NHL Predictions: December 31st Early Games — Including Toronto Maple Leafs vs Minnesota Wild

NHL Predictions
TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 15: Carson Soucy #21 of the Minnesota Wild squeezes Frederick Gauthier #33 of the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the play during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 15, 2019 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Wild 4-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Welcome back to our NHL Predictions series here at Last Word on Hockey. Each game day, we publish articles full of analysis and predictions for every game on the night’s schedule. Tonight has a hefty load in anticipation of tomorrow’s 2020 NHL Winter Classic, as 26 teams take the ice. In this article, we’ll cover the earlier games for the night, starting at 4 p.m. ET and earlier. In every piece, we also feature a game that should be must-watch hockey for the night — tonight’s example sees the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Twin Cities to take on the Minnesota Wild. To see our predictions for the later games on the schedule tonight, check out our article HERE.

NHL Predictions

Boston Bruins vs. New Jersey Devils

Head-to-Head: Bruins 2-0 Devils

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins this year have been, well, the Bruins everyone knows and loves. They’re sitting comfortably in first in the Atlantic Division, hosting a 24-7-9 record and 57 points. Their last game was a slim 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, where David Pastrnak recorded his team-leading 29th goal of the season and Jake Debrusk netted two consecutive power-play goals. They continue to be strong offensively and defensively, though another significant injury has befallen them in the form of defenceman Torey Krug. Their two previous matchups against the Devils have been near-perfect, outscoring them 8-1.

You can’t talk about this team without mentioning both Pastrnak and noted pest Brad Marchand, who are both tied for the team lead with 58 points in 40 games, stellar numbers for the two wingers. Both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are posting great seasons for the Bruins in the net. Both goalies have posted save percentages north of .920 and goals-against averages below 2.40.

New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils continue to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season, sitting in the last place in the Metropolitan Division with a 13-19-6 record, good enough for 32 points. After selling off star winger Taylor Hall, they’ve been rumoured to be looking at moving other pieces, most namely defenceman Sami Vatanen. They’re coming off a 4-3 overtime victory in Ottawa the other night. That game included two power-play goals from Nico Hischier and Nikita GusevJack Hughes also netted his first career overtime-winner. It always seems as though the defence goes cold when the offence gets hot, and vice versa. The Devils can’t seem to put it all together.

Kyle Palmieri‘s taken the role of the best offensive player on this team, posting 27 points in 38 games. He and Blake Coleman are the team’s only 10-goal scorers. Middling seasons from both MacKenzie Blackwood and Louis Domingue in net haven’t helped, either. The Devils get a boost from their fans and a Bruins team not playing their best but expect them to not gain two points tonight.

Prediction: Bruins win 4-3 in overtime.

New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals

Head-to-Head: Islanders 0-1 Capitals

New York Islanders

New York Islanders fans have a reason to cheer again this year, as their club sits in third in the Metropolitan Division with 51 points and a 24-10-3 record. They got their first win Sunday night since a scary injury to beloved veteran Cal Clutterbuck, who’s out indefinitely after wrist surgery. Three unanswered goals in the third period from Ryan PulockMatt Martin, and Tom Kuhnhackl helped them defeat the Wild 3-1. While not known for their offence, the Islanders have been able to limit opponents’ chances very well this year.

This season has seen young centrepiece Mathew Barzal continue to develop, as he’s got 16 goals and 33 points in 37 games to lead the team offensively. Pulock has been their best from the blueline. He’s logged 19 points, 47 hits, 70 blocked shots, and an average ice time of 21:51. Semyon Varlamov is seeing a renaissance year in net, as he’s posted a well-deserved 13-3-3 record with a .920 save percentage.

Washington Capitals

The Washington Capitals come into this game salivating over the opportunity to extend their Metropolitan Division lead. They’re eight points ahead of the Islanders with 59 and have a 27-8-5 record. Their last game sparks concern, though, as they allowed six goals to the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night. However, the Capitals still generated plenty of scoring, as Nic DowdAlex OvechkinEvgeny Kuznetsov, and Richard Panik all got on the board in a 6-4 loss. Their last game against the Islanders was a much tighter affair, a 2-1 win back on October 4th. To bolster their roster for another Stanley Cup run, the Capitals have recently worked themselves into the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. His contract was terminated by the Los Angeles Kings earlier this year.

On a team loaded with offence upfront, John Carlson has arguably been their best player at both ends of the ice. He leads the team with 50 points in 40 games (13-37-50), but he’s also logging 24:59 per game in addition to 32 hits and 68 blocked shots. Goalie Braden Holtby‘s been solid enough, garnering 17 wins along with a .904 save percentage. While the Islanders can play solid hockey, the Capitals are a gifted squad with some anger behind them that should take over tonight’s matchup.

Prediction: Capitals win 3-0.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Head-to-Head: Ducks 1-1 Golden Knights

Anaheim Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks are a team in a rebuild, and their record shows it. They sit in sixth place in the Pacific Division with 37 points and a sub-.500 16-18-5 record. One of those 16 wins came against the Vegas Golden Knights last Friday, a 4-3 victory. Their other game against Vegas, back on October 27th, was a 5-2 loss. The team is coming off a one-goal overtime loss performance against the Philadelphia Flyers, with Erik Gudbranson scoring 35 seconds in. Anaheim has been playing some decent defensive structure, but scoring has been the root cause of their struggles this year. After a successful decade, the Ducks enter the 2020s looking to rise from the bottom.

All-Star-bound forward Jakob Silfverberg leads them in scoring with 26 points in 38 games. On the back end, Cam Fowler has had a rebound season defensively while pitching in 20 points, too. Goalie John Gibson has been okay but hasn’t performed up to his standards. Ryan Miller has done well in a backup role.

Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas is getting their groove back in a weaker Pacific Division, now sitting in first place with 48 points and a 21-15-6 record. They’re coming off a strong 4-1 win over the rival Arizona CoyotesMark Stone netted two goals while Chandler Stephenson and Paul Stastny chipped in as well. Stephenson has been a pleasant surprise for the team, posting seven points in 13 games since his trade from Washington. Vegas has been a rather average hockey team this year, but are finding ways to win games in a weaker division.

Max Pacioretty has answered critics by starting on one of his best offensive campaigns, posting 40 points in 42 games and is one of the team’s six 10-goal scorers so far. Shea Theodore has grown into quite the capable two-way defenceman as well, as the 24-year-old has 23 points to supplement solid defensive numbers. Marc-Andre Fleury has been average by his standards, posting 15 wins and a .912 save percentage in 25 starts. The Knights should exploit a young and thin Ducks offence and a tired team on their way to a satisfying victory.

Prediction: Golden Knights win 4-0.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Minnesota Wild

Head-to-Head: Maple Leafs 1-0 Wild

This is the Last Word on Hockey Featured Game for tonight’s earlier games.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Maple Leaf fans have to be feeling much more comfortable now. Their team has rocketed to second place in the Atlantic Division under coach Sheldon Keefe. They boast a 21-14-5 record, giving them 47 points. However, they’ve been mangled with injuries lately, and their last game was a disappointing 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Rangers in which Auston Matthews netted two and William Nylander and Pierre Engvall also scored. As they look towards the Wild tonight, they look to repeat the success they had back on October 15th with a 4-2 win. The Leafs have their offence figured out and their defence very much not, which works in their favour against an offensively average Minnesota team.

Matthews has been a star offensively, posting a whopping 46 points in 40 games. He’s the team’s only 20-goal scorer with 26. Defenceman Morgan Rielly has had a disappointing year by Leafs fans’ standards. However, he has put up 25 points in 40 games and is logging 24:23 of ice time a night. Goalie Frederik Andersen has been good this year, with 19 wins and a .914 save percentage in 31 starts.

Minnesota Wild

The Wild have rebounded from a poor start to at least put themselves in the playoff conversation, as they sit in fifth place in the Central Division with a 19-16-5 record and 42 points. Their last outing was a low-event 3-1 loss to the Islanders, as Ryan Donato scored his eighth of the season. They’ll be in tough as Jason Zucker is out three to five more weeks after suffering a broken fibula. Their average offence has kept them afloat, compensating for extremely poor goaltending despite solid defensive play.

Veteran Eric Staal is having another good year in a Wild uniform, posting 15 goals and 32 points in 40 games. On the defensive end of things, Jonas Brodin has been the best player in their end while also adding 17 points in 40 games. Neither Alex Stalock or Devan Dubnyk have been good in net for the Wild, limiting the team’s potential. While Minnesota will challenge a banged-up Toronto team, expect the Maple Leafs to squeak away with two points tonight.

Prediction: Maple Leafs win 6-5 in overtime.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Buffalo Sabres

Head-to-Head: Lightning 3-0 Sabres

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have had a worrisome start, placing fourth in the Atlantic Division with a 20-13-4 record and 44 points. Considering their torrid pace last year, that’s not much. They were almost upset by the Detroit Red Wings Sunday night due to a great performance in goal but ended up with the 2-1 victory with goals from Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point. Tampa has dominated the Buffalo Sabres this season, winning their three games by a combined score of 13-7. They’re starting to put things together after a slow start, and getting two points against a divisional rival is crucial tonight.

Leading Tampa Bay in points again is Nikita Kucherov with 40. Their best defenceman has been Victor Hedman, putting up 37 points in just 35 games while logging 22:53 a night. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has regressed to league average this year, posting a 16-9-2 record with a .908 save percentage.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have followed the same trend as last year, just less of a regression: they’re now sixth in the Atlantic with a 17-16-7 record and 41 points after a great month of October. Their last outing was a close outing with the Bruins, losing 3-2 with goals from Rasmus Ristolainen and Curtis Lazar. A team that’s already pretty pedestrian offensively must move forward without Jeff Skinner, as he’s out three to four weeks with an upper-body injury.

Jack Eichel has turned into a great ‘consolation prize’ for the Sabres, and he leads the way with 24 goals and 52 points in 39 games. Rasmus Dahlin‘s young career is off to a good start, too. The Sabres’ best defenceman has 21 points in 32 games. Linus Ullmark has played well in a starters’ role, posting 11 wins with a .913 save percentage. Look for tonight to mirror their last outing as the Sabres drop a close one.

Prediction: Lightning win 4-3 in overtime.

Montreal Canadiens vs. Carolina Hurricanes

Head-to-Head: Canadiens 0-1 Hurricanes

Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens are in the thick of the Atlantic Division playoff race, placing fifth with 42 points and an 18-15-6 record. Their last outing was a tough-to-swallow 6-5 loss to the Florida Panthers. Tomas TatarJeff PetryMax DomiJesperi Kotkaniemi, and Shea Weber all scored in defeat. Their injury woes continue, as Joel Armia and Paul Byron are out of the lineup again. The team’s been solid offensively, but defensively play has become a glaring issue for this hockey club.

Tomas Tatar continually proves to be an adequate replacement for their former captain, as he’s got 35 points in 39 games to lead the team. Defenceman Shea Weber continues one of the more unexpected seasons of his career with 12 goals and 31 points while logging north of 24 minutes of ice time a night. Carey Price has put up mediocre numbers. However, he’s performed well in spite of the constant amount of quality chances this team gives up. He’s started a whopping 32 of their 39 games.

Carolina Hurricanes

Carolina sits in fifth in a very tight Metropolitan Division race with a 23-14-2 record and 48 points. Their last game, an aforementioned 6-4 win over Washington, saw goals from Lucas Wallmark, Dougie HamiltonMartin NecasAndrei Svechnikov, and two goals from Warren Foegele. While the team excels both offensively and defensively, they’ve been looking into dealing away free-agent acquisition Jake Gardiner for some scoring help.

Andrei Svechnikov couldn’t be having a better sophomore campaign, as he’s netted 17 goals and 38 points in 39 games to be the team’s leading scorer. Dougie Hamilton is also having a great season on defence, posting up 13 goals and 36 points and arguably being the team’s best all-around player. Starter Petr Mrazek has maintained average play this year, garnering 15 wins with a .900 save percentage. Carolina’s stellar play on both sides of the puck should rip apart a defensively weak Canadiens team tonight.

Prediction: Hurricanes win 5-1.

Florida Panthers vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Head-to-Head: Panthers 1-0 Blue Jackets

Florida Panthers

The Panthers currently sit in playoff position, stacking up as the third-place team in the Atlantic with 45 points and a 20-13-5 record. Their 6-5 win over Montreal saw plenty of goal scorers: Noel AcciariAleksander Barkov twice, Jonathan Huberdeau twice, and Mike Matheson. Florida’s previous victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets was a 4-1 win back on December 7th. This is goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s first game back in Columbus, just as he’s starting to turn around his play for the Panthers. Florida’s success has come on the back of a strong offensive attack, but their poor defensive structure and goaltending them have kept them from being elite.

Huby-dooby-doo, Panthers fans: Jonathan Huberdeau still leads the team with 53 points in 38 games, enjoying the best season of his career. Keith Yandle is still chugging along at 33 years old on the team’s back end, tallying 4 goals and 30 points in 38 games. Goaltending is where it gets tricky — the Panthers’ poor defence makes Bobrovsky’s numbers look worse than his play, but he still hasn’t been stellar with 14 wins and a .898 save percentage.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets are starting to look alive again, as they now sit above .500 and 6th in the Metro Division with a 17-14-8 record and 42 points. Their last game, a controversial 3-2 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, saw Riley Nash and Pierre-Luc Dubois score. They’ll continue without their starter for a while, as goalie Joonas Korpisalo was injured in last night’s shootout. Columbus’ lack of an offensive force has held them back, but they’ve been among the league’s better defensive teams.

The young Dubois is Columbus’ best scorer with 27 points. Seth Jones has tallied 22 points in 39 games as the team’s number one defenceman. Korpisalo had been playing great hockey before his injury, tallying 17 wins with a .913 save percentage. Expect Columbus’s solid defence and anger over last night’s events to lead to a strong win over Florida.

Prediction: Blue Jackets win 4-0.

Thank you for reading this lengthy edition of NHL Predictions, and Last Word on Hockey wishes you a happy and safe New Years’ Eve.

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