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Preview: Wild welcome Winnipeg for a Saturday matinee

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Minnesota is home for the holidays for the first of a two-game homestand as their division-rival Winnipeg comes to town.

Minnesota Wild v Winnipeg Jets

Saturday is the Winter Solstice, and the Wild are hoping to make it a long, dark and cold trip back home for their north-of-the-border rivals when the Jets make the short trek south to face the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday afternoon.

The Wild are coming home for the holidays after a three-game road trip that finished up on Thursday night with their highest-scoring game of the season — an 8-5 goal-fest against the Arizona Coyotes — despite missing Mikko Koivu, Jason Zucker and Joel Eriksson Ek in the lineup. All three players are expected to be unavailable for the Winnipeg game as well, but considering the Wild got goals from eight different players, Minnesota might not be missing them too much if they can keep things going the way they are.

While the eight goals on Thursday night vaulted the Wild up to third in the NHL in even-strength goals, their 21 tallies on the power play is only middle of the road at 15th, and their power-play percentage ranks 21st in the league at 17.8%. But if the Wild are going to improve on their current 2-for-26 clip with the extra attacker, the Jets are the team to do it against. Winnipeg currently has only a 72.94 penalty kill percentage, the worst in the NHL, and have allowed six goals on their opponent’s last nine power-play attempts.

Defensively, Minnesota welcomed back blueliner Jared Spurgeon and goaltender Devan Dubnyk after long absences. Finally at full strength, the returning players will have their work cut out for them, as the Jets’ usual suspects have been powering the team, including double-digit goals for Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, and another 28 points by former Gopher Blake Wheeler.

Keeping the puck out of the net, that’s been another story for Winnipeg as of late. Connor Hellebuyck has had a rough last few, allowing an average of four goals per game with a save percentage of .867. Especially concerning is the fact that three of the shellings came at the hands of Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago, who are not especially known for their goal-scoring prowess this season (ranked 30th, 16th and 22nd, respectively). Backup Laurent Brossoit has only seen spot duty this year, so Hellebuyck is likely to get the call again against the Wild.

Getting two points is critical every night in the tight Western Conference, it seems, and even more important when you’re taking on a division rival. A win would leap the Wild back in front of Calgary for the second wild card spot, and Minnesota would have a golden opportunity to cement that position in their matchup with the Flames on Monday night, who will be coming off a back-to-back with Dallas the night before. Two points for the Jets would mean being tied with the Dallas Stars for third place in the Central.

The first meeting between the teams this season resulted in a 5-2 loss at Bell MTS Place on October 10th, breaking the Wild’s five-game winning streak against the Jets. Can the Wild log two points in the standings against their border rivals? Or will Minnesota spend the longest night wondering what went wrong? “Yule” have to find out when the puck drops at 1 p.m.

Burning Questions

1) Can the Wild outshoot an opponent?

The Wild have finished with more shots on net exactly once in their last nine games, in their 4-1 win over they Flyers. Before that, you ave to go back to November 21st to find the last time Minnesota outshot an opponent. Don’t get me wrong, outshooting your opponent doesn’t mean everything (they were outshot by Arizona 40-33 in their 8-5 victory), but at some point, giving up 40 shots a night is going to wear on this team, especially when you’ve got a starting goalie coming back after missing nearly a month. Winnipeg has given up almost exactly as many shots as the Wild (1139 vs 1140), so the window is open to generate opportunities. Can they take advantage?

2) Will the Wild light the lamp on the man advantage?

It’s been an ongoing question for the past month, but the Wild power play has been mostly unplugged in December. Sure, they’ve scored in two of their last three games, but against Vegas they went 1-for-5 and are 2-for-26 in their last nine games. If they can’t score against the brutal Winnipeg penalty kill, there’s not much hope for the Wild’s special teams. The key will be getting the chance - for while the Jets are last place in killing penalties, they’re actually very good at staying out of the box, committing the second-fewest penalties in the NHL. Opponents have gone six-for-nine in the last four outings against the Jets - can the Wild keep the streak going?

3) Can Staal keep it going?

Someone yell “stop, drop and roll,” because Eric Staal is absolutely on fire. In his last five games, the Wild centerman has five goals and four assists, including a goal and a pair of helpers on Thursday against the ‘Yotes. Staal leads the Wild in points with 30, and is one back of Zach Parise for the team lead in goals. And he’s done this during the Wild’s worst stretch of injuries, including missing fellow pivot Mikko Koivu. No doubt, the Wild will need to keep scoring goals while Dubnyk rounds back into form, and if Staal can continue to be a big part of that, the Wild can stay in the thick of the playoff hunt.