Wild, 17-6-5 on the road, and Winnipeg Jets, 13-11-1 at home and 6-0 vs. the Central at home, tonight at MTS Centre.
Coach Bruce Boudreau says Winnipeg has the best top-6 the Wild has seen this year (Andrew Copp-Mark Scheifele (25 goals, 53 points)-Blake Wheeler (46 points); Nikolaj Ehlers (speedster always plays the Wild well)-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine (23-goal rookie).
It's the first time the Wild, 2-0 at home this season against its border rival, has seen the Jets with top-2 centers Scheifele and Little in the lineup at the same time. The Wild also played the Jets twice where Laine and Scheifele were hardly at their best.
So Boudreau is expecting a tough game vs. Winnipeg tonight. Wild-Jets games usually look very different depending on the rink. Here, the Jets always look fast, tough and explosive vs. the Wild, so the Wild will have to be on its toes tonight to slow down an opponent that can light you up but is also leaky defensively.
The Wild leads the West with 3.33 goals per game, the Jets are second in the West and ninth in the NHL at 2.89 goals per game.
Devan Dubnyk vs. Ondrej Pavelec tonight.
Tomorrow's starter vs. Chicago (the only game in the NHL, believe it or not) when the Wild kicks off an eight-game homestand is up in the air, but as I wrote on yesterday's blog, one has to think Darcy Kuemper will start even though Dubnyk is 8-0 with Minnesota in the regular season against the Hawks. Kuemper is coming off a 41-save win in Edmonton, and the Wild, points-wise, is not in a position where it needs to risk Dubnyk's health by starting him back-to-back.
Speaking of points-wise, as I also said on the blog yesterday, I didn't buy that Charlie Coyle was just playing center in practice because Mikko Koivu had a maintenance day. Since Jordan Schroeder was the placeholder in practice, there was nothing to necessitate moving Coyle to center.
Well, he indeed will start this game tonight at center between Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville (Erik Haula will center Chris Stewart and Tyler Graovac).
Why? I had a theory on KFAN and it was since confirmed to me.
My guess was that with the Wild so up in the standings, Boudreau and GM Chuck Fletcher are going to use the next three weeks to experiment with the lineup to see what the Wild most needs at the March 1 trade deadline.
"We're trying to do it in a seamless fashion," Boudreau told me. "We have to see if there's anything that we have to go out and get before March 1, and what better time to do it than in February? Do we need a winger, do we need a center, do we need a depth guy? All of these questions, and we'll see where it leads.
"If we can do it without bringing in four guys at a time and we can shuffle one guy in and one guy out, we can make our mind up by March."
So, Alex Tuch is up now playing wing. The Wild wants to take a look at him there because if he flourishes, maybe the Wild knows it needs to get a center at the deadline. However, if Coyle moves to center and also plays well, maybe the Wild knows it doesn't need to go out and get a depth center, especially since there's so few rental centers available.
Boudreau also repeated what Fletcher told me in Dallas a few weeks ago -- Gustav Olofsson will also get a look soon.
So, again, my theory: If Mike Reilly and Olofsson both play well and show they can be relied upon, it wouldn't be shocking if the Wild looks to acquire a defenseman -- maybe a right-shot one -- to balance out the blue line some more.
If that's the case, and with Jonas Brodin likely returning to the lineup later this month, could Marco Scandella be potential trade bait at the deadline? Just conjecture, but that wouldn't shock me because with a potential flat cap heading into next season, the Wild almost surely will have to free up cap space at some point to re-sign or Mikael Granlund and Niederreiter. Scandella makes $4 per with three years left.
Brodin, incidentally, has been skating daily back home to keep his fitness. But Boudreau said he's not touching pucks yet and guesses he's at least 10 days away. He said they'll have a better update once they get home tomorrow.
Boston's Claude Julien, the longest-serving coach in the NHL, was fired today a week after Ken Hitchcock.
Great line by Jets coach Paul Maurice: "Ten years, Stanley Cup. Usually what it does is drive salaries up. Claude has next year at 3 [million], so he's going to be OK. Probably not working for less the next time around."
Coyle ties Antti Laaksonen's team Ironman streak record by playing his 283rd straight game tonight. Got some good stuff on that. It will be in tomorrow's paper.
I'll be on TSN 1290 in Winnipeg at 5:30 p.m. CT and will be on Fox Sports North during Wild Live at 6:30 and FSN during the first intermission.