February 26 – Day 130 – Rubber-match with big implications? Yes, please.

There’s another great sampling of games on tap today in the NHL. The action starts at 12:30 p.m. with Boston at Dallas (NBC), followed by Calgary at Carolina at 3 p.m. Two contests (Edmonton at Nashville [SN360] and Columbus at the New York Rangers [NHLN]) drop the puck at 5 p.m., trailed by another pair (St. Louis at Chicago [NBCSN] and Ottawa at Florida [SN/SN360/TVAS]) two-and-a-half hour after. Finally, tonight’s nightcap – Buffalo at Arizona – gets underway at 8:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Edmonton at Nashville: Did you know these towns are sister cities? Something tells me this contest between current playoff qualifiers will not be quite as friendly.
  • Columbus at New York: Talk about a battle for position. There’s a big difference between the third division spot and a wild card.
  • St. Louis at Chicago: One of my favorite rivalries in the league, but I’m definitely biased.

As much as I do love the BluesHawks rivalry, the game at Madison Square Garden is far too important to neglect.

Columbus Blue Jackets LogoNew York Rangers Logo

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no denying the magnitude of today’s matchup. Separated by only one point in the standings, this is the last time these clubs will meet this regular season. So far, both teams are 2-2-0 in the five-game season series, so tonight’s game is a true rubber-match.

It could be argued that New York has had a little bit more success in the series, as they have hosted the Jackets only once before today. They may have lost that previous game, but that also means they won two-of-three games in Nationwide Arena (including a 3-2 victory on February 13) – an impressive feat given the Jackets‘ 22-9-1 home record. Of course, what else should we expect from the best road team in the NHL? The Rangers are 21-8-0 as visitors this season, three points better than Chicago‘s second-best road mark of 19-10-1.

Columbus enters play today with a 38-16-5 record, the fourth-best mark in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. As you’d expect from the sixth-best team in the league, the Blue Jackets play phenomenally on both ends of the ice, to the point that it’s often difficult to discern which is better – and that’s a really good position to be in. Given the fact that they just whipped the Islanders 7-0 yesterday, let’s focus in on Columbus‘ offense.

The Blue Jackets have already buried 192 goals this season, the fifth-most in the entire league. That attack is spearheaded by none other than Cam Atkinson and his team-leading 51 points. To put in perspective how incredible this right wing has been this year, he set his career-high in points last season with 53. Yes, 53, only two more than he has right now. With 23 games left on the schedule, he’s on pace for 71 points by season’s end. With next year being the last of his current contract, he’s well on his way to a significant raise.

What’s made Atkinson so special is the fact that he creates goals almost as often as he scores them – and he scores a lot of goals. 27, to be exact, the most on the team. That total ties the mark he set last year, and I have a suspicion he’ll find a way to tack on at least one more tally before the season closes.

As you’d guess from an offensive juggernaut like the Jackets, they play a mean power play. That guess is correct, as they convert 21.9% of opportunities into goals – the fourth-best rate in the NHL. While Atkinson leads the charge at even-strength, Alexander Wennberg has been the extra-man champion with his team-leading 21 power play points. Not quite the goalscorer, he prefers to set up linemate and captain Nick Foligno, who has buried a team-high 10 man-advantage tallies.

Riding a two-game winning streak, the 40-19-2 Rangers currently occupy the third-best spot in both the Metropolitan and the East. Offense is the name of the game in the Big Apple, as the Blueshirts have accounted for 201 goals already this season – the third-most in the NHL.

Just as he’s done all year, J.T. Miller has paced that attack like a pro. He’s already accounted for 47 points this season and is on pace to notch another 16 before things are all said and through. His previous career-high was 43, set a season ago, so Miller is certainly on the up-and-up.

The major beneficiary of Miller’s productivity is linemate Michael Grabner, who has buried a team-leading 26 goals this season from the third line. The wing has been playing so well, he has a chance of besting his current career-high of 35 tallies that he set in 2010-’11 with the crosstown rival Isles.

One thing is certain about tonight’s game: Whomever wins tonight will be in third place in the Metropolitan (currently slated to face Pittsburgh in the Eastern Quarterfinals), while the loser – regardless of if its in regulation or some variety of overtime – would lay claim to the first wildcard (would currently face Montréal). While I’m certain neither club is too worried about trying to work their way into a specific playoff spot right now, this game could be the one pointed to if one team faces a more difficult path to Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Columbus‘ Atkinson (27 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]), Sergei Bobrovsky (31 wins [tied for second-most in the NHL] on a 2.21 GAA [fifth-best in the league] and a .925 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the NHL], including three shutouts [10th-most in the league]) and Wennberg (40 assists [tied for fourth-most in the NHL]) & New York‘s Grabner (+28 [tied for eighth-best in the league]) and Henrik Lundqvist (28 wins [seventh-most in the NHL]).

When two of the top-six teams in the league square off, you’re almost ensured a fantastic matchup. That’s almost made more certain by the fact that most books in Vegas aren’t even posting a line for tonight’s contest. With impressive goaltending and offense on both benches, it’s hard to pick a winner, but I’ll pick the Rangers since they have home ice.

Hockey Birthday

  • Joe Mullen (1957-) – From undrafted to the Hall of Fame, this right wing truly had a phenomenal, unpredictable career. Spending most of his days in Pittsburgh paid off very well, as he hoisted two of his three Stanley Cups with the Penguins – just as many All-Star designations he earned in his 16 seasons. Mullen also won the Lady Byng Trophy twice in the span of three years.
  • Marc Fortier (1966-) – Another undrafted forward, this center played 212 games in the NHL over six seasons, most of which with Quebec. He registered 102 points in the before retiring in 2005.
  • Marty Reasoner (1977-) – A longtime Oiler, this center was selected 14th-overall by St. Louis in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft. His most productive season was in 2005-’06 when he split time between Edmonton and Boston, as he registered 34 of his 266 career points.

With his overtime winner, Third Star of the Game Andrew Shaw earned the right to be named “King of Quebec” for the day, as he led the Canadiens to a 3-2 victory against rival Toronto in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Of course, we had to get to overtime first. Second Star Auston Matthews (Jake Gardiner and James van Riemsdyk) got the Maple Leafs on the board first with 9:06 remaining in the opening period. His tip-in was the lone tally of the first frame.

The Habs scored both their regulation goals in the second period. Captain Max Pacioretty (First Star Alex Galchenyuk and Shaw) leveled the contest with a power play snap shot 7:29 after returning from intermission, followed 8:52 later by a wrist shot from Galchenyuk (Nikita Nesterov and Nathan Beaulieu) to take a 2-1 lead, the score that held to the second intermission.

All Galchenyuk’s goal did was spark Matthews to do more Auston Matthews things. Only 1:19 after resuming play for the third period, he (Zach Hyman and William Nylander) buried another tip-in to level the game for the home team and ultimately force three-on-three overtime.

Shaw (Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov) needed was 1:06 to bury his backhander to clinch the bonus point for Montréal.

Carey Price earned the victory after saving 32-of-34 shots faced (94.1%), leaving the overtime loss to Frederik Andersen, who saved 25-of-28 (89.3%).

Road teams are not supposed to have this much success in a competitive league like the NHL, yet the visitors in the DtFR Game of the Day series are currently riding an eight-game win-streak and have a 68-43-21 record, nine points better than hosts.

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