Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins face off tonight.
No. 1 offense in the NHL vs. the No. 1 defense in the NHL, although the Wild’s offense hasn’t been too shabby either. The Wild has scored 22 goals in the past five games and ranks third with 3.4 goals per game and second with 35 shots per game.
The Wild has outshot all 10 opponents 350-228.
The Pens have averaged a league-best 4.1 goals per game and has a ridiculous 41.9 percent success rate on the power play. They lead the league with 18 power-play goals, including 10 in the past four games, two or more in seven games and three in three games.
In the past three games, the Penguins have scored 15 unanswered goals. Yes, you heard me. Fifteen unanswered goals in the past three games.
The Wild may have gotten a break though tonight.
The Penguins will give No. 3 Star of the Week Marc-Andre Fleury, who has three shutouts in the past four games, the start off. Thomas Greiss gets the nod. He is 1-2 lifetime against the Wild with a 2.36 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
This will be his second start of the season and first since Oct. 23, an overtime loss at Detroit in which he gave up four goals on 31 shots. Fleury is 0-5 lifetime against the Wild.
Robert Bortuzzo will make his season debut. Defenseman Olli Maatta, who lit the Wild up last season, has a tumor on his thyroid and is undergoing surgery, so keep the youngster in your thoughts.
The Wild’s Ryan Carter looks like he’ll return after missing last game with an upper-body injury. He took regular line rushes alongside Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. Coach Mike Yeo, Pittsburgh’s former assistant, said the final decision will be made after warmups. If he can’t play, Stephane Veilleux will play.
Otherwise, no other lineup changes for the Wild. It’ll be interesting watching Matt Dumba tonight. He is arguably coming off his best game as a pro, and that’s regardless of the winning goal, so can he build on that? Same with Mikko Koivu, who has a goal, assist and 13 shots the past two games and Thomas Vanek, who finally scored a goal yet only has three shots in the past six games. He also amazingly hasn’t been credited with a hit or a blocked shot in 10 games. Vanek has seven points in the past six games.
This will be Haula’s first game vs. Evgeni Malkin (10-game point streak this season) since the Russian star broke the Finn’s jaw in the world championship title game last May. It was Haula’s first shift of the game and Malkin threw up his stick to protect himself from a Haula check. Haula skated right into it. He threw on a bubble and managed to play the rest of the game. He didn’t need surgery.
“When you get a stick in someone’s face, I think it’s a dirty play, but I don’t think it was intentional,” Haula said. “I think he was protecting himself from my check and his reaction was to lift his stick. I skated right into it.”
Besides Malkin's 15 points to start the year, Sidney Crosby has 18 to lead the league and nine points in the past four games. Linemate Patric Hornqvist, Nashville's former net crasher, has 14 points and points in four straight. Linemate Chris Kunitz has 13 points and points in three straight.
Very strange story here, but defenseman Keith Ballard may have had the mumps.
When the Wild talked with the St. Louis Blues a few weeks ago and discovered that the Blues had a number of players test positive for the mumps (originally the Blues thought it was a bacterial issue, but mumps is a virus), the team sent Ballard and Folin to Regions to undergo a mumps test.
After all, Ballard and Christian Folin had similar symptoms to the Blues and swollen jaws.
All of Folin’s tests were apparently negative even though he had the same exact symptoms as Ballard. Folin returned last game after missing five.
Ballard has not yet returned and as it turns out, Ballard had some positive tests for the mumps and some negative tests. So they’re still not exactly positive what Ballard had.
“I’ve asked my mom and she said I had the [mumps] vaccine, so it makes no sense,” Ballard said. “So that’s the hard part they’re (team docs) are trying to wrap their heads around. How would I have gotten it?”
Ballard has started to come around the team again, practiced yesterday and skated today. But he was pretty much quarantined from the rest of the team the past few weeks because the Wild wasn’t sure of everyone’s background in terms of whether they had the mumps vaccine.
“I had lots of flu symptoms – achy, fever, weak, zero energy,” Ballard said. “Some days, even if I went out to run an errand, I was wiped out. I’d come home and lay down for three hours. I’ve been going to bed around 6 or 8 p.m., sleep for 12 hours and wake up exhausted.
“It was awful.”
Ballard’s wife and kids haven’t gotten sick.
Ballard said he didn’t have much energy in practice yesterday. “My energy was, … I wanted to go to bed after.”
He said he wasn’t as winded in today’s skate and feels like he’s on the upswing.
He plans to be on the upcoming road trip to Ottawa, Montreal and New Jersey “unless I get sick again,” he said, only half-sarcastically.
It’s been a tough year-plus with the Wild for Ballard, the former Gophers national champ and Baudette native. He missed 30 games last year with two concussions, broken ribs and a sports hernia.
So frankly, if anyone was to catch the mumps, it’d naturally be Bad Luck Ballard.
“They kind of add up. It’s like, ‘Again,’” Ballard, 31, said. “I’ve been injured a bunch the last year. It doesn’t get me down to the point where I’m miserable, but it’s frustrating not being able to play, watching games because it looks so fun out there.”
It’s especially been frustrating because the Wild has already sustained injuries to Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Folin (illness), so there would have been an opportunity for Ballard to play consistently. Look at Nate Prosser, who has benefited from the injuries, has been a tremendous insurance policy and will play his eighth consecutive game tonight.
“But it’s a long year,” Ballard said. “Lots of games left. That’s why the mental part is so important. You can’t be so down and out. I’ve been around long enough to understand that for the team to go a long way, you need to use your depth. So right now I’m just trying to get my energy levels back so I can take part in a full practice and get better.”
As mentioned, big test for the Wild tonight. Staying out of the box would be a good key to success obviously, and Yeo said the Wild, which has been the best puck-possession and 5-on-5 team in the NHL, shouldn’t expect to “have the puck all night tonight.”
But he doesn’t want the Wild to change its game. The best way to defend is to make the Crosbys and Malkins spend long stretches 200 feet from their net. That’s how the Wild was so successful this season against Colorado’s stars, Steven Stamkos and last game against the prolific Benn-Spezza-Seguin line.