Game Time: 7:00PM Central
TV/Radio: WGN, WGN-AM 720
Frustrated, Incorporated: Hockey Wilderness
With a three point Florida swing now in the books, the Hawks will return home for only their third divisional game so far this season. Tonight it comes in the form of new divisional opponent Minnesota, who some may or may not remember as being the first stop on a nice little tour last summer.
Since the Hawks disposed of the Wild in an efficient five games last spring, including not yielding a single power play goal against, much has changed up north. Gone is the mustachioed rectal carbunkle of Cal Clutterbuck, after he was sent to Long Island in exchange for the not-yet-realized potential of Nino Niederreiter, in one of the all-time name trades in league history. But fear not, true believers, as the Wild wasted no time in acquiring Matt Cooke to fill out the weasel slot on their roster, and is someone Duncan Keith is surely looking forward to encountering again. Also gone are Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi to divisional opponents Nashville and Winnipeg respectively, who constituted 2/3rds of the only line Minnesota had that gave the Hawks any kind of trouble for five games last spring.
Currently the Wild sit just two points behind the Hawks in the Central, coming off a win Thursday night in Carolina. They’ve been doing it the traditional Minnesota way, with defense and an efficient power play. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu predictably pace Minny in scoring with 8 and 7 points respectively, with each having 4 points on the power play (Parise with 3G 1A, and Koivu with 4 helpers). Jason Pomminville, he of fresh paper, also has three power play goals, and only one stray at even strength. Cooke has also shown some offensive flair in an increased role so far, with 3G and 4A, and a team best +5, all while managing a mere 8 penalty minutes.
The true driving engine so far for the Wild, as it was last year, has been the top pair of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, with Suter playing an absurd 29:03 per game, and Brodin not far behind at 23:14. Both have all around positional games and patience with the puck that make themselves one of the league’s burgeoning elite top pairings. And though Brodin suffered a broken face earlier in the week, and the Hawks will catch a break with him not making the trip tonight. Former first round pick and rookie Matt Dumba is also getting his first look in the show, though he’s still quite raw. And the rest of their corps boasts the likes of Clayton Stoner, the tiny Jared Suprgeon, and erstwhile salary atrocity Keith Ballard, all of whom are bottom pairing guys at best and often playing out of their depth.
Tonight in net the Wild will finally get Nick Backstrom on UC ice, even if it’s about 5 and a half months two late, even in spite of Josh Harding’s inspiring performance last spring, and sterling numbers so far this season, with a 1.00 GAA and .953 save percentage. But Harding is nursing a groin issue, and Backstrom has not fared all that well so far, with 2 overtime losses on his record, and a putrid .867 save percentage, allowing 8 goals on 60 shots.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, the big news today is that Michal Handzus will not play tonight, nor in the next few games, with some manner of upper body injury. Whatever the case might be, Zus had a rough trip in Florida, and giving him a breather to get a look at some other lineup options is most certainly for the best anyway. Those options come in the form of Jeremy Morin and Brad Mills, both recalled from Rockford yesterday. Mills is a 30 year old journeyman and Yale alum with 31 NHL games to his name, but his work ethic in Winnebago County impressed, and he’ll see time on the fourth line tonight with Bollig and Pirri, who still can’t get a shot with linemates that might actually maximize his skill set.
Morin will flank Andrew Shaw who moves back to center, and they’ll have Bryan Bickell and his three-game scoring streak on the opposite side. Marcus Kruger will center the Patricks while the top line remains unchanged.
On the blue line, there’s no official word yet on who is taking the platoon spot between Brookbank and Rozsival, but if it’s Rozy, he’ll need to sharpen things up in a hurry, as he’s looked every bit as lost as Scotty Hockey warned us he could in the early going. Fortunately, Brookbank has played well so far, so there are options, but a capable Rozsival has a higher return.
Corey Crawford will reclaim the net tonight after the nice turd Khabibulin squeezed out in Tampa. While not all of those goals are on him, he’s got to be better even in a backup role.
With the amount of shots the Hawks have been putting on goal and the underlying possession numbers, one has to imagine a violent market correction coming soon. With the Wild down their #1 goaltender and their #2 defensemen, it figures that their league-best 21.8 shots allowed per game is going to get tested tonight. But the Hawks will have to play smart and keep Suter from running a point on the Minny power play in order to keep themselves in the driver’s seat. Let’s go Hawks.