Last night’s effort took many Minnesota Wild fans by surprise. Not only did the Wild find the score sheet first, they found themselves there in just 95 seconds thanks to rookie forward Jason Zucker. Zucker’s goal is his third in five games since he was recalled from the Houston Aeros. Dany Heatley also potted two beautiful goals and defenseman Jared Spurgeon managed to score the game-winning goal in a scrum in front of Phoenix netminder Mike Smith. The team managed to put up their third four goal game this season, and instantly increased the expectations of many fans in boosting their record to 10-7-2 and 8th place in the Western Conference. This team has broken through the bubble and, for now, would be in the playoffs if the season ended last night.
Minnesota’s new-look forward lines played exceptionally well last night. If you weren’t aware, the lines were as follows:
Head Coach Mike Yeo wasn’t rolling line #1, #2, #3 and #4; he was just rolling four good lines, plain and simple. All four lines created scoring chances and played a tough, fast-paced physical game. In short—they dominated. The way the team maintained control of the puck and dictated the way the game was going to go—this was the team fans dreamt about after the offseason acquisitions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
What’s so appealing if the offensive depth in the first three lines in particular. You have the ever dangerous tandem of Parise and Koivu paired with promising young rookie Charlie Coyle. The second line has just been rolling the past few games. Both Cullen and Setoguchi notched two assists in last night’s win, and Zucker is the perfect finisher on that line. This line could be huge for Minnesota as the season progresses—I don’t see them changing it any time soon. Then there is the intriguing third line of two elite playmakers in Bouchard and Granlund and the pure goal scorer in Dany Heatley. With most teams focusing on the top two lines, Heater will get plenty of opportunities to make the other team pay while playing on the third line.
Heading into tonight’s matchup with the dominant Ducks, Minnesota has to stick to what they’ve been doing, because it’s been working. Anaheim will not be easy to defeat. In addition to Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Getzlaf, there’s the elder Koivu brother, Saku, to deal with, as well as the timeless Teemu Selanne and up-and-coming young gun Kyle Palmieri. This team is four lines deep when you throw in Emerson Etem and Daniel Winnik and Nick Bonino. Their defense has been exceptional as well with goalie Victor Fasth and solid defensemen in Francois Beauchemin, Sheldon Souray and Cam Fowler—the three blue liners logging top minutes for the Ducks.
Fortunately for Minnesota, the Wild defense is more than capable of handling a few quacks from Anaheim. Jared Spurgeon showed signs of improvement in his game since returning to the lineup from a bruised foot. The diminutive blue liner scored his first goal of the season last night, and will be relied upon to help shutdown the Ducks’ big guns. As always, the top pairing of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will likely see 25+ minutes of ice time tonight, as Yeo knows he can play them will full confidence that they will do their job competently and efficiently.
My gut tells me that Nate Prosser will see game action tonight in place of Justin Falk. While Falk brings a lot of size, he struggled last night and managed a negative-2 rating. Though he doesn’t have a point yet this season, Prosser does have the distinction of having yet to be out on the ice for a goal against. He is a plus-3 rating, while averaging 11:07 of ice time per game on an average of 16.3 shifts. He’s not going to go out every shift and play like a Norris contender—because he isn’t—and it’s not his game. Where Nate shines is in his physical, shutdown defensive style. He’s gritty and a pain in the butt for every forward that crosses paths with him, which makes him perfect for that third defensive pairing.
With the uncertainty surrounding Josh Harding’s situation, it’s imperative that Nik Backstrom is kept healthy and well-rested. So, with that in mind, my gut also tells me that rookie netminder Darcy Kuemper gets the nod as starter for tonight. Yes—I know it’s the Western Conference 2nd place Ducks we’re talking about—however, Minnesota’s 6’5” 207-pound goaltending giant has played well in the limited time he’s seen in the Wild net, and deserves a shot to prove just how good he is against the second best team in the NHL. He’ll be challenged—no doubt—but I have no doubt he’s up to the task.
The bottom line is, if the team plays like it did for most of last night, this is a very winnable game for Minnesota and that makes any game afterwards just as winnable.