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Preview: Wild, Panthers square up in battle of two contenders

This should be fun.

Minnesota Wild v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Two of the hottest and best teams in the NHL so far in the 2021-22 NHL season will be facing off for the second and final time. The Minnesota Wild and the Florida Panthers taking the ice should make for one of the most entertaining games of the night.

These two teams are at the top of their respective conferences and have already met once this season. The end result was a 5-4 win for the Panthers with Frank Vatrano tallying two goals and an assist for the Panthers with Sam Bennett scoring the game winner. For the Wild, Joel Eriksson Ek and Kirill Kaprizov both had a goal and an assist for two points.

Now, the two meet for the final time, and they’re still among the best teams in the NHL. The Panthers hold a 33-10-5 record (71 points) which is atop the Eastern Conference standings. The Wild are separated by only two losses that came in regulation instead of overtime. They come into this matchup with a 33-12-3 record. The Panthers in particular have made it known that they will be contending for the Stanley Cup for years to come led by their captain Aleksander Barkov.

The Panthers are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, and the Wild are 8-2-0 in their last 10. These two teams have been on a similar trajectory for the entire season, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Another player leading the charge for them is Jonathan Huberdeau. He has always been viewed as one of the most underrated players in the NHL. However, this season he has been on another level in terms of point production. He is third in the entire NHL for points with 66 in 48 games. The only players above him are Connor McDavid (68 points in 47 games) and Leon Draisaitl (68 points in 48 games). He was coming off an already career season in 2020-21, and he has only improved on it.

As for the Wild, it’s the usual suspect Kaprizov leading the charge. He sits seventh in the NHL in points, tied with Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He continues to dazzle the NHL with his skating ability and vision on the ice. With the help of his linemate Mats Zuccarello, he has been even more lethal this season.

The goaltending for the Wild has been good as well. They have always had a strong defensive system, and the analytics support that they don’t allow many high-danger chances. However, the goaltending for the longest time was extremely suspect. Now, with Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen as the tandem between the pipes, the Wild have catapulted up the NHL’s standings.

Talbot, the starter for tonight’s affair, had a rough go of it in the Wild’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets. However, on the season he has been fairly strong. He boasts a .912 save percentage and a 2.86 goals against average with a record of 19-9-1, while Kahkonen holds even better numbers with a .921 save percentage, 2.53 goals against average, and 11-3-2 record.

On the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky has had a resurgent season after a few disappointing ones. He signed a massive contract with the Panthers, and it appears that he’s finally living up to it. He boasts a .919 save percentage, a 2.54 goals against average, and a record of 24-4-3. He looks engaged with the game again, and it’s fantastic for anyone wanting to tune in to a Panthers game to watch him.

Burning Questions

Will the Wild prove that they are contenders once again?

Kevin Fiala said that if the Carolina Hurricanes are contenders, so are the Wild in a postgame press conference. The Panthers are just as good if not better than the Hurricanes, so it would be the perfect opportunity to keep that reputation. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is one of the messages from head coach Dean Evason in the locker room before the game gets underway.

Can Matt Boldy keep up the hot streak?

Boldy has been incredible to start his season, and it’s hard not to imagine what could have been if he didn’t get injured during the preseason matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s at a point per game with 14 points in 14 games, and with Fiala and Frederick Gaudreau as his linemates, he has found his stride in the big leagues. Against a team like the Panthers, the Wild are going to need all hands on deck, and Boldy can really solidify his spot as one of the best rookies in the game with a strong performance against a Stanley Cup contender.