January 15 – Day 92 – Wild-Hawks rivalry

What better way to close out your weekend than with hockey? The action gets an early start at 1 p.m. with Philadelphia at Washington (NBC/TVAS), with two contests dropping the puck in prime time at 7 p.m. (New Jersey at Vancouver [SN] and Minnesota at Chicago [NBCSN]). Finally, St. Louis at Anaheim (NHLN) gets underway at 9 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Philadelphia at Washington: In addition to being a rivalry, it’s also a rematch from last season’s Eastern Quartefinals.
  • Minnesota at Chicago:  A Wild win tonight would distance Minnesota‘s Central Division and Western Conference lead over their biggest rivals in their first meeting of the year.

Just like yesterday’s rivalry in Ottawa, the matchup in the United Center is just too big to miss. Off to the Windy City we go!

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Way back in the day, the Blackhawks and North Stars had a fantastic rivalry, similar to the Bears and Vikings and the Twins and White Sox. Of course, it died out when the Stars lost the direction from their name and headed to the Lone Star State.

Simply introducing the Wild to the league in 2000 did not completely rekindle the dormant geographical rivalry. That job was completed 13 years later when these clubs met in the Western Quarterfinals. Although the Hawks needed only five games to dispatch the Wild, a playoff meeting paired with Minnesota joining the Central Division that offseason marked the beginnings of today’s rivalry.

For three-straight seasons, these clubs met in the postseason, and the Wild have been eliminated three straight-times. Minnesota does have a big victory over the Hawks though: last season’s Stadium Series matchup at TCF Bank Stadium, where the Wild whipped Chicago 6-1.

What better environment for a statement win? With a win over the Stars last night for their third-straight, Minnesota took control of Central Division and Western Conference by winning the games-played tiebreaker over Chicago. Of course, the Wild would love to create a real point-spread over the Hawks before staking dramatic claims like “Best in the West” or something to that effect.

Minnesota has earned their 27-9-5 record by playing  some phenomenal goaltending that has allowed only 84 goals, the second-fewest in the NHL.

At the midway point of the season, 22-7-3 Devan Dubnyk easily gets my vote (if I had one) for Vezina. His .94 save percentage and 1.77 GAA are both best in the NHL.

Making his effort more impressive is the fact that Minnesota‘s defense is not one of the elite units in the league. Led by Jared Spurgeon‘s 73-block effort, the Wild have allowed 29.5 shots-per-game to reach Dubnyk’s crease, only the 12th-best in the NHL.

Dubnyk’s success has carried into the penalty kill. Thanks to him and Spurgeon’s team-leading 11 shorthanded blocks, Minnesota ranks fifth-best on the penalty kill, refusing to yield a goal on 85.1% of opposing power plays.

Playing host this evening are the 27-13-5 Blackhawks, currently in second place in the Central Division due to losing the games-played tiebreaker to the this tonight’s opponent. They’ve found that success by playing a well-rounded game, but I’ve been most impressed with their goaltending that has allowed only 112 goals over 45 games – the seventh-lowest average in the league.

The man between the pipes more often than not for Chicago has been 16-9-3 Corey Crawford, whose .922 save percentage and 2.47 GAA are (t)12th and 19th-best among the 47 netminders with 14 or more appearances.

While Dubnyk has certainly been better than Crawford this season, Crawford has arguably been more important for his club this season as the Hawks‘ defense allows 31.3 shots-per-game to reach his crease, tied for the eighth-worst rate in the league. Niklas Hjalmarsson is doing all he can to resolve that issue, as his 104 blocks are not only most on the team, but fifth-most in the league.

The biggest issue for Chicago this season has been their miserable penalty kill. Ranked third-worst in the league, the Hawks have stopped only 76.3% of opposing power plays. Once again, Hjalmarsson cannot be lumped into that effort, as his 19 shorthanded blocks are easily the best in the Windy City.

Some players to keep an eye on include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.924 save percentage [tied for seventh-best in the NHL]), Patrick Kane (33 assists [second-most in the league] among 45 points [fourth-most in the NHL]), Duncan Keith (29 assists [fourth-most in the league]) and Artemi Panarin (42 points [ninth-most in the NHL]) & Minnesota‘s Dubnyk (1.77 GAA on a .94 save percentage [both best in the league] for 22 wins, including five shutouts [both tied for second-most in the NHL]), Mikael Granlund (+22 [tied for fourth-best in the league]), Mikko Koivu (+22 [tied for fourth-best in the NHL]), Spurgeon (+24 [third-best in the league]), Ryan Suter (+27 [best in the NHL]) and Jason Zucker (+25 [second-best in the league]).

This should be a fantastic game. Minnesota comes into this game riding tons of momentum, while Chicago finally has the goal of reclaiming their position in the standings. Given that the Hawks were inactive yesterday and Minnesota had to travel from Texas, I’m leaning towards Chicago, but that’s not to say I’m picking against a very impressive Wild team.

Hockey Birthday

  • Brett Lebda (1982-) – Although undrafted, this defenseman played 397 games over seven seasons in the NHL, most of which with Detroit. He was a member of the Wings‘ 2008 Stanley Cup squad.

You did it Leafs fans. Toronto‘s 4-2 victory over Ottawa in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day has earned them third place in the Atlantic Division. If they hold onto it, they qualify for the playoffs.

Only 6:26 into the game, Second Star of the Game Nazem Kadri (James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak) got things started with a power play wrister to give the Maple Leafs an early lead that lasted until the first intermission.

Toronto got off to an even faster start in the second period as Bozak (Mitch Marner) buried a wrister only 1:07 after returning to the ice. The Senators pulled back within a goal when Dion Phaneuf (Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson) potted a slap shot 8:08 later. With 110 seconds remaining before the second intermission, Third Star Kyle Turris (Bobby Ryan and Ryan Dzingel) leveled the game with a wrister.

Kadri (William Nylander and Matt Hunwick) takes credit for the winning goal only 2:31 after returning from intermission – yet another quick goal. Connor Brown (Auston Matthews) tacked on an insurance goal 5:21 later to secure Toronto‘s victory.

First Star Curtis McElhinney earned his first victory with the Leafs by saving 35-of-37 shots faced (94.6%), leaving the loss to Mike Condon, who saved 23-of-27 (85.2%).

The Leafs‘ victory is the second-straight by the road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, setting the series record at 49-31-14 in favor of the homers by six points.

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