Dec 8, 2013; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin (25) chases the puck as San Jose Sharks forward Tyler Kennedy (81) sends it behind the Wild net in the first period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild vs San Jose Sharks Preview

Dec 8, 2013; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu (9) goes after a puck that San Jose Sharks forward Brent Burns (88) sent to the boards in the first period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild continue their 3 game western road trip with a stop at the SAP Center to take on the San Jose Sharks. This is game two of the Wild’s trip.  Puck drop is scheduled for 9:30 pm Central Time and you can watch all the action on Fox Sports North (FSN) or  Comcast Sports Net California (CSN-CA).  The Wild are coming off a loss last night to the Anaheim Ducks while the Sharks lost in a shootout to the New York Islanders on Tuesday.  Minnesota and San Jose played this past Sunday at the Excel Energy Center with the Wild taking the win by a 3-1 final score.  The Sharks are looking for revenge on their home ice tonight.  Minnesota road record now stands at 5-7-3 with an overall record of 18-10-5.  San Jose starts the evening with a 19-6-5 overall record and are are nearly unbeatable on home is going 10-1-3 this season.  The Wild have had trouble winning at the SAP center going 1-7-0 on the Sharks home ice over the last few seasons.

The Wild were again victims of their own slow start Wednesday against the Ducks.  Minnesota was out played and out shot in the first two periods and by then they were down 2-0.  A goal by Jason Pominville brought the Wild to with in a goal but that’s all the closer they would get.  Tonight the story is the same.  If Minnesota gets off to a slow start and falls behind again the result will be the same.  A road loss and two valuable points that have slipped away.  The teams just ahead of and behind the Wild are in action tonight.  The St. Louis Blues are a point in front of the Wild by 2 points in the Central Division while the Colorado Avalanche are just 1 point behind.  The Wild need to take care of business and get a victory just to keep pace in the tight Central Division race.

The forward lines for tonight should look pretty much the same as Wednesday.  Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Joson Pominville make up the top line.  Jason Zucker or Brett Bulmer, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle are on the second line, the youngest group for Minnesota. More on Bulmer later in this article.  All three second liners are just 21 years old.  Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, and Torrey Mitchell make up the third forward line and Dany Heatley, Zenon Konopka, and Justin Fontaine are on the fourth line.

The mission for the Wild tonight is score.  They need to get off to a fast start and put San Jose back on their heels. I know you’ve heard this before but, it’s a critical part of the Wild’s game.  The Wild are at their most effective offensively when they forecheck well, control the puck and pressure the opposing defense into mistakes.  Point wise Minnesota is led by Zach parise with 14 goals and 12 assists, right behind him is Captain Mikko Koivu with 25 points on 7 goals and 18 assists.  Jason Pominville is the Wild’s leader in goals with 15 including the lone Minnesota goal last night.  As you can see the Wild are in need of secondary scoring with the top point getters all on the same line.  Three of the Wild top 10 scorers are defensemen, Ryan Suter with no goals and 16 assists, Jared Spurgeon with 11 points (1g, 10a) and Jonas Brodin with 10 points (5g, 5a).

Tonight guys like Niederreiter (5g, 10a), Cooke (5g, 7a), and Heatley (6g, 4a) need to step up and score to take some of the pressure off the top line.  Another area the Wild need to drastically improve in is power plays.  When the Wild get a chance on the man advantage they have performed well, ranking 8th in the league with a 21.8 percent conversion rate.  The problem has been getting the power plays.  In the course of the last 6 games the Wild have drawn only 12 chances on the man advantage.  Two power plays a game won’t get the job done.  Minnesota needs to be more aggressive offensively, keep their feet moving and force opponents to take more penalties.  Last night against the Ducks the Wild scored on their only power play of the game.  That brings up the issue of 5 on 5 scoring.  The Wild have scored just 48 goals at full strength ranking 26th in the NHL.  Their average of 2.27 goals per game ranks them 26th as well.  The Sharks enter tonight’s action averaging 3.23 goals a game ranking them 3rd in the league.  They also struggle on the power play scoring just 17.8 % of the time.

Defensively the pairing look to be the same as last game with Ryan Suter teamed with Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon skating with Marco Scandella and the third pair of Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard.  The Wild defense corps did an good job of shutting down the Sharks on Sunday in a rather unusual game.  San Jose totaled 38 shots to the Wild’s 13.  Most of the Sharks’ shots were from the perimeter and Josh Harding was able to stop all but 1.  Tonight for the second time in 5 days Minnesota’s defenders must limit the Sharks offensive leaders.  Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl all have 10 or more goals whiel point leader Joe Thornton has just 5 goals but 27 assists for his team leading 32 points.

Minnesota has called up Brett Bulmer from the Iowa Wild to fill the roster spot created when Mathew Dumba was assigned to Team Canada for the World Junior Championships.  Bulmer has played in 21 games this season accumulating 9 goals and 3 assists for the AHL affiliate.  Bulmer is a second round, 39th overall, draft pick of the Wild and has appeared in 9 NHL games with Minnesota in 2011 before being assigned to his junior team for the rest of that season.  Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo is inserting Bulmer on the second line most likely in the place of Jason Zucker.  Zucker’s play this season has been inconsistent and he’s accumulated zero points and a -2 rating in the 7 games he’s appeared in.  Bulmer’s call up most likely means Zucker will be a healthy scratch tonight and a direct challenge to Zucker to step up his game or be reassigned to Des Moines.

With tonight being the second game in two nights for the Wild I expect to see Niklas Backstrom in goal tonight.  He brings a record of 2-4-2, a goals against average of 2.91 and a save .897% into this battle with the Sharks.  Those numbers are rather un-Backstrom like.  His career marks are, 186-128-47 with a GAA of 2.44 and a save % of .916.  he has been relegated to the role of back up goal tender with the league leading stats of Josh Harding.  Harding is 16-5-3 this season, tied for 2nd in wins. His GAA is 1.52, #1 in the league and his save % of .938 trails only Marc-Andre Fleury‘s .943.  Harding is also tied for the league lead in shutouts with 3.  Coach Yeo is giving Harding a night off to get Backstrom some work and avoid running his top goalie into the ground.  With just 33 games played and 49 more or 60% of the season still to be played keeping Harding healthy and effective is paramount to the Wild’s playoff hopes.  At the other end of the ice will be Antti Niemi and his 15-5-6 record, GAA of 2.28 and save % of .930.  The Wild managed to put a pair of pucks behind Niemi Sunday and will need to duplicate that effort tonight.  Scoring from close in and or generating opportunities on the power play are the best chances for the Wild.  Niemi is a big goal tender at 6’2″, 210 lbs. , moves well laterally and has a mean poke check with his stick.

The Wild are looking to get back on the winning track, keep pace with the Avalanche and Blues, and snap a four game road losing streak.  They have the man power to get the job done and are not missing key players due to injury.  This is a very winnable game for Minnesota against a Sharks team that is on a four game winless streak.  A quick start and scoring the games first goal are important keys to the game for the Wild. Forcing San Jose to play from behind and take chances leading to turnovers and scoring opportunities for Minnesota.  Capitalizing on  those chances will make the difference between a win and loss this evening.  Remember folks, this is a late start tonight with puck drop at 9:30 pm Central Time.  Put on a pot of coffee and settle in to watch a Western Conference battle between the 4th and 7th place teams in the West.  I’ll be back after the game with a full recap and some analysis of the game.  Until then this is Scott Drain confidently calling out, “LET’S GO WILD!!”

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