In a full day of hockey, one of the final games of the slate takes place in Las Vegas. Late tonight, the Columbus Blue Jackets (30-20-3, 3rd Metropolitan) take on the Vegas Golden Knights (31-21-4, 3rd Pacific).
Both teams have played fairly similar to each other as of late. Columbus has won two games in a row, both on the road, following a five-game losing streak. Vegas has also won their last two games, both on the road, breaking a four-game losing streak of their own. However, the Knights sit comfortably in a playoff spot at 66 points, 11 points above the second wild card spot in the West. The Blue Jackets are at 63 points, the same number as Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot in the East.
The last and only time these teams have faced off against each other was December 17th, when the Jackets shut out the Knights 1-0 in Columbus. This time around, Vegas is the considerable favorite, listed at -165.
The Panarin Dilemma
Even with the Blue Jackets fighting for a playoff spot and their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the million dollar question they are facing is what to do with star forward Artemi Panarin. On Friday, Panarin announced he had fired his agent and hired Paul Theofanous, who represents teammate and impending free agent Sergei Bobrovsky.
With Panarin switching agents and deciding to test free agency, Columbus must decide before the February 25th trading deadline if they want to trade him for some assets, or keep him for a playoff run and risk losing him for nothing in the offseason.
Panarin leads an offensive attack that ranks 9th in goals per game with 3.26 and 9th in shooting percentage. They are also in the top half of the league in shots per game, but have a weak power play that ranks just 25th in the league at 16.2%. Their penalty kill, however, is one of the league’s best, coming in 4th at 84%. Columbus ranks 18th in goals allowed, but a respectable 8th in shots allowed.
Panarin leads the team in points with 60, 40 of them coming from assists. Cam Atkinson is the leading goal-scorer with 29 goals, 52 points overall. Those two along with Pierre-Luc Dubois (48 points) make up the dynamic first line, but after them there is a steep drop-off, with defenseman Seth Jones as the next highest scorer with 33 points.
Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start in goal tonight for Columbus. The veteran net minder is 21-16-1 with a 2.98 goals against average and .902 save percentage.
“Golden Misfits” Coming Together
Following an improbable run to the Finals last season, the Golden Knights stumbled out of the gate, dropping a game to Calgary 7-2 and falling to 9-12-1 on the year. Since that November night, they have turned a corner, going 22-9-3 and getting back into the playoff race.
Vegas is 4-6 in their last 10 games, mostly due to difficulty scoring goals. They are just 15th in the NHL in goals per game, but a big part of that is bad luck. The Knights are 3rd in shots on goal, but just 25th in shooting percentage. However, they are still a top-five defensive team, with elite rankings in goals allowed (2.71), shots allowed (28.6), and penalty kill percentage (83.9).
The Golden Knights are once again a team with a balanced scoring attack. Alex Tuch leads the team with 40 points, followed by Jonathan Marchessault (38) and William Karlsson (35 points). Behind those three, six other players are all in the 20’s in points.
Marc-Andre Fleury is once again the projected starter for the Knights. The All-Star is 29-15-4 with a 2.48 GAA and .912 save percentage.
The last time these two teams played, it was as low-scoring as you could get in a hockey game. This time around, I expect some more offense, and for the Golden Knights to come out on top. Much like Carolina, Vegas is a great possession team, who also plays extremely well at home as has the superior goaltender. I will take the Golden Knights to win -165.