Game Time: 7:30PM Central
TV/Radio: CSN, WGN-AM 720
Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely: Hockey Wilderness
For the first time since Patrick Kane terminated their season 8 months ago for the second straight year, the Hawks will square off against the Wild. And Minnesota comes into tonight very much in the same limbo as the one that left them looking for any kind of answer over the summer.
In their series last year, Mike Yeo proved a worthy adversary for Joel Quenneville, throwing different looks at the Hawks on a period-to-period basis that kept Q guessing and limited shot opportunities against. Yeo’s tactics even led to a relatively easy shut out on home ice by ersatz cosmonaut goaltender Ilya Brygalov, even if overall he was not up to the task in the Wild’s ouster. Yeo had the speed and the depth underneath his top lines in players like Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund to drive the Hawks nuts and take control of the possession battle, which he has been able to translate over to this season. However, the Wild have once again been absolutely torpedoed by their goaltending.
At present, the Wild sit third in the league behind only the Hawks and Tampa with a 53.5% share of all even strength shot attempts, and are the west’s best team (fourth overall) at shot supression, allowing only 50.7 against during even strength play. They’re even shooting a respectable 8.3% at even strength, which is just above the middle of the pack, yet are fifth in possibly the league’s strongest division with a 16-11-1 record and 33 points. The blunt answer is the goaltending, which at 90% at even strength is dead last in the NHL, even behind Edmonton and Buffalo. League average is 92.1%, and the Wild have shown just how slim that margin of error can be in the turbo-competitive West and Central. Ideally the Wild would have liked to have had Josh Harding as their #1 option, but even had he not thrown a tantrum and kicked a wall, there was still always going to be the MS for him to deal with. Nicklas Backstrom (no, the other one) is aging and overpaid, leaving Darcy Keumper to take the reins. This isn’t to say that Kuemper can’t or won’t develop into a decent netminder at only age 24 and possessing a highly projectable 6’5″, 205lb frame, but the Wild have enough invested in payroll to not be able to afford to let him develop with some growing pains, particularly when much of the rest of their team game is humming.
As a forward corps, the Wild now have a very balanced group thanks to the development of Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker, who are the Minny’s two leading goal scorers with 13 and 11 respectively. Please recall that Niederreiter was hilariously traded for Cal Clutterbuck, who just scored his second of the season on Saturday against the Hawks. Nice one Garth. Their emergence as secondary options behind Zach Parise, who has 23 points in 23 games has masked some underperforming to this point by free agent Thomas Vanek, who clearly bet the under on himself with goals scored on the season, as he only has 3 to this point. The Wild were also hoping for the next step out of Charlie Coyle, who has only produced 2 goals thus far.
But the real strength of the team comes from the blue line, where Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are finally getting some help behind them. That top pair has now for three years running taken on the top assignments of the opposition and turned them into positive possession, and this year is no different for them. But the big difference has been the leap Marco Scandella has taken on the second pairing, and in a total upset tonight will be his 190th game as a pro. Scandella anchoring the second pairing gives the Wild another consistent 54.4% share of the puck whenever Suter isn’t on the ice, and that is what has enabled them to so effectively limit shots against.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, Duncan Keith will miss tonight’s game with an illness, and everyone involved has their fingers crossed that it’s not the start of the mumps making its way through the Hawks’ clubhouse. As a result, two of the three defensive pairings will be all over the map between Seabrook, Rozsival, Erixon and Rundblad, with Oduya and Hjalmarsson left to do even more of the heavy lifting than usual. Having Keith out against one of the league’s better possession teams is going to take a lot of structure to overcome, particularly from the forwards who will not be able to just assume the puck is going to come out free and clear from the left defensive corner for half of the game. Not cheating out of the zone will be paramount.
Antti Raanta will get another start in net tonight hoping to once again put something out there to be the guy to back up Corey Crawford upon his return, which is projected to be this weekend. The Wild aren’t overly sizeable up front and can make a goaltender move, which does play a little more to Raanta’s strong suit, but his tendency to wander and over-challenged could be punished severely tonight.
The Hawks were never going to get a lot of looks at even strength tonight from the well-coached Wild, and they stand to get even fewer with their primary possession driver out for the night. So the key will be to put as many pucks on Kuemper as possible, and force him to have to take the game into his own hands. The Wild’s penalty kill is top-notch as well, so counting on a special team’s goal is a fool’s errand. It probably won’t be pretty tonight, but if it’s just Keith actually coming down with a random bug and not the beginning of an antique of a disease running through the organization, then a two-point sacrafice in mid December is well worth it. Anything else is gravy. Let’s go Hawks.