The Minnesota Wild take on the Edmonton Oilers tonight at the Xcel Energy Center. This is the Minnesota Wild’s 1000th regular season game in their history. Compiling a record of 456-400-143 through 999 games. They are 266-159-75 on home ice and a 190-241-68 on the road. The Wild are coming off what can be politely described as a lackluster performance against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. The cure for a sub par performance? Why the Oilers will do just fine. Despite a plethora of high draft picks in recent years Edmonton can’t seen to get out of their own way stumbling to a Western Conference worst record of 15-29-5 and just 35 points to date. While the Wild aren’t exactly tearing things up in the Central Division with a record of 25-19-5 and 55 points good for 4th place in the division and 8th i the Western Conference. Tonight is a great opportunity for the Wild to pick up a victory and two points against a team they beat in 3 of 4 games last season. All time Minnesota has 41 wins against Edmonton, the most versus any NHL franchise. On home ice the Wild are 23-11-2 all time against the Oilers.
The Wild are still missing four of their veterans and leaders on and off the ice in Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding. Parise is skating again and joined the team for an optional practice yesterday for the first time since he went on IR back on December 22. Josh Harding has participated in practices the last few days and is getting closer to rejoining the team. He has been out since January 2nd. Koivu and Spurgeon are both nursing ankle and foot injuries but are said to be progressing well, but no timetable has been set for their return.
The Wild are going with the same forward lines as the past couple of games with the hot line of Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker leading the way. Despite being shut out last game this trio has developed some good chemistry and have been scoring well since the first of the year. The second line will be Nino Niederreiter with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. This line has totaled 30 goals so far this season. The Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine and Kyle Brodziak line has been playing well consistently on both sides of the puck. The fourth liners tonight are Torrey Mitchell, Erik Haula and Stephane Veilleux.
Defensively Keith Ballard will be back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the last several games. He will be paired with Clayton Stoner this evening. The other D-pairs are the always reliable Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin on the top pair. Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser round of the defense for the Wild tonight. They will be charged with shutting down a tepid Oilers offence that nonetheless has some talented scorers. They are led by a trio of young guns led by Taylor Hall who has 18 goals and 27 assists so far this season. He is followed by Jordan Eberle with 37 points (14g, 23a) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who’s totaled 13 goals and 23 assists to date. The Oilers fourth leading scorer is David Perron with 17 goals and 17 assists. After those four the scoring falls off a cliff for Edmonton. The Oilers do average 2.57 goals a game to the Wild’s 2.29 but, Edmonton allows a league worst 3.51 goals per outing oppose to Minnesota’s 2.41. Good news for the Wild who have a strong defensive core group.
The Oilers did make a pair of trades this week to try and rectify their woes in net. Goalie Devan Dubnyk to Nashville for Minnesota native and St. Cloud State University product Matt Hendricks. Hendricks has 2 goals and 2 assists, a -5 rating and 54 penalty minutes. You can see why the Oilers picked him up, they need a little more team toughness and protection for their young stars. Edmonton also acquired net minder Ben Scrivens from the L.A. Kings for a third round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
The challenge for the Wild tonight is going to be starting the game off right. They cannot afford another slow start like Tuesday’s debacle against Ottawa. Even without Parise and Koivu out of the lineup the Wild have enough scorers to get the job done as they showed by scoring 20 goals and winning 5 of 7 games so far in January. The first goal is going to be important tonight as is staying our of the penalty box for Minnesota. Both the Oilers and Wild have struggled on the penalty kill this season with both at less than 80% when a man down. The Wild need to control the puck and keep the Oilers on their heels. Both Edmonton and Minnesota average less than 30 shots a game averaging 27.3 and 27.1 respectively. The Wild have the edge in shots allowed, ranking 5th in the NHL at 27.5 a game, while the Oilers are 23rd at 31.7. The recipe for a win by Minnesota tonight seems to be score first, limit Oiler shots, control the puck, stay out of the sin bin, and let Darcy Kuemper take care of business in goal.
Kuemper is getting his third straight start in net tonight. He brings a record of 2-2-0, a goals against average of 2.46 and a save percentage of .910 into the battle with Edmonton. Since the first of the year he has been excellent in goal posting his first shutout and setting a career high in saves with 39 in games with Nashville and Los Angeles. If he could have gotten some goal support and anything resembling competent defense and puck control in front of him he would have taken the victory against Ottawa. He is playing very confidently in goal right now controlling rebounds and playing a very sound positional game. Head Coach Yeo credited Kuemper with keeping the Wild in the game during their loss against the Senators. He is getting his third straight start tonight, something that demonstrates Head Coach Mike Yeo’s confidence in him. At the other end of the ice will be Ben Scrivens in his first start for his new team. He picked up 7 wins in 19 games with the Kings and has a GAA 2.54 of and a save % at .917.
This is a very winnable game for the Wild tonight. That does concern me some as they have had a bad habit of playing down to the level of their opponent too many time this season. Hopefully the Wild have put last game behind them and will come out with a solid effort in the milestone 1000th regular season game for the franchise. Puck drop is at 7 pm Central Time and you can watch all the action on Fox Sports North (FSN) and SportsNet One (SNET-W). I’ll be back after the game with a full recap, analysis and some opinion of the night’s action. You can also follow me on twitter at @DrainScott. Until then this is Scott Drain for GonePuckWild.com shouting into the windy, frigid, Minnesota air, “Let’s Go Wild, LET’S GO WILD!!!”