The Minnesota Wild road trip continues tonight, as they invade the Saddle Dome to face the Calgary Flames. Coming off an impressive win against the Edmonton Oilers, the Wild look to pick up two points against another divisional foe. Minnesota’s 18 points are good for second in the Northwest Division, six points behind division leader Vancouver, and five points ahead of last place Calgary. Tonight is an opportunity for the Wild to put some distance between them and the rest of the Northwest Division–Colorado (15pts), Edmonton (15pts) and Calgary (13pts).
This evening is the first game of my favorite schedule in hockey–the home-and-home series. The second game is Tuesday, the 26th, at the Xcel Energy Center. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt and this is the second of five games with the Flames this season. The Wild earned their first road win of the year, a 2-1 shootout victory back on Feb. 11th in Calgary. Minnesota’s road record stands at 2-4-1, while Calgary has struggled on home ice, going 2-5-2 thus far. Tonight, the Wild need to seize the chance at two points against a divisional foe!
A Wild team, battling the flu bug, takes to the ice tonight missing only Cal Clutterbuck (thigh contusion), Josh Harding (MS medication issues), and Justin Falk (flu). The locker room has been a sick bay over the last week or so, with several players missing practice and/or game time with the bug. Put that many players in close contact with each other, add a virus and you’re going to have issues. Despite the illnesses, the Wild have compiled a 4-1-1 record over their last six games, and seem to have broken out of their scoring slump. Thursday, they played one of their best games this season, beating Edmonton 3-1. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom has won three of his last four starts, and has historically played well in Calgary, posting a 6-1-0 career mark. Calgary’s top netminder, Mikka Kiprusoff, is on IR with an MCL sprain, so Joey MacDonald (1-2-0) or Leland Irving (2-1-1) will get the start in goal. There is only one other notable injury for the Flames–Sven Baertschi–who is day-to-day with a hip problem.
Last game, Matt Cullen had the hot hand, scoring two goals and adding an assist in the third, as the Wild beat the Oilers. As far as the forward lines go, the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley will remain unchanged. The same can be said for the #1 power play unit of Kovu, Parise, Heatley, Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter. Lines two, three and four will see some juggling due to Clutterbuck’s injury, and getting tough guy Zenon Konopka back into the lineup. Konopka’s physical presence, and enforcer role, was missed last game against the Oilers. Several Wild players, including Cal Clutterbuck, Jonas Brodin and Spurgeon, were the recipients of extra curricular activities by Oiler players. The reckless, dirty and illegal hit by Taylor Hall resulted in Hall’s two game suspension. Konopka should be back tonight, policing the ice for Minnesota. Charlie Coyle has been recalled from the Houston Aeros, filling the open spot created by Clutterbuck’s injury. This is the power forward’s second call up of the season. Previously, he played five games alternating between the Wild’s first and second lines. Coyle has 14 goals and 11 assists in 47 games with Houston this season.
Defensively, the Wild pairings should remain the same, barring any flu related scratches. Jonas Brodin will be with Ryan Suter. That pair finished the last game a +2, with four shots on goal, and totaled nearly 54 minutes of time on the ice. Suter also added an assist on Matt Cullen‘s first goal. The other defense pairings should be Clayton Stoner with Tom Gilbert, and Jared Spurgeon with Justin Falk or Nate Prosser. Keeping the crease clear in front of Backstrom, and moving the puck out of the defensive zone quickly and efficiently, is the key to getting it behind the Calgary defense to start the forecheck. If they can do that on a consistent basis, it should lead to scoring opportunities.
The biggest key to this game for the Wild, is turning opportunities into goals. Minnesota’s 2.12 goals per game average ranks 29th in the league. Opponents are scoring an average of 2.38 goals a game, which is the 10th best in the NHL. Minnesota is quite often pass happy–seemingly content to move the puck around the perimeter. There are, however, a couple guys with the shoot-first mentality–Zach Parise and Jason Zucker. Parise leads the league in shots-on-goal with 73, and his shot attempts are even higher. Zucker showed his sniping ability in his first game with the Wild this season. A 2-on-1 break with Setoguchi allowed him the options of shoot or pass, and shoot he did for his first NHL goal. Maybe these two will put the idea of shooting more into the heads of some teammates. It’s rarely a bad idea to put the puck on net!
With this compressed, shortened season, every game has added importance. The chance to distance yourself from the other teams in the Northwest Division cannot be passed up. These are the games the Wild MUST WIN if they are going to make the playoffs come the end of April. Once again, I’ll say how much I enjoy home-and-home series. This should be an exciting, intense game this evening. Gone Puck Wild will be back after the game with a full game wrap. Puck drop is slated for 9pm CST, so put on a pot of coffee and LET’S PLAY HOCKEY!!