With the holiday season and the league’s December 19 roster freeze on the horizon, the NHL schedule rages on with 51 fixtures scheduled for this week.
|NHL SCHEDULE: December 10-16|
|TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN)||VISITOR||HOST||NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
|Monday, December 10|
|7 p.m.||Pittsburgh Penguins||New York Islanders||2-1 (SO)|
|7:30 p.m.||Los Angeles||Detroit||1-3|
|7:30 p.m.||New York Rangers||Tampa Bay Lightning||3-6|
|10:30 p.m.||New Jersey||San Jose||2-5|
|Tuesday, December 11|
|7 p.m.||Los Angeles||Buffalo||3-4 (OT)|
|8 p.m.||Florida||St. Louis||3-4|
|Wednesday, December 12|
|7 p.m.||Vegas Golden Knights||New York Islanders||3-2|
|8:30 p.m.||Philadelphia||Calgary||5-6 (OT)|
|Thursday, December 13|
|7 p.m.||Los Angeles||Columbus|
|7:30 p.m.||Carolina||Montréal||RDS, TSN2|
|7:30 p.m.||Toronto||Tampa Bay||TVAS|
|10:30 p.m.||Dallas||San Jose||SN1|
|Friday, December 14|
|7 p.m.||Vegas||New Jersey|
|7 p.m.||Arizona Coyotes||New York Rangers|
|8 p.m.||Colorado||St. Louis|
|Saturday, December 15|
|7 p.m.||Ottawa||Montréal||SN, TVAS|
|7 p.m.||Toronto||Florida||CBC, CITY, SN1|
|7 p.m.||Detroit Red Wings||New York Islanders|
|7 p.m.||Los Angeles||Pittsburgh||NHLN|
|8 p.m.||New Jersey||Nashville|
|10 p.m.||Philadelphia Flyers||Vancouver Canucks||CBC, CITY, SN, SN1, SN360|
|Sunday, December 16|
|12:30 p.m.||Vegas Golden Knights||New York Rangers||NHLN, SN|
|3 p.m.||Calgary||St. Louis|
|7 p.m.||San Jose||Chicago|
|7 p.m.||Tampa Bay||Winnipeg||SN, TVAS|
In terms of rivalries, playoff rematches and player returns, this is a quiet week in the NHL. Only four rivalries will be contested – highlighted by the Penguins visiting the Islanders on Monday and Edmonton at Winnipeg tonight.
Speaking of the Islanders, they’re heading back to Nassau Coliseum for two of their three games this week. The previously mentioned tilt against fellow Metropolitan Division side Pittsburgh will take place in the old barn, as will Saturday’s matchup against Detroit.
Finally, the weekly homecoming list is headlined by D Mike Reilly making his first trip back to St. Paul on Tuesday since being traded to Montréal on February 26.
Considering Reilly is a third-pair defenseman, that might be a liberal use of the word “headlined.”
Instead, I’m immensely more interested in tonight’s game from Florida that features the top two teams from the Atlantic Division.
Ontario’s (wait, you’re telling me there’s another team in the same province?) beloved Maple Leafs enter tonight’s game with a 21-9-1 record good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and the entire NHL.
News flash for those that have been living under a rock for the last six months: yeah, the Leafs are legit.
The Maple Leafs boast a solid 6-1-1 record in their past eight showings, including impressive victories over the Bruins and Sharks – not to mention a thrilling overtime win in Buffalo on December 4.
With the defense blatantly struggling during this run (Toronto has allowed 36.38 shots against per game since November 24, the second-worst mark in the NHL behind Ottawa’s 37.22 in that time), the offense has taken full command of Head Coach Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs’ game plan.
On the season, Toronto averages 3.65 goals per game – the third-highest mark in the league. Most teams would be happy maintaining that success, but the Leafs have found an even higher gear of late, averaging 4.38 goals per game in their last eight showings.
Leading that charge has been exactly who you’d expect: C Auston Matthews. While his 6-5-11 totals since November 24 technically trail F Mitch Marner’s 13 assists (Marner, of course, ranks second in the league with 35 assists and is tied with Tampa’s F Brayden Point for sixth in points with 41 apiece), it must be remembered that Matthews has only played six games in that time as compared to his teammate’s eight.
Joining Marner and Matthews in averaging a point per game or better during this eight-game run are W Andreas Johnsson (5-5-10 totals) and D Jake Gardiner (1-7-8). And, don’t forget about C John Tavares, whose 19 goals are tied for ninth-most in the NHL with Colorado’s LW Gabriel Landeskog.
A final note in regards to Toronto’s attack is in regards to its deadly power play. For the season, the Leafs rank seventh best in the league with a 25.9 percent success rate. However, goals have been coming far more often since November 24, as they have lit the lamp on six of their last 18 man-advantage situations for a 33.3 percent power play that ties Tampa Bay for second-best in the NHL in that time.
Tonight’s game against Toronto is the finale of a four-game home stand for the 24-7-1 Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s top team. Not only are the Bolts attempting to win all four of those games at their barn, but they’re also trying to continue their current seven-game winning streak that started on November 29 against the Sabres.
Notable victories during this winning streak came against the aforementioned Sabres, Bruins and Avalanche.
Just like the Leafs, the key to Tampa Bay’s domination is its overpowering offense. During this winning streak, the Bolts have scored an average of 5.14(!) goals per game, far and away the best in the league in that time and a massive improvement on the league-leading four goals per game they’ve averaged for the entire season.
Every skater that has taken to the ice during this winning streak has at least two points to his credit, but only four have averaged at least a point per game. C Steven Stamkos (8-4-12 totals since November 29) leads that group, joined by RW Nikita Kucherov (3-9-12), Point (3-6-9) and D Victor Hedman (0-7-7).
Of course, it’s not as if its any surprise which players are leading the charge for the Lightning. Point’s 21 goals on the season are tied for second-most in the league, while Kucherov’s 33 assists and 45 points are both third-most in the NHL.
An added benefit of the Bolts’ commanding offense is its impact on the defensive end of the ice. While D Dan Girardi (1.7 blocks per game since November 29), Kucherov (six takeaways in his last seven showings) and F Cedric Paquette (3.9 hits per game during this winning streak) should certainly be commended for their defensive efforts – especially in light of 9-3-1 G Andrei Vasilevskiy’s foot injury that had kept him out of the crease since November 10 – the fact that they are leading the team in their statistics with average numbers shows just how much the Lightning are dominating possession. During this winning run, Tampa Bay has allowed only 27.29 shots against per game, the sixth-lowest mark in the league in that time.
With Vasilevskiy returning to the ice tonight, it goes without saying that he’d likely appreciate that trend continuing while he gets back into the swing of play.
So who wins this clash of offensive titans?
For me, this game boils down to the goaltenders. How well Vasilevskiy performs in his first action in a month will be a major factor. Before going down with injury, he was managing a solid .927 save percentage and 2.29 GAA. While he does have the benefit of playing behind a solid team, the Leafs are good enough on the attack that they will still be able to test him significantly throughout this game.
Meanwhile, 17-8-0 G Frederik Andersen will not have the benefit of any solid defense playing in front of him this evening, but that has not been a problem yet this year. Despite facing an average of 33.12 shots against per appearance (compared to Vasilevskiy’s 31.69), Andersen has still posted a .928 save percentage and 2.44 GAA to earn the second-most wins in the NHL.
With that in mind, I’m leaning towards the Leafs taking this one in a wildly back-and-forth barn-burner of a game. I think Vasilevskiy will show just enough rust that Toronto can escape Tampa Bay with a 4-3 victory.