MINNESOTA WILD VS NEW JERSEY DEVILS
7:00PM Central, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
TV: Fox Sports-North, Fox Sports-Wisconsin
Streaming: Fox Sports Go app
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
The Wild faces its toughest opponent of the season tonight: itself. After two emotional back-to-back wins in Dallas and Chicago to give Minnesota the outright lead in the Central Division, four consecutive wins, and a 17-1-1 record since December 4th, the Wild returns home tonight to start a four-game homestand against a team that has struggled mightily this season. On paper, and based on what the Wild has accomplished in the last two weeks alone, Minnesota should run over the New Jersey Devils tonight at Xcel Energy Center. With New Jersey playing well lately, however, it’s one of those games where Bruce Boudreau really needs to make sure his team’s guard is up, because with no practice yesterday and a remarkable victory Sunday, a letdown is very realistic. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Minnesota so far this season, though, it’s that it finds a way, even when things are unexpectedly difficult, and it never seems to cave. While this could be a tougher game than some might anticipate, expect Minnesota to once again find a way and prevail on home ice tonight. With the Blackhawks now officially in the rearview mirror, Minnesota sets its sites set on Washington, which currently holds the highest point total in the NHL. With the Capitals idle after their crazy 8-7 overtime loss last night to Pittsburgh, the Wild can start to close that gap… Assuming it doesn’t beat itself.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The Devils were better than expected last season, so when they essentially stole Taylor Hall from Edmonton in June, giving up only defenseman Adam Larsson to obtain a supremely skilled, lightning fast, 25-year-old winger (he was 24 at the time of the trade), hopes were high that New Jersey could potentially make the playoffs this year, which would be its first time qualifying since 2012, when Zach Parise packed up and moved home. Things haven’t exactly panned out the way they wanted though, as they have only managed an 18-18-9 record on the season, good for seventh place in the extremely powerful Metropolitan Division. Tonight’s game will cap a four-game road trip for the Devils, who have played well on their swing out west, going 2-0-1 against Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver, most recently beating the Canucks 2-1 on an overtime snipe by Hall on Sunday. Facing a difficult test in the Minnesota Wild, New Jersey will certainly want to go back to Newark on a high note, so expect them to bring a strong game and tenacious effort tonight.
The best player on New Jersey for the past four seasons has been their goaltender, Cory Schneider, by a landslide. Schneider plays a similar style to Dubnyk, trying to take away as much of the net as possible while limiting unnecessary movements to take him out of position. This year, Schneider hasn’t been quite as unflappable as we have come to expect, though, as he’s registered just a 2.68 GAA and .910 save percentage on the season. The bad news for the Wild, however, is that Schneider has been significantly better since the year turned to 2017, with the exception of his game on January 5th against Toronto, in which he allowed three goals on five shots before being pulled. Even with that one bad outing, his GAA since January 1st is a stellar 1.57. Minnesota will need to get a lot of traffic to the front of the net and look for greasy rebound goals to beat Schneider, who appears to very much be back on his game.
The trade for Hall and waiver claim of PA Parenteau were not enough to solve the offensive woes for the Devils, who are allowing far more goals than they are scoring this season. Hall and Travis Zajac are tied for the team scoring lead with 28 points each. Minnesota, by comparison, is led in scoring by Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund, who have 39 and 35 points respectively, and in total, the team has five players with 28 or more points. Needless to say, the Devils are lacking in point production this season. To beat the Wild, the Devils will definitely allow Minnesota to get its shots on Schneider, but they will look to eliminate high quality chances and capitalize on their own chances. A low-scoring affair will definitely suit their gameplan this evening.
Things haven’t been very good for the Devils’ blueline this year either, usually an area of strength for the organization. They seem to really be missing Larsson, because with Andy Greene out the last few games, their top pairing has been comprised of Jon Merrill and Ben Lovejoy. Those two players combined have eight total points on the season and a -12 rating, not exactly the numbers you look for from your top duo. Depth on the back end is clearly a glaring issue for this franchise, so this will very much need to be addressed before the team starts to turn their fortunes around.
Last season, the Wild played New Jersey at home on January 10th. Minnesota had cooled off just a bit after a red-hot month of December, opening the 2016 calendar year with a 2-1-2 record, before welcoming the Devils to St. Paul. With Darcy Kuemper playing to give Devan Dubnyk a night off, the Wild lost 2-1 in a defensive, low energy game that featured just 35 total shots on goal between the two teams. The loss was the official start of the “Great Wild Collapse of 2016,” as the Wild would go 1-11-2 between that night and February 13th, when Mike Yeo was finally relieved of his duties. The Wild had really shown some ugly signs that indicated impending doom prior to that collapse, however, and it simply is showing no such signs at present. Boudreau has the team finding different ways to win every night, and it demonstrated in the Chicago game Sunday that it can stop even the most offensively gifted teams from scoring more than two goals (assuming Dubnyk is playing). Win or lose, tonight will not be the start of a major collapse for the Wild, but there is an eerie parallel to the timing and situation of this evening’s matchup.
Boudreau publicly called out Kuemper after he gave up four goals in Dallas on Saturday, telling Mike Russo of the StarTribune, “We can’t afford every game to have 3, 4, 5 goals scored against us when he’s in the net.” It’s rare for a goaltender to get singled out like that by a coach speaking to the media, so Boudreau is clearly losing his patience a bit with his backup goalie, and he’s absolutely right to be frustrated with Kuemper’s play. Minnesota needs to be able to rely on Kuemper to spell Dubnyk down the stretch, as a rested and healthy Dubnyk will absolutely be the difference in whether the Wild makes a deep playoff run or experiences another early exit. With an even weaker opponent in the Arizona Coyotes on the schedule for Thursday, it makes the most sense for Dubnyk to play tonight and Kuemper to get another chance to redeem himself on Thursday. With what happened last season after losing at home to New Jersey, and Minnesota potentially not having its best game tonight as a team, the Wild should absolutely have Dubnyk playing against the Devils, as he alone can quash any momentum… Just in case the Devils happen to be feeling a little spunky facing the best team in the Western Conference.
Greene, who is perhaps New Jersey’s top defensemen, has been out since taking a Jordan Staal shot off his wrist (and then his face) on January 3rd. He’s a key cog in their already broken defensive machine, so the Devils are very much looking forward to having him back in the line-up soon. Additionally, veteran forward Vern Fiddler remains out of the line-up with a lower body injury suffered on December 27th.
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, thanks to @keisarikine. Thanks for reading!