It’s on! Tonight the Minnesota Wild open the 2013-14 season hosting the Los Angeles Kings at the Xcel Energy Center. Puck Drop is 7 pm and the pregame festivities start at 4:30 pm with a pre-game party by Gate 2 of the X. One reminder if you’re looking for the game on TV. It is NOT on Fox Sports North. IT IS on NBS Sports Network, NBCSN.
The Wild are looking to improve on last season’s 8th place finish in the Western Conference starting with a win tonight. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has changed up his system this year looking for the defense to join in the offense more often and help to create more scoring opportunities while still being one of the top defenses in the NHL. That’s a tall order for a team the was somewhat offensively challenged last season, and the season before that and the season before that, if you catch my drift. The Wild are 11-0-1 in home openers with the only tie coming back in 2000 against Philadelphia in the team’s inaugural season. Minnesota went 2-1-0 against the Kings last season with both wins coming on home ice. This is a Kings team that has been to back to back conference finals and won the Stanley Cup in 2012. Their core group includes Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams and goalie Jonathan Quick. One thins Wild Coach Mike Yeo has said it he wants “a pack of wolves mentality” from his team. He wants the payers on the ice to go to the defense and aid of their teammates. Yeo wants more team toughness and grit across the board. That starts tonight. Remember who knocked Jason Pominville out for the end of the regular season and the first few games of the Wild’s playoff series against Chicago? That was the Kings Dustin Brown who was suspended 2 games for a dirty elbow to the head of Pominville. Maybe it’s time the Wild get a little tougher and lay some nice clean hits on the Kings or let Konopka have a “chat” with them. Brownie is questionable for tonight with a hamstring injury. To quote Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady, “How Convenient!”. The best revenge however, would be a convincing win to start the season. Domination in all aspects of the game and a message to the Central division that the Wild are here to win this season.
Looking at tonight’s matchup, Minnesota will roll out new line combinations starting with the Captains line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. During the last full NHL season all three of these players were Captains for their team. Parise in New Jersey, Pominville in Buffalo and of course Wild Captain Koivu. This is the line that must produce, game in, game out all season long. This is also a combination that should be around for a while with Pominville signing a five year contract extension today. Parise is signed until sometime in the next decade and I don’t see Koivu going anywhere for a few years. The sceond line looks to be Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Dany Heatley. This trio features the veteran Heatley who had a down year last season including a season ending shoulder injury. Coyle had a great preseason and is expected to be a force on the ice this season. El-Nino is looking to show the NHL that he can be a top tier player after spending some so-so seasons with the Islanders. The Wild’s third line is an intriguing one with Mikael Granlund, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke. This line has plenty of grit in Cooke and Brodziak but all three players have shown they can score as well totaling 59 goals and 64 assists over the last two seasons. The fourth line for tonight has Justin Fontaine making his NHL debut along with face off specialist and enforcer Zenon Konopka and the speedy Torrey Mitchell. This fourth line is more than just a checking/grit line. Mitchell has shown the ability to score and Fontaine adds speed and passing ability as well.
Niklas Backstrom will get the start in goal tonight. He’s been strong this preseason and was a work horse last season starting 42 of the teams 48 regular season games. Josh Harding will be on the bench as back up. Backstrom is 8–6-3 lifetime vs the Kings with two shutouts and a .913 save percentage.
Defensively the Wild will once again lean on their minute munching number one defensive pair of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Suter averaged more minutes on the ice than any other NHL player last season with 27:16 per game. He plays in all situation and has become a fixture on the Wild’s power play and penalty kill units. Suter’s partner Jonas Brodin shocked the NHL last season when, as a rookie, he averaged 23:12 in time on ice while playing against the best lines in the league. I look for Brodin’s offensive production to ramp up this season, he’s shown a heavy accurate shot and needs to stop deferring to other players and let it rip. Suter has a cannon from the point, especially on the power play racking up 4 goals and 32 assists during the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign. The second pair for the Wild at this point looks to be Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella. Spurgeon is becoming a veteran presence on the blue line, entering his 4th NHL season, totaling 167 games to date. Scandella is getting a chance to prove he can play consistently after 3 years of splitting time with the Wild and their AHL affiliate. Last season he only saw action in 6 NHL games. He needs to play a much more solid defensive game than in the past when some of his pinches and gambles panned out badly for him and the team. The third pair tonight has newly acquired Keith Ballard teamed with Clayton Stoner or Nate Prosser. I say this because Coach Yeo has announced that rookie Mathew Dumba will not be on the ice tonight. Ballard has been skating with Dumba in practice but if Dumba’s out then it’s a toss up between Prosser and Stoner. Both of those two have spent significant time watching from the press box as healthy scratches in the past. Ballard brings a veteran presence to the blue line and likes to talk to his defensive partner both on the ice and on the bench, a valuable tool for yound d-men. However the fianl pair shakes out all three pairs are facing a tall task tonight against a Kings team that finished 5th in the Western Conference last season and sported the third highest positive goal differential in the conference. The Kings are big, fast and like to shoot, the Wild defense will have their hands full tonight.
The Wild are looking to up the ante on the power play this season,starting tonight. The top unit is loaded with talent and includes Koivu, Parise, Pominville, Suter, and Dany Heatley this group had 14 of the Wild’s 26 power play goals last season. The number two PP unit is one of the youngest in the league and is led by, according to Coach Yeo, “The old vet” in Jared Spurgeon. (He’s 23 years old) The rest of the unit includes Coyle-age 21, Niederrieter-age 21, Granlund-age 21, and Brodin-21. This may be a young group but, there is one heck of a lot of talent, speed and play making ability. This group is going to be a blast to watch tonight.
I’ll be back after the game with a wrap up and some analysis of the action. Until next time this is Scott Drain screaming, “LET’S GO WILD!!”