The Minnesota Wild started their current four-game winning streak on the night before Thanksgiving by beating the New Jersey Devils, and on Thursday night they’ll try to complete the season sweep against their Eastern conference foe, this time on the home ice of the Xcel Energy Center.
When last the two teams met on turkey day eve, the Wild jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period before the Devils scored twice to tie things up in the third. The game was eventually decided via shootout, with Kevin Fiala scoring for the Wild and Cam Talbot stopping all three attempts he faced to earn the bonus point in the standings.
Since then, the Wild have been an offensive juggernaut, outscoring their three opponents 16-5 and increasing their division lead to four points over the second-place St. Louis Blues. Meanwhile, the Devils have dropped two of three, including a 4-2 loss to Nashville and a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, and are facing back-to-back road games against two of the tougher teams in the Western Conference - the Wild, and the Winnipeg Jets.
At 9-7-4 and having reached the quarter mark of the season, the rebuilding New Jersey Devils are about where many expected them to be - just outside of the playoff line, but showing the promise of making a late season run as the pieces fall into place. The wild card hopes of the Devils rest heavily on 2019 first-overall selection Jack Hughes, who suffered a shoulder injury in his second game of the season and has missed six weeks. Hughes finally made his return to the ice against the Sharks in the Devils’ last game out (signing a massive eight-year contract the same day), and while he didn’t factor on the scoresheet, just seeing Hughes play competitive hockey has to make the fans feel better than they did when the Devils released their New Jersey “Jersey” Jersey. It’s only a matter of time before the talented Mr. Hughes gets up to speed.
In the meantime, despite going 2-5-1 over their last eight, there have been some bright spots for the Devils. Andreas Johnsson has been on an absolute tear over his last three games, scoring three goals and four assists, and pacing the team in expected goals-for percentage with 66.84% in all scenarios. Johnsson’s wingmate, Jesper Bratt is second in points during that span with two goals and three assists. The Devils top defensive pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves have been serviceable, even if the rest of the defensive corps has been suspect. And goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier have been up and down, but even average goaltending have allowed them to not lose much ground despite the rough patch.
That being said, the reason they still sit only three points behind the fourth-place Pittsburgh Penguins is less due to the Devils and more due to the Metropolitan divison being pretty heavy up top, and kind of awful down below - the other four teams that make up the bottom of the Metro are all on losing streaks, having lost 20 consecutive games combined.
As for Minnesota, well, things are looking pretty damned good. Four game winning streak, four point lead in the division, Calder-winner-to-Hart-candidate Kirill Kaprizov has a phenominal 14 points (4g-10a) in his last seven games... and all of this success despite missing their captain and top defenseman Jared Spuregon, a key offensive producer in Mats Zuccarello, and are now without minute-munching fourth line centerman Freddy Gaudreau thanks to the COVID protocol. Tank and Lizard both practiced on Tuesday, though neither played, so one would have to think both are close to returning.
The fact that the Wild had to start defenseman Calen Addison at forward against the Arizona Coyotes with Gaudreau’s last-minute COVID-related scratch, and have yet to call up another forward to take his place lends more credence to the idea that at least Zuccarello should be good to go. That, or Dean Evason really, really likes Addison at wing.
The Athetic’s Michael Russo confirmed the Wild’s thinking in a Thursday morning tweet:
Mats Zuccarello on No. 1 power-play unit like he’s returning tonight for #mnwild vs. #njdevils. If he comes off the ice after and says he can’t go, I expect a callup from Iowa. But so far, all signs point to him playing.— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) December 2, 2021
The Devils may be looking for a
soul point to steal in Minnesota, but if the Wild can continue their offensive ways, they should be able to hold on to the fiddle made of gold top spot in the standings.
Puck drops at 7 p.m.
Which Mackenzie Blackwood shows up for the Devils?
The Devils had to be hoping that their young netminder who was in the Calder conversation just two seasons ago, was ready to take the next step, even after a rough 14-71-4 2011 seaosn with a save percentage just above .900 and a goals against average north of 3.0. This season, having missed the first month of the season after offseason heel surgery, Blackwood has looked very good at times (like he did in the second and third periods against the Wild last week), and also very, very bad (like he did in a four GA outing against San Jose).
In fact, Bernier might end up getting the start to give Blackwood a breather, the young netminder having gotten nearly all of the work in the month of November. But no matter who starts for the Devils, both goalies have saved 2.7 goals more than expected, and Blackwood owns a WAR of .46 compared to Bernier’s .37. Compare that to Talbot’s WAR of .33, and the less said about Kaapo Kahkonen’s the better.
If Blackwood gets the go as expected, the Wild had better hope they can keep up the proficient offensive production they’ve enjoyed lately. Because for the Devils to give themselves a chance, they’re going to hope they have the Mr. Hyde version of their goaltending instead of the Dr. Jekyl.
Can Kirill keep on thrillin’?
Dude’s absolutely killing it with some of the best points numbers in the NHL since November 18th. Kaprizov is on a three-game points streak, and it would stretch back seven games had it not been for the scoreless affair last week against, you guessed it, the New Jersey Devils.
Can a second dance with the Devils pay more dividends?
Is Greenway finally on a roll?
As our own Matt Smith talked about in his article today, Jordan Greenway finally had the breakout game he was looking for against the Coyotes with a goal and two assists, finding the twine behind the netminder for the first time on the season. He’s been showing tenacity and grit, throwing his body around and blocking shots, and seems to enjoy having been reunited with his GREEF linemates Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno.
Everyone knows that goals in the NHL come in bunches. It may have taken Greenway 18 games to notch his first goal and first multi-point game. Can Greener capitalize on the strong performance by keeping things going against Jersey?