The Minnesota Wild are in St. Louis tonight to take on the red-hot Blues. Just one point separates these two in the standings, as the Blues (16-3-3) hold a slight 35-34 lead over the Wild (15-5-4) in a Western Conference that is so tight, just four points separate first from eighth. Even more impressive is the fact that eighth in the West would be tied for first in the East. To say it’s a tough conference is an understatement. Both Minnesota and St. Louis enter the night with an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 games played. No other NHL team has had as good of a record in that span. For one team, it’ll only get better with a win tonight.
Minnesota has been bitten by the injury bug lately, as forwards Mikael Granlund and Torrey Mitchell, defenseman Keith Ballard and goaltender Josh Harding are all out with injuries. Of those four, only Ballard is on Injured Reserve. The Wild are hoping No. 2 center Granlund and No. 1 goalie Josh Harding will be able to return to the lineup for Wednesday’s home matchup with the Phoenix Coyotes. Tonight will be the season debut for rugged fourth line role player Mike Rupp, and Minnesota could certainly use his size and physical style of play against a tough St. Louis Blues squad.
That said, here’s the likely lineup for tonight’s game:
Zach Parise – Mikko Koivu – Nino Niederreiter
Jason Zucker – Charlie Coyle – Jason Pominville
Matt Cooke – Kyle Brodziak – Justin Fontaine
Rupp – Zenon Konopka – Dany Heatley
Ryan Suter – Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella – Jared Spurgeon
Clayton Stoner – Nate Prosser
Fortunately, Minnesota’s organizational depth is to the point where they can still look good without their No. 2 center, a top-4 defenseman and No. 1 goaltender. However, this is by no means going to be an easy game tonight. The Wild are playing arguably the best team in the league right now–a team that has lost just nine points out of a possible 44 thus far on the season. If Minnesota is going to pull one out in St. Louis, they need to stick to their system and the clutch performers need to keep being clutch performers.
Mikko Koivu has been on a roll, scoring four goals and nine assists for 13 points in the past nine games, and he needs to keep it up. Ryan Suter has been rock solid as per usual on the back end, logging an average of nearly 30 minutes a game, but is he able to do it again tonight after being injured early in the third period of Saturday afternoon’s win against the Jets? Niklas Backstrom, who had taken just one practice and a few shots in the 10 days after sustaining a concussion against the Maple Leafs, was fantastic against the Jets in an emergency start. Was that a fluke? Will he be able to do it again against one of the deadliest teams in the league? How does the addition of Rupp affect the team’s approach to the Blues? Does he step in and provide a key presence that isn’t afraid to throw some hits and keep the opposing team on their toes?
These are a few of the questions that will have to be answered tonight. Remember, the game will be broadcasted nationally on NBC Sports Network with the puck set to drop at 7 p.m. There’s no question this is going to be another highly physical and emotional game in what has quickly become the toughest division in the entire National Hockey League.