Wow. That’s honestly all I can say about the Wild’s recent home stand.
They start with an inspired performance against the Calgary Flames, defeating the northwest leaders 4-1. Following that, they took on the team many consider to be the class of the NHL and pulled out the biggest comeback in team history, coming from four goals down in the third period to win 6-5 in a shootout.
In a home stand where they played two division leaders—the defending Stanley Cup champions and one of the hottest teams in the NHL—those two games in and of themselves would have made it a successful stand.
The Wild didn’t stop there, however, as Guillaume Latendresse and Niklas Backstrom picked the team up on their shoulders and carried them to victory over the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-3 victory.
Then there was Wednesday night’s game.
If I was thinking of a byline for it, it would most certainly be “Rivalry Renewed.”
Despite being badly out shot through two periods (26-16), Minnesota came out in the third even with the Canucks and put the pedal to the floor, scoring three goals in the first 10 minutes of the period to propel them to victory.
The victory not only was big in the sense that they had laid to rest the monkey on their backs, the Vancouver Canucks this season, but there was also a tangible reward from this game—Minnesota is now just two points out of the eighth playoff spot.
That fact alone makes tonight’s game a very big one indeed for the surging Wild.
It’s been well documented that Todd Richards doesn’t like to mess with a winning formula, and that’s what he’s gotten here. That doesn’t bode well for James Sheppard and Petr Sykora, who have become pressbox staples as of late. Here’s likely what we’re looking at for the Wild’s forwards:
While the exclusion of Sheppard and Sykora may not make sense to many (myself included), you can’t fault Richards for wanting to stick with what works. Boogaard has earned Richards’ trust in a way that he never had been able to with Jacques Lemaire and, surprisingly, the team is 9-2-2 with Robbie Earl in the lineup.
The one question mark that I have is Ebbett. Since returning from injury, his ice time has steadily decreased and his confidence looks just about shot. It’s not to say that he’s been playing poorly—just that he hasn’t played with the same jump that Wild fans saw from him when he was initially claimed off of waivers by the team.
While scratching him might not be the answer to his woes, wouldn’t one be inclined to think that it might warrant giving Sheppard or Sykora a look in his stead?
Meanwhile, on defense, Clayton Stoner still has his tweaked groin and Richards has said that he’s going to keep him out until it is 100 percent, so the same lineup will be on the ice against a Blues team that is playing with a renewed physicality.
I have to say, I’m anxiously awaiting the returns of Stoner and Brent Burns. While Hnidy has been serviceable on the blue line, the last few games he has looked like a pylon on the ice. His mobility seems to be less than it was early in the season and he, quite frankly, isn’t always getting the job done like he once was.
Scott, meanwhile, gives the Wild the added size and physical presence but for everything he has in size, it is found equally lacking in his mobility. He is solid defensively, but against quicker teams he is going to be victimized and St. Louis is definitely that.
In nets, Richards has an interesting quandary on his hands for tonight’s game. Josh Harding is the rested goaltender (Backstrom faced 31 shots in Wednesday night’s tilt), but Backstrom is the hot hand, having stopped 64 of 69 shots over his last two games and being a large reason why the Wild won both games.
While I would expect Richards to go with Harding in this game, Harding is 3-1-0 in his career against St. Louis, with a .924 save percentage and a 1.88 goals-against average; it is conceivable that Richards could continue to ride the hot hand and stick Backstrom in net again.
What to Watch For
I’ll say this about these two teams: They like physical play.
St. Louis has ratcheted up their physical play since Davis Payne took over as their head coach (they are 2-2-1 in that span) and has seen the results of it against Columbus, while Minnesota has their notorious spark plug, Cal Clutterbuck, as well as noted enforcers Derek Boogaard and John Scott in the lineup.
Add in that David Backes is dead set on fighting Olympians, and we may very well have an interesting tilt or two on our hands in this one.
This looks to be a very intense game, with one team on the verge of sliding into a playoff spot and another looking to turn their season around. I would expect a playoff-type atmosphere in St. Louis tonight and look for this game to get chippy in a hurry.
Keeping that in mind, the Wild have scored at least four goals in their last four games. This is a team that may finally be finding their offensive stride due, in large part, to the play of Latendresse, Brodziak and Havlat.
Everyone and their mother knows that the Wild’s big line is the “AMA line.” But can the Wild continue to generate offense with their second line? Watch out, because they could get dangerous in a hurry.
Latendresse and Brodziak both have career-high point streaks going, while Havlat’s point streak was broken on Wednesday. This line is going to need to continue to produce for Minnesota, and all indications are that they are more than capable.
Key(s) to the Game
Minnesota has to set the tone of the game early.
They are on the tail end of back-to-back games and starting a three game road swing against three teams that they have had struggles against recently (some, Phoenix, more recently than others).
The Blues are going to come out and bang early and often. They’re going to get into the Wild’s face and try to force the team into dumb mistakes. The Wild need to do the same.
What is even more important for Minnesota, however, is protecting their goaltender.
They need to limit the quality scoring chances that St. Louis gets—at least as much as they are able to—and they need to force the puck to the outside and not give up many prime chances, as St. Louis definitely has players that can bury the puck.
St. Louis is a team that, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile and, coming off of a big, emotional win against the Canucks, the Wild can’t afford to give them that inch.
The puck drops tonight at 7pm CST and is televised on Fox Sports North.