If there was such a thing as a soft schedule in the NHL, the Minnesota Wild sure as heck found it.
After defeating the Chicago Blackhawks and the Ottawa Senators — a seven-win and 14-win team, respectively— the Wild have the opportunity to carve through the gooey soft middle of their schedule and forge toward a solid playoff position with the trade deadline around the corner. After thoroughly outclassing their lesser opponents in recent matchups, the Wild find themselves against a familiar foe in the Anaheim Ducks.
A team caught in the middle of building a roster of exciting young talent and kowtowing to the demands of established veterans like John Gibson, the Ducks are neither exciting nor competitive outside the near video game-like antics of Trevor Zegras.
It's been years since John Gibson was viewed as the best goaltender on the planet, and like a rescue dog in the wrong foster home, you can't help but wonder if he might do better in an environment that isn't constantly testing his ability to withstand abuse. But the Ducks don't have the personnel to make it easy for the workhorse netminder. He's got a .896 save percentage and allows nearly four goals per game. He's only 29 years old, and it seems too late to execute any substantial "Free John Gibson" campaign.
It isn't all doom and gloom in Anaheim.
Okay, it is. They rank near the bottom of the league in nearly every category. 31st in penalty kill —stopping a paltry 67.8 percent of attempts— and somehow 31st in goals per game and 32nd in goals against per game.
"But surely, a team that has spent a few years in the basement of the league has the talent to fuel a dynamite powerplay," you ask. That's 28th in the league.
Zegras is no doubt a dynamo and a future superstar in the league. This team feels aimless and will need a few more stud draft picks to make themselves anything but the Arizona Coyotes with a Stanley Cup.
For now, they'll have to be content with being a punching bag for the league.
As for the Wild, after resounding defeats over their last two opponents, everything seems to be coming together. The addition of Ryan Reaves —whether we want to admit it or not— has seemingly coincided with the resurgence of one of the most exciting offences in hockey. Since the trade on November 25th, the Wild have been the 8th ranked offence in the league, tearing apart opponents to the tune of 3.58 goals per game. Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have had respectively impressively point streaks, and tonight Zuccarello will look to expand on his 10-game point streak, during which he has notched an impressive 16 points.
Since the change to place 24-year-old reclamation project Sam Steel between Zuccarello and Kaprizov, the offense has come fast and easy for the trio. With Ryan Hartman recently returning from injury, it has provided the Wild with depth and balance that is nearly unmatched in the league.
With the fantastic play of late form Filip Gustavsson, the Wild have looked as good as we could have wanted.
Here's hoping they keep it up against a lesser opponent.
Puck drops at 9 p.m. Let's play hockey.
Let's not beat around the bush. Can Zuccy keep the streak up?
Between Mats and Kirill, streaks have been in abundance for the Wild this season. This one has come at an opportune time to contribute to the Wild's current stretch of outstanding play. I won't go as far as to say the Wild go as Zuccarello goes, but it's undoubtedly easier for the group when that first line is clicking.
Could Gustavsson push Fleury for the starting position?
Filip has been one the hottest goalies in the league — a 4-0-0 record with a .938 save percentage since the start of December — and Fleury has struggled at times. The Flower is the expected starter for this game, but if he struggles heading into the Christmas break, could he feel his starting position on this roster threatened?