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Preview: Wild debuts keep on comin’ against the Canucks

Flower’s first game in green will have to wait one more game, but Middleton is set to make his Minnesota debut

Los Angeles Kings v San Jose Sharks Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images

As exciting as Nic Deslauriers debut was for Minnesota Wild fans on Monday night, residents of the State of Hockey are really clamoring for another addition to the starting roster. You know him, you love him, you may have hated him when he played for opponents, but here he is...

Minnesota Wild starting defenseman Jacob Middleton!

OK, so maybe “Midds” isn’t the debut that Wild fans are awaiting with bated breath. But if the former San Jose Shark has a St. Paul opening night like Deslauriers had against the Vegas Golden Knights, it should tide us over until Saturday.

No, Marc-Andre Fleury reportedly won’t get the net against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday evening, as Cam Talbot will get chance to continue his winning streak over his last six starts. Talbot seems to have his confidence renewed lately with a .961 save percentage in his last three starts, including his second shutout of the season in the Wild’s 3-0 win over Vegas.

Instead, it’s Middleton who gets the call from head coach Dean Evason, and if Wednesday’s line rushes are any indication, he’ll be thrown right into the fire on the top pairing with Jared Spurgeon. Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba will continue to share second pairing duties, and Jon Merril and Alex Goligoski are your bottom pair, with Dimitri Kulikov watching from the pressbox. Our own Thomas Williams broke down the decision to sit Kulikov instead of Goligoski or Merrill, as well as what the defensive-minded Middleton brings to the top pairing and how his skill set fits in well with a proficient puck mover like Spurgeon.

On offense, expect the same lineup for the Wild as they skated against the Golden Knights, including the new-look fourth line of Brandon Duhaime, Tyson Jost, and Deslauriers, whose rugged, physical, one-goal (and nearly two) effort earned a lot of fans on Monday night, despite many of those same fans (including myself) that may have second-guessed the decision to bring him aboard for a third-round pick.

The Canucks come off a message-sending 3-1 victory against the NHL’s top team in the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night and take on the Wild on the second night of a tough back-to-back to start their four-game road trip. Vancouver had a pretty quiet trade deadline despite being tied to trade rumors both coming and going, but settled on adding defenseman Travis Dermott from the Toronto Maple Leafs, while shipping out forward Tyler Motte to the New York Rangers and Travis Hamonic to the Ottawa Senators, each of those deals involving a third-round pick in return. The Canucks also added depth centerman Brad Richardson on waivers from the Calgary Flames, who will slot into the Canucks’ third line between Juho Lammikko and Matthew Highmore. Dermott skated on the bottom pairing with former Wild defenseman Brad Hunt in Tuesday’s practice.

Defenseman Kyle Burroughs returned to practice on Tuesday but remains on IR and is unlikely to play against the Wild. The Canucks are also without Jason Dickinson, Tucker Poolman and Nils Hoglander, all of whom are on IR.

Prior to the impressive win against the Avalanche, the Canucks had struggled as of late, dropping five of their prior six (though three of those losses earned a point in overtime), and have fallen five points behind Dallas for the final wild card spot in the Western conference. Defenseman Quinn Hughes has been hot lately with 17 points over his last 16 games, and now that the trade dealine has passed, oft-rumored-about JT Miller can focus on getting back in the swing of things, having a recent 13-game scoring streak (8 goals, 19 assists) snapped last week against the Detroit Red Wings. Brock Boeser scored against the Avalanche, seemingly endling a slump of 16 games with only one five-on-five goal.

Jaroslav Halak started against the Avalanche, which almost certainly means the Canucks go with Thatcher Demko against the Wild.

The Wild reach the middle point of their nine-game homestand tonight, having gone 3-1 at the X with some of the harder matchups yet to come against Colorado and the Pittsburgh Penguins next week. A matchup against a motivated Canucks squad will require the Wild to play with the all the vigor they have had over the last three games.

Puck drops at 7 p.m.

Burning Questions

Does Middleton make an impact? On someone’s face, anyway?

The Wild’s newest top defensive pair makes for a classic “odd couple” scenario. One towers over the ice at 6-foot-3, the other is a bit more diminutive in stature at 5-foot-9. One plays a defensive game based on physicality and shot-blocking, while the other is more of a puck mover, play driver and entry stopper.

And perhaps the biggest difference? Spurgeon was a Lady Bing candidate for gentlemanly conduct, while Middleton has no issue trying to put his fist through someone’s face.

Middleton’s more than just a Boogard-esque goon, as he’s ranked eighth in the league in xGA amongst defensemen that have played more than 800 minutes. But fighting is definitely part of his game. Just ask Jordan Greenway.

Middleton has dropped the gloves nine times this season, and until his last bout back on March 18th against Kurtis MacDermid of the Avalanche, voters on HockeyFights.com say he won every time. His special set of skills may not be needed tonight, but the question remains, how will Middleton make an impact on the game, either on the scoresheet or the penalty sheet?

What wishy-washy Wild special teams will show up tonight?

The last two games, the Wild’s power play slowed down, failing to convert on the five total chances they had, while the penalty kill that had been struggling has been perfect against the Blackhawks and Golden Knights. Prior to the last two, the man advantage was successful in four of five outings, while the penalty kill was letting just about everything in.

The Canucks have the power play advantage over the Wild (21.4% vs 19.6%), but while Minnesota’s penalty kill has been kind of bad this year (76.3%, 23rd in the league), Vancouver’s is the absolute worst in the NHL at 71.6%.

Can the Wild finally put it all together against the Canucks, scoring on the power play and shutting things down on the penalty kill? And will newcomers Middleton and Deslauriers help out in that regard?