Game of the week: December 17-23

The holiday break is so close we can almost taste it, but there’s still a little more work to be done before the NHL begins its three-day break on Monday. Without further ado, this week’s offerings include:

NHL SCHEDULE: December 17-23
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN) VISITOR HOST NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
Result
Monday, December 17
7 p.m. Anaheim Pittsburgh 4-2
7 p.m. Vegas Columbus 0-1
7:30 p.m. Boston Montréal 4-0
7:30 p.m. Nashville Ottawa 3-4 (OT)
9 p.m. New York Islanders Colorado Avalanche 4-1
Tuesday, December 18
7 p.m. Florida Buffalo 5-2
7 p.m. Toronto New Jersey 7-2
7 p.m. Anaheim Ducks New York Rangers 1-3
7 p.m. Detroit Philadelphia 2-3
8 p.m. San Jose Minnesota 4-0
8:30 p.m. Nashville Chicago 1-2
8:30 p.m. Calgary Dallas 0-2
9 p.m. St. Louis Edmonton 4-1
9 p.m. New York Islanders Arizona Coyotes 3-1
10 p.m. Tampa Bay Vancouver 5-2
10:30 p.m. Winnipeg Los Angeles 1-4
Wednesday, December 19
8 p.m. Pittsburgh Washington 2-1
8:30 p.m. Montréal Colorado 1-2
Thursday, December 20
7 p.m. Anaheim Boston SN360
7 p.m. Florida Toronto TVAS
7 p.m. Nashville Philadelphia ESPN+
7 p.m. Minnesota Pittsburgh
7 p.m. Detroit Carolina
7 p.m. New Jersey Columbus
8:30 p.m. Chicago Dallas
9 p.m. Tampa Bay Calgary
9 p.m. Montréal Arizona RDS, TSN2
10 p.m. St. Louis Vancouver ESPN+
10 p.m. New York Islanders Vegas Golden Knights SN360
10:30 p.m. Winnipeg San Jose
Friday, December 21
7 p.m. Ottawa New Jersey RDS
7 p.m. Buffalo Washington NBCSN, SN, TVAS
9 p.m. Chicago Colorado ESPN+, SN360
Saturday, December 22
1 p.m. Nashville Boston NHLN, SN, SN1
1 p.m. Columbus Philadelphia ESPN+
2 p.m. Florida Detroit
4 p.m. Montréal Vegas RDS, TSN2
4 p.m. Los Angeles San Jose NBCSN, SN1
4 p.m. St. Louis Calgary
7 p.m. Colorado Arizona
7 p.m. Anaheim Buffalo
7 p.m. New York Rangers Toronto Maple Leafs CBC, NHLN, SN, SN1
7 p.m. Washington Ottawa CITY, SN360, TVAS
7 p.m. Pittsburgh Carolina
8 p.m. Dallas Minnesota
10 p.m. Winnipeg Vancouver CBC, SN360
10 p.m. Tampa Bay Edmonton CITY, ESPN+, SN1
Sunday, December 23
12:30 p.m. Columbus New Jersey SN
5 p.m. Boston Carolina SN1
7 p.m. Florida Chicago ESPN+
7 p.m. Philadelphia Flyers New York Rangers NHLN
7:30 p.m. Detroit Toronto SN, SN360, TVAS
8 p.m. Los Angeles Vegas
8 p.m. Arizona San Jose
8 p.m. New York Islanders Dallas Stars

For those that didn’t keep count, that’s a healthy 55 tilts to keep us entertained while family members you simply adore ask a multitude of questions you’d rather they not.

In the rivalries department, the NHL loaded us up with six showdowns this week, including Boston at Montréal, Pittsburgh at Washington, Los Angeles at San Jose, the Rangers at Toronto, Philadelphia at the Rangers and Detroit at Toronto.

Two rematches from this spring’s edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will also take place: the previously mentioned Pens-Caps game and Los Angeles’ trip to Sin City Sunday night.

Finally, the biggest player return of the week will take place tonight when F Max Domi makes his first trip back to Glendale to take on the Coyotes, the club that drafted him 12th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

However, of all those games highlighted, there’s still another tonight that will have my full attention. Both the Jets and Sharks entered this season with high expectations, but only one has truly flexed its muscles thus far this season. Perhaps that will be just the motivation San Jose needs to find its next gear.

Currently in a three-way tie for first place in the Western Conference, the 22-10-2 Winnipeg Jets are technically the top team by playing one fewer game than both the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators.

Winnipeg’s last outing wasn’t exactly one to be proud of (the Jets fell 4-1 in Los Angeles to the lowly Kings on Tuesday), but it had been riding a five-game winning streak coming into that game. In fact, in their past 11 games, the Jets boast a 9-2-0 record that includes five overtime or shootout victories.

To the surprise of none, Winnipeg’s greatest strength is undoubtedly its offense. Having averaged 3.56 goals per game for the entire season (the fourth-best mark in the NHL), Head Coach Peter DeBoer will certainly have a plan for how he wants his team to slow down the impressive talents of C Mark Scheifele (21-25-46 points) and RW Blake Wheeler (5-39-44) on Winnipeg’s top line.

However, that will be a difficult task to pull off because the Jets’ attack has been even more potent than usual during this 11-game run. Since November 29, the Jets have averaged an outstanding four goals per game, which is tied with, coincidentally, San Jose for third best in the league in that time.

The previously mentioned Scheifele and Wheeler have certainly had their fingerprints all over that dynamic attack, as they’ve posted respective 8-12-20 and 1-14-15 totals in their last 11 outings. However, they’ve also been joined by LW Nikolaj Ehlers (7-5-12), D Josh Morrissey (3-8-11 in nine games) and D Dustin Byfuglien (1-8-9 in seven games) in averaging at least a point per game during this run, creating a defensive nightmare for most teams not as talented as the Sharks on the blue line.

The San Jose Sharks were supposed to already be atop the Western Conference – if not the entire NHL – according to many preseason reports, yet they find themselves stuck with a 19-11-5 record good enough for only second place in the Pacific Division.

But don’t read that as the Sharks being a bad team. They’re riding a five-game winning streak and have posted a 7-1-0 record in their past eight outings, so it seems like the team is finally starting to realize its potential. The next question, of course, is just how good can this team be, but that’s an answer the Jets would rather not answer tonight.

During this eight-game run, San Jose has been clicking on all cylinders; literally everything is gelling, and the numbers are showing just that.

Perhaps my favorite part of the Sharks’ game right now is their attack. Currently in a tie with Ottawa for eighth-best offense on the season by averaging 3.31 goals per game, the Sharks’ effort since December 2 has made all but Tampa Bay jealous. Led by F Logan Couture‘s impressive 5-6-11 totals in the last eight games, San Jose has managed a dominant 4.25 goals per game during this run.

Joining Couture in averaging at least a point per game since the beginning of the month are RW Timo Meier (5-5-10 in seven games played), F Tomas Hertl (4-5-9) and D Erik Karlsson (0-8-8).

That’s right, the same Karlsson that looked like he wasn’t panning out in Silicon Valley is on a bit of a hot streak of late. His goal scoring may be down from his Ottawa days (last season’s nine goals in 71 appearances was a poor season for him, and this year’s pace has him set to register only five markers), but the 10-year NHL veteran is still making his presence known on the scorecard.

In addition to scoring, this dynamic offense has also had some incredible influence on the defensive zone by maintaining elongated possessions. During this eight-game run, San Jose has allowed only 27.88 shots against per game, the fifth-best mark in the NHL since December 2 and only two shots worse than the Islanders’ league-leading pace set in that same time span.

Of course, D Justin Braun (2.3 blocks per game since December 2), D Brenden Dillon (2.8 hits per game during this run) and Karlsson (11 takeaways in his past eight outings) have certainly done their fair share on the defensive end as well.

If anyone is appreciative of that effort, it’s surely 14-7-3 G Martin Jones, tonight’s starter. Though he’s struggled for much of the season (made evident by his unusually low .901 save percentage and 2.81 GAA for the campaign), he’s shown signs of improvement lately. He’s earned five of the Sharks’ last seven wins, posting a much more familiar .936 save percentage and 1.94 GAA in his last seven starts.

If Jones has finally rounded into form for the year, this Sharks blue line will truly begin to influence play in the offensive zone, which should be a very scary proposition for the entire Western Conference.

When two high powered offenses are going at it, I usually side with the better of the two goaltenders to determine the game’s winner. In his past eight starts, 15-9-1 G Connor Hellebuyck has earned six wins on the back of a .91 save percentage and 2.72 GAA (both nominal improvements on his .908 season save percentage and associated 2.9 GAA).

Compare that to Jones’ numbers, and the answer is obvious: the Sharks should come away winners tonight and send the home fans happy.