Nearly halfway through the 2010-11 campaign, The Winter Classic will be the first NHL broadcast of the season for The National Broadcasting Company. With all due respect to said-network's coverage, does anyone remember the days when a major network cared about season-long loyalty? Versus is slowly becoming a respectable cable network and it's in large-part thanks to Hockey viewers. But let's get one thing straight ... Versus has helped earned some respect back for the NHL.
This past Tuesday night, Versus televised the coming out party for Andrew Gordon of the Washington Capitals. By the end of the game, it had an atmosphere much like that of Sunday Night Baseball, featuring a freshly called up pitching phenom who just threw seven strong. I must admit, it's going to be nice to watch Sunday afternoon hockey. Point being, instead of schedule algorithms this week, let's focus on the television network schedule most committed to the NHL in the long run.
Minnesota Wild (16-13-4) @ Columbus Blue Jackets (17-14-3)
December 27th -- Columbus is last-place in what is arguably the most balanced (Central) division in the league. The ice could be run amuck with deficiencies as both teams are struggling to light the lamp. Columbus is ranked 29th in Power Play Goals, while Minnesota are worst in the league with less than 900 shots-taken.The Blue Jackets are 9-9-1 at home this season and the Wild are a modest 8-6-2 on the road. Thus far the season series is tied at one, with each team having stolen a one-goal road victory.
Sat, Nov 6, @ Columbus - Minnesota 3-2
Sat, Oct 16, @ Minnesota - Columbus 3-2
End to End
MIN Niklas Backstrom, who had seemingly lost his job to Jose Theodore, is now on a 3-game winning streak. Having forfeited only a goal-a-game over that span, it should also be noted Backstrom has a 1.81 GAA in four career games at Nationwide Arena.
CLB Goalies, this portion of our week is brought to you by Ibuprofen. Both Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon have had their issues. Even though Garon has been getting most of the nods in December, both goalies have taken turns being pulled after allowing six goals. Your guess is as good as mine here, but I lean towards Garon.
Boston Bruins (18-11-4) at Tampa Bay Lightning (20-10-5)
December 28th -- Much could be said about the Lightning, but mostly how they have shown spells of ambivalence. During an important month with only one Western Conference opponent, the Boston Bruins have been the Jekyll and Hyde of the NHL. The beginning days (4-0-1) of December were kind, but the Bruins went 2-3-1 in their last six heading into the Christmas break. Third in the league with a plus-105, the B's roster has merely five players with a minus-rating. However, these are two teams that have headed in different directions since their last meeting. The Lightning are 6-1-2 in since their embarrassing 8-1 road loss to the Bruins on the 1st of this month.
Boston left-winger, Milan Lucic was enjoying a point-per-game over the last eight games. Since then, Lucic has been a minus-two and 22 PIM thanks to a bit of a brawl in the Bruins 4-1 win over Atlanta. Lucic, who earned two minutes calling zebra Dan O'Rourke "a joke" and "embarrassing," had a feisty night. There have been no reports that Lucic suffered an injury after the cheap hit by Freddy Meyer in that game. Following Tampa, Boston heads to Hotlanta for the second time in seven days.
Thu, Dec 2, @Boston - Boston 8-1
Mon, Nov 22, @TB - Tampa 3-1
End to End
TB Dan Ellis has just about taken the reigns from Mike Smith since that aforementioned loss. Ellis, (10-5-5) is 4-1-2 in the month of December. This is a man looking to get his GAA (3.03) below three, and I think he will bring Tampa Bay to at least a semifinal playoff.
BOS Tim Thomas (16-4-3) is without a doubt a top MVP candidate as we flip the calendar. Despite fighting off a persistent Tuukka Rask, Thomas has been solid again in the month of December, sporting a 5-2-1 record. It's no surprise that the Bruins have been shutout in three of four of Thomas' losses.
Phoenix Coyotes (15-11-7) at St. Louis Blues (17-12-5)
December 31st -- Neither team has yet to dig in their heels, nor is this a juicy match up of exciting hockey towns. However, both organizations have righted the ship in recent years. What does this mean to us for New Years Eve hockey? Quite honestly, I'll be suite-side with family for the Stars and Canucks at the American Airlines Center.
Either way, I will not be surprised if this game has an edgy pace all-night. Alex Steen is leading the Blues with 11 goals (six in December) and slowly becoming a leader. Despite an over-zealous style and minus-9 rating for the season, point man Keith Yandle has been a huge lift to blue-line offense for Phoenix. The 'Yotes went 1-3-1 on this road trip heading into Sunday's action with Dallas.
Sat, Nov 13, @ Phoenix - Phoenix 5-3
End to End
PHO Ilya Bryzgalov (upper-body/flu) was rumored to be returning to action against the Stars. If I ruled the desert, I'd sit him one more game as a precaution. They could give a shot to former Dallas Stars prospect goalie Matt Climie. Only a week ago, Climie relieved Jason LaBarbera after giving up five goals in 22 shots. Barring any setbacks, I expect Bryzgalov between the pipes against the Blues offense.
STL Jaroslav Halak -- remove a three-day, two-game total of 13 GA allowed in mid-November, and Halak has been irreplaceable. Even heading into the Christmas break (1-3-1), Halak can make or break this team while we wait for raw talent getting to know one another.
Out of Broadcast Area
Brian "The Hair" Engblom was right last week. New Jersey is in serious trouble. I don't think anyone noticed, but this organization has leaned on Marty Brodeur like the U.S. leaned on foreign oil in 1990's. Could we see a fire sale in Jersey?
NJ this week: vs. NYR, ATL, @ CAR
I hate to sound like the rest of the NHL world, but can we actually count Buffalo out after the loss of leading goal-scorer Derek Roy? Roy, who had 10 goals (25 points) tore his left quadriceps tendon and is expected to take four to six months to recover.
BUF this week: @ EDM, CAL vs. BOS
CLB Jakub Voracek, recently broke a goal-scoring drought. Voracek, who has six goals (20 points), has now been combined with Derick Brassard and R.J. Umberger to make up Columbus' second line. Available in 40% of CBS leagues, you may want to keep an eye on this young former first-rounder.
This week: vs.MIN @TOR vs. OTT @NSH
NYR Derek Stepan, really not as much a sleeper as he is underdeveloped talent, Stepan has kept step with the NHL. After a brilliant hat-trick in his NHL debut on Rangers opening night, Stepan has spent most of the season QUIETLY adapting. Nonetheless, the 20-year-old has three goals in his last three games.
This week: vs. NYI, @ NJ, TB, FLA
As for the mid-season Super Bowl-like event, weather.com reports a 30% chance of flurries for Saturday. Sid and the Great Alexander's ... sounds like a Glam/Rock outfit. Just as you're shaking away the fog of a New Year and/or hangover, tell your family and friends the game at Heinz Field just started. Even if they complain at first, after the show (see Cooke flop) these two teams put on last Thursday, you WILL BE thanked later.
The Full Schedule Grid