December 31 – Day 77 – A streak must end in St. Paul

The day you’ve been worried about has finally arrived. After today, there’s no more hockey in 2016.

Fortunately, 2017 is right around the corner and has tons of hockey in store!

New Year’s Eve features 11 contests,  and the action starts at 1 p.m. with two games (Buffalo at Boston and Washington at New Jersey) dropping the puck, and Columbus at Minnesota gets underway at 6 p.m. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it a trio of matchups (the New York Islanders at Winnipeg [SN], Montréal at Pittsburgh [CBC/TVAS] and Carolina at Tampa Bay), trailed an hour later by two more (the New York Rangers at Colorado and Florida at Dallas). The West Coast gets involved at 10 p.m. with a pair of games (Vancouver at Edmonton [CBC/SN] and Arizona at Calgary [CBC/SN1/SN360]), with tonight’s nightcap – San Jose at Los Angeles – waiting half an hour before dropping the puck. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Buffalo at Boston: Didn’t they just play this rivalry Thursday? Yes, yes they did.
  • Columbus at Minnesota: The game everybody is talking about. Both clubs have won at least their last 12 games, but one must lose today.
  • Florida at Dallas: Both Jason Demers and Colton Sceviour make their first returns to Texas after a combined seven seasons with the Stars.
  • New York at Colorado: Nick Holden is also making his first trip back to his old stomping grounds.
  • Arizona at Calgary: Josh Jooris played his first two seasons in the Saddledome before making his way to the desert.
  • San Jose at Los Angeles: The Battle of California is even more exciting this season since these clubs met in last year’s playoffs.

Like I said yesterday, 2016 is going out with a bang. Even games not listed – CanadiensPenguins comes to mind – are going to be exemplary. What better way to celebrate the closing of the year than at your closest arena?

As far as our focus today, we have to head to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, truly the State of Hockey today.

Columbus Blue Jackets LogoUnknown-2

 

Please raise your hand if, before the season began, you expected this matchup to be played under these circumstances.

Just so you know, I’m going to call 90% of you liars.

For those that are unaware, Columbus comes to the Xcel Energy Center as winners of their last 14 games, rivaled only by the Wild and their 12-game winning streak. Both streaks are certainly impressive, but Penguins fans are pulling for the Wild this afternoon – and not just for the impact on the standings. During the 1992-’93 season, Pittsburgh closed the campaign on a 17-game winning streak, the longest in NHL history.

Columbus‘ streak has propelled them to a 25-5-4 record, the best mark in the NHL. While both sides of the ice have obviously been impressive for the Jackets, it’s been an impressive effort by the goaltender and good defense, allowing only 70 goals – tied for the fewest in the league (more on that later).

With a 23-5-2 record in 30 starts, Sergei Bobrovsky has been in net for most of the Blue Jackets‘ victories. He backs his impressive record with a season .934 save percentage and 1.95 GAA, ranking top-three in both statistics against 42 other netminders with 15 or more appearances.

Bobrovsky has been good on his own, but he’s also gotten good help from his defense. Led by David Savard‘s 63 shot blocks, Columbus allows exactly 30 shots per game to reach the goal crease, the 14th-lowest average in the NHL.

Offensively, nothing is finer than the Jackets‘ power play. They bury the puck on 28% of opportunities, by far the best rate in the entire league. Cam Atkinson deserves a lot of the credit, as his 17 power play points are tops in Ohio, but he splits the extra-man goal-scoring title with Nick Foligno – both have lit the lamp seven times.

Hosting today’s game are the 23-8-4 Wild, the second-best team in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. Just like Columbus, their incredible streak, as well as their impressive season, have been sparked by refusing to allow the opposition to score. Like Columbus, Minnesota has allowed only 70 goals.

Yes, you read that correctly. Both these teams come into this evening’s game allowing the fewest goals in the league. This contest is more than simply some win streaks. It’s about establishing defensive dominance

Starting netminder Devan Dubnyk enters tonight’s game with a 19-6-3 record on a .944 save percentage and 1.67 GAA – the best marks in the league among goalies with 14 or more appearances.

This is where the similarities between this evening’s opponents begin to diverge. Dubnyk does not have the luxury Bobrovsky does in a defense that keeps the puck off his crease. Instead, Dubnyk has to fend off 30.6 shots-per-game, the (t)10th-highest total in the game. Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon cannot take any credit for Dubnyk’s exhaustion, as they both have 62 shot blocks to lead the squad. Unfortunately, they’re also the only two defensemen with more than 50 blocks to their credit.

That hasn’t seemed to hold them back though. Specifically, the penalty kill is just as strong as ever, killing off 85.6% of opposing power plays – the fifth-best mark in the NHL. Spurgeon is joined by Mikael Granlund in leading the effort, as both have 10 shorthanded blocks to their credit.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include:

Columbus Blue Jackets:

  • Atkinson (35 points [tied for ninth-most in the league])
  • Bobrovsky (23 wins [most in the NHL] on a 1.95 GAA [second-best in the league] and a .934 save percentage [tied for second-best in the NHL], as well as three shutouts [tied for fourth-most in the league])
  • Jack Johnson (+20 [sixth-best in the NHL])
  • Brandon Saad (+19 [seventh-best in the league])
  • Savard (+23 [tied for second-best in the NHL])
  • Alexander Wennberg (24 assists [tied for sixth-most in the league])

Minnesota Wild:

  • Dubnyk (1.67 GAA on a .944 save percentage, as well as five shutouts [all best in the NHL], for 19 wins [tied for second-most in the league])
  • Granlund (+18 [tied for eighth-best in the NHL])
  • Mikko Koivu (+18 [tied for eighth-best in the league])
  • Nino Niederreiter (+16 [10th-best in the NHL])
  • Spurgeon (+23 [tied for second-best in the league])
  • Ryan Suter (+25 [leads the NHL])
  • Jason Zucker (+23 [tied for second-best in the league])

Minnesota is marked a -124 favorite by Vegas, but this is shaping up to be arguably the best game we’ve had this season. Everything is on the line tonight in St. Paul. I like the Wild simply because they’re at home, but this should be a game for the ages.

Hockey Birthday

  • René Robert (1948-) – The right wing on Buffalo‘s French Connection line, Robert played most of his dozen NHL seasons with the Sabres. Although that corps had such success, Robert earned only two All-Star selections.

Led by First Star of the Game Aaron Dell‘s shutout, the Sharks bested the Flyers at the Tank 2-0 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

The winning goal was struck with 3:31 remaining in the first period. It was a power play wrister from Second Star Patrick Marleau (Kevin Labanc and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), set up by Ivan Provorov‘s tripping penalty.

The game remained at 1-0 until 4:37 remained in regulation. Justin Braun (Joe Pavelski and Marleau) provided the insurance tally to ensure San Jose‘s victory.

Dell saved all 21 shots he faced for the shutout victory, the first of his young career. Steve Mason takes the loss after saving 11-of-12 shots faced (91.7%). Unfortunately, he only played one period before being injured. He was replaced by Anthony Stolarz, who saved 21-of-22 (95.5%) for no decision.

The DtFR Game of the Day now stands at 44-23-12, favoring the homers by 16 points over the roadies.

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