Gameday Preview: Phoenix Coyotes-Minnesota Wild
It seems like forever since I’ve written one of these, so I might be a bit rusty, but bear with me—this could be a game that you’re going to want to watch if you’re a Wild fan.
Over the last couple years, the Wild have, to use a Mike Milbury-ism, been the Coyotes’ daddy. Prior to this season, the Wild were a stunning 9-1-0 against the Glendale Canines, and were firmly in control of the matchup.
Funny how an off season can change things.
With new coaches, the two teams began to take on different styles of play and the Coyotes were no longer the doormat that the Wild were used to.
Long story short, this season has been a largely different story in the series, with the Coyotes taking the first three games of the season series by a combined score of 11-6.
Soooooooo, what does this mean exactly?
Well, this means one of two things. Either the Coyotes will continue their dominance of the boys in Iron Range Red tonight or, gosh darnit, the Wild are due.
The Wild come into this game five points out of playoff contention with 24 games to play. Not insurmountable odds, but a harrowing task indeed. They also come into this game having gotten 42 of their 62 points at the Xcel Energy Center—where tonight’s game is being played.
A look in the infirmary shows that the Wild are slowly but surely starting to get healthy again. Niklas Backstrom could return to action tonight and Andrew Brunette, who has sat out the team’s last two practices for maintenance issues, will be a go tonight.
“Sherriff” Shane Hnidy is going to be a game time decision tonight, as he missed practice yesterday with an illness, and Anton Khudobin will likely be the second goaltender in place of Josh Harding.
With the M*A*S*H unit that has been the Wild’s lineup this season, it’s hard to tell who might be in, but after last game’s physical tone I would expect Richards to counter with a physical lineup tonight.
The physical lineup means that James Sheppard will again be sitting up in the press box, observing.
Now, I don’t like to speculate too often, but one has got to wonder if Sheppard will be shopped around much like Benoit Pouliot was. Contrary to his stats, Sheppard is a talented player—he just seems to need a fresh start. I doubt that the return for Shep would be all that great right now, but he could be a useful piece to add on to a deal.
On defense, I’m guessing that Hnidy will be ready to go, as he’s what is commonly referred to as a warrior, so our defense shouldn’t change.
And finally, the $6-million question. Who starts in net?
I’m gonna go with my gut on this one and say that Khudobin starts with Backstrom backing up. I say this for two reasons. One, Backstrom has sit out the last six games and should get a little more than just a few practices before he is tossed to the wolves and two, why not ride the hot hand?
Khudobin has two wins (one in relief) in his NHL career and has given up just one goal. That could earn him another shot.
What to Watch For
The last meeting between these two teams ended with some fairly heated exchanges and what looked to be some bad blood.
Now, with Minnesota on the outside looking in and Phoenix playing extremely good hockey right now, I’d look for this to carry over. The Wild will need a spark at the start of this game and will look to come out with energy and with physical play and, let’s be honest, in terms of this stuff a lot of hockey player have long memories.
As far as Phoenix is concerned, keep an eye on Matthew Lombardi.
Lombardi had his first career five-point game on Monday night and is riding high after being moved from center to wing. Playing with Robert Lang and Shane Doan, look for him to continue to be an integral part of their offense.
For Minnesota, they need to find a way to get to Ilya Bryzgalov. Bryz has historically not had a whole lot of success against Minnesota, but this season has played lights out against the Wild.
Minnesota needs to figure out how to recapture their success against Bryz and against the Coyotes to gain any sort of momentum. These last three games of their homestand are incredibly crucial to the direction of the team after the Olympic break, as they will have exactly two days to decide which direction they will take in regards to the trade deadline.
Minnesota has not seriously flirted with the playoffs yet this season, but a strong last three games could put them in the position to do so and influence general manager Chuck Fletcher’s moves going forward.
Key(s) to the Game
Honestly? Open the scoring before the second period. If Minnesota can do that, they’re already part-way towards success against Phoenix.
Getting on the board early and getting their confidence will be key against a Phoenix team that has not given them much to be confident about this season.
Past that, just coming out and playing a solid, physical game.
Minnesota is proving this season that they have a team that is capable of throwing their bodies around and are starting to turn into a very difficult team to play against.
They’re playing against a Coyotes team that is riding high, and they need to be that difficult team to play against. Play physical, send a message to Phoenix that they won’t be pushed around.
It’s that simple. If they can dictate the tempo by playing physical, they can come away with a victory in this one.
The puck drops at 7 PM CST and is broadcast on Fox Sports North.
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