Welcome back, after a night off, to Today's Games to Watch here on Center Ice Addict. First of all, an explanation: last night's schedule consisted of three games at completely different times, so there really was not much of a point of me telling you which ones to watch since theoretically you could have watched them all. With that said, it was definitely an interesting night. The Devils completed a 6-0 sweep of the Penguins, the Flames went into Colorado and took a big 2 points away to stay right in the hunt in the West for the final playoff spot, and the Blackhawks' injury woes on their blueline continued as Brent Seabrook took a high (and dirty) hit and will probably be out at least a week.
Tonight, we get back into the swing of things with an 11-game schedule. So let's get right to it. As always, 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.
Thursday, March 18th
Overall: An 11-game schedule provides some real excitement, especially in the West where 4 of the top 6 teams will match-up with each other in what could be some playoff previews. If you're on the East coast, staying up late for some real top-notch hockey could be worth it tonight.
Marquee Match-Up: San Jose Sharks (43-16-10, 96 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West) at Vancouver Canucks (43-24-3, 89 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
The Sharks are in the spin cycle right now: they've lost 2 in a row and if it hadn't been for a third-period explosion at home against the Predators, it would be 3. Theoretically they hit rock-bottom on Tuesday in Dallas, losing 8-2 and surpassing their previous worst efforts against Chicago & LA (7 goals allowed in each, twice against the Kings). Suddenly, teams they had thought were long forgotten in their rear-view mirror are right there staring at them: the Coyotes are only 5 points back for the division lead, and the Canucks are only 7 points back for 1st in the West. Granted, the Sharks do have a game in hand on both of those teams, but a game in hand is fairly worthless when you're playing as bad as San Jose is right now. So this game becomes far more important than it might have been months ago, when the Canucks were still double-digits behind San Jose: this is a 4-point game, as a win by the Sharks makes that gap 9, but a win by the Canucks shrinks that gap down to just 5 points. Will San Jose be this year's version of the Calgary Flames, a team that jumped out to a gigantic, double-digit gap in their division and then played so badly down the stretch they squandered it and were passed just before the playoffs? Obviously it goes without saying it would be an unmitigated disaster for this Sharks team that is built to win now.
Prediction: Canucks 3-2
Runner-Up: Chicago Blackhawks (44-19-6, 94 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in West) at Los Angeles Kings (40-23-5, 85 points, 3rd in Pacific, 6th in West)
10:30 pm EST/7:30 pm PST
This game is a battle between two teams who have hit a bit of a skid: the Kings are a middling 3-3-1 since the Olympic break, while the Blackhawks are bruised, battered, and dropping games left-and-right (sometimes in devastating fashion, like over the weekend to the Flyers & Capitals). Is there reason to worry? Not really. The Kings have, for the most part, played very well even in their defeats, most of which have been by 1 goal. Playing down the stretch has been a learning process for this young team, and despite falling to 6th they're only 1 point behind Colorado with two games in hand on them, and 6 points behind Phoenix, also with 2 games in hand. So they can make up that ground fairly easily, and they'll get a hell of a chance to do it tonight playing a Chicago team that took yet another big hit to their blueline last night in Anaheim. The Hawks, meanwhile, find themselves in the unfamiliar position of not having a hell of a lot to play for in March; they've got the Central all but wrapped up, as even with their recent struggles they still lead 2nd place Nashville by 11 points (with a game in hand). It's nothing we haven't seen year after year from Detroit when they've had these gigantic leads in the Central with only 13 or so games remaining. It's hard to get up for these games, especially when your primary concern is just getting healthy again in time for the playoffs. And I've been pleasantly surprised to see MOST of Chicago's fanbase recognize that. Look for them to drop another game here, but it's no time to panic.
Prediction: Kings 3-2 (OT)
Under the Radar: Pittsburgh Penguins (41-24-5, 87 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East) at Boston Bruins (31-26-12, 74 points, 4th in Northeast, 8th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
National TV: NHL Network (US only)
This game is really only "under the radar" if you haven't been paying attention and missed last week's Matt Cooke hit, so I guess today this award functions more like a third runner-up. There was just nothing else on the list that really striked me as a must-see game, but this one certainly is. You have the aforementioned Cooke-on-Savard hit, although those expecting retaliation should remember that teams tend not to come out and retaliate when you expect them to, especially when Colin Campbell will be in attendance and both teams are in desperate need of two points. The Penguins are coming off yet another loss to their Atlantic division rivals last night, and now must pick up points to keep pace with them, as the Devils have one more win and a game in hand on them. The Bruins are looking to continue to separate themselves from 9th place New York; they've still got a game in hand on them, and with a win here and some help from St. Louis they could open up a huge 5-point lead that would really start to put the nail in the coffin of the Blueshirts' playoff hopes.
Prediction: Penguins 4-1
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Phoenix Coyotes (43-22-5, 91 points, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West) at Florida Panthers (28-30-10, 66 points, 4th in Southeast, 13th in East)
7:30 PM EST/4:30 pm PST
The Coyotes have hit upon a winning formula in their 6-game winning streak: score a few early goals and then just hold on tight. It doesn't exactly make for much in the way of excitement, and there's few things less exciting than a Florida Panthers game in March anyway. With a ton of teams battling for playoff position on at the same time, there's really no good reason to watch this game.
Prediction: Coyotes 3-1
Capitals @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: Carolina's miracle run back towards playoff contention has hit a bit of a snag of late, as they've dropped two in a row at the worst possible time. Their gap for 8th is back to double-digits, and their season is back to being on life support. A win at home over the Southeast division-leading Capitals is absolutely essential to keep their hopes alive, and you can say a lot of things about how they played against Boston in that loss but you can't say the effort wasn't there. Expect the effort to be there again tonight, and it should make for a pretty entertaining hockey game. The Ovechkin-less Capitals continue to show they're no longer a one-man team. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Blues @ Rangers, 7:00 pm EST: Now, while Carolina came out with a lot of effort in their loss to Boston, the Rangers, a team who is FAR closer to it than the Canes, inexplicably came out flat against the Habs on Tuesday. King Henrik played great, but he couldn't do it single-handidly, and the fact that they had just 10 shots through two periods is honestly astounding. They need to bounce back quickly at home against a middling Blues squad who is also desperate for points to keep their own, far more slim playoff hopes alive. If they find the effort they had against the Flyers on Sunday again tonight, this one could be worth tuning in for, but if they play like they did on Tuesday, take a pass on the Rangers' latest "must-win game". Prediction: Might Be Worth Your Time
Senators @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV on RDS, Canada & French only) The Sens continue to struggle, their latest loss in a 3-game losing streak coming on Tuesday to their southern Ontario rivals. It's not a good thing when the Toronto Marlies featuring special guest starts Phil Kessel & Dion Phaneuf are largely outplaying you en route to a 4-1 victory. They're heading into Atlanta to play another team that's been bad of late, and sometimes two bad teams produce a great game as both teams look at it as a perfect opportunity to turn things around. Other times, however, they both just kind of flail at each other. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Sabres @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: Tampa Bay has been playing better, which you wouldn't know since they've dropped 2 in a row at home, but they could have easily won those games against two very good teams in Pittsburgh and Phoenix. Unfortunately for the Lightning and their increasingly slim playoff hopes, tonight they invite another very good team, the Northeast-leading Buffalo Sabres, into the Forum. A win here would be a great way to turn things around, but a loss will shovel the last little bits of dirt onto their playoff hopes. Either way, with the desperation Tampa's been playing with of late, this should be a good game. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Devils @ Maple Leafs, 7:30 pm EST: The young and hungry Leafs are actually playing some pretty fun hockey of late, as they are in that part of the schedule where they have no pressure and are playing like it. They've played the Devils very well this season, winning 2 out of 3 and it easily could have been 3 had their goalie not collapsed in the 3rd period just before the Olympic break. The Devils are coming off a huge win over Atlantic rivals Pittsburgh last night, and this has all the makings of a classic letdown game. I'm gonna go with a middling answer for the verdict, as this game's worthiness honestly depends on whether or not the Devils decide to show up and if they have enough left in the tank after yet another hard-fought win over the Pens 24 hours ago. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Wild @ Predators, 8:00 pm EST: Two teams that are riding 3-game winning streaks meet up in Nashville. The Predators are slowly inching away from playoff bubble status, now 3 points up on 8th place Detroit & 4 points on 9th place Calgary. The Wild are still 6 points back of Detroit, and need to keep piling up those wins if they're going to get back in it. Neither of these teams are what you would call exciting, but this has the potential to be a better-than-average game just because of how hot both teams are right now. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Flyers @ Stars, 8:30 pm EST: Philadelphia begins life without Michael Leighton in Dallas tonight, as the Stars are coming off that epic 8-2 win over San Jose. Not much else to say about this one: the Stars need to keep picking up wins to keep their very faint playoff hopes alive, while the Flyers will be looking to get a good first start out of Brian Boucher to try and inspire some confidence in him from his teammates while Leighton is out with his high ankle sprain (a very tricky injury, especially for goaltenders). Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Alright folks, that'll do it for another look at the night's NHL action. Enjoy the games.