It's difficult not to head straight for the schedule of the NHL's hottest team, the Vancouver Canucks. As one of the greatest writers of the 20th century once said, 'only a fool would dip into that pot just yet'. Aside from a busy week for the Canucks, the NHL has a bit of a rivalry week going on for five of the original six NHL teams. This week's schedule features a plethora of new school rivalries as well, including Calgary heading to Eastern Canada and Edmonton on the road for a sweeping tour of the South and Western United States. More inviting to your DVR will be the four home-and-home series. Let's focus on two traditional and two not-so-traditional match-ups going on this week.
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit leads this series 2-0 so far this year, but they are hurting. The losses of Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Brad Stuart has certainly taken their toll. Even Chris Osgood (groin) is having problems backing up solidifying-sophomore Jimmy Howard. As for Columbus, since their expansion year in 2000, Columbus has yet to beat big-brother Detroit three times in one season. If the Jackets are to avoid yet another season series loss to the Red Wings, it starts in this week. Though 13th place in a compact Western Conference, if Columbus can somehow scratch together a win or two against Detroit this week, they're only five points from fourth place. Then again, this is the same Blue Jackets team that got slammed by a lackluster Ducks team 6-0. Detroit won the 2009-10 season series 5-0-1.
Keys to the series: For Detroit, it's simple, get healthy. Both Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon have taken turns giving back the starting-goalie grind. Aside from signing Michael Leighton, if Columbus is going to stay tough in this important back-to-back with Detroit they are in desperate need of solid goaltending. Additionally, Mike Commodore has demanded a trade out of town. Commodore has been a healthy scratch 11 times this season, so considering his hefty contract, a trade may not be likely. After that 6-0 loss to Anaheim, both GM Scott Howson and Commodore - who are said to have a pending meeting - may have to come to terms for now. If traded, this would be Commodore's sixth team in 10 seasons.
DET this week: @COL, CLB, vs. CLB
CLB this week: vs. PHO, DET @ DET
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
With the series knotted up (1-1-1) this season, Chicago holds the momentum. Two goals by RW Jack Skille and a near perfect show by rookie goalie Corey Crawford helped the 'Hawks handily beat the Preds at United Center 4-1 on December 22nd. Chicago won the 2009-10 season series 4-2.
Keys to the series: Both teams are very strong fundamentally, ranking in the bottom five of the league for penalty minutes. While fantasy-wise this is of no use to me or you, it will certainly make for a fluid game and quite possibly the difference in the series. The variation may be when-and-if a penalty is called, as its Nashville that holds a firm grip and Chicago that folds. Nashville is ranked fifth in NHL penalty kill percentage, while Chicago's PK% ranks 29th in the league. Ironically enough, Chicago's power-play is second (24.8%) in the NHL, and Nashville is 25th at 15 percent.
NSH this week: vs. MIN, @ FLA, vs. CHI, @CHI
CHI this week: vs. COL @NSH, vs. NSH
New York Rangers vs. Montreal Canadiens
With this being the first meeting of the season, and both teams having shown a propensity for mediocrity, with top-notch goaltending to lean on, it should be interesting to see where either team goes following this week. Neither team has been shy about call-ups from the AHL, as both Max Pacioretty and Mats Zuccarello have made quick strides in their short NHL time. Owners of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist should certainly enjoy the GAA accrual. Montreal won the 2009-10 season series 3-1
Keys to the series: Marian Gaborik is as cold as can be, not having registered goals on back-to-back nights since the 2nd of December. The Rangers have found a spark elsewhere for now. Mats Zuccarello has three points in last three games and led the Rangers to a shootout win in Dallas last week. Montreal on the other hand, learned to stop counting on their veteran talent for scoring months ago. Despite a few poor decisions that have cost the Canadiens a game or two, Max Pacioretty scored an overtime goal against Boston, and is starting to infuse the Canadiens with a bit of old fashioned determination.
NYR this week: vs. MON, VAN, @MON, vs. PHI
MON this week: @ NYR, vs. PIT, NYR
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins
One thing is for sure, Jesse Boulerice won't be expecting a call-up to the big club after his actions in Charlotte last week. Way back in the second week of November, when Pittsburgh had yet to get all gears going, Boston won their first meeting 7-4. Neither team has been all that impressive since flipping the calendar, and Pittsburgh has been outscored 6-1 since Sidney Crosby began his scratch time with concussion-like symptoms. I believe you can expect both Tim Thomas and Marc-Andre Fleury to take the helm of this series. Pittsburgh won the 2009-10 season series 3-1
Keys to the series: For Boston, Patrice Bergeron (10 goals, 17 assists) has 12 points in the last 11 games. Redundant as it may sound, with Crosby's activity in question, the very streaky Evgeni Malkin becomes the most important Pittsburgh Athlete not named Roethlisberger.
BOS this week: @PIT, vs. OTT, PHI, PIT
PIT this week: vs. BOS, @MON, BOS
Needing a heat wave in Denver
With the way the Canucks are playing, the Colorado Avalanche (21-15-6) are already fading in the Vancouver's rear-view. Even scarier for the mile-high club is the thought of a few consecutive losses. There is nothing cozy about 47 points (seventh place) in the Western conference, as a few losses, coupled with a few strategic conference rival wins, and Colorado could find themselves in 12th place quick.
After being ousted by the New York Islanders in a 4-3 shootout loss, the Avs are one of the most underachieving teams in the young year of 2011. Colorado, 2-5-3, since having their six-game winning streak snapped by the Los Angeles Kings (5-0) on December 19th, has been outscored 29-18 in that span. There is of course hope on the horizon as the Avs will soon look to defenseman Kyle Cumiskey (concussion), who has been cleared to resume practice. While six of their remaining eight games this month are at Pepsi Center, they first must get past this week's schedule.
COL vs. DET, @CHI, MIN
Other interesting schedules
VAN @ NYI, NYR, WAS, MIN - The Canucks are 11-1 against their division, 17-1-3 in last 20 games. Seeing that three of their four games this week will be in Eastern Conference arenas, it's only fair to note Vancouver's dominance this season has not been limited to the Western Conference. Having outscored opponents in the Eastern Conference 39-24, their 7-2-2 record against the East should be taken lightly. Of the 11 games played, only one (Philadelphia) has been against a team currently holds a playoff position in the standings.
SJ vs. TOR, EDM, STL - Despite Toronto's recent explosion (see below), with a schedule like this, an explosive Sharks offense is licking their chops this week.
ANH vs. STL @ PHO vs. EDM - As noted before the Ducks chased the Blue Jackets out of town last Friday. This week they will host a still blooming, Blues team before heading out to Phoenix and Edmonton. Could Anaheim be heating up?
TOR @LA, SJ, PHO vs. CAL - Similar to Anaheim, Toronto routed (9-3) their opponent (Atlanta) last Friday, and a little swagger could be just what the doctor ordered in Toronto. Center Mikhail Grabovski now has 12 goals in his past 14 games, and goalie James Reimer's performance (2-1) is perhaps even more intriguing. Averaging 2.00 goals-against per-game in January, you'll want to consider him for now in deep leagues.
LA vs. TOR, STL, EDM - The Kings are looking to get things going. Taking into account how tight the West is, the Kings hope a few additions from the IR can help. Defenseman Willie Mitchell and RW Alexei Ponikarovsky both will go active active within the next couple of weeks. Not exactly as offensive as San Jose, Los Angeles certainly looks to beat up the same three teams.
CGY @CAR, OTT, TOR – Okay, first a stop in Raleigh, NC, then off to Ottawa and Toronto. Though, eventually losing 5-4 in a shootout-loss, Calgary stuck it to Detroit nicely last week. This team has more staying power than quite realized yet. Question is whether or not they can summon that talent on this trip to three pedestrian playing teams.
Nationally televised action - Last week's results 1-1, -8
VERSUS January 10th - Boston at Pittsburgh / Prediction: 4-3 F/SO Pittsburgh
VERSUS January 11th - Philadelphia at Buffalo / Prediction 5-3 Philadelphia