The Minnesota Wild are back on home ice for the first time since February 6 taking on the Calgary Flames tonight at 7 pm Central Time. The big news for the Wild is a pair of veterans in the likes of Captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Marco Scandella are back in the lineup. Koivu has been out of action since January 4th when he broke his ankle blocking a shot. The injury required surgery and the Wild coaches and training staff have been cautious, not rushing him back into action. The return of Captain Koivu will shake things up a bit on the forward lines and for the first time he and Zach Parise will not be skating on the same line. I’ll get to those updated lines in just a bit. Scandella is coming back after suffering a knee sprain on February 4th. His return means one of the 6 D-men who have been playing some great hockey, probably Clayton Stoner will be a healthy scratch. This is the third and final meeting of the season for the Wild and Flames with each team taking a victory so far. Minnesota took the first game 5-1 back on November 5th while Calgary won the second, a 4-3 overtime game on February 1st. Tonight is another great opportunity for the Wild to earn two points against an inferior team in a stretch of games that sees Minnesota on home ice for 5 of the next 6. Entering play tonight Minnesota has won five straight games in regulation just one short of the franchise record set at the end of the 2007-08 season.
The Wild are coming off a successful two game road trip, beating Edmonton and Vancouver. Currently the Wild hold the top spot in the Western Conference Wild Card race with a 7 point lead over Dallas, Winnipeg and Vancouver who are tied with 66 points. The pair of road wins raised Minnesota’a overall record to 33-21-7 and a total of 73 points. Their road record is now 12-14-5 closing in on .500 while they are still dominant at the Xcel Energy Center with a record of 21-7-2. The Wild face a Calgary team that has struggled this season, to put it politely, with a record of 23-30-7. Minnesota is in 4th place in the Central Division, 6th in the Western Conference while the Flames are 6th in the Pacific Division and 13th in the Western Conference, ahead of only the lowly Edmonton Oilers. The Wild have a chance of catching the Colorado for third in the division race as they trail the Avalanche by 10 points with 21 games left in the regular season. To do that Minnesota must keep winning games with divisional opponents, hope the Av’s hit a rough patch losing several consecutive games and pick up as many points as possible against Eastern Conference foes. The Wild still have 8 games against the east.
The Wild will have a hot goal tender in net tonight as Darcy Kuemper makes his 15th straight start. In the two wins against the Oilers and Canucks he stopped 51 of 52 shots, raised his record this season to 10-3-2 with a goals against average of 2.20 and a save % at .924. Some pretty heady numbers for a rookie goalie thrown into the fire when both Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom went down to injury and illness. His calm demeanor on the ice and ability to make big save at critical times definitely gives his teammates some added confidence playing in front of him. Kuemper is a major reason the Wild are 13-4-2 since the start of 2014 and have earned points in 10 of their last 12 contests. Across the ice will be Reto Berra who brings a record of 9-16-2 into action tonight with a save % of .898 and goals against average of 2.94.
Something elso to watch tonight is the battle of the Granlunds. For the first time the Wild’s Mikael will be playing against his brother Markus. Calgary’s Granlund has been with the NHL club for just five days and this will be his third NHL game. This gives the nation of Finland two sets of brothers playing in the NHL, The Koivu’s: Saku and Mikko and now the Granlund’s: Mikael and Markus. If Markus plays anything like his brother the potential for spectacular passing plays is pretty good. With just 3 games under his belt there’s not a whole lot of stats to compare brother to brother, but you can bet on some upped intensity between the two tonight.
With the return of Koivu the Wild’s forward lines will see a new look top to bottom. The top line will have Zach Parise (20g, 18a) and Jason Pominville (22g, 19a) centered by Mikael Granlund (6g, 24a). This trio has the most goals, 48 and assists 61, of any current line combination. Line two tonight will feature Mikko Koivu (8g, 27a) centering Dany Heatley (12g, 13a) and Charlie Coyle (6g, 13a). Koivu still ranks third on the team in total points despite his extended absence. He and Ryan Suter share the team lead in assists with 27 each. The third liners tonight at Matt Cooke (9g, 14a) and Nino Niederreiter (11g, 19a) centered by Kyle Brodziak (4g, 14a). This line will be charged with stopping the Flames top line. On the fourth line tonight will be Erik Haula (2g, 3a) centerman for Torrey Mitchell (1g, 8a)and Justin Fontaine (12g, 6a). This speedy, talented fourth line is a departure from most teams gritty, physical enforcers. The Wild have been averaging 2.34 goals a game to the Flames 2.25 those numbers rank 26th and 29th in the league. Tonight the Wild are going to need to score 4 or more and hold the Flames to 2 or less in my opinion. Lately the goals for Minnesota have been coming from a variety of sources and multiple lines, that kind of a balanced scoring attack makes it difficult for opposing coaches to focus their top defenders against a single player or line.
Defensively the Wild’s top pair this chilly evening will be Ryan Suter (6g, 27a) with Jared Spurgeon (1g, 15a). You’ll also see thses tow playing on the #1 special teams units, penalty kill and power play. The second pair has super sophomore Jonas Brodin (8g, 8a) skating along side Nate Prosser (2g, 5a). After being a healthy scratch most of the first half of the season Prosser has become a nearly every day player (35 games) with a gritty presence, a +3 rating, and a pair of game winning goals. The third pair tonight has the returning Marco Scandella (3g, 13a) with Keith Ballard (2g, 7a). The Wild allow 2.36 goals a game on average, the 7th best in the NHL. The Flames 2.98 goals against average ranks 25th in the NHL and provides some excellent power play opportunities for the Wild as they kill of penalties at just an 80% rate. The Wild’s power play has been working well lately, ranked 16th in the league at 18.3%, and should be able to capitalize tonight against the Flames. Speaking of penalties Minnesota needs to stay out of the sin bin them selves to limit Calgary’s man advantage chances. The Flames have one of the worst power play units in the NHL scoring just 13% of the time.
This should be an entertaining game tonight and it’s also Military appreciation night for the Wild. They will be honoring Servicemen and women along with their families throughout the evening. You can watch all the action on Fox Sports North (FS-N) and Sports Net West (SNET-W). I’ll be back after the game with a recap of the action, my opinions of the game along with some analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain marching along and chanting loudly “Let’s Go Wild, LET’S GO WILD, Let’s Go Wild!”.