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Preview: Wild welcome Kaprizov’s return against Anaheim

Minnesota’s forward core is finally getting healthy. Mostly.

Minnesota Wild v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images

Okay, I’m going to need Kirill Kaprizov, Jordan Greenway, Brandon Duhaime and Joel Eriksson Ek to line up on the line here. Everyone who’s finally just about ready to return to the ice, please take a step forward.

Ekkers, not so fast.

Yes, the Minnesota Wild lineup is finally returning to some semblance of normalcy with Kaprizov healed from his upper body injury and Greenway, and Duhaime cleared from the COVID protocol. Unfortunately, after missing the better part of a month (but somehow only three games), Eriksson Ek had exactly one practice before catching the COVID himself, so the return of the Wild’s top centerman will have to wait a while longer.

Missing Eriksson Ek will be a hurdle to overcome if the Wild want to extend their current two-game winning streak to three. Standings points have come in bunches for the Wild this season, as 19 of the Wild’s 21 wins have come in the midst of a three-game winning streak or greater. Also, Minnesota can complete the season sweep of Anaheim with a win tonight, having defeated the Ducks in their other two meetings, winning 2-1 in the season opener and 4-3 just twelve days later.

Coming in hot for the Wild into tonight’s tilt are Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Fiala, who are both riding four-game points streaks. Fiala’s redemption from a penalty-filled second period against the Washington Capitals, including an assist on Lizard’s game-tying goal and a key goal in the shootout, were enough to get out of Dean Evason’s doghouse, at least temporarily.

As for the rest of the lineup, Matt Boldy and Connor Dewar will be the two Iowa forward prospects sticking around with all of the forwards returning to the lineup. Dewar’s presense made Rem Pitlick expendable, as the former Gopher was placed on waivers and claimed by the Montreal Canadiens earlier this week. Victor Rask will slot in for Eriksson Ek and will skate on a line with Greenway and Foligno, though that will be confirmed later during morning skate.

Defensively, the Wild are still hurting missing three of their top defensemen in Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Goligoski, with the latter still not quite clear of the COVID protocol. The Wild will also likely be without NHL All-Star selection Cam Talbot in net, meaning Kaapo Kahkonen will man the crease again, though Talbot did take part in morning skate as the third netminder. Spurgeon also participated in practice, but is still a little bit away from returning.

For the Ducks, a lot has changed since mid-October, and Anaheim currently finds themselves trailing only Vegas in the Pacific division, sitting just three points back of the Golden Knights. But despite an impressive November that saw the Ducks go 9-4 on the strength of an eight-game winning streak, the Ducks have struggled a bit since the late December schedule freeze, dropping five of their last seven.

Anaheim’s special teams have been criticial to their success, as the Ducks currently sit 5th in the league on the power play (26.7%) and rank fourth on the penalty kill (85.3%). Forward Troy Terry has been on an tear as of late, breaking a four-game scoring streak in his last outing against Pittsburgh having scored four goals and two assists in the four games prior. Trevor Zegras has multi point outings in two of his last four games, and Sonny Milano has four points in his last six.

In goal, Anthony Stolarz may get the call once again with regular starter John Gibson was still waiting for a negative COVID test when last reported by the OC Register’s Elliot Teaford. The Ducks will also be missing defenseman Simon Benoit and Vinni Lettieri due to COVID protocol, and are still without Adam Henrique and Josh Mahura, though both participated in practice yetersday and may be nearing a return.

Currently sitting in fourth place in the Central, the Wild would love to grab a key two points from the Ducks before heading out to Denver on Monday to take on the Avalanche, the team that currently sit in front of them in third. And considering their forward core is finally mostly healthy, it’s a great time to do it.

Puck drops at 7 p.m. from snowy St. Paul.

Burning Questions

Will the stop and start schedule catch up to the Wild?

Granted, the time off has benefitted Minnesota on the injury front, as Kaprizov missed only one game against the Capitals instead of potentially three - with the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers matchups postponed this week. But where the schedule gave the Wild time to get healed up, it also means that they haven’t played in nearly a week, while the Ducks have only had to sit one extra game in January and have played their last three regularily scheduled matchups. The last time the Wild had this long a layoff, they laid an egg in the Winter Classic. Can Minnesota come out flying against the Ducks, or will the long layoff make for a slow start to the game?

Will we see Dolla Bill Kirill back at full strength?

Evason had some glowing remarks about his elite forward’s ability to return from injury this week:

“Just because of the way he plays. He’s obviously built firmly. He’s in great shape. These guys, they all are athletes today. The players are in such terrific shape they can recover quickly from those types of things.”

If anything, Evason said Kaprizov looked a little winded, but that’s to be expected in his first practice back after missing a week. But the key to beating the Ducks will be 5-on-5 scoring, and they Wild will need their even-strength scorers going at full tilt, including Fiala, Ryan Hartman, and Kaprizov.