MINNESOTA WILD AT COLORADO AVALANCHE
8:00PM Central, Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
TV: Fox Sports-North Plus
Radio: KFAN 100.3 and affiliates
Streaming: Fox Sports Go app
At the halfway point of the season, the Wild isn’t quite where it hoped it would be coming into the ’17-’18 campaign. The team has all but anchored itself on the playoff bubble, looking up the Central Division standings at the Stars, Predators, Blues, and Jets. BUT, with the roster finally healthy and everything seemingly trending up after two very convincing home victories, the Green ‘n’ Wheats are on the verge of something big… I can just feel it!
Time after time during the course of this weird roller coaster that has been the Wild’s first half, Bruce Boudreau has found ways to correct one little flaw in Minnesota’s game after another. He’s gotten his team to the point that—over the past couple of weeks—there just aren’t many glaring issues left. Solid team defense, excellent goaltending, good special teams, healthy players, fewer penalties, scoring from all four lines… what more could a head coach want?
Well, believe it or not, there are still a couple more hurdles for this team to clear before it gets itself back in the hunt for the divisional lead. Right now, the main challenge is learning how to win on the road, where the Wild has been downright poor for most of the season, sputtering to 8-12-1. Every team in the Central has a good home record, but the three teams with winning road records are the ones at the top of the standings. Minnesota needs to get there as well, and with the momentum that it has recently created for itself in St. Paul, tonight should be a great opportunity to get rolling away from the friendly confines of the X.
The Wild is in the Mile High City to take on its hated and very much improved rival, as it looks to get something cooking in another team’s building for the first time since its win in Ottawa on December 19th.
This isn’t the same Colorado team that was historically bad in ’16-’17. In fact, like the Wild, the Avs are very much on the playoff bubble, sitting just two points behind Minnesota for the last wild card spot. What’s concerning for Minnesota’s chances this evening is that the Avalanche has actually won four games in a row, all at the Pepsi Center, where tonight it has a chance to close out a perfect five-game homestand before beginning its CBA-mandated bye week.
Over the offseason, GM Joe Sakic really didn’t make any massive moves as one might have anticipated from the leader of a team that eked out just 48 points in the standings last season. He did sign backup goalie Jonathan Bernier and trade for depth forward Colin Wilson during the summer, but it wasn’t until a month into the current season that Sakic finally made waves.
In November, the long-rumored blockbuster trade to ship disgruntled top-line center Matt Duchene to the Senators was finally completed. Colorado essentially received three picks and three prospects in the three-team deal, a nice haul considering how long the saga played out. It was very much a move for the future of the franchise, but for the current squad, it was also addition by subtraction to get the pouty Duchene out of town and eliminate the ongoing drama that surrounded him.
This team really is trending back up, and the main reasons are goaltending (Semyon Varlamov was injured a lot last season) and a return to prominence of its top players. Nathan MacKinnon has been more like the young superstar that Minnesota saw in the ’14 playoffs and is already on the cusp of 50 points, fourteen ahead of Wild leading scorer Eric Staal. MacKinnon centers a potent top line with young stud Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, a well-known thorn in the side of Wild players. All three on the top trio have surpassed 30 points on the season.
With a top line like that, this is definitely one of those clubs where matchups are important, and being on the road against Colorado is a huge disadvantage. Without the luxury of last change, Boudreau will not have the same opportunity to match Mikko Koivu’s line against MacKinnon’s, so he will need to have a solid effort from all four lines once again.
Varlamov is dealing with a minor lower body injury, but Bernier is coming off of a 34-save shutout against Columbus.
Well, I guess Nino Niederreiter is back. The Big Swiss waited one minute and nine seconds after returning from a foot injury Thursday to score his first goal, then added two more to complete his second career hat trick. Remember, Niederreiter went on a nice little streak in November, when he scored in six games in a row. During that stretch, he showed no hesitation in firing the puck and putting everything into it. It would hit his stick blade and be gone in a fraction of a second, and that is what we saw from him on Thursday. When Nino is scoring, he exudes confidence, and he clearly had plenty of it against Buffalo.
Niederreiter told the Pioneer Press at the beginning of the season that his goal was to record 30 markers in ’17-’18, and despite losing eleven games to injury, he is now just two goals behind that pace. If he keeps shooting with similar gusto, we should see Nino carry his success forward in the second half. I do seem to remember him scoring an important goal in the Pepsi Center a few years ago… Perhaps we’ll see another one tonight?
The fourth line of Daniel Winnik, Matt Cullen, and Marcus Foligno played another really solid game on Thursday, the trio’s second such effort in the two contests since Zach Parise returned to action. Winnik scored a beauty of a goal off the rush, rifling a wrister over the shoulder of a very leaky Robin Lehner. Later in the game, Cullen caught a pass on the left side, patiently pulled Lehner out of the net and circled around him, before banking a puck right to the goal line. On a night when pretty much everything was going in, it was almost shocking that that one stayed out. The point is that this line is suddenly playing excellent hockey, grinding low and being creative with the puck. Having confidence in his fourth line is quite the treat for Boudreau, and a huge boon for the Minnesota Wild. Roll those lines, Bruce!
The Wild is healthy [knock on wood!].
Colorado has some serious injury woes, with Varlamov, Tyson Barrie, J.T. Compher, Sven Andrighetto, and Vladislav Kamenev all on the shelf, per Rotoworld.