The Minnesota Wild are in sunny, warm Los Angeles California to take on the Kings in a Tuesday night battle. The Wild are on a brief two game road trip visiting L.A. tonight and Phoenix on Thursday before they return to the frigid State Of Hockey. Minnesota can thank the NHL schedulers for this trip to warmer climates while temperatures in St. Paul hover well below zero and the wind chill or “feels like” temperature index drops to -3o below zero or colder. The weather in L.A. tonight will be some 75 to 80 degrees warmer when the puck drops at the Staples Center. For those of us in the Central time zone game time is 9:30 pm. One of the benefits of the new NHL divisional format and scheduling is the reduction in the number of games played in Pacific Standard Time zone. Including tonight’s game the Wild have just 10 games left in the regular season that are to be played in the Pacific Time Zone. The Minnesota lineup is in flux with injuries and call-ups from Iowa. The biggest negative heading into this evening’s matchup is that it’s a road game for the Wild. Overall Minnesota’s record is 22-17-5 totaling 47 points good for place in the Central Division. Their road record though stinks, at just 6-12-3. Away from the Xcel Energy Center this season victories are as hard to come by as hat tricks by a defenseman. Rare, like Ryan Suter‘s beauty of a game this Saturday past, but not unheard of.
The biggest story for this game with the Kings isn’t who IS playing it’s who ISN’T playing. Minnesota Captain Mikko Koivu has been placed on injured reserve following surgery on a broken ankle. Koivu suffered the injury in the second period of Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals. A harmless looking dump in by the Capitals Nicklas Backstrom hit Koivu squarely on the inside of his right ankle, dropping him to the ice.. The Wild’s Captain stayed in the game and only left the bench when it became clear to Head Coach Mike Yeo that he couldn’t maintain a high level of play.
Koivu had surgery on Monday afternoon and is expected to be out of action for 4 weeks or more. He joins a growing list of Wild players on IR including left wing Zach Parise (broken foot), defenseman Jared Spurgeon (lower body), and goal tender Josh Harding (illness). There is also a growing list of “walking wounded” players not officially on IR but nursing injuries just the same. Right wing Justin Fontaine suffered an upper body injury in practice last Friday and missed the game against the Capitals. He is listed as probable for tonight’s game with the Kings. When asked about Koivu leaving the bench during Saturday’s game and then returning, Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said, “If there’s any question about his character or how high his compete level is, I think this incident certainly should answer that. He came back and the only reason he left the bench again is Mike asked him to leave the bench because he saw him laboring. He saw Mikko in pain, but Mikko wanted to stay and play. He’s a tough competitor, he’s clearly one of our best players. He’s our leader for a reason, It’s a big blow.”
Minnesota’s forward lines are going to be shuffled again but Head Coach Yeo says, “We decided let’s try to keep most of the lineup the same as we can. It’s going to be a bit of a splash, but let’s limit the ripple.” For tonight those forward lines, at least to start the game, seem include; Charlie Coyle moving to the top line with Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville while the 21-year-old line remains intact with Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. The third line features Matt Cooke, Eric Haula and Justin Fontaine that leaves Torrey Mitchell, Kyle Brodziak and Stephane Veilleux on the 4th line. Tonight’s #1 line looks a lot like the second lines Yeo has used throughout the season. To date the players on this line have totaled 30 goals and 24 assists. The Wild must get some production out of this line to keep up with a Kings team that averages 2.49 goals per game. L.A. ranks in the bottom third of the league in goals per game but they are ahead of Minnesota’s 2.30 goals per outing. One group left intact from last game is the 21-year-old line. Niederreiter, Granlund and Zucker and have a combination of speed, strength, size, and youthful exuberance that is tough to match. Zucker has a pair of goals, his first of the season with the NHL club, in the last two games while Granlund and Niederreiter have a total of 27 assists to date. Matt Cooke is the veteran presence on the 3rd line with rookies Haula and Fontaine. This trio is expected to pick up the pace a bit as far as scoring goes and also provide a steady presence on the forecheck. The fourth line has plenty of grit with Veilleux, Brodziak and Mitchell. Without Rupp in the lineup and Konopka gone to the Sabres Cooke and company will have to step it up and provide a physical presence to keep the Kings in line. L.A. has some players who will try to push the envelope physically and keep pushing until someone such as Cooke, Stoner, Ballard and Prosser steps in and pushes back. I included Cooke on that list even though he doesn’t have a fighting major yet this season. It’s just a matter of time until he does and his agitating/chirping abilities are among the best in the league.
Defensively the pairings for tonight are scrambled when it comes to the 2nd and 3rd pairs. Ryan Suter and his regular partner Jonas Brodin have played together for most of the season. With Jared Spurgeon out of action for a while yet I’d expect these two to be the top pair for a while. As a defensive pair, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser, are a real pain in the butt to play against and have the unique ability to get under opponents skin and off their game. With Mike Rupp a healthy scratch these two can be counted on to drop the gloves and deliver a message as the situation dictates. The third pair of Marco Scandella and Keith Ballard play some heavy minutes, not as many as the Suter/Brodin combo, but solid, hard checking shifts where regaining control of the puck and jump starting the offense is needed. The Wild have called up Jonathan Blum as an insurance policy in case another D-man is lost to injury. The is no timetable set for Spurgeon’s return and while Mathew Dumba is done with the World Junior Championships it is not clear whether his will be returning to the NHL or going to the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL. That decision is up to Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and comes down to where he thinks Dumba will progress more in his development as a potential NHL All-Star defenseman.
In net tonight for the Wild will be Niklas Backstrom fresh off a victory against the Washington Capitals. Backstrom is making his third straight start and victory as well. He is 4-9-2 to date and sports a goals against average of 3.15 and a .896 save %. Backstrom has been actually getting some goal support from his team mates the last few games and is also helping his own cause allowing just 6 total goals over that span. His solid play on goal has allowed the offense to start looking and skating up ice instead of spending more time bailing out a goalie with rebound control and stick handling issues. The Kings will start Jonathon Quick, 11-5-0, who has a GAA of 2.27 and a save % at .909. Key for the Wild will be getting a lead and keeping the puck down low in the L.A. zone.
The Minnesota Wild have righted the ship that was sailing straight into a maelstrom and sinking toward the bottom of the Central Division and Western Conference Standings. The Wild have put a total of 9 goals in the back of the net in their last two games, both wins and held opponents in check both nights. They seem to have found a recipe for success in the last two contests on home ice. Tonight we see if the momentum that carries over to a road game in sunny, warm Los Angeles. A couple of keys for the Wild will be staying out of the penalty box as L.A. is scoring at a 16.5 % pace with the man advantage while the Wild kill off penalties roughly 80 % of the time. When the Wild have the extra skater they convert at a 20% rate and when on the PK opponents score roughly 1 in 5 chances. When is comes to shots on goal the Wild allow the fourth least at just 27.1 per game. Unfortunately that is also just about the same as the number of shots on goal the Wild produce at 27.3 per contest.
The boys from Minnesota need to keep things simple tonight. Play a good puck control style of game, limit penalties against and try to convert when man advantages present them selves. The Kings are going to come out hard and take the game to the Wild physically. Minnesota needs to push back but, in a smart fashion, leaving the dumb plays to the Kings. Offensively the Wild need to shoot early and often. Put the puck on net and force Quick to cover, creating offensive zone faceoffs on a regular basis. Speaking of shots Minnesota wants to work the puck down low and avoid getting into the rut of shooting from the perimeter all game. The first goal scored in this game is going to be huge. I’d say the team that scores first and takes the fewest penalties will be in a position to take the two points tonight. The youngsters are going to be chomping at the bit, eager to show that they belong with the NHL Wild and not the Iowa Wild. With Koivu, Parise, and Spurgeon out of action for an extended period of time players including Eric Haula, Jonathon Blum, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Nate Prosser and Justin Fontaine all have the rare opportunity mid-season to show the coaching staff and teammates what they can do. We’ll see who shines and who stumbles and falls with these opportunities. Coach Yeo has said now’s the time for players both new and old step up and take control at a critical juncture in the Minnesota Wild’s season.
Remember fans this is a late West Coast puck drop at 9:30 pm Central Time. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and analysis of this Wild vs Kings action. It’s a cold night in Minnesota, so grab yourself some hot chocolate, a hot toddy and some popcorn and settle in for Wild vs Kings on Fox Sports North (FSN). This should be a good game and as always this is Scott Drain, calling out until my voice goes horse, LET’S GO WILD!!!