March 10 2013 03:08PM
Charlie Coyle - about to get stoned by Cory Schneider (who starts tonight).
Photo Credit: ERIC MILLER / REUTERS
With realignment now approved by the NHLPA, the Canucks have only two more games left against the Minnesota Wild during the "Wild v. Canucks forced rivalry" era. And thank goodness. The Wild this season are improved over a year ago and legitimately have an opportunity to takeover first place in the Northwest Division with a victory over the Canucks on Sunday (though I still don't buy that they're even a playoff team). But they still play a boring style of hockey and score as effectively as your average 15 year old male.
This contest will have some standings implications so perhaps that'll add some fire to it. More likely we'll see Alain Vigneault and the Canucks play down to their opponent on the road, in an effort to win the game by a single goal. Yep.
Read on past the jump.
Puck Drop: 5 PM PST
Radio: The Team 1040
Television: Sportsnet Pacific
Here's why the Wild are a better team this season than they were last season. Minnesota's first line (featuring Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu) can legitimately drive play and produce offense against the opposition's toughest matchups. Actually they're probably a top-10 first line in the league this season and that's a huge upgrade for the Wild over what they've boasted in the past.
While Charlie Coyle is impressive he's obviously not driving play for that top-line (in fact he's only slightly above water despite enjoying Hodgson-type treatment in terms of zone-starts). So beyond Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen - four guys who are legitimate top-six forwards - Minnesota's top-six forward group is a bit of a mess. Dany Heatley is a liability at even-strength at this point in his career, and until Mikael Granlund is ready to handle top-six minutes in the NHL (he really, really isn't yet - but he's going to be a damn good player) the Wild are going to be short a couple of quality forwards in their top-six in the near term. That's tough to overcome.
On the other hand, the Wild have a stone-cold tough minutes killer on the third-line in Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak has had some tough luck to start this season so I bet the luddite Wild fans don't appreciate how critical he is, but man does that guy ever excel in tough-minutes. Cal Clutterbuck is also on the Wild and he can control play in soft minutes, while also providing a physical dimension for the Wild along with big Mike Rupp and crazy Zenon Konopka. Expect the Wild to make a game plan of targetting the Sedins physically, so it's especially important for Vancouver's power-play to be on their game.
They haven't been of late, despite stellar neutral zone play, and the power-play unit will be in tough against a really good group of Minnesota Penalty-Killers. The Wild's stingy play short-handed (and overall frankly) has allowed them to dramatically outperform their "true talent" so far this season, so a power-play goal could really make the difference in this one. Hopefully the Canucks are fired up...
Another reason the Wild are dramatically improved this season: Swedish rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin is a pretty remarkable talent and should be a Calder nominee. I thought the Wild would be two defenseman short of an NHL caliber top-four this season but they're really only one defenseman short because Brodin is handling tough minutes as a rookie and crushing it in terms of possession (at least by Minnesota Wild standards). His partnership with Suter has given the Wild a steady top-pairing and I'd expect them to eat up the bulk of minutes against the Sedin twins this evening. Between Gilbert, Suter, Brodin and Spurgeon (who isn't quite there yet, but I think will be able to handle tough minutes in a year or two) the Minnesota blueline could take a big step forward over the next couple of seasons.
As an aside, how good is the Swedish blue-line going to be over the next two or three Olympic games (assuming NHLers are allowed to participate)? In addition to Alex Edler and Nicklas Kronwall, the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Adam Larrson, Erik Karlsson are all in their early twenties. Scary thought.
For now though the Wild are what they are: a crummy possession team with limited depth in all areas who rely on playing snoozer, low-event hockey and getting quality goaltending in order to win games. They played an emotional overtime game against the Predators last night and will be starting Matt Hackett in net so if the Canucks play an uptempo game, the Wild won't be able to hang with them frankly. On the other hand if the Canucks try to win on Minnesota's terms, well, I'd expect a shootout loss or at least a three point game in that case.
Game Day Links
- Alain Vigneault with some mystifying comments about Jordan Schroeder's play
- Pierre-Marc Bouchard gets the Ballard treatment from Mike Yeo
- Speaking of which, Keith Ballard will draw back into the lineup tonight.
- Hockey Wilderness' Canucks Game Preview
- Nicklas Jensen made his AHL debut last night and was quiet in a Wolves shootout loss