The first road trip of the season concludes Sunday, as the Minnesota Wild take on the St. Louis Blues at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Through four games, the Wild are 2 and 2 and averaging 2.25 goals per game. That ranks Minnesota in the bottom half of the league in goals scored and finds them tied for 8th in the Western Conference. That’s half-way between the conference-leading 5-0 Blackhawks and the bottom dwelling 1-4 Coyotes. The term “average” sums up the season so far, and this is NOT a team built to be average. This Wild team is one expected to makes the playoffs and challenge the best in the league. High profile off season free agent acquisitions to add scoring punch and good defenders able to limit opposition opportunities are in place. Other role players have been picked up to support the stars and the Wild has a talented coach to tie it all together. Fans and management are looking for wins as a truncated season demands a fast start, and any prolonged losing streak will end hopes of the post-season quickly.
The St. Louis Blues sit near the top of the Western Conference with 8 points and a 4-1 record. Many people are picking them to contend for the Stanley Cup this spring. The Blues are averaging 3.8 goals a game while allowing their opponents less than half that. The Wild will need a good defensive showing and goals, not just scoring chances, if they are to beat St. Louis. The Blues are undefeated on home ice, not to mention opponents have yet to even score in the Scottrade Center this season! For the Wild, that means converting chances into goals. In their last game against Detroit, Minnesota totaled 21 shots over the first two periods scoring only 2 goals. The top line of Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, and Mikko Koivu has accounted for 6 of the Wild’s 10 goals this season. Head Coach Mike Yeo is looking for more production out of the other three lines. That may mean some different line combinations Sunday evening. We may see Pierre-Marc Bouchard move to the line with rookie Mikael Granlund and Devin Setoguchi. Matt Kassian could also see his first game action this season, as well. Coach Yeo says that maybe a single change could add to the production of lines #2 through #4.
The Wild are expected to start Niklas Backstrom in net tonight. He is 1-1 with a 2.53 goals against average so far this season while posting a .906 save %. Those numbers compare to Jaroslav Halak’s 3-0 record with a 1.69 goals against and a 902 save %. Keeping shooters away from Backstrom is the job of Minnesota’s defensive corps, who may be missing half of their top pairing. Jared Spurgeon is expected to miss a second game after blocking a shot and injuring a foot against Nashville. Tom Gilbert should again see time paired with Ryan Suter while rookie d-man Jonas Brodin will start his second game in the NHL.
Keys to the game for the Wild include a fast start and keeping the Blues shot total low. Minnesota has to convert chances to goals. Finding the right chemistry between line mates will come as the new look Wild get more games under their belts. That said, individual goal scoring has to come from more than Parise, Heatley and Koivu. A grinding offense, and “dirty” goals from close to the net on rebounds and deflections, are a must if Minnesota is to win tonight. Scoring from blueliners and on the power play while limiting those opportunities for St. Louis are other keys. We’ll see if Yeo’s tinkering produces results tonight or if the Wild will fall below the .500 mark for the first time this season. A win tonight would salvage a split on the first road trip of the season and give the boys some momentum heading back to St. Paul to face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. Check back tonight for GonePuckWild.com’s take on the game with information and analysis on the upcoming action.