Whether you measure by games played or the All-Star Break, the middle of the season is upon us. Are you an optimist and see all the hockey remaining on the schedule? Or is the glass half empty, formerly full with games now gone by?
While you’re figuring that out, here’s the NHL’s offering of games this week.
NHL SCHEDULE: January 21-27
TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN)
Monday, January 21
Tuesday, January 22
New York Islanders
Wednesday, January 23
Toronto Maple Leafs
NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVAS
Thursday, January 24
No games scheduled – All-Star Break
Friday, January 25
No games scheduled – All-Star Break
Saturday, January 26
NHL All-Star Game from San Jose, Calif.
Sunday, January 27
No games scheduled – All-Star Break
As you can see, the fun we gain in having the All-Star festivities in San Jose scheduled for this weekend is largely negated by this week’s half-serving of fixtures.
Them’s the breaks, I suppose.
As for some of this week’s biggest games, we needed to look no further than Monday’s matchup between Nashville and Colorado, a rematch of the First Round from last April’s playoffs. Also, F Alex Galchenyuk is making his first trip back to Montréal tonight, his former home of six seasons. W Micheal Ferland and D Dougie Hamilton were in the same boat last night in Calgary, their home for four and three seasons, respectively.
While Galchenyuk will surely receive a warm welcome this evening, I’m much more interested in a tilt taking place in the Mojave Desert between two Western Conference foes.
Boasting the second-best record in the Central Division, the 29-18-4 Nashville Predators enter tonight’s game with a bit of a limp.
Though they won their last tilt against Colorado 4-1, they’ve only managed a 2-3-1 record in their past six outings – a mark that makes Nashville fortunate it has built up a nine-point lead on third-place Minnesota.
What is most alarming about this rough patch for the Preds is that their latest struggles are usually among the team’s greatest strengths.
Since January 10, Nashville has allowed an average of 3.67 goals per game and 32.5 shots per game. Those both rank seventh-worst in the NHL in that time – a far cry from the Preds’ season marks of 2.61 goals against per game ([t]second-best) and 29 shots against per game (fifth-best).
Is this just a case of the Predators being worn out after 51 games so far this season?
Considering the Predators’ entire defensive corps is healthy right now, I’d say this very well could be the answer. They’ll take a four-day bye period in addition to the four-day All-Star Break to recuperate for the final 30 games if that is the case.
However, eight days off doesn’t do Head Coach Peter Laviolette any good tonight. He needs to find a way to get his troops to perform better tonight, especially since they’re heading into one of the toughest arenas in the league and taking on a hot team in the Golden Knights.
On the season, Nashville’s defense has been headed by D Ryan Ellis (two blocks per game and a team-high 42 takeaways) and W Austin Watson (three hits per game). Watson has maintained his role as the team’s leading hit-thrower during this stretch, but his production has dropped to 2.2 hits per game since January 10. Similarly, Ellis’ blocks-per-game production has dropped to 1.5 in his last six outings, falling behind D Mattias Ekholm and D Roman Josi‘s matching 1.8 blocks per game.
With only four takeaways in his last six games, Ellis is still a dominant threat in that department considering his position. However, the Predator that really been creating steals lately is F Filip Forsberg, who has averaged a takeaway per game since January 10. Mix in the fact that he’s averaging almost a point per game during this run, and you find a player who’s not at fault for his club’s recent defensive inefficiencies and lack of results.
Regardless of who is taking the blame, one player who definitely isn’t happy about the situation is 18-12-3 G Pekka Rinne. Even though Rinne has been having a solid campaign (made evident by his .915 save percentage and 2.47 GAA on the season, the latter of which is tied for sixth-best in the NHL), he’s been a terrible victim of his team’s defensive effort of late. Rinne has only won one of his last four starts, posting a horrendous .878 save percentage and 4.27 GAA in those outings.
Rinne has faced the Golden Knights twice in his career, but is still looking for his first victory against the second-year franchise. In the previous two matchups, he has managed a .928 save percentage and 2.44 GAA, highlighted by a 36-save performance on December 8, 2017 that ended in a 4-3 six-round shootout victory for Vegas. Rinne earned
After rattling off a seven-game winning streak, the 29-18-4 Vegas Golden Knights have propelled themselves into third-place in the Pacific Division with 10 points separating them from Vancouver.
However, those winning ways have gone by the wayside in the last two weeks, as Vegas has alternated results in its last five outings for a 2-3-0 record. Vegas lost to the Sharks 3-2 on January 10, followed two days later by a 4-3 overtime win in Chicago. January 15 saw the Golden Knights lose 4-1 in Winnipeg, but a trip home was just the medicine they needed to beat the Penguins 7-3. Most recently (Monday, to be precise), the Wild came to T-Mobile Arena and emerged with a 4-2 win.
Does this pattern mean the Knights are ensured two points tonight?
If Vegas wants to take its fate into its own hands, it should surely continue what it is doing on the defensive end. Despite the consistently inconsistent results, one thing that has remained constant is the Golden Knights’ blue line, which has allowed only 27.2 shots against per game since January 10 – the fourth-best mark in the league in that time.
Leading that defensive charge is none other than F Tomas Nosek (seven takeaways in Vegas’ last five games), RW Ryan Reaves (4.4 hits per game since January 10) and D Nate Schmidt (two blocks per game during this run), despite the fact that injured LW William Carrier (five hits per game), D Brayden McNabb (1.9 blocks per game) and D Shea Theodore (49 takeaways) lead the team in their respective statistics for the season.
A major reason for these inconsistent results is the Golden Knights’ scoreboard does not reflect their positive defensive performance. A major reason for that has been the lackluster play by G Marc-Andre Fleury in his last five starts.
Even though he boasts a .911 save percentage and 2.5 GAA (tied for ninth-best in the NHL) for the entire season, he’s managed only a .895 save percentage and 2.85 GAA in his last five starts. In fact, Fleury has allowed at least two goals per game in his last seven outings – a surprising statistic for the netminder whose six shutouts double the eight players’ marks that are tied for second place.
If history will decide this tilt, Fleury will certainly bring his A-game against Nashville. He boasts a 9-5-1 record against the Predators, bolstered largely by five-straight wins between 2010-14 during his tenure with Pittsburgh. In those 15 appearances, he owns a career .927 save percentage and 1.95 GAA – dominant marks for any netminder against any one club.
Of course, those marks are in the past. Which team enters the All-Star Break with two more points to their credit?
Since both teams have managed approximately equal offense since January 10 (the Preds’ 3.33 goals per game is slightly higher than Vegas’ 3.2), I’ll consider that a wash. Instead, I’ll lean towards the Golden Knights earning tonight’s victory on the backs of their solid defensive play.