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Preview: Wild take on Sharks looking to make it eight straight

The Wild’s captain may be making a return as Minnesota stays hot

San Jose Sharks v Minnesota Wild Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

Man, is this Minnesota Wild team fun to watch, or what?

The current Western Conference leaders and hottest team in the league continue their four-game road trip, abandoning the frozen wastes of Canada for some California sunshine as they take on the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night. The Wild are coming off an impressive 4-1 win over Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, and currently carry a league-best seven-game winning streak into the SAP center. They’ll take on a San Jose squad who sits just above the playoff line and is coming off an impressive 5-3 win over the Calgary flames their last time out.

The Sharks took the first of three meetings between the two teams back on November 16th, thumping the Wild 4-1 in a game where a previouly struggling San Jose squad put their foot on the gas and didn’t let up, and the Wild’s slow start put them in a hole they couldn’t climb out of, even when they started picking up the pace in the third period.

On Tuesday night, San Jose began a stretch of the season where they will enjoy nine out of ten games at the SAP Center, with their only upcoming away game in December coming just down the I-5 in Anaheim. Their current seven-game homestand started off auspiciously against the Flames, when the Sharks cam e back from a two-goal second period deficit, scoring three unanswered goals in the middle frame and pulled away with a late empty netter. Tomas Hertl earned the arena crew some free headwear when he scored his third of the game in the empty net. Logan Couture had a goal and two assists, while Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Alexander Barbanov each grabbed a pair of points while Adin Hill stopped 40 of 43 shots in the 5-3 victory.

The last time the Wild faced the Sharks, San Jose had recently been reeling due to COVID, having missed Kevin Lebanc, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek to quarantine. Now, the Sharks are mostly healthy, missing only top-six winger Rudolfs Balcers who was placed on injured reserve this week due to a lower-body injury.

Sharks head coach Bob Boughner made a splash in the shark tank on Tuesday, making Lebanc a healthy scratch - a rare move considering the forward had played in 258 straight games since November of 2017 before an injury knocked him out of the linup last April. Labanc had been working bottom six minutes this season and had gone scoreless over his last six games before grabbing a seat in the pressbox against the Flames. Bougner told reporters Wedneday that Lebanc just needed a “reset” and would return to the lineup against Minnesota.

In net, Hill has started four straight games as regular starter James Reimer has been a bit burned out. Boughner called the decision to sit Reimer against the Flames a “maintenance thing”, and plans on keeping out Reimer for one more game, opting to start Hill against the Wild (accoring to San Jose Hockey Now’s Sheng Peng).

San Jose sits in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, and while most aspects of their game aren’t terribly good or terribly bad (24th in goals per game, 10th in goals against per contest, 16th on the power play with 19.4%), where San Jose does shine is on the penalty kill, owning the league’s second-best kill at 87.88%.

The Wild’s calling card is still at even strength, sitting 2nd in the league in 5-on-5 goals (65), 8th in the league in expected goals for percentage (55.8%) and 10th in Corsi For percentage (51.6%). The Wild’s power play still lingers in the bottom 10 teams in the NHL, currently sitting 26th with 14.81%. But when you put up 27 even-strength goals in your last six games, who needs power-play tallies, right?

With a seven-game streak for the team, of course there have to be some hot individual efforts, and boy do the Wild have some players riding heat waves. Kirill Kaprizov’s has got to be the most impressive, and his assist against the Oilers streched his poitns streak to six games, with points in nine out of his last ten. Linemate Mats Zuccarello has points in his last five straight outings, including three goals and four assists. And center Joel Eriksson Ek has two straight multi-point outings, earning a pair of assists against the Maple Leafs and a goal and an assist against Edmonton.

Defensively, the Wild may be getting back their captain and top defenseman Jared Spurgeon, whose presence will only help a Wild team who has been holding down the fort quite well in his absence thanks to the efforts of regular defensive stalwarts like Jonas Brodin, as well as step-up performances by Dmitry Kulikov and Jordie Benn.

In net, Cam Talbot has been on an absoute tear over his last five outings - all wins - earning a save percentage of .951 and allowing two goals or less in four of those five. He’s projected to start again for the Wild, though we won’t know for sure until morning skate.

The Wild will look to make it a great eight straight by landing a victory against the Sharks. Puck drops at 9:30 p.m., so put that extra pot of coffee on.

Burning Questions

Will Spurgeon make an impact in his first game back, if he’s a go? And can the Wild defensive machine keep humming if he isn’t?

Since their captain left the ice with his lower-body injury back on November 20th against the Florida Panthers, the Wild have been making the absolute best of the situation, earning points in each of the eight full games Spurgeon has missed, while allowing two goals or less in five of those seven games - and the two teams that eclipsed that number against them are either defending champions (Tampa Bay Lightning) or amongst the best in the league (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Thomas Williams speculated on who the Wild might take out of the lineup to make room for Spurgeon, but no matter who comes out, it’s almost assured that Spurgeon will be reunited with Alex Goligoski on the top pairing - and if history and advanced stats are any indication, putting them together should lead to on-ice improvement. Without his usual defensive partner and paired with Jon Merril instead, the Goligoski-Merril pairing has earned a xGoals% of 43.1% over 12 games, and allow 3.18 xGoals/60. With Spurgeon over 14 games, the top pairing improves to 54.4% xG% and a team-best 1.79 xG/60.

Not only that, but Spurgeon’s inclusion spreads the wealth around. Dmitri Kulikov has far better numbers paired with Merrill than Benn, though the two have held their own recently. In any case, Spurgeon represents a significant improvement up and down the defensive roster, and should he make his return tonight, hopefully he gets things clicking and up to full speed.

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Has Tomas Hertl found his stride?

Despite sitting third on the team in points, the Sharks’ elite centerman has yet to find consistency this season, coming up big at times while also seemingly going missing for games at a time. Against the Flames it was the former as Hertl’s empty netter not only sealed the win, but earned him a hat trick on the night. With four goals over his last two games, is it possible that Hertl has come out of his shell? And having faced some other elite scorers lately such as the Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, are the Wild sufficiently seasoned to shut down the Sharks’ normally potent scorer?

What happened to Hartman?

OK, so we’re not seriously worried about the game of Ryan Hartman, despite him going scoreless in his last two contests. The Wild have gotten scoring from the usual suspects in Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek and Zuccarello, so Minnesota’s leading goal scorer hasn’t had to carry the load.

It would be nice to see Hartzy get back on the scoresheet - and based on his scoring log this season, it’s bound to happen, as Hartman has yet to go three games without a goal or an assist this season.

With the Sharks putting Hill back in net for his fifth straight start despite allowing nine goals over his last two games, the Wild have a good chance of putting pucks in the net, and Hartman should have his hand in some of that.