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Preview: Wild take on Flames in strong Western Conference matchup

The Wild are playing the other Alberta team tonight.

NHL: JAN 09 Wild at Flames Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild and Calgary Flames are going to face off in Alberta tonight in a Western Conference matchup. The two teams are on somewhat different paths right now. The Flames were on a scorching nine-game win streak before getting their train run off the tracks by the Vancouver Canucks. The Wild have lost two games in a row to the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs after obliterating the Edmonton Oilers. Now, they hope to add to the losing streak of the Flames and finish the Canada road trip on a high note.

The Flames under head coach Daryl Sutter have looked like a brand new team. They’re first in the Pacific Division with a record of 30-14-6, nine of those wins coming in the last 10 games, where they’re 9-1-0. They’re being led by the usual suspects—Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm—who have played out of their minds this season. Gaudreau leads the team with 64 points in 50 games, while Tkachuk has 56 points in 50 games and Lindholm has 49 points in 50 games. Andrew Mangiapane, one of the most underrated players in the entire NHL, is the team’s leader in goals.

Another key contributor to their success this season is goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who has continued his strong play from his years in Vancouver. Markstrom leads the league in shutouts with eight, and even though he hasn’t been on Igor Shesterkin’s level, there’s no doubt he will be mentioned in the Vezina Trophy conversation by season’s end just for that number alone. Markstrom also holds a .926 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average on the season.

In the last five games for the Flames, Lindholm has led in goals and points with five and nine respectively, while Gaudreau leads in assists with five.

For the Wild, Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello have continued to reign supreme in the scoring category, but Kevin Fiala has also come bursting onto the scene with rookie linemate Matt Boldy. Kaprizov leads the team in scoring with 62 points in 48 games, while Zuccarello has 52 points in 42 games. Fiala is third on the team and is beginning to separate from the pack with 43 points in 49 games. The connection between him and Boldy has really revived his scoring ability in particular, and it has also helped Boldy feel much more comfortable in his first games as an NHL player.

The goaltending situation in Minnesota has been a bit confusing as of late. Kaapo Kahkonen has looked very strong with a .921 save percentage and 2.54 goals against average. However, Cam Talbot has looked somewhat shaky in his last few appearances, and fans are beginning to question whether or not he is the true starter for the team. Of course, having two goaltenders who are capable of starting is a problem that most teams wish they could have (sorry Oilers fans). However, if head coach Dean Evason decides to ride Talbot and the wheels continue to fall off, he will have no choice but to go to the young Finnish goaltender.

The Wild will have a big test against one of the most stifling and lethal teams in the NHL. The Flames play strong defensively, and with the addition of Tyler Toffoli from the Montreal Canadiens, they became even more threatening offensively. The better defense and goaltending will most likely win this game.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild shut down the Flames’ top line?

Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Gaudreau is one of the most lethal trios in the entire NHL. They play strong defense for the most part, and when they counterattack on the rush, the defense is going to need to be ready. There is very little room for error when they are out on the ice, because they will make you pay. The Wild are going to need to be extra careful and smart with the puck against that top line. If they are given one opportunity, they’re most likely going to score, or at least create a chance and cause a momentum shift.

Can the Wild get one past Markstrom early?

Confidence is key in the NHL, and when a team knows they can get one by the goaltender, it changes the game. Markstrom leads the league in shutouts by double the amount of the next player, Marc-Andre Fleury (4). The Wild should have confidence knowing they can beat the Flames coming in, but if they can get one by the goaltender early, that should only boost them up. Goaltenders who seem to be able to stop everything can destroy their opponent’s morale. Having eight shutouts is incredible, and that means it’s going to be an even bigger challenge for the Wild coming into Markstrom’s home turf. Scoring early is arguably the biggest talking point heading into tonight if you’re the Wild coaching staff.