MINNESOTA WILD VS WINNIPEG JETS
6:00PM Central, Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
TV: Fox Sports-North
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
Streaming: Fox Sports Go app
Over the course of the next 48 hours, there are four Divisional NFL Playoff games and two high-importance Minnesota Wild games. The butt groove that I anticipate forming in my couch cushions over these two days will likely be… significant.
Getting a road win on Wednesday in Chicago was of the utmost importance for the Minnesota Wild, which had previously been extremely unsuccessful in games away from Xcel Energy Center. In the early stages of the contest, the road demons looked to be overtaking Minnesota once again, as the team played one of its worst periods of the season (in a season that has featured some REALLY bad periods).
But Devan Dubnyk rescued his squad for the first twenty minutes and somehow kept the game within one goal, despite Chicago having 41 attempted shots in the stanza, with fourteen of those making it through to Dubnyk. Ohhhhhh what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in Minnesota’s room after a period like that. Bruce Boudreau gave his team a good, old-fashioned whoopin’ during the first intermission, and when the second period started, we saw a new team wearing the Manbearpig crest. Minnesota became faster, more physical, and more determined to control the puck and play in the offensive end of the ice, ultimately coming away with what once appeared to be an impossible two points.
So, have the road demons been exorcised? Well, we’ll have to wait a while to find out, because the Wild now plays today and tomorrow at home, takes a week off for its CBA-mandated bye, and then plays two more at the X before finally getting back on the road on January 25th. Since one win away from St. Paul doesn’t indicate a successful exorcism, let’s just say that—for now—the road demons have been quieted.
Another demon that has been nagging the Wild this season is tonight’s opponent, the Winnipeg Jets. Minnesota is 0-3 against this high-flying team (Jet pun intended), and most recently lost so badly to its northern foe that the Wild immediately cut Kyle Quincey after the embarrassing defeat.
After somehow managing three out of four possible points in back-to-back games earlier this week, the Wild badly needs to find a way to get four out of four today and tomorrow before sitting idle for five days
The Jets are cruising above the clouds this season (another Jet pun), having emerged as the clear leader of the Central Division and one of the NHL’s best teams. I should call the team’s sudden improvement surprising, being that Winnipeg has only qualified for the playoffs one time since it moved from Atlanta prior to the ’11-’12 season. But the real surprise is that’s it’s taken this long for such a stacked roster—one that has been built around Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, and Mark Scheifele, and now features Patrik Laine and Nicolaj Ehlers—to materialize as a contender.
If you read this blog often, you know that I almost never blame the goalies. But in Winnipeg’s extended struggles to find success over the years, I can only blame the goalies. The fact that Connor Hellebuyck—still relatively young at 24 years old—is experiencing a breakout season that has landed him in his first NHL All-Star Game is not coincidental to Winnipeg having a three-point lead in the Central standings.
Fortunately for the Wild, Winnipeg is on the second of back-to-backs with travel, having lost 2-1 last night in Chicago. It was an emotional defeat for the Jets, which nearly fought back from a two-goal deficit in the last five minutes of the game. They were stymied, though, by Blackhawks third-stringer Jeff Glass, who was outstanding. Though the Jets lost the game, they were absolutely the better team.
Also fortunate for the Wild is that it avoids Scheifele, Winnipeg’s top-line center and second-leading scorer. The star forward has been out since the end of December with an upper body injury and is expected to miss a few more weeks.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, however, is that even without Scheifele, there are plenty of studs on Winnipeg that can combine to hang big numbers on the scoreboard, as was the case in its three straight wins prior to last night’s game. In those three contests, the Jets scored an average of five goals, and on the season, rank third in the NHL with 3.4 goals per game. Aiding that goal production is an electric power play that clicks at 25.2 percent, so the Wild really needs to stay out of the box tonight.
Wheeler already has 52 points on the season, Laine has 20 goals, and Ehlers (34 points) calmly accepted a Matt Dumba drop pass and deposited it for the winning goal on Halloween. That last part was added just in case you had forgotten about the Great Dumba Dumb-Dumb of 2017.
This may be the understatement of the year, but the Wild will want a better start to tonight’s game than it has gotten in the past couple. It had to battle back to force overtime on Tuesday against Calgary, then overcame a horrendous first period Wednesday. But against a team like Winnipeg that’s scoring piles of goals this season, it cannot afford to come out flat in the opening frame. Winning tonight will require playing with a lead, as chasing a team with such a highly powerful offense is a poor strategy.
For the Wild to beat the Blackhawks, Dubnyk needed to be outstanding after getting yanked in his previous start. The Wild netminder was equal to the task Wednesday, and was the primary reason that Minnesota earned a victory. He will certainly need to be on top of his game again tonight. This may very quickly become a cold take as the Wild begins its morning skate, but with two huge games followed by a long break, I would not be at all surprised to see Boudreau turn to Dubnyk for both of these games, despite their occurrence in quick succession. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Minnesota’s lovable, rosy-cheeked coach should absolutely do this.
Good luck forming your butt grooves this weekend, Wilderness.
The Wild will remain without Nino Niederreiter through the bye week.
In addition to Scheifele, the Jets are without Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev due to injury, per Rotoworld. Steve Mason is sick, so Michael Hutchinson was recalled as Winnipeg’s backup last night. It will be interesting to see what Paul Maurice decides to do with his goaltenders tonight, being that Hellebuyck played in Chicago and gave up a stinker for the winning goal.