The Minnesota Wild are rolling right along riding a three game win streak. Tonight they face the Chicago Blackhawks in the second game of a home and home series at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop slated for 7 pm Central time. The Wild are brimming with confidence after beating the Blackhawks 5-3 Saurday in Chicago. That loss was Chicago’s first regulation loss of the season and the ended a 14 game streak of games at the United Center in which they had picked up at least a point. Okay, enough reminiscing, the Wild need to be on their game tonight if they hope to take sole possession of second place in the Central Division. The Wild are currently tied with the Blackhawks with 15 points apiece trailing the first place Colorado Avalanche by 5 points. Minnesota boasts a 6-3-3 record compared to 6-2-3 for Chicago. Minnesota is undefeated in regulation at home with a 4-0-2 record. The Wild surprised the Blackhawks, their fans, and media around the league with their Saturday night 5 goal explosion. Chicago is coming into St. Paul with their eyes wide open and a chip on their collective shoulder. The Wild will need to play an even stronger, more disciplined, and smartly aggressive game than they did Saturday, silencing the Madhouse on Madison.
Niklas Backstrom was thrust back into goal, his first start since October 8th, when Josh Harding was injured two games ago. Backstrom will get the nod again tonight and should be even closer to “100%” than he was Saturday. Backstrom’s numbers after 4 starts are below his career averages but improving. He has a 1-0-2 record with a 2.99 goals against average and a .885 save percentage. He faced 36 shots making 33 saves and was instrumental in killing off 6 of 7 power plays for Chicago. Josh Harding did participate in the morning skate and will be backing up Backstrom tonight. At the other end of the ice Chicago’s Corey Crawford will be looking to improve on a 20 save performance, with five goals allowed, in round one against Minnesota. He enters tonight with a 5-2-2 record a 2.37 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.
The Wild forward lines are starting to gel and goal production is climbing. The top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Justin Fontaine is flying. Parise scored last game to tying him with Jason Pominville for the goal lead at 6. Mikko and Matt Cooke are just behind Parisse with 8 points apiece. Fontaine seems to have found a home on the top line, scoring two goals in the last 3 games. The second with Pominville and Mikael Granlund is clicking with Grandlund’s passing ability meshing nicely with Pominville’s scoring touch. The lines will be the same as last game, why mess with success, with Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley on the third line. The fourth line will consist of Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell and Stephane Veilleux. The Wild will need a balanced scoring attack tonight to be able to sweep this home and home series.
Defensively the pairs will remain jumbled but effective with just 6 healthy defensemen on the roster. The Top pair tonight will be Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, pair two will be Marco Scandella with Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner skate with Mathew Dumba. Jonas Brodin is still out indefinitely with a broken cheekbone among other facial injuries, Keith Ballard is skating but not back to game strength. Prosser is making the most of his opportunity after being a healthy scratch for the early part of the season. He has played solid defensively, contributing a sandpaper quality to the team and he’s picked up two assists in the last 3 games. The defense is going to have to be strong and smart tonight. Blackhawks’ forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are on a tear as of late with each registering 4 points in the last three games. Chicago is four lines deep and each line is a threat to score each time they step on the ice. Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad also are near the top of the Chicago scoring list with their excellent puck moving abilities.
One thing the Wild must avoid tonight is taking bad penalties and spending too much time on the penalty kill. Saturday night they took 7 penalties and managed to kill 6 of them. While the Minnesota penalty kill is improving, up to 76.5%, giving Chicago 7 power plays is a recipe for disaster. On the other side of the coin the Wild power play is clicking right along scoring 13 power play goals in 12 games. Saturday they went 1 for 5, leaving thier power play percentage at 26%, 5th best in the league. If they get multiple power play chances in a period tonight the Wild must cash in, taking advantage of tired Blackhawk penalty killers. I won’t go into the possibility of 5 on 3 man advantages for Minnesta, those have been abysmal the last three extended opportunities they have been given.
Simply put the Wild need to play a clean game, avoid bad penalties and convert on scoring chances. They’ve shown they can do it and tonight they will have a roaring home crowd behind them. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North (FSN) and the team will be wearing their new road Whites for the home crowd. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and analysis of the night’s action. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting, “Let’s Go Wild!!”