The Minnesota Wild return to home ice tonight, taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop slated for 7 pm Central Time. Minnesota is coming off a tough western road trip that saw them take four of eight possible points with a record of 1-1-2. This is the 2nd and final meeting of the regular season between these teams with the Lightning taking the first game back on October 18th by a 3-1 final score in Tampa Bay. Minnesota is looking for victories tonight and Thursday to generate some momentum heading into the Olympic break that, for the Wild, starts on Friday and ends February 27th when they face the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place. Entering tonight’s action Minnesota is 29-21-7, good for 65 points and 4th place in the tough Central Division. Tampa Bay has marks of 32-18-5 and they hold 2nd place in the Atlantic Division with 69 points. So far this season the Wild are 11-9-2 against Eastern Conference teams. Right now the Wild need every point they can get as they try and run down the Colorado Avalanche in the Central. During their road trip Minnesota had a chance to get within 5 points of the Av’s but, a 5-4 loss saw them drop to 9 points back. Colorado currently leads Minnesota by 12 points in the race for third in the Central Division. The Wild lead Dallas and Nashville, who are tied for 5th, by 6 points. Minnesota has 25 games to go in the regular season. The Wild have to keep their foot on the gas and look at every game as if their playoff life depends on it. Currently they are in 7th in the Western Conference and hold the 1st Wild Card spot. Minnesota leads the fuzzy little Vancouver Canucks by two points for that top wild card spot. The Canucks are just a point ahead of Phoenix and 4 in front of Dallas and Nashville for the second Wild Card spot.
Minnesota’s injury situation has been improving as of late with the return of Zach Parise who was named the NHL’s First Star Of The Week for the week of January 27th through February 2nd. The Wild winger totaled 8 points over three games last week scoring 3 goals and adding 5 assists. Parise scored the game winner and added 2 assists, in the Wild’s 4-2 Duck hunt against Anaheim. He then had a four point night in Minnesota’s losing effort against Colorado, notching 2 goals and 2 assists. In Saturday’s game at at Calgary his line was the focus of the Flames defense but, Zach was still able to pick an assist for his 8th point in three games. The other great news on the injury front is the return to action of one Jared Spurgeon. The Wild’s #3 defenseman has been out of action the last 14 games with a foot injury suffered while blocking a shot. I know it’s optional but, with three veteran players all of whom have a leadership role out with broken bones in foot or ankle it would seem to be time to give them a try. Spurgeon is reportedly going to be wearing a custom made pair in his return tonight. Given the number of shots the Wild block I’d recommend at a minimum all defensemen and anyone playing on the penalty kill wear them. Apparently some players don’t like the way they feel, but taking a slapper off the side of your foot/ankle hard enough to break a bone or cause serious bruising must feel much worse. I know that back in the day players didn’t wear an athletic supporter and cup either, but players have gotten over the comfort issue on that one. With Parise and Spurgeon back on the ice that leaves just Captain Mikko Koivu on IR. Koivu is said to be getting very close to returning so we’ll see what the next couple of days leading up to the Olympic Break bring. After tonight the Wild have just one game left vs Nashville before the break.
The forward lines for tonight are going to look a bit different on lines 3 and 4. The top line of Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville will remain intact. That trio has shown some good chemistry and are a threat to score each time they step onto the ice. Line #2 with the cheesiest line name in the NHL, “Dany Daycare” will also remain together. Dany Heatley with Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker can be a potent combo especially when Zucker shoots instead of deferring to Heatley. The young wing has a rocket of a slap shot and can snipe with the best on the team when he decides to shoot instead of trying to set up a veteran. All too many times this season Zucker has tried to force an ill-advised pass through traffic in front of the net in stead of shooting himself. Heatley is now up to 10 goals, fourth highest on the team to go with 12 assists. The third liners tonight are Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke. These will be the guys trying to shut down the Lightning’s top line. Justin Fontaine is out of action tonight with what the team describes as an illness. Hopefully he will be back in action on Thursday. Skating on the fourth line tonight are Erik Haula, Torrey Mitchell and Stephane Veilleux. Coach Yeo is once again going without a non-traditional fourth line comprised of speedy, crafty shooters instead of large lumbering, enforcer types. Not that this group is lacking in toughness, they just aren’t they type of players looking to drop the gloves at a moments notice. With Zucker in the lineup Mike Rupp will be joining
Defensively the return of Spurgeon means the 2nd and 3rd pairs will be different. The top pair of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin will remain together of course and will have their hands full with the likes of Martin St. Louis (25 g, 28 a), Valteri Filppula (19 g, 21 a), Tyler Johnson (17 g, 18 a), Alex Killorn (13 g, 19a), and Teddy Purcell (10 g, 22 a). The Lightning also have defenseman Viktor Hedman who has been piling up points lately with 10 over the last 5 games giving him totals of 11 goals and 25 assists. Jared Spurgeon will be reunited with partner Marco Scandella. The final pair will be Nate Prosser with Keith Ballard, leaving Clayton Stoner the odd-man out. That means with Rupp and Stoner out the Wild won’t have a heavy-weight if someone wants to drop the mitts and get to it. That’s a trade-off I’ll take though if it means another puck or two in the back of the net.
In net tonight will be Darcy Kuemper starting his 11th game in a row. He’s had a couple of rough outing in a row but this kid is put together mentally and should bounce back well tonight. His record on the season stands at 6-3-2 with a goals against average of 2.63 and a .913 save percentage. Kuemper is looking for a chance to add another team on his un-played list to his beaten list. I’m sure his teammates are more than willing to help him in that endeavor.
Tonight will be tough test for the Wild both in terms of opponent and mentally. Minnesota is fresh of a 4 game 9 day road trip with plenty of distractions on the homefront. The possibility of a home ice melt down is a potential problem as I’ve seen team after team inexplicably fall apart in front of the home crowd. The Wild need a fast start tonight and be the first team to score. Minnesota needs to put the Lightning back on their heels and force them to chase all night long. Puck control is going to be crucial as well as winning the special teams battle. If the Wild get into penalty trouble and start a march to the penalty box it will be a long night for the PK units. Minnesota is also going to have to score when they are presented with man advantage situations. The Wild have struggled the last few games at the faceoff dot, a sub 50% night in that department will have them chasing to start off and they can’t afford to do that against a very good Tampa Bay squad.
I’ll be back after the action with some recap, analysis and opinion of a Wild victory. (Hopefully). Two points against an Eastern Conference foe are there for the taking. The Wild have been playing very good team hockey and need to keep the momentum rolling right along. Until next time this is Scott Drain calling out to Wild fan’s every where, “LET’S GO WILD, LET’S GO WILD!!”