Historic NHL showdown, outdoor games top holiday lineup

Washington (AFP) - A historic matchup of the National Hockey League's hottest teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, plus a launch of NHL centennial celebration events spice New Year's weekend.

The NHL's year-long 100th anniversary celebration begins with Sunday's Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and host Toronto Maple Leafs while Monday finds the St. Louis Blues entertaining Chicago in the 2017 NHL Winter Classic outdoor contest.

But the surprise packet in the mix is Saturday at St. Paul, Minnesota, when the Wild, on a 12-game win streak, play host to Columbus, which has matched the third-longest win streak in NHL history with 14 triumphs in a row.

"We're playing well right now and all four lines are rolling," Blue Jackets forward Brandon Saad said. "We're doing a good job of playing the full ice, good in the defensive zone and then our power play has been huge for goals. We're definitely feeling good right now."

Minnesota and Columbus, which each began play in 2000 as expansion clubs, meet in the first NHL game between teams on double-digit win streaks.

"We talk about winning being fun and that's the truth," Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk said. "We certainly don't want it to stop."

It's the first time two NHL clubs had simultaneous win streaks of 12 games, although until the 2005-2006 season games deadlocked after regulation time ended in draws rather than going to over-time and shootouts to be decided.

The Blue Jackets have matched the 1929-30 Boston Bruins and 2009-10 Washington Capitals for the third-best victory run. Beating Minnesota would match them for the second-best NHL win streak at 15 set by the New York Islanders in 1982 and equaled by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.

The Penguins also own the NHL record win streak with a run of 17 consecutive triumphs in March and April 1993.

If they keep winning, the Wild could match the record with a home win January 12 against Montreal and try to break it two nights later at Dallas while Columbus could equal the mark January 5 at Washington and break it two nights later at home against the New York Rangers.

- Jackets on Bobrovsky's back -

Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets leads the NHL with 23 victories this season, including his past 12 starts in a row.

"He's just such a calming presence back there because he can come up with the spectacular save but he can also make the hard ones look easy," Columbus left wing Nick Foligno said.

Bobrovsky, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's top goaltender, has a 1.95 goals-against average and a 93.4 save percentage.

Columbus, which has had only two winning seasons and has never won a playoff series, has the NHL's best record with 25 wins, five regulation losses and four over-time defeats for 54 points while the Wild ranks fifth overall at 23-8-4 for 50 points in 35 games.

"It's quite interesting. We're just going to prepare like it's another game and just try to play like we've been playing," said Wild center Erik Haula of Finland.

- Leafs, Blues take it outside -

On Sunday, Toronto's 30,000-seat BMO Field, site of the 2016 Major League Soccer and Grey Cup Canadian football finals, hosts a rematch of the teams that drew an NHL record crowd of 105,491 to the 2014 Winter Classic at Ann Arbor, Michigan.

"This meeting offers an ideal launch for a fantastic 2017," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "This unique rematch provides a perfect beginning to an historic year."

The NHL was formed on November 26, 1917, and its first games were played on December 19, 1917.

The Blues mark their 50th anniversary in 2017 and Monday's meeting with the rival Blackhawks will bring 45,000 people to Busch Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals.

Toronto, led by 18 goals from 19-year-old US rookie center Auston Matthews, have 16 wins and 39 points for 10th in the Eastern Conference while Detroit ranks 13th in the East with 16 wins and 36 points.

Chicago tops the Western Conference with 51 points and 23 wins while the Blues are fifth in the West with 19 wins and 43 points.