January 6 – Day 91 – Hej baby

With the NHL’s bye weeks starting up tomorrow, there’s lots of action for us to take in today!

Making today even more amazing, the league has scheduled two matinee games for our enjoyment. The first involves St. Louis at Philadelphia (SN) at 1 p.m., followed two hours later by Edmonton at Dallas. The usual starting time of 7 p.m. has three contests for us (Carolina at Boston, Vancouver at Toronto [CBC/NHLN/SN] and Tampa Bay at Ottawa [CITY/SN1/TVAS]), while the New York Rangers at Arizona waits until 8 p.m. to drop the puck. Minnesota visits Colorado at 9 p.m., with Anaheim at Calgary (CBC/SN) trailing an hour later and Nashville at Los Angeles closing the evening off at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Though there’s more than a few stellar matchups on tap today, three caught my eye before even the first puck was dropped on the season.

  • St. Louis at Philadelphia: The Blues and Flyers swapped C Jori Lehtera and F Brayden Schenn this summer. Considering Schenn has posted 17-25-42 totals this season compared to Lehtera’s 0-2-2, I’d say the winner of the trade is self-evident.
  • Minnesota at Colorado: Tonight at the Pepsi Center, RW Milan Hejduk‘s 23 is being lifted to the rafters to reside with five other Avalanche greats.
  • Anaheim at Calgary: There’s no love lost here: this is a rematch from the Western Conference’s first round that the Flames would rather forget.

It might surprise you, but one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now is actually the Colorado Avalanche. Let’s see if they can keep this positive energy rolling for Hejduk’s special night.

 

What an exciting day for the Avalanche franchise. There are few former members of the Avs more deserving of this honor, to the point that your favorite humble hockey blog predicted tonight’s festivities over two years ago.

Selected by Québec in the fourth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft from the Czech Republic, Hejduk made his NHL debut on opening day of the 1998-’99 season. It wasn’t an overly impressive rookie season for Hejduk (though he was named to the All-Rookie Team), posting only 14-34-48 totals and finishing a distant third behind teammate C Chris Drury in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy, but Hejduk would have the last laugh of a far superior career.

Some players experience a sophomore slump, but Hejduk was quite the opposite. He started the 1999-’00 season with a bang by scoring the first goal in the history of the Pepsi Center, and that campaign ended up being the fourth-best of his career, as he posted 36-36-72 totals that became his baseline for almost every season until 2007-’08.

Hejduk’s third season is probably the one he remembers the fondest, as that’s the year Colorado hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Czech continued his growth at the professional level to reach the 40-goal plateau for the first time en route to his second-consecutive appearance at the All-Star Game (which the Avalanche hosted), and he earned 79 points to help the Avs to a 52-16-10-4 record good enough for the Presidents’ Trophy. He followed that effort up with a 7-16-23 performance in the postseason – second-best behind C Joe Sakic – that included the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Western Quarterfinals in a 2-1 victory over the Canucks.

Short of the Stanley Cup, the biggest achievement of Hejduk’s career was winning the 2003 Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy after scoring a career-high 50 goals. He had a two-goal advantage on runner-up LW Markus Naslund, and a whopping 21 more that the Avs’ second-best goalscorer that season, C Peter Forsberg, with whom he shared the now discontinued NHL Plus-Minus Award that season after they both posted a franchise-best +52.

Hejduk is far and away the longest tenured player in the history of the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise, as he played 1020 regular season games over 14 seasons with the burgundy and blue, not to mention another 112 playoff contests. Over those 1020 games, he registered 375 goals and 805 points – both the fourth-most in in team history – and a fifth-most 430 assists.

Hejduk’s 23 will be Colorado’s first retired number since D Adam Foote‘s 52 was raised to the rafters on November 2, 2013. Hejduk joins D Ray Bourque, Foote, Forsberg, G Patrick Roy and Sakic – and I guess technically C Wayne Gretzky too, though the closest he came to playing in Denver was his 18 games with St. Louis in 1996.

For those that believe these types of trends can predict the future, Colorado has a 4-1-0 record and a +7 total goal differential in games when it retires a number, so Minnesota should be worried about its chances tonight.

Of course, this Avs team – which has a 21-16-3 record that is good enough for 10th in the Western Conference, two points behind Minnesota in the second wildcard spot – is nowhere near the caliber of those Hejduk played for in years past. However, that’s not to say this squad can’t find success. In fact, Colorado enters tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak and having earned a 6-1-1 record over its past eight games, which is the third-best mark in the NHL since December 18.

How have the Avs been finding this success? Where to start?

Let’s start with the offense, which has scored 27 goals since December 18 to rank (t)fifth-best in the NHL in that time. The first line has been nigh unstoppable during this run, as both F Nathan MacKinnon (2-9-11 totals) and RW Mikko Rantanen (5-6-11) are headlining the teams scoring, and LW Gabriel Landeskog is only a step behind with his 3-4-7 effort.

But Colorado hasn’t only successful on the offensive end; the defense – even with G Semyon Varlamov nursing a lower-body injury – has played exceptionally, allowing only 15 goals against, the (t)fifth-fewest since December 18.

Varlamov was playing well before he went down on January 2, as he’d posted a .931 save percentage and 2.14 GAA in his six last starts. But G Jonathan Bernier has been even better, earning an incredible .965 save percentage and 1.2 GAA since starting New Year’s Eve’s game against the Islanders. Bernier is coming off a 34-save shutout against the Blue Jackets Thursday.

As for Minnesota, it is quietly in the second wildcard position with a 22-16-3 record. The Wild have also been playing well lately, as they’ve won four of their past five contests.

The Wild’s offense has come alive during this run, as they’ve scored 19 goals since December 27 to rank (t)second-best in the league since then. F Mikael Granlund is finally starting to look like he did last year when he posted career-high 26-43-69 totals. He started slow in 2017 to post only 11-16-27 totals, but he’s managed a 4-4-8 effort from the second line over his last five games to lead his team’s surge. D Jared Spurgeon has also performed well, posting 1-5-6 totals over this run.

Tonight’s meeting marks the second in the four-game series between the Avalanche and Wild. Game 1 took place in St. Paul on November 24, with Minnesota winning 3-2 on a shootout.

Considering the festivities of the evening and the fact that the Avs could surge into playoff position with a victory tonight (Anaheim would need to lose in regulation to Calgary for that to happen), this should should be an excellent game. Considering how well Colorado has played of late, I think it is capable of beating the Wild.


Only a day after being shutout 4-0, the Pittsburgh Penguins used their good luck in the DtFR Game of the Day series to beat the New York Islanders 4-0 at Barclays Center yesterday.

While it was an evenly contested first period between the Pens and Isles (they combined for 21 total shots on goal), Pittsburgh absolutely dominated the Brooklynites in the second by scoring three goals.

The first belonged to Third Star of the Game RW Daniel Sprong (First Star C Sidney Crosby and F Dominik Simon), scoring his first NHL goal since November 6, 2015 with a wrist shot 41 seconds into the frame for what proved to be the game-winner.

Crosby did most of the leg work on the goal, stealing the puck off LW Andrew Ladd‘s stick along the boards in the Islanders’ offensive zone. The Captain then screamed up the ice towards G Jaroslav Halak‘s crease with Sprong to his right, setting up a two-on-one play against D Nick Leddy. Once Halak committed to saving a shot from Crosby, he crossed a pass to Sprong, allowing him to easily bury his wrister into a gaping cage.

F Evgeni Malkin (Crosby and RW Phil Kessel) doubled Pittsburgh’s advantage with a power play snap shot 2:49 later, followed by Crosby (Sprong and Simon) setting the score at 3-0 with 4:10 remaining in the frame.

Sprong’s night wasn’t through with his game-winner. He tacked on his own insurance goal (D Justin Schultz and Crosby) with 6:32 remaining in regulation to set the 4-0 final score.

Second Star G Tristan Jarry saved all 31 shots he faced to earn the second shutout victory of his young NHL career, while Halak – who saved 34-of-38 (.895 save percentage) – was forced to take the loss.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are starting to find some mojo. They’ve earned points in three-consecutive games to pull within 22 points of the 51-29-11 hosts.

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