The Minnesota Wild take on the Calgary Flames for the 2nd time this week and 5th time this season, compiling a 3-1 record against them to date. If the Wild can achieve the same result as last Monday night, they will continue to control their own destiny in the Western Conference playoff race. They have 4 games to play and 8 points up for grabs. Entering today’s games around the league the Wild are 7th in the west with 51 points, 2 points up on 8th place Columbus and 3 points up on 9th place Detroit and 4 points ahead of 10th place Dallas. Minnesota trails 6th place St. Louis by 3 points and are 4 points back of San Jose and Los Angeles. Northwest Division leading Vancouver has 57 points, the Wild trail them by 6 with a game in hand. It’s possible to but not probable that Minnesota catches Vancouver, takes the division crown and the 3rd seed. Outside of Chicago and Anaheim at the top with 72 and 60 points respectively, the rest of the playoff spots are up for grabs between 8 teams.
The Wild play 3 of their last four games of the regular season on home ice at the Xcel Energy Center, Toight, Tuesday and Friday. Saturday they end this 48 games sprint of a regular season in Colorado. There will be no resting guys to get ready for the playoffs this season for Minnesota. Every point is precious and every game remaining a “must win”. Three of the Wild’s last four opponents are well below them in the Western Conference standings. Currently Calgary is 13th with 40 points, Edmonton is 12th with 41 and Colorado brings up the rear in 15th with just 35 points on the season. The Kings are the only squad on the remaining schedule ahead of Minnesota in the standings. L.A. is currently in 4th with 55 points.
OK now that we’ve thoroughly covered the Western Conference standings lets look at this little Wild versus Flames battle. The Flames are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race and headed for a probable top 5 draft pick. They also traded away Wild killer Jarome Iginla, no player has piled up more points against the Wild than Iggy, The Flames are 18-22-4 entering action tonight with a scoring average of 2.70 to the Wild’s 2.52 per game. Defensively the Wild allow an average of 2.57 goals per game, that compares favorably to Calgary’s 3.30 average per game. The Flames have the NHL’s 2nd worst goals allowed on average, leading only The Florida Panthers who allow a league worst 3.59 goals per game average. The Wild will need a very strong defensive showing this evening. The D-pairs should be the same as the last couple of games, those being:
During this last 3 game road trip the Wild’s defense corps had 3rd period break downs in each game. Against Calgary they allowed 3 goals in the final period, against Edmonton they gave up 2 and in the ugly loss to San Jose they surrendered 3. Those are some very, very un-Wild like numbers. The boys from St. Paul have had a couple of days off to rest and practice before facing the Flames on home ice where they are an impressive 13-6-2 so far this season. One other important statistic for the Wild and Niklas Backstrom is, they are 21-2-4 all time in games after one in which Backstrom was yanked. Against the Sharks Thursday he was pulled after surrendering 5 goals through 4+ minutes of the 3rd period. The Wild D will have to put in a full 60 minutes effort tonight against a Flames squad looking to play the spoiler role. Defensively Minnesota will need to move the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently, not allowing the Flames to get repeated shots and rebound opportunities.
Offensively Minnesota has been shut out four times this month and scored a total of 18 goals in the other 6 contests, 5 of those goals coming against Calgary last Monday. The Wilds offensive lines should look the same as last game. Mike Rupp skated in practice Saturday but is not expected to be in the lineup tonight along with Zenon Konopka who remains out with a broken foot. The lines for tonight appear to be:
These are the same lines that produced 9 goals in the first two games of the last road trip against the Flames and Oilers. Puck control and a heavy forecheck are musts tonight. The top line needs to be clicking against the Flames defense, over the last three games they have contributed just 3 goals and 1 assist. Luckily for Minnesota new acquired Jason Pominville and the newly minted third line have contributed 6 goals and 4 assists on the 3 game road trip. They will need to stay hot against Calgary tonight and hope the 1st and 2nd lines contribute as well. Speaking of the 2nd line, since Matt Cullen returned to the lineup after missing 6 games with an injury, that trio has contributed just a pair of assists. The Wild must have some point production our of this line if they expect to remain in the playoff hunt. Realistically Minnesota should be looking ending up in 5th to 7th position at the end of the regular season. I hope they don’t end up in the 8th slot and have to face the juggernaut that is the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs.
A couple of keys to victory for the Wild tonight are going to be the power play and the penalty kill. The Flames and Wild are ranked 14th and 15th in the NHL with power plays scoring 18.3% and 19.0% respectively. On the penalty kill the Wild have a success rate of 82.0% to the Flames 81.2%. Minnesota has to stay out of the box, avoiding lazy penalties and capitalize on their power play opportunities. Whoever wins the special teams battle will win tonight’s game. Another area the Wild must dominate is the faceoff dot. If they can gain and keep control of the puck especially right off the faceoffs, it should help their shots on goal total and defensive zone clears. Niklas Backstrom (22-13-3) will start in net tonight facing Miikka Kiprusoff (8-13-2) or Joey MacDonald (7-7-1). Backstrom, as I mentioned earlier, is a monster in games after ones in which he has been pulled including a 3-0 record in those situations this season. One of the biggest keys to this game is a fast start for Minnesota. Scoring the first goal, forcing the Flames to play from behind, will keep the pressure on Calgary and allow the Wild to play the game on their terms. Heading into tonight’s action the Wild are in fairly good shape on the injury from missing only 1 scorer (Heatley) and 2 fourth liners (Rupp, Konopka). They have 8 healthy defensemen with Prosser and Falk the likely scratches. All the pieces are in place, it’s now time to execute and extinguish the Flames. In the tight Western Conference the Wild must win 3 of these last four games, anything less and their Stanley Cup Playoff hopes are in danger. GonePuckWild.com will be with you as the intensity builds to the end of season climax. It’s going to be a sprint to the finish for your Minnesota Wild as they try to break their playoff drought. I’ll be back after tonights game with a recap and analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain confidently shouting, “LET’S GO WILD!!!”