The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild both entered the NHL at the start of the 2000-01 season. Since then, theyíve both had their ups and downs, although the Jackets have primarily had downs, while the Wild had made a couple notable playoff runs. This year, though, both Columbus and Minnesota have emerged as two of the best teams in the league, and we could be seeing these two expansion brothers possibly facing off in the Stanley Cup Final.
Now, you donít want to look too far down the road, but the Christmas break is over, and the Jackets and the Wild have both been excellent. Columbus has the Eastern Conferenceís best goal differential, and Minnesota can make the same claim in the Western Conference. They also both won 10 games in a row before the NHLís three-day hiatus. (In fact, Columbus has now won 13 in a row, while Minnesota has an 11-game winning streak.) The Wild are technically second in their division, but the Blackhawks have a few games in hand on them. The Penguins and Blue Jackets are also battling back-and-forth, with Columbus having games in hand as well. For years, Chicago and Pittsburgh have been leading lights of the league, but perhaps this year we will see a changing of the guard. Maybe the Jackets or the Wild will hoist their first Cup.
Hurricanes (PP: 9, PK: 1) at Penguins (PP: 5, PK: 23), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Cam Ward (12-8-6, 2.24, .918), Marc-Andre Fleury (9-5-4, 3.25, .905)
Key Injuries: Justin Faulk (lower body), Trevor Daley (upper body), Tom Kuhnhackl (lower body), Kris Letang (lower body), Olli Maatta (undisclosed)
Both of these teams are missing their top defenseman, but the Penguins have Justin Schultz, who has been outstanding in December, to step up for Letang. The Hurricanes donít have anybody quite on that level (no disrespect, Jaccob Slavin). Pittsburgh had to play Tuesday, which could mean Fleury in net for the Penguins. That would obviously make the Hurricanes rather excited. Pittsburgh gives up a lot of shots (32.4 per game) and if you combine that with their penalty-kill percentage and Fleury in net, Carolina would seem to have an advantage. That bodes well for Jeff Skinner, who is having a very good year, and also Teuvo Teravainen, who has seven power-play points. Two red hot Penguins continued their strong play Tuesday against the Devils. The aforementioned Schultz scored a goal, while Sidney Crosby had a goal and two assists. Thatís 25 goals on the season for Crosby, not that you need us to tell you heís great.
(Fleury actually got the start on Tuesday, which means Matt Murray and his 2.14 GAA and his .928 save percentage will be into net against the Hurricanes. That, obviously, changes things from Carolinaís perspective.)
Canadiens (PP: 13, PK: 18) at Lightning (PP: 3, PK: 22), 7:30 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Carey Price (18-5-2, 1.91, .934), Andrei Vasilevskiy (8-5-1, 2.53, .918)
Key Injuries: David Desharnais (knee), Alexei Emelin (personal), Alex Galchenyuk (knee), Andrei Markov (lower body), Andrew Shaw (concussion), Ben Bishop (lower body), Ryan Callahan (lower body), Braydon Coburn (undisclosed), Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed), Nikita Kucherov (lower body), Vladislav Namestnikov (undisclosed), Ondrej Palat (undisclosed), Cedric Paquette (undisclosed), Steven Stamkos (knee)
Thatís quite the injury list for this game. Both teams could find themselves shorthanded, and we know both Galchenyuk and Stamkos are definitely out. If all these players missing the game for the Lightning, they will essentially have nobody left on offense. After a hot start, his numbers have clearly fallen. In December, he has a .878 save percentage. Maybe Tyler Johnson (19 points in 35 games) is ready to step it up? With Price in net for the Canadiens, it would be imprudent to bet on Tampaís offense even if they were healthy. After a strong start with his new team, Shea Weber has gone ice cold offensively. He has only one point, an assist, in his last 12 games. Brendan Gallagher has also struggled, with zero points in his last six tilts. However, he only has a 5.7 shooting percentage, so he could be in line to turn things around.
Flyers (PP: 6, PK: 13) at Blues (PP: 7, PK: 2), 8:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Steve Mason (14-10-4, 2.69, .908), Carter Hutton (2-4-2, 2.91, .893)
Key Injuries: Mark Alt (upper body), Sean Couturier (knee), Michal Neuvirth (lower body), Michael Raffl (lower body), Matt Read (oblique), Mark Streit (shoulder), Paul Stastny (upper body)
This is quite a special teams battle. Jake Allen got a little banged up in his last start, and the Blues arenít taking any chances. Huttonís numbers arenít good, but then against Allenís arenít much better (2.63 GAA, .905 save percentage). The Blues do only give up 28.1 shots per game, which is why they havenít been terrible despite their goaltending issues. It does make you question that penalty-kill percentage, though. The Flyers have a top heavy but impressive power play, with four players notching at least 13 points with the extra man. Rookie Ivan Provorov, of all people, actually leads the Flyers in ice time. Thatís got to be encouraging for his future potential, and he has 15 points in 36 games this season. The Blues only have two players with double-digit goals. Leading the way, of course, is Vladamir Tarasenko with 16 goals on a whopping 126 shots. Then, thereís Jaden Schwartz, who has 12 in 31 games.
Maple Leafs (PP: 12, PK: 8) at Panthers (PP: 24, PK: 5), 7:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Frederik Andersen (14-8-6, 2.49, .923), Roberto Luongo (11-9-4, 2.44, .918)
Key Injuries: Jonathan Huberdeau (achilles), Alex Petrovic (ankle), Reilly Smith (concussion), Tyler Bozak (lower body), Joffrey Lupul (abdomen)
Andersen has a 1.63 GAA and a .947 save percentage in December. Despite Floridaís paltry offensive output, they do put 31.5 shots on goal per game. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews are tied for the team lead in points with 26 for Toronto. The ageless Jaromir Jagr has 21 points, including seven on the power play.
Kings (PP: 21, PK: 7) at Canucks (PP: 29, PK: 21), 10:00 p.m.
Expected Goalies: Peter Budaj (15-8-3, 2.04, .919), Ryan Miller (7-10-1, 2.96, .904)
Key Injuries: Kyle Clifford (undisclosed), Brayden McNabb (collarbone), Jonathan Quick (groin), Tyler Toffoli (lower body), Alexander Edler (finger), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Jannik Hansen (lower body)
The Canucks only put 28.1 shots on goal per game. The Kings only allow 26. Donít expect much from your Vancouver players. Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are on the opposite ends of the luck spectrum. Carter has a whopping 19 goals, thanks in part to a 17.1 shooting percentage. Kopitar only has three, due in large part to a 4.9 shooting percentage.
Evander Kane, LW, BUF Ė It seems like it was forever ago that a young Kane scored 30 goals in a season. Since then, heís had issues with staying healthy, and staying in the good graces of his employers, but he did finally score 20 goals once again last year. This season, Kane has missed time again, but it seems like heís finally gotten the chance to round into form. Heís got 13 points in 23 games, and heís taken 68 shots on goal. Kane also has 25 penalty minutes, and heís usually been the kind of player you can rely on for a little contribution in that category as well (he has 91 PIM last season, for example). After so much tumult, Kane is still only 25, and if heís healthy and not being a malcontent, heís worthy of a pickup.