Zach is back tonight as the Minnesota Wild face off against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop slated for 7 pm Central Time. This is the fourth of five meetings between these Central Division foes this season. The Wild have won two of three games so far this season including the last time these teams met back on December 5th. That was a 4-3 Minnesota win on home ice. Right now Chicago is leading the Central Division with 76 points some 17 ahead of the 4th place Wild. Since the first of the year Chicago has posted a record of 4-1-5 to Minnesota’s 7-3-0. Even with just 4 regulation wins the 5 points the Blackhawks gained in overtime and shootout games gives them 13 to the Wild’s 14. Even with a good start to the new year by the Wild, they are having a tough time gaining ground on Colorado, St. Louis, and of course Chicago.
Zach Parise will return to action tonight. That’s great news for Minnesota. Parise has missed the last 14 games with a foot injury that occurred back in late November. He tried to play through it but it just became to much to handle. Frankly he should have just stayed out of the lineup at that time and not played several games at less than 100%. I think that in the long run it hurt the team more, but that was Zach’s choice. The Wild have been playing well and winning games without four of their top veterans in forwards Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, defenseman Jared Spurgeon and number one goal tender Josh Harding. The Wild have missed their team captain and top scorer (8 goals, 27 assists) along with their fourth leading scorer, Parise and his 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists). It’s not just the goals and assists the team misses. Their shots on goal, attempted shots, and puck possession skills have been noticeably absent from the Minnesota offense. over just the last four games the Wild have been out shot by a total of 124 to 97.
With Parise back in the lineup the forward lines get shaken up a bit. The top line will feature Parise with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Line #2 consists of Dany Heatley, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. The third liners tonight are Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine. The fourth line will definitely be a speedy one with Torrey Mitchell, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker. My hope is that with Parise back in the lineup the shot total and shot attempts will climb, the power play might be a bit more powerful, and the line juggling might not be to disruptive to any chemistry they guys have been developing.
Defensively Jon Blum has been returned to the Iowa Wild so the D-pairs will be the same as last game. Those pairs being Ryan Suter with Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella paired with Nate Prosser, and the Clayton Stoner, Keith Ballard set. The defense has their job cut out for them tonight. The Blackhawks played last night in Detroit losing in a 6 round shoot out 5-4. Four different players scored for Chicago and 9 had at least a point. The defending Stanley Cup Champs just keep coming at you in waves with strong lines and scorers from top to bottom.
Darcy Kuemper gets his 6th straight start in net tonight as he faces the Blackhawks for the first time as a starting goal tender. He came on in relief of Niklas Backstrom back on March 5th of last season and played well allowing a single goal on 15 shots. He enters tonights game with a record of 4-3-0, a 2.39 goals against average and a .916 save %. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight as Chicago averages a league leading 3.52 goals a game to the Wild’s 27th ranked 2.29 per outing. The Blackhawks also average 33.5 shots a game second in the NHL and well above Minnesota’s average of 26.8. Hopefully Kuemper’s teammates can stay out of the penalty box to avoid Chicago’s 5th ranked power play that scores at a 22.5% clip. The Wild have been struggling a bit on the penalty kill stopping opponents just 79.2% of the time, good for 24th best in the league. That’s actually one area where the Wild rank higher than the Blackhawks who kill penalties at 77.8% the 3rd worst rate in the league. Winning the special teams battle will be critical for Kuemper and the Wild’s success tonight.
This is the start of a critical and very tough four game stretch for the Wild. After tonight Minnesota’s next three games are against some of the best in the west. They go on the road to take on the Sharks, Ducks and Avalanche. The Ducks are tops in the Pacific Division with 79 points, the Sharks are in 2nd with 70 points and the Av’s are 3rd in the Central Division, just a bit ahead of the Wild, with 67 points. The first step in this little journey is the Blackhawks on home ice. The Wild are going to need a good, solid, disciplined start to the game tonight. A start like last game vs Dallas and Chicago will eat the Wild’s lunch. The first goal tonight is going to be very important as well as the last 10-minutes of the game. That’s where the Wild have been pulling out some wins and where Chicago has struggled heading to OT and shootouts several time recently. I’ll be back after the action with a recap, some opinions and a bit of analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain calling out the Blackhawks on this -10 degree, sunny, January day saying, “LET’S GO WILD, LET’S GO WILD!!”