The Minnesota Wild head back out on the road to face the Edmonton Oilers tonight. The Wild have struggled on the road this season, but have historically done well against the Oilers. Over the last two seasons, Minnesota is 10-2-0 in games against Edmonton. This will be the first game back at Rexall Place for defenseman Tom Gilbert since the trade that saw Nick Schultz head to Edmonton. Due to a quirk in the schedules, this is the first meeting between the teams since December 29, 2011. Edmonton is 6-6-3 on the year, including a 3-3-2 record at home. The Wild are 7-6-2 overall, but have stunk on the road, going 1-4-1 so far this season. This is a big game for the boys from Minnesota, with Edmonton just one point behind them in the Western Conference standings. These are the kind of games the Wild must win if they are to have a shot at the playoffs this season.
Tonight will be a showcase of rookies and young players from both benches. The Wild have already used six rookies this season, the second most of any team in the NHL. Skating for the Wild tonight should be Jonas Brodin (age 19), Mikael Granlund (age 20), Johan Larsson (age 20), Jason Zucker (age 21) and Darcy Kuemper (age 22). The youth movement is certainly alive and well for Minnesota. Team wellness for the Wild, however, is a toss up. The flu bug has been moving through the locker room, and Head Coach Mikke Yeo will know who’s healthy when he makes his line choices close to game time. Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Justin Falk, and Niklas Backstrom have all missed time recently, but are expected to be on the ice tonight. The top line of Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, and Koivu should be together barring illness. The 2-3-4 lines, however, will be juggled, mixing the rookes in with the old players. Defensively, the pairs should remain fairly stable with Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon with Nate Prosser, and Gilbert with Stoner. That would leave Justin Falk as the odd man out.
The Oilers have a good crop of young talent, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (age 19), Taylor Hall (age 21), Nail Yakupov (age 19), Magnus Paajarvi (age 21), Jordan Eberle (age 22), Justin Schultz (age 22), and Sam Gagner (age 23). Gagner (5 g, 11 a) and Hall (3 g, 13 a) lead the Oilers in scoring this season. In addition to their time in the NHL, all of the youngsters were playing somewhere during the lockout.
I’d expect to see Backstrom in net tonight, if he’s over the flu bug that caused Kuemper to get the last start against Detroit. Backstrom has historically done very well against Edmonton, compiling an astonishing 22-3-2 record and 1.81 goals against average. WOW! Opposing him will be Devan Dubnyk, who is 5-4-3 on the year, giving up an average of 2.76 goals a game. If Dubnyk doesn’t start, Nikolai Khabibulin will with his 1-2-0 record so far this season.
Tonight, Minnesota cannot afford a slow start against this Edmonton club. The Wild are currently four points back of Vancouver for the division lead. The Canucks face Dallas late tonight. One other area that has been lacking for the Wild as of late is scoring with the man advantage. Through 15 games, Minnesota has a 15.1% power play success rate, good for 22nd in the league. The top PP unit of Heatley, Parise, Koivu, Suter and Spurgeon should remain unchanged, but the 2nd unit will be changed up based on who’s on the bench. Edmonton’s PP is much better, posting a 23.9% mark. While the Wild penalty kill is very good at 84.0 %, the Oilers’ is even better at 87.1%, the fourth best in the NHL. Minnesota is going to have to remain disciplined, not taking silly penalties, while keeping their legs moving and drawing some PP chances of their own. The Wild are also going to have to shoot the puck; they average 26.5 shots a game, ranking them 29th in the league. Parise leads the NHL in shots on goal (SOG) this season with 69 to date. Putting the puck on net, then following it up, should generate some rebound scoring opportunities.
Puck drop is slated for 8:30 pm Minnesota Time (CST). This is a great chance for the Wild to pick up two points against a team they have dominated the last several years. GonePuckWild.com will be back after the game with a full recap of the action. LET’S GO WILD!