February 21 – Day 125 – Central showdown

If you’re the type to like weekdays busy with hockey action, today is your day. Nine contests will have been played by the end of the day, and as usual they get started at 7 p.m. (Pittsburgh at Carolina [TVAS], Montréal at the New York Rangers [RDS] and Ottawa at New Jersey [RDS2]). Three more matchups (the New York Islanders at Detroit, Edmonton at Tampa Bay and Winnipeg at Toronto) drop the puck at 7:30 p.m., followed by a pair (Chicago at Minnesota [NBCSN] and Calgary at Nashville [SN1]) at the top of the hour. Finally, Los Angeles at Colorado, tonight’s nightcap, drop the puck at 9 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Montréal at New York: There’s nothing better than an Original Six matchup that also serves as a potential playoff preview.
  • Chicago at Minnesota: Although this rivalry doesn’t have the age of an Original Six, that doesn’t take away from the general dislike of one another.

Trailing the Wild by seven points, the Blackhawks seem to be only improving as we get closer to the playoffs. Let’s see how they square up against the best in the West so far this season.

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Chicago makes their second trip of the month to the Xcel Energy Center with a 36-18-5 record, the second-best mark in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. While the Blackhawks have certainly been strong on both ends of the ice, they’ve been most impressive on the defensive end, as they’ve allowed only 150 goals against – the eighth-lowest total in the NHL.

As he has since 2010, 22-13-3 Corey Crawford has been charged with manning Chicago‘s crease, and one again he’s done a good job of it. Crawford has posted a season .917 save percentage and 2.56 GAA, the (t)15th and 21st-best efforts, respectively, among the 47 netminders with at least 19 appearances.

His play has been necessary, as the Hawks‘ defense hasn’t exactly been spectacular this year. Allowing 30.9 shots against per game, Chicago ties for 10th-worst in those regards, even with Niklas Hjalmarsson‘s impressive 151 shot blocks. Hjalmarsson has been quite the standout this season, as those blocks are not only the highest total in the Windy City, but it also ties for most in the NHL with Ottawa‘s Erik Karlsson.

The Blackhawks‘ otherwise shoddy defense catches up with them on the penalty kill, where their 77.1% success rate ties for fourth-worst in the league. Hjalmarsson continues to be a stud when his club is down a man, as his 34 shorthanded blocks nearly double the total of second-place Brent Seabrook‘s, but they are the only two players with more than a dozen penalty kill blocks to their credit. I wouldn’t be surprised if Stan Bowman makes a move for another blueliner before the fast-approaching trade deadline.

Playing host this evening are the 39-13-6 Wild, the second-best team in the NHL and best in the West. Winners of their past two games, Minnesota seems dead-set on eclipsing the 48-26-8 mark set by the 2006-07 team, and all signs are pointing towards them doing just that. Of course, they’ll also have intentions of getting past the Western Quarterfinals where that team fell, but that’s a bridge they’ll cross when they get to it.

In the meantime, Minnesota will continue to play the stellar defensive hockey that has gotten it to this point. Spearheading that effort is 32-10-3 Devan Dubnyk. That impressive record is no mistake, as his .934 save percentage and 1.97 GAA are both tops in the league.

Dubnyk’s play is made only more impressive by the fact that he has a below average defense playing in front of him. Even with Jared Spurgeon‘s team-leading 106 shot blocks, the Wild still allow 30.9 shots-against-per-game, which ties for 10th-worst in the NHL.

Say what you want about Minnesota‘s defense, but it certainly knows when to clamp down. Thanks in part to Spurgeon’s team-leading 15 shorthanded blocks, the Wild play the 10th-best penalty kill in the game, successful on 82.9% of opportunities.

To make matters worse for the opposition, the power play is absolutely exceptional. The best in the West, Minnesota ranks fourth in the league with a 21.9% success rate with the extra man. That effort is headed by Mikael Granlund and his 15 power play points, but the real skater Crawford needs to keep an eye on is Nino Niederreiter, as he’s scored eight times with the man-advantage.

Thanks to forcing overtime the last time these two teams met on February 8, the Wild have a one-point edge over Chicago in the season series between these clubs. When Minnesota visited the United Center on January 15, they won 3-2.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Chicago‘s Scott Darling (.928 save percentage [second-best in the NHL] for a 2.19 GAA [fourth-best in the league]), Patrick Kane (40 assists [fourth-most in the NHL] on 60 points [tied for fifth-most in the league]) and Duncan Keith (36 assists [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]) & Minnesota‘s Dubnyk (1.97 GAA on a .934 save percentage for 32 wins [all best in the league], including five shutouts [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]), Granlund (+31 [tied for sixth-best in the league] with 36 assists [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]), Mikko Koivu (+32 [tied for fourth-best in the league]), Spurgeon (+33 [third-best in the NHL]), Ryan Suter (+35 [best in the league]) and Jason Zucker (+34 [second-best in the NHL]).

Vegas has marked the Wild a -130 favorite to win tonight, and that’s a hard number to argue with. Minnesota has some fantastic special teams and the best goalie in the game to go with home ice, so I expect them to take care of business this evening.

Hockey Birthday

  • Brian Rolston (1973-) – Selected 11th-overall by New Jersey in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, this center played most of his 17 seasons with the Devils. After hoisting the 1995 Stanley Cup in his rookie campaign, his only other major honor was being selected for the 1999 All-Star team.
  • Ryan Smyth (1976-) – This left wing was picked sixth-overall in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft by Edmonton, and he played 15 of his 19 seasons with the Oilers. His greatest campaign was his 2006-’07 effort when he notched 36 goals and 68 points between the Oil and Islanders.
  • James Wisniewski (1984-) – This defenseman has made at least one appearance in the last 11 seasons after being selected by Chicago in the fifth round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, and has spent most of career with the Blue Jackets.
  • Mattias Tedenby (1990-) – The 24th-overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, this left wing played his entire NHL career for the same Devils organization that drafted him. He appeared in 120 games for Jersey, and scored 10 goals.

Vincent Trocheck, ladies and gentleman! With five seconds remaining in regulation, the First Star of the Game fired a slap shot past Third Star Jake Allen to clinch a 2-1 victory for the Panthers in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day!

In addition to scoring the last goal of the night, Florida also took credit for the first. With 9:20 remaining in the first frame, Jon Marchessault (Nick Bjugstad) scored a wrist shot to give the Panthers a lead they held through both intermissions.

The Blues finally leveled the game at the 2:54 mark of the third period on a Kyle Brodziak (Scottie Upshall and Ryan Reaves) wrister, and it looked like it was going to be enough to earn a point and get to three-on-three overtime, but Trocheck (Mark Pysyk and Reilly Smith) was not interested. His slap shot found the back of the net to send the Predators back to Sunrise in style.

Second Star James Reimer earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (96.3%), leaving the loss to Allen, who saved 31-of-33 (93.9%).

As far as the DtFR Game of the Day series is concerned, what is probably the most impressive thing about the Panthers‘ victory is that the 63-43-21 road teams in the series now have a one-point lead on hosts.

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