Craig Smith, Chris Bourque

Capitals, Predators avoid injuries on shoddy Baltimore ice

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Aside from the occasional 15-year reunion with the NHL, Alex Ovechkin’s statement might be the most common takeaway from typical exhibition games that go the right way: “Thank God nobody got hurt.” That was especially true after the Nashville Predators earned a 2-0 win against the Washington Capitals in the Baltimore Hockey Classic, an exhibition game in which the shoddy ice conditions overshadowed the contest itself.

It’s a real shame, too, because this was the first professional hockey game in Baltimore since 1997 and the Capitals’ most recent visit since 1992, according to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post.

While a Caps spokesman told The Washington Times’ Stephen Whyno that the scary-looking cracks (see the bottom of this post) were below the surface of the ice and wouldn’t affect play, the game was marred by poor conditions – cracks or not. Carrera reports that smooth-skating defenseman Mike Green “tumbled twice for no apparent reason” while goalies found themselves “skidding” when they went into the butterfly position. The 1st Mariner Arena opened in 1962 and judging by the feedback of coaches and players, the building definitely showed its age.

From the start of the game, which Nashville won, 2-0, puddles formed all over the ice surface in the noticeably warm 49-year-old arena, sending pucks slip-sliding at unexpected moments and prompting players to hold themselves back at times in order to avoid injury.

“It was hard because the ice was not that good. It was first our game and we didn’t play exhibition,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course you try to think about more when you go to the boards and the corners — especially in the corners, ice is not that good. I don’t know how many times today [equipment manager] Brock [Myles] check our skates because of holes.

“The ice was soft but it’s over,” Ovechkin added. “So thank God nobody got hurt everybody feel healthy.”

Along with being a lost opportunity (in some ways) to increase the popularity of the NHL – and particularly the Capitals – in a solid market like Baltimore, some might believe that the substandard conditions also defeated a common purpose of preseason games: evaluating players. Even a blue-collar team like the Predators scaled things back a bit, as head coach Barry Trotz reminded his players to not “be too creative out there.” That being said, Capitals bench boss Bruce Boudreau learned something from the game.

“It’s hard to judge skill,” Boudreau said of assessing talent in the mushy ice, “but it’s always easy to judge effort. Whether you’re in a blinding snow storm or a rain storm, as the Winter Classic was, you can tell.”

Boudreau makes a point, but it’s still disappointing that the game was largely a waste.On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley probably captured the sentiment the best in his Tweet following the game.

Baltimore was a gracious host for NHL hockey Tuesday night. But NHL hockey must have NHL conditions — player safety is non-negotiable.

In case you’re wondering, Chris Mueller and Kyle Wilson scored the Predators’ two goals, while Niclas Bergfors assisted on each tally and Shea Weber also earned a helper. Pekka Rinne ended up with the shutout while Michal Neuvirth was the losing goaltender.

In case you’re still not relieved – and surprised – that the game was reportedly injury-free, take a look at this photo of that cracked ice from Sky Kerstein:

source:

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.