With 17 games left in the regular season, the Minnesota Wild find themselves tantalizingly close to a playoff spot. They’ve earned points in seven of their last ten, and won six of them outright. Tuesday night, they draw the Nashville Predators, the team currently occupying the eighth spot in the Western Conference, with an opportunity to leapfrog three teams and own the final wild card position, at least for a night.
We’ve officially reached the “must-win” portion of the season.
Sure, losing to the Preds doesn’t end the Wild’s season, and there’s still a lot of hockey to be played. But being on the right side of a four-point swing by beating the team you’re chasing in the standings — preferrably in regulation — might make the difference between playing hockey and playing golf come mid-April.
To get the job done, they’re going to have to buck a bit of recent history. The Wild are winless over the Predators in their last seven games — their longest active losing streak against any opponent. The Wild’s last win over Nashville came on March 24th, 2018, in a 4-1 win at the X. Since then, Minnesota has earned only three points in seven games, been outscored 24-11 and have been shut out twice.
Meanwhile, after replacing Peter Laviolette behind the bench with John Hynes, the Predators have been methodically crawling their way back into the playoff race with a record of 13-10-1. They’ve done so on the backs of good goaltending from future starter Juuse Saros, who, since Hynes took over, has backstopped the Preds to a 9-4 record with a save percentage of .926. Long-time veteran Pekka Rinne, after starting the year with a blistering 8-0-2 record and a SV% of .923, has come crashing down to Earth since mid-December. The 37-year old owns a 5-9-1 record over his last 15 games, including last night’s 8-3 debacle against the Edmonton Oilers, giving up eight goals (including five in the third period). Saros was expected to get the start in the second game of the back-to-back against the Wild, and it would surprise no one to see the Finland native get the vast majority of the starts for the rest of the season.
Offensively, the Predators have been inconsistent. Since the coaching change, the Preds have potted only 65 goals in 24 games — the seventh-lowest total in the league. Roman Josi scored his 16th goal and 61st point in Monday’s 7-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers (beating and tying career highs, respectively), but beyond that, former 60-point scorers Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen are way behind that pace this season. And offseason acquisition Matt Duchene might end the 2019-20 campaign with his lowest goal total since 2012-13, where he tallied 17 goals in an injury-shortened 47-game season.
The Wild, on the other hand, have enjoyed an offensive resurgence over their last ten games, scoring 37 goals and crawling up to 12th in the league in scoring on the season. As has been widely reported, Kevin Fiala has been far and away the leader of that charge. In the month of February (and one game in March), Fiala has 21 points in 15 games (11 goals, 10 assists), and has eight multi-point games (including a current streak of four in a row). Beyond that, Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal just saw their three-game point streaks snapped, and Zach Parise seems to be getting his groove back. But for seemingly the first time this season, the Wild offense has been supported by a strong defensive effort, including strong play in goal. Alex Stalock has been a brick wall in net for the Wild with nine wins in his last 13 appearances, including three shutouts and a save percentage of .920.
Any way you slice it, this is a huge game with big-time playoff implications, and the Wild will need everyone playing at full speed to be on the right side of the scoresheet. Can they stop the losing streak against the Preds and keep their playoff push alive?
Puck drops at 7 p.m. at Xcel.
1. Can the Wild continue their power play surge?
The Wild have been hot and cold on the power play, but after a six-game stretch with zero goals, Minnesota has gone 4-for-11 with the extra attacker over their last three games. Fiala has made the most with the man advantage with two goals and an assist, while Parise has added a goal and an assist and Matt Dumba knotched his first power-play goal a few games back against the Red Wings. Nashville’s penalty kill is one of the worst in the league at 74.7% (29th overall), but they haven’t allowed a goal at 5-on-4 in their last four outings. Can the Wild continue their power play resurgance and take advantage of a Nashville squad who has proven to be vulnerable on the penalty kill?
2. Will Fiala keep feelin’ it?
Our own Ryan Quigley put it best with this tweet from February 28th:
Since November 1, Kevin Fiala has more points than:— Ryan Quigley (@TheRyanQuigley) February 28, 2020
- Alex Ovechkin (42)
- Elias Pettersson (42)
- Patrice Bergeron (41)
- Taylor Hall (41)
- Claude Giroux (40)
- Evgeny Kuznetsov (40)
- Tyler Seguin (40)
- Johnny Gaudreau (40)
He has been playing elite hockey, folks.
Since then, Fiala hasn’t done too much... only added another two goals and two assists in two games and earned the NHL’s number one Star of the Week. Ho hum.
This season, when the Wild needed a jolt to get them back in the hunt, they’ve been able to rely on one player to carry much of the load. In October/November it was Eric Staal. In January, Zach Parise took up the mantle. Now, it’s Kevin Fiala’s turn. And the longer he keeps it up, the better the Wild’s chances of making the playoffs. Can Fiala remind his former team what they missed by trading him with yet another multi-point game?
3. Can the Wild PKers keep the Predators at bay?
Alex Ovechkin’s power-play tally on Sunday was the Wild’s first goal allowed on the penalty kill in ten games, ending a streak keeping their opponents 0-for-29 with the man advantage. Yet, their ranking has only improved to 27th in the league at 76.3% overall. Nashville’s power play is only one spot better at 26th in the NHL, but preventing opportunities will go a long way to getting the Wild the win. Can the Wild start another hot streak on the penalty kill, or will mistakes resulting in penalties cost them another big win like they often did earlier in the year?