Tonight is game number 42 for the Minnesota Wild and it’s a must win against the St. Louis Blues. Yes, it’s December 31 and the Wild are in must win mode after a 9-1-1 start to the month of November the Wild have gone 5-11-1 since and have lost 5 straight games dropping to 10th place in the Western Conference. Fans and writers are starting to call for Head Coach Mike Yeo’s head on a platter and the pressure is mounting for something to change and soon. I’m not a big fan of mid season coaching changes and I think there is still time to turn this season around. When the Wild have been good they’ve been very good, when they’ve been bad they’ve been horrible. There has been very little middle ground for Minnesota this season. Tonight the Wild have a golden opportunity to put a disaster of a December behind them and skate into the new year with a win over the banged up Blues.
This is the 8th year in a row for the New Year’s Eve game at the Xcel Energy Center with it’s traditional 5pm puck drop. Minnesota is 5-4-0 all time on December 31st. This is one of my favorite games all season, with a festive crowd and a packed arena. The early start time also means I’m home before amateur hour starts on the roads and bars. The Wild are ready for a Central Division battle with the 2nd place Blues. The Wild are looking ahead and not back at the worst game of the season last Sunday in which they blew a 3-0 lead and lost to one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. Minnesota had an intense practice yesterday and the players and coaching staff are well aware of the importance of the 3 games remaining in this 4 game homestand. It is not out of the realm of possibility that if the Wild lose the next three games Coach Yeo and members of his staff could be looking for new jobs.
The Wild come into tonight’s game still without Zach Parise who remains on IR with a broken foot. You may remember the team’s current side started back on November 23rd when Parise blocked a shot with his foot and hasn’t been the same since. The Wild lost that game 3-0 and have only 5 wins since that night. The forward lines for tonight look to be pretty much the same as Sunday with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter skating with Captain Mikko Koivu on the top line. Line #2 features Dany Heatley, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville, while the 3rd line has Justin Fontaine with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. The 4th line grinders are Torrey Mitchell, Stephane Veilleux and Mike Rupp. The groupings showed they can put the puck in the net, scoring 4 goals in each of the last two games. On the milestone watch Captain Koivu has 99 multi-point games and just passed the 300 assist mark last game. His leadership and ability to rally the troops is critical at this make or break time for the Minnesota Wild.
Defensively the Wild called up Jonathon Blum from the Iowa Wild as an insurance policy in case Jared Spurgeon is unable to answer the bell. Spurgeon appeared to be injured during the second period of the last game and did not practice Monday.The 6’1″, 190 lb Blum is a veteran of 91 NHL games with the Nashville Predators and has totaled 7 goals to go with 15 assists and 20 penalty minutes since the 2010-11 season. If Spurgeon plays the defensive pairs will be Ryan Suter with Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella with regular partner Spurgeon and Keith Ballard skating with Nate Prosser. The D will have their hands full tonight as the Blues have the highest goal differential in the NHL at a +45.
In net tonight will be Josh Harding for the Wild, his second straight start since returning from IR. Harding leads the NHL in goals against average at 1.64, and is 5th in save % at .934. His overall record is a very respectable 18-6-3 which sees him tied for 5th in wins and 2nd in shutouts in the league. Lat game was the roughest outing he’s had this season giving up 5 goals on 31 shots. In his defense his team certainly did him no favors with their play in the last half of Sunday’s game. Across the ice will be either Jaroslav Halak and his record of 17-6-3 to go with a goals against of 2.40 and a .907 save percentage or the Blues may go with back up netminder Brian Elliot who brings a record of 9-1-2, a goals against of 2.04 and a save % of .919 into this game.
This is the second meeting of the season between the Blues and Wild. St. Louis took the first back in November and they have also been dominant against teams in the Central Division compiling a 12-0-1 divisional record. The Blues are fully a dozen points ahead of the Wild and hold 2nd place in the division with 57 points, six points back of leader Chicago and their total of 61 points. The Wild are now in 5th place in the Central. They are tied with Dallas at 45 points but the Stars hold 4th place due to 3 fewer games played. At the halfway point of the season the Wild are 20-16-5 overall, 14-4-2 on home ice and a miserable 6-12-3 on the road. Currently Minnesota is on pace for 90 points in the regular season, that total will not make the playoffs. The Wild need to start winning some games, some consecutive games and do it now. We’re halfway through the season and the 2-13-14 Minnesota Wild are a bipolar team. If this squad hopes to make any kind of a playoff run they need to start a win streak now.
The Wild have everything they need for a win tonight. Their #1 goaltender is healthy, they are scoring goals as of late, they’re on home ice tonight and a sellout crowd will be behind them. This is the time for the team leaders to step up and it’s time for the role players to be on top of their game. With a somewhat banged up Blues team in town tonight the opportunity to jump all over them is there for the taking. St. Louis is missing Alexander Steen due to a concussion and Captain David Backes is questionable after being injured over the weekend and not practicing since. That’s two of the Blues top three scores potentially missing. True the Wild are missing Zach Parise but the Wild have shown they can score with out a walking wounded #3 Minnesota player in points. Frankly Parise needs to stay on the sidelines until he is fully healthy and ready to return at full strength. Parise is a great competitor and his drive to not miss a game is admirable. However his quick return after the foot injury only resulted in a less than 100% player on the ice and hurt his team in the process. Sometimes a player needs to recognize that if he can’t contribute the best of his talents then he needs to rest and heal until he can. That’s all for now. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and analysis of tonight’s Wild win. Yeah going out on a freezing cold limb right there, but the Wild are due for a win and I think tonight’s the night. Until next time this is Scott Drain calling out, “LET’S GO WILD!!”