Now that the holiday break has come and gone, it’s time to get back into some hockey. Let’s take a gander at all the tilts the NHL has crammed into four days this week.
|NHL SCHEDULE: December 24-30|
|TIME (ALL TIMES EASTERN)||VISITOR||HOST||NATIONAL BROADCAST(S)/
|Monday, December 24|
|No Games Scheduled – Christmas Eve|
|Tuesday, December 25|
|No Games Scheduled – Christmas|
|Wednesday, December 26|
|No Games Scheduled – Boxing Day|
|Thursday, December 27|
|7 p.m.||New Jersey||Boston||5-2|
|7 p.m.||Columbus Blue Jackets||New York Rangers||4-3 (OT)|
|7:30 p.m.||Philadelphia||Tampa Bay||5-6 (OT)|
|8 p.m.||Buffalo||St. Louis||1-4|
|10:30 p.m.||Arizona||Los Angeles||1-2|
|10:30 p.m.||Anaheim||San Jose||2-4|
|Friday, December 28|
|7 p.m.||Montréal||Florida||RDS, TSN2|
|7 p.m.||Ottawa Senators||New York Islanders||RDS2|
|Saturday, December 29|
|1 p.m.||Carolina||New Jersey||SN|
|4 p.m.||Vegas||Los Angeles||SN1|
|4 p.m.||San Jose||Edmonton|
|7 p.m.||New York Islanders||Toronto Maple Leafs||CBC, ESPN+, SN1|
|7 p.m.||Washington||Ottawa||CITY, SN360|
|7 p.m.||Montréal||Tampa Bay||SN, TVAS|
|8 p.m.||Pittsburgh||St. Louis|
|8 p.m.||New York Rangers||Nashville Predators||ESPN+|
|10 p.m.||Vancouver Canucks||Calgary Flames||CBC, CITY, SN, SN1, SN360|
|Sunday, December 30|
|8 p.m.||Vegas||Arizona||ESPN+, SN, TVAS|
Rivalries on tap this week included Detroit at Pittsburgh, Calgary at Winnipeg, Minnesota at Chicago and Anaheim at San Jose on Thursday; Boston at Buffalo and Vancouver at Calgary today and Vegas at Arizona tomorrow.
We also got the pleasure of taking in a few playoff rematches from this spring, including the previously mentioned Anaheim at San Jose tilt Thursday night, as well as Minnesota at Winnipeg and Vegas at Los Angeles on this evening.
Finally, a few tilts involved players making homecoming trips to former longtime homes. Now a member of the Sabres after an offseason trade, F Vladimir Sobotka made his first trip back to St. Louis on Thursday, while F Leo Komarov returned to Toronto – his former home of five seasons – today.
Of all of those, the showdown I’m most interested in is taking place in the Queen City. The Bruins are the healthiest they’ve been all season, while the Sabres are looking to once again regain the form that earned them a 10-game winning streak through much of November.
Though the 20-14-4 Boston Bruins can currently lay claim to the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, they are far from comfortable or safe in that position considering the New York Islanders are only two points behind them in the standings with two games in hand.
However, playing in the Bruins’ favor is their previously mentioned return to good health. With the exception of D Urho Vaakanainen, Boston’s 2017 first-round pick who has a whopping two NHL appearances to his credit, D Charlie McAvoy and LW Brad Marchand, the Bruins have almost achieved full health once again – albeit with F David Backes taking in tonight’s tilt and the next two as well from the press box after he was suspended for a high hit against New Jersey’s F Blake Coleman on Thursday.
Yes, Boston fans, you did the math correctly: Backes will be unavailable for New Year’s Day’s Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium, nor the tough matchup with the Flames on Thursday.
Of course, there’s always the question of just how much he’ll be missed. He’s been involved in all of the Bruins’ last seven games in which they’ve posted a 3-4-0 record, contributing only four assists and a -5 rating in those outings.
Now, it might sound like I’m piling on Backes and implying that he does more harm than good when he’s on the ice. While it would certainly be a stretch to say he’d be the best player in white this evening if he were dressing, there’s no doubting the former captain’s defensive contributions. He’s top eight among Bruins forwards since December 14 in hits per game, blocks per game and takeaways (for those wondering, the forwards leading those stats in that time frame are F Noel Acciari [3.8 hits per game], F Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson [1.3 blocks per game] and Marchand [eight takeaways]).
Instead, what has been letting Boston down during its last seven games is clearly some sub-par goaltending. Despite a defense that has yielded only 28.86 shots against in its last seven showings (a mark that’s sixth-best in the NHL in that time), neither 12-6-2 G Jaroslav Halak nor 8-8-2 G Tuukka Rask – tonight’s starter – has looked all that impressive.
It goes without saying that Rask is having the worst season of his career this year. His .911 season save percentage and 2.72 GAA are both on pace to be the worst marks of his professional career (barring, of course, his four-game 2007-08 campaign). Making matters even more dreadful for the Bruins’ faithful, Rask’s last two starts have been even more alarming, as he boasts only an .873 save percentage and 4.15 GAA in those outings.
It probably goes without saying, but he lost both of those games (4-2 against Buffalo and 5-3 at Carolina).
With a 21-12-5 record, the Buffalo Sabres have settled into third place in the Atlantic Division, though just like Boston, there’s not many points separating them from teams trying to chase them down. Montréal trails the Sabres by only two points, while the Bruins could pull within a point of Buffalo with a win tonight.
Much of the reason the Sabres are starting to fall back to Earth is their playing .500 hockey of late. Over Buffalo’s last eight games, it has managed only a 4-3-1 record, losing ground on the Maple Leafs in the division standings during Toronto’s five-game winning streak.
If anyone is to blame for Buffalo’s inconsistencies of late, it’s certainly not 8-1-3 G Linus Ullmark. He’s managed a solid .922 save percentage and 2.71 GAA for the entire season, but he’s been even better in his last three starts, winning all three and posting an impressive .953 save percentage and 1.65 GAA.
Making those numbers even more impressive, he hasn’t had the luxury of playing behind one of the league’s best defenses. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. In the Sabres’ last eight games, they’ve allowed 32.75 shots against per game, the 10th-worst mark in the NHL since December 11.
It is unclear if Ullmark or 13-11-2 G Carter Hutton will be in net tonight, but I would argue that it is this decision that will ultimately determine the outcome of this tilt. Just like Rask, Hutton has not looked particularly good lately, as he has earned only three points in his last five starts due to an average .91 save percentage and 2.78 GAA in those showings (compared to his .916 save percentage and 2.64 GAA for the season).
Should Hutton get the start, I am confident the Bruins’ offense, which has averaged 3.29 goals per game in their past eight showings, should be strong enough to earn the road victory. However, if Head Coach Phil Housley gives the nod to Ullmark, he has proven to me that he is more than able to lead the Sabres to two points.