Minnesota Wild (30-12-3) 63pts 2nd in the Central
3.78 Goals For Per Game (3rd in the NHL)
2.91 Goals Against Per Game (17th in the NHL)
20.3% Power Play (15th in the NHL)
79.7% Penalty Kill (16th in the NHL)
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #97 Kirill Kaprizov ~ 22G 37A = 59pts
2. #36 Mats Zuccarello ~ 15G 33A = 48pts
3. #22 Kevin Fiala ~ 14G 23A = 37pts
4. #38 Ryan Hartman ~ 19G 15A = 33pts
5. #17 Marcus Foligno ~ 17G 10A = 27pts
Top 3 PIM’s:
1. #17 Marcus Foligno ~ 87 PIM’s
2. #21 Brandon Duhaime ~ 63 PIM’s
3. #38 Ryan Hartman ~ 50 PIM’s
1. #33 Cam Talbot (19-9-1) 2.86GAA .912SV% 1SO
2. #34 Kaapo Kahkonen (11-3-2) 2.53GAA .921SV%
Florida Panthers (33-10-5) 71pts 1st in the Atlantic
4.06 Goals For Per Game (1st in the NHL)
2.88 Goals Against Per Game (15th in the NHL)
20.4% Power Play (14th in the NHL)
79.3% Penalty Kill (17th in the NHL)
Top 5 Scorers:
1. #11 Jonathan Huberdeau ~ 17G 49A = 66pts
2. #13 Sam Reinhart ~ 17G 28A = 45pts
3. #5 Aaron Ekblad ~ 11G 32A = 43pts
4. #16 Aleksander Barkov ~ 22G 20A = 42pts
5. #23 Carter Verhaeghe ~ 15G 22A = 37pts
Top 3 PIM’s:
1. #7 Radko Gudas ~ 57 PIM’s
2. #94 Ryan Lomberg ~ 54 PIM’s
3. #52 MacKenzie Weegar ~ 51 PIM’s
1. #72 Sergei Bobrovsky (24-4-3) 2.54GAA .919SV% 1SO
2. #35 Spencer Knight (9-6-2) 3.22GAA .898SV%
It’s time for us to get serious, because it appears that the Minnesota Wild can’t be bothered when playing Winnipeg. When you visit a division rival, you need to see better results. As I’ve mentioned before, the Jets have become the Wild’s Achille’s Heal, taking over that dubious honor from the Chicago Blackhawks. For whatever reason, Minnesota constantly allows Winnipeg to get in their heads. And when that happens, they either can’t or refuse to play their game. Let’s face it people, it is “their game” that has allowed them to take down quite a few of the Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference.
But that’s just it, the Eastern Conference. Anyone who knows even the basics about hockey and its playoff format, knows you don’t just immediately jump to playing Eastern Conference opponents. First, you have to slog through three rounds within your own conference, and in the Wild’s case, the Western Conference. And again, if you know anything about the Wild’s history, you know the thought of three rounds in the Western Conference playoffs does not bode well for the Wild. A fellow Wild blogger Tony Abbott, has broken this down quite well for us. I hate to break it to the super optimists out there, but this is going to be a longer haul than you think it will be.
With the exception of the next two weeks or so, the bulk of the remaining regular season schedule is Western Conference opponents. The next two weeks though are heavily Eastern Conference, and Minnesota is going to need to pad their points heavily with those points. But tonight’s opponent is one of those opponents where the the points will be hard to come by. The Florida Panthers sit atop the Eastern Conference, and are in second place in the National Hockey League. When we last saw Florida, it was a 5-4 regulation loss on the road, back on November 20th. The next night was a 5-4 shootout loss in Tampa Bay.
I can’t imagine I’m alone in this, but I have to continually remind myself that the Florida Panthers are not the cellar dwellers that they’ve been in years past. In fact, I would say it’s probably good for Minnesota to play these kinds of head games where the two points aren’t quite as important. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, that many current NHLers even think “oh, we’re playing Florida, so this should be easy” because they’ve been in the league long enough where Florida has been bad for so long. But that is not the case, and woe to the team that underestimates the Panthers.
Remember how I said that the Panthers were only in second place in the league? Well I realized I didn’t mention who the first place team in the league is. I don’t know about you, but you should be very concerned that the first place team is our very own divisional rival, the Colorado Avalanche. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but there are only two games left against them. And one of those games is the last game of the regular season, which definitely will have playoff standing consequences assigned to it. So that my friends, is why a game like tonight is so important yet not important at the same time.
And here’s where things get eerily similar for tonight’s combatants. If you haven’t already, seriously look at the similarities between the two teams. I feel like I shouldn’t believe my eyes, but these two teams are so very, very similar. However, when you look at the two teams in the league standings, they don’t feel so similar anymore. Where Florida sits in second place in the league, the Wild are in ninth. Of course, I should probably mention that in the current top ten teams in the league, there are only three Western Conference teams, Colorado (1st), Minnesota (9th), and Calgary (10th). And there’s another team we haven’t seen yet this season, Calgary. If you haven’t been paying attention, Jacob Markstrom is having a great season for the Flames.
While the team stats are similar, I would have thought it was the individual stats where Florida would come out ahead. When you have players with names like Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, Alexander Barkov, as well as a goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, they’re really not that much ahead of Minnesota. Give or take a couple of goals or assists on either side, and you will find these are two well matched teams. And then when you look at the goaltending numbers, Florida gets the nod. However, you will notice that both Bobrobsky and Minnesota’s Cam Talbot have both struggled in the shutout department, each only tallying one. In the world of backup goaltenders, Minnesota’s Kaapo Kahkonen “wins” over Florida’s Spencer Knight.
So what is even on the line for tonight’s game. Tonight is not about closing in on the current opponent. I don’t know about you, but trying to close the 8-point gap on a non-conference opponent is foolish. However, what tonight is about is generating some space on the Western Conference opponents that are trailing Minnesota. Remember Calgary? They are but one point behind Minnesota, and the Wild still have all three regular season games against them yet to come. If you thought tonight was about trying to catch Colorado, I would advise you not to take on that fool’s errand. And if you thought Calgary was bad enough, Saint Louis is also only one point behind Minnesota. Also, let us not forget the Wild Card teams in the mix. Nashville, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Dallas would love to gain on Minnesota. And this my friends is why a regulation win tonight against an Eastern Conference contender is so imperative.
I would like to say that Minnesota’s previous success against the Eastern Conference this season bodes well for them, but at the same time I see the Panthers as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While they are a similar team in so many ways, I worry that the head game will come into play. Will they view them (erroneously) as a lesser opponent? Will they (easily) allow them to be the top team in the Eastern Conference? All I can ask for is a solid effort, and hope for the best at this point.