It’s the first Friday of December, so you know what that means!
Actually, if you know anything about the first of December, please let me know. Because I’ve got nothin’.
Anyways, the NHL has hidden eight games behind the first door of your Advent calendar, and four of them (Pittsburgh at Buffalo [SN/TVAS], Ottawa at the New York Islanders [RDS], Carolina at the New York Rangers and Anaheim at Columbus) will drop the puck at 7 p.m. San Jose at Florida will follow suit half an hour later, followed by two tilts (Los Angeles at St. Louis and Vegas at Winnipeg) at 8 p.m. Finally, tonight’s nightcap – New Jersey at Colorado – is slated to start at 9 p.m. All times Eastern.
There’s three good games on the schedule today, but only one can earn the right of being today’s featured matchup. That honor belongs to the tilt in Mound City between the Western Conference’s current division leaders.
If you were so lucky to predict either of these teams to be in the position they’re currently in during your preseason podcast, you deserve a cookie.
Excuse me, I was just finishing my cookie.
Things are going even better than anyone within the 17-7-1 Blues organization could have expected coming into this year. St. Louis had been on a steady decline since it’s division-winning 2014-’15 season, falling to second in ’15-’16 and third last year. However, the combination of Head Coach Mike Yeo in his first full campaign at the helm and new Blue F Brayden Schenn has elevated the club to the top of the Western Conference and second in the entire NHL.
But we talked about the Blues’ fifth-ranked offense last week when they were featured against the Predators (St. Louis averages 3.36 goals-per-game). It’s time to show some love to the players at the other end of the ice, who have combined to allow only 2.64 goals against-per-game, the fifth-best effort in the league.
No discussion about defensive zone play can begin without acknowledging the goaltender, but 13-6-1 G Jake Allen might actually be the Notes’ defensive low-point. Though he’s had better years (he posted a career-high .92 save percentage in 2015-’16) based on what he’s shown so far to earn his starting role, his .907 season save percentage and 2.77 GAA are nothing to write home to New Brunswick about. Among the 26 goaltenders with at least 14 starts, Allen ranks ninth- and 11th-worst, respectively.
Instead, St. Louis’ claim to fame in its own zone is its defense, headlined by none other than D Alex Pietrangelo, a candidate for the Norris Trophy (according to our very own Jordan Dettrow) who leads the team in takeaways. In fact, the captain’s 23 takeaways are the second-most by any defenseman in the league, trailing only D Brent Burns – a player I’m sure Pietro has no complaints being compared to.
I know we weren’t going to talk offense, but Pietrangelo has made a good habit of turning his takeaways into goals. His 7-13-20 totals are fourth on the team and second-most by any defenseman in the NHL.
But it’s not just him. D Joel Edmundson, who’s blossomed into a solid offensive threat himself since the Blues traded D Kevin Shattenkirk in February (his six goals are [t]third-most in the league by a blueliner this season), is also among the best shot-blockers in the NHL, averaging 2.6 blocks-per-game. Add in W Dmitrij Jaskin‘s team-leading 2.8 hits-per-game, and you have an entire club fully committed to shutting down the opposition.
Generally speaking, teams fire more shots on goal when they’re losing (you know, they’re trying to do that scoring thing). Considering the Blues’ record, it’s a safe assumption that the teams they’re playing are spending more time trailing in a game than leading. That’s no more apparent than looking at the league’s worst offenders in the shots against-per-game statistic, as six of the worst 10 teams in the stat are currently in playoff position, including the league-leading Lightning.
But that’s what makes this St. Louis defense so spectacular. Even though opposing offenses are throwing everything they have the Blues’ way, St. Louis allows only 30.1 shots against-per-game, the (t)fifth-best effort in the NHL.
Before we talk about the 15-8-3 Kings, there’s one more note to be made about the Notes. Since they play tomorrow afternoon in St. Paul, it would seem likely that 4-1-0 G Carter Hutton will draw either tonight or tomorrow’s start. Los Angeles is probably hoping the Wild have to deal with him, because Hutton’s .946 season save percentage and 1.59 GAA make Allen’s efforts look like child’s play.
Even though we’ve spent all this time talking about the Blues’ defensive effort, don’t think for a minute that their defensive zone is the stronger of the two in tonight’s game. With the exception of the Sharks, Los Angeles has sported the stingiest of defenses this year, as they’ve allowed only 2.27 goals against-per-game.
While Allen isn’t necessarily the headliner in Missouri, there’s no doubting who people pay to see when they go to the Staples Center.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Wait, Kobe Bryant?
Maybe in days gone by, but now it’s 12-8-1 G Jonathan Quick‘s house (shots fired, Ball family). Though he entered a bit of a rough patch in November when he lost six-straight games, Quick’s .929 season save percentage and 2.27 GAA are still fifth- and fourth-best, respectively, among the 34 goaltenders with at least 10 starts to their credit.
Of course, just like the Blues may not trot their starter out tonight, Quick may only be seen on the bench tonight. Los Angeles is on the second-half of back-to-back games tonight, as they beat the Capitals in Washington 5-2 yesterday with Quick in net. It would seem likely that Head Coach John Stevens will give the nod to 3-0-2 G Darcy Kuemper. Similar to Hutton, Kuemper’s .937 save percentage and 1.84 GAA are both superior to Quick’s season effort, but with a much smaller sample size.
With two teams going at it that don’t like to give up goals, I’m led to believe the superior of the two offenses will be what determines the outcome. Since St. Louis’ 3.36 goals-per-game is superior to LA’s 2.92, I’m leaning toward the Blues.
Three unanswered third period goals is all the Minnesota Wild needed to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 at Xcel Energy Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
With the exception of F Mikael Granlund‘s (D Mike Reilly and W Jason Zucker) wrist shot for the Wild with 2:59 remaining in the second period, every goal in this contest was struck in the third period.
The ice seemed to be tilted Vegas’ way at the start of the final frame, as D Brayden McNabb (W Stefan Matteau) and F Jon Marchessault (C William Karlsson) both scored in the opening 4:39 to give the Golden Knights a 2-1 advantage.
That advantage didn’t last long though. Only 48 seconds after Marchessault’s tally, D Jonas Brodin (F Daniel Winnik and F Charlie Coyle) scored his second goal of the season at the 5:27 mark with a deflection to level the score at two-all.
After that, this game was almost all Minnesota. Vegas managed only nine shots on net in the third period while Second Star of the Game C Eric Staal was busy scoring the final two goals of the contest. His first, assisted by Third Star D Matt Dumba with 7:55 remaining in regulation, proved to be the game-winner.
Take notes young blueliners: solid stick work at the point can turn into fast points. Trying to simply clear the puck out of his defensive zone, F Tomas Nosek gave the puck away to Dumba waiting at the right point. The defenseman worked his way along the wall back towards the goal until he reached the top of the face-off circle, where he ripped a wrist shot at G Malcolm Subban. The puck never reached Subban due to a D Deryk Engelland block, but the deflection dropped right in front of the crease near the waiting Staal, who slid his wrister into a gaping net before Subban could get back in position.
Trailing by only a goal late in regulation, Head Coach Gerard Gallant pulled Subban with 1:27 remaining on the clock. It took Staal 1:21 to achieve his goal, but his unassisted backhanded shot found the back of the net with six ticks remaining on the clock to set the 4-2 final score.
First Star G Devan Dubnyk earned the victory after saving 29-of-31 shots faced (.935 save percentage), leaving the loss to Subban, who stopped 28-of-31 (.903).
Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series simply cannot be stopped. Since American Thanksgiving, homers have won six-straight to elevate their record to 33-19-6, which is 17 points better than the roadies’ record.