Sep 19, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Minnesota Wild defenseman Mathew Dumba (55) is congratulated by teammates after scoring Minnesota Wilds first goal during the first period at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild Take on Winnipeg Jets, Backstrom and Ballard Practicing

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The Minnesota Wild are in the ‘Peg for a matinee with the division-rival Jets this afternoon. Minnesota currently sits seventh in the West and fourth in the Central with a 14-5-4 record and 32 points–just three shy of a two-way tie with Anaheim for the Conference/League lead. Winnipeg mans the Central’s cellar, but to say it’s a shallow basement is an understatement. Just nine points separate the Wild from the Jets’ 10-11-3 record and 23 points.

So far this season, Minnesota has gone 2-0 against the Jets at the Xcel Energy Center, but this will be their first matchup in Winnipeg since a 4-1 preseason victory back on September 19th. Come to think of it, Minnesota hasn’t lost to the Jets in either the preseason or regular season this year. That said, expect a trouncing by Winny this afternoon. I kid, I kid.

It’s a four-point game today; two that will go to one team, and one or two taken from the other depending on how close the game is. The Jets will be ready, especially when you consider they don’t want to be swept at home after losing the first two of a three-game home stand. The Wild, on the other hand, are playing some of the best hockey they’ve played in a long time. No other team has a better last-10 record than Minnesota’s 8-1-1.

Three major pieces of the puzzle have been emerging No. 1 goalie Josh Harding, Norris Trophy favorite Ryan Suter and team captain Mikko Koivu.

It seems the NHL can’t go a day without publishing something about the outstanding play of either Harding or Suter. Harding is the feel-good story turned legitimately elite NHL netminder, and Suter is his right-hand man who has no problem playing more than half the game night in and night out. If these two players can keep it up, Minnesota may have a serious shot at collecting both the Norris and the Vezina trophies at season’s end.

Mikko Koivu has always had to be the man in Minnesota–especially when Marian Gaborik left–but the arrival of Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and the emerging youngsters has taken much of the offensive load off of the captain’s shoulders. That doesn’t mean he’s going to put on the cruise control, however. After a sluggish start to the season by the Wild’s top line, Koivu has exploded at a near-atomic bomb level, scoring four goals and eight assists for 12 points and a plus-3 rating in the past eight games. In 23 games, he has scored five goals and 15 assists to tie Parise for the team’s scoring lead with 20 points.

Koivu’s offense isn’t the only thing that has exploded, though. The normally reserved Finnish forward has really come out emotionally and physically charged, leading the team with a steely-blue fiery gaze that will not be put out. To coaches, teammates, fans and sports writers, this is the Mikko Koivu you want leading your team. Because when he gets angry, there isn’t a deadlier player you can put out on the ice. So, let’s hope someone didn’t get him his coffee this morning.

In other news, both Niklas Backstrom (concussion) and Keith Ballard (upper-body injury) spent time practicing with the team yesterday. In fact, Backstrom went so far as to take several shots. Neither one has been taken off Injured Reserve, and forward Mike Rupp is still on his conditioning stint with Iowa of the American Hockey League. If Backstrom is feeling good, because he was placed retroactively on IR, he could potentially make his return as Harding’s backup this afternoon, but that’s very unlikely. If he does, the Wild will send Darcy Kuemper back down to Iowa.

Torrey Mitchell is not with the team, but could meet them in St. Louis (see what I did there?) next week, meaning Jason Zucker will play his second straight game of the season alongside Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville on the second line.

Rookie Matt Dumba will play his 13th game of the season, and second in a row. Dumba has played every game against the Jets so far this season, and also scored a goal in the first of two preseason games against Winnipeg. He’ll play alongside Clayton Stoner on the bottom-pairing and head coach Mike Yeo is very happy with what the youngster brings to the lineup.

“Certainly when we’re playing in high-pace games, he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and his puck movement,’’ said Yeo. “He’s playing against a team that he’s played a number of times already, including preseason, so hopefully that gives him a little bit of comfort there. We have to give him a chance to get a couple games in a row and try to get in a bit of a rhythm here and see what he can do.’’

Remember, today’s game is at 2 p.m. Central Time on Fox Sports North. Should be a great game and another gritty chapter of what’s becoming a beautiful rivalry for a long time to come.

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Tags: Josh Harding Keith Ballard Mikko Koivu Niklas Backstrom Ryan Suter

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