It’s a battle of the polar opposites in the Central Division. The 14-6-1 Minnesota Wild are hosting the 5-15-2 Arizona Coyotes for the second and last time in November. There are some big storylines heading into the matchup, even though it may not be the most important for the Wild’s playoff hopes this early into the season.
As it stands, the Wild are sitting atop the Central Division, separated from the St. Louis Blues by four points in 21 games. It’s the same on the other side of the division with the Coyotes four games behind the Chicago Blackhawks. Both teams have had their own sets of problems; one has undoubtedly had more than the other.
For the Wild, their first problem starts with Kevin Fiala. The Swiss forward has been shooting at a measly 4.3 percent to start a season where he needed to prove that he was worth a long-term commitment. As of now, he hasn’t shown that he is. Continuing to fumble around with the puck in the offensive zone won’t get anything productive done, and consistently swinging and missing on pucks is not going to help boost value. While 15 points in 21 games aren’t that bad of a total at face value, he should be scoring more according to the analytics and the eye test. The mistakes he has been making are preventable, and the wound needs to be clotted before he begins to bleed out.
On the positive side of things, Cam Talbot has put on an absolute clinic in his last five appearances. He started the season on the wrong foot. The defense was playing strong and the Wild continued to score, but goaltending continued to let them down. However, Talbot has changed the narrative. Talbot has put up a ridiculous .938 save percentage (Sv%) in his last five starts, allowing 11 goals on 177 total shots against. He is 4-1-0 with 3.11 goals saved above expected (GSAx) per Evolving-Hockey. He has been the caliber of goaltender that the Wild have needed to win games, and it bodes well for their record as the season continues to press forward.
Another positive thing is Kirill Kaprizov seemingly returning to form. In his last five games, he’s put up eight points with two goals and six assists. He is the team’s leader in points by a fairly wide margin. Kaprizov has 23 points in 21 games, and the next closest is Ryan Hartman, who has been having an absolutely stellar season, with 16. He’s not a leader in any of the big analytical numbers, mainly because of other players playing out of their minds. He’s still playing at an above-average level, and that’s encouraging after a somewhat slow start. He’s controlling the pace of games far more than at the beginning of the season, and it appears that he has taken the advice of head coach Dean Evason by making his game more simple. Of course, some puck luck is going in his favor as well, but simplicity is a recipe for success.
The matchup against the Coyotes is the third game of a five-game homestand, and it would do wonders for the Wild if they could sweep. It would be hard to believe the team isn’t riding high with a decisive victory against the Winnipeg Jets and another big win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Of course, never underestimate a team because they’ll end up taking advantage, but two of the final three matchups are more favorable for the Wild. They certainly don’t have to sweep for it to be considered a success. Some would argue that it has already been a success considering they beat a team in direct competition with them for the top of the Central and the defending repeat Stanley Cup champions, but there are still a few games left. There is no need to get ahead of ourselves.
Now, we can focus on the opposition. To say that the Coyotes have had a rough season is an understatement, but I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t see it coming. Their lineup in the season opener looked like an AHL team, and their threat to score decreased significantly without a player like Dylan Guenther. Don’t get me wrong; I think sending him back to the WHL to play with the Edmonton Oil Kings was the right decision. The farther away from this mess he is, the better.
Despite an 0-10-1 start to the season, the Coyotes have somewhat bounced back over this recent stint of games, if that’s what we can call it. They’re 5-5-1 over the last 11 games, with two of their last three victories coming in overtime. The win that ended in regulation was a colossal shutout victory over the Jets. Young goaltender Karel Vejmelka made a ridiculous 46 saves and recorded an incredible 3.9 GSAx. He has been a revelation for a team that was looking to find positives anywhere they could. He has a .916 Sv% in 14 total appearances, and I’d consider that something to be proud of given that the defense being iced in front of him isn’t anything to brag about. The defensive numbers are surprisingly not that bad for one of the worst teams in the NHL, and they may stay that way for the rest of the season. However, there is something to say about the confidence a goaltender may have. Of course, we shouldn’t dig too deep into it. All we know, and all that matters is Vejmelka is playing very well in his first NHL season on one of the worst teams in the league.
With the Coyotes playing back to back, the Wild will likely see Scott Wedgewood in the net. Wedgewood has played eight games and is currently the Coyotes leader in Sv% with a .929 and GSAx with 4.22. The sample is small, especially for a goaltender, but the numbers are there. He has been excellent when the Coyotes have needed a big stop or two, and the Wild will have to figure out how to solve him. After all, the goalie that can get the Coyotes their first win on the season has to be good, right?
One underperforming player for Arizona has been their stud defenseman Jakob Chychrun. He has just six points in 22 games, and even though he’s still sixth on the team in that category, it’s not what one would expect. We’ve seen him be a defenseman that can contend for the Norris Trophy, but as of this season, he has been a supreme disappointment. He has the 16th expected goals for percentage (xGF%) on the Coyotes with a miserable 42.34 percent, and his goals for percentage (GF%) is even more awful at 19.9 percent. That number is second-worst on the team. It has been a truly horrendous season for a young player that many believed to be a top defenseman in the league.
It will be essential to beat teams that you should for the Wild to have any chance at contending for the top of the division. Every matchup is important, especially against a team in the Central Division. Of course, the Coyotes aren’t a team that will be contending for the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they can slack off or take it easy. They are the favorites in this matchup. Although, the Coyotes goaltending has shown it can steal a game if need be.
Enjoy the game, everyone! Go Wild!