The Minnesota Wild return to the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center Saturday afternoon to take on the San Jose Sharks. The Wild are one of the hottest teams in the league right now with road wins over Vancouver and Detroit this week. Currently Minnesota sits in third in the Western Conference with 36 points, while the Sharks are in 8th with 32 points. The Wild have gone from hoping to win, to expecting to win. Minnesota has been relatively healthy so far this season and that’s a big plus for a team that struggled last year with player after player going on injured reserve. Minnesota has won four straight and six of their last seven games improving their overall record to 17-10-2. They’re facing the Sharks in the first of three meetings this season and the only time on home ice. San Jose is 13-10-6 overall and struggling away from home at 5-9-2. The Wild have the opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Northwest Division. As of Friday night the Wild were tied with the Canucks in points, but hold the tiebreaker of regulation and overtime wins, 14 to 12. The lead over the rest of the teams in the division is growing as well, they’re up 7 points on Edmonton, and 10 points on both Calgary and Colorado.
The Wild are playing some of their best hockey of the year and look to keep the momentum going against a Sharks squad that has been average at best over their last 10 games posting a 4-4-2 record. Minnesota is 7-3-0 over that span and looking more confident and comfortable with each game. The personal scoring streaks have moved beyond the top line as the line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard is on fire, with a total of 18 goals and 34 assists this season. The Top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and rookie Charlie Coyle has totaled 18 goals with 34 assists with 19 games left in the regular season. The Sharks come into this matchup with a scoring average 2.28 goals per game to the Wild’s 2.55. Minnesota has allowed an average of 2.41 goals against, while San Jose allows an average of 2.55 goals per game. Both teams are tough to score against on the power play, as they kill penalties at better than an 85% clip, ranking 4th-San Jose, and 5th-Minnesota. The similarities between the teams continue on the power play as Minnesota ranks 16th in the league at 18.6%. San Jose comes in at 14th position at 18.8%. The Wild are going to have to continue to play disciplined hockey and avoid careless, stupid penalties while generating some power play opportunities of their own.
Niklas Backstrom will be starting in goal for the Wild. He’s been in goal for 24 of the Wild’s 29 games, 23 as the starter, posting a record of 15-7-2. “Backy” has a .917 save percentage and a 2.32 goals against average. He has just been amazing for the Wild, a true #1 goal tender a lot of teams wish they had. He’ll be going up against Sharks net minder Antti Niemi who is 12-7-5 in 25 games this season. He’s posted a 2.28 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
The Wild will have to continue to put pucks at the net to keep their 4-game win streak going. They are averaging 28 shots a game while giving up an average of 28.1 shots on goal. During this 4 game streak they have been right at that 28 shot average with a high of 40 shots against Colorado on March 14th to a low of 19 shots at Detroit on the 20th. Goal scorers like Setoguchi, 6 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games and Bouchard, 1 goal and 6 assists over the last 4 contests along with Captain Koivu, 4 goals and 8 assists in last 20 need to keep up their production. Winger Dany Heatley has put up 4 assists, while defenseman Ryan Suter has been challenging for the team lead in points during the last four games. He has season totals of 2 goals and 22 assists. The 24 points tie him with Mikko Koivu for the team lead. Suter is #2 in points by a defenseman in the NHL. Timely goals and a relentless forecheck are just what the Wild need to beat the Sharks and run the win streak to 5 games.
Head Coach Yeo won’t be making any big changes to the forward lines for Saturday’s game. This is what the lines will probably be:
The Wild’s defense corps have been outstanding this year. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are garnering rave reviews from their own teammates along with players and media around the league. For the first time the Minnesota Wild may actually have a legitimate Norris Trophy contender. Suter leads the NHL in ice time, averaging more than 27-minutes a game, he is tied for 10th overall in assists, 2nd among defensemen, Suter’s partner on defense is rookie Jonas Brodin, who is garnering Calder Trophy talk. He’s the youngest D-man in the NHL at just over 19 years of age, and has 2 goals and 3 assists. Both goals have come during the last three games. He logs an average of nearly 22.5 minutes of ice time per game and also sees power play and penalty kill time. As if that were not enough he has a cannon of a shot from the point. The way the Wild’s defense pairs have been playing it’s going to be a challenge for newly signed defenseman Brett Clark to crack the lineup. Tom Gilbert is still listed as day to day with an undisclosed injury so the pairing should look like this:
Your Minnesota Wild have had a couple of days to practice and rest up after a 3-0 road trip that saw two long time road losing streaks ended. We now have a win in Vancouver since 2009 and a win in Detroit since 2006. Nice wins for sure, but now it’s time to focus on beating the Sharks and opening up a lead in the Northwest Division. San Jose ranks near the top of the NHL in shots on goal (SOG) per game. as Torrey Mitchell says, ” The best defense is keeping the puck 200 feet from your goal.” A solid forecheck will go a long way toward that goal. Winning face offs, a stat that Minnesota ranks 2nd in the NHL in, will help keep the puck off of the Shark’s sticks. The Wild are fairly healthy with only; Mike Rupp (lower body), Tom Gilbert (undisclosed), and Josh Harding (medical) out of action. This is the third game in a row the Wild are facing a team in the playoff picture. This is exactly the type of game they need to win to establish their spot among the division leaders and contenders come playoff time. The “second season” is just about 19-games and a month away. The Wild have the elite players and the role players needed to make a play off run. This is the first of 3 games against the Sharks this season and the only one in front of the team of 18,000. Two points are there for the taking, now go get ‘em boys!! GonePuckWild.com will be back after the game with a full recap and analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting, “LET’S GO WILD!!”