The Minnesota Wild take on the San Jose Sharks in an Sunday evening match up at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Puck drop is scheduled for 5 pm and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North (FSN). The Sharks are wrapping up a four game road trip, going 1-2 so far, coming off a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Wild are looking to rebound after a disaster of a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in which almost nothing went well from offense to defense and goal tending to special teams. Minnesota is trying to put that debacle behind them and look toward the future. The teams focus needs to be on the here and now as they have a chance tonight to pick up two points against a Western Conference foe. The Wild enter the game 4th in the Central Division with 39 points. They are just one point behind third place Colorado and just two points in back of 2nd place St. Louis. Chicago continues to lead the division with 45 points but their lead is diminishing in the tight Central Division. Minnesota has posted an overall record of 17-9-5 and continue to be dominant on home ice with a 12-3-2 record. The Sharks are 19-5-5 overall and an impressive 9-4-3 outside of the Shark Tank. San Jose has shown some vulnerability as of late, losing 2 of 3 games on their current road trip after a home stand that saw them win 5 straight. The Sharks hold 2nd place in the Pacific Division with
The Wild are 19-23-5 all time vs the Sharks but have a winning record on home ice going 11-9-3. During last season’s abbreviated 48 game schedule these two teams met three times with the Wild winning once on home ice while losing two at the SAP Center. Minnesota is looking extend their current 5-game win streak against the Sharks at the Xcel Energy Center this evening. The last time the Wild lost to San Jose on home ice was April 2, 2010. Minnesota is entering a stretch that sees them on the road for 7 of their next 9 games including today’s game in St. Paul. Considering how average the Wild have been away from home this season putting up a 5-6-3 marks, a win against San Jose would be a real confidence builder.
Minnesota needs to do a few important things if they are to defeat a very good San Jose team. First off they need to get quality shots on goal, by that I mean get the puck down low and get shots off from the top of the face of circles and in the slot. In their loss to Columbus the Wild managed just 20 shots for the game and most of those came from the perimeter. Along with quality Minnesota needs quantity when it comes to shots. All too often Wild shooters pass up a good attempt on an opposing goalie electing instead to make one more pass to try for an even better shot. Sometimes that works and quite often it doesn’t. As the old saying goes, you can’t score if you don’t shoot. Annti Niemi is one of the better #1 net minders in the league and he is tied for 2nd overall in wins with 16 and tied for 3rd in shutouts with 2. He’s middle of the pack in other areas as his 2.31 goals against average and .915 save percentage show. If the Wild can send a bunch of rubber Niemi’s way the goals will come. We’ll get to Josh Harding’s numbers in just a bit.
The second area the Wild need to control is special teams. Currently Minnesota ranks 7th overall with a 20.8% conversion rate on the power play. The problem for the Wild is drawing penalties. Minnesota has gone on the man advantage just 101 times and are averages just 3.25 power plays per game this season. Those totals are good for a 14th place tie in the NHL. The Wild penalty kill ranks 26th in the league at 78%. The Minnesota penalty killers will bill be tasked with shutting down an average Sharks power play that is ranked 15th in the league. Today the Wild must maximize their power play opportunities while avoiding bad penalties that kill their offensive momentum.
Another important part of the Wild’s game must be getting the first goal. All to often this season Minnesota has surrendered the first goal of the game creating situations where they have to take chances defensively trying to even the score. Slow starts by the Wild has seen the team playing back on their heels as opponents come at them in waves. Minnesota needs to get back to the dominant puck control team we saw in the first 20 games this season. It’s awfully hard for the opposition to score when the puck is in their end most of the time. Good puck control will also allow the Wild defenders chances to jump into the play whether it’s as part of a line rush up the ice or a chance to pinch in and keep a play alive.
The forward lines tonight should look about the same as the last couple of games. The top line consisting of Mikko Koivu- Zach Parise -Jason Pominville and line #2 featuring Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley. The third line has been playing very well as of late and may be the Wild’s most consistent line, it includes Torrey Mitchell-Kyle Brodziak-Matt Cooke. Tonight’s fourth line has a combination of grit and speed with Mike Rupp-Eric Haula-justin Fontaine. The lines are subject to change at a moments notice by Wild Head Coach MIke Yeo depending on opposing lines, production, or injury.
Deffensively the pairings should be the same as against Columbus with Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon with Marco Scandella, and Keith Ballard skating with Clayton Stoner. This defensive line up will be tasked with stopping the Sharks big guns including; Joe Thornton (5g, 27a), Logan Couture (10g, 18a), Patrick Marleau (12g, 15a), and Joe Pavelski (9g, 18a). The Sharks average 3.34 goals a game while allowing just 2.24. San Jose like to shoot as their 36 shots a game average shows. They allow quite a few shots as well, with opponents gettting just over 28 shots per game.
The Wild’s scoring average is down to 2.29 goals a game while they allow nearly the same at 2.26. The Wild are averaging nearly 28 shots a night while allowing the 2nd fewest in the NHL at 25.2 on average. Josh Harding will be the man in charge of keeping Sharks shots our of the net. He comes into this game with a record of 15-4-3. His 15 wins tie him for 3rd best in the league. His goals against average is #1 in the NHL at 1.52 and his save percentage is ranked 9th overall at .935. Harding also is tied for the league lead in shutouts at 3. He will be getting the start in net tonight and I’m predicting he allows 2 or fewer goals vs the Sharks today.
As previously mentioned this is a big game for the Minnesota Wild who need a win to jump into a 2nd place tie in the Central Division with idle St. Louis. Minnesota would also leap frog 3rd place Colorado if the Avalanche lose to the Canucks in Vancouver tonight. This should be an exciting matchup between two good teams each looking to move up in the divisional standings with a victory. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and some analysis of the night’s action. Until then this is Scott Drain calling out in the cold, crisp air, “LET’S GO WILD! LET’S GO WILD!!”