonathan Bernier, gets the call-up, and Murray has indicated it's very possible Bernier gets the start.
Prediction: Kings 4-2
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Minnesota Wild (31-29-6, 68 points, 4th in Northwest, 12th in West) at Buffalo Sabres (36-20-9, 81 points, 1st in Northeast, 3rd in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
The Wild are just off of last night's heart-wrenching 5-1 loss to playoff bubble rivals Detroit, and now dejectedly must shuffle into Buffalo to face the powerhouse Sabres on the second night of a back-to-back. Add those factors to the fact that it's intra-Conference (so no rivalry) and it's a very good team against a mediocre one, and you have your classic example of a skipable game.
Prediction: Sabres 3-0
Lightning @ Capitals, 7:00 pm EST: The Capitals weren't even in action last night, and yet they officially became this season's Southeast division champions thanks to Columbus' 2-1 win over Atlanta. Tonight they get a Tampa Bay team off a possibly exhausting and demoralizing overtime loss in Toronto last night. That alone makes me reach for my "not worth your time" trigger finger, but I'll give these guys a little bit of a benefit of the doubt just because Tampa tends to play Washington hard and both teams play an exciting style. Still, be forewarned: this could easily be a blowout for the Caps. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Rangers @ Thrashers, 7:30 pm EST: Speaking of teams coming off demoralizing victories, here's a battle of two of them. The Rangers got thrashed (pardon the pun) 6-3 by the Devils on Wednesday, while the Thrashers got beaten by the lowly Blue Jackets 2-1 last night. Still, this is a game between two teams who are on that Eastern playoff bubble, so it might turn out to be something exciting. Then again, it might not. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Alright folks, that'll do it for another night of action in the NHL. I'll be back with you again, probably early morning again on Saturday. See you around!