It’s finally time for the Return of the Ek.
The Minnesota Wild will welcome Joel Eriksson Ek to the lineup in the first of a home-and-home against the Chicago Blackhawks, having missed their top centerman for a month after he suffered an upper-body injury against the Dallas Stars back on Dec. 20, and then a bout of COVID once he was ready to return. Due to rescheduling, the month-long injury/illness stint only cost Eriksson Ek five games, though one was the Winter Classic at Target Field back on New Year’s Day.
Eriksson Ek was on a pretty good stretch prior to the Dallas game, earning eight points (3g, 5a) in eight games. He’ll be reunited with his GREEF linemates Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno, which, when healthy, leads the Wild in expected goals for percentage at 56.4%, two percentage points higher than the current top line of Kirill Kaprizov, Ryan Hartman, and Mats Zuccarello. Greenway especially should be happy for his linemates return, as the Wild’s grinder is without a point in his last six games — a streak dating back to December 11th.
More good news is on the horizon for the Wild, as captain and defenseman Jared Spurgeon and top netminder Cam Talbot are expected to make their return to the lineup this weekend, likely on Sunday in the St. Paul edition of the home-and-home series. Spurgeon has been out since December 16th after reaggravating a lower-body injury against the Buffalo Sabres. Talbot left the Winter Classic with a lower-body injury also and has been filled in for admirably by Kaapo Kahkonen, who will likely get the start again tonight.
After a rough patch that saw the Wild drop five straight during a stop-and-start portion of the schedule thanks to COVID postponements, Minnesota has grabbed points in four straight games and sits comfortably in a wild-card spot, just four points back of the third-place St. Louis Blues. Key to continuing their point streak will be, as always, special teams, which have been suspect lately despite the wins. Minnesota’s power play is 0-for-3 over their last three matchups and 2-for-15 since the Winter Classic, while their penalty kill is clicking at only 72% in their last six games, allowing six goals over 22 chances.
At five-on-five, however, the Wild have been pretty strong and making the most of their chances, sitting in the top 5 in the NHL in GF% over their last five games despite ranking in the middle of the league in expected goals for. Kevin Fiala, Mats Zuccarello and Kirill Kaprizov have been absolutely on fire during that span, each riding six-game scoring streaks. Kaprizov has been especially impressive with six goals and six assists over his last six starts.
As for Chicago, they may have top-six centerman Dylan Strome and top-pairing defenseman Seth Jones back from the COVID protocol for both of this weekend’s games according Blackhawks’ head coach Derek King. Kirby Dach and Bret Connolly remain in the protocol but may be able to return for Saturday’s rematch.
The Blackhawks ended a six-game losing streak on January 8th with a win over the Vegas Golden Knights, and proceeded to earn points in their next five outings. Patrick Kane is on an eight-game point streak with two goals and eight assists, while Brandon Hagel and Erik Gustafsson are each on three-game point streaks of their own. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been strong over his last five starts, going 4-0-1 with a .956 save percentage.
A month ago, a set of games against the Blackhawks may have looked like a reprieve from a relentless schedule — one that will now pick up the intensity after the NHL announced the Wild’s rescheduled games will result in having to play 40 games over their last 77 days of the season. Now, with Chicago playing tough and getting healthy, sweeping the weekend series may be tougher than expected.
Puck drops at 7:30 p.m. from the United Center in Chicago.
Can Boldy keep producing?
Rookie and former first-rounder Matt Boldy made his NHL debut back on January 6th against Boston, and through four games looks like he’s here to stay. Boldy is on a point-per-game pace and is jelling with Freddy Gaudreau and Kevin Fiala, with Fiala continuing to find a rhythm with consistent linemates. At this point, you’ve got to think Boldy will stick around unless he absolutely hits a rookie wall. But as long as he and Fiala continue their chemistry, Boldy is likely here to stay.
Can the Wild forwards keep streaking?
Kaprizov, Fiala and Zuccarello have been on an offensive tear lately, and you’d think that would continue against a Chicago team that’s lingered near the bottom of the standings all season. But the Blackhawks have strung together some wins lately and have scored three or more goals in seven of their last eight, so maybe they’re not the easy win they might have been earlier this season when they dropped nine straight in October. No doubt the Wild will need to score early and often to take care of business against the Blackhawks - will the Wild’s usual suspects be up to the task?
Can Kaapo keep hero mode activated?
The Wild should design some kind of bat signal for Kahkonen, for when they need him in their most desperate hour he always seems to step up to the task. With Talbot out since January 1st, Minnesota’s young netminder has helped the team earn seven points in four games, and has backstopped the team with a .935 save percentage (including the shutout performance he had in the third period of the Winter Classic). Talbot’s return is on the horizon, so hopefully, Kahkonen doesn’t shrink down from Super Mario to regular Mario size in what may be his last start for a while.