The NHL’s two hottest teams over the past month currently have a 24 game winning streak between themselves. The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild have been downright dominant and are roaring into the new year with a great deal of momentum. What is all the more remarkable is that both teams are vastly defying their expectations for this season.
The Hockey News magazine’s 2016 NHL preview did not predict either the Wild or the Jackets making the postseason. As of 12/29 however, Columbus is second in the entire League and Minnesota is fifth. Not bad for two cast-offs, eh?
John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets have been driven in large part by RW Cam Atkinson, who is improving more and more each new year. Atkinson scored 27 goals last season and already has 15 this year along with 20 assists. His 35 points are tied with Patrick Kane and Jake Voracek for 6th in the League. Sam Gagner, Brandon Saad and captain Nick Foligno have also contributed, but Atkinson is largely carrying his team currently.
On the defensive side, G Sergei Bobrovsky has returned to the form that won him the Vezina Trophy in 2013. The 28-year-old Russian netminder currently leads the NHL with 22 victories and is second in both GAA and Save %. These stats are especially impressive when you consider that Seth Jones and Jack Johnson are the team’s only viable defensemen.
The Blue Jackets’ last regulation loss was a 2-0 shutout on November 23 at the hands of Calgary. Their next contest is tonight vs. the Winnipeg Jets, where they will try to push it to 14.
The Minnesota Wild have also been an incredible success story this year. Though the team is much more impressive on paper, still not many were expecting big things at Xcel Energy Center this season.
24-year-old C Charlie Coyle has been a welcome surprise for first year HC Bruce Boudreau, leading his team with 12 goals and 17 assists for 29 points. Eric Staal is providing an immediate return on the $10.5 million investment Minnesota made in him this past summer. The former Hurricanes captain has 11 goals and 18 assists to share the team lead with Coyle. The two have been welcome contributors for a team whose biggest offensive threat Zach Parise is struggling mightly. Defenseman Ryan Suter has been a force to be reckoned with on the blue-line, contributing 19 points alongside an NHL best +23.
However, past all of these, the story of the year for the Wild has been the man between their pipes. G Devan Dubnyk is adding another chapter to his resurgent career. 3rd in the League with 18 wins, Dubnyk is leading the NHL in GAA (1.58) Save % (.947) and shutouts (5). More victories from Martin Jones and the aforementioned Bobrovsky are all that separate the 30-year-old from the goaltending triple crown. If the Vezina Trophy was awarded today Dubnyk would undoubtedly be the recipient. He is proving to be a steal for the Wild more and more each year (the team traded a 3rd round pick for him, after all).
The Wild will try to make it 12 in a row as they play the NY Islanders tonight at home.
If the Blue Jackets and Wild can each win their next contest, the NHL will have a Saturday ratings smash opportunity. The two teams are scheduled to meet on Saturday in Minnesota. If both teams win tonight, then the two streaks will go on the line against the other, and only one will come out intact. This is a match that fans across the League will tune in to see, let’s hope we get to see it.
Jackets Sign Head Coach John Tortorella To Contract Extension
The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed Head Coach John Tortorella to a one-year contract extension through the 2018-19 season, Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced on Monday.
Tortorella, who joined Columbus in 2015, has led the Blue Jackets to an 84-57-16 record and .586 points percentage during his tenure.
“John Tortorella and his coaching staff have done a terrific job since his arrival nearly two years ago,” said Kekalainen (h/t NHL.com). “He is one of the top coaches in our game and we are excited about what lies ahead for our club with John as our head coach.”
Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year after leading the Blue Jackets (50-24-8 record and 108 points) to the best season in the club’s 17-year history last season.
“I’m very appreciative of the opportunity I have to coach this team and be part of a wonderful community that has been very welcoming to my family, so I thank the McConnell family, Mike Priest, John Davidson, Jarmo Kekalainen, our staff and the entire organization,” said Tortorella.
“I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken as a team and I look forward to continuing to work with a very good group of coaches and players.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Looking Like ‘Team To Beat’ After Round One Domination
The Pittsburgh Penguins look like they are on the fast track back to the Stanley Cup after an impressive performance against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 1st round of the NHL playoffs.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and forward Bryan Rust all shined but goalie Marc-Andre Fleury may have stolen the show.
Rust scored 5 goals, including 2 in Game 5, finishing the series with a plus-5. How’s that for offensive efficiency?
22-year-old Jake Guentzel’s strong series may have flown under the radar but it still deserves recognition. Guentzel finished the series with five goals and an assist, becoming the first player to score five goals in his first four playoff games since Maurice “Rocket” Richard did it way back in 1944.
The line of Malkin and Phil Kessel proved formidable once again. Marc-Andre Fleury made 49 saves, a playoff career high, in Game 5 to help close out the series for the Penguins 4-1.
“He had to make a ton of huge saves,” Crosby said. “They weren’t necessarily routine, either. He was tested a lot. We don’t like to have to make him work that hard. He was our best player.”
“We had the opportunity last game to do it, and we didn’t,” Crosby said. “So it’s just kind of a relief to win it.”
The Pens now wait to face the winner of the Toronto Maple Leafs/Washington Capitals series.
The Blue Jackets end an exciting season where, at times, they were playing the best hockey in the NHL, winning 16-straight-games at one point.
Columbus finished the season with a franchise-record 108 points.
The Pens made them look overmatched and out-of-place.
“It’s never perfect out there by any stretch,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We love their compete level. We love their ability to respond to the adversity we face or the challenges we face throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a series.”
“I’m proud of our club,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “That’s not a 4-1 series. I’m not going to (complain) about it. They win.”
For now the Penguins, the NHL’s highest-scoring team, look like they are the team to beat in the Stanley Cup playoff race.
2016-17 NHL Mid-season Awards
2016-17 thus far has been a very exciting season for the National Hockey League. Surprise teams have dominated, superstars have lit up the scoring sheet and young guns have cemented their place. With the All-Star Game now over and done with, the season has reached its symbolic halfway point. I’ll attempt to give the best predictions I can for the NHL awards if they were handed out today.
Calder Trophy: Patrik Laine- Winnipeg Jets
In a season that was supposed to be all about 2016’s top draft pick Auston Matthews, no.2 selection Patrik Laine has done nothing but defy that. Though he has only 40 points to Matthews’ 39, Laine has been the far better rookie in the first half of the season, recording two hatricks and scoring 22 goals and 18 assists. Equally impressive is how Laine has bounced back from injury. On Jan.7 against Buffalo, the 18-year-old was absolutely rocked by Jake McCabe after skating through center ice with his head down. Laine received a concussion and missed eight contests. The Finn proved he hadn’t missed a beat upon returning, recording an assist in his first game back and a goal in the next. Matthews is undoubtedly the more marquee name of the two, but he has been largely outclassed by the man taken immediately behind him. In the hunt: Auston Matthews, Zach Werenski, Matt Murray.
Jack Adams Award: John Tortorella- Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were not pegged to do very much this year as far as preseason predictions went, but that’s what makes the head-turning story of the team this season so remarkable. If the season ended today, Columbus would enter the playoffs as the third seed in the entire League. Defying nearly every expectation they had, the Jackets have gotten stellar goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky and terrific all-around production from their entire lineup. Cam Atkinson, Zach Werinski, captain Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg have steadied the ship at the Nationwide Arena. The man behind the bench has also been an integral piece. Over the past few seasons, John Tortorella’s smart style has been overshadowed by his hot temper, and his image has faded as a result. But, this season has proven to fans across the League that Torts is still an intelligent coach who knows how to get the best out of his entire team, and he has helped turn Columbus from afterthoughts to the limelight of the NHL. Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild have also had a surprise season, giving Tortorella some competition for the crown as the League’s best strategist. In the hunt: Bruce Boudreau, Michel Therien, Peter DeBoer.
Norris Trophy: Brent Burns- San Jose Sharks
Drafted as a forward by the Wild in 2003, Burns has shown an impressive scoring touch in the past and his defensive skills have improved considerably over the years as well. But, what the hulking yet smooth blue liner has done this season has been incredible, even by his own standards. Not only does Burns currently lead all defensemen with 51 points, he is fourth in the entire League. The race for the D-men scoring title isn’t even competitive, as Burns has 12 more points than his trailer, Erik Karlsson. 51 points alongside a +14 rating makes him the overwhelming favorite for the Norris Trophy. Burns has carried his San Jose Sharks this season and the team could be a Stanley Cup favorite if he keeps the effort in the second half. In the hunt: Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, Victor Hedman.
Vezina Trophy: Devan Dubnyk- Minnesota Wild
It seems as if Devan Dubnyk just keeps getting better and better. After a well-documented story that saw him fall off the face of the Earth and then bust his butt back to the top, Dubnyk is adding another chapter this season. Second only to Bobrovsky in wins and leading the NHL with both a .936 Save % and 1.88 GAA, Dubnyk has been the reason behind the surprising success of the Wild this season, as they sit atop the Western Conference currently. Standing at 6’6 and 213 lb, Dubnyk utilizes his massive size to his advantage and covers virtually all of the net, even when he’s down on his knees. He is also surprisingly quick for a big man and has no trouble going from one end of the net to the other in a hurry. A shining example of how hard work pays off, Dubnyk would win the Vezina Trophy if it was awarded today. And, if he keeps it up in the second half, he’ll be the winner for the year. In the hunt: Sergei Bobrovsky, Carey Price, Braden Holtby.
Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby- Pittsburgh Penguins
MVP is often the hardest award to decipher, and this season that is as true as ever. There have been countless standout performances that would be cinches for the Hart. But, above all the others, Sidney Crosby has been the most impressive. Leading the NHL with 28 goals, Crosby has bounced back stunningly from last season and is on pace to shatter the comparatively measly 85 points he scored then. 20-year-old Connor McDavid has been equally terrific this year and is certainly living up to the “Next One” title bestowed upon him with his League leading 59 points. But, though you can argue McDavid’s performance has been more impressive because he is far younger and on a far lesser team than Crosby, I will predict Crosby here because he has more goals, and we all know the NHL loves goal scoring. We saw last season how much the Penguins depend on Crosby, and they may repeat as Stanley Cup Champions if he keeps going at this rate. You could says he’s got Hart (sorry, I had to). In the hunt: Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Brent Burns.
Who are your picks? Am I a genius? Am I an idiot? You tell me.
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