Coming off a 3-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes in a game where the Wild appeared to outplay their opponent more than the score might indicate, the Wild are looking to take some positive momentum into their Saturday matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes. Minnesota has won back-to-back games just once this season, but they will be looking to make it two in a row against the Canes.
The Hurricanes are coming off a season where they made it to the Eastern Conference Final in the playoffs and are enjoying another good season so far. They are 11-7-1, which puts them in the top wild card spot in the east. Carolina has been getting excellent production from Dougie Hamilton, whose 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) has him second in the NHL for scoring by a defenseman. They are also getting plenty of scoring from 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov (eight goals, 13 assists, 21 points).
This will be Nino Niederreiter’s first game in St. Paul since being traded by the Wild last season. These two teams met once last season after the trade in Carolina. And while the Hurricanes did come away the winners, Nino was kept completely off the score sheet.
He will not be the only familiar face Wild fans can expect to see. Erik Haula, who played Thursday night for Carolina after missing nearly two weeks to injury, is back in the lineup and should play Saturday. Offseason free agent signing and Minnetonka native Jake Gardiner will also be coming to St. Paul for the first time as a member of the Hurricanes. Of this trio of players with ties to the State of Hockey, Haula is having the best season so far. He has missed a few games due to injury, but in 15 games has eight goals and three assists. Nino and Gardiner have seven and six points, respectively, and are the worst two Hurricanes in terms of plus/minus (-8 and -9, respectively).
After Saturday’s game against Carolina, the Wild head out to Buffalo, then come back home for a game against Colorado, and then head back east for games in Boston, New York and New Jersey.
1. Can the Wild keep Nino, Haula and Gardiner from scoring?
As mentioned above, Nino has played the Wild only once since being traded, and he did not register a point in that game. This time around, returning to St. Paul, there is a good chance Nino will be extra motivated to remind the Wild what they lost. Haula has four points (two goals plus two assists) in four games against Minnesota since he was sent to Vegas during the 2017 Expansion Draft. Gardiner has five points (two goals plus three assists) in 13 games in his career against Minnesota. Haula has played well against his former team and Gardiner loves coming back to Minnesota, so the Wild will need to shut them both down.
2. Can the Wild avoid poorly timed penalties?
Earlier in the season, Minnesota would regularly take penalties in the first minutes of games, giving their opponents early momentum and sometimes early leads as well. Thursday night against the Coyotes, Jason Zucker sent a puck into the seats for a delay of game penalty with just five minutes to go. Between the man advantage from the penalty and Arizona later pulling their goalie, the Coyotes spent most of the game’s final minutes on the attack. With just a one-goal lead, the Wild were lucky that nothing came of it. The Wild need to stop taking penalties that give their opponents an opportunity to swing the momentum of the game.
3. Can Kevin Fiala keep scoring and does Jordan Greenway start scoring?
Kevin Fiala has been on a tear recently. After going eight games without a goal, he now has four in his last six. Plus two assists in that span, he has six points in six games. It is a very small sample size, but this is the scoring potential that Paul Fenton saw when he traded for him last year. After an atrocious 1-6-0 start to the season, the Wild are a more respectable (but still leaving a lot to be desired) 6-5-1 in the 12 games following. A big reason for that was guys like Fiala and Eric Staal finally starting to score goals. Jordan Greenway got his first goal of the season Thursday night against Arizona. It would be another boost to this Wild team if Greenway enjoyed a scoring streak as well.