Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Serious Six -- March 27th

Big day for the six. All of them are in action, so there can be considerable movement among the clubs, which stand at the moment as follows:

6. NY Rangers: 39-28-9 (87)
7. Tampa Bay: 41-31-4 (86)
8. Carolina: 38-29-8 (84)
9. NY Islanders: 36-27-12 (84)
10. Montreal: 39-31-6 (84)
11. Toronto: 36-29-10 (82)

Here are the impact games:

Carolina at Toronto. This qualifies as a “must win” for the Maple Leafs. Not only is Carolina a club the Maple Leafs have to climb over, it is a chance to take advantage of some home cooking. The trouble is, Toronto is 13th among 15 teams in the East in home winning percentage (17-15-5), and they’ve been inconsistent on defense – five games giving up two or fewer goals, three of giving up five or more goals in the last ten contests. But, they do have the edge in the season series, 2-1, taking the lead with a 4-1 win in Carolina on January 30. For the Leafs, the player to watch might be Nik Antropov – seven goals in his last 11 games (7-3-10, +4). And, the Leafs have scored a power play goal in each of their last five games.

Carolina, looking to gain a stronger foothold on the eighth spot, is 6-3-1 in their last ten and is on an offensive tear of late with 17 goals in their last three games. The defense hasn’t been shabby, either, having held opponents to three or fewer goals in nine of the last ten games. Carolina has benefited from balanced goal scoring, with 15 skaters chipping in for the 30 goals scored over the last ten games. Scott Walker and Andrew Ladd lead the way with four each.

The key . . . Toronto’s power play against Carolina’s penalty killing. Carolina has killed 56 of 60 shorthanded situations dating back to February 15th. Toronto has power play goals in their last five games. Who blinks?

NY Rangers at Montreal. Montreal has won six of seven to climb back into the race for the last playoff slots. They’ve scored 25 goals in those seven games, but the key – as it often is this time of year – has been defense. In the six wins they gave up three or fewer goals; in the loss they yielded six. The ominous sign for the Canadiens is that they have not beaten the Rangers in either of the previous two contests this year. But Montreal is among the better teams in the East in home record (4th – 23-12-3). Guillaume Latendresse leads the way with four goals in the last seven games; four other players have three.

For the Rangers, “hot” is not an appropriate description. They‘ve lost one game in regulation in their last 14 (10-1-3). Leading the way is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has gotten the call in 13 of those last 14 games, going 9-1-3. It isn’t a fluke, either. 1.27, .954, and three shutouts -- he’s been the man for the Blueshirts over the last month.

The key . . . again, it’s special teams. Montreal is 21.1 percent on the power play over their last seven games (8-for-28); the Rangers at 92.5 percent on the penalty kill (37-for-40). But Lundqvist has been such a rock in goal the last month, it would be hard to pick against the Rangers.

New Jersey at NY Islanders. After winning five of six, the Islanders are showing signs of slipping. They are 3-4-3 in their last ten, and they’ve had what one could call one “quality” win against a playoff-caliber opponent over the last month (3-1 over Pittsburgh on March 22nd). It is an odd streak, though, in that the Isles went 0-3-1 in the middle of this ten-game run by a combined score of 22-13. In the other six games, they’ve given up only 11 goals. Worse for the Islanders, they haven’t had much success against the Devils this year (who has?). They are 1-4-1 in the season series and have only scored nine goals in the process, five of those in the first meeting of the year on November 2nd. They’ve been shutout three times.

Florida at Tampa Bay. Tampa has slipped a notch in the last ten, going 4-6-0. They’ve been all over the place in doing it. They can muster up a 3-2 overtime win in Calgary or a 3-1 win against the Devils, but then they also can stub their toe on Florida (6-4) and Washington (7-1). The offense has been consistently weak (23 goals in ten games, only once scoring more than three in a contest), and they’ve given up five or more goals in four of those games. The Lightning are 3-1-1 against the Panthers this year, but the one loss was a 6-2 drubbing in the last meeting on March 3rd. Goaltending has become a serious – well, a more serious – issue for the Bolts. Johan Holmqvist, who started well by winning eight of his first 11 decisions this year (he also has an 11-for-13 run this year), is 4-3-2 in his last ten appearances (including one no-decision), 3.72, .852. That isn’t likely to get it done. Marc Denis hasn’t exactly inspired any more confidence with a season-long GAA over 3.00 and save percentage below .900. If that situation doesn’t improve – soon – Tampa Bay might hang on to a playoff spot, but they wouldn’t be a betting choice to pull an upset in the first round.

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