By Ryan Boyd, Featured Writer
It is a hockey night all across North America. From California to Boston and all the way up to Winnipeg, the puck will drop in just a few short hours.
Following a night in which there were only three contests in the league, the 16 teams in action tonight are sure to provide enough excitement to fulfill any sports fans needs.
Game of the Night: Minnesota Wild at San Jose Sharks
Defense wins championships. It is as easy as that. In fact, four of the last five Stanley Cup winners have been amongst the NHL leaders in goals allowed per game at seasons end.
So, who cares that the Minnesota Wild (8-3-3) aren’t very lethal on offense (scoring only 2.2 goals per game)? Does it really matter that they only have one player (Dany Heatley) with 10 points so far this season?
They are winning. They are only one point out of first place in the Northwest Division. And it is goaltending that has paved the way to such success.
The Wild rank second in the league allowing only 1.8 goals per game, and during their current five-game winning streak have only given up three goals. Josh Harding (4-0-1, 1.18 GAA) and Niklas Backstrom (4-3-2, 2.05 GAA) have combined to form an almost unbreakable wall between the pipes for opposing teams. Most recently, Tuesday night, it was Backstrom who sent away 41 Calgary shots in a 3-0 shutout victory.
Tonight, Minnesota will look to continue its hot play against the dangerous offensive unit of the San Jose Sharks (8-4-1).
San Jose has picked up at least one point in eight of its last nine contests, and during that span is averaging nearly 3.5 goals per game. It has been the play of Joe Pavelski (17 points) that has helped propel the current streak for the Sharks. This included a two point effort Monday night in the 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
With the Sharks string of success, they find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division behind the impressive Dallas Stars.
If the recent trends hold true, tonights game will be decided by the side that performs best at what it is known for. Will stingy defense or electric offense own the night – that is the big question.
Other Games to Watch
Edmonton Oilers (9-3-2) at Boston Bruins(6-7-0)
If there is any team playing better defense than Minnesota, it is the Edmonton Oilers. Overall the Oilers give up a minuscule 1.5 goals per game (1st in NHL) and because of that have won seven of eight and are on top of the Northwest Division. Their opponents are playing as well, if not better. The Boston Bruins have won three straight after their horrid 3-7-0 start and finally look like the defending champions. During the three-game streak, Boston has outscored its foes 18-5 primarily because of netminder Tim Thomas and attacker Tyler Seguin. Believe me, this game is sure to be a battle at the TD Garden.
Chicago Blackhawks (8-4-3) at Columbus Blue Jackets (2-11-1)
I fully realize that the Columbus Blue Jackets are the worst team in hockey. I also understand that they were just recently pounded by Chicago 5-2. But give me a chance to explain how interesting this matchup really is. The Jackets have won two of their last three in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena, and each of those wins were quite impressive. Columbus blew out Detroit 4-1 and then dominated Anaheim 3-1 in a four day span. Conversely, the Blackhawks are really struggling. They have lost three consecutive games by a combined 8 goals and quite honestly look bad. So, call me crazy, but I think Chicago is on my upset radar tonight.
Florida Panthers (7-4-3) at Winnipeg Jets (5-7-3)
Who doesn’t enjoy a division battle – especially one played in the excellent environment of the MTS Centre. While the Winnipeg Jets have certainly struggled so far in 2011-2012, the fans are excited to have hockey back. Every home game for the Jets has sold out so far and I expect nothing less tonight. However, for me this is a big game for the Panthers. After losing three straight home games (including one against the Jets), Florida responded in a big way Tuesday at Toronto with a 5-1 win. Tonight, I expect them to finish a two game sweep in Canada, which will put their experienced core of players back on track. It is undeniable, the Panthers can be scary if they get consistent.
Player to Watch
Whoever Starts in Goal for the New York Islanders
First off, I know the Islanders (4-6-2) find themselves in last place in the Eastern Conference for a number of reasons. However, their strange goaltending situation has to be at least somewhat responsible for it. New York is one of only two teams in the entire NHL that has given significant ice time to three different netminders. Admittedly, each player is having a respectable season thus far, but it has to be awkward only playing once every three games. I believe it is essential that one of the three – Al Montoya (2-2-0, 2.12 GAA), Rick DiPietro (1-1-2, 2.67 GAA), Evgeni Nabokov (1-3-0, 2.81 GAA) – emerges as the predominate goalie in the big apple.
Watch tonight as the Islanders play in Colorado against an Avalanche team that is a shocking 1-5-0 at the Pepsi Center this season. Perhaps, if the poor play continues from the Av’s, the starting goalie (whoever it may be) can begin pulling away in the race to be the “go to guy”. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out in the coming weeks, especially if the Islanders continue to lose hockey games.
OMG Stat of the Night
A little bit of a fun statistic for tonight. The Columbus Blue Jackets are averaging nearly one fight per game and have committed 12 major penalties so far this season. Those numbers are high enough to be second in the league. So, taking an optimistic stance, even though the Jackets are easily the worst team in hockey, they have found a statistical category that even they can lead (almost).
On that note, enjoy tonights action folks!