Game Preview: Minnesota Wild @ Washington Capitals
The Wild come into tonight’s contest sporting a record of 7-10-1 (15 points), while the Caps are a sparkling 11-3-4 (26 points), which is good for a tie for first in the Eastern Conference with the Jacques Lemaire-helmed New Jersey Devils.
The Wild will be playing in their second of back-to-back games—the first of which saw the team fall in a shootout to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday in a heartbreaking loss. Meanwhile, the Caps are coming off of a 5-4 victory over the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
The Wild called up former Wisconsin Badger standout, Robbie Earl, from the Houston Aeros, their AHL affiliate, late Thursday night but it is doubtful that Earl will see action in Friday’s game. Earl was called up in case forward Chuck Kobasew was too banged up to go, but Kobasew participated in the optional morning skate and looks like he’ll be ready. Bearing that in mind, here are the probable line combos for the Wild.
And the d-pairings are…
Manning the crease for today’s game will be Josh Harding, who will get called on for his first start since a loss to Edmonton on October 16.
The Caps, meanwhile, will be sans-Alex Ovechkin for at least one more game, which is good news for the Wild. The bad news? The team still has Nicklas Backstrom (the one with the ‘c’ in his name), Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich and some guy that the Wild are pretty familiar with called Brendan Morrison.
For the Caps in net, look to Semyon (is that how he’s spelling it these days) Varlamov to get the call.
What to Watch For
If you missed it, go to YouTube and look it up. Owen Nolan scored what is probably the goal of the year so far on Thursday. The goal capped a strong two-goal performance that has seen the wily veteran step up in a big way in the absence of Petr Sykora.
Nolan was demoted to the fourth line, not because of his play, but because of the fact that head coach Todd Richards thought that he was the one person who could handle it.
Nolan bided his time and has turned it on since being moved up to the team’s second line, with two goals and three points over the last two games—including some amazing chemistry with Martin Havlat.
Look for the team’s fourth line of Boogaard, Sheppard and Pouliot to get some more ice time tonight as well.
The line played what could possibly be their best game of the season against Tampa Bay, and Pouliot not only got his second goal of the season, but Sheppard also finally broke through on the scoresheet.
If Richards wants Sheppard to emerge this season, his best bet would be to reward the young center’s strong play last night and see if he can’t get some confidence flowing through Shep. He’s supremely talented, but has played about as soft as a wet paper towel so far this season—not to mention having been a staple in the press box.
Key(s) to the Game
The Wild have gone 4-1-1 in their last six games, and a big reason for that is the fact that their defensive play has steadied.
While still prone to the occasional mistake and brain fart, the Wild’s rearguards have been steady overall in the last six games and have provided a stability in front of the team’s net that they hadn’t previously had.
They have been communicating during play, and it has shown, as all six defensemen look to be making the correct plays at the right times.
Another big key to the game will be depth.
Yes, the Caps have Ovechkin on the shelf, but they also have Semin, Backstrom, Laich, etc. They have a lot of scoring depth, and it’s going to take a lot for the Wild to shut them down.
Richards has not been shy about rolling four lines of late, and the team will need production from all four lines if they are to beat this offensive juggernaut that is the Washington Capitals.
After starting every single game since October 16, Niklas Backstrom is finally getting a well-deserved rest.
What this means for the team, however, is that Josh Harding will need to hold down the fort against an extremely talented hockey team.
Harding has struggled so far this season, and coming out strong against the Caps will be paramount to his rebound. He needs to stay steady in net so that the Wild can give their Vezina finalist a break every now and again.
The puck drops tonight at 6 pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports North.
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