Well, darn it if I didn't almost nail it the other night. I just had the order wrong in the prediction. I predicted the Columbus Blue Jackets (CBJ) would win, 4-3, in the shootout. I'm getting closer, much like the CBJ, but I'd really like to get those two proverbial points, rather than settling for one in overtime or a shootout.
That being said, here's another shameless stab at pregame prognostications...for entertainment purposes only (like you'd actually rely on my swag).
The edge definitely goes to Columbus, although the Leafs have been turning up their offense lately. Well, as offensively-impaired as the Leafs are, there was only one way to go. The CBJ are still ranked 9th with 2.97 goals/game, whereas the Leafs are ranked 20th, with 2.60 goals/game.
Much like the CBJ, the bulk of Toronto's goal-scoring comes from their forwards, with currently red-hot Niklas Hagman leading the way with 13 markers, and Phil Kessel coming on since returning from his early-season injury. Overall, their leading point-getter is defenseman Tomas Kaberle, with 26 points in 26 games, 24 of them on assists.
Rick Nash leads the CBJ in scoring, but he has quite a bit of help from the forward lines, with secondary scoring help in the way of Kristian Huselius (10 goals), RJ Umberger (9), and Raffi Torres (9), albeit Torres has hit a bit of a wall, scoring-wise.
Columbus' blueline scoring is generally not stout. Kris Russell, however, has netted two goals in the past two games, so he's someone to watch for, as he seems to have found his groove offensively. So, in five-on-five situations...
As the CBJ and the Leafs are ranked respectively 28th and 29th, defense might not be the focus for this game.
However, both teams have also been playing much more solid defense recently, bringing their overall statistics down. From the standpoint of shots allowed, goals-against average, save percentage, and shots blocked, it's basically even. However, in offensive production from the blueline, the edge goes to Toronto.
Three CBJ blueliners now have a plus-rating: Jan Hejda, Mike Commodore, and Mathieu Roy. Last season's first defensive pairing of Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore were reunited last game, with Commodore doing a stellar job of stifling Patrick Kane, so this pair should continue to meld together tonight. Bad statistics aside...
Steve Mason starts again in goal tonight for the Blue Jackets. Mase is starting to return to the form that earned him the Calder Trophy and Vezina Trophy runner-up last season. Although near the bottom of the goaltender rankings overall, with a 3.35 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage, for the past four games, he has a 2.40 goals-against average and .919 percentage.
Due to the heart issues that Jonas Gustavsson is currently experiencing, as well as Vesa Toskala's struggles, Joey MacDonald will be in net tonight for Toronto. MacDonald, who should have been issued basic hazard pay for carrying the net-minding load last season, for the Islanders, has not played too badly, though he has yet to register a win in net.
If Mason's consistent play continues, and so long as the CBJ stay in the more-disciplined defense-first schema, I'd call this one...
The Jackets have dropped to 2nd in the NHL's power play rankings, now cranking away at a 24.0 percent conversion rate. During their game against the Blackhawks, the PP was a total non-factor, being held scoreless in three opportunities.
Toronto comes in at a respectable 21.6 percent PP conversion rate, ranking 10th in PP statistics overall.
As for the penalty kill, the CBJ are ranked 23rd in the league, with a 77.7 percent kill rate, whereas the Maple Leafs are ranked dead last in the NHL, with a kill rate of 74.0 percent. The CBJ's PK unit failed to prevent the 'Hawks from scoring on their last two PP opportunities, so that level of performance has to improve.
Without a doubt...
Besides it being a home game for the CBJ, there is not much of a X-factor here. The teams have only played each other seven times historically, with the Maple Leafs holding an overall 4-2-1 edge.
However, that is not to say that there won't be anything to watch for, as RJ Umberger, coming off of Monday's hat trick against the St. Louis Blues, might use tonight to state his case for the tragic oversight of him not being selected to the initial USA Olympic hockey player list.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, you see, is in charge of selecting Team USA for the upcoming Olympics in February 2010.
Although both parties have claimed that there is no bias, ill-will, or subjectivity, it is puzzling that Umberger wasn't considered for the initial squad list.
Umberger scored 26 goals for Columbus last season. That alone, given the lack of scoring, particularly clutch scoring—just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about Umberger, a Pittsburgh native, if Umberger isn't known to step it up a notch come playoff time—on the USA Olympic squad, should at least allow Umberger a shot at making the team.
However, recall that Umberger was drafted in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks, 16th overall. And who was the 'Nucks GM at that time? Brian Burke.
Needless to say, the negotiations were acrimonious, resulting in Umberger's rights being traded to Philadelphia, where Umberger spent the early part of his career.
I will leave you with this: While I'm sure RJ Umberger has moved on, I'm not so sure "The Golden Boy" Brian Burk, has done so, in spite of his protestations to the contrary. With great reputation—I recall Burke left the 'Nucks in a lurch when he left, and now the Anaheim Ducks are on the downslide—comes great egotism.
So, albeit a minor factor...
As mentioned before, this could be a trap game for the Blue Jackets, particularly with the Colorado Avalanche coming into town on Saturday. Blue Jacket fans recall the nasty departure of former CBJ captain Adam Foote—that back story is the subject of an upcoming article.
So long as the CBJ keep focused on the task at hand, here goes...
Prediction: Jackets 4, Leafs 2