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Preview: Crucial game against Predators follows Koivu jersey retirement

The game really matters.

NHL: DEC 29 Predators at Wild

It’s Mikko Day! The Minnesota Wild are set to host the Nashville Predators tonight, but before that, we are going to celebrate one of the most talented players to put on this team’s jersey.

Nothing can prepare you better, and educate you just how meaningful Koivu was and continues to be for this team, than Hockey Wilderness’ own Kyle Anway’s post about our captain from earlier this week. Beautiful moment after beautiful moment, I am positive that it will be a special pre-game ceremony for everyone in Minnesota.

But after the heart strings are pulled, the Wild lace up for one of their most significant games this season. The Predators are just two points back of the Wild for the Central’s third spot. And while even if they earn the full two points today they will remain in fourth because of points percentage, this game can be a massive swing either way for each club. Minnesota can create a comfortable buffer between the Wild Card (and the potential to face the Colorado Avalanche or the Calgary Flames) and the top-three of the division.

This is a big one and the Wild are coming off some incredibly solid performances, albeit against weaker teams, and should have at least some momentum heading into tonight. For the Predators, they have taken six of their last available points, and had a three-game winning streak before getting gut-punched during the Saturday matinee against the St. Louis Blues. We might be able to bank some advantage on fatigue, but we can’t do that too much.

The massive question is in between the pipes. Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen have been battling for who can be the most disappointing part of this team, and while the veteran Talbot certainly has the statistical lead, Kahkonen has made some lousy errors on goals recently and just does not feel solid. Of course, head coach Dean Evason is likely to go with his older guy for this one, but it does feel like it’s an inevitable back-and-forth between these two until one of them goes on a tear (hopefully).

Minnesota is fully healthy so there’s only one tiny dramatic mystery for the lineup tonight. Connor Dewar or Nico Sturm for the fourth-line center role. Who knows, but I bet after sitting against Columbus, Sturm will get the call as the older player.

Projected lineup:

Kaprizov - Hartman - Zuccarello
Greenway - Eriksson Ek - Foligno
Fiala - Gaudreau - Boldy
Duhaime - Sturm - Bjugstad

Brodin - Dumba
Goligoski - Spurgeon
Merrill - Kulikov

Talbot? Kahkonen? Meh.

See you at 5:00 p.m. for the Koivu ceremony and 6:00 p.m. for the puck drop.

Burning Questions

Will Joel Eriksson Ek have a Mikko-like performance to honor him?

We were so used to one of the best shutdown centers in the NHL being our captain, and we are now gifted yet another one but is Swedish instead of Finnish. Eriksson Ek has had some peak moments of suffocating team’s offenses, but to make it that more clear that he is made in a similar mold as Koivu, suppressing one of the Preds’ top lines to zero goals, would be an adequate jersey retirement gift.

Can the Wild escape without taking more than two penalties?

Minnesota is just taking too many damn penalties. Against the Blue Jackets they were handing man advantage chances on a platter and that is how Columbus opened the scoring, and then in their earlier decisive win over the New York Rangers, they took zero (and basically won because of it). The Wild can arguably play with any team at 5-on-5, but it’s the special teams — either wasted power play chances that should net them goals, or a penalty kill that stinks to high heaven — that has earned them the majority of their losses lately.