The 18-10-6 Wild vs. the 18-10-7 Red Wings tonight.
The difference between the teams with near identical records? The Wild’s 15 back of the Central-leading Dallas Stars and the Red Wings are one back of the Atlantic-leading Florida Panthers.
Yep, very different divisions. The Wild has lost three of its past four games and is 1-2 on this homestand. Big game because the Wild, which is 5-5-5 on the road, heads out to St. Louis, Tampa, Florida and Columbus next.
Zach Parise is good to go tonight on a lower-body issue he has been dealing with for some time, I believe. It was just aggravated in yesterday’s practice.
As expected, Justin Fontaine, coming off a tough game, will be scratched, meaning Erik Haula will center Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle and Jarret Stoll will center Chris Porter and Ryan Carter.
Carter will return after not being able to grip his stick in Saturday’s morning skate.
The big news in Red Wings land is Dylan Larkin, who leads all NHL rookies with a team-leading 13 goals, is probable to play after this morning’s skate.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Petr Mrazek tonight. Mrazek is starting his 20th game and is 11-6-3 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Kuemper has not sustained a regulation loss (deceiving because he was pulled in Winnipeg Oct. 25 and Devan Dubnyk ended up being the goalie of record). He’s 4-0-4 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Kuemper is 4-0-2 with a 1.26 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and one shutout this month.
Devan Dubnyk did take part in today’s skate and thinks he should be able to back up, but coach Mike Yeo said there’s a chance Niklas Backstrom backs up after Dubnyk’s injury in yesterday’s practice.
Dubnyk was cut on the right wrist after his chest pad rode up and a shot ended up missing his blocker and hitting him bare on the wrist. Very fluky play, something he said has never happened to him before.
He got two stitches inside, four outsides and the team doctor was originally worried about tendon damage. X-rays were negative, so he is lucky.
It’s been a crazy year for Dubnyk. He has had a bruised knee, a strained groin, a cut cheek, black eye and now this.
“Knock on wood, but I’ve never missed time in my career to anything and all of sudden I pull my groin, took a stick in the eye, busted open my wrist and the knee early,” Dubnyk said. “Maybe we’re getting them all out in this short period of time and we'll make sure we're healthy for the end of the season.”
He said because the cut was so deep, there’s some residual nerve pain that goes up the arm.”
Like I said, Kuemper will start tonight and then the Wild has two off days before St. Louis before back-to-back games this weekend in Tampa and Florida. So we’ll see how fast Dubnyk can heal up here.
“If you’re going to be successful in this league, most teams need two good goaltenders,” Yeo said. “When you’re putting somebody else in the net, you want to make sure you’re getting wins, and [Kuemper’s] done that for us lately.”
As for Fontaine, he is coming off an awful game and has fallen back into his habit of just blending in. Yeo has high expectations for him. He thinks he can be a top player in this league, but Fontaine just hasn’t taken that step offensively and at times seems satisfied just being a secondary guy not just in the lineup but on a line.
“That’s my thing with him,” Yeo said. “I want to see him take a step in his career because we have a lot of confidence what he can do and what he can be as a player. He’s shown signs of it from game to game. In certain games, it’s just a matter of making sure the consistency is there night after night, shift and shift. That’s what he has to discover in his game.”
The analytics say Fontaine’s a top player, but the eye test says lately he has been where plays have gone to die. He has been soft on pucks, turned pucks over and has one goal, four assists and 11 shots in 13 games since returning from an MCL.
Yeo said it’s all about urgency with Fontaine. He said they had a good chat yesterday: “It’s always how a player responds and he’ll get a chance to respond.”
Said Fontaine, “It’s never fun sitting out. You just have to stay positive and work on your game and then when you get your next chance you have to make it count. Any guy who’s in the lineup has to be ready to go and that’s what we’re working toward. We need everyone going.”
Fontaine agrees he sometimes gets too complacent.
“Every player goes through ups and downs,” Fontaine said. “There are times when you have stretches of good games and then you’re kind of lackadaisical here or there. You’ve just got to prepare yourself I think for the game and be ready to go. Next time I get in I’ll be ready to go.
“I definitely agree [with Yeo]. I thought the line was going well; we had some good play and then I think everyone was just a little off their game last game. Whoever is in the lineup better be ready to go. Wins are real crucial this time of year.”
Like I’ve said, until there are injuries, with Jarret Stoll in the fold, Fontaine will be in that rotation with guys like Haula, Carter and Porter where there’s little room for error.
Tomorrow at Braemar at 11 a.m., the Wild will hold an open-to-the-public practice.
Asked what he’s hoping for, Yeo joked, “Good weather, and I’m not so sure I’ll get that wish.”
Huge snow storm as you know is supposed to roll into town starting tonight. There’s a chance the Wild will move that outdoor practice inside at Braemar if it’s uncomfortable for the fans (there is a roof over the ice).
Yeo said tomorrow’s practice will be meant for fun and there will be a 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 scrimmage in front of the fans, but he wants to work on the execution parts of their game and wants it to be a useful skate.
I’ll be on NHL Network’s bald spot cam tonight at 5:40 p.m. CT. Also, Jim Souhan and myself are hosting our podcast at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub at 4 p.m., so come on down.