December 8 – Day 65 – James Neal loves gold

Welcome to your favorite day of the work week: Friday. Time to settle in for a weekend of online Christmas shopping while watching hockey.

There’s a small, but solid, selection of five games to watch this evening, starting with two (Columbus at New Jersey and the New York Rangers at Washington [NHLN/SN/TVAS]) at 7 p.m., followed by Vegas at Nashville at 8 p.m. and Buffalo at Chicago half an hour later. Finally, this evening’s nightcap, Minnesota at Anaheim (SN1), drops the puck at 10 p.m. to close the night out. All times Eastern.

I had two of these games circled on my calendar at the start of the season…

  • New York at Washington: Not only is this a rivalry game in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, but it’s also F Paul Carey and D Kevin Shattenkirk‘s first trip back to the capital since signing with the Blueshirts this offseason.
  • Vegas at Nashville: Welcome back to Music City, W James Neal!

…but I’m also very interested in Columbus and Jersey’s rematch of a game that happened only three days ago.

Here’s what we’ll do: if you want a preview of the Jackets-Devils game, go here (you should also probably read the recap of that game here). Otherwise, we’re going to feature a different game instead.

 

 

 

We haven’t featured either of these clubs yet this December, and there’s no time like the present.

The Golden Knights enter this game with a solid 17-9-1 record that is good enough for second place in the Pacific Division. Much of that success has been due to their imposing offense, which has managed a Western Conference-leading 3.44 goals-per-game.

There are few on the Knights’ roster that has had a bigger part of those goals than Neal, whose 21 points-per-game are tied for third-most on the squad. Of those 21 points, 13 of them have been goals – a total that is only one short of C William Karlsson‘s team-leading 14 mark.

What makes Neal a surprise is that Head Coach Gerard Gallant is getting even more than he expected when the Knights drafted him out of Nashville. For his career, he’s managed only .72 points per game, of which he’s directly produced .38 goals per game.  Assuming he plays a full 82-game season, that would translate into 31-28-59 totals, well above his 23-18-41 marks from last season.

This season, Neal is on pace for 39-25-64 totals, which would go down as his best season since his 40-41-81 effort in 2011-’12 with the Penguins.

Trying to slow Neal and co. down this evening are the 18-7-3 Predators, who are also second place in their division. They’ve found their success by playing some solid defense.

Of course, it’s hard to fail with 16-4-2 G Pekka Rinne as your goaltender. He’s managed a solid .92 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA to rank sixth-best in both statistics among all goaltenders with at least eight starts.

While I wouldn’t exactly say the Predators’ defense puts a major effort towards keeping pucks off Rinne (Nashville allows a seventh-worst 32.57 shots against per game), their strength is truly shown on the offensive end. Defensemen Mattias Ekholm (6-12-18 totals), Roman Josi (6-13-19) and P.K. Subban (4-14-18) are all among the league’s top 19 blueliners in points, and Nashville’s top pair of Ekholm and Josi are both in the top 10 in goals scored by defensemen.

With strength squaring off against strength, this game will likely come down to which team wins the battle in Nashville’s offensive/Vegas’ defensive end. Considering the Preds’ offense, which ranks eighth in the league (3.17 goals-per-game), is going against the 11th-worst defense (3.11 goals against-per-game), I’m leaning towards the hosts taking this contest.


Though the New York Islanders were able to level the game after trailing by two goals with five minutes remaining to force overtime, the Pittsburgh Penguins held on to win 4-3 at PPG Paints Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Much of this game’s action took place in the third period, but it was set up by the two goals that were struck in the opening two frames. F Jake Guentzel (D Kris Letang and F Evgeni Malkin) scored a power play tip-in with 7:43 remaining in the first period, followed by RW Jordan Eberle (D Ryan Pulock and D Nick Leddy) burying a wrist shot at the 5:53 mark of the second to level the game at one-all.

Just like the first period belonged to Pittsburgh and the second to New York, the first half of the third period belonged to the Pens while the Isles took the second half.

RW Phil Kessel (Letang and C Sidney Crosby) got the frame started with a power play snap shot at the 7:29 mark to return a one-goal lead to the Pens, followed 32 seconds later by Second Star of the Game C Riley Sheahan (LW Carl Hagelin) scoring his second goal of the season.

Then it was New York’s turn to play. Third Star C Mathew Barzal (D Scott Mayfield and C Casey Cizikas) started the Isles’ comeback with 4:53 remaining in regulation by burying a wrister, but it was F Brock Nelson‘s (LW Andrew Ladd and D Thomas Hickey) wrister with 70 seconds left on the clock that forced three-on-three overtime.

Confidence was certainly on the Islanders’ side at the end of regulation, but the short break before overtime allowed Head Coach Mike Sullivan an opportunity to regroup his troops. Whatever pep talk he gave obviously worked, because First Star D Matt Hunwick (W Bryan Rust) was able to end the game at the 1:29 mark with a gritty wrister.

There was nothing sexy about Hunwick’s goal, but it was certainly a nice reward for doing some dirty work in the slot. The defenseman was the one to enter the offensive zone with the puck, but he handed possession off to Rust once he was across the blue line. Once the [position] reached G Jaroslav Halak‘s goal, he tried to drag the puck across the crease for a backhander, but it was stopped by a combination of pads and defensive sticks.

Since Halak was unable to cover up the puck, it trickled towards Hunwick – who had been camping out waiting for such an opportunity – and before the netminder could react, the defenseman had tapped his wrister past Halak’s right skate and into the net.

G Tristan Jarry earned the victory after saving 23-of-26 shots faced (.885 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Halak, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

For the first time this month, the home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have won consecutive games. As such, they now own a 37-22-6 record that is 16 points superior to that of the visitors.

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