With the first two months completely in the books, the NHL schedule kicks into high gear. The average NHL team plays nearly (6.6) a seven game schedule over the next 14 days. But it's not really the calm before the storm (102 games next week), because aside from a slow night Wednesday (three games) the grid is peppered with action throughout the first week in December. Seat belts please.
*b2b (back-to-back occurrence) in bold
In Four Aces this week, we examine eight teams playing four games. Also worth noting, with the exception of the Sharks, most of these teams will enjoy the home-ice advantage.
Chicago (DAL, at MIN, ANH, FLA) finally heads home for a week, and in fact three of 4 this week will be in the Windy City. The cold and unproductive Kris Versteeg sticks out for us this month. We suggest a quick flyer against the Stars as Versteeg has four goals and 8 assists in 15 career games against Dallas. Though you can likely expect a big game against his former mates on Sunday, after Dallas, it's a case of rostering him at your own risk. Expect Antti Raanta against the Wild and Corey Crawford for the remainder of the week.
Florida (OTT, WPG, at DET, at CHI) has turned things up a notch offensively under the new staff. Setting aside Saturday's debacle against Pittsburgh, Tim Thomas has been more dependable. However, this week's Panthers schedule rivals the progressive increased difficulty of a stepping razor with the Red Wings and Blackhawks waiting in the final turns to cut their reason for hope. In light of Scottie Upshall's recent contributions, the speedy winger should be considered. Hang in there Brian Campbell fans, this should be a month of resurgence. For those who have been eyeing big fish/small pond, Scott Gomez, we're happy to report one of his best career months (0.82 points-per-game in 154 contests) is December. The Winnipeg game will likely be a good candidate for a start. Once again, after the Jets game, you should monitor him from the FA pool. We might also suggest a gander at Brad Boyes' (three goals, three assists in his last 9 games) modest career numbers against this week's schedule.
Minnesota (PHI, CHI, at CLS, SJ) starts off with two tilts against the Flyers and Hawks and will host the Sharks after travelling to Columbus. Another week goes by and another illness struck between the Wild's pipes. Niklas Backstrom was well enough to back-up Josh Harding in Saturday's loss to Colorado, so there's not a TON to be concerned over. We know it sounds kooky, but look for Jared Spurgeon to start contributing more (we use this term loosely) in Minny.
Montreal (NJ, at NJ, BOS, BUF) completes a non-traditional home-and-home with the Devils before hosting Boston on Thursday. They'll take the night off Friday before the Sabres come into town. Rene Bourque returned to action on Saturday. Max Pacioretty, who got warm again on Saturday, has four goals and two assists in 13 career games against New Jersey. Daniel Briere has found good chemistry with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. The big question will be Carey Price as December (20-21-8, 2.66) is one of his worst career months.
New Jersey (at MTL, MTL, DET, at NYR) didn't need to call Albany for a man in pads after all. After the aforementioned two games in three nights with the Canadiens, the Devils hope that health continues as they face the Red Wings and Rangers on b2b nights. Reports have Martin Brodeur starting against the Canadiens on Monday. Brodeur is an eye-popping 44-18-1 with a 1.83 career GAA against his native Canadiens. More good news is December is arguably Jaromir Jagr's best statistical month, posting 1.25 points per game through 232 career games. Eric Gelinas is spurting again with three assists in his last four games and Adam Henrique scored his first goal in nearly a month.
The Rangers (WPG, at BUF, NJ, WAS) play three of four from home. Saturday's convincing win over Vancouver and the strength of schedule suggests they'll have an opportunity to turn a corner on their scoring issues. With the Winter Classic in January, Olympics in February and a grocery list of pending UFA's (Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan), surely there's a sense of urgency as December could prove to be the Rangers' calm before the storm. Is it too early to say ‘do-or-die' for the Glen Sather show? Once again, the Rangers were able to turn to Cam Talbot. The only question we have is Talbot's success based on the NHL's unfamiliarity with the Alabama alumni holes? Chris Kreider's hat trick, plus-3, four PIM, six shots on goal and one special team's point really invigorated our roster this week. Michael Del Zotto cracked the lineup and the scorer's sheet in the same game, but it's worth more to the organization's value than fantasy owners, if you get our drift. Nonetheless, a change of scenery could make MDZ the best FA pool pick up of the year when it's all said and done.
After seeing what San Jose (at TOR, at PIT, at CAR, at MIN) did to the Blues and really seven of their last 8 opponents, there's little doubt in our mind it's going to be a sweet week for those loaded up on Sharks players. Although, Toronto has had its moments lately and the Leafs found out just last week how volatile the Penguins offense can be. The Sharks end the week with an always entertaining game against the Wild, who are no pushovers this season. Brent Burns is paying dividends and is Logan Couture waking up?
Speaking of Toronto (SJ, DAL, at OTT, BOS), their schedule does not look promising. After hosting two high-scoring Western Conference squads, it's very likely the Leafs have a let-down against Boston, who they play after travelling to Ottawa on Saturday. Tyler Bozak is really coming on strong now and his last December in the NHL (nine points in 12 games) proved to be similar. Despite the fact Cody Franson (unknown) was seen limping to the locker room during pre-game warmups on Saturday, John-Michael Liles is in just about the same boat as MDZ and owners should watch closely. We considered the services of Nikolai Kulemin, but a glance at his career numbers in December left us without reason to throw caution to the wind.
Three of a Kind
This week, "Back-to-Back Jacks" meets "Three of a Kind," as 13 of the 22 remaining NHL schedules will be without a b2b occurrence, leaving you just a few chances - 18 games - to earn some backup goalie points. As always, Three of a Kind will assume those teams with a proliferated schedule will play their number one goalie exclusively and those without will utilize their second netminder at some point. As always, we reserve the right to blame crazy coaches for unforeseeable nods.
Boston (at MTL, PIT, at TOR) won't play their first game of the week till Thursday. Tuukka Rask and Chad Johnson have been the most dependable tandem in hockey, and we see no reason for that to end this week. Although coach Claude Julien has not been shy about starting Rask on b2b nights, despite his 2-5, 2.74 career numbers against Pittsburgh, expect Rask against the Penguins and Johnson against the Leafs.
Los Angeles (STL, at ANH, NYI) plays two of their first three on back-to-back nights, starting with the Blues on Monday then into Anaheim for the Ducks, ouch. They lick their wounds for three days and wait for a westbound Islanders team on Saturday. Ben Scrivens is engulfed in action this week, but with Jonathan Quick still out, expect Martin Jones to remove the splinters and make his NHL debut against either St. Louis or Anaheim, double ouch.
Phoenix (at EDM, at CAL, at VAN) takes off to central Canada on Monday before visiting three teams in four nights starting Tuesday. With Thomas Greiss outplaying Mike Smith as of late, there's no telling how the week unfolds for Coyote goalies. More intriguing for those Greiss owners, Smith has a combined record of 26-39-8 (2.89 GAA) in the months of December and January. Shane Doan (seven goals, five assists in 12 games) is definitely sad to see November close out, but seeing Edmonton (55 points in 61 career games) this week should brighten his spirits. If Martin Hanzal is still available, snatch him up and find a different league next season because that one is not challenging you enough.
After an off day on Monday, Washington (CAR, NAS, at NYR) will host Carolina on Tuesday. A full three days later the team plays in NYC on Sunday night less than 24-hours after hosting the Preds on Saturday. With Michal Neuvirth (lower-body) suffering a pre-game injury on Friday, Braden Holtby may see all of this week's action, if not Philipp Grabauer has been recalled from AHL Hershey. Caps also recalled Dmitry Orlov.
Pair of Deuces
While the Sabres and Blue Jackets are both on the bottom end of the Eastern Conference's food chain and fantasy owners, the similarities stop there.
Buffalo (NYR, at MTL) will have off until Thursday and then play frustrated offenses like the Rangers and Canadiens in three nights. Luke Adam is back with his NHL club. Jhonas Enroth seems ready once/if Ryan Miller is moved. Is Matt Moulson coming alive again?
Meanwhile, Columbus (TB, MIN) has a much more spread out week, hosting the Lightning on Tuesday and the Wild on Friday. Brandon Dubinsky (foot) has not played since November 19. At least Ryan Johansen is providing a spark.
Paul Stastny (back spasms) was a minus-1 in his return to the lineup on Saturday and Alex Tanguay reported no issues after practicing.
Disappointed Alexander Edler owners might want to consider abandoning ship (via trade if possible) as his career numbers suggest he wears down and contributes even less as the grind continues. However, his former teammate and blue line counterpart Christian Ehrhoff's career numbers jump starting in January. If Ehrhoff shows any sign of life, he could be a nice addition for the stretch run, assuming Buffalo gets their ship righted.
With Stephane Robidas (leg) out, Jamie Oleksiak was recalled by the Stars. The 6'7 Oleksiak is a former first-round pick (2011) and had five points in 22 AHL games this season.
If he can get healthy, Aaron Rome could actually see most of the playing time, but who knows with Lindy Ruff.
Though his brief career December production (three points in 18 games) leaves a bit of doubt that it will continue, Nick Bonino had two goals and five assists over the last six games in November. As for Andrew Cogliano, his December numbers (20 points, minus-15 in 67 games) confirm your hesitation in picking him up in deeper leagues.
Meanwhile, David Booth has 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) in 33 career games in the final month of the year.
The cooling of Pascal Dupuis should come to an end against the Islanders this week, how he goes from there only Sidney Crosby can tell us, eh?
Shea Weber (eye) missed Saturday's game and is currently considered day-to-day. The Preds placed Filip Forsberg on IR, so far, looks like both Washington and Nashville lost on this deal. The Preds corresponding move was the recall of Joe Piskula.
Mark Giordano skated by himself on Saturday.
Missing Radko Gudas' PIM? Lightning coach Jon Cooper is surprised he's not back after a fight with Luca Sbisa three games ago. Ryan Malone (foot) is expected to miss a couple of weeks.
No word on Evander Kane's status against the Rangers on Monday.