Game of the week: December 3-9

It’s time once again for DtFR’s weekly featured matchup! Let’s take a gander at the NHL’s offerings for this edition, shall we?

NHL SCHEDULE: December 3-9
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, December 3
7 p.m. Tampa Bay New Jersey 5-1
8 p.m. Buffalo Nashville 1-2
8:30 p.m. Edmonton Dallas 1-4
Tuesday, December 4
7 p.m. Boston Florida 0-5
7 p.m. Winnipeg Jets New York Islanders 3-1
7 p.m. Colorado Pittsburgh 3-6
7 p.m. Calgary Columbus 9-6
7:30 p.m. Toronto Buffalo 4-3 (OT)
7:30 p.m. Ottawa Montréal 2-5
7:30 p.m. Tampa Bay Detroit 6-5 (SO)
10 p.m. Minnesota Vancouver 3-2
10 p.m. Washington Vegas 3-5
10:30 p.m. Arizona Los Angeles 2-1
Wednesday, December 5
8 p.m. Edmonton St. Louis 3-2 (SO)
10:30 p.m. Chicago Anaheim 2-4
10:30 p.m. Carolina San Jose 1-5
Thursday, December 6
7 p.m. Detroit Toronto 5-4 (OT)
7 p.m. Colorado Florida 5-2
7 p.m. Columbus Philadelphia 4-3 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Pittsburgh Penguins 2-6
7:30 p.m. Montréal Ottawa 5-2
7:30 p.m. Boston Tampa Bay 2-3
9 p.m. Minnesota Calgary 0-2
9 p.m. Washington Arizona 4-2
10 p.m. Nashville Vancouver 3-5
10 p.m. Chicago Vegas 3-4
10:30 p.m. New Jersey Los Angeles 6-3
Friday, December 7
8 p.m. San Jose Dallas 2-3
8 p.m. St. Louis Winnipeg 1-0
9 p.m. Minnesota Edmonton 2-7
10 p.m. Carolina Anaheim 4-1
Saturday, December 8
1 p.m. Philadelphia Buffalo 6-2
4 p.m. Vegas Los Angeles 1-5
7 p.m. Toronto Boston 3-6
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Ottawa 1-2 (OT)
7 p.m. New York Islanders Detroit Red Wings 3-2
7 p.m. Colorado Tampa Bay 1-7
7 p.m. New York Rangers Florida Panthers 5-4 (SO)
7 p.m. Washington Columbus 4-0
8 p.m. San Jose Arizona 5-3
10 p.m. Nashville Calgary 2-5
Sunday, December 9
3 p.m. Vancouver St. Louis
3 p.m. Philadelphia Winnipeg TVAS
5 p.m. Boston Ottawa RDS2
6 p.m. Montréal Canadiens Chicago Blackhawks NHLN, RDS, SN, SN1
8 p.m. New Jersey Anaheim
9 p.m. Dallas Vegas
9 p.m. Calgary Edmonton SN, SN1

This week’s rivalries included the Battle of the QEW (Toronto at Buffalo), Ottawa at Montréal, Detroit at Toronto, the Islanders at Pittsburgh, Montréal at Ottawa, Toronto at Boston, Montréal at Chicago and the Battle of Alberta (Calgary at Edmonton).

In a similar strain, there were also more than a few rematches of playoff fixtures from last spring. Tampa Bay continued its beat down of New Jersey on Monday, while Vegas exacted some revenge against Washington on Tuesday. The Bolts then headed home to host Boston on Wednesday, winning 3-2. Vegas is heading to Los Angeles this afternoon looking for its fifth-straight victory against the Kings, followed by tonight’s tilt between the Capitals and Blue Jackets.

Finally, in the “player returns” department, only two really stuck out among this week’s tilts. Now a member of the Avalanche, D Ian Cole made his first trip back to Pittsburgh Tuesday to take on the club he was a member of for the past four seasons. Then, Wednesday night, C Kyle Brodziak made his first return to St. Louis as a member of a visiting team, having spent three seasons with the Blues.

Of all those, the one I’m most interested in is the Battle of Alberta, so pack your coat and start heading to the City of Champions!

Don’t everyone look all at once (it’ll make the team self-conscious), but with last night’s 5-2 win over Nashville, the 19-9-2 Calgary Flames have claimed a one-point lead for first place in the Western Conference.

Not the Pacific Division, mind you. The Flames have been running that show for about a month now. We’re talking about the entire conference.

I guess Head Coach Bill Peters knows a bit more than we give him credit for around here.

A major reason Calgary is in the position it’s in right now is due to the impressive 9-1-1 record it’s riding right now – a stretch that started with a 4-2 victory over the Oilers on November 17.

A solid argument could be made that no team in the NHL has been better than the Flames in the past three weeks, as they are among the top-three in the league in goals per game, goals against per game and shots against per game.

Starting with the offense (a stat in which Calgary ranks sixth on the entire season, averaging 3.47 goals per game), the Flames have been the class of the conference since November 17, as their 4.45 goals per game in their past 11 outings tops the West and ranks second in the NHL, trailing only Tampa Bay’s 4.58 goals per game.

Leading the charge with 6-14-20 totals in those 11 games is exactly who you expected: LW Johnny Gaudreau. Only RW Nikita Kucherov (5-18-23) has registered more points in the past 22 days than Johnny HockeyTM , but he’s also had the benefit of one extra game played.

But don’t think Gaudreau has been doing it all on his own. C Sean Monahan (9-7-16), F Elias Lindholm (7-8-15), LW Matthew Tkachuk (4-8-12), suspended D Mark Giordano (1-10-11 in 10 games played) and even fourth-liner C Alan Quine (he scored a goal in his season debut last night) are all averaging a point per game or better over this run.

Defense has been a major strength of Calgary’s all season long (the Flames’ 28 shots against per game for the entire campaign ranks third-best in the NHL), and the same can be said for the Flames’ last 11 games. Led by D Rasmus Andersson and D Travis Hamonic (both averaging 1.5 blocks per game since November 17), RW Garnet Hathaway (2.6 hits per game in the past 22 days) and Monahan (his 16 takeaways in the past 11 games lead the club), the Flames have allowed only 27.18 shots against per game since November 17- the third-lowest mark in both the Western Conference and NHL in that time.

While Peters might say he appreciates that solid defensive play, no one is happier for the Flames’ success than 11-7-1 G Mike Smith. And even though the blue line is making his job easy, Smith is putting together one of the best runs of his season so far – especially in light of his season stats.

On the campaign as a whole, Smith boasts a lowly .894 save percentage and 2.88 GAA – both stats considerably worse than backup 8-2-1 G David Rittich’s .919 and 2.39, to the point that there were more than a few calling for the Czech to assume starting duties.

However, Smith’s past six appearances have been reminiscent of his incredible 2011-12 season with the Coyotes (he posted a .93 save percentage and 2.21 GAA and led the team to the Western Final), as he’s won six-straight games with a dominant .936 save percentage and 1.59 GAA in those showings.

Having been in net for last night’s home win over Nashville, Smith will likely ride the pine this evening with Rittich getting the start.

Though the 15-12-2 Edmonton Oilers currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, they only trail the second wild card Vegas Golden Knights by a point (with two games in hand, no less), so it is possible for tonight’s hosts to force themselves into the playoff picture with as little as an overtime or shootout loss.

Wait, I thought the Oilers were back to being bad again. I’m so confused.

Sometimes a change of voice from behind the bench is exactly what a team needs to get in shape, because the Oilers have been playing some solid hockey since hiring Head Coach Ken Hitchcock on November 20. Before Hitchcock arrived in Northern Alberta, the Oil boasted a record of 9-10-1, but they’ve gone on a solid 6-2-1 record since then to position themselves right on the playoffs’ doorstep.

Considering Hitchcock’s history, it wasn’t unexpected that his first goal upon taking over Edmonton was teaching his club how to play defense. Instead, the bigger surprise is that the team – one rarely known for its defensive play for its entire history – actually responded and is finding success.

Under Hitchcock, the Oilers have allowed only 29.11 shots against per game, the seventh-best mark in the NHL since November 20. Injured F Drake Caggiula (averaging 4.3 hits per game during this run), D Oscar Klefbom (averaging 2.6 blocks per game in the last 20 days) and C Connor McDavid (his 12 takeaways in his last eight appearances pace the team) have all been integral in leading this strategic shift, and the results are clearly showing in the standings.

Both G Mikko Koskinen and G Cam Talbot have shown considerable improvement playing behind this revamped defense, but Koskinen seems to have gained Hitchcock’s favor as the Oilers’ starting goaltender – at least for the time being. Though he has managed a decent .925 save percentage and 2.23 GAA for the entire season, Koskinen has posted a solid .934 save percentage and 1.82 GAA in his last six starts and will get the nod tonight.

For those wondering, Talbot’s .895 save percentage and 3.12 GAA for the season have been steadily improving under Hitch as well, as he’s managed a .925 save percentage and 2.29 GAA in his last three starts.

So, it’s time for that priceless question: who wins tonight?

With both defenses playing as well as they are right now, my immediate reaction is to pick the team with the superior offense. As that is not the style Hitchcock is having the Oilers play, that leads me to lean towards Calgary earning two points despite playing yesterday and having to travel last night/this morning.

However, with so much for Edmonton to play for and the fact that this is one of the better rivalries in the league, the only thing we can truly predict is unpredictability!