The Minnesota Wild start their first lengthy road trip of the season with a stop in Buffalo to take on the Sabres Monday night. The Wild are coming off a dominating 5-1 victory over the Dallas Stars and sport a 2-1-2 record. Buffalo has struggled, to put it nicely, so far with a 0-5-1 record. They are one of two teams in the NHL without a regulation win this season, the other is New Jersey. Buffalo is dead last in the Eastern Conference with just 1 point. Tonight also marks the return of Jason Pominville to Buffalo, the only team he had played for prior to his trade to Minnesota at the trade deadline last season. Pominville is glad to get this game out of the way early in the season. He should be the epicenter of media attention throughout his time in Buffalo. The trade came as a surprise to the former Sabre’s Captain but he is in Minnesota for years to come after signing a 5 year contract extension worth a reported 28 million dollars.
Minnesota needs to get a win tonight to start this 4 game trip out on the right note. This is also the front end of back to back games with the second against the Atlantic Division leading Toronto Maple Leafs. The Wild need to score first and the earlier the better in order to put the Sabres back on their heels, forcing them to play catch up all game. So far this season the Wild have scored 14 goals to the Sabres 6. The goals against is even more telling with Minnesota surrendering 12 to Buffalo’s 16. The Wild also need to continue their trend of out shooting opponents. The Wild average 32.4 shots per game while only allowing 21.4. Those numbers are reversed for the Sabres who allow 37 shots against per game while only taking and average of 25.8 shots. The Wild’s strong defense should be able to keep Buffalo well under the 30 shot mark tonight.
Speaking of defense the Wild will be going with the same pairs as the last few games led by Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Brodin ranks third on the team in scoring with 2 goals and 2 assists. Suter isn’t far behind, ranking fifth, with 3 helpers so far this season. The second pair of Jared Spurgeon and Keith Ballard were very effective together last game making crisp, clean first passes out of the defensive one. Spurgeon has also been contributing offensively with a goal and 2 assists so far this season. The third pair for tonight looks to be Mathew Dumba and Clayton Stoner. This pair played well last game vs the Stars with Dumba picking up the first goal of his NHL career. He like to jump in on the offense and so far he hasn’t bee caught down low while the opposition heads into the Wild’s zone with an odd man rush.
The forward lines for this evening should look pretty much the same as Saturday. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Nino Neiderreiter accounted for 2 goals and an assist last game including Neiderreiter’s first tally in a Wild sweater. Parise leads the Wild in goals with 4 in 5 games. The second line features Jason Pominville with Dany Heatley and Mikael Granlund. This trio has 1 goal by Pominville and 4 assists by Heatley and Granlund. One thing the Minnesota coaching staff is looking for is mor production out of Heatley. He’s fully recovered from the should injury that cut his last season short and should have more than the single assist he’s recorded so far this season. The third line has been doing the heavy lifting for the Wild with Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine. So far this season they’ve piled up 8 points including 3 goals and 2 assists by Cooke who lead the team in points with 5. The fourth line has Zenon Konopka skating with Torrey Mitchell and Stephane Veilleux. Another interesting matchup tonight will be the battle of the agitators, Cooke against Ott. These are two of the premier trash talkers and pests in the league, so the chirping should be entertaining. Ott had accumulated 1272 penalty minutes in 11 NHL seasons while Cooke has 1068 minutes in 15 seasons. Both have the ability to get under an opponents skin and rank among players their teammates like and opponents hate. Cooke stands 5’11″ and wieghs 208 ponds while Ott is 6′ tall and tips the scale at 189. A pretty even match up if these two decide to drop the gloves. The difference is that Cook leads the Wild in points and so far this year has been much more valuable on the ice than Ott. If Ott is looking for a dance partner I’d expect Konopka to take that invitation rather than Cooke.
While the Sabres are in rebuilding mode they still have some star power on their roster including forward Thomas Vanek who has a pair of goals and assists in 6 game this season. This is Vanek’s last year of his contract and the rumors persist that he is a prime target for the Wild during the next free agency period. The top scored for Buffalo is Cody Hodgson with 5 points (1goal, 4 assists). Vanek is the only Sabre with more than a single goal this season. Even with their poor record the Wild cannot afford to look past Buffalo. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team with no wins facing an opponent who thinks their getting an easy win.
In goal for the Wild will be Josh Harding with Niklas Backstrom still listed day to day with a knee injury. Harding has put up some good numbers early in the season with a .944 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.07 to date. He hasn’t faced many shots as the Wild defense has only allowed a total of 34 Shots during the last two games. Harding will be backed up by Darcy Kuemper who was sent down to the AHL’s Iowa Wild at the conclusion to Saturday’s game against Dallas. He played Sunday in Iowa’s loss to Oklahoma City and will rejoin the NHL Wild in Buffalo unless Backstrom is deemed strong enough to back up Harding tonight. At the other end of the ice will be Ryan Miller who sports a .941 save percentage and a 2.27 goals against average in four losses this season. Miller has faced 153 shots in those four games, an average of 38.25 shots per game. That doesn’t say much for the Sabres defense. The Wild need to continue that trend tonight by doing what has worked for them so far this season and that is shoot the puck. Right now there are 3 defensemen in the top 10 Wild in points. The Minnesota D need to keep jumping into the rush when it makes sense and create odd man rushes. Most important though is limiting the Sabres shot attempts and staying out of the penalty box. The Wilds power play is much better than their penalty kill so far. The power play is scoring at a 30.4 % clip while the penalty kill is not good at 66.7%. That last number has to improve if the Wild are going to be one of the top teams in the Central Division let alone the Western Conference.
Puck drop is slated for 6:30 Central time and the game will be NOT be on Fox Sports North. It will be on the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). You can also listen in using the link on Wild.com. Tonight is an important game for the Wild as they need to start this 4 game road swing in the east on a positive note. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and some analysis of the night’s action. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting loud and proud, “LET’S GO WILD!!”