The Minnesota Wild all of a sudden find themselves playing some pretty good hockey. The team has won three in a row, outscoring their opponents 17-5 in that stretch. They are also 5-2-0 in the seven games since Dean Evason took over as interim head coach. Their recent offensive production has brought the team to a plus-1 goal differential for the entire season, and they are just outside of the Western Conference playoff race.
Sunday night, though, the Wild will be faced up against a much more difficult opponent than they had in Columbus or Detroit. Alex Ovechkin and the Metropolitan-leading Washington Capitals come to St. Paul as these two teams meet for the first time this season. The Capitals enter this matchup with a record of 39-19-6, good for 84 points and the first place spot in the Metro division, ahead of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Perhaps a bit surprising, Washington’s leading point scorer is not Ovechkin, but defenseman John Carlson. He leads the entire NHL in points by a blueliner with 72, including 57 assists. Ovechkin is second on the team with 60 points. Adding reinforcements at the trade deadline, Washington picked up forward Ilya Kovalchuk from Montreal, and he will be playing in his third game in a Washington sweater Sunday.
Historically, the Wild have not been great against the Capitals, especially at home. The Wild have not beaten the Capitals in St. Paul since January 2014 — a game where Ryan Suter picked up his only career hat trick. Since then, they are 2-7-1 against the Capitals, including 0-4-1 at home. A big reason for that is Ovechkin. In 16 career games against the Wild, he has 15 goals and 26 points.
This would have been an even more interesting game if Bruce Boudreau was still around. It would have been an opportunity for BB to coach against his former team, and probably his first chance to congratulate his former player Ovechkin on scoring 700 goals. Instead, it’s Dean Evason, who also has a strong connection to Washington. He was drafted by the Capitals back in 1982, briefly played for them, and coached for them as an assistant. Evason will be looking to build on a strong start to his tenure as Wild head coach, going for his sixth win in eight games.
1. Can the offense keep scoring?
The Wild have scored 17 goals in their past three games, and while they might not score five or more again, can the Wild offense continue to produce Sunday night? Those 17 goals have been scored by 10 different Wild players, meaning that they have not been relying on just a few players to provide the offense. If they can continue to get production from all over the roster, they should be able to have another impressive offensive output.
2. How do the Wild look against an improved opponent?
The last time the Wild played a team as good as the Capitals, they fell flat against the St. Louis Blues, losing 4-1 at home. Their five recent wins have come against the historically awful Detroit Red Wings, a Columbus team barely hanging on to a wild card spot in the East and the second and third-place team in the weakest division in hockey. Playing the Capitals will be a completely different test. One thing the Wild do have going for them is a ton of momentum after scoring so many goals in the past three games. Will that be enough to propel them to victory Sunday?
3. Can the Wild quiet Ovechkin?
The Wild have not beaten the Capitals at home in over six years. A big reason for that is how well Alexander Ovechkin tends to play against Minnesota. With 1.63 points per game, he tends to show up in the box score when these two teams play. If the Wild are going to win this one, they will need to shut him down.
This will be a tough challenge, but an extremely important game for the Wild. Winning games like these will go a long way towards helping their playoff chances. With a win, the Wild could be in a playoff spot for the first time in months.