The Minnesota Wild take to the road again as they face the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com arena tonight. The Wild are coming off of an exciting 2-1 overtime win against Calgary on Tuesday. Minnesota is 9-7-2 on the season, and currently holds the 11th spot in the Western Conference. Phoenix has a record of 9-7-3, good for 9th in the conference. The difference between 4th and 11th in the conference standings is a scant 3 points. A couple of wins for the Wild, and they are right back in the playoff picture. The Coyotes are back at home after a brief Canadian road trip facing the same teams–Calgary and Edmonton–as the Wild did on their own recent road trip. A win tonight by Minnesota would jump them ahead in the conference standings to 22 points, and back into the playoff picture.
Scoring has been the problem for the Wild again this season. They are winning games because of superior defense and goaltending. Over the last six games, the Wild have posted a 3-3 record, including a shootout and an OT win. In that stretch, they have scored 13 goals, while allowing 12. Two of three wins were by a single goal, the other was a two goal margin. Two losses were by one goal and one by two goals. Minnesota is not blowing out opponents nor getting blown out–they are playing tight, close games; the kind of games where a single mistake by either side makes the difference between victory and defeat.
The Wild are currently ranked 6th in the league in penalty killing at 85%. They rank eighth in goals against average at 2.33 per game. Opponents are also not getting a lot of shots on goal either, averaging just 27.5 per game. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom is also in the top half of the league in save percentage with .919, and goals against average at 2.17 per game. Backup goalie Darcy Kuemper has posted some gaudy numbers in his two starts with a .934 save percentage and a 2.02 goals against.
The Wild’s defense corps has been solid all season, allowing an average of just 2.33 goals per game. They are helping on the score sheet as well, posting 23 assists and four goals as a group. Star defenseman Ryan Suter leads the group with 11 assists, but zero goals, on the year. Tom Gilbert leads the Wild’s goal scoring from the blue line with three. Rookie defender Jonas Brodin, and third year player Jared Spurgeon, have been the top young players in the group. Again the Wild’s problems aren’t on the defensive side–it’s a lack of offensive output that has them struggling to stay relevant in the playoff picture. The D-pairs for tonight will be the same as the last game, with Ryan Suter paired with Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon with Clayton Stoner and Justin Falk with Tom Gilbert.
Tonight, the lines against the Coyotes look to be roughly the same as Tuesday. The top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle will remain intact. Head Coach Mike Yeo says he doesn’t have lines ranked 1 to 4 instead, he prefers to call them “lines with players who compliment each other”. That said, the next line is the speed line of Jason Zucker, Devin Setoguchi, and Matt Cullen. The next line features scorer Dany Heatley, teamed with puck wizards Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikael Granlund. The last line is the energy or checking line of Mike Rupp, Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell. Hopefully, the Wild will be able to capitalize on a Coyotes team that allows an average of more than 2.5 goals per game, while allowing 31 shots per outing. Goalie Niklas Backstrom will get the start in net tonight, and has posted a 4-1-1 record in his last six games against the Coyotes. Phoenix will counter with Mike Smith and his 7-5-2 record this year.
Minnesota needs to make a solid, quick start tonight. They have been playing from behind far too many times this season. They can’t afford a repeat of last game’s penalty filled affair. You can’t generate much offense when you are killing penalties constantly. The Wild are generating 27 shots per game, an average that has been going up as of late. That’s still not many, and the pass-happy Wild need to make the shots they get count. Skating around the perimeter, and firing away at a distance, is not going to get the job done. It’s time to crash the net after the initial shot, and work on rebound chances. Generating chances off of faceoffs, is another area Minnesota needs to capitalize on. They are one of the best in the league at winning faceoffs, using that to their benefit has been lacking. It’s the same old refrain heading into tonight–shoot the puck, stay out of the box, and capitalize on chances. This is a very winnable game for our Wild, with a couple of days rest, they should be able to claim the “W”. Gone Puck Wild will be back after the game with a full recap of the action. Until then, let’s GO Wild!!!!