Tonight we find out if the Minnesota Wild are for real after their overtime victory against the Chicago Blackhawks. Game four in their Stanley Cup Quarterfinal Series is tonight at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop slated for 8:30 pm. The late start is to accommodate the scheduling on NBC Sports Network which is broadcasting the Pittsburgh Penguins vs New York Islanders game starting at 6 pm (CST). This is the game we find out if the Wild can sustain the tough in your face, out hit, out shoot your opponent style of hockey we saw Sunday. The series sits at 2-1 in favor of the Blackhawks and this pivotal game could well be the back breaker for the Wild or turn the series into a best of three affair.
Jason Zucker‘s overtime game winner and Josh Harding‘s spectacular play in net were two of the biggest stories of game 3. If anyone had told me before game one that Josh Harding would be in net for the first three games, after almost no action since early February, I would have predicted a Chicago Sweep. Harding has been masterful in goal, surrendering 8 goals in the first three games (The 5th goal in game 2 was an empty netter). In games 1 and 3 he allowed just 2 goals each night against a powerful Blackhawks lineup. Harding became the starting goalie when Niklas Backstrom sustained an injury during the pregame warm ups prior to game 1. As of practice today, which was an optional skate, Backstrom was not on the ice and remains listed as day to day. Given that and the great play by Harding I doubt we’ll see anyone other than Josh in net tonight. Just a few more reasons to start Harding are his .923 save %, his 2.41 goals against average, and 111 saves so far in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s not a player in the league who doesn’t express awe and amazement at what the Wild goalie has gone through in the past 9 months and his high level of play in the playoffs. Thers is one distinction I’d like to point out here that some hocey fans and those in the media have missed. Josh Harding is a NHL goal tender who happens to have MS. He is NOT an MS sufferer who plays hockey in the NHL.
Defensively Minnesota will look pretty much the same as game 3. You’d have to be insane to change up the top pair of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. incidentally the PHWA (Professional Hockey Writers Assn.) apparently doesn’t look any further than the first three columns of stats when voting on Calder Trophy Finalist Candidates. Jonas Brodin was NOT named a finalist for the Calder Trophy recognizing the rookie of the year. Talk about getting screwed, with that type of voting Suter will probably not be named a finalist for the Norris Trophy either. Those two will however be suiting up on Tuesday against Chicago. The next pair of Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scndella will most likely be unchanged heading into tonight’s action. For the 5th and 6th defensemen Head Coach Mike Yeo has a few guys to choose from, Tom Gilbert, Justin Falk, Brett Clark, Nate Prosser, Clayton Stoner and rookie Matt Dumba. Dumba was recalled from Houston after the Aeros were eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs by the Grand Rapids Griffins over the weekend. My best guess it that Gilbert gets the start along with Falk or Clark. The Wild defense has been playing hard nosed playoff hockey, finishing checks and sacrificing the body to block shots. One thing the Wild defensemen did in game 3 was to limit the Blackhawks time of possession in the Wild’s zone. Crisp, efficient passes are helping jumpstart the Wild’s offense while their play in the neutral zone is slowing up Chicago as they try to carry the puck into the offensive zone. So far in the series the Wild have limited Chicago’s big guns Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane to no goals and Marian Hossa to just 1. To this juncture Chicago’s top scorers are Frolik, Bickell and Sharp with 2 goals each. The Wild defense is doing their job, they just need the offense to do theirs.
The offensive lines for the Wild should look pretty much the same as game three with the exception of the 4th line. One other thing that could change things up would be the return of Jason Pominville. At this point that seems rather unlikely. He did skate in practice Monday but still seems to be a ways off from returning to the lineup. The longer this series goes the better the chance he will return to action. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle will be unchanged as will the line of Matt Cullen, Jason Zucker, and Devin Setoguchi. The third line will remain Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard had one of his best games of the season Sunday scoring a goal and adding an assist on 4 four shots in 15:11 of ice time. The fourth line is where we may see some changes tonight. Jake Dowell and Carson McMillan have also been called up from Houston. With Zenon Konopka‘s broken foot and Mike Rupp‘s knee issue one of them could see time on the fourth line with Torrey Mitchell and ball of energy Stephane Veilleux who made his season debut with the team Sunday. One thing the Wild will need to continue to do is hit the Blackhawks every chance they get. Sunday they outhit them 34 to 13 and by the end of the game they had the ‘Hawks looking over their shoulders and making bad passes anticipating contact. The Wild also need to continue to shoot, shoot, shoot the puck. They out shot Chicago 37 to 27 for the game and had a 29-17 edge after two periods. The Blackhawks will once again have Corey Crawford in goal as the injured (lower b0dy) Ray Emery is still not ready for game action. The book on Crawford for the Wild seems to be shoot high, as that is where all three goals were scored on Sunday. Peppering Crawford with rubber seems to be a good idea as the Wild have been out shooting opponents as of late. Coach Yeo’s plan for Tuesday night seems to be outshoot, outhit, out skate the Blackhawks. Not a bad plan as it seems to have worked well in game 3. So far through three games the Wild have 6 players with a goal and Matt Cullen leading in points with 3.
Tonight promises to be an exciting affair. They Wild will need to control and channel that emotion and avoid taking bad penalties while forcing Chicago to spend some time in the penalty box. Special teams are going to be extremely important with goals being tough to come by this evening. The squad that spends the most time on the power play will most likely take the victory. Minnesota has an excellent penalty kill but I just don;t want to see it in action too many times. Remember this is a late starting game with puck drop scheduled for a few minutes after 8:30 Minnesota time (CST). Tickets are an expensive proposition on the secondary market but you can watch the game on Fox Sports North where available and on NBC Sports Network everywhere else. GonePuckWild.com will keep you informed as to any changes as game time approaches. Your Minnesota Wild Game Day Correspondent, that’s me, will be back after the game with a recap and analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain and the whole State Of Hockey Chanting, “LET’S GO WILD!!!”