Wild and the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars tonight.
The Stars are the best team in the conference, won six of seven including an OT win over the Wild, have scored the most goals in the conference and have the best power play in the conference.
Wild should try to avoid the penalty box tonight since it owns the NHL’s 29th-ranked penalty kill and 30th-ranked penalty kill at home. It is expected to get penalty-killer Justin Fontaine, who has missed 11 games with a sprained MCL, back tonight though.
Jamie Benn leads the league with 17 goals and Benn and Tyler Seguin rank second and third in scoring. John Klingberg leads all NHL defensemen with 20 assists and 25 points.
Both the Wild and Stars played yesterday, which could make for a muckfest tonight. Of course, the Stars played late into the night (won a shootout at home vs. Vancouver) and had to travel here and arrived in the wee hours of the morning, so we’ll see if the Wild can take advantage tonight.
The Wild has defeated the Stars five consecutive games at home since March 13, 2012, and in seven of their past eight visits.
The Wild is 1-4-1 in its past six and coach Mike Yeo lit ‘em up last season by saying that inconsistent play all year has caught up to the team and the early record was misleading.
Yeo said Fontaine’s return to the lineup will give the Wild a chance to “reassemble our lines the way they were earlier in the year when we were having success, and we’ll see if we can recapture that.”
Remember though, that success was misleading
The early-season lines were as long as everybody is playing tonight (Jordan Schroeder will skate in warmups as insurance in case one of the banged-up forwards who didn’t skate this morning can’t play):
Yeo said with Zach Parise and Fontaine back, it creates more competition internally and gives him more options. He said he hasn’t had the luxury the last number of weeks to cut somebody’s ice time if they’re struggling or give somebody more ice time if they’re going.
Speaking of that, Jason Pominville logged 12 minutes, 11 seconds last night, his lowest ice time in part of four seasons with the Wild excluding that 2013 game against Los Angeles when he was injured by a Dustin Brown elbow to the head. Yeo said he expects Pominville to respond tonight.
Stars coach Lindy Ruff wouldn’t say this morning whether he’ll start Antti Niemi for the first time in a back-to-back situation or if Jack Campbell will make his second NHL start. Remember, Kari Lehtonen is hurt.
Dallas Morning News beat writer Mike Heika suspects it’ll be Niemi. Of course, maybe after watching the Wild do nothing to test to test Connor Hellebuyck last night, Ruff will lean the other way.
Darcy Kuemper gets the nod for the Wild. Kuemper has started since Oct. 25 when he was pulled in Winnipeg. He hasn’t started at home since Jan. 6, the final game of his bigtime winter struggles last season.
“We all hope that he’s able to go out there and get on top of his game quickly,” Yeo said. “I guess what we want more than anything else is that he is ready to start the game, but whatever he faces through the course of the game, let’s just make sure you’re building. I’d like to see him get stronger as the game moves along.”
As you know, the issue with Kuemper has been that he crumbles with adversity in games.
On whether the Wild needs to protect Kuemper tonight with a strong defensive game, Yeo said, “We have to put more of an emphasis on our team game. Our no. 1 identity, one of our No. 1 characteristics has to be our defensive play. I don’t think that should change no matter who’s in the net. I would like to see our group come out with a real strong purpose early in the game to give him a chance to settle into the game. It’s not the type of [opponent] that you want to come out and just open things up and give up some real big scoring chances. We have to play pretty close to the vest early in this game to make sure … we’re giving him a chance to settle into the game.
“But more than anything else, this is a good opportunity for Kuemps, but I’m really anxious to see how we respond here as a group. We haven’t been playing our type of game. We’ve been too easy to play against, and there’s a way that you have to respond and it’s not going out and trying to be a hero. It’s about going out and doing the little things, so that’ll be a good test for us.”
The Wild sent Christian Folin to the minors today and recalled Gustav Olofsson. There are a number of reasons: 1) Folin has been up and down lately, especially his play with the puck; 2) With Marco Scandella hurt (Scandella skated today and is a possibility to return Tuesday in Chicago), the Wild needs a left-shot D who can execute coming out of his zone and Olofsson, who debuted in Boston recently, has the ability to get the puck out and up the ice; 3) Fifteen more games, Folin will play his 70th game and will require waivers to get to the minors. The way has before let the waiver clock run out on guys like Kuemper and Erik Haula and regretted it.
Yeo on Folin: “He’s a young player on our team, and our job is to win here, but our job is to also develop players and sometimes those guys can do it here and sometimes they need to spend a little time down in the American League. It’s a good opportunity for him to play some big minutes down there and get back on top of things.”
On his play with the puck lately, Yeo said, “He’s a physical guy. He’s a big body who defends well, but he has the ability to execute. It’s a sign that he needs to go and play and execute and get some confidence.”
On his waiver status, Yeo said, “I didn’t know anything about that. It was the right time for him to go and play some games. He might be gone for one game, he might be gone for a few weeks, I don’t really know. He’ll get back up here.”
So Folin flew to Charlotte to play for Iowa, which has lost 11 games in a row, and Olofsson came here from Charlotte. Again, Mike Reilly is a league-worst minus-24, so the Wild’s trying to protect him by not putting him in this situation and wants him to get his game together down there (Zach Palmquist is somehow a plus-1 down on the farm).
Yeo on Olofsson: “He’s got some execution to his game, he’s got some poise to his game, but he’s not going to come here and fix everything. A lot of our time that we’re not getting out of our zone or getting to the offensive zone, I believe a lot of those problems fall on the shoulders of our forwards. Our forwards are playing a game that is tough for our defensemen right now. We’re either turning pucks in the neutral zone over or we get to the offensive zone and we’re one and done. We get in there for 15 seconds…. We’re a team that usually consistently plays with the puck and we’re a team that’s usually a good puck possession team, and being a good puck possession team is not just about making plays. For sure you need skill to do that, but I would say the decisions you make are easily as important if not more important, and right now we’re making some poor decisions.”
I believe Jonas Brodin will skate with Nate Prosser tonight and Olofsson will skate with Matt Dumba.
Olofsson is looking forward to his home debut. He has played here before in the preseason and also has seen a lot of games here because he watched games here at times after his shoulder surgery last season. He has also watched preseason and postseason games here.
He said he hopes his debut last week helps him release the nerves a little bit tonight.
Olofsson’s brother, Freddy, plays for University of Nebraska Omaha, so his dad, Hakan, and grandfather, Gunnar, were there watching. They’re now driving up to the Twin Cities.
Olofsson grew up in the United States, grew up in Boulder, went to school in Colorado Springs. But his grandpa lives in Sweden and is here for only a few weeks, so “it’s crazy how this worked out. It’ll be so much fun to play in front of him tonight.”
Olofsson said his grandfather gets up at 3 a.m. in Sweden to watch him play hockey games on the Internet.
Talk to you tonight.