Last week, Tony indicated just how big of a role injuries played in the Wild's four-game skid earlier this month. He wasn't kidding.
With top-4 defensemen Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella all missing time due to injury or illness, Minnesota was unable to ice what many of us here at HW might call a "respectable" defensive corps. Then there was the absence of top line left winger Zach Parise, who found himself on the shelf nursing a concussion. Since being reinserted into the lineup however, Parise appears to have returned to his usual form, scoring three goals in three games since his return. The club snapped a three-game winning streak with a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday night, but things still seem to be trending in an upward direction heading into the club's second game in warm, sunny Florida.
Speaking of which, tonight marks the first ever battle between former top Gopher standouts and teammates Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad. As I'm sure you're all aware, this is just downright historical and more important than anything else that has ever happened in hockey history. All kidding aside, it's going to be an interesting game to watch.
Through 18 games, Florida hasn't been too terrible with a 7-5-6 record (20 points, just four outside the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference). A big reason for their success hasn't just been because of rookie defensive phenom Aaron Ekblad, it's been because of Bjugstad, who has a team best seven goals and 11 points, which are tied with Ekblad for the second best individual point total on the team. Haula, on the other hand, has just two goals in 17 games, a disappointing start to the season after a very impressive rookie campaign last season. Will either one land themselves on the score sheet tonight? It remains to be seen, but Bjugstad vs. Haula is certainly to be the No. 1 story line heading into tonight's game.
This Week's Schedule
Monday 6:30 PM @ Florida Panthers (FS-N, FS-WI)
Wednesday 7:00 PM vs Los Angeles Kings (FS-N)
Friday 7:30 PM @ Dallas Stars (FS-N+)
Saturday 7:00 PM vs St. Louis Blues (FS-N, FX-CA)
Game of the Week
Believe it or not, just about every game this week could be your "Game of the Week". Even tonight's Bjugstad vs Haula showdown is full of intrigue. However, Saturday night's date with the current Central Division leading St. Louis Blues is just too good to pass up.
Not known as a dynamically offensive club, the Notes are led by a trio of high scoring forwards in youngsters Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and older rookie Jori Lehtera. Tarasenko leads his team with 12 goals, 23 points and a plus-15 rating in 21 games, while Schwartz remains hot on his heels with eight goals, 21 points and a plus-9 rating in 21 games. A third round pick of the Blues in 2008, Lehtera is hanging right alongside St. Louis' dynamic duo with seven goals, 20 points and a plus-12 rating in 20 games.
In goal, St. Louis is as strong as ever. Brian Elliot leads the club with an 8-4-1 record, a 1.90 goals against average, a .927 save percentage and a shutout in 13 appearances. His backup is pretty solid, too. In eight starts Jake Allen has been a rock with a 6-2 record, a 2.00 goals against average, a .923 save percentage and two shutouts. No matter how you look at it, either one is going to be a tough draw.
The Blues have had Minnesota's number the past few years, it's highly unlikely that changes Saturday, but you never know.
Key Player of the Week
Florida and St. Louis may have some talented blue chip youngsters, but so does Minnesota. If the Wild are going to keep piling up the points, the club's youth will need to play a big role, and none may be more important than Swiss winger Nino Niederreiter.
Through 19 games, Minnesota's 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinal hero leads the team with nine goals and is one point shy of the team point scoring lead with 12 points. However, it hasn't been until the past five games that things have heated up for the former fifth overall pick. In that span, Niederreiter has five goals (three on the power play, a team best), six points, a plus-1 rating and 12 shots on goal. If he can keep up the pace, the Swiss sensation is on track for 39 goals (13 on the man advantage) and 52 points, all of which would be career highs.
Ask just about any Wild fan and they'll all agree that Niederreiter has the ability to develop into a very special player, perhaps one that we haven't seen since the days of Marian Gaborik. With that said, he still has a lot of growing, developing and maturing to do. Strong showings against the best of the West this week certainly wouldn't hurt, but let's get through tonight first.
It should be a great game tonight, folks; we'll see you right back here as you follow along in the game threads.