The Minnesota Wild are looking to extend their 6 game winning streak as the face the Phoenix Coyotes at the Xcel Energy Center this evening. Right now the Wild are the hottest team in the Western Conference , winning 6 in a row and going 8-2 in their last 1o games. Minnesota hasn’t lost consecutive games since February 12th and 14th! They are 2nd in the Northwest Division with 40 points and a 19-10-2 record. Vancouver leads the division with 42 points, but they have played 2 more games than the Wild. While they are 2 points back of the Canucks in points, the Wild are pulling away from the rest of the teams in the Northwest Division. Their leads over Calgary, Edmonton and Colorado have grown to 9, 12, and 14 points respectively. When was the last time you could say that about our Wild! Minnesota is not just winning games by close margins. During the current win streak they have outscored opponents 38 to 23 and the winning margin has been 2 or more goals each game. Those are both team records. The scoring has been spread out as well. In their most recent win in Dallas 11 Wild players registered a point of more and 13 of 18 skaters were a +1 or better. Two Minnesota players, defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner set team high marks going +5 on the evening.
Workhorse goalie Niklas Backstrom will be in net again tonight. During the win streak the Wild’s goal tending and defense have been spectacular. Backstrom was named the NHL’s number 2 star of the week for the week ending March 24th. In three starts against Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose he was, of course, 3-0. He had 1 shut out while posting a goals against average of 1.00 and a .972 save percentage. Backstrom stopped 104 of the 107 shots he faced, 35 of 36 against Vancouver, 36 of 38 against Detroit and all 33 versus San Jose. The San Jose game was his first shut out of the season and the 27th of his career. Backy, as teammates call him, is 2nd in the NHL in wins with 17, one victory behind Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins. His 7 losses are 9th in the NHL. The unflappable Backstrom ranks 9th in games played with 26, 12th in games started with 25 while his 1,514:39 in total time on the ice rank 10th overall. Not too shabby for a guy who didn’t break into the ranks of NHL goal tenders until the 2006-07 season at the age of 27. How he stayed off of the radar of the Wild and 29 other NHL teams is one of the great mysteries in hockey. One that ranks up there with Pavel Datsyuk not being drafted until the 171st overall pick in the 1998 draft and Brett Hull not being taken until the 4th round and the 117th pick in 1984. Backstrom is not unknown any more, the only mystery for the other 29 teams in the league is how to get puck past him often enough to win a game.
Phoenix comes to St. Paul in the midst of a 6 game losing streak during which they have been outscored 16 to 5. They have a 13-15-4 record overall and have slipped into last place in the Pacific Diviosion in the Western Conference. Coyotes net minder Mike Smith is 11-10-3 sporting a 2.83 goals against average and a pedestrian save % of .901, even when he’s having a good night stopping shots, his team mates are giving him very little in the way of goal support. Over Phoenix’s 12 games so far in the month of March they have scored just 23 goals and have been shut out 4 times. That’s a 1.92 goals for on average. In that same span they have allowed 35 goals, an average of 2.92 per game, it’s tough to win games with that kind of goal differential.
Minnesota has no such problems right now. Head Coach Mike Yeo has had the luxury of rolling line after line in the moth of March. The Wild have scored 42 goals this month while surrendering just 29 that works out to averages of 3.50 per game for and 2.42 against. Those are much more favorable numbers and indicative of a team gearing up for a playoff run. The scoring is coming from all of the Wild’s forward lines and the defensive pairs as well. Ten Wild players have scored 9 or more points through 31 games this season. At the top of that list are Mikko Koivu 28 points (8 g, 20 a), Zach Parise 27 pts. (14g, 13a), Ryan Suter 26 pts.(2 g, 24 a), Matt Cullen 22 pts.(5 g 17 a), Devin Setoguchi 21 pts. (11 g, 10 a), Dany Heatley (9 g, 9 a), Pierre-Marc Bouchard 14 pts. (4 g, 10 a), Jared Spurgeon 14 pts. (4 g, 7 a) Tom Gilbert 9 pts.(3 g, 6 a), and Kyle Brodziak 9 pts. (6 g, 3 a). While Wild players are racking up goals and assists they are being responsible in the defensive end as well. Minnesota has 14 players with a positive +/-rating while 9 players have a negative +/- rating. That gives Minnesota an overall rating of +13 so far in this truncated season.
Tonight is the third and final meeting between the Wild and Coyotes with the two splitting a pair of games at Jobing.com arena. Both games were decided by a single goal with Phoenix taking the first on February 4th by a 2-1 final score and the Wild winning the second 4-3 on February 28th. Minnesota will be facing a dangerous, hungry Coyotes squad when they take the ice tonight. Look for Phoenix to come out hard and fast, trying to grab a quick lead. Depending on the line up Dave Tippett sends out tonight Zenon Konopka and Mike Rupp could have their hands full. The Coyotes have 4 players with 27 or more penalty minutes (PIM), Paul Bissonnette, Derek Morris, Keith Yandle and Kyle Chipchura. With the trouble the Coyotes have had finding the back of the net I’d expect them to be looking for a couple of greasy goals scored by crashing the net or looking for deflections out front on shots from the top of the circles or closer.
The Wild need to continue to come out swinging and match Phoenix’s toughness and grind it out style of play. The team that capitalizes the most on their power play chances will be the winner tonight. The Wild’s penalty kill is ranked 6th in the league at 84.6 % while Phoenix is 13th at 82.0 %. The Wild have improved their scoring with the man advantage throughout the season and now sit in 13th position with an 18.5 % success rate. The Coyotes are worse at just 15.5 %. Minnesota’s ability to win face offs has allowed them to control the puck and dictate play much better than in past seasons. This will be an interesting area to watch tonight as both teams are excellent in the face off circle. The Wild and Coyotes are tied for second in the NHL in face off efficiency at 52.8 %. The Wild will need to shoot the puck when they get the chance. They have been doing better as the season has progressed, climbing up to 20th with 28.3 shots on average. Phoenix ranks substantially higher, averaging nearly 31 shots on goal per game.
Looking at the forward lines for tonight’s game, I don’t see Caoch Yeo making any changes. Why mess with success. The Wild have been getting scoring from the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and young Charlie Coyle. The secondary scoring Minnesota has lacked for so long is now coming in bunches from the line of Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. The next line of Dany Heatley, Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak may see the intoduction of Jake Dowell if Clutterbuck can’t go tonight. Clutterbuck injured his right leg in the Dallas game on Monday, had to be helped off the ice, but returned in time to set up Brodziak’s short handed game winning goal. Dowell watched Monday’s action from the press box, he would be a good fit on the 3rd and 4th lines with his gritty, grinding style of play. The 4th line of Konopka, Rupp and Mitchell can handle any rough stuff the desert dogs want to try.
The defensive pairings should remain unchanged with one of the best pairings in the NHL leading the way. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin could be in the mix for post season hardware. With an injury to the Penguin’s Kris Letang, Suter is a leading candidate for the Norris trophy. Brodin has thrived with Suter and plays at a level well beyond his 19 years and rookie status. He is getting some serious Calder trophy consideration. The pair of Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner totaled 4 assists and each was a +5 last game, an outstanding performance. The third pair of Tom Gilbert and Justin Falk have been solid as well. I see Nate Prosser as the healthy scratch once again.
Tonight’s game is a late start for a Wild home game with puck drop slated for 8pm Minnesota time (CST). GonePuckWild.com will be back after the action with a full recap and analysis. The Wild are taking things one game at a time, not overlooking any opponents, as the quest for the post season continues. Until late tonight this is Scott Drain yelling repeatedly “LET’S GO WILD!!”