The Minnesota Wild are the hottest team in the NHL and it’s not really close. On Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they will be hoping to claim their eighth consecutive win as they are suddenly creating enough distance between them and the rest of the Central Division to be fairly comfortable.
After Tuesday’s easy win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota is three points clear of the St. Louis Blues for the second divisional spot and have one less game played than their likely first-round opponent. While it by no means guarantees home ice advantage (yet) it is a far cry from when the Wild lost eight of 10 just earlier this year. Times are much, much better.
For the Penguins, they are just floating around in their division, earning three points in their last four games — but that does include an 11-2 domination against the Detroit Red Wings. It’s either mayhem or them losing poorly in recent matches.
Sidney Crosby is busy having yet another productive year, scoring 70 points in 56 games — as he does — and his line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are just putting teams into absolute submissions. Those three currently lead all Pittsburgh forwards in scoring and when they are on the ice together, they are always better than their opponent. But they might hit a skid in Minnesota.
Among the 16 lines that have a better on-ice goal differential at 5-on-5 (min. 300 minutes), two of them belong to the Wild. Both the top line and the punishing GREEF line have historically been able to outscore their opponents all season long at even strength. Matter of fact, no line that has spent at least 300 minutes together has a better on-ice GF% than the combination of Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, and Jordan Greenway. They have scored 80.55 percent (!) of the goals when they are on the ice. That’s bananas. It’s not hard to predict that they will be hard-matched against the Crosby line tonight.
It might be a slog in this effort to earn that precious eighth win, or Pittsburgh will just fall apart with the unrelenting pressure the Wild can put upon them. It should be a fun one.
Alex Goligoski will remain out of the lineup as a healthy scratch for maintenance, even after getting his two-year extension finalized. Not to be pessimistic or judgmental about the signing, but the outlook of having your fresh contract on the sidelines, just doesn’t feel right.
Kirill Kaprizov—Ryan Hartman—Mats Zuccarello
Kevin Fiala—Frederick Gaudreau—Matt Boldy
Jordan Greenway—Joel Eriksson Ek—Marcus Foligno
Brandon Duhaime—Tyson Jost—Nicolas Deslauriers
Jonas Brodin—Matt Dumba
Jacob Middleton—Jared Spurgeon
Jon Merrill—Dmitry Kulikov
Cam Talbot gets the start and Marc-Andre Fleury is on the bench. You have to wonder if this is a simple rotation or Fleury specifically mentioning to head coach Dean Evason that he does not want to face his former team. Either way, we should be comfortable in between the pipes.
Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m.
Will Kaprizov break Marian Gaborik’s record tonight?
We will be asking until it happens, Kaprizov is just one point away from tying Gaborik’s 83-point campaign in 2007-08, and two points away from having the most productive season of any player in a Wild sweater. It’s bound to happen eventually, but will it be against the Penguins?
Can they keep the Penguins’ score down?
This month, Pittsburgh has managed to score less than three goals just four times. And with those offensive weapons that they have, they can just simply will their way to four or five goals like it is nothing. It will be a significant test for a Wild blue line that just feels fluid, and Cam Talbot who is searching for his ninth win this month.