If anyone needed a break, it was the Minnesota Wild.
After a hot December that saw them tally 10 victories (a team record for the month), the team proceeded to lose three games in five days looking like a very tired team for the majority of those games.
But a two-day break in the Windy City and the presence of their fathers has the team rejuvenated and ready for action against the team that is arguably the best in the league—the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild have an extremely daunting task in front of them, as their loss on Saturday to the New Jersey Devils kicked off a month of January in which nine of the team’s 14 games are against teams that are currently in playoff contention and three more are against teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
In other words, January will be a good measuring stick for just how good this Wild team actually is.
The good news for the Wild is that Brent Burns has made this trip with the team, and though he didn’t practice, he is getting closer and closer every day to returning.
What’s more is that, by all accounts, the Wild held one of their hardest working practices of the season yesterday—in large part because of the presence of their fathers. The speculation following practice was that the Wild would have heard it afterwards if they didn’t, and I suspect the same will go for tonight’s game.
As for tonight’s game, the Wild will be facing a Blackhawks team that has won three straight and eight of their last 10. In fact, there’s not much that has not been going right for the ‘Hawks this season.
I haven’t heard of what the lines might or might not be for the Wild, but the injuries have been talked about. While Burns travelled, he is still out with a concussion. In addition, the Wild might be down one of their more important players and team leaders in Owen Nolan, who is questionable for tonight’s game. Assuming that Nolan doesn’t go, here’s my attempt at the forward lines:
I think that, in the case of these lines, you could easily see James Sheppard and Cal Clutterbuck switch spots. First, because Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak have some absolutely sick chemistry with one another and second because Sheppard is more of a playmaking-type player—something that could be important to getting sniper Petr Sykora rolling after returning from his concussion.
In addition, don’t be surprised if Sykora gets some shifts on Martin Havlat’s opposite wing with Belanger in between them. The three were showing some fantastic chemistry before Sykora went down, and it took the Wild a while to find some other players that fit with Havlat. That said, Havlat is riding a four-game points streak and has five goals and 15 points in his last 15 games, most of which has come playing with Andrew Ebbett and Guillaume Latendresse.
On the other hand if Nolan is able to go tonight, I’d expect the casualty to be Derek Boogaard due, in large part, to his lack of mobility.
As for defense, I doubt you’ll see much of a change there. Clayton Stoner has recovered from his tweaked groin and continues to gain the confidence of the coaching staff. While he’s cooled off from his “call up” hot streak, Stoner has continued to play solid, physical defense—something that has endeared him to the coaching staff and the fans.
In addition, against the ‘Hawks quick forward group, I’d be surprised if the Wild rolled out John Scott who, as with Boogaard, isn’t the most mobile member of the team.
In nets, expect to see Josh Harding who will give Niklas Backstrom a much needed break following performances that have seen him give up three goals in six of his last seven games.
Especially in his last few games, Backstrom simply looked tired and because of this, I would expect Harding to be in the cage tonight regardless of the score—especially with an ever-important divisional match up coming tomorrow night.
What to Watch For
Keep an eye on the Wild’s defense tonight. Against both Los Angeles and New Jersey, they didn’t give their goaltenders much help and that will need to change in a big way against Chicago’s high octane offense.
As was mentioned earlier, the Wild’s fathers are on this trip, and I would expect the team (and the defense especially) to play a solid, blue collared hockey game—lots of hitting, lots of good positioning, and lots of hard work.
For the Wild, keep an eye on the usual suspects—Havlat, Mikko Koivu, and Andrew Brunette.
These three players have been three of the Wild’s hottest players of late, with Koivu picking up the Wild on his shoulders and shouldering much of their offensive load.
The dark horse for the Wild, however, is defenseman Marek Zidlicky.
While ‘Z’ has driven Wild fans crazy with his play in his own zone, he has certainly come into his own this season and is playing much better defense than he did last season. His pairing with Greg Zanon has turned into the Wild’s top defensive unit, and he is showing that he is a true asset moving the puck.
In his last five games, Zidlicky has six assists and is a plus-one. He has had the hot passing hand and his ability to break the puck out will be crucial to the Wild’s transition game.
Key(s) to the Game
Which leads me into the first key to the game.
The Wild need to, need to, need to get their transition game going early. They are simply not going to get a whole lot of quality chances against the Blackhawks team and are going to be pressured early and often.
The Blackhawks give up just over 24 shots per game, while taking around 33. For the Wild to win, they are going to need to take advantage of the ‘Hawks aggressiveness and catch them pinching. If they can do that, they can get quality chances against this team. If they can’t, though, they might not be seeing too many of their pucks hitting the net.
Anyone who watched the Winter Classic can tell you that a solid transition game can change the tempo and the momentum of the game and that a solid transition game can win the game.
My second key to the game is discipline.
The Wild need to a) hope that Chicago remains disciplined and b) remain disciplined themselves.
The reason I say this is twofold. The Wild’s power play, of late, has largely been a momentum killer for the team. Much of this likely has to do with the loss of Brent Burns on the blueline but on a whole, the Wild’s power play has been ineffective.
For the ‘Hawks, however, their power play has been buzzing, having converted at least one opportunity in each of its last seven games. The team is 8-for-25 during that time—an impressive 32 percent clip.
Finally, it is paramount in this game that the Wild get out to a good start. This is a very potent offensive team that they are playing and stumbling out of the gates could very well lose the game for them.
Minnesota has not started well for most of the season, and it is very important that they get their legs under them early. They need to slow down Chicago with physical play and they need to grind it out with them, plain and simple.
The puck drops tonight at 7 p.m. CST on Versus.
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