December 26 – Day 77 – Top two goal-scorers square-off

The NHL’s Christmas gift to you this season?  The same one they give you every year: a return to hockey after the holiday!

Eighteen teams return from holiday hiatus today to take the ice.  The action gets started at 7 p.m. eastern, when four games get underway (Buffalo at Boston [BELL TV], Columbus at Tampa Bay, Montréal at Washington [CBC/NHLN/TVAS] and New Jersey at Carolina), followed an hour later by three more (Dallas at St. Louis, Detroit at Nashville and Pittsburgh at Minnesota).  Los Angeles visits Arizona at 9 p.m. eastern, followed an hour later by Edmonton at Vancouver (CBC), this evening’s nightcap.

Five of tonight’s matchups are divisional rivalries (Buffalo at Boston, New Jersey at Carolina, Dallas at St. Louis, Los Angeles at Arizona and Edmonton at Vancouver), while three are between current playoff qualifiers (Montréal at Washington, Dallas at St. Louis and Detroit at Nashville).  As you’ve come to expect, we’ll go for the game that qualifies for both categories: the StarsBlues matchup.

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This will be Dallas‘ fifth time featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series, where they currently own a perfect 4-0-0 record, with their last showing a 6-3 victory in Minnesota on Monday.  The Blues have been featured five times before today, and own a 3-2-0 record when the focus of our attention.  Their last showing was a 2-1 victory over the Predators on December 17.

The 26-7-2 Dallas Stars have been the story of the season thus far.  They lead the Central Division and Western Conference by eight points, and the entire NHL by two points.  They’ve found that success by pairing an above-average defense with one of, if not the best offense in the league, made evident by their last victory, a four-goal shutout of the Blackhawks on Tuesday that extended their winning streak to three games.

The Stars have put 1128 shots on goal this season (led by Tyler Seguin’s 143), a total that exceeds the league average by 115 attempts.  A strong 10.9% of those shots have found the back of the net for a league-leading 123 goals (led by Jamie Benn’s 22).  The Stars have been especially potent on the power play, where they’ve scored 27 goals (led by on Benn’s nine) on 116 opportunities for a 23.28% success rate that well exceeds the league average.

Even though it may the weaker end of the ice for Dallas, the Blues should not assume that having the Stars defending will give them an advantage.  Dallas has only let 993 shots reach 15-5-2 Antti Niemi and co. (helped by Alex Goligoski’s team-leading 71 blocks), of which they’ve saved 91.3% for only 87 goals.  Probably the biggest issue the Stars face is their penalty kill.  On 101 attempts, Dallas has given up 20 goals and killed the remaining 80.2%, which trails the league average by .83%.

The 21-11-4 St. Louis Blues currently qualify for second place in both the Central Division and Western Conference, trailing the Stars by eight points.  Their most recent game was a two-goal shutout victory in Boston on Tuesday.  The Blues have favored the defensive end of the ice, but are still very much a threat on the offensive.

Thanks in part to Alex Pietrangelo’s team-leading 65 blocks, St. Louis has allowed only 1020 shots on net, a total that exceeds the league average by only 12 shots in two more games played.  16-8-2 Jake Allen and co. have saved 92.4% of those shots, allowing only 84 goals against.  The defense especially clamps down on the penalty kill, where they’ve killed 87.29% of power plays, allowing only 15 goals.

Offensively, the Blues have not been as strong.  They’ve managed only 1086 shots (led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s 127), of which 8.4%, or 91 (Tarasenko leads the team with 22) have found the back of the net.  Although the offense has only been average overall, the Blues‘ power play is nothing to laugh at.  On 99 attempts, nine fewer than the league average, the Notes have scored 21.21%, or 21 goals (led by Tarasenko’s seven tallies).

Some players to watch in tonight’s game include Dallas‘ Benn (22 goals [tied for league lead], 46 points [tied for second in the league], +17 [tied for second in the league] and 24 assists [tied for sixth in the league]), Jason Demers (+16 [tied for fifth in the league]), John Klingberg (27 assists [tied for third in the league]), Niemi (three shutouts [tied for fifth in the league] and 15 wins [tied for sixth in the league]), Johnny Oduya (+15 [tied for seventh in the league]) and Seguin (46 points [tied for second in the league], 27 assists [tied for third in the league], 19 goals [fourth in the league] and +15 [tied for seventh in the league]) & St. Louis‘ Allen (five shutouts [tied for league lead], 16 wins [tied for fourth in the league], .928 save percentage [sixth in the league] and 2.06 GAA [tied for sixth in the league]) and Tarasenko (22 goals [tied for league lead] and 38 points [tied for fifth in the league]).

This will be the Stars‘ second trip to St. Louis this season, with the first representing the first game in the season series.  The Blues won the matchup on December 12 with a three-goal shutout.  Following tonight’s game both squads will board planes for Dallas to play again tomorrow night.

This is a tough game to predict, as both provide compelling arguments.  The Stars, their offense in particular, have been very tough to stop this season, but the Blues proved that they have the superior defense in their previous matchup only two weeks ago.  Especially since the game is taking place in the Scottrade Center, I think I have to lean towards the Blues taking a 2-0-0 lead in the season series with a win this evening.