By Ryan Boyd, Featured Writer
Tonight is sure to be one of the busiest nights in the NHL this year with 13 games on the schedule. The lineup will include five matchups between teams who are both currently in playoff position and will test the lengthy winning streaks of three of the leagues best.
Los Angeles, St. Louis and Nashville will be asked to compete on consecutive nights while others such as Colorado and Anaheim will skate for the first time since Sunday.
With the Thanksgiving day break throughout the league tomorrow, Wednesday offers a valuable opportunity for many teams to post a signature victory with only about three quarters of the season left to be played.
Let’s check out what you need to keep your eyes on.
Game of the Night: Chicago Blackhawks at San Jose Sharks
This was a tough choice, but I had to go with the final game of the evening, which features two division leaders in the Western Conference.
The Chicago Blackhawks (12-6-3) travel to the HP Pavilion to face off with the always difficult San Jose Sharks (12-5-1).
Chicago arrives with an acceptable three point cushion atop the Central Division, but have played shaky hockey over the last week. After opening a six-game road trip with an impressive 5-1 victory in Vancouver, the Blackhawks have dropped two straight by a combined score of 14-4.
This included an absolute disaster Saturday night in Edmonton.
The Oilers scored five goals in the first period on their way to embarrassing the ‘Hawks, 9-2. Edmonton came into the contest averaging just over two scores per contest (26th in NHL) but exploded on netminder Ray Emery who gave up seven on only 27 shots.
However, the poor defensive output is a relatively familiar trend for Chicago, especially recently on the road. The Blackhawks allow 3.1 goals each contest (22nd in NHL) on the season and during their current 2-3-1 skid away from the United Center they have allowed an astounding 26. Overall Chicago is a disappointing 5-5-1 on the road so far in 2011-2012.
Unfortunately, a trip to San Jose may not be the place for the Blackhawks to cure their funk.
The Sharks are 5-3-1 at home this season, won both home contests in this series last season by a combined four goals and are red hot heading into tonight.
In fact, San Jose has capitalized off poor play by the Dallas Stars and an unbelievable 11-2-1 record since starting 1-3-0 to catapult themselves into first place in the Pacific Division through a division low 18 games.
This string of strong play is currently represented by a three-game winning streak with victories over Dallas, Detroit and Colorado. During the streak, the Sharks have been excellent on both offense and defense outscoring opponents 13-4. The balanced scoring attack has been led all year by veteran center Joe Thornton (20 points) who is backed up valiantly by goaltender Antti Niemi (8-2-1, 2.52 GAA).
Considering both teams can score at a rapid rate, this contest will likely be decided by which team can stay out of the penalty box. Chicago (29th) and San Jose (28th) are amongst the worst teams in the NHL at killing the opponent power play, so expect this to be a decisive factor.
Other Games to Watch
Nashville Predators (10-6-4) at Minnesota Wild (12-5-3)
It is official, the Minnesota Wild are in first place in the Western Conference. Despite underwhelming offensive output (28th in NHL), the Wild have found a formula that equates to winning. This included their latest win Sunday in a shootout against the St. Louis Blues that extended their winning streak to four. Tonight Minnesota will look to continue its success at home where it has posted a 7-2-1 record. However, Nashville has intentions of ending this trend. The Predators are anxious to begin a five game road trip considering they have an impressive 6-3-1 record in opposing venues. As always (with Minnesota), this game will come down to goaltending. If Niklas Backstrom (7-4-2, 1.97 GAA) is on his game, expect more success for the Wild.
Boston Bruins (12-7-0) at Buffalo Sabres (12-8-0)
Sure, I could continue to rave about the current nine game winning streak of the Bruins, but that would be too obvious. Tonight’s battle in Buffalo is more about two division opponents that truly dislike each other. This was enhanced on November 12th when Bruin attacker Milan Lucic drilled Sabre goalie Ryan Miller, which infuriated the entire Buffalo club. Admittedly, Miller was out of his crease when the hit took place but it is still a moment that will intensify the rivalry as the season progresses. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Buffalo can respond in a big way or if the Bruins will once again cruise to victory (as they did Nov. 12th, 6-2).
Player to Watch
Goaltender Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues
This selection works under the assumption that Brian Elliott will be in goal tonight for the Blues. Considering Jaroslav Halak has started three consecutive games including last nights defeat, I think it is fair to make this prediction.
Elliott has been unbelievable through nine appearances this season allowing on 1.43 goals per contest which is best in the NHL by nearly half a goal. Also, his save percentage of 94.7 percent is tops in the league, just slightly higher than that of Minnesota’s Josh Harding.
Essentially, with Elliott in net, the Blues have been almost unbeatable posting an improbable 7-1-0 record and will need him in a big way for tonights showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are seventh in the league averaging 3.0 goals per game and have a number of unbelievable scorers, including the healthy Sidney Crosby.
If St. Louis wants any chance in this one, they will need fantastic play between the pipes from Elliott once again.
OMG Stat of the Night
The Columbus Blue Jackets have struggled offensively all year; there is no other way to put it. They are 26th in goals scored per game and 22nd in power play efficiency. It is a combination that quite honestly helps explain why they possess the worst record in the NHL.
However, surprisingly, there is an interesting offensive statistic that consistently works in their favor. The Jackets have taken more shots then their opponent in 14 of their 20 games this season. While this certainly points toward a multitude of missed opportunities in Columbus, it can also potentially provide hope. Eventually the Blue Jackets should see an added amount of potency in their offensive zone if this trend continues.