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NHL Schedule Analysis: Ride the Lightning

Brian Rutherford

A freelance writer of all things but mostly sports, music and politics, Brian Rutherford was raised on Long Island, NY and currently resides in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. His favorite teams are the New York Rangers, Texas Rangers, New York Giants and New York Knicks. "So the difference I think, boils down to this: you can either impose yourself on reality and then write about it, or you can impose yourself on reality by writing it." -Hunter S. Thompson "The Proud Highway"

With less than a month of NHL schedule remaining before breaking to Olympic action, it seems the NHL has decided to throw us a few curves. We're not going to lie, this may sting a little.

-GNW = Games Next Week
-GTOB= Games Until Olympic Break
-*B2B (Back-to-Back) occurrences in bold



Three of the NHL's best will be somewhat useless over the next 14 days, but all for different reasons.

Boston (TOR, at DAL, at CHI) has some opponents that will likely play them tough, especially the Stars for obvious reasons. But a more concerning problem is their two game slate next week. It's just as well you look elsewhere for offensive support as Boston's offense hit a low point (five goals in three games) during their recent west coast trip. It's not all bad news for the B's as Loui Eriksson (concussion) posted an assist in his return to the lineup on Saturday and Justin Florek is also making the most of his time.

Detroit (at NYR, LOS) has the only two-game docket this week. While neither team has an overwhelming record in either scenario, two chances are just not enough for you weekly guys. Daniel Alfredsson's (unknown) status was undecided headed into their tilt with Anaheim this Sunday. Tomas Tatar is starting to chip in consistently. Also, Riley Sheahan netted his first NHL goal.

Sure, Kris Letang is back to his beastly ways. However, what we said about Detroit goes double for Pittsburgh (WAS) players. The Penguins will endure the rare one-game schedule.

Full House

If there's victory in numbers, these six teams will give you the most opportunity. Question is… will they come through in the clutch?

Tampa Bay's (at CBJ, at NYR, NYI, SJS, at CAR) schedule is the other rare nuance for weekly owners, playing five times in seven days. Ride the Lightning people, this team is scoring regardless of how many games they play, you just can't count on their goaltending (formerly an SA favorite, Anders Lindback) for solid starts until Ben Bishop (wrist) returns. Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Malone and Radko Gudas had a big night in Saturday's win over the Flyers. Sami Salo provided the obligatory bad news for the evening.

Not only does Calgary (at CAR, at NSH, WIN, at VAN) face four, several are winnable games. Regardless, the Flames do not burst, much less when three of those four are on the road, where they are 8-11-3. Neither Karri Ramo nor Reto Berra have changed things around since last week and quite honestly, there's little to talk about when it comes to Calgary's offense. The Flames have not scored four goals in regulation since the first game of December and have been shut-out five times in the last eight games!

While last week's play certainly provides reason for optimism, the Rangers' (TBL, DET, at OTT, WAS) record is simply better on the road. This team is now playing a fast-pace style that would have shredded themselves two months ago. Will that last against four quality teams? Yeah, we were wrong about Cam Talbot last week as Henrik Lundqvist got his groove back with victories over Chicago and Dallas. While the offense hasn't really overpowered anyone since the win over the Leafs, there's a four-way tie (Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin) for the team lead in goals and 13 Rangers' players have 10-points-or-more on the season.

Phoenix (at WIN, at STL, VAN, NJD) has one of those stuck-in-the-middle schedules where the opening and closing of the week is in their grasp, but matchups with the Blues and Canucks have to scare Mike Smith fans. Thomas Greiss got the surprise nod against the Ducks on Saturday, but was pulled in favor of Smith halfway through the game. Lauri Korpikoski has three goals and three assists in his last six games while Radim Vrbata has five assists in his last three games.

Vancouver (at LOS, at ANA, at PHX, CGY) is especially valuable with eight games over the next 14 days. Mike Santorelli snapped a five-game pointless drought after being moved to fourth line duties and Eddie Lack snapped a similar streak in Friday's win. Not sure when Alexander Edler (knee) will return, but it looks Alexandre Burrows (jaw) will be ready to return as late as Saturday.

Washington (SJS, at PIT, at CBJ, at NYR) has probably the toughest four-game schedule in the NHL. Thanks to Michal Neuvirth's win over Toronto on Friday, Caps goalie winds are swirling once again. We're not sure, but it could be time for a three-man race with anyone of Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer getting a chance to prove themselves as the hottest goaltender.

Back-to-Back Jacks

Despite playing just three tilts this week, the following five organizations have b2b occurrences.

Anaheim (VAN, at CHI, at STL) is the Washington of three game schedules. While ordinarily you would need both goalies, head coach Bruce Boudreau has been clear that he's willing to throw Jonas Hiller out there under any circumstances. Though we highly doubt with road games against the Hawks and Blues, that's a whole lot of rubber for Hiller to see on b2b nights, it's entirely possible you'll see him all three nights. With Frederik Andersen back in the AHL, John Gibson is currently Hiller's backup. Ryan Getzlaf's (lower body) x-rays came back negative. Hampus Lindholm had a career night on Saturday and Mathieu Perreault has enjoyed his last three games. Dustin Penner broke his seven game pointless streak.

Let's face it, Buffalo (PHI, at TOR, CBJ) has looked better lately. Jhonas Enroth was more lucky than good against Florida last week, but he's coming into his own. We're not sure what that means for Ryan Miller's speculated departure, but they've got bigger PR fish to fry, like struggling center Mikhail Grigorenko or Ville Leino. At least Cody Hodgson (finger) is expected back on Sunday. Also, Brayden McNabb has returned to his parent club.

Despite Saturday's loss, like Buffalo , Carolina (CGY, FLA, TBL) is on the uptick thanks to one of the game's hottest netminders. We've been telling you all season to get on the Anton Khudobin gravy train and she's likely left the station by now. Zach Boychuck was sent back to Charlotte as Riley Nash returned. Worth noting John-Michael Liles scored a sweet revenge goal in Thursday's win, could that get him going?

Columbus (TBL, WAS, at BUF) is one of few teams to derail Khudobin's car as of late. We think they're going to make a swing this week at heading into the break strong. Boone Jenner is making the most of his minimal ice time. Mark Letestu has four points (three goals) in as many games. Curtis McElhinney could be a spot starter for the tilt in Buffalo, but Sergei Bobrovsky is definitely the man. James Wisniewski has five points in as many games.

If Toronto (at BOS, BUF, MTL) can get through their road game (7-10-4 headed into Friday's action) against Boston unscathed, it's possible three rival games could get them ticking in the right direction. Anything to get Jonathan Bernier juiced up. Phil Kessel broke out of his pesky four-game slump on Friday.

Three of a Kind

Despite having the ordinary three-game schedule ahead of them, the following eight teams are slated to play seven games over the next 14 days.

Dallas (EDM, BOS, at MIN) is finally feeling the pain of a younger roster. The road was not kind last week (0-3) and that was against weaker Eastern Conference foes. Cody Eakins snapped a three game pointless drought with a goal and an assist in Friday's loss to the Rangers. Kari Lehtonen has a sub-3.00 career GAA against this week's opponents, but could yield to Dan Ellis in Minnesota if things don't go well at home against the Oilers and Bruins.

Florida (NYI, SJS, at CAR) is not out of the playoff picture. Can the enigmatic Tim Thomas lead them all the way? The Panthers have two home games against two very different teams and then the Canes to close out what could be a pivotal turning point for their season. Nick Bjugstad had a goal in Saturday's loss to New Jersey.

Los Angeles (VAN, at STL, at DET) continues their ups and downs and these three opponents won't likely let up. Though he's undefeated since returning from the IR, we believe it's very unlikely Jonathan Quick (3-0) can maintain that status with three heavy opponents ahead of him.

What are we going to do about Nashville (CGY, at PHI, COL)? They have some bite, but no venom or fantasy sizzle for that matter. Oddly enough, the Preds are maintaining an edge against Western Conference teams, not Eastern. Since December 12, Nashville is 5-3 against the West and a gnarly 0-7 versus the Eastern Conference. Mark Mazanec has been very inconsistent while Mike Fisher is showing more consistency than arguably ever before. Don't get too excited, but Pekka Rinne (hip) may be cleared for on-ice work before we flip to February.

Things are looking up for Islanders (at FLA, at TBL, at PHI) fans and owners. Headed into Friday's action, winners of seven in their last 10 games, no one believed for a second their wretched losing would last all season. Just like no one believes this latest hot streak will last, especially when they have a combined 0-2-1 (6-13 GF/GA) against Tampa Bay and Philadelphia this season. Then again, ask Kevin Poulin and he may be a bit more confident lately. With Evgeni Nabokov (lower body) still limited to off-ice workouts on Friday, Poulin will need to remain confident. Michael Grabner and Brock Nelson are warming up.

Philadelphia (at BUF, NSH, NYI) sees Carolina's hottest netminder and calls with 10 wins in their last 14 games. By contrast, the Flyers are 4-0-0 (17-7 GF/GA) against this week's opponents. It's safe to say Jakub Voracek has had a hand in their recent success and even Claude Giroux looks to be returning to form. We would love to suggest a Ray Emery uprising this week, but neither Emery nor Steve Mason can inspire any substantial confidence.

Could you imagine if Dallas had hung onto Ken Hitchcock? The Stars could arguably be the white-hot St. Louis Blues (PHX, LOS, ANA). This team has endured just three two-game losing streaks ALL SEASON. Brian Elliott has been much better lately, but Jaroslav Halak is your man. Alex Pietrangelo has three goals and five assists in his last five contests while T.J. Oshie's knee issue last week has turned into a slump.

Winnipeg (PHX, at CGY, EDM) won't likely look as bad as they did last week, but Jets goalies have given up 24 goals through five games in the month of January. Evander Kane (hand) did not play on Saturday. Eric O'Dell broke the schneid, could that open the floodgates for him? Apparently brass felt all of that may or may not have been former head coach Claude Noel's fault. While it could be good times for Coyotes and Oilers player-owners, there's no telling how this team responds to the replacement of their coach.