December 22, 2016 @ 7:00 PM - Nationwide Arena
TV: Root Sports Pittsburgh
First place is on the line tonight. It might not have been the game most, if any, would've circled as a key faceoff of top Metropolitan Division teams, but that's exactly what will take place when the Penguins travel to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets. And while Pittsburgh has had a great month of December, earning points in each of their ten games en route to an 8-0-2 record while outscoring their opposition 47-22, Columbus has been even better. The Blue Jackets have won 10 straight games to give them a perfect 9-0-0 record on the month and pulling them to within in a single point of the Pens and Rangers.
The Blue Jackets have been the biggest surprise of the season, and they've been getting it done at both ends of the ice as they rank 2nd in both goals per game (3.30) and goals against per game (2.07), propelling them to a league best +38 goal differential. And while the team started off slow on the possession front, they've recovered nicely as the season has progressed and currently sits 9th in the league with a 52.1 SACF%. Perhaps most surprisingly, it's been a team effort with production from a variety of ages and pedigrees.
Cam Atkinson was a 6th round pick by Columbus in the 2008 draft, but the 27-year-old winger has continued to improve as a player. Already with three straight 20 goal seasons under his belt, Atkinson looks likely to shatter his career high in goals (27g) and points (53 pts) set last season. With 14 goals and 19 assists through 30 games, Atkinson's scoring at a better than point per game clip that leaves him on pace for 38 goals and 90 points on the season. While a bit unexpected, it pales in comparison to Sam Gagner, the one-time 6th overall pick who could never quite put it all together in Edmonton and is currently on his 4th team in as many seasons. Like Atkinson and the rest of the team, Gagner is also on a torrid pace that would obliterate his career highs. His first nine seasons saw zero 20 goal campaigns, yet with 13 goals already on the season Gagner is on track (36g) to join the 30 goal club this year.
The team's young talent is also producing in a big way. Zach Werenski, the 8th overall pick in the 2015 Draft, has not only made the NHL roster as a 19-year-old defenseman, but he's made the most of his time with the Blue Jackets, ranking 9th in the league on the blueline with 21 points (6g, 15a) to go along with a stellar 53.3 CF% at 5-on-5 play. Alexander Wennberg, the team's 1st round draft pick in 2013, is also off to a blistering start to his third NHL season with 6 goals and 20 assists in 30 games played. Along with younger players like Brandon Saad, Seth Jones, and Ryan Murray, the Blue Jackets have a good nucleus of talent to build from and could be a contender in the Metro for years to come.
- It'll be a battle of the top two offenses in the league, and the Penguins (3.46 GF/gm) and Blue Jackets (3.30 GF/gm) are both well above the 3 goal per game mark.