The Minnesota Wild face off against the St. Louis Blues tonight at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop slated for 7 pm Central Time. Both teams are playing the second game of back to back series. The Wild lost to the Dallas Stars Saturday while the Blues beat the Colorado Avalanche 2-1. The loss for Minnesota snapped a win streak that had grown to 5 games while St. Louis comes to St. Paul riding an 8 game win streak. The Blues lead the Central Division with a record of 43-14-6 good for 92 points. The Wild are currently in 4th place with 75 points on a record of 34-22-7. Saturday’s loss also saw Minnesota’s lead for the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference shrink to 3 points over Dallas. The Wild have a tall order in front of them as the face a tough Blues squad that has only gotten stronger with the addition of goalie Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott. Since joining the Blues Miller is 4-0-0 in net. So far this season the Blues are 2-0-0 against the Wild.
Minnesota did not have a morning skate today due to their late night return from Dallas. I’d expect the line combinations to remain pretty much the same as last evening. The Wild led 3-2 before giving up 2 third period goals that sealed their fate. The top line tonight, barring any wholesale changes, should be Zach Parise and Jason Pominville centered by Mikael Granlund. The second line of Matt Moulson Charlie Coyle and Mikko Koivu looked good together with Moulson picking up his first point as a member of the Wild. He had an assist on Charlie Coyle’s power play goal in the second period. The third liners consisting of Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak scored the only 5 on 5 goal the Wild had Saturday night. The fourth line of Dany Heatley, Cody McCormick and Erik Haula were strong together with Haula scoring a short handed goal to open the scoring for Minnesota in the first period. The healthy scratches in Dallas were Mike Rupp and Justin Fontaine. We’ll have to wait until warm-ups before we know tonight’s line combinations for sure. The Wild managed to lose last night despite scoring goals three ways, even strength, power play and short handed. Usually when a team checks off those three categories they come away with the win, but not last night.
Defensively I’d expect the pairing to remain the same. That means Ryan Suter skating with Jared Spurgeon on the top pair. The second pair should be Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella leaving Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner on the 3rd pairing. Those pairings leave Nate Prosser as the odd man out and healthy scratch. The Minnesota defense will have their hands full with a Blues team that averages 3.19 goals a game. That scoring average is the third highest in the NHL trailing only Chicago (3.38) and Anaheim (3.20). The Wild come in ranked 24th at 2.36 goals per game. Defensively the Wild do better giving up an average of 2.38 goals a night ranking them 6th. The Blues rank 3rd surrendering just 2.22 goals per game.
We won’t know who will be starting in goal for Minnesota until closer to game time. Given that tonight is a back to back game situation we may well see the debut of Ilya Bryzgalov in a Wild sweater. Entering play tonight Bryzgalov has a record of 5-8-5, a goals against average of 2.57 and a save % of .913. That compares to Darcy Kuemper‘s .921 save percentage, 2,25 goals against average and a record of 11-4-2. With 19 games left on the regular season schedule Kuemper will be the #1 net minder and I doubt Bryzgalov will get more than 6 of those starts. Minnesota has 4 more sets of back to back games, three sets in March and one in April. You can count on seeing Bryzgalov in goal for several of those sets. The Olympic break compacted the schedule to the point where the Wild now play 19 games in 36 days. That’s a pretty serious work load for skaters and goalies alike. While Kuemper would probably welcome the chance to start every game from now through the end of the regular season on April 13th it wouldn’t be a prudent move by him or the Wild coaching staff. My best guess is that Kuemper starts 12-13 of those games. That could change if Bryzgalov becomes a liability in net, but an exhausted Kuemper would be just as bad if not worse. As we near the end of the season and the pressure mounts, every mistake by a goalie, forward or defenseman, becomes magnified. The next 5 weeks will be Kuemper’s trial by fire and may well determine his future with the Wild. He is a restricted free agent at the end of this season and I don’t see any scenario where the 23 year old goal tender is not in a Wild sweater next season. Whether it’s a NHL or Iowa Wild sweater is one question and is he the #1 or back up net minder at the start of the 2014-15 season. Bryzgalov is an unrestricted free agent after this season and his future with the Minnesota Wild organization will depend on not only his performance this season but on the health of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom.
The team that wins the special teams battle tonight will take the two points as was the case last night for Minnesota. When it comes to those special teams the St. Louis power play scores at a 20.8% rate while Minnesota converts on the man advantage 18.8% of the time. The Blues also have one of the best penalty killing units in the league stopping opponents 86% of the time, third best in the NHL. Meanwhile the Wild’s penalty killers are successful 80.8% of the time ranking 19th in the league. Tonight’s game is going to come down to who can win the special teams battles. If the Wild start a march to the penalty box the Blues will make them pay dearly. Conversely Minnesota must convert on their power play opportunities to limit the Blues time with the puck. If the Wild start chasing the play and reacting to the the Blues offense rather than maintaining puck control and dictating the pace it will be a long night for the Wild and their fans. St. Louis averages 29.2 shots per game to Minnesota’s 26.9 while opponents average 28 shots against Minnesota and 26.4 when facing the Blues.
Tonight is a big game for the Minnesota Wild. This game will show us if the Wild can compete with the cream of the crop in the NHL. A win will be a big confidence builder for a team that has struggled against some top teams and owned some others such as their 3-0 record vs the Chicago Blackhawks. Tonight Minnesota needs a good fast start to the game and score the first goal. While those two things don’t guarantee a victory they sure a heck go a long way toward one. I’ll be back after the game with analysis of the night’s action, a game recap and a bit of opinion. Until then this is Scott Drain yelling at the top of my lungs, “LET’S GO WILD, LET’S GO WILD!!”