MINNESOTA WILD VS SAN JOSE SHARKS
5:00PM 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
Pray for the bloggers.
A lot has been made of how challenging the rest of the season will be for the Minnesota Wild, but what about the bloggers? Didn’t the NHL schedulers consider the mental and physical health of us pounders of the keyboard? I had to have an “open and honest” talk with Mrs. Pants about the amount of hockey she’s going to be forced to consume over the next 35 days. “Mrs. Pants, I have to warn you,” I started. “It’s going to be a lot of hockey over the next month. I’ll either be making you watch Wild games, or I’ll be writing about hockey every single day until the end of the season.” With tears in her eyes (not really), she looked at me and said, “Ok, I understand. But after that I get my husband back from the fiery depths of hockey hell, right (she didn’t actually say any of this)?” I looked her in the teary (not really) eyes and said, “Well, no, because then the playoffs start.”
But enough about me. Let’s talk about the Wild, shall we?
It really is a cruel way for the Wild to have to close out its season. With the exception of this week, which will feature games on Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday, the rest of the weeks of the season will be a Sunday-Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday pattern, meaning Minnesota will have back-to-backs every weekend from here on out. Rest will come at a premium, so Bruce Boudreau will have to be very smart about how and when the team practices, as well as who is coming out of the lineup each night. Even assuming the team stays healthy moving forward (and that’s a big assumption), Jordan Schroeder and Tyler Graovac will still likely get plenty of playing time, because the team’s veterans will need nights off in the last couple weeks before the playoffs start.
In these situations when the team has little time between games to work on flaws in its play, bad habits can creep in, as there simply isn’t enough time to work them out in a controlled environment. Though Minnesota lost to Columbus on Thursday, the one fluky goal against was an extremely good sign that the team is focused on playing with a sound defensive structure moving forward, a good foundation to build upon for this stretch of little practice and lots of games.
We’re going to have to see a fair amount of Darcy Kuemper during this period, so let’s all hope that his performance on Tuesday was his last Kuemperian showing, and that he’ll get back to being a solid goaltender, as he had been in his four outings between blowing a four-goal lead in Dallas on January 14th and blowing a three-goal lead in Winnipeg earlier this week. For tonight, we’ll surely see Devan Dubnyk, who demonstrated on Thursday that as long as the Wild keeps the majority of shots against on the perimeter and allows its Vezina candidate to see the puck, he’s going to make 97% of the saves. As we’ve seen all season, there was nothing overly spectacular from Dubnyk, just a solid and calm performance, as he sneakily posted 39 saves on the night.
For the first time since trading for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White, the Wild should have its full lineup on the ice tonight, as Zach Parise and Jason Pominville likely return from quarantine on mumps island. This means we’ll finally get to see how the depth of this club will take shape for the playoffs, which again is assuming good health the rest of the way.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
It’s risky to overlook any NHL team, but with how things have gone this season, there really are only two clubs in the Western Conference that can stand between Minnesota and a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. One of them is the Chicago Blackhawks, and the other is the San Jose Sharks, who visit the Xcel Energy Center for the first time this evening, after losing to the Wild at home on January 5th.
The Sharks come into tonight’s matchup solidly in first place in the Pacific Division, quietly running away from the Anaheim Ducks, having built up a seven-point lead in the standings. After reaching the Finals last season, it’s Stanley Cup or bust for this squad, which is enjoying a historic season from defenseman Brent Burns, who leads his team (including the forwards) in every offensive category, with 27 goals, 40 assists, and 67 points. He’s also a team-best +25, which you can take or leave as a stat, but it does indicate that the Sharks aren’t exactly getting lit up on the defensive end when Burns is on the ice. He will also soon take over the NHL record for best promotional giveaway of all time, with the Brent Burns Grill, which will be distributed to Sharks fans on March 12th.
The record has been held by teammate Joe Thornton since January 21st, when Jumbo Joe Chia Pets were dispensed by the team.
At this stage, Burns can go without a point for the remainder of the season and still win the Norris Trophy by a landslide. The question now is whether he can overtake Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid for the Hart Trophy as well.
Like the Wild, the Sharks now have three forwards who have surpassed the twenty-goal mark on the year in Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Patrick Marleau, who all compliment the team’s offensively gifted but dentally challenged defenseman. Where the Wild might hold an advantage, though, is in its forward depth and balanced scoring. Yes, the Sharks have those four players in the twenties for goals, as well as Thornton, who has forty points (5-35-40), but there are no other players on the roster with ten or more goals. By comparison, Minnesota, after the addition of Hanzal, now has eleven players in double-digits for goals this season.
The Sharks traded for Jannick Hansen at the deadline, but still have yet to see the Dane make his debut, due to immigration challenges. As of yesterday, it was still unknown whether or not Hansen would be allowed to make San Jose’s road trip. The situation must be extremely frustrating for the organization, as the Hansen acquisition was the team’s biggest deadline move.
Last season, when the Wild’s power play was basically guaranteed to douse any momentum that the team had established every time it touched the ice, the problems with the setup in the offensive zone were only the tip of the iceberg. Even before the Wild got into a position where it could attack, the team seemed to have a lot of trouble gaining the offensive zone at all when on the manpower advantage. Teams would build a little picket fence of defenders at the blueline, and the Wild simply had no answer, turning over puck after puck, and minimizing the amount of opportunities it actually had to establish zonetime.
This year, the difference has largely been in the beautiful mitts of Mikael Granlund, who has emerged as a dominant offensive player. Assistant Coach John Anderson, who oversees the power play, brilliantly figured out at some point this season that by allowing Granlund to carry the puck through the neutral zone when the Wild’s opposition goes down a man, the team is able to get across the blueline consistently without being forced to fire the puck deep and try to outwork the penalty killers, who have the positional advantage on deep pucks.
Granlund is able to use his skill to either stickhandle through defenders and then make a pass once over the line, or distribute to a player that has found himself in open space at the line. This tiny change alone, in addition to actually slotting Granlund on the right side of the ice once inside the zone (he used to be on the left side, where as a left-handed shot, he was basically useless), has made an incredible difference for the Wild, which now has the league’s fourth-best power play, scoring on 22.1% of its chances.
The Wild are injury and mumps free (knock on wood!).
The Sharks get Joonas Donskoi back from an apparent shoulder injury suffered way back on January 23rd, as well as youngster Dylan DeMelo. David Schlemko is questionable with injury, while Hansen is questionable due to his immigration situation [insert your own political joke here].
The Gamethread will post at 4:30PM Central. Below are the projected lineups thanks to dailyfaceoff.com, as well as the Tale of the Tape, thanks to @keisarikine. Thanks for reading!