Goaltending, a focal point in this column, remains my No. 1 handicapping tool. And as we hit the final third of the season this week, it’s time to determine (yet never firmly) which goalies can carry their team off the bubble and move among the top eight teams in each conference.
Detroit: Jimmy Howard and his defense finally are turning the corner since the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, arguably the best defenseman of his era with seven Norris Trophys, one shy of the NHL record held by Bobby Orr. The result: a two-game sweep in Anaheim to go 3-for-3 in California.
Unlike defensive units like Philadelphia, which cheat covering the big shooters and hoping a lesser player doesn’t beat them, the Wings stay in their spots blocking shots, leaving the rest to Howard. When he doesn’t need to flop around, Detroit is again tough to beat.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin is starting to get hot, so this weekend’s road trip to Buffalo and Philadelphia is key for goalies Braden Holtby and Michael Neuvirth. As we approach 15 games to go, these 4-point swing games could be the beginning of the end for at least one of these clubs.
We like Holtby as the most consistent among the East’s 9-12 teams, with a nice save percentage of nearly 95 percent over his last six starts.
Columbus: The Blue Jackets’ 11-game streak with at least a point fell over the weekend, but the play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky continued to be stellar.
Not many fans know about Bobrovsky or Columbus, which receives few national television appearances. However, this team only seems to perform at home, and with the team now on the road for 7-of-8 (the home game is with Anaheim), expect the Jackets to remain below the Mendoza Line.
Tampa Bay: Two years ago, the Lightning were within one shot of a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. Now they are another also-ran in the weak Southeast Division – no wonder the NHL wants to condense to four divisions – with head coach Guy Boucher handed a pink slip
However, Dwayne Roloson got old – he was 42 during the Cup run – and none of at least a half-dozen replacements has stepped forward. The acquisition of Anders Lindback from Nashville, has never worked. Backip Mathieu Garon (3-8-0) is no better.
St. Louis: Jake Allen had won five straight (8-1-0 overall) before coach Ken Hitchcock went back to Jaroslav Halak over the weekend. Halak posted a shutout in Edmonton, but in a quick 22-hour turnaround, Allen was left on the bench, so Calgary beat Halak to extend their home-ice win streak to 7.
What was Hitchcock thinking about? Unless there was an unreported illness or injury, we expect the Blues to make the playoffs, but barely.
Dallas: Kari Lehtonen blanks the L.A. Kings, then Dallas further aids in the elimination of Colorado with a one-side victory, moving the Stars into eighth place in the West. So management deals captain Braden Morrow to Pittsburgh.
Sure, the veteran, the heart of the franchise for more than a decade, has been a three-star selection just once all season, but is the message you want to send to your team? Still, Morrow waived his no-trade clause in the gutsy move. Is Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames willing to do the same thing?
New Jersey marks the return of Martin Brodeur by going 3-0-2 to the UNDER after tweaking his back. This is not a coincidence.
Montreal is 7-1-0 toward the OVER in recent wins, while 3-1-0 on the UNDER in recent losses. Sounds like a parlay if you pick the correct side.
Toronto: The Maple Leafs have allowed two goals or more for more than a month, last allowing a single goal to Buffalo on Feb. 21. Look towards the OVER whenever possible.
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