November 24 – Day 51 – Fastest guns in the West

While I’m sure yesterday’s break was enjoyed by hockey players and fans alike, I think I’m safe in assuming that we’ve been looking forward to resuming play today since the end of Wednesday’s games in Southern California.

Making up for yesterday’s lost time, the NHL has scheduled a whopping 14 games scheduled over the course of eight hours. The action starts at 1 p.m. when Pittsburgh visits Boston (NBC), followed three hours later by a trio of contests (Winnipeg at Anaheim, Colorado at Minnesota and the New York Islanders at Philadelphia [SN]). Tampa Bay at Washington (NHLN) drops the puck at 5 p.m. and San Jose at Vegas finishes up the matinee slate an hour after. The normal starting time of 7 p.m. brings with it a four-game set (Edmonton at Buffalo, Vancouver at New Jersey, Detroit at the New York Rangers and Ottawa at Columbus [RDS]), with Toronto at Carolina waiting half an hour before dropping the puck. Nashville visits St. Louis (TVAS) at 8 p.m., with tonight’s co-nightcaps – Los Angeles at Arizona and Calgary at Dallas – cleaning up the festivities 60 minutes later. All times Eastern.

Let’s see what games I had circled on my calendar…

  • Detroit at New York: Nothing gets me in the holiday spirit like a nasty, old-fashioned Original Six rivalry.
  • Toronto at Carolina: The man, the myth, the legend D Ron Hainsey is back in Raleigh for the first time since being shipped to Pittsburgh at last season’s trade deadline, taking on a Hurricanes team he played with for four seasons.
  • Nashville at St. Louis: If last year’s Western Semifinals matchup is any indicator, this game has a chance of getting nasty.
  • Calgary at Dallas: While this game should be exciting in and of itself, the real treat is happening pregame when RW Jere Lehtinen‘s 26 is retired to the American Airline Center’s rafters.

It’s been a while since we’ve featured either the Blues or Predators. What better way to kick start the second third of the season than a contest between two of the top three teams in the Western Conference?

 

For those that can’t remember all the way back to the last week of April and the first week of May, this was a physical playoff series between these two clubs. In six games, both squads combined to throw 365 total hits, or 60.8 hits-per-game. While I wouldn’t argue that it’s the reason the Predators were able to win the series 4-2, they did technically out-hit the Blues 184-181.

Of course, one of the major motives for the violence – beyond being Central Division rivals, of course – was W Kevin Fiala breaking his leg as a result of one of those hits, a check from D Robert Bortuzzo in Game 1 at Scottrade Center.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, given the extra motivation to avenge their fallen comrade, the Preds were able to claim the only road victory of the series in that game. Though the next five games never had goal-differentials of more than two goals (barring F Calle Jarnkrok‘s empty-netter with a minute remaining in Game 6), Nashville’s imposing home advantage at Bridgestone Arena was enough to earn it a ticket to the Western Conference Finals and, ultimately, the Stanley Cup Finals.

Big hits like those during last year’s playoff series usually imply an active and effective defense. While I have no doubt in the of this year’s blue line, the 13-6-2 Predators of the 2017-’18 season seem to have a much better handle of the game when they are controlling things offensively.

That has been made no more evident than during the three-game winning streak they’re currently riding, as the Predators’ 12 goals are the (t)second-most in the NHL since November 18. While that’s a problem in-and-of itself for the Blues, figuring out who is scoring the goals is another issue entirely.

During this three-game winning streak, the only staple in Nashville’s production has been D P.K. Subban, who has provided five assists since November 18 to lead the team in points. As for who he’s assisting, your guess is as good as 12-5-1 G Jake Allen‘s. 10 different skaters have scored goals in this trio of contests, with only D Mattias Ekholm and F Filip Forsberg scoring more than one.

If St. Louis is going to pick only one forward to stop tonight, they’d probably be best off eliminating Forsberg. Not only has he scored a team-high 11 goals on the season, but he’s also tacked on another dozen assists for a club-leading 23 points.

Unfortunately for the Notes, Forsberg is a tough man to keep under wraps, because he does most of his work while Nashville has the man-advantage. Seven of his goals and 12 of his points have come on the power play, and as such the Preds’ 25.3 percent success rate with the extra man is the third best in the NHL. With St. Louis managing a below-average penalty kill (its 78.6 percent kill rate is [t]11th-worst in the NHL) Forsberg could be well on his way to adding to his season totals tonight if F Brayden Schenn and F Vladimir Sobotka can’t stay out of the penalty box.

Of course, Forsberg and the Predators aren’t going to show up in St. Louis and simply be handed two points, as they are going up against a team that is riding a three-game winning streak of its own: the Western Conference-leading 16-5-1 Blues.

As you’d expect from a squad in their position in the table, it’s hard to find too many issues with the Blues game (ok, beyond the penalty kill). After all, they rank fifth best in the NHL in both goals-for (3.45 per game) and goals-against (2.64 per game) on the season.

That being said – and with no disrespect to Allen’s .909 save percentage and 2.74 GAA for the season – offense has been the name of the game during this little winning streak the Notes have going. In the past three games, the Blues have managed an impressive 16 goals that is (t)second-most in the league since November 16. In fact, considering most teams have played four games in that span, St. Louis’ 5.33 goals-per-game effort has actually been the best performance in the league for the second half of the month.

Now, before we go any further, it should probably be mentioned that two of the Blues’ last three games were played against a struggling 8-12-2 Oilers team that was never known for their defense even in last year’s return to the postseason. St. Louis won both games by a combined score of 12-4, but the biggest takeaways from those games (beyond four points, obviously) was the positive momentum, rhythm and confidence built by seeing what this team is truly capable of.

Whether we’re looking at just this three-game run or the entire season, there’s few names on the Blues’ offense that shine like Schenn and F Jaden Schwartz. While Schwartz has been truly spectacular on the season as a whole with his 11-19-30 totals (he’s on pace for 41 goals and 112 points), first-year Note Schenn has been stealing most of the headlines of late. In only his past three games, the former Flyer has earned 5-3-8 totals to lead the team and bolster his season marks to 10-20-30. Schenn is currently riding an eight-game point streak that includes seven goals.

Of course, this all ignores that RW Vladimir Tarasenko – the third member of St. Louis’ first line – is also on this team, the man who effectively carried the Blues’ entire offense on his back only a season ago with his 39-36-75 totals.

It’s the very fact that he’s not the lone goal provider that is making this Blues team so dangerous. With his linemates scoring like there’s no tomorrow, a potent second line of Sobotka, Paul Stastny and Alex Steen backing them up and a defensive corps that includes the likes of Joel Edmundson (6-2-8 totals), Colton Parayko (2-8-10) and Alex Pietrangelo (7-13-20), Tarasenko is able to settle into his original role as the Notes’ goal-sniper extraordinaire. Considering his 12.1 shooting percentage is (t)second-best in the league among players with at least 85 shots on goal, I’d say he’s gotten back into the swing of things rather nicely.

And if there’s one thing 12-3-2 G Pekka Rinne doesn’t want to see tonight, it’s Tarasenko lining up one of his deadly wrist shots with the option to pass to an equally potent forward. In addition to his dozen goals on the season, Tarasenko has also assisted on 14 other St. Louis tallies, making that top line one of the most intimidating in the conference, if not the entire league.

With two extremely talented offenses going at it, it would seem likely that the better defense should be able to come out on top after everything is all said and done. If I’m right in that prediction, it should be the Blues that see their winning streak continue, as their 2.64 goals against-per-game is lower than Nashville’s 2.9.

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