MINNESOTA WILD VS DALLAS STARS
7:00PM Central, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
TV: Fox Sports-North Plus
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
Streaming: Fox Sports Go app
Since the Wild lost 3-0 in Tampa on Festivus, we’ve had three restorative off-days to reflect about the team, what’s gone right lately (not much), and what’s gone wrong (most things). Hopefully you had a wonderful holiday, and you didn’t actually spend too much time thinking about those things, because that may have ruined your Christmas. With the Green ‘n’ Wheats going back to work tonight, it’s time to reluctantly put your fandom back in action as well. Welcome back, Wilderness.
Minnesota should be happy to put its recent poor road trip in the rearview, as it returns home tonight to take on a Central Division rival that it has not yet seen this regular season. Like us fans, the players and coaches have had a few days to recuperate and spend time with family and friends, so hopefully the Wild can regain some of the momentum that it had built in November and the early parts of December.
The Wild trails the Stars (20-14-3) by four points in the standings and badly needs to start gaining ground in its division. The best way to do that is by beating divisional opponents, so a victory tonight sure would be swell.
The Stars are one of the most improved teams in the NHL this season, thanks to numerous savvy offseason moves by GM Jim Nill. After an abysmal ’16-’17 campaign that saw his club land second-to-last in the Central Division, Nill went for a huge roster shakeup over the summer that has so far paid off.
Nill’s first change was behind the bench. Just a few days after the season ended, Lindy Ruff was replaced with veteran Head Coach and noted Civil War buff, Ken Hitchcock. The former Blues coach is now in his second stint in Dallas, where he won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
Next came addressing the most obvious personnel need. In terms of getting good value for contracts, the Dallas Stars have not exactly had an outstanding track record over the past couple of seasons in their goalcrease. Antti Niemi finished last year with a whopping 3.30 GAA and .892 save percentage, while Kari Lehtonen finished with a slightly better 2.85/.902 line. The tandem combined to make more than $10 million last season and backstop their team to a losing record and just 79 points in the standings at the end of the season.
Nill reacted this offseason by buying out Niemi—a good call, being that he has now been waived twice in the early parts of the season—and replaced his terrible contract with another seemingly terrible contract for gigantic veteran Ben Bishop. So far the signing has brought a decent return, however, as the 6’7” netminder has been significantly more solid than Niemi was with Dallas. Though his statline still hasn’t been overly spectacular at 2.65 GAA and .910 save percentage, Bishop has racked up fifteen wins in 27 starts. With heaps of talent playing in front of him, Bishop just needs to make the saves that he is supposed to make, something that the Lehtonen/Niemi duo had oodles of trouble doing last season. Even at his six-year, $29.5 million price tag, Bishop is a big upgrade in net.
Unfortunately for opponents, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are still on the Dallas Stars, and they are still really good, so far neck and neck with 32 points each. But adding to the potent Dallas attack is Alexander Radulov, who Nill brought in as one of the steals of the offseason when Montreal failed to sign the skilled Russian winger. It’s another move that has paid early dividends for Dallas, as Radulov has posted twelve goals and seventeen assists.
Martin Hanzal, AKA The Big Handzy, makes his return to the X this evening, after leaving as a free agent over the summer. Hanzal may have been the least impressive move by Nill this offseason. He is playing on the fourth line, has three goals and three assists, and is a -9 in 25 games. It’s probably ok the Wild didn’t shell out almost $5 million a year to keep him… although… it did… give up a first rounder, a second rounder, and some spare change to rent him at the Trade Deadline last season. So maybe the joke’s on us?
Even as the Wild has struggled lately, Alex Stalock continues to impress the heck out of teammates and fans. The way he battles, flies around his crease, jumps out of the net to play the puck… it’s really something to behold. The losses of late have been anything but his fault. Matt Cullen told media after the last game that Stalock “deserves better,” and that is the absolute truth, as his team has rewarded him with a less-than-inspiring 6-7-1 record. Though we haven’t seen much of an update on Devan Dubnyk recently, he did skate during the Florida trip, so one would guess that he has to be getting closer. Dubnyk is still the guy that should carry this team the rest of the way, but knowing that Stalock can be effective in spelling his starter has to be a relief for Bruce Boudreau, who had zero confidence in his backup last season. Stalock gets his seventh straight start tonight. UPDATE: Dubnyk was back on the ice this morning, but it does still sound like Stalock starts this evening.
As it was stated when the break began for the Wild, the days off came at a great time for a team that just finished a 1-3-0 road trip with back-to-back losses in the Sunshine State. While the Friday defeat against the Panthers was somewhat embarrassing due to the Wild blowing yet another third-period lead, the fact that the Wild had chances to beat the NHL-best Lightning the following night made many in the State of Hockey believe that a Christmas miracle was coming. The miracle, sadly, did not come, as Minnesota instead gave up three goals in the final three minutes, crumbling late once again. You couldn’t have been surprised by the goals, but you may have been disappointed, and rightfully so. The Wild needs to get over this “we stink in the third period” trend quickly.
A bad trend that the Wild has apparently bucked is the “call us for way more penalties than our opponent” pattern that had solidified itself prior to the road trip. Minnesota players still landed in the box six times in Tampa, but for the third straight game, it was even with its opponent or better in terms of minutes served (both the Wild and Lighting had 12 PIM’s). At some point, we’ll probably start scoring power play goals again, so this bodes well moving forward.
No—Zach Parise or Dubnyk. Also, still no Nino Niederreiter, though Mr. Russo reports that he didn’t break a bone and should be out of his walking boot soon, so it doesn’t sound like his injury is long term. UPDATE: Parise is heading to Iowa for a rehab stint!
Per Rotoworld, Marc Methot (knee) is the only injury for Dallas.
The Gamethread will post at 6:30PM Central, so swing on by! Below are the projected lineups, thanks to DailyFaceoff.com (Wild forward lines are per Russo from morning skate).
ZUCKER // KOIVU // GRANLUND
ENNIS // STAAL // COYLE
WINNIK // ERIKSSON EK // STEWART
FOLIGNO // CULLEN // MITCHELL