No, it's not quite the mid-point of the season, but for all intense - pun intended - purposes, the Bridgestone Winter Classic always brings the NHL to a good stopping point of awe. In a year marred by tragedy, the NHL welcomes with open arms what looks to be a very promising winter of Hockey.
Calgary and Nashville will officially flip the calendar Sunday night and end your fantasy week. The Rangers and Flyers will open the year and your new fantasy week with the much-hyped Winter Classic. But what is beyond the league's darling game? Six teams will play four times, while six other teams will play two games this week. Let's read between the lines and find you a trend.
Chicago starts off the month playing 11 games (eight at home) in 21 days, before playing only two for the last 10 days of January. They start off the New Year with a schedule (vs. EDM, @PHI, vs. COL, DET) that becomes more difficult as it progresses. After registering seven points in four games late in December, Viktor Stalberg (-2, 0 points) is cold over his last two games. Looking at his game log this season, that should not last long.
A puzzle at best last week, after losing (4-1) handily to the Blue Jackets at home, the Stars used their New Years Eve home crowd momentum to earn a commanding 4-2 win over the Bruins. Although Dallas (vs. DET @NSH vs. EDM) has gradually slipped down to the back end of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, they can catch fire at any time. Did anyone expect Michael Ryder (15 goals, 11 assists) and Eric Nystrom (12 goals) to have this good of a season in Dallas?
Colorado (10-5 in December), who plays nine of their 12 January games on the road, starts off with Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis. Matt Duchene, already having a disappointing season and still second in team scoring, is expected out at least four weeks after getting his knee caught in a rut. Although David Jones (groin) took Ducheneís spot on the roster, the Avs will look to Ryan O'Reilly (28 points) to pick up the slack for Duchene.
Both Edmonton (@CHI, BUF, STL, DAL) and New Jersey Devils (@OTT, vs. BOS, FLA, @PIT) have potentially woeful schedules this week.
Ottawa has a potentially rough week ahead as well. After playing the Devils and Lightning, the Sens take on Philly in a traditional home-and-home match up this weekend. Zack Smith has picked up the pace as of late, including three goals, one assist and six penalty minutes over his last six games. Ottawa is 4-1-1 over that span, not too shabby for a third line center.
Coming off their big road win in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia (vs. NYR, CHI, OTT, @OTT) is looking to get back into the Eastern Conference elite. Historically, January is one of Jaromir Jagrís least productive months. Role players like Matt Carle (four goals, 16 assists), who is on pace for the best season of his career, will need put together another productive month.
Pittsburgh is off for the next four days. Once the respite is over, they'll play Eastern Conference rivals, the Rangers and Devils on back-to-back nights from home. This is part of a stretch that has them playing 11 games (six at home) in 18 days.
San Jose goalies are a good play over the next two weeks, as the Sharks play eight times in the next fourteen days, including two with Columbus. Tread lightly though, six of those eight are on the road. Both Antti Niemi (15-7-4, 2.36) and Thomas Greiss (4-4, 2.37) have been dependable in their time between the pipes, posting less than two and a half goals a game.
Bogged down by a very competitive division, despite losing both games to host Detroit last week, the Blues endured a long week well. All three games (vs. PHO, EDM, COL) this week will be against less consistent visitors. Whatís missing? Imagine how strong this team will be once they get Chris Stewart (14 points in 35 games) and Matt D'Agostini (15 points in 38 games) cranking.
On Tuesday, the Lightning (@TOR, OTT, MON) will start a three game road trip in Toronto. From there, Tampa Bay will play 11 consecutive Tuesday games from home. Even stranger than their Tuesday road plans, a Steve Downie citing was reported. The gritty former first rounder of the Flyers notched his first point streak (3) of the season. Downie has posted two goals, five assists to go with four penalty minutes in the last three games.
Toronto (vs. TB, WPG, DET) has three from home this week. Joffrey Lupul (17 goals, 23 assists) is giving me indigestion. After holding onto the former 1st-round draft pick (2002- Ducks) for the better part of the last two seasons, he finally comes around when I've given up. Lupul had a November (20 points) to remember which included a seven game point streak. Of the 13 Maple Leafs games in December, Lupul grabbed a point in 10 of them. But, once again, career numbers point towards a lull in January.
Winnipeg plays nine of their 13 games on the road this month. Starting with a four game road trip against the Northeast, three (@MON, TOR, BUF) of which will be this week. Currently tied with New Jersey for sixth in the Eastern Conference, if the Jets want to leap frog over the Devils and into the top six of the conference, they're going to need their sniper Evander Kane to heat it up again. Kane has seven of his 29 points in Winnipeg's 19 losses or overtime losses.
Two Game Schedule:
Playing only two games this week, be weary of starters on the Minnesota Wild (@VAN, CAL), Nashville Predators (vs. DAL, CAR), Florida Panthers (@NYR, NJ), Montreal Canadiens (vs. WPG, TB) and the Washington Capitals (vs. CAL, @SJ).
Match-up of the Week:
Much like the outcome of the alumni game, video game designer, EA sports, simulated a 3-1 Flyers final in the NHL Winter Classic. Although the Rangers lead this season series 2-0 this season, the all-time season series (114-105-37-7) is held by the Flyers. Aside from the importance of the superstars, your variable for a victory should be discipline. Less is more, and once these players settle in, penalties should be the deciding factor.
NBC Sports Network formerly known as VERSUS (all games EST)
1.2.12 - San Jose at Vancouver 8 pm
1.3.12 - Detroit at Dallas 8 pm
1.4.12 - Boston at New Jersey 7:30 pm
1.8.12 - Detroit at Chicago 7:30 PM