Saturday night, two record winning streaks will arrive in St. Paul and only one will depart.
The Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, expansion cousins from 16 years ago, have not only taken the league by storm with concurrent winning streaks of at least 12 games for the first time in NHL history, they just so happen to square off at Xcel Energy Center on New Year’s Eve.
It’ll be a winner-take-all — or, winning streak-take-all — affair between two often slighted, often overshadowed franchises that will forever be linked because they entered the league arm in arm in the year 2000.
Not only will Saturday’s game be the first time two NHL teams meet with simultaneous win streaks of at least seven games, it’ll be the first time in NHL, NBA, MLB and NFL history two teams meet with win streaks of at least 12 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
That historical significance was “cool” and “neat” to everybody Friday, and while Wild players expect the crowd to be buzzing and are aware a ticket to the game is suddenly a hot commodity, both teams took different tacks after their respective practices.
Inside the Wild locker room, player after player echoed their coach by noting it’s “just Game 36” and the game’s worth two points just like every other.
“It’s not the Super Bowl, it’s not the Stanley Cup,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It’s Game 36. It’s got a good, little story line, but that’s all it is.”
But Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella offered a different message, saying that in the monotony of an 82-game season, he’s happy the players have something to get excited about.
“I want our guys to revel in it,” said Tortorella, before noting that his team actually hasn’t played well this last little stretch. “Both teams deserve a lot of credit and they should feel good about what they’ve brought here, where they’re at. We know there’s a streak, we know there’s a streak over there. I’m glad we’re going to have an opportunity to play in this type of game.
“It’s fun to be part of something like this in January when you still have the dog days ahead of you.”
The Blue Jackets, who won their 14th consecutive game Thursday on the same date they won their 14th game overall last season, started 0-2 after a grueling training camp.
They were giving up odd-man rushes at an alarming rate, but in perfect timing, they had five off days for Tortorella to put the Blue Jackets through a purposely tactical second mini-training camp.
“We regrouped,” said Nick Foligno, Columbus’ captain who has 12 goals and 31 points in 32 games after scoring 12 goals and 37 points in 72 games last season.
They’ve lost … three times in regulation since.
Like the Wild, winners of 12 straight with points in 14 straight, the Blue Jackets gained confidence up and down their lineup because goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has returned to form. The Blue Jackets started last season 0-8. Todd Richards was fired after a 0-7 start, and Tortorella lost his debut in Minnesota, but the awful start was in large part because of a leaky Bobrovsky.
After playing only 37 games last season because of three groin injuries and winning 15 games, Bobrovsky carries a 12-game winning streak and 14-game point streak (13-0-1), both Blue Jackets records, into Saturday’s game.
Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk carries in a career-best and franchise-record 10-game winning streak and career-best 14-game point streak (12-0-2).
Like the Wild, the Blue Jackets have no real stars up front, but they’re a fast team with four balanced lines Tortorella rolls. Twelve different players have game-winning goals
They have four players — Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Foligno and Brandon Saad — at the 30-point mark, and Atkinson leads the NHL’s first-ranked power play and all NHL players with 17 power-play points. Wennberg leads the league with 14 power-play assists.
Tortorella calls the blue line the engine that drives the bus, and in a league where Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews have been all the rage, 19-year-old Zach Werenski is right in the Calder Trophy mix with 24 points, most among NHL rookie defensemen. Seth Jones, acquired from Nashville for Ryan Johansen last January, has 15 points, and Jack Johnson, a minus player in 10 previous seasons, is a plus-20.
“For me personally, my entire career, I’ve never been on a first-place team at any point,” Johnson said. “This is incredibly gratifying.”
The Blue Jackets, who have outscored opponents 31-11 in the past 21 third periods, lead the NHL with 3.44 goals per game; the Wild is fourth — and first in the Western Conference — with 3.14. The Wild leads the NHL with 2.00 goals against per game; the Blue Jackets are second at 2.06.
“We’ve raised what we expect to be our standard each day when we practice, we’ve raised the standard of how we’re supposed to play,” Tortorella said. “Quite honestly, we’ve raised the standard of it’s a business, and we need to approach each day as a workday, and not just get through the day, but try to get getter during that day.”
The Wild and Blue Jackets have similar blueprints, Boudreau said, when it comes to great defense, goaltending, speed and balance.
“I think it’s the only way to win,” Boudreau said. “You can win for short periods of time with one line and one great defenseman, but if you look at the teams that win everything, it’s a team effort. When you get everybody to contribute, I think it’s really special.”
The battle of streaking teams will be fun for the league, fans and players. But one streak will end.
“We need those two points to be where we want to be at the end of the season and project ourselves to places that we want to go,” Wild defenseman Matt Dumba said. “They’re just kind of in our way, so we’ve just got to take care of that.”