MINNESOTA WILD VS MONTREAL CANADIENS
7:00PM Central, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
Streaming: NBCSN Live app
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
The last time Minnesota faced the Montreal Canadiens, the Wild had won seven consecutive games as it headed to the Bell Centre for the first game of back-to-backs with the Habs and the Rangers. There was a ton of hype leading up to the game between the Wild and the Canadiens about Devan Dubnyk versus Carey Price, as even the national media outlets climbed aboard the "two best goalies going head-to-head" train. The Wild came out as victors in Montreal, with Dubnyk outshining Price, to earn a 4-2 win. Minnesota followed it up the next night by simply outscoring the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and sending Henrik Lundqvist to the dressing room early. At the time, the two games were viewed as the most difficult tests of the season for Minnesota, as it faced two teams on two consecutive nights that were among the league's best. Montreal and Minnesota are both still among the top teams in their respective divisions, so tonight's game is also one that has been circled on the calendars of both clubs for quite a while, though the circumstances are very different this time around. In that first game, the deck seemed to very much be stacked against the Wild, so quite frankly two losses in two nights seemed likely as Minnesota headed into Bell Centre. Obviously the Wild prevailed, in two games that showed the Wild could win on big stages, even in unfavorable situations. Tonight, however, the Wild is on home ice, and it does not have a long travel night tonight, nor does it have another game looming tomorrow. Conversely, it's the Habs who are facing adverse conditions tonight, as they are on their second of back-to-backs, after having rolled the Jets last night in Winnipeg. For Minnesota, winning in both Montreal and New York on consecutive nights in December was no easy feat, and tonight's game will certainly be a test as well. However, with the deck stacked a little more in Minnesota's favor this time around, a Wild win tonight seems downright realistic.
Montreal is ahead of Boston for first place in the Atlantic Division by NINE POINTS, and that's with the Bruins having actually played two more games than the Canadiens. The nine-point lead is more than double the margin of any other division-leading team in the NHL, as Chicago leads the Wild by four, San Jose and Anaheim are tied, and Columbus leads Washington by one. It's truly remarkable what Montreal has done so far, as it has continued to build on its hot start to the season, racking up a massive amount of points in a relatively weak division. Last night's win at MTS Center was a nice one for Montreal, as it defeated the Jets 7-4 with its back up, Al Montoya, tending goal. Montoya started the game because Montreal wanted to rest Price for tonight's game against Minnesota, something that the Wild will definitely see moving forward, as it has established itself as a top-five team in terms of goal scoring. There are many parallels this season between Price and Dubnyk, as they have battled one another throughout the first half of the season for early Vezina consideration. In fact, continuing their parallel paths, they have also both been in slumps recently, as Price, like Dubnyk, has been allowing more goals than usual, with three or more goals against in five of his last six starts. Price, however, has actually fallen off a bit statistically, as he now ranks sixth in the NHL in both save percentage (.928) and GAA (2.12), while Dubnyk has maintained the top spot in both of those categories, even with his slightly less impressive stretch over the past couple of weeks. While Dubnyk seems to be winning the battle this year, Price is undoubtedly the best goalie in the world on a broader time scale, so Price is winning the war. Both goalies will certainly want to be at their best tonight as they continue this year's fight for supremacy.
If the Eric Staal signing was the best off-season move by any team in the NHL, Montreal trading for Shea Weber and signing Alexander Radulov may have been 1b and 1c respectively. These two guys are studs, making their presence known every single night, and pushing the Habs faithful to believe every day that this is a team that can make a deep playoff run this season. It seemed unlikely that Radulov would ever return to the NHL after being dumped by Nashville soon after the great curfew debacle of 2012, but after slaying the KHL over the past two seasons for 71 points in 46 games in '14-'15, and then 65 points in 53 games last season, a one-year $5.75 million contract was actually a relatively low-risk move by the Canadiens. The payoff for Montreal has been impressive, as Radulov has arguably been their best forward, posting 32 points so far this season. Meanwhile, those who pooh-poohed the trade that sent fan favorite PK Subban to Nashville in favor of Weber continue to eat crow, as Weber has done nothing but produce and be a true leader since moving north. With ten goals and eighteen assists, Weber is having one of the best seasons of his career offensively, while continuing to be a physically imposing player on the back end. With a rash of injuries this season for Montreal, Weber has been one of the main reasons that the Canadiens have continued to play at such a high level.
The Canadiens are also getting help from some of their young up-and-coming players, which have helped them cope with the loss of some key contributors. 23-year-old Phillip Danault has 21 points, and 21-year-old Artturi Lehkonen registered his ninth and tenth goals of the season last night in Winnipeg. Both skating in the top six for Montreal, Danault and Lehkonen look like long-term solutions for the Habs, adding to an already deep forward line-up. Danault was acquired at the deadline last season in a trade with Chicago for Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise, while Lehkonen was Montreal's second-round pick in the 2013 draft.
Having been decimated by injury this season, the Habs continue to roll and prove that they are among the best teams in the NHL. They have done so without any significant trades to fill in the gaps, a true testament to their depth as an organization. With a balanced attack, excellent goaltending, and good team defense, the Habs will again be a good test for Minnesota tonight.
Minnesota has begun to earn the respect of the league as one of the NHL's best teams, as demonstrated by Montreal's decision to sit Price last night in preparation for tonight's matchup with the Wild. Looking back to last season, when Minnesota seemed to find itself getting shut down by back-up goalies regularly, the Wild has come a long way to prove itself as a team that can score readily if its opponent is not at its best defensively. With both teams' goaltenders recently going through slumps, this game may very well come down to which team's netminder plays like himself tonight. Dubnyk's most recent showing in Anaheim was a great step in the right direction, as he made a few huge saves and held the Ducks to just one goal in the game, supported well by his team, which played solid defense in front of him for the first time in weeks. Price, meanwhile, gave up four goals in his last outing against Washington, and has a 3.17 GAA over his past six games. Hopefully tonight will not be the night that he snaps out of it, but you can bet that he will want to win the re-match in the Dubnyk-Price battle, so Minnesota will need plenty of offensive zone time and quality scoring chances to beat Price tonight.
The California road trip has always been a difficult one for Minnesota. Last season it went 1-2-0 on the trip, and the year before, it went 0-2 (the Wild played only Anaheim and Los Angeles on the trip that season, as it visited San Jose at a different time of the season). Seeing the Wild take five out of a possible six points from San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim in just four days was almost shocking, but it's another example of why this team is different from past iterations of the Wild. It is truly equipped to win against any team in the league, and it is capable of varying its style of play to match and defeat any opponent. Tonight they face a team with a similar style, finding success with a balanced offensive attack and strong goaltending. Both teams will need to bring their best tonight in order to beat the other at its own game.
The Montreal Canadiens' injury report is absolutely bonkers. How are these guys still any good? On paper, one would think that the Wild should have the upper hand tonight with so many regulars missing from Montreal's line-up, but the Habs have been stellar, even without some of their key players. From the below list, Alex Galchenyuk, who injured his knee on December 4th, and Brendan Gallagher, who fractured his hand on January 4th, are the most significant absences from the line-up, while Andrei Markov was averaging more than 21:00 per night before going down. The Wild is certainly not getting the Canadiens' best line-up, but it will still need to bring its "A" game to take down the mighty Habs for the second time this season.
Minnesota remains healthy (knock on wood!).
The Gamethread will post at 6:30PM Central. Below are the projected line-ups, thanks to dailyfaceoff.com, as well as the Tale of the Tape, brought to you by @keisarikine. Thanks, as always, for reading!