The Minnesota Wild are in southern California to take on the Anaheim Ducks this evening. This will be a late night for Wild fans as the game doesn’t start until 9:30 pm Central Time. You can catch all of tonight’s action on Fox Sports North (FSN). If you’re in the Anaheim area, you can also find cheap Wild vs Ducks tickets still available.
Minnesota has a tall task ahead of them as the Ducks are unbeaten on home ice so far this season posting a 11-0-2 record at the Honda Center and an overall record of 21-7-5. Anaheim leads the Pacific Division with 47 points, 4 ahead of 2nd place San Jose. The Wild have struggled on the road this season posting a record of 5-6-3 road record while going 18-9-5 overall. Minnesota’s 41 points are good for 3rd place in the Central Division. In the Western Conference the Ducks are in 2nd position while the Wild are in 6th. This is the second of three meetings between these two teams this season. The first was a Ducks 4-3 overtime victory at the Xcel Energy Center back on October 5th. After tonight’s game in Anaheim the two teams meet once again at the Honda Center on January 28th.
The Wild are in a stretch of games that seem them on the road for 7 of 10 through the end of the month. During that time Minnesota plays 6 Western Conference games with just two of those against teams in the Central Division, the Blues and Jets. Three of those Western Conference games are on the road against the Ducks, Sharks, and Avalanche The other 4 game are against Eastern Conference teams including the Penguins, Rangers, and Flyers on the road. Minnesota has the opportunity to pile up some points against out of division foes and close the gap with the Chicago Blackhawks who currently have a 6 point cushion over 2nd place St. Louis and third place Minnesota. Minnesota has won 3 of 4 games in the month of December and now hit the road fresh off a bizarre win over the San Jose Sharks Sunday night. The Wild were out shot 38 to 13 but scored three times to the Sharks once to take the 2 points.
Minnesota is going to have to get back to their game and limit the oppositions shots and scoring opportunities. Currently Minnesota is 2nd in the league with and average of just 25.5 shots against per game. The Wild have plenty of offensive fire power but are only averaging 27.5 shots per game. The Ducks meanwhile give up an average of 29.0 shots a game while taking 31.9 shots on average. The Wild are going to need to win the special teams battle with Anaheim. Minnesota scores on the power play 20.4% of the time, ranking 8th in the NHL. The Sharks are almost 3 percentage points back at 17.6%. When it comes to the penalty kill though, the Wild trail the Ducks 78.8% to 82.1%. Both squads PK is ranked in the bottom half of the league.
Goal tending is going to be another critical area for the Wild. Since Minnesota’s scoring average is just 2.31 goals a game well behind the 4th ranked Ducks at 3.15 goals per outing look for Josh Harding to get the start in net for the Wild. The NHL’s #3 star of the month for November is putting up spectacular numbers this season including a 16-4-3 overall record, 3 shutouts, goals against average of 1.50 and a save percentage at .938. Harding is ranked in the top three in the league in all four of those categories. Over the course of his career against the Ducks he is 3-4-0 with a goals against of 2.60 , and a save % of .915. The Ducks will counter with net minder Jonas Hiller and his 11-4-4 overall record, goals against of 2.57 and .913 save %. Hiller took the victory against Niklas Backstrom in the first meeting between the teams back on October 5th.
The Ducks last played on Monday, beating the New York Islanders 5-2 in the Shark Tank. The Wild have been off since their 3-1 victory over the Sharks on Sunday. Both teams should be well rested and ready for battle this evening. The Wild have made a couple of roster moves since Sunday, reassigning Eric Haula to the Iowa Wild and recalling Jason Zucker from Des Moines. Haula has totaled 2 assists, a +1 rating and 0 penalty minutes while averaging 9:26 of ice time in 6 games with the NHL club this season. Zucker brings his speed and aggressive offensive style back to the NHL level in time for the game against the Ducks. He’s played 6 games at the NHL level this season and has yet to score or assist on a goal, has a cumulative -1 rating while averaging 12:56 in ice time per game. Zucker is expected to play on the Wild’s #2 forward line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter if he’s in the line up tonight. I doubt Zucker will be watching form the press box if the Wild went to the time and expense of calling him up while in the midst of a road trip.
The rest of the Wild’s forward lines will look something like this. Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville on the top line. Over the last three games this trio has accounted for 5 of 9 goals scored by the Wild and a number of assists as well. The third line looks to include Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell while Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka and Justin Fontaine will make up the fourth line. The #2 line of Zucker, Coyle and Niederreiter while young, just 21 years old, have shown the ability to pass, shoot and score at the NHL level. So far this season they have a total of 8 goals, 15 assists and a -1 overall rating between them. This line has the potential to put up some big numbers and frustrate the heck out of opposing defenses. As a group this is probably the fastest line on the Minnesota roster but also one of the least experienced. That lack of experience has shown itself with some bad turnovers and inconsistent play but, the upside of these three offensively has been excellent. As Zucker, Coyle and Niederreiter continue to grow and progress, their contributions will show more and more on the score sheet.
Defensively the Wild have a problem many teams would love to have. That being 8 healthy, NHL ready defensemen. This evening the pairs most likely will be; Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, and Keith Ballard skating with Clayton Stoner. That leaves Mathew Dumba and Nate Prosser as healthy scratches. Dumba has been assigned to the Canadian National Junior Team to play for Team Canada in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. That tournament starts on December 26th, 2013 and runs through January 5th, 2014. Prosser is due for some ice time soon as Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has said he wants to get Prosser into some games.
The Wild defenders will have their hands full with the Ducks big guns. The line of Dustin Penner, Corey Perry, and Ryan Getzlaf has a total of 45 goals and 50 assists through 33 games this season. Whoever the Wild have on the ice against that line will have their hands full and need to be at the top of their game. The Ducks are on a streak of 6 games in which they have picked up at least one point. Anaheim is a big physical team and has an effective, aggressive forecheck that the Wild will need to avoid with quick, accurate passes out of the defensive zone to jump start the offense. If the Ducks are allowed to have long stretches of offensive pressure it will be a long night for the Wild.
One other important area for the Wild tonight will be the power play. Wild Coach Mke Yeo has shuffled the #1 and #2 units a bit. The top PP unit will consist of; Koivu, Parise, Pominville, and a pair of defensemen, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. The second unit will include; Coyle, Fontaine, Heatley, and defensemen Ballrd and Brodin. The changes are not only shuffling personnel but having a pair of defensemen on each unit out on the point patrolling the blue line. The coaching staff hopes these changes increase zone time on the power play and lead to more shots on goal and scoring opportunities.
Tonight’s game is important for Minnesota. They need to start this stretch of road games on a positive note. The time for “moral victories” is past. The Wild need to get their road record up above .500 if they are to stay in the top three in the Central Division as the midpoint of the season approaches. Minnesota has the offense, defense and goal tending to get the job done. They just need to have all three show up on any given night. I;ll be back after the game with a recap and some analysis of the night’s action. Have an extra cup of coffee this evening and stay up for some high octane hockey action between two teams that don’t like each other very much.
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