Jet City Ice helps you make the most of your limited TV hockey time
with our picks for the upcoming weekend.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals
When: Saturday, 12/21, 4:00pm PST
Where: NHL Network
It’s an Eastern Conference match-up for our TV feature this week, and it’s the back end of a home-and-home on successive Saturdays between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals. The Caps took the first one 5-2 in the Bolts’ home rink, and it’s likely they’ll do an equal amount of damage in their own barn.
Tampa Bay is currently 4th in the Atlantic Division, but that’s misleading; they have 3 games in hand and are just 1 win away from being tied for 2nd. Once you get north of the dumpster fire that is the Detroit Red Wings, it’s merely 7 points separating 2nd and 7th. The Lightning are hot and cold of late, taking San Jose out to the woodshed with a 7-1 thumping two weeks ago, then barely squeaking by hapless Ottawa 4-3 this past Tuesday. One event in that game flipped a switch somewhere in Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper’s brain; he benched leading scorer Nikita Kucherov for the 3rd period and overtime after what could be called an ego-driven play caused a turnover that allowed Ottawa to tie the score. This move was called “harsh” and “bold” by the hockey press, but clearly this was Cooper trying to send a message to his under-performing team: ice time is a privilege, and I distribute it based on the effort I see. You want to go next shift? Start playing to your potential. Judging by the result on Thursday, a 4-3 OT loss to Dallas, it’s unclear if that message was received.
Clearly this is not the time for the Bolts to be going through a crisis of confidence, as they arrive in D.C. to take on the juggernaut that is the Washington Capitals. They are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, regularly pounding in 4 and 5 goals per night, and currently running roughshod over the rest of the Eastern Conference. As one would expect, it’s Alex Ovechkin leading the team in goals, but not points: that title belongs to defenseman John Carlson by a wide margin. His 33 assists and 45 points are both tops on the team by a dozen or more. Opponents are starting to figure out how lethal he is from the point, as he has been held to just 8 points in December. But forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana, T.J. Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom are picking up where Carlson left off. The Capitals have the most goals scored across the entire league, and when coupled with competent goaltending from Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov, the Lightning have quite a hill to climb.
Possible Future Seattle Players: From the Lightning, the one interesting name that pops out is Anthony Cirelli. This 22-year-old earned a full-time roster spot with Tampa Bay just last year, posting 39 points and a plus-25 over 82 games, and is now centering the 2nd line between Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos. But he’s a restricted free agent in 2021 and the Lightning have 7 forwards signed past that date. What are they going to do, re-sign Cirelli and expose Brayden Poynt? Tyler Johnson? Killorn? Stamkos? I doubt it. No, the Lightning look like a team that needs an “out,” working a deal with Ron Francis in advance of the draft to rid themselves of some draft picks instead of having their roster plundered. So I’d wager that it’s Cirelli if nothing changes, and that would be spectacular. But, realistically, look for Seattle to end up with two 2nd-round picks in exchange for agreeing to select Curtis McElhinney.
From the Caps, we mentioned Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen in previous Game Of The Weekend editions, so let’s give you an update. Hagelin has missed some games due to injury, but in 24 games to date he’s notched 6 assists and is holding at a plus-3. Jensen has played all 35 games this season, but is still in the negative at minus-8 with just 2 assists. We’ll add one name to the list this time: goaltender Vitek Vanecek. He’s down with the Capitals’ AHL affiliate in Hershey, PA, and has put up respectable numbers during the last several seasons. There isn’t an eye-popping highlight reel, he’s not an acrobat or a magician; he just gets the job done every night. Plus, where he really shines is in the playoffs, when he turns it up a notch. Of the goaltenders Washington will have available he’ll be the one worth considering.
NHL Center Ice/NHL.tv
Los Angeles Kings vs. Buffalo Sabres
Saturday, 12/21, 10:00am
One of Saturday’s early tilts features Pacific Division cellar dweller Los Angeles against a Buffalo team sitting 2nd in the Atlantic. I’ll repeat that, because I imagine you didn’t believe it either: Buffalo is currently in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division. I called Hell to check, but there’s no snow in the forecast quite yet.
Buffalo’s surge is due largely in part to the long-awaited emergence of former #1 overall pick Jack Eichel. Billed as the next Sydney Crosby during his draft year, Eichel has largely underwhelmed in his prior 4 seasons in the league. Well, no more. Eichel has 24 goals and 50 points in his 35 games this season, and as of this minute boasts a 17-game point streak: 16 goals, 15 assists in that stretch. If he keeps this up, one day he’ll have his name spoken by Sabres fans in the same breath as Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine. He is also raising the level of play of his linemates, Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart, with the 3 of them accounting for 50 goals — nearly half of the Sabres’ scoring so far this year. One would think this makes for an easy defensive strategy for opponents: stop the Eichel line, win the game. So far I haven’t been able to find a team that has successfully done that. Wait, you say, why was it so easy for Philadelphia to rout the Sabres 6-1 on Thursday? Eichel was out with, depending on who you ask, either an upper body injury or the flu. His status for Saturday is unknown, and you see what happens to Buffalo when he doesn’t play.
That is what’s facing the Kings as they leave the convertibles and pleated shorts of the Pacific Ocean, and break out the dogsleds and survival gear to disembark on the frigid shores of Lake Erie. The big news out of the Kings’ front office this week was the release of aging and frequently apathetic Ilya Kovalchuk, making him an unrestricted free agent and allowing him to sign with… well, following this latest I’m-taking-my-football-and-going-home moment, I don’t imagine the phone lines at his agent’s office will be clogged with teams inquiring about his services. Anyhow, clearing Kovalchuk off the roster presents an opportunity for promising youngsters Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Anze Ko— oh, wait… All right, well, how about goaltending? Ummm, no, both ‘tenders are sitting below the .900 mark for save percentage. Defense is actually doing their job, as the Kings goalies face the fewest shots per game of any team in the league. So credit Drew Doughty — on average he’s playing nearly 26 minutes a night, the most minutes of any defenseman in either conference. Plainly he is carrying this team as far as he can — which right now is 7th place, just 2 points above the worst teams in the Western Conference.
I say credit Drew Doughty: as of today the Kings are spending about $16.1 million on defensemen. $11 million of that is for Doughty — the two most experienced blueliners apart from him are on injured reserve. Subsequently, the only assistance Doughty is getting is the most jaw-dropping collection of “Who?” you’ve ever seen. It’s a wonder they’re not playing Doughty 60 minutes.
Possible Future Seattle Players: With Buffalo you’re looking at another team that easily could be shedding 10-12 of their roster players this coming summer. But looking at who they have and who they will likely keep and protect, I’d say Seattle would be wise to take a long look at (brace yourself…) Zemgus Girgensons. Overlooking the pronunciation nightmare that would await Seattle’s yet-to-be-named play-by-play announcer, he’s got decent size at 6’2″ and 211 lbs., and he’s difficult to move off the puck. He’s not flashy, and rarely will he chip in more than 20 points a year. But what stands out about this kid is, he’s an aggressive forechecker. When you’re trying to set up your breakout, he’s coming straight at you, forcing you to make bad decisions and errant passes. He’s a guy who you send out to pin your opponent’s #1 power play unit in their own zone and burn 45 seconds of penalty time. But he’s not an offensive powerhouse, so he won’t command top dollar. A budget-friendly PK specialist? I expect Ron Francis will likely have Girgensons on his radar.
On the Kings, the goaltending situation is very interesting. Jonathan Quick is not what he once was, so despite the fact that he’s their de facto starting netminder I would put my money on LA choosing to protect “backup” Jack Campbell. Seattle needs Jonathan Quick in goal like they need an open-top arena, so I doubt they’ll be interested in his services. But there remains an interesting backup goalie option by the name of Cal Petersen. This youngster out of Waterloo, Iowa put in 3 seasons with the University of Notre Dame before turning pro, then started his career with the Kings’ AHL affiliate where he has put up solid numbers. He has all the right ingredients, he appears cool under pressure, and he adds to that excellent reach and flexibility. Plus, he’s a lefty — which actually means he’s a righty, he catches with his right hand. You’d be surprised, but sometimes just this fact alone makes shooters forget how to hockey. Petersen meets the criteria for draft participation, and there’s no way the Kings can protect him, so he’s a good candidate to consider for the backup spot in Seattle.
Now, one highlight does not a goaltender make. But you gotta admit, this is pretty awesome.