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Preview: Wild look to escape Shark infested waters

Wild return home to take on a struggling San Jose squad

Minnesota Wild v San Jose Sharks Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild return home after an up-and-down roadie, only to jump into shark-infested waters... San Jose Sharks, that is.

Luckily, the Sharks’ bite has been pretty blunt as of late, as San Jose comes into the fourth contest of their current five-game roadstand losers of four of their last five.

Sharks coach Bob Bougner was especially displeased with his team’s last outing, an uninspired 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, vowing to shuffle the lines around heading into tonight’s tilt against the Wild.

Lackluster play is only partially to blame, as the COVID protocol has wreaked havoc on a rebuilding San Jose roster. Saturday’s loss marked the long-awaited return of forward Kevin Lebanc and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek, all of whom had spent the required 14 days away from the team while quarantining.

Understandably, the team found it hard to gel against one of the NHL’s most talented teams, and the on-ice product showed it. Against the Avalanche, despite having chances to score (earning an expected goals for percentage of 56.34%), San Jose continually squandered any momentum the had been gaining with four first-period penalties, and struggled to possess the puck against Colorado as evident by their 46.84% Corsi for percentage.

The month of November hasn’t gone any better, as the team’s even-strength xGF% of 43.3 ranks 29th in the league, and their CF% of 45.83 ranks 28th at five-on-five.

On special teams, San Jose has actually done a bit better, ranking just outside the top ten in power-play conversion (22.5%) and is the best team in the NHL on the penalty kill, stopping 89.7% of their opponent’s opportunities with the man advantage.

Labanc moved down to the fourth line in practice this week, where he’ll play alongside Jasper Weatherby and Jonah Gadjovich, who will slot in for Nick Merkley, according to San Jose beat writer Curtis Pashelka. Rookie Santeri Hatakka is slated to slot in with Vlasic on the Sharks’ bottom pair, taking Radim Simek’s spot.

Dahlen - Couture - Meier
Balcers - Hertl - Barbanov
Cogliano - Bonino - Nieto
Gadjovich - Weatherby - Labanc

Ferraro - Burns
Middleton - Karlsson
Hatakka - Vlasic

Reimer

According to Mike Russo, Minnesota spent a large portion of Monday’s practice working on their special teams, as the Wild currently rank 18th on the power play (18.2%) and a bizarre 23rd (77.6%) on the penalty kill. In their past five games, Minnesota has only gone 2-for-14 on the power play (both goals coming against the cellar-dwelling Arizona Coyotes), and failed to convert on six chances against the Vegas Golden Knights two games back. As mentioned before, things are unlikely to get any easier on the power play against the top-ranked Sharks.

At five-on-five, however, things have been going well for the Wild, as for the month of November Minnesota owns the seventh-best xGF% at 55.39% and has scored the fourth-most goals (16) over their six contests. Marcus Foligno has led the charge with the team’s best CF% (64.38) and xGF% (61.12) over that span, and Ryan Hartman has been a standout as well (61.25 CF%, 60.39 xGF%).

NHL.com’s Jessi Pierce reports the Wild will be rolling with the same lines as they had last time out in their 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken:

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

Goligoski - Spurgeon
Brodin - Dumba
Merrill - Kulikov

Talbot

Burning Questions

When will the Cam Talbot resurgence kick in?

For as dominant as Talbot was towards the end of the season and in the playoffs, his start to the 2021 season was a little wonky, going 4-4-1 with a .906 save percentage. His string of games from March 1st through the sixth - losses to Vegas (twice) and Arizona - saw him give up a total of 13 goals over three games. However, most of the struggles last season could be chalked up to not getting into a rhythm due to injury and COVID. This season, completely healthy and getting all the action, Talbot has been inconsistent, with six games with a save percentage .914 or higher, but five games at .900 or lower. The odd thing is, the Wild found ways to win some of his rougher outings (defeating Winnipeg 6-5, for example), while losing to Seattle despite Talbot giving up only two goals and saving 94.4% of the 36 shots he faced.

His last outing was a success, with a Wild win against the Kraken and Talbot stopping 28 of 30 shots. But as the season goes on, Talbot is going to have to show he can win games all by himself like he did in last season’s playoffs. He’s had uneven starts over the last couple seasons with Minnesota and Calgary, but he’s always righted the ship. Can he string together a couple strong performances on the homestand, starting tonight against the Sharks?

Will the extra power-play practice pay dividends?

Dean Evason put the boys through an intense, special-teams focused practice on Monday, aiming to improve the Wild’s 18th-ranked power play and 23rd-ranked penalty kill. The Sharks are the league’s best on the kill, so it will be a tough bar to clear.

When asked in Monday’s media scrum, Evason had the exact formula for power-play success:

“Score,” he told pool reporters. “That’s it.”

Simple enough.

Can Jordan Greenway find a way?

Since Greenway returned from injury, you almost have to wonder if the Wild brass wish he hadn’t. Ok, that’s harsh... of course they want all their players healthy. But considering Greenway’s analtyics rank just about last across the board on the Wild roster (and the eye test hasn’t been much better). He’s been physical since returning from his injury, with seven hits over the last four games specifically. But he has had on shot on goal in his last three games, and has only two assists all year. I know fans would likely rather see Adam Beckman up instead of uneven performance from Greenway.

Greenway likely isn’t in the Wild’s long-term plans, so hopefully he can increase his trade value with some strong play before the deadline and open up the roster room going forward for some of the Wild’s prospects like Beckman or Matt Boldy.