“Just another day at the beach,” coach Bruce Boudreau deadpanned regarding tonight’s game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 9-2-2, 6-0-1 at home and 35-6-4 in their past 45 home games and facing a team that could be rusty after playing once in the past eight days.
Devan Dubnyk vs., we believe, Marc-Andre Fleury tonight.
Dubnyk has given up three goals in his past five starts. Fleury is 19-3-2 in his past 24 at home and was real good early this season to deflect any chance of a Stanley Cup hangover when his teammates got off to a bit of a slow start and were without Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang.
The Pens are offensive juggernauts, the Wild so far has given up a league-low 22 goals. The Penguins are 10 for 44 on the power play (22.7 percent), 8 for 25 at home (32 percent); the Wild is 29 for 31 on the penalty kill (.935).
If the Wild, which has scored one goal during a two-game losing streak, wants to beat the Penguins, it probably needs to keep the score low.
Pittsburgh has a 6-0-1 point streak against the Wild and is 3-0 in their past three at home against Minnesota with a 16-5 goal advantage
Afternoon from sunny Steel City, my first time here since I covered the Stanley Cup Final. There was a little less of a frenzy outside PPG Paints Arena (new name, just slides off the tongue) this morning.
I’ll be on Sirius XM Radio at 2:30 p.m. CT, KFAN at 5 p.m. CT and Fox Sports North during the pregame show at 5:30 CT and first intermission.
Center Erik Haula says he’s good to go tonight. Coach Bruce Boudreau told Haula to let him know if he can play, and he says he can return despite only one practice and not playing seven games since aggravating his foot injury Oct. 20.
Haula said he could barely walk after that game against Toronto, but as I’ve reported, the injury actually occurred in the home opener against Winnipeg. In the second period, Haula stepped into a shot-pass on a delayed penalty. In the games after, the injury got worse rather than feeling the same or getting better.
The big issue tonight could be conditioning. I’ve never really heard of a player returning after three weeks with one practice under his belt.
“I guess time will tell,” Haula said. I don't know. I like to think that I work pretty hard outside the ice. It's certainly been a bunch of bike rides and workouts. ... Obviously it's not the same as the game. That's how it is. I'll get in there and try to do as good of a job as possible.”
Haula will center Jason Zucker and Zack Mitchell, who is making his NHL debut, tonight. Mitchell’s dad, Tim, is coming to the game.
“He can't even skate. He can't skate at all,” Mitchell said, laughing. “He's really excited and I'm excited to have him here. Without he and my Mum’s (Andrea) support I wouldn't be here. It's a cool experience for me and I'm happy to share it with them as well.”
Mitchell, 23, injured his ankle before training camp, so he missed all of camp. He led Iowa with 22 goals and 42 points in 70 games last season. This season, one goal, no assists, minus-6 in 11 games.
“He started real slow in Iowa. It’s understandable. He missed all of training camp, so the first five or six games were his training camp,” Boudreau said. “But he was supposedly the best player down there the last four or five games. That’s why he’s here. If Erik plays or [Joel] Eriksson Ek (centers that line), whoever, and Zuck, we wanted to put him in a position where he can score. He was their leading scorer in Iowa last year. Let’s see if he can do it again.”
With Haula back, I’d think Eriksson Ek plays the left side of Tyler Graovac and Chris Stewart (more on Stewart below). With Mitchell and Haula back, Christoph Bertschy will sit. Defenseman Mike Reilly is back up and will play for Nate Prosser.
“I just want to get some good food and get a nap if I can. This is kind of like a dream come true so just prepare like I do for any other game and go out and try to help my team win the game however they need me to,” Mitchell said. “It might be a little more difficult [to sleep] than normal. I'll do my best and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen.”
After missing camp, Mitchell said he didn’t feel great to start the season, but “the last probably five or six games I’ve been feeling good. I’m playing a little center down there and that's OK, too. Whatever they need me to do down there. The last couple weeks I've been starting to feel like myself.”
Mitchell grew up an hour north of Toronto and was undrafted. He played five years in the Ontario Hockey League for Guelph, topping 30 goals twice and his final year scoring 83 points in the regular season and 12 goals and 30 points in 20 playoff games to lead the Storm to a league championship (lost in the Memorial Cup Final to Edmonton).
His OHL playoff goals and points ranked third and second, respectively.
“I'm proud of the fact that I'm undrafted,” he said. “I wouldn't change it if I could. I think it's built character for me. It's not the easiest route, that's for sure. At the same time it's helped me build character that maybe I wouldn't have built if I was drafted. I'm proud of my path and I'm excited to be here.”
Haula’s one advice for Mitchell?
“I told him to stop shooting five-hole every time,” Haula said.
Assistant GM Brent Flahr, who was scouting in Finland today and got to see Niklas Backstrom play, said of Mitchell, "He's a hockey-sense kid with good hands and a deceptive shot. He'll need to play at a higher pace in the NHL as he likes to slow the game down. He's worked at it, though."
As for Stewart, has two goals, four shots and five hits this season and Boudreau challenged Stewart when I asked about the big forward today. It almost seemed like a give-you-one-more-chance callout. In other words, next step, the press box, although I’d think you’d want him playing in Philly. But maybe Ottawa is a possibility if Stewart doesn’t respond.
“We need something out of him,” Boudreau said. “He’s had parts of really good things, but those numbers indicate right there for a guy of his stature, he should be having more. That means he should be going to the net more, that means he should be more physical, all of those things.”
Boudreau said it’s imperative to stay out of the box tonight because Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are frigin good. They make plays. They’re unpredictable. It’s not like your basic 1-3-1 power play. They get to move around. They’ve been allotted some versatility in what they want to do and then they use their God given skills. I never know if you’re going to see Malkin playing the point, playing down low, playing the half wall. Crosby plays both sides. Unpredictable. Now that Kessel’s there, he pretty play well plays the half wall on the other side, but they have like two half wall guys that are pretty good.”
That’s it for moi. I chatted with Matt Cullen about a ton of stuff this morning, stuff you’ll see in the paper the next few weeks. Remember, he wanted to sign with the Wild this past summer and potentially end his career at home, but the Wild couldn’t/didn’t make it work and he returned to Pittsburgh. That’s been a cool thing for him though because he got to experience the ring ceremony, the banner raising the Oct. 6 White House visit. By the way, I’m doing my Sunday column this week on White House visits, and some cool anecdotes. The Pens were the first and last Cup teams to visit in the Obama administration.