RECORDS: Hawks 25-21-6 Wild 23-22-6
PUCK DROP: 7pm
ONE GOOD DOSE OF THUNDER: Hockey Wilderness
The Hawks will conclude their mini-trip out of the bye week in St. Paul tonight, before returning home for all of one game and then heading back out where they came from for another five games. That’s some brilliant scheduling if you ask me! You can feel Toews’s rage without much effort. But the Hawks won’t have a lot of time or cause to bitch, because every point is valuable and though the travel schedule might not make much sense the opponents on offer are certainly gettable. That for sure describes the Minnesota Wild these days.
While the Hawks are certainly in the thick of the playoff race, mostly because it came back to them, they aren’t really away from anyone. The Preds and Jets are right there with them. The rest of the division is pretty much out of touch out ahead in the distance. Except for the Wild, whom the Hawks can kind of put out of their misery tonight. That sounds silly to say with 29 games left after this one, but a regulation win would put the Wild five points in arrears and that’s a massive gap. Not that it’s one the Hawks couldn’t cough up, but let’s say it’s unlikely. And the more teams you can cull from the chase the better off you are.
It’s not hard to pinpoint where it’s gone wrong for the Wild. While Bruce Boudreau continues to conjure up his magic potion of not really being a great Coris team but an excellent expected goals team – i.e. the Wild are content to give up attempts but don’t give up good chances–that doesn’t really matter if your goalies can’t stop a sloth in the sand. The Wild give up the least amount of xGA/60 and scoring chances per game in the league, but their SV% is bottom-10 with both Alex Stalock and Devan Dubnyk especially facing the wrong way and identifying cloud shapes most of the time. That’ll torpedo most teams, and so it has done with the Wild.
Which might just be enough to torpedo Boudreau out of a job come April. It would be a second-straight playoff-less season, and the team probably needs an overhaul, and there’s a new GM on board these days in Bill Guerin and his weird face. It might not be totally fair to Gabby, but dem’s da breaks. The Wild certainly score enough to be better than this, at 3.06 per game, and their defensive structure has kept the task to a minimum for the goalies. But they haven’t been up to it, and if you were to swap goalies with the Hawks the Wild most definitely would be in the playoff picture if not up among the top three in the Central. Also when your goalies suck it’s hard to have anything near a decent penalty kill, and the Wild very much don’t, second-worst in the league. They’re not good enough to outscore teams by two or three at evens.
Which is saying something for Gabby, because the Wild feel like they’re short on frontline talent once again. Zach Parise these days is a tweener between a first and second line player, and the advanced age of Eric Staal might make him that as well. Mats Zuccarello has always been that, as has Jason Zucker (and he’s missed a fair amount of time this year as well). Kevin Fiala might actually be proving to be something more than sarcophagus filling with 28 points, but he’s not providing what Mikhail Granlund used to (but certainly isn’t now). That Rask-for-Nino trade was such a disaster that Rask is a healthy scratch tonight. There isn’t a lot here, and you can’t say Boudreau isn’t maximizing it.
The blue line is still very solid and finally healthy, as you can do a hell of a lot worse on a top-four than Suter, Spurgeon, Brodin, and Dumba. That’s how the Wild keep things pretty limited in their end, even if it is all getting undone by the men in the mask.
No changes for the Hawks other than it looks like Lehner will get the start with Crow getting the slightly tougher assignment of Patrice And The Pips tomorrow night. New boy Nick Seeler, who is neither loose nor tight, won’t make his debut against his former team tonight and let’s just hope he’s ballast for the rest of the season. You don’t want this rockhead taking regular minutes, believe us.
The key tonight for the Hawks is getting to the middle of the offensive zone. The Wild are more than happy to let you putter around the perimeter and try and thread a needle through to the net from there. Suter and Brodin especially play economical defensive games where they let things come to them and simply prod you back outside the dots or behind the net. So players like Kane and Dach and Strome and Top Cat, the ones who can conjure something out of nowhere will have to, and players like Toews, Kubalik, and Saad who can get to the middle through power will need to do some of that as well. If you can get the shots, the Wild goalies will give you goals.
It’s a big ask to get four of four with the Bruins waiting tomorrow, though they’ll also be on the second of a back-to-back, on the road, the Hawks have been great with those all season, and they’ve caught the Bruins napping before this season. Still, these two points seem pretty vital before that road trip that is going to determine the rest of the season. They’re right there, so take them.