After a December to remember when the Wild started the month 5-1-1 and put themselves back in the thick of the playoff hunt, the New Year’s swoon is upon them again. Minnesota has dropped their last four straight and six of their last seven, putting the Wild back to last place in the Central Division and a distant eight points back of the final Wild Card position. And when last we saw the Wild, it was in the midst of a 7-3 debacle against the Pittsburgh Penguins, where the Wild were shorthanded before the first puck was dropped due to a clerical error.
If there’s a more Wild way to lose a game recently, I don’t know what it is.
Luckily, there’s only one team that the Wild have had more recent success against than Tampa Bay (and it’s really too bad they only play the Ottawa Senators twice a season). The Wild’s four-game winning streak against the Lightning dates back to January 20, 2018, when the Wild won 5-2 at home, a game that featured goals scored by five different players and points by 12 different players, including an assist credited to Devan Dubnyk on Jason Zucker’s empty-netter.
Recapturing that magic to keep the streak alive is going to be a tough ask against the white-hot Lightning, winners of 11 of their past 12, and who recently had a 10-game unbeaten streak snapped at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. Tampa Bay ranks second in the league in goals scored thanks to a balanced attack, featuring four players with 40-plus points in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point, with Alex Killorn on the doorstep with 19 goals and 19 assists. Kucherov in particular is on absolute fire, with 10 points in his last nine games.
And should the Wild continue their recent trend of spending time in the penalty box — as they’ve had to kill 22 penalties in their last five games — expect the Lightning to strike, as Tampa Bay’s 27.4 scoring percentage with the man-advantage ranks second in the NHL.
For some reason, though, the Lightning seem to always be rolling into their matchups with the Wild at top speed, only to stumble. The last time the Wild played Tampa Bay on March 7, 2019, the Wild were struggling to stay relevant in the playoff race, and the Lightning had won 12 of their prior 13. The result? A 3-0 shutout by Minnesota at Amalie Arena.
So can we throw out all the records, the numbers, and the past performances? Will the Wild get their act together and stop their four-game skid? Will head coach Bruce Boudreau make his list and check it twice, or will his seat get steadily hotter? Puck drops at 7 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center, in the Wild’s second straight nationally televised game.
1) Will the best player for the Wild once again be... Marcus Foligno?
Despite the four-game swoon, bottom-six winger Marcus Foligno has been playing very well, with five goals in his last five games, or 41 percent of the Wild’s scoring over the same span. On one hand, Foligno maintaining his current streak would be appreciated by teammates and fans alike, as it’s great to see the grinder making the most of his increased opportunities. On the other, Foligno needs to not be the best player on the ice if the Wild are going to get back to winning games. They need their top six to — well, play like a top six.
Over that same five games:
Eric Staal: one goal, zero assists
Kevin Fiala: one goal, one assist
Mats Zuccarello: one goal, zero assists
Mikko Koivu: zero goals, zero assists
So, will Foligno continue to star in the goal-scoring vacuum? Or will another player take some of the work off Foligno’s shoulders?
2) Can the Wild shut down the potent Lightining attack?
Ranked second in the NHL in goals and power play percentage, Tampa Bay can roll three strong lines at the opposition all night long. The Wild defense and netminder will have to step up to shut Tampa Bay down. Having a full complement of defensemen is a good first step. But once a correct lineup card is submitted, Minnesota will need to end their recent trend of giving up 3.75 goals per game. Will Greg Pateryn be fired up after his unexpected game off? Can the defensive corps get back to preventing scoring chances and blocking shots? And whomever is in net, can they make enough saves to keep the Wild in the game?
3) Will the Xcel be home sweet home, or a house of horrors?
Instead of coal in their stockings, Santa must have put lead in their skates, as the Wild have gone 1-3-1 in their five games at home since Christmas after starting the season 11-3-1 at Xcel. Minnesota will play their next seven straight games at home, and 11 of their next 12 as well. A strong performance against the Lightning could get the fans back on their side, but give up a two or three-goal lead like they did against the Penguins, and players should expect to hear the boo-birds in full effect. Either way, the stage will be set for a lengthy home stand. Minnesota needs to take advantage of home ice and keep the fans on their side.