HARD HITS: Hockey Day In America


It’s Hockey Day In America. Well, really it was kick-started last night with the big outdoor game played between the LA Kings and Colorado Avalanche at the U. S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The Stadium Series was won by the Kings 3-1 over the Avalanche. Tyler Toffoli scored the game-winner with 55 seconds left in regulation. He also scored into an empty net to become the first player to record a hat trick in an outdoor game.

The NHL has been playing these games for over a decade. Nobody ever had one. Think of all the talent too. Crosby. Malkin. Ovechkin. Kane. Toews. Pastrnak. Marchand. Bergeron. The list goes on. Toffoli is a good player who’s been part of a Stanley Cup with the Kings. He’s quietly had a nice season with 18 goals. Many expect the 26-year old forward to be available this trade deadline. He could have a new team in eight days.

Speaking of celebrating American hockey, nothing quite says celebration like NBC having the Penguins whip the woeful Red Wings 5-1 on national TV. Patric Hornqvist had three points (2-1-3) as the Pens chased poor Jimmy Howard, who fell to 2-22-2. The game should’ve been played at a neutral site. At least it might have given Detroit a better chance.

Why the Red Wings continue to be on NBC or their other network is insane. It’s like featuring the Knicks on ABC/ESPN or TNT. You just don’t do it or avoid doing so as much as possible. Outside of Pittsburgh, who’s going to watch? No disrespect to Hockeytown. But even they gotta be sick of seeing their inept team. Here’s hoping Alexis Lafreniere can save them. It’s not even a lock due to the lottery. Watch the Devils win again or Montreal somehow defy the odds.

Next on tap is an Original Six match-up between Boston and New York. The Bruins are trying to hold off the red hot Lightning for the league’s best record. They lead Tampa by a point coming into MSG for the third and final meeting with the Rangers. The Rangers have won a season high four in a row. They still have wildcard hopes despite playing in the wrong division. A win of any kind puts them up to 66 with 24 games remaining. That would put some more pressure on the Blue Jackets, who play later at the Devils. They and the Flyers each have 71 points. The Hurricanes trail by two and host leading scorer Leon Draisaitl and Edmonton.

The race is a crazy one. While you have as many as seven teams in the crowded Metro fighting for five spots, the Atlantic only has two playoff locks in the Bruins and Lightning. The Maple Leafs are third with 70 points. Four clear of slumping Florida. At this point given their latest blown three goal lead last night, you’d have to figure Montreal is out of it with Buffalo. The Habs are overusing Carey Price and continue to lose. They’re not good enough. The Sabres are a one man show thanks to American star Jack Eichel. He is a dynamic player that makes everyone better. If only he had more help.

There are other games taking place later today. That includes a rematch between the Predators and suddenly slumping Blues. Nashville got a big win yesterday 4-3 at St. Louis. They’ve played a little better under John Hynes. I wouldn’t be shocked if they found their way in. A classic home-and-home series between division rivals is always good. The Blues are trying to hang onto first place with the Avalanche and Stars on their tails.

Eichel and the Sabres host rival Toronto tonight. That’s always interesting. Can Eichel continue his hot streak versus American sniper Auston Matthews? Matthews is tied for the league lead with 42 goals. He and David Pastrnak each are up to 42 while Alex Ovechkin is stuck on 40 as he chases 700. Maybe he wants to do it at home.

The last game on a busy Sunday slate is the Blackhawks visiting the Jets. Both teams are out of the playoffs right now. Winnipeg is three points out with two games at hand on Arizona. Chicago trails the Coyotes by six with three extra games left. They blew out the Flames 8-4 in Calgary last night. The Flames are vulnerable due to no defense. They’re missing both Mark Giordano and Travis Hamonic. Neither David Rittich or Cam Talbot could save them from a Hawks onslaught. They are tied with the Coyotes in points (66) for the wildcard. They’ve played one fewer game. So, they’re in the first wildcard.

The Western race should continue to be unpredictable. With Nashville, Winnipeg, Minnesota and Chicago still alive for the playoffs, only the three miserable three California teams (Sharks, Ducks, Kings) are out of contention. The Sharks lost Erik Karlsson for the remainder of the season due to thumb surgery. Joe Thornton is expected to be moved in what’s likely his final season. Wouldn’t it be something if he went to a team and won a Cup?

While they continue to celebrate how far American hockey has come almost 40 years to the Miracle On Ice (Feb. 22, 1980), enjoy the stars that have emerged out of Team USA. From Patrick Kane, who could one day top all American players in goals, assists and points to the unreal hands of Matthews, who’s vying for the Rocket Richard, there’s a lot of talent to appreciate.

Eichel. Kane. Matthews. Those are the headliners followed by John Carlson, Kyle Connor, JT Miller, Max Pacioretty, Sean Couturier, Blake Wheeler, Johnny Gaudreau. Jake Guentzel would be near the top of he didn’t get hurt. He’s a great finisher. Chris Kreider is finally putting it altogether. This could be the year he hits 30 goals. Will it be as a Blueshirt?

Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes and Tony DeAngelo are emerging stars representing the stars and stripes. You have old reliable guys like Keith Yandle and Ryan Suter. Plus the always overlooked TJ Oshie, who came up big to help Ovechkin and the Caps win the Cup two years ago. Bryan Rust and Brock Nelson are emerging players. Even though he plays on a bad team, Dylan Larkin will be heard from. Torey Krug remains a underrated defenseman on the Bruins. Kyle Palmieri is on the Devils and remains a player that can get 30 goals. Wait till Jack Hughes matures.

Zach Werenski has had a great year for low scoring Columbus. His 17 goals pace all NHL defensemen. When he and fellow American teammate Seth Jones are healthy, that’s quite a tandem. Alex DeBrincat isn’t having the season he had last year, but he’ll rebound. Christian Dvorak is one of the most improved Coyotes. Eventually, Brady Tkachuk will be a household name in Ottawa. He’s tougher than brother Matthew, who is hated by many players.

As for goalies, Ben Bishop is as good as anyone. He got robbed last year for the Vezina. They gave it to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s an ace in net for Tampa. Connor Hellebuyck has to do too much for Winnipeg. John Gibson is one of the better puck stoppers. However, his team is awful. Jonathan Quick has the hardware with two Cups and a Conn Smythe.

American hockey is in great shape. Happy Hockey Day In America!

Body Checks

With Alex Georgiev playing again for Igor Shesterkin, the rumblings are growing louder that Henrik Lundqvist could waive his no trade and become a former Ranger a lot sooner than anyone expected. It makes sense. He’s not playing. It’s time to move on. Go elsewhere and chase a Cup.

I’ve said before that Anthony Cirelli has been a real key to the Lightning revival. He’s having a good season for Tampa. He’s the kind of gritty player they’ll need to go far this Spring. He won’t win it, but Cirelli should be up for the Selke.

Mackenzie Blackwood deserves mention for how well he’s played recently for the Devils. He pitched consecutive shutouts and allowed one goal in three starts. He’s another young netminder to watch. The clear-cut starter in New Jersey, Blackwood will need help from a blueline that remains sketchy.

Having been shutout in consecutive losses at Nashville and Vegas last night, the Islanders have to know they need to make a move by Feb. 24. There isn’t enough offense. It can’t just be Mat Barzal skating around in circles passing pucks to noted snipers Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield. When you’re counting on those kind of D along with Devon Toews for offense, that’s bad. Jordan Eberle gets a lot of chances, but isn’t finishing consistently. Josh Bailey is more playmaker and Nelson leads the team in goals yet wasn’t out there down a goal with Semyon Varlamov on the bench. Kieffer Bellows is a rookie.

Adam Fox is a American name that should rise on that defense list. He gets better and better each game for the Blueshirts. The pair featuring him and Ryan Lindgren is their best. Both will only be 22 entering their second year in the Fall. There’s still lots of season left.

Bruce Boudreau became the latest coaching casualty following a shootout loss to the Rangers. A game his Wild led 3-1 in with under 10 minutes left. How did they respond? By getting shutout to world beater Martin Jones and the Sharks on Saturday. It’s not just the coach there. Bill Guerin has his work cut out. Getting Karill Kaprizov signed out of the KHL would dramatically help the offense. The former fifth round pick in 2015 is 27-27-54 in 53 games for CSKA Moscow.

In a move that’s not surprising, the Devils moved captain Andy Greene to the Islanders for David Quenneville and a 2021 second round draft pick. He’s in his last year. So, the Isles D adds depth. Greene likely will supplant rookie Noah Dobson, who isn’t ready yet.

Hart Race:

1. Leon Draisaitl

2. David Pastrnak

3. Artemi Panarin

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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