The Minnesota Wild try to extend their lead in the Western Conference Wild Card race tonight when they face the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Xcel Energy Center with puck drop at 7 pm. Currently the Wild are 4 points ahead of Dallas and 6 points up on Phoenix in the race for the top Wild Card spot in the West. The chase for the Wild card is all that’s left for Minnesota. They trail Chicago by 11 points for third place in the Central Division, 2nd place Colorado by 12 points and division leading St. Louis by 18 points. With 16 games left in the regular season the Wild need to take each game and treat it as though their entire season depends on it. To night that is the Blue jackets who are third in the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference with 74 points on a record of 34-26-6. This is the final game of a 4 game homestand for the Wild who have picked up at least a point in the first 3 games going 1-0-2. The Wild are 35-22-9 entering play tonight with a total of 79 points. This is the second meeting this season between these two teams with Columbus winning the first by a 4-0 score. There are several connections between the Wild and Blue Jackets. Columbus Head Coach Todd Richards was head coach of the Wild from 2009-11. Defenseman Nick Schultz was a member of the Wild from 2001-12 and is still the leader in games played for Minnesota with 743 games played. This would have been a chance for Wild fans to see Marian Gaborik but he was traded to the LA Kings at the trade deadline. Bottom line for the Wild is they need to take two points tonight against a Columbus team that has perhaps their best lineup in the team’s history.
Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo has shuffled the lines a bit heading to tonight. The top line of Zach Parise (23g, 20a), Jason Pominville (24g, 22a) and center Mikael Granlund (6g, 29a) will stay intact. They have been playing amazingly well together with the youngster Granlund having two talented scorers as his wings to receive some of his incredible passes. The Second line tonight will be Nino Niederreiter (12g, 20a) with Matt Moulson (18g, 22a) and center Mikko Koivu (8g, 29a). Sinc coming to the Wild Moulson has fit in nicely making this second line a real threat to score each time they step on the ice. The revamped third line features Charlie Coyle (7g, 13a) and Matt Cooke (9g, 15a) with centerman Kyle Brodziak (6g, 15a). THis trio sees a lot of time against the oppositions top line and have been performing that job admirably while still creating some offense with 22 goals and 43 assists this season. The fourth liners tonight are Dany Heatley (12g, 14a), Cody McCormick ( 1g, 4a) and Erik Haula (3g, 4a). These lines leave Mike Rupp and Justin Fontaine as the healthy scratches. Jason Zucker remains on IR as he continues to recover from surgery he had during the Olympic break. Minnesota is going to need multiple lines to contribute tonight. Columbus allows and average of 2.74 goals a game while Minnesota is giving up and average of just 2.36 goals, the 5th lowest average in the NHL. Tonight the Wild are going to need at least 4 goals to win this game in my opinion. The Blue Jackets are averaging 2.86 goals an outing, 8th best in the league and a half goal a game better than the Wild who average 2.36. That average is the 5th worst in the NHL.
Defensively Minnsota will be going with the same personnel on the top two D-pairings. Jared Spurgeon will continue to skate with Ryan Suter on the top pair. Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella make up pair #2. The third pair tonight is Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. Coach Yeo has been rotating Keith Ballard, Stoner, and Prosser in and out of the lineup on the third pairing. Tonight Ballard is the healthy scratch. The Wild will have their hands full with the deepest Blue Jackets lineup in years if not in the history of the franchise. Columbus has 7 players with 10 or more goals and 10 players with 15 or more assists. They are led by Ryan Johansen (26g, 24a), Brandon Dubinsky (13g, 28a), James Wisniewski (6g, 33a), Nick Foligno (17g, 19a) and Cam Atkinson (18g, 16a).
The Wild are going to have to play a disciplined game tonight and avoid the parade to the penalty box that has cost them dearly in several games recently. The Columbus power play scores 18.3% of the time while Minnesota kills penalties at a 80.6% clip. The Wild Power play converts an nearly the same pace as Columbus at 18.4%,while the Blue Jackets penalty kill ranks 17th at 81.9%. Whoever wins the special teams battle tonight will more than likely take the two points. With Clayton Stoner and Cody McCormick in the line up the Wild should be able to handle any rough stuff the Blue Jackets want to dish out. Columbus hasn’t been afraid to drop the gloves this season totaling 30 fights to date. Jared Boll (6), Nick Foligno (5)) and Dalton Prout (5) lead the team in fighting majors this season. The Wild have 26 fights so far and the top fighters this season have been Clayton Stoner (8), Zenon Konopka has but he’s now with the Buffalo Sabres, Keith Ballard (3), Nate Prosser (3) and Brodziak, Coyle, Mitchell, Rupp and Veilleux all have a single bout. Cody McCormick has 7 fights this season and would probably be the most likely to drop the gloves tonight.
Darcy Kuemper will be in net once again this evening. His record stand at 12-4-3 with a 2.25 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. This will be his first career start against the Blue Jackets. Across the ice will be Sergei Bobrovsky who brings a record 25-16-4 of into tonight’s battle. He has a save percentage of .918 and a goals against average of 2.50. The Wild are going to have to keep working the puck down low and capitalize on scoring chances when they get there. Last game against the Rangers both Wild goals cam from with in 10 feet of the net. Minnesota is fond of pass, pass, passingon the power play trying to find that perfect shot, that perfect opening. What they need to do is fire away at Bobrovsky tonight and then crash the net looking for a rebound. All to often this season there is no one down low in front of the net providing a screen or deflection opportunity. Teams have learned that all they need to do is keep the Wild’s power play unit on the perimeter passing the puck over and over, eating up clock and letting Minnesota kill of the penalty themselves. The Wild have 156 goals on the season and 35 or just 22% of them on the power play. When it come to 5 on 3 situations Minnesota has an abysmal 2 goals total ranking them in the bottom half of the league. The Wild rank 27th in the NHL with 106 5 on 5 goals. Their opponent tonight has 129 of 189 at full strength.
The Wild are going to need a good start to the game tonight and as they did against the Rangers score the first goal of the game forcing Columbus to play catch up and get away from their game plan. All time the Wild are 23-17-7 against the Blue Jackets and 16-5-3 at the Xcel Energy Center. Starting with New York last game the Wild play Eastern Conference teams 7 straight times through the 23rd of this month. The team is focused on tonight, they cannot afford to look past any team this time of the year with every point being critical to their race for the top Wild Card spot in the West. I’ll be back after the game with a recap and analysis of the night’s action. Until then this is Scott Drain calling out, “LET’S GO WILD!!!”