December 31 – Day 82 – Last games this year

The 5-2 final score is not indicative of how competitive last night’s Game of the Day between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning was, as the Blueshirts scored two empty-netters in the final 1:30 to secure the win.

The first two periods ended in ties, but New York never trailed.  They earned their first lead of the night after only 1:53 of play, when Keith Yandle and First Star of the Game Dominic Moore assisted Third Star Dan Boyle to his fifth goal of the season.  The Bolts waited until the 16:35 mark to take advantage of a Rick Nash high-sticking penalty, allowing Second Star Anton Stralman and Nikita Kucherov to assist Jonathan Marchessault to the game-tying goal.  The one-all score held into the intermission.

Even quicker than they scored in the first, New York scored in the second, only 56 seconds after resuming play.  J.T. Miller and Boyle assisted Mats Zuccarello to his 16th goal of the season to give the Rangers their second lead of the night.  Tampa waited until only nine seconds remained in the period to level the score, this tally couresty of Stralman on another power play after being assisted by Valtteri Filppula and Kucherov.  The two-all score held into the final period.

New York‘s winning goal came after 3:16 of play, courtesy of Moore, who was assisted by Viktor Stalberg.  Stalberg’s night wasn’t yet complete, as he scored the first of the Rangers‘ two empty-netters, this one at the 18:39 mark.  The Blueshirts‘ final tally came with only 33 seconds remaining in the game after Jesper Fast assisted Nash to his 12th of the season.

Henrik Lundqvist improves his record to 17-10-3 after saving 20 of 22 (90.9%), while Ben Bishop’s record falls to 15-12-3 after he saved 21 of 24 (87.5%).

The DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 32-14-6, favoring the home squad by 26 points over the roadies.

Eighteen teams will play on the last day of 2015, with the action getting started an hour earlier than usual when three games drop the opening puck at 6 p.m. eastern (the New York Islanders at Buffalo [BELL TV], Pittsburgh at Detroit [SN] and Washington at Carolina).  8 p.m. eastern brings with it two Central division rivalries (Minnesota at St. Louis and Chicago at Colorado), followed half an hour later by another (Nashville at Dallas).  Three games combine as this evening’s nightcap, which will get started at 9 p.m. eastern (Los Angeles at Calgary [NHLN/SN360/SN1], Anaheim at Edmonton and Winnipeg at Arizona).

Six of tonight’s nine games are divisional rivalries (Washington at Carolina, Minnesota at St. Louis, Chicago at Colorado, Nashville at Dallas, Los Angeles at Calgary and Anaheim at Edmonton), while two of those, Minnesota at St. Louis and Nashville at Dallas, feature matchups between two teams currently qualifying for the playoffs.  Based on records alone, the WildBlues game should be more competitive, and it is also a rematch of a Western Conference Quarterfinals matchup, so let’s head to the Scottrade Center.

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This will be Minnesota‘s sixth time featured in the Game of the Day series, where they own a 3-2-0 record.  Their most recent showing in the series was a 6-3 loss to the Stars on home ice on December 21.  St. Louis has one more game played in the series, and it was a 3-2 nine-round shootout victory against the Stars on Saturday that improved their record in the series to 4-2-0.

To start the season, the 19-10-6 Minnesota Wild (third in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference) were leaning on their offense to cover up for defensive decencies.  But, as more games have been played, the Wild have improved their goals against to third best in the league.

So far this season, the Wild defense has allowed only 1005 shots to reach 15-10-2 Devan Dubnyk and co., thanks in part to Jared Spurgeon’s team-leading 79 shots.  91.9% of those shots have been saved, leaving only 84 goals against.  These numbers are good, but Minnesota is still searching for answers on the penalty kill.  Although they’ve allowed only 85 opposing power plays, 19 of them have yielded goals, giving Minnesota a 77.65% kill rate that trails the league average by 3.23%.

Offensively, the Wild has had a falling-off.  They only have 991 shots to their credit, but fortunately for them, 9.6% of those attempts have found the back of the net for 95 goals.  Although the offensive numbers overall have slid, the power play has still been strong.  On 109 opportunities, they’ve scored 22 goals for a 20.18% success rate that leads the league average by 1.06%.

Their most recent showing was a 3-1 victory over the Red Wings on Monday.

The 23-12-4 St. Louis Blues are currently second best in both the Central Division and the Western Conference and, just like Minnesota, have utilized defensive prowess to get them where they are.

Even with Jay Bouwmeester’s team-leading 71 blocks, 1114 shots have made their way to 18-8-2 Jake Allen and co., who have saved a combined 92.4% (leads the league average by .9%) for only 92 goals against.  An especially strong aspect of this Blues‘ defense has been their penalty kill.  86.4% of the opposing power plays have been killed for only 17 goals allowed, both easily superior to the league average.

St. Louis‘ offense has put a whopping 1170 shots on goal (led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s 142), of which 8.3% have found the back of the net for 97 goals (led by Tarasenko’s 22).  St. Louis‘ power play has also been successful this season, scoring on 20.37% of attempts for 22 goals (led by Tarasenko’s seven).

Their last showing was a 4-3 overtime victory over the Predators Tuesday.

Some players to watch include Minnesota‘s Dubnyk (four shutouts [tied for third in the league]) & St. Louis‘ Allen (five shutouts [tied for first in the league], 18 wins [fourth in the league], .927 save percentage [tied for sixth in the league] and 2.08 GAA [seventh in the league]) and Tarasenko (22 goals [tied for second in the league] and 39 points [tied for sixth in the league]).

Tonight’s game will be the third in the season series between these two squads, where Minnesota currently leads 1-0-1.  Their most recent meeting was two months ago on Halloween night when the Wild visited St. Louis and left with a point as the Blues won in overtime 3-2.

Since I have to make a pick for this game, I am leaning towards the Blues since I believe their defense is more capable of stopping Minnesota‘s offense than the Wild’s defense against St. Louis‘ offense.  Pairing that with home ice, I predict the Blues to have a pleasant start to 2016.

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