The Edmonton Oilers visit the Xcel Energy Center this evening, in a Northwest Division battle with the Minnesota Wild. The Wild are currently in 9th place in the Western Conference with 22 points, while the Oilers are in 12th with 20 points. The last game between these two teams was a 3-1 victory for Minnesota on the road in Edmonton. That game generated some controversy, as Taylor Hall kneed Cal Clutterbuck in the thigh late in the game. The illegal hit earned Hall a two game suspension, while Clutterbuck is on IR and will miss his fifth game tonight. Hall is also suffering from a hamstring injury, and is questionable for this evening. He was likely to face some retribution from the Wild tonight, whether that was going to be in the form of some extra hits or being forced to drop the gloves is unknown. If he doesn’t play, that is not a bad thing for the Wild. With Hall out, the Oilers are missing one of their young stars who has four goals, 14 assists and an even plus-minus rating.
Edmonton is coming off a loss to the St. Louis Blues in which they blew a two goal lead, allowing four unanswered goals. Minnesota is back home after a road loss to the Anaheim Ducks in which they battled back from a three goal deficit with two goals in the third period, but ultimately lost 3-2. Tonight is an opportunity for the Wild to put some distance between them and the bottom three teams in the Division. Vancouver leads the division with 26 points. and plays cellar dweller Calgary tonight. A win for the Wild would allow them to keep pace with the Canucks, or gain two points on the division leader.
Lines for tonight’s game for the Wild will be pretty much the same as the Phoenix game a few days ago. The top line of Mikko Koivu (3 g, 11 a), Zach Parise (8 g, 6 a), and Charlie Coyle (1 g, 0 a) will remain the same, as will the line of Matt Cullen (3 g, 8 a), Jason Zucker (3 g, 0 a), and Devin Setoguchi (4 g, 6 a). The next line will be Mikael Granlund (1 g, 5 a), Dany Heatley (7 g, 4 a), and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (2 g, 3 a). That leaves the energy line of Kyle Brodziak (2 g, 2 a), Torrey Mitchell (1 g, 1 a) and Mike Rupp (1g, 1 a). The scratches for the Wild tonight will be Nate Prosser and Zenon Konopka. As in past games, the Wild MUST get off to a good start against the Oilers. When they are playing with a lead, they are much more creative and stubborn with the puck. When playing from behind, the Wild get too pass-happy, and look for the perfect shot before putting some rubber at the net. Niklas Backstrom will be back in goal tonight with his 8-5-2 record, .918 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average. Wild defensive pairings for tonight look to be Ryan Suter with Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon teamed with Clayton Stoner and Tom Gilbert with Justin Falk.
The Oilers will counter in goal with Devan Dubnyk, who is 6-6-3 on the season, and has a save percentage of .917 and a goals against of 2.75. Edmonton has a lineup featuring several young stars acquired in the draft. That’s the benefit of being the worst team in the league several years running. Those youngsters include Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1 g, 6 a), Nail Yakupov (6 g, 6 a), Jordan Eberle (6 g, 9 a), Justin Schultz (5 g, 8 a) and Sam Gagner (6 g, 13 a). This group can score goals in bunches, or look like a disorganized group of rookies–it depends on the game. The defensive corps for the Oilers is led by quiet veteran, and former Wild fan favorite, Nick Schultz. Other veteran defenders for Edmonton include Mark Fistric, Ladislav Smid, Ryan Whitney and Jeff Petry.
The Wild are going to have to capitalize on their power play opportunities tonight. Minnesota is scoring at just a 13.7% rate with the man advantage, ranked 26th in the league. That contrasts with Edmonton’s blistering 21.7%, and 6th ranked, power play. Minnesota kills off penalties at an 85.95 rate, compared to Edmonton’s 86.5%. The two teams are ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, in the NHL this year. That being said, the Wild are going to have to play disciplined, yet aggressive, hockey tonight.
I see this as a must-win game for the Wild, as they continue with a tough schedule for the month of March. After tonight, they head out on the road for games against the power house Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators. They then return home for a difficult home stand against the Canucks, Ducks and Avalanche. Two points tonight would give them a four point cushion against Edmonton in the Northwest Division standings. Four of the Wild’s next six games are against teams ahead of them in the playoff standings. The Wild are a pretty healthy team, with only winger Cal Clutterbuck and goalie Josh Harding on IR. The Oilers are missing netminder Nikolai Khabibulin and d-man Corey Potter. As mentioned earlier, current villain Taylor Hall is listed as day-to-day, and more than likely will not see action tonight.
The Wild will have to be ready to play when the puck drops at 7 pm CST tonight. A slow start will again see them chasing throughout the night. Minnesota has been good in close games this season, as they are not scoring goals in bunches. Just two times have they scored four goals in regulation, winning both games. The Wild have played 10 one-goal games out of 20 total, and they have won six of them. Every goal they can get is important. The Wild average 27.1 shots per game to Edmonton’s 28.8. My message to the boys in St. Paul is shoot early, and shoot often. Put the puck on net and dig around for the rebounds. Tonight’s game is going to be close with a dirty, grinding goal or two making the difference. Worry about Taylor Hall some other game; tonight, go get the points. GonePuckWild.com will be back after the game with a full recap of tonight’s action. LET’S GO WILD!!