Game Time: Not so wonderful 6:30PM
TV/Radio: Rodeo or TSN2 up north/WGN720 AM
Rivalry Renewed: Hockey Wilderness
Despite their loss last night in the 'Peg, the Wild still come into tonight as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They've won 7 of their last 8 and rode that wave of points to the top of the Western Conference. They're currently 3 points ahead of the second place Blackhawks, although with an extra game played. The Wild are yet another surprisingly good team as there doesn't seem to be a ton on paper that would scream "conference leaders!" at you. Cal Clutterbuck is not only on their top line but tied for their 3rd highest scorer. Kyle Brodziak leads the team as the only player with a double digit goal total (10) and has four on the month so far.
So the Wild won't exactly wow you with offensive firepower but stop me if you've heard this before - they play a strong defensive minded game and, to a man, stick to their coach's game plan. Last night's game saw the Wild have a bit of a blip, allowing the game to become more of a back and forth affair that saw them break a seven game winning streak. I would expect new head coach Mike Yeo (who I believe was a member of G-Unit before accepting the Wild coaching gig) to tighten things up, especially at home where he can pick the lines to throw out against the Hawks. When the Wild do stick to their plan, they're incredibly tough to beat lately. They're giving up a stingy 2.10 goals against per game despite allowing 31.9 shots against.
That stat also shows how stellar the goaltending for the Wild has been lately. As was mentioned in the links last morning, it doesn't even seem to matter which goalie the Wild throw out. Niklas Backstrom is the team's number one and put up great numbers, then Josh Harding stepped in when Backstrom went down and put up nearly identical numbers. When Harding got hurt, Matt Hackett was called upon and bested both of them in the two games he played. Backstrom has returned from his injury and had a solid game but I doubt the Wild would press him with back-to-back starts. Or.. they will. Sounds like Backstrom is go for the starter according to the Wild website.
The Wild aren't going to make things easy for the Hawks and are going to do what they can to start a new streak. The rested Blackhawks though will have plenty of their own reasons to get up for the game. The Wild are the lone team above them in the conference.. that ought to be enough. There's extra motivation in the fact that they have to feel they got away with one against San Jose. While two points count no matter how you get them, there wasn't much to really brag about in the victory.
We've also got some fun new roster moves to ponder leading into the game. Optimus Grind's demotion to the AHL means we'll get to see the return of Bryan Bickell to the checking line, working with Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik. Bicks couldn't have liked sitting in the box watching Ben Smith do... something. He's shown flashes of "getting it" this year, using his size to create space and get in front of the net but flashes aren't really cutting it at this point. If Bickell doesn't want to return to the scratches he'll need to work every game. Starting today.
We've made our point about John Scott.. you all know it and half of you are sick of us harping on it. So I'll just leave it out here without much comment - but Scott is returning to the line up tonight. Thankfully he's replacing a defenseman so he'll be playing a role where he can do the least damage. He's replacing Lepisto who hasn't done much wrong but hasn't done much to show he's essential to the third pairing. The wild aren't a particularly fast team so the third pairing isn't much a liability and it's not like Q has ever trusted them with large minutes anyway.
Razor gets the nod in the net for the third straight game. No real arguments here. If Crawford isn't setting the world on fire in practice then stick with the hot hand as long as it lasts. Emery has been solid in the net the past few games. The Hawks have been pretty successful against the Wild recently but this isn't the same team they've beaten up on in the past few years. They'll need a solid effort to break down the team-D of the Wild while giving Razor as much support as possible.
Let's Go Hawks