MINNESOTA WILD VS DALLAS STARS
7:00PM Central, American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
TV: Fox Sports-North, Fox Sports-Wisconsin
Streaming: Fox Sports Go app
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
After an awesome 7-1 win against Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota has carried its December success into the early part of 2017 so far, getting off to a great start to the calendar year with a 3-0-1 record and seven out of eight possible points in the standings. The Blackhawks got smoked 6-0 last night in Washington, so with Chicago idle, tonight’s game against Dallas represents an enormous opportunity for the Wild to draw level in points atop the division standings before checking in at United Center tomorrow. Being even in points with four games in hand would be a great way to start the season series with the Blackhawks, but the Wild needs to take care of business tonight in Dallas. With the way Minnesota has been playing over the past month, it really should roll through Dallas with an easy victory en route to Chicago. Yet Bruce Boudreau and company have been careful not to get ahead of themselves, because the Stars should be much better than 18-17-8 and fifth place in the Central Division. Coming off a nice win of its own against Detroit Thursday, Dallas will likely bring its “A” game tonight.
There are definitely some line-up decisions to be made for the Wild, such as whether or not it wants to get some sandpaper into the game to keep the obnoxious Antoine Roussel from taking too many liberties. Seriously, I hate that guy… He’s such a dweeb. With Jordan Schroeder scoring in the last game, however, it is unlikely that he gets scratched in favor of Kurtis Gabriel, meaning that the speedier and more skilled version of the Wild will have to put up with Roussel’s nonsense. The most notable decision to be made for Minnesota, however, is how it will choose to play its goaltenders over the next week. Traditional hockey wisdom would lead to a split of the goalies over the weekend. Normally the number one goalie would play the first of back-to-backs, but with the Blackhawks slated for tomorrow, you can bet Minnesota will want to give itself its best chance to win that one, so Devan Dubnyk will undoubtedly be in goal Sunday. Tonight’s starter in Dallas is the question mark. More on that below.
Dallas still has a somewhat potent offense, registering 114 goals on the season, or 2.65 goals per game. By comparison, that’s a far cry from some of the league leaders, as Minnesota for example is scoring at a 3.25 goal-per-game clip, but still, it’s a team that can put goals on the board and requires consistent team defense from every line to stop it from scoring. With Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn again putting up impressive numbers (41 and 34 points respectively, even with Benn missing two weeks due to injury recently), it’s hard to point at the Stars’ offensive abilities as the cause for their struggles this season. The true issues for Dallas, as has been the case even when it has had top-flight teams in the recent past, has once again been on the back end, both in terms of goaltending and defense.
The Stars have given up 129 goals in 43 games, for a 3.00 team GAA, while both of their goaltenders, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemmi, are over 2.80 in GAA and under .915 in save percentage for the season. Those are some ugly numbers, which would lead you to believe that the Stars players in front of them are not overly confident in their netminders. If you don’t have good goaltending, your team overreacts to try to compensate and prevent chances, so every facet of the team suffers. Without consistent goaltending, you simply can’t win in the NHL (see the pre-Dubnyk Wild of ’14-’15 as a reference). Compounding their defensive woes, in addition to the leaky goaltending, the top defensive pairing for Dallas is far more skilled offensively than defensively (22-year-old Esa Lindell and 24-year-old John Klingberg make up that top duo for Dallas). Put all of this together, and you’re bound to give up quite a few goals as a team. Of course having two young, puck-moving stars leading your defense core bodes well for the future, as they will surely get better in their own end zone over time, but the window for success is open now with Seguin and Benn, two extremely special players, in the primes of their careers. As an organization, Dallas can’t afford to be this bad defensively and in the goal crease, so a few significant changes to its roster are likely before the start of next season.
Looking down the line-up, Dallas has a nice balance to its forward lines, with Seguin playing with Jason Spezza and Jiri Hudler on the top line, Benn leading the second line, and Patrick Sharp leading the third line. It’s a tougher team to shut down than some for this reason, as theoretically, any of their top three lines can score. Dallas isn’t a team that Minnesota would want to get into a track meet with, so while the Wild really dominated their Thursday-night game against Montreal, it will need to defend and get some good goaltending from whomever they choose to start this evening.
As was mentioned earlier, conventional wisdom would indicate that Darcy Kuemper starts this one, since Boudreau will surely want to have Dubnyk ready to go for Chicago tomorrow. However, it’s worth looking ahead a couple more games to see that Minnesota plays two of the league’s worst teams, New Jersey and Arizona, during this upcoming week. With Dubnyk having a surprisingly easy night against the Habs Thursday, perhaps Boudreau goes for four points on the weekend and outright divisional lead by starting him again in both games and taking his chances against the Devils or Coyotes. After all, the goaltender in tonight’s game is likely to be tested significantly more than the goaltender that faces New Jersey and/or Arizona. The first option of splitting the goaltenders is more likely, of course, but with a chance to go for the jugular this weekend and take full control of the division, one could see Boudreau going against conventional wisdom for this one. Thanks to HW reader Spookshow for pointing out this intriguing option! We’ll see what happens.
In his postgame press conference on Thursday, Boudreau actually took a tone of being disappointed with the way that his team played, completely downplaying the Wild having scored seven goals against the world’s best goaltender and one of the league’s best teams. Looking at that game though, even with Minnesota only putting 24 shots on Price, Minnesota was truly dominant. Every shot seemed like a scoring chance for the Wild, and there were very few moments in the game where it even felt like Minnesota was remotely on the ropes. The coach’s comments after the game were clearly a ploy to try to stop his team from getting overly confident or satisfied with its game, as it heads out on the road for these two weekend games. Facing a motivated team on the road tonight, in a building where the Wild has not been good over the years, expect Minnesota to have to weather a bit of a storm in the very early moments, but should it escape the first few minutes without yielding a goal against, its balanced scoring and team defense should prevail over the offense-only Stars.
The Stars have had quite a few injuries this season, most notably a foot injury to Jamie Benn, which required him to miss two weeks recently. Benn returned Thursday in Dallas’s win over Detroit, but he did not register a point in 18:37 of ice time. Benn is a guy that never misses time, so his injury had to be significant. The Wild may be fortunate to run into Benn at a time when he may not be at his best. Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak will miss his second consecutive game with a hand injury, after leaving early in Dallas’s 2-0 loss at Anaheim on Tuesday.
Minnesota remains healthy (KNOCK ON WOOD!).