The Minnesota Wild take on the Chicago Blackhawks tonight in the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center. Puck drop is slated for 7 pm and the game will be broadcast on Fox Sports North and NHL Network depending on your location. So far this season the renewed rivalry between Minnesota and Chicago has seen the two teams split a pair of games. The Wild are currently 4th in the Central Division while the Blackhawks hold the top spot. Point wise the Central is a log jam at the top with Chicago at 44, St. Louis 39, Colorado 38 and Minnesota at 37 points. The Blackhawks come into tonight’s action off a loss to the Dallas Stars while the Wild are feeling good after a 2-0 shutout of the Phidelphia Flyers on Monday. Minnesota has a 16-8-5 overall record and an excellent 11-3-2 record on home ice. Chicago is 20-5-4 overall and has an impressive 11-3-1 road record. The defending Stanley Cup champs had just finished a 7 game road trip going 6-1 in that stretch before their loss to the Stars at home. Bottom line, the Wild are going to have to be at their best tonight, if they want the two points in this Central Division match up.
The forward lines for the Wild should look pretty much the same as Monday. That means the 3-captains line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville will remain intact. That line scored the 1st goal against the Flyers and created a plethora of scoring chances throughout the game. The Wild will need them at the top of their game if Minnesota is to shoot down the Blackhawks. Line 2 looks to be Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Dany Heatley. Line three features Justin Fontaine, who has watched the last couple of game from the press box as a healthy scratch, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke. The fourth line will consist of Torrey Mitchell, Eric Haula, and either Mike Rupp or Zenon Konopka.
Defensively the pairings will be the same as last game with the dynamic duo of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin leading the way. Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella will have their hands full tonight with a deep Chicago lineup. Spurgeon had a great game Monday picking up the primary assist on Coyle’s goal and jumping into the offense several times without creating a odd man rush for Chicago. He blocked four shots and ended up a +1 for the game skating a total of 20:50. His partner Scandella had a strong game as well and is having the best season of his career with 6 assists and a team leading +/- rating of +6. He’s averaging nearly 20-minutes of ice time per game. The final pair will be Keith Ballard skating with Clayton Stoner. The defensemen who will most likely to be healthy scratches are Mathew Dumba and Nate Prosser. One thing the Wild has this season is 8 healthy NHL defensemen. The injury bug has not bitten the Minnesota defense corps too badly this season. The competition for ice time among the D-men is intense and provides the Wild with some nice assets for possible trades as the season moves along. Dumba is one of 25 players headed to Canada’s world junior team selection camp. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has said this is a great opportunity for Dumba, who is the only invitee playing on an NHL roster. As a group the Wild “D” will have their hands full tonight trying to shut down a Blackhawks team that averages 3.48 goals a game on an average of 34.6 shots. The Wild are averaging 2.31 goals on 28.4 shots per game.
In net tonight for the Wild be Josh Harding with his amazing home record of 11-1-0 with a 1.12 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. He’s coming off a shutout on Monday that sees him tied for the NHL lead with 3. His overall 1.45 goals against leads the league while his 1.43 goals against ranks 2nd and his 14 win total is tied for 4th in the NHL. What a season Harding is having, he wanted to be the number one goal tender for the Wild and he’s showing what he is capable of. He was injured earlier in the season and Niklas Backstrom went 1-1 in the previous two games against Chicago. The Blackhawks will most likely have Corey Crawford in goal sporting a record of 17-5-3, a .909 save % and a goals against average of 2.43.
Two area of the game that could make or break this game for Minnesota are the power play and penalty kill. The Wild power play has struggled this season scoring just 20.2% of the time. The real issue on the power play is the lack of them. To date the Wild have drawn a total 93 penalties giving them a paltry average of just 3.20 power plays a game. Minnesota’s penalty kill, usually a strong point of their game, is ranked 23rd in the league at 79%. The Blackhawks special teams have not been exactly powerful with their penalty kill ranking 29th at 74.1%. Their power play is a bit better, scoring at a 20% clip. Tonight’s matchup will most likely be decided by who can convert on their man advantage while minimizing their trips to the penalty box. Chicago has a deep bench and when they get rolling, come at you in waves firing off shots from all angles. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo spent the majority of yesterday’s practice working his squad hard on the power play. Minnesota must develop some kind of consistent flow and better puck control on the man advantage. We’ll see tonight if that work pays off.
The Wild broke their 7 game streak of giving up the games first goal on Monday and they must do that again tonight. Forcing the Blackhawks to play from behind and keep pressing will allow the Wild to take advantage of any Chicago mistakes. I sound like a broken record saying the Wild much come out aggressively, and play their game controlling the puck and challenging the Blackhawk defenders. Defensively Minnesota has to play a strong tight checking game. If they allow Chicago too much open space and room to work it won’t be good result when the final horn sounds. The Blackhawks leading scorers are Patrick Kane with 16 goals and 16 assists, followed by Jonathon Toews (12g, 13a) and Duncan Keith (1g, 24a )at 25 points apiece. The Wild’s leading point men are Zach Parise with 12 goals and 13 assists , Mikko Koivu (6g, 17a) and Jason Pominville who leads the team with 14 goals to go with 5 assists.
Minnesota must keep playing the disciplined, puck control game that has seen them get off to one of the best starts in team history. If they allow the Blackhawks to get a lead it will be a very tough uphill battle for the boys from St. Paul. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and some analysis of this Central Division battle. Bring on the ‘Hawks and let’s play hocky! Until next time this is Scott Drain shouting from rooftop in cold crisp air, “LET’S GO WILD!!”