(5-4-1 in last 10 games)
ABOUT OUR OPPONENT
Columbus’ NHL expansion cousins make their only appearance of the season at Nationwide Arena tonight, and they appear to have finally turned the corner toward respectability. The twin cornerstones of this team are the mega-contracted defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise. The story in how they got to Minnesota – Suter being pulled out of Nashville, Parise from New Jersey (and both being drawn back from the prying claws of Detroit, among other teams) – is the stuff of sports agent legend. And they’re pretty good hockey players…Suter, especially, on the blue line.
We’ve seen a lot of Minnesota over the years, so tonight probably will have an Old Home Week feel to it like many of these home-and-home visits with Western Conference teams. After a rocky season during the lockout-shortened 48-game 2013 schedule (edging Columbus out of the last playoff spot by a tiebreaker only to get slaughtered by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round) that came nowhere close to living up to the hype of the Parise-Suter signing, head coach Mike Yeo survives to another year.
And what do you know: With another year of maturity from the Wild’s younger players and another year of familiarity from their veterans, the team is doing OK. Not great, but OK. They are currently in third in the West’s new Central Division but only lead Colorado by a single point and giving the Avs four games in hand. Looks like another playoff bubble year in St. Paul, which I suppose is more acceptable in the powerhouse Western Conference.
Here’s the rundown of Minnesota’s top scorers:
- Parise (12 goals, 12 assists, 24 points)
- Forward Mikko Koivu (6-17-23)
- Forward Jason Pominville (14-6-20)
- Suter (0-15-15)
- Forward Nino Niederreiter (5-10-15)
In goal, Josh Harding (20 starts, 15-4-3, .935 save percentage) apparently has supplanted past Vezina nominee Nicklas Backstrom (9 starts, 2-3-2, .896 S%) as the Wild’s top netminder. If you haven’t read up on Harding’s impressive story of playing NHL hockey and living with multiple sclerosis, take a minute to get inspired by his heroic achievements. That said, the Wild appear set to rest Harding and give us Backstrom tonight.
The Wild aren’t prolific scorers – 23rd in the league in goals for with 2.37 per game – but neither are the Blue Jackets (22nd with 2.39). Where they ARE prolific is on that blue line, where they are an incredible 4th in the league in goals against (2.20 goals against per game). The CBJ’s shooters will have to be sharp tonight.
THE REAL IMPORTANT STUFF TO KNOW
The overriding concern in the Blue Jackets’ camp is the situation at goal. Starter Sergei Bobrovsky pulled his groin making a save in the third period against Tampa Bay earlier in the week, and an MRI indicates that Bob will be on the shelf for 4-5 weeks.
In his place will be backup Curtis McElhinney, who has performed reasonably well in his role with a 1-3-1 record and .925 save percentage in 8 appearances. McElhinney has never had more than 21 NHL appearances in a single seasons, but his 49 games last season with the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts suggests that he can handle the workload for at least a while.
Also, Derek Mackenzie, the team’s elder statesman (at 32, the oldest player on the youngest team in the NHL) returns to the lineup from injury, and the Blue Jackets bottom six solidifies that much more. Perhaps even more importantly for the team’s long-term prospects, Mackenzie’s return moves a prospect like Michael Chaput back to Springfield, where he will get badly needed top line minutes instead of the fourth line minutes he was getting in Columbus.
Lastly, and I should have mentioned it for the Tampa game, Movember is over. Mackenzie never played the Fu Manchu card (if you miss what I mean, here’s a link to a 2011 post with a shot of Mackenzie in early Movember form), a terrific disappointment, but at least the majority of the NHL’s players no longer look like they should be on “America’s Most Wanted.”
WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING FOR
We’ve already talked about the 900 lb. gorilla of tonight’s game, that of Minnesota’s impressive defense. How the Blue Jackets get through that defense and past Backstrom (not a shabby goaltender in the least) will be fascinating to see. Maybe we should go back and look at that list of CBJers with high shooting percentages.
On a lighter note, the snowpocalypse currently falling on Central Ohio makes me think that Nationwide Arena will be a little sparse tonight. A light crowd makes for a cozy game, a very different fan experience than a sold-out affair. I’ll be keeping an eye on the crowd, more out of admiration for those who make it to the game despite the lousy weather.
YOUR FOX SPORTS OHIO BROADCAST INFORMATION
The puck drops at 7PM, so….
- “Blue Jackets Live” with Brian Giesenschlag and Dan Kamal starts at 6:30PM
- The puck drops at 7PM with Jeff Rimer and Bill Davidge.
- “Blue Jackets Live Postgame” with Brian and Dan starts immediately following.
Stay warm, and enjoy the game! Go Jackets!