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Preview: Wild host long-absent Jets in home opener

It’s been considerably more than 525,600 minutes since the Jets paid rent at Xcel.

Winnipeg Jets v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 season is still young, but the Minnesota Wild are undefeated and it feels so good. And after pair of tight back-to-back wins on the west coast, the Minny boys take the home ice for the first time this season as they take the Winnipeg Jets for the first time in over a year and a half.

For the Wild, two games into the season, it’s clear that the bottom-six guys have come to play. Brandon Duhaime has shown some serious wheels after earning the Wild’s final roster spot out of training camp, generating lots of chances, leading the team in expected goals/60 with 2.54, and was a Nico Sturm stick and a goaltender interference call away from scoring his first career pro goal in his second NHL game. Freddy Gaudreau got his first goal in a Wild uniform, and Ryan Hartman’s goal (and subsequent celly, rubbing dog Drew Doughty’s nose in it) were highlights of the weekend. That’s not to say Minnesota’s usual suspects haven’t been lining up opportunities, with Kevin Fiala, Kirill Kaprizov and Marcus Foligno each earning a pair of points over the first two games. In fact, Joel Eriksson Ek is the biggest name to be held off the scoreboard as the top line centerman has yet to get things clicking.

Eriksson Ek, along with the rest of the Wild roster, should get some chances to find the back of the net against Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who owns a paltry .849 save percentage over the Peg’s first two games despite facing the fourth-fewest shots on average per game so far this season. Defensively, Winnipeg’s new look blue line are still struggling through some growing pains, with second pairing Brenden Dillon and Neal Pionk especially struggling with a 44.74 CF% and allowing two of the team’s three regular strength goals against. This trend is troubling for the Jets, for while the sample size is admittedly small only two games in, the fact that rebuilding teams San Jose and Anaheim both seemed to have their way with Winnipeg has to concern fans and staff alike.

The Jets new up-tempo offense has also yet to come together in a cohesive way. Winnipeg’s top wings Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler had a so-so opening night bouncing between fill-in centermen Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry. The Jets’ top line managed to score the only goal of the night, but the wing pairing still finished the night with a sub-50 xGF%, with Wheeler especially struggling to keep up with the fast-paced offense. With regular top-line center Mark Schiefle making his return after serving the final game of his playoff-borne four-game suspension for their matchup against San Jose, the expected goals fell even further to 37.79%. But instead of continuing to build on their chemistry, the Jets lines took another shuffle in practice yesterday with the word that Wheeler had been placed in the COVID protocol, putting his status up the air for tonight’s game with the Wild. Former Columbus Blue Jacket Pierre Luc Dubois, acquired via trade early last season, will move up to the top line after a strong game against the Sharks.

Rookie phenom Cole Perfetti made his NHL debut against the Ducks, and the Jets had to be encouraged by his first NHL game that the 10th overall pick in 2020 would be a meaningful contributor to the Winnipeg offense in his rookie season. But after a rough second outing saw him demoted in the waning minutes of their game against the Sharks, Perfetti will start against the Wild on a fourth-line with Evgeny Svechnikov and Riley Nash.

As for the Wild, Monday’s practice showed no signs of any line changes, opting to go with the same lineup as they had against San Jose:

Kaprizov - Eriksson Ek - Zuccarello
Greenway - Hartman - Foligno
Rask - Gaudreau - Fiala
Duhaime - Sturm - Bjugstad

Goligoski - Spurgeon
Brodin - Dumba
Merrill - Kulikov

In goal, the Wild may opt to go with Kaapo Kahkonen after Cam Talbot started both games of the back-to-back, though two days rest may be enough to give the veteran another start. Winnipeg will almost assuredly go back to the well with Hellebuyck, as backup Eric Comrie has only started nine games in his five-year NHL career.

The Wild haven’t seen their closest opponent by geographical distance since January 4th, 2020 — a 3-2 OT win 635 days ago — due to the 2021 divisional shifts made necessary by COVID protocols and border limitations. So much has changed for both teams since then, and it will be interesting to see how the two division rivals pick things back up. Can the Wild continue their winning ways against Winnipeg? Will the Jets finally fly high into the win column? Will either team score a power-play goal?

Meaningful games have returned to the Xcel Energy Center in the State of Hockey, Wild fam. Let’s. Drop. The. Puck.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild take advantage with the man advantage?

Thomas analyzed the Wild’s power play over the first two games, and after Evason made improving the special teams a focus of training camp, the results so far have been decidedly “meh.”

But if Winnipeg’s first two games are any indication on how things will go tonight, the Wild will get many chances to improve, and should see some success. The Jets gave up five power play opportunities to each the Ducks and Sharks, and allowed both opponents to each score twice. For those doing the math at home, that’s a 60% success rate on the kill, which ranks 25th in the league.

The Wild give up their share of penalties as well (their 33 PIMs rank 28th in the league, a spot behind the Jets), so staying out the box will also be key for Minnesota. But should the Wild get the chance (especially if Kaprizov’s PP minutes are increased), the numbers say they should be able to make the most of them.

Can Duhaime do the hockey?

Through two games and 11 minutes per game, the Wild rookie leads the team in expected goals per 60 as well as high-danger and medium-danger unblocked shots. The way he’s playing, the points are going to come, even with fourth-line minutes.

He’s shown some speed, some grit, some flash and some strength in both the offensive and defensive zones — he just hasn’t found the back of the net. Actually, he has, he just hasn’t gotten it to stick thanks to goaltender interference.

Two games in, Duhaime’s promotion looks like the right decision out of training camp. Will he cement his spot by finding his way onto the scoresheet?

Does Kahkonen get his first start in “Calder Chase, Part II?”

After Kahks had some brief Calder trophy buzz midway through the 2021 season, he’s back for his third rookie season (yeah, the NHL’s got some weird rules regarding what they consider a “rookie”). And while Talbot has backstopped the Wild well over the Wild’s first two games allowing only three scores, the dude’s 34, and Evason will want to ensure they don’t burn him out unnecessarily.

Enter Kahkonen, whose mid-season nine-game winning streak would still be spoken of in hushed tones — had he not completely collapsed like a cheap card table at the end of last season. His final preseason outing, a 5-1 shellacking by Chicago, didn’t inspire much confidence either, though it was exhibition hockey, so it’s probably not much to rest your hat on.

We won’t know until morning skate what Evason has up his sleeve, but getting Kahkonen up to speed with real game action is going to be an important part of the Wild’s early season to-do list. Should he be shown the bench for Talbot’s third start, he’ll no doubt draw in for one of the two back-to-back games this weekend against the Anaheim Ducks or Nashville Predators. But a home start against a so far unimpressive Jets squad might be the perfect time to get the “rookie’s” feet wet.