My dear readers, Monday night marks the opening of what people are dubbing “reunions week” for the Minnesota Wild.
The first of the reunions will take place in Chicago, marking the regular season return of Martin Havlat to the Windy City to take on his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild are coming off of their best three game stretch of the season—a stretch that has seen them win two out of three games and play their best hockey yet. This will need to continue if the Wild are to break their seven-game road skid against a stout Blackhawks team.
Last season saw the boys in the Iron Range Red take three of four games from their Windy City compatriots, and tonight the Wild will look to build on their recent successes.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are looking to build a streak of their own after a 27-save shutout by much maligned goaltender Cristobal Huet on Saturday against the Nashville Predators.
For the Wild, both Benoit Pouliot and James Sheppard will be back in the lineup. Sheppard and Pouliot watched Saturday’s win from the press box, and for Sheppard it was the first time in his career that he was a healthy scratch. Meanwhile, Derek Boogaard will be scratched for the Wild—something I would expect a lot more of with Kim Johnsson on the shelf, as John Scott will be getting a lot of time on the blueline.
The scratching of Pouliot on Saturday was a bit of a shock, because he has been playing worlds better than when he started the season. Richards told reporters today that he recognized that Pouliot was improving, but that he wanted to see even more out of him. More physicality, and more grit.
As for Sheppard, it’s pretty clear as to why he was scratched, but he seems to have taken it in stride, expressing that he wants to take a negative, and turn it into a positive.
Also, expect Backstrom between the pipes for the Wild. He has been absolutely spectacular in his last four starts, and with the team needing to make up some ground, will likely shoulder the majority of the workload—at least for the rest of the month.
What to Watch For
How will Sheppard and Pouliot respond to being scratched?
Pouliot really took Richards’ early criticisms to heart this season, and has improved by leaps and bounds. I would expect that he would continue this progression and continue his improvement. The improvements have not yet shown up on the score sheet, but as I’ve mentioned before, the kid has so much God given talent that it’s the little things that he needs to start doing right.
Sheppard, on the other hand, has a big task in front of him. How will he respond to being scratched for the first time in his career?
You’ve got to think that, eventually, it’s make it, or break it time for him. He’s got a wide variety of skills and is going to have to really dig down and show that he belongs at this level. That means playing physical, forechecking hard, and moving those big clown feet of his. He’ll get his scoring chances if he does this and everybody and their mother knows that he’s got the ability to capitalize.
Keys to the Game
The biggest key to this game is scoring even strength for the Wild.
They have a solid powerplay, but have struggled five-on-five this season. If they are going to start scoring more, they are going to have to capitalize on their five-on-five chances. This means getting to the dirty areas on the ice and getting the goals that aren’t necessarily pretty.
In other words, the team needs more efforts like Cal Clutterbuck’s game winner on Saturday and less of the “dipsy-doodle” type plays.
Get physical, get dirty, and get to the net. That’s how this team is going to get their even strength game going.
The team also needs to find the right line combinations. With Pouliot back in the game, you may see him playing between Havlat and Sykora, as this line had some chemistry during the pre-season. The team needs to do something to get their lines to start clicking and contributing. They have the talent, it’s just a matter of finding the right mix.
The puck drops at 7 p.m. CST tonight, and is televised on Versus.