December 27 – Day 81 – Back in business

Is that what summer was like? No hockey for three days was terrible!

Let’s get back into the swing of things tonight with 11 games to watch. As it usually does on a weeknight, the action starts at 7 p.m. with five games (Ottawa at Boston [TVAS], Detroit at New Jersey, Buffalo at the New York Islanders, Columbus at Pittsburgh, Carolina at Montréal [RDS/TSN2]), followed by four more (Nashville at St. Louis, Dallas at Minnesota, Edmonton at Winnipeg [SN] and Washington at the New York Rangers [NBCSN]) an hour later. Arizona at Colorado drops the puck at 9 p.m., and tonight’s nightcap – Vegas at Anaheim – gets underway an hour after to close out the evening. All times Eastern.

As usual, I have a headline for more than a few of the games being played tonight.

  • Ottawa at Boston: Few things are more fun than a playoff rematch. The Sens won the first round matchup in six games.
  • Columbus at Pittsburgh: A rivalry and a first round rematch? Sign us up!
  • Nashville at St. Louis: Another playoff rematch, but this one took place in the Western Semifinals. The Predators won 4-2.
  • Edmonton at Winnipeg: An old-timey rivalry is renewed with the coming of age of RW Patrik Laine and C Connor McDavid.
  • Washington at New York: Rivalries are all the rage tonight, because yet another one is taking place in the Big Apple.

Of all of these excellent matchups, only one can be our Game of the Day. Considering the Blues and Predators are playing for the Central Division lead, there’s no place I’d rather be than the Gateway City!

 

Let me know if we’ve come back from a holiday break with this matchup before…

Oh wait, this is exactly the game we came back to after the one-day break for American Thanksgiving. The Blues and Predators opened their four-game season series at Scottrade Center last month, but it was the visiting Preds that took two points after posting a two-goal shutout victory (way to go, G Pekka Rinne).

Since these teams are separated by only a point in the standings, I’d expect a similar contest today.

The biggest story line surrounding the 23-13-2 Blues is still F Jaden Schwartz‘ ankle injury, and that won’t change until he returns in mid- or late-January. With 14-21-35 totals before he went down with a right ankle injury, he still leads the team with a +23 that is second-best in the NHL.

Fortunately for St. Louis, it knows how to play on both ends of the ice. Allowing only 2.47 goals against-per-game, the Notes play the fourth-best defense in the league. Led by the efforts of D Joel Edmundson (87 blocks, [t]fourth-most in the league), W Dmitrij Jaskin (89 hits), D Colton Parayko and F Brayden Schenn (27 takeaways apiece), St. Louis allows an average of only 30.24 shots to reach 18-10-2 G Jake Allen, the sixth-fewest in the NHL.

Schenn in particular has been absolutely stellar, as he’s been able to turn his 27 takeaways into 17 goals ([t]seventh-most in the league) and 40 points([t]10th-most in the NHL) for a +21 rating (third-best in the league). It’s amazing that a player that joined the team only half a year ago has been such a dominant force, and I think it’s safe to say he’s been the Blues’ most valuable player so far.

Of course, it’s hard to look too bad with RW Vladimir Tarasenko as a linemate. The Russian has posted 15-21-36 totals this season alongside his new best friend to earn a +16 rating that is eighth-best in the NHL. Tarasenko immediately moved to the top line following Schwartz’ injury, but struggled to find much rhythm with C Paul Stastny (whose 32nd birthday is today). Perhaps it’s no surprise St. Louis beat Vancouver 3-1 before the holiday break by promoting Schenn to the top line to play with Tarasenko!

Anyways, back to the defensive zone. Anyone that is lucky enough to get by Schenn and the Blues’ defense still has to deal with Allen, whose 18 wins are the (t)fourth-most in the league. He’s posted a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA in 31 appearances, which are the (t)19th- and and 10th-best efforts, respectively, among the 32 goalies with at least 14 starts.

Of course, if we’re comparing goaltenders, 21-9-5 Nashville takes the cake with 18-6-3 Rinne. Though he’s one of the three other netminders tied with Allen at 18 wins, Rinne has earned his success in large part by his own accord. He’s posted a .923 save percentage and 2.49 GAA that are both among the top nine efforts in the NHL, and his three shutouts are (t)second-most as well.

Rinne’s excellent play is a major reason Head Coach Peter Laviolette‘s game plan works. Knowing their goaltender can stop basically everything that comes his way, Nashville’s defensive corps – led by Mattias Ekholm (6-15-21 totals), Roman Josi (7-14-21) and P.K. Subban (7-18-25) – is able to contribute extensively on the offensive end of the rink. In fact, the Predators’ defensive corps has combined for 87 points, which is only three points short of Tampa’s league-leading blue line.

They bolster an already impressive group of forwards – headlined by F Filip Forsberg (15-18-33 totals) and second-liner W Kevin Fiala (10-16-26) – that averages 3.23 goals-per-game, the sixth-most in the league.

Fiala in particular was on fire leading up to the holiday break. Before being held off the scorecard against Dallas on December 23, he had been riding a nine-game point streak that included eight goals. He has an unfortunate connection to tonight’s arena after breaking his femur and rupturing an artery in his left thigh during the playoffs last year, and after being held pointless in his first return to St. Louis last month, I’m sure he’d like to finally put the injury behind him by earning a point tonight.

As pointed out by Jim Thomas, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s new Blues reporter, the Notes are one of two teams to have already played their 38th game this season – two more than the median (thank your third grade teacher for knowing what that means!) 36 played by nine clubs. This three-day break was especially important for them, and we’ll probably see a well rested and much improved St. Louis team because of it. As such, I think the Blues can find a way to beat the Predators this evening.

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