RECORDS: Wild 27-9-5 Hawks 27-13-5
PUCK DROP: 6pm
ADJUSTED TEAM CORSI %: Wild – 49.8 (18th) Hawks – 49.8 (17th)
ADJUSTED TEAM xGF%: Wild – 54.2 (2nd) Hawks – 47.2 (26th)
POWER PLAY %: Wild – 19.5 (13th) Hawks – 18.8 (14th)
PENALTY KILL %: Wild – 84.6 (6th) Hawks – 76.3 (28th)
Repeat this to yourself, because it’s important: There are no big games in January.
We’re sure the Wild are using this as some sort of exam. The Hawks have been doing this contender thing long enough to know that it doesn’t matter. However, after getting their ass rubbed in the moonshine by the Capitals, the Hawks probably don’t want that to snowball into anything worrisome. So they won’t be completely disinterested tonight, or at least you’d hope not.
This will be the first look at the league’s hottest team. The Wild have taken 33 of the last 36 points on offer to them, which has seen them tie the Hawks atop the division and conference having played four games less. Are they 16-1-1 good? No, no one is. But are they good overall? They might be?
Much like when the Rangers were here, and the Jackets as well, the Wild are a quirky study. Traditional possession metrics would tell you they’re nothing more than middling. There isn’t really a front line scorer here. And yet, here they stand, mostly because they really limit the kinds of chances they give up and whatever chances the opposition does generate have been absorbed into Devan Dubnyk’s creamy nuggey all year (real deep cut there).
When it comes to scoring chances against and expected goals, however much stock you put in that, the Wild are the best in the league along with the Bruins. In practice, the Wild are more than happy to let you have the puck on the exterior and try and find an alley to Dooby Dooby Do. That’s exceedingly hard, and even if you do you’re not beating him from there. They simply won’t let you into the middle of the circles, and blocking everything out top means they don’t have to deal with too many goalmouth scrambles. And Doobie Brother’s size helps with those anyway.
The Wild aren’t really any more dynamic offensively than you remember, because it’s basically the same team it’s been for years. The one addition has been Staal The Elder, and he’s having something of a revival in St. Paul after his career definitely looked to be slip sliding away. He’s played both wing and center, and has dovetailed nicely with Parise when he’s been healthy. The Wild have also benefitted from the much awaited breakout from Charlie Coyle, who Boudreau has moved to center and left alone instead of bouncing him back and forth as Yeo did.
Still, it’s the normal cast of characters like Zucker, Haula, Granlund, Koivu. All of them are smart, all of them can skate, and all of them are annoying in their way.
Clearly, the biggest reason the Wild are where they are is DubStep has been unconscious all season, with a ridiculous .940 SV% overall and a .950 one at evens. But hey, it’s not illegal to ride your goalie to the top of the heap, otherwise the Hawks would have been in prison long ago.
There is also the Boudreau effect, who is once again pressing the pedal down in the regular season to set himself up for another collapse in the spring. The Wild certainly are paying more attention than most teams are right now, leading to their acceleration up the Central. However, for the first time ever Boudreau won’t have goalie roulette to play in the spring, having a for certain starter. Then again, playing three-card-goalie was his one playoff move, so what he’ll do now is anyone’s guess.
For the Hawks, Nick Schmaltz has been recalled after looking pretty good in Rockford. Hopefully the added confidence will make him more decisive with the puck now at the top level. He’s playing center, so either he’ll be centering the fourth line, which would be a waste, or he’ll slot Working Class Kero down and at least give Hartman and Panik a different look. Even though he was nearly turned into a fine paste on Friday Michal Rozsival will keep his place, Kempny will return, which means Campbell will find himself in a suit again. At this point you can’t really defend Campbell who has been disappointing, though cleaning up after TVR hasn’t helped. Not like the Wild have a ton of speed that he can’t deal with or anything.
Again, the Hawks won’t take this as some sort of statement as to where they are as a team. The Wild likely will. But the Hawks will have their interest piqued more than they would for another January game, and Friday’s fustigation will only add to that. So will losing every game to the Wild last year. So yeah, not quite your normal January fare.