It’s the first Friday in February, which is obviously special… somehow…
Let’s figure that out while we’re watching hockey tonight. As usual, the action begins at 7 p.m. with Columbus at Pittsburgh (TVAS), followed half an hour later by four games (the New York Islanders at Detroit [NHLN], Anaheim at Florida, Calgary at New Jersey and Edmonton at Carolina [SN/SN1]) acting as this evening’s nightcaps.
Let’s see if Penguins fans treat this as much of a rivalry as the Fifth Line. Even if they don’t, it’s still an important game in the Metropolitan Division.
These clubs have only met up once before this season, and that was in Ohio. There’s no doubt that the Penguins are one of, if not the most hated team in Nationwide Arena, and Jackets fans (for those not in the know, that’s who the Fifth Line is referring to) helped their favorite club to a 7-1 victory on December 22.
While I have not attended a game at PPG Paints Arena, I think it’s safe to say the Jackets‘ visits to the Steel City do not spark the same fandom as is witnessed when the Pens go to Columbus.
Of course, that might all change tonight. The Blue Jackets are currently second-best in the Metropolitan Division and have a three point lead over Pittsburgh, and if there’s one thing a reigning Stanley Cup champion doesn’t like, it’s playing second or third fiddle. Expect a rowdy crowd that doesn’t have work responsibilities tomorrow to make their presence known this evening.
Making their first of two trips to the City of Bridges is 33-12-4 Columbus, a club that has played solidly on both ends of the ice. That being said, I’ve been most impressed with their offense, which has managed 164 tallies in 49 games and ties for the second-best rate in the NHL.
Cam Atkinson has been at the head of that tremendous attack and leads the team with 46 points. Success is found in the back of the net, which is what has made the right wing so good: he’s buried 24 goals this season, another team-high.
No power play is more feared in hockey than Columbus‘. They convert 24.6% of their opportunities into tallies, easily the best in the league. Although Atkinson continues his stellar play on the special teams, it’s actually been Alexander Wennberg that has stood out most with his team-leading 20 power play points. That being said, Atkinson still has the goal title on the man-advantage, although he shares it with Captain Nick Foligno as both have nine extra-man tallies apiece.
Columbus is relentless even when it’s short a skater. They refuse to yield a goal on 83.3% of penalty kills, the seventh-best rate in the NHL. Jack Johnson has been at the forefront of that effort with his 24 shorthanded shot blocks, as has Sergei Bobrovsky with his solid .889 save percentage against the power play – it’s 12th-best in the league among the 42 netminders with 20 or more appearances.
Although that was a lot of praise heaped on the Blue Jackets, the 31-13-5 Penguins are far from slouches. They also play a powerful offense, scoring the most goals in the league with 174.
Who else to lead that charge than Captain Sidney Crosby? His 56 points are tops in Pittsburgh, as are his 28 tallies. There are few that rival the two-time winner of both the Hart and Ross Trophies, but one of those is the injured Evgeni Malkin. Both are two of only eight players to average at least a point-per-game so far this season, and the Penguins are the only team to feature two such players.
Part of the reason that offense is so feared is due to their impressive power play. Successful on 22.9% of attempts, Pittsburgh is home to the fourth-best rate in the league. It’s actually been Phil Kessel who’s taken the man-advantage to heart most, as his 22 power play points not only lead the Penguins, but also tie for the NHL-lead with fellow Pennsylvanian Claude Giroux. But Columbus should never forget about Crosby, whose 10 man-advantage goals are most on the club.
What may be the difference in this game is Pittsburgh‘s penalty kill, which ranks seventh-worst after stopping only 78.6% of opposing power plays even with Ian Cole‘s team-leading 27 shorthanded blocks. The problem? Matthew Murray‘s .878 save percentage against the man-advantage is only average, rating 20th against the 51 goalies with at least 13 appearances.
Some players to keep an eye this evening on include Columbus‘ Atkinson (24 goals [tied for fifth-most in the NHL]), Bobrovsky (28 wins [most in the league] on a .929 save percentage [tied for third-best in the NHL] and 2.1 GAA [fifth-best in the league], including three shutouts [tied for seventh-most in the NHL]) and Wennberg (34 assists [tied for fifth-most in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Crosby (28 goals [most in the NHL] among 56 points [second-most in the league]), Kessel (32 assists [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), Murray (.922 save percentage [tied for ninth-best in the league]) and Justin Schultz (+28 [tied for third-best in the NHL]).
The bookies in the desert mark Pittsburgh a -132 favorite to win tonight’s game, but I’m not feeling too good about that. Although the Pens‘ penalty kill is slightly better at home than it is on the road, I don’t think that improvement is enough to contain the Jackets‘ overwhelming power play. I’ll take Columbus for the upset in a fantastic game.
- Tiger Williams (1954-) – This left wing spent most of his career with Toronto, the club that drafted him 31st-overall in the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft. He spent 3966 minutes over his 14-year career in the penalty box, but managed one All-Star selection.
- Marek Zidlicky (1977-) – Last employed by the Islanders, this defenseman was drafted in the sixth-round by the crosstown Rangers. That being said, most of his 12-year career was spent in Minnesota.
- Andrei Kostitsyn (1985-) – The highest draft pick of the day, this left wing was picked 10th-overall by Montréal in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He spent all but 19 games of his career with the Habs, but hasn’t seen the NHL since 2012.
Yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day was another lopsided victory, as St. Louis beat the Maple Leafs 5-1.
The first period ended in a one-all tie, but the scoring didn’t start until 5:38 remained on the clock. That’s when Mitch Marner (Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk) buried his wrister to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead. It lasted 3:36 until Alexander Steen (Kevin Shattenkirk and First Star of the Game Paul Stastny) scored a wrister to level the game.
The Notes took control of the game in the second period, starting with Stastny’s (Steen and Alex Pietrangelo) wrister 6:27 after returning to the ice. Vladimir Tarasenko (Jori Lehtera and Second Star Colton Parayko) followed that up 35 seconds later with a wrister of his own, setting the score at 3-1. Parayko (Pietrangelo and Robby Fabbri) takes credit for the final tally of the frame, burying his power play wrister with 8:58 remaining on the clock.
Stastny (Parayko and Joel Edmundson) tacked on the final insurance goal with 7:32 remaining in the game.
Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day have been doing well of late, winning six of their last seven contests and four-straight. That improves the hosts’ record to 58-35-16, 11 points better than the visitors.