James O'Brien

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 01:  Backup goaltender Aaron Dell #30 of the San Jose Sharks on the bench during the second period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on November 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Aaron Dell might just earn himself more opportunities with Sharks

There’s no discussion about it: Martin Jones is the unquestioned man in the San Jose Sharks’ net. After nights like Friday, it’s reasonable to wonder if Aaron Dell might be a diamond in the rough, though.

Much has been made of Dell cracking the NHL at the advanced age of 27, but he’s quietly been excelling when given opportunities … which are sometimes pretty rare.

Dell only needed to make 21 saves to grab his first career shutout in a 2-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers last night, yet it’s interesting to note that he’s been putting up nice numbers in small sample sizes for a while now.

2013-14: 19-7-3, .920 save percentage in 29 ECHL games
12-0, .922 save percentage in six AHL games
2014-15: 8-1-2, .902 save percentage in 12 ECHL games
15-8-2, .927 save percentage in 26 AHL games
2015-16: 17-16-6, .922 save percentage in 40 AHL games
2016-17: 4-1-0, .936 save percentage, one shutout in six games with Sharks

If nothing else, Dell is accustomed to paying his dues. Jones has been pretty impressive in his own right (19-11-1 with a .920 save percentage over a much larger sample size of 31 games this season), yet Dell could provide valuable insurance if injuries strike or Jones experiences a slump.

With four straight wins and victories in eight of their last nine games, San Jose might just build up enough of a buffer in the Pacific to get an idea of what they have in Dell by giving him an extra look or two down the stretch.

Matt Puempel collected his first career hat trick on Thursday

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Matt Puempel #12 (C) of the New York Rangers celebrates with goaltender Antti Raanta #32 following the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on December 29, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Rangers defeated the Coyotes 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Maybe Matt Puempel really will flourish now that he’s with the New York Rangers after struggling to accomplish much of anything with the Ottawa Senators.

He indicated as much upon his departure from Ottawa, and Thursday served as his creative peak; the 23-year-old generated his first hat trick as the Rangers beat the Arizona Coyotes 6-3.

Remarkably, all three of Puempel’s goals came on the power play. Here’s video of the trio:

In 13 games with the Senators this season, he couldn’t generated a point. Last night represented his 12th game with the Rangers, where things are going much better, especially lately. He has four goals and one assist in his last four games despite limited ice time.

(Speaking of that, 4:05 of his 12:20 in ice time came on the man advantage. Perhaps Alain Vigneault sees Puempel as a Sam Gagner-type specialist?)

It’s still unclear if Puempel will be able to make good on his potential as the 24th pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, but the Rangers look pretty bright for giving him a chance.

Patrick Kane’s 700th point makes difference for Blackhawks vs. Predators

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 14:  Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks at Bridgestone Arena on October 14, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)

Patrick Kane gave Nashville Predators fans a few more reasons to boo him on Thursday.

The slick Chicago Blackhawks winger scored the game-winning goal and also had an assist as the Blackhawks beat the Predators 3-2 in regulation.

That game-winner also happened to be the 700th point of his career, and he’s just a bit more than a month older than 28:

This continues a trend of milestone moments to close out 2016. Not long ago, Jaromir Jagr took sole possession of second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal to hit the 800-point mark on Tuesday.

In case you’re wondering, Kane hit 700 points in the 696th regular season game of his outstanding NHL career. He also has 121 points in 123 career postseason games. Number 88 now has 37 points in 38 games this season.

New Year’s Eve showdown set: Blue Jackets win 14th in a row, Wild get 12th

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 5:  Devan Dubnyk #40 of the Minnesota Wild stops a wrap around shot by Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the second period on January 5, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

If you love sports, how could you root against this scenario?

It was slowly dawning on many in the hockey world that, with wins in their respective Thursday games, the Minnesota Wild could very well host the Columbus Blue Jackets in a game between teams on ridiculous winning streaks. Hockey fans will indeed enjoy that rare treat on New Year’s Eve.

The Blue Jackets draw the loudest headlines, and that seems fair since they’ve won more games (now 14 in a row) and they’ve often blown out their opponents to an almost shocking degree.

The Winnipeg Jets avoided getting blown out tonight, but with two different three-goal leads, Columbus clearly had the edge in an eventual 5-3 win.

With that, the Blue Jackets have won every game in December; their winning streak began on Nov. 29. You could say that Columbus is putting up some real eye-popping numbers.

Wild fans have been grumbling “What about us?” for a while, although they’re no longer under the radar by any stretch. They won their 12th game in a row by edging the New York Islanders in a pretty (cough) wild 6-4 win.

You usually need some bounces and plot twists to go your way to win 10+ wins; in today’s case, the Wild won in part thanks to scoring three goals in 80 seconds.

You don’t often see two teams this hot face off like this, and things fall into place nicely being that it’s happening on the weekend.

If you love the sport (or really even merely occasionally enjoy a little hockey, honestly), you’d be wise to work that game into your schedule on that holiday night. It could be a memorable evening, as two astounding, unexpected streaks will be on the line.

Matthews, Kadri keep dangerous Leafs rolling

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 23:  Leo Komarov #47 and Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs congratulate teammate Nazem Kadri #43 of the Toronto Maple Leafs after he scored in the first period against the New Jersey Devils on November 23, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The wave of young players (led by Auston Matthews) and some underrated holdovers (including Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk) explains why the Toronto Maple Leafs are a dangerous team in the East.

It showed again on Thursday.

Matthews scored the opening goal and assisted on another Kadri overtime game-winner as the Maple Leafs edged the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 in OT.

With that, the Maple Leafs won all four games of their just-concluded road trip. In doing so, they took a point from a Bolts squad that needs to make the most of their home dates.

Matthews’ goal was one of those displays that prompts people to wonder how, in the world, he’s only a rookie:

William Nylander factored into Kadri’s overtime-winner, too, continuing the theme of young and almost-as-young players coming through:

The Leafs edged the Lightning in shots on goal by a margin of 35-27, so it’s not like this was a matter of timely scoring alone.

This is a real confidence-boosting run for the Leafs with a challenging start to 2017 looming. They face the hype and distractions of the 2017 Centennial Classic as a “home game” and then follow that with four of five on the road.

That isn’t easy, but Toronto has immediate evidence that they can keep rolling even with a tough stretch of scheduling breaks. That’s the sort of confidence that can make you, well, dangerous.