It’s amazing how much difference a couple months time makes.
After their horrific start, the Wild are 16-7-3 and were 9-4-0 during the month of December and now are just four points back from the odds on favorite to win the Northwest Division this season, the Calgary Flames, and third place in the division.
More importantly, they are just four points back from a playoff spot.
The combination of new blood being injected into the system and the old blood learning the new system has proven to be a potent mix and the team is looking poised for a solid run at the Stanley Cup playoffs after missing out last season.
They come into Los Angeles tonight with a record number of wins for the month of December and are looking to increase on that total against a very good and very surprising Los Angeles Kings team.
The Kings are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference despite slumping of late. A testament to how good the Pacific Division has gotten, the Kings dropped from first in the division to third after a stretch of two losses and eight games off in between.
The Wild will be short one of their top checking players, as Chuck Kobasew is going to be on the shelf for about four-to-six weeks with a sprained MCL. While his injury will certainly hurt the team, it is possible that it may have opened up a spot for Petr Sykora to return to the lineup sooner than hoped.
Sykora is travelling with the team on their two-game road swing but has not yet gotten approval to play. If that changes, though, the Wild could see a big addition to their lineup.
Barring Sykora’s return, though, here are the forward lines for the Wild as predicted by Wild.com:
Now, while Belanger’s line is listed as the team’s second line here, it’s important to note that the Kings will likely see a large dose of Ebbett’s line early and often.
They have been one of the hotter lines on the team since Latendresse and Ebbett have both gotten healthy and that could bode well for the Wild. In addition, the injury to Kobasew might just give Sheppard yet another chance to prove himself.
He’s played much better of late, but he needs to step his game up another level if he wants to continue to find playing time as players begin returning from injury.
On defense, Clayton Stoner has been an absolute revelation for the Wild and looks to have stolen John Scott’s spot from him. In his five games since being called up, Stoner has a pair of assists, an even rating, a couple fights and is averaging just under 13 minutes per game.
His solid skating ability and his willingness to throw his body around has quickly endeared him to Wild fans.
Wild.com lists the defensive pairings as follows:
The one thing that I like the most about these pairings is that it gives the Wild a 100 percent legitimate shutdown pairing in Hnidy and Schultz. But what’s more is that the defensively responsible Stoner and Zanon give both Zidlicky and Johnsson chances to step up into the play a little bit more often—something that benefited the Wild in their 4-3 defeat of the Blues on Saturday.
There was a break between the games, so in net we’re most likely going to see Niklas Backstrom again. Backstrom has been absolutely fantastic in his last eight games, with six wins and a 1.87 goals-against average.
What to Watch For
The Wild have a forward on their team that is white hot right now, and he’s not who you’d think.
Guillaume Latendresse has notched four goals in his last four games and six in 13 games with the Wild. In addition, in those 13 games, the Wild is 11-2-0 and is 4-0-0 when he scores a goal.
You don’t believe me? Do the math yourself.
G-Lat has quickly become an important cog in the Wild’s offense and is continuing to get more and more ice time with Minnesota.
The other key is going to be Martin Havlat . He was largely invisible on Saturday night against St. Louis, but has really snapped out of his early season slump with nine points in his last eight games with a plus-six rating.
He is going to be very important to the continued success of the Wild and the continued success of both Latendresse and Ebbett. He has shown great chemistry with both and this looks to be as bona fide a second line as the Wild has had all season long.
If these three start clicking in a game, watch out…It can be scary good.
Key(s) to the Game
Shoot the puck.
Both teams have great records when outshooting their opponents and tonight should be no different.
For the Wild, LA’s Jonathan Quick is a goalie that thrives on confidence. If they can get to him early, they can have success. But Quick gets better as the game goes on and as he gets more confidence, so hitting him early and often will be paramount for a Wild win.
Stopping Anze Kopitar will also be a huge task. Kopitar is one of two Kings players in double digits for goals this season and is the only one who is active (Jarrett Stoll is out with a groin injury). If the Wild can stop Kopitar, they’re that much closer to stopping the Kings.
Kopitar, however, is not the only player that the Wild need to focus on. Ryan Smyth quickly asserted his presence in the Kings’ lineup this season before getting injured and has since returned to the lineup and will provide a huge boost for a Kings team playing without Stoll and Justin Williams .
The puck drops tonight at 9:30 CST and will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.