December 20 – Day 77 – A star-less night

It’s Wednesday in the NHL, so you know what that means: time for me to pull out my weekly soapbox about supposed rivalries!

There’s three games on the schedule today, starting with Toronto at Columbus (SN/TVAS) at 7:30 p.m. and Detroit at Philadelphia (NBCSN) half an hour later. Finally, tonight’s nightcap of St. Louis at Calgary (SN360) will close out the evening at 9:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

If you can successfully pick the rivalry, be my guest. In the meantime, start heading towards Ohio for today’s featured matchup.

 

Before we start the preview, I need to vent for a moment: I need to do a better job of picking teams for this series. Combined, these clubs have been featured a only nine times before today (compared to Chicago and Nashville’s 11 times individually), even though they’ve both been at the top of their divisions all season.

You deserve better.

Ok, rant over.

Things haven’t been going exactly the way the 20-13-1 Blue Jackets would like in the month of December, as they’ve managed only a 4-5-0 record that includes an active two-game losing skid. Given the competitive nature of the Metropolitan Division, this little rough patch has dropped the Jackets into the top wildcard position.

On the season, Columbus has been among the best defensive teams, allowing only 2.7 goals against per game – the eighth-fewest in the NHL. However, that solid play has not been here this month, as the Jackets have allowed 33 goals, the (t)fifth-most in the league.

If we’re looking to place blame for this problem, I’m hard pressed to find an issue with Head Coach John Tortorella’s defensive corps. Led by RW Josh Anderson (1.22 takeaways per game), F Boone Jenner (three hits per game) and D Jack Johnson (1.77 blocks per game), the Jackets have allowed only 277 shots against this month, the 11th-fewest in the league.

Unfortunately, I’m leaning towards this defensive deficiency residing in net. Usually, 17-10-1 G Sergei Bobrovsky is among the best netminders in the league. After all, the two-time Vezina winner’s .919 season save percentage and 2.43 GAA rank are both top-10 efforts among the 31 goalies with at least 16 starts to their credits. However, his lackluster .878 save percentage and 3.81 GAA in December are both 11th-worst among all 65 goalies who have played this month.

But with an important Metropolitan Division game against Pittsburgh on the schedule tomorrow, all of that is water under the bridge since 3-3-0 G Joonas Korpisalo will be in net this evening. He’s managed a .902 save percentage and 2.97 GAA this season, and won his last start against the Ducks on December 1 (he relieved Bobrovsky on December 12, allowing two goals for no decision). If those numbers stand for the rest of the season, it’d be his worst NHL campaign, and considering he’s squaring against Toronto tonight, he’ll need to be on his A-game.

Speaking of those 21-13-1 Maple Leafs, they’ve been a consistent force to be reckoned with all season, as they’ve been in second place in the Atlantic Division for the entirety of the year. That was no more apparent than yesterday’s performance against a decent Hurricanes team: the Toronto thrashed them 8-1.

However, that win snapped a three-game losing skid, which shows that December hasn’t exactly been a friendly month to either of today’s squads. The Leafs have gone 4-4-0 since turning their calendar to its last page, and it’s because their floundering offense can’t take advantage of playing with a defense that has allowed only 16 goals in December (the [t]fewest in the NHL).

Even with the incredible efforts of second-liners C Tyler Bozak (3-4-7 totals), F Mitch Marner (1-7-8) and LW James van Riemsdyk (4-2-6), Toronto has managed only 18 goals in eight games this month – the third-fewest in the NHL. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a 2017-’18 Maple Leafs team without C Auston Matthews plays similar to the 2015-’16 team that was trying to draft him.

Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but you get the idea.

If nothing else has been proven by this hand injury that has kept him out of the Leafs’ last five games, it’s proven how integral he is to his club. Matthews has followed up his amazing 40-29-69 rookie season with even better 13-13-26 totals through 26 games this campaign, putting him on pace for 36-36-72 marks by season’s end.

However, he won’t take a step towards achieving those totals this evening, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton is reporting that the only lineup change Head Coach Mike Babcock is making this evening is starting 3-3-0 G Curtis McElhinney due to 18-10-1 G Frederik Andersen being in net yesterday. That puts the onus on the Leafs’ offense to replicate yesterday’s success against a solid team.

With both backup goaltenders being in net tonight, this game has an interesting flair. Though McElhinney has been statistically better than Korpisalo this season, I’m leaning towards the Jackets finding a way to get their business done at home this evening.


With three goals in the second period, the Winnipeg Jets beat the Nashville Predators 6-4 at Bridgestone Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Even though the Jets registered the first goal of the game at the 8:05 mark of the first frame courtesy of F Adam Lowry (D Tyler Myers and First Star of the Game F Brandon Tanev), Nashville exited the first frame with the lead as it scored two goals in the final 41 seconds. Second Star F Calle Jarnkrok leveled the game with an unassisted wrist shot, followed by a snap shot from Third Star W Kevin Fiala (F Craig Smith) 20 seconds before reporting to the dressing room.

Going from winning to losing so swiftly didn’t seem to sit all that well with RW Patrik Laine (D Dmitry Kulikov and F Bryan Little), as he leveled the game at two-all at the 6:54 mark. However, the Preds took the lead once again only 61 seconds later on a D P.K. Subban (F Filip Forsberg and F Ryan Johansen) power play slap shot. The goal scoring spurt continued when W Nikolaj Ehlers (C Mark Scheifele and RW Blake Wheeler) buried a wrister at the 8:25 mark to level the game for Winnipeg, and he scored again (RW Joel Armia and D Tyler Myers) on a power play wrister with four minutes remaining in the period to claim the Jets’ first lead since Lowry’s tally.

The excitement continued in the third period, which didn’t take long to get started. Only 30 seconds into the final frame, D Yannick Weber (Fiala) set the score at four-all with a clapper. Though a combined total of 24 shots were fired on goal in the frame, that tie held through most of the period. However, Tanev (D Josh Morrissey and Lowry) was not all that interested in playing an overtime game with a divisional rival. He scored the game-winning goal with 1:26 remaining in regulation.

Though Tanev buried the goal, much of this score was the result of some stellar play in the defensive end by Morrissey. D Mattias Ekholm had the puck along the right boards, but had no teammates in support near him. Lowry and Morrissey took advantage and collapsed on him, forcing the puck out of his possession. Morrissey ended up with the puck on his stick and saw Tanev streaking towards center ice with no defensive pressure. After the pass, all Tanev needed to do was squeeze the shot between G Pekka Rinne and his right post with a sneaky wrister.

With little time to force overtime, Head Coach Peter Laviolette pulled Rinne almost immediately after the face-off to resume play to get an extra attacker on the ice. Though it took the Jets a moment to steal the puck back, Wheeler (Myers) was able to score a long-range wrister on an empty net with two seconds remaining to set the 6-4 final score.

G Connor Hellebuyck earned the victory after saving 30-of-34 shots faced (.882 save percentage), leaving the loss to Rinne, who saved 30-of-35 (.857).

Winning on the road is fun, especially when it snaps a four-game winning streak by home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The 43-25-9 hosts still own an 18-point advantage in the series.

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