MINNESOTA WILD VS ARIZONA COYOTES
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
You can’t say we didn’t try to warn them. We did! We really did try to give the Wild a heads-up that there was a potential letdown coming against the Devils, but it happened anyway. In fairness, a win was still predicted for Minnesota in the last Game Preview, but on Tuesday, the Wild didn’t find a way. It let its guard down in the third period, Devan Dubnyk wasn’t the best version of himself, and the Wild finally got its second regulation loss since November. It was the definition of a trap game, with the Wild coming off of two very difficult games against divisional rivals in two nights, and generally speaking, the Devils seem to just somehow have the Wild’s number. I’ll share a personal anecdote with you that I find appropriate for this moment… I have a friend who grew up a Devils fan, but as an adult, he pretty much only watches when the Devils play Minnesota, because he likes to talk trash to me. With both of us living in New York (I don’t live there anymore), we actually used to go to the games together when the Wild would visit Prudential Center. He still likes to rub it in my face that he has never seen the Wild win, even though he’s seen them play something like ten times. Yesterday morning I woke up to the text, “Hahaha I just saw that the Devils won! DEVILLLLLLLS! DEVILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLS! Shooooooooooot it!” That last part was a reference to how Devils fans immediately implore their team to fire the puck on net the instant it gets control on the power play. It’s a very knowledgable bunch. Ugh. Thanks for that, Wild. Anyway, that one’s over and done with, so now it’s on to the next!
Tonight, the Wild welcomes the Arizona Coyotes, the Pacific Division’s last-place team, in Minnesota’s first game without Jonas Brodin, who fractured his finger Tuesday and is expected to be out a month. It’s a huge loss for Minnesota, and a tough break for Brodin (no pun intended), who was having a great season leading up to the injury.
They aren’t… good. The Coyotes are tied with the Colorado Avalanche for fewest wins in the NHL, with thirteen. THIRTEEN! Minnesota came one game away from tying that number in a single consecutive win streak in December. Arizona does edge the Avs in the standings with 32 points versus Colorado’s 27, so there’s something for Dave Tippett to hang his hat on. Having failed to qualify for the playoffs every year since 2012, it’s a shame that Arizona continues to stink, because they play in a market that really needs them to be good in order to draw fans to their arena. In addition to being located in a non-traditional hockey market, it’s also challenged by the fact that its current home, Gila River Arena, is located thirty minutes outside of Downtown Phoenix and an hour from Scottsdale, where it theoretically could attract more locals and tourists alike. Mix all those issues together, and you have an arena with lots of empty seats. Help is on the way, though, because the Coyotes have plans to move to a new arena in Tempe, right in the heart of the ASU district, in a couple of years.
Maybe being really really bad is the whole plan for first year, 27-year-old General Manager John Chayka, because on the plus side for Arizona, it already has a few good, young players on its roster that could serve as the quality supporting cast of characters that can make it a contender very quickly, should the Coyotes manage to win this year’s draft lottery. One very bright spot on the current roster is Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is just about to enter the prime of his career at 25 years old. The stud blueliner is third among NHL defensemen with nine goals on the season, after scoring more than twenty goals in each of the past two seasons. The problem is that OEL needs to be paired with an elite shutdown defenseman to let him flex his offensive muscles, but his current defensive partner, Luke Schenn, simply isn’t that player. There’s also Tobias Rieder, who at 24, has found himself onto the first line, as well as Max Domi (who is currently injured… More on that below) and Anthony Duclair to give Coyotes fans (both of them) hope for the future. Prospect Clayton Keller, one of the stars for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, is also on the way, so there should be some light at the end of the tunnel for Arizona.
The team is currently led in scoring by veteran forward Radim Vrbata and Ekman-Larsson, who have 29 and 24 points respectively. After that, however, there just is nobody producing for this team, which leaves little hope for the now. Rieder is in third place on the team with sixteen points, a number eclipsed by half the Wild’s roster, even including Jason Pominville.
The Coyotes enter tonight’s game on a three-game losing streak, coming off of a 6-3 loss last night at Winnipeg. The Wild not only gets a bad team tonight, it gets a bad team that’s tired and hasn’t won lately. Minnesota needs to win big against this weak opponent to make a statement that Tuesday’s game was a fluke.
The biggest storyline for this game is how the Wild proceeds without Brodin, who was putting together an excellent response season after having his name bandied about in trade rumors last year. Brodin has been exceptional this season, constantly getting the Wild out of trouble in its own zone and quickly moving the puck up ice. Nate Prosser is of course waiting in the wings, but with Mike Reilly being recalled from Iowa, Reilly likely draws in tonight. In his previous stint with the big club, he had zero points in nine games before being sent down on November 23rd. With his defensive abilities being called into question often, an offensive defenseman needs to put up some points to stick in the NHL, which he didn’t do last time around. With four goals and eleven assists at the AHL level, he certainly has been more productive with Iowa, so perhaps he’ll have a little more impact this time around.
The last time these two teams played, Darcy Kuemper got the start and looked good in a 4-1 win, stopping 27 of 28 shots. Going into Tuesday’s game, it seemed likely that Kuemper would get this start against Arizona as well, but after the Wild fell apart in the third period, it seems less likely that Bruce Boudreau would want to risk losing two in a row to bad teams and letting doubt creep into the locker room. Dubnyk didn’t have his best game Tuesday, so he will want to get back on the proverbial horse right away. Kuemper will probably have to wait until this weekend’s back-to-back games to get another chance to show Boudreau that he can allow fewer than four goals, which he hasn’t done since that last Arizona game on December 17th.
Minnesota isn’t used to losing, and it doesn’t want to make it a habit. Expect the Wild to bounce back with a strong effort tonight, as Coach Boudreau was very obviously unhappy with his team’s performance on Tuesday.
Man, it was so nice to just write that the Wild had been healthy for the last… like… month. Well, somebody didn’t knock on wood after the last Game Preview, because Brodin goes out for quite a while. Time to put my Brodin jersey back in the closet.
For Arizona, the most significant injury is Max Domi, who has been out since December 8th with a broken hand that he suffered fighting Calgary’s Garnet Hathaway. Yes, it’s a little ironic that the player who is touted for being a young, skilled forward that can handle himself in a scrap got injured fighting, but that is of course the risk you take by having a young star that gets involved in fisticuffs. There’s no way the 21-year-old doesn’t continue to fight when he comes back from injury, though… He’s a Domi. Martin Hanzal also missed last night’s game due to a family issue, and it is unclear if he will return for tonight’s game. The veteran center has nine goals and six assists on the year.
I got some grief last Preview for always saying that the Gamethread will post thirty minutes before the game, and then having it not post at that time, so I’ll adjust my verbiage this time… The Gamethread will post some time tonight. Swing on by! Below are the projected line-ups thanks to dailyfaceoff.com (the third d-pair is excluded for the Wild, because Daily Faceoff has Prosser playing with Folin, which I don’t think will be the case), as well as the Tale of the Tape, thanks to @keisarikine.
THIRD PAIR: MIKE REILLY // CHRISTIAN FOLIN