Last Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens endured their greatest challenge of the season to-date. Taking on the San Jose Sharks, Montreal hung around for most of the game, only to ultimately succumb to a fluky goal and an unfavourable matchup.
This evening, the Habs will take on a possession team of a similar calibre. In all of the team possession statistic categories that San Jose so dominates, Minnesota ranks a little higher. In the same way that San Jose can offer offensive depth, with names like Thornton, Marleau, Couture, and the like, Minnesota can line up Parise, Pominville, and Koivu. On the back-end, the Wild can line up Norris trophy nominee Ryan Suter, and pair him with the prodigious Jonas Brodin. Finally, the Minnesota can almost always rely on strong goaltending, with Niklas Backstrom backed up by one of the NHL's best second stringers, Josh Harding.
If Backstrom is the man in the crease tonight, he'll be putting his 1-1 career record against the Habs on the line. While the Finn is normally quite reliable, he's had a tough start to 2013-14. Backstrom has a .871 save percentage in five starts, though he is weighed down by two games where he played only a period or less. Backstrom combined with Harding to backstop the Wild in a game which will be memorable to many Habs fans, as Montreal went off for eight goals, including a P.K. Subban hat-trick. Should he start, Harding will hope to avoid a similar performance tonight, and will endeavour to continue his hot start to the year.
So, if the teams matchup well on possession, have some depth down the lineup, and can each rely on strong goaltending, where does the game break? Well, if there's one place Montreal may have the advantage, it's on special teams. Montreal has achieved some excellent consistency on their powerplay. Minny is similarly lethal with the man advantage, led by Zach Parise and his four PPGs so far.
Where the difference lies, however, is on the penalty kill. While Montreal enjoys similar productivity the powerplay and penalty kill, Minnesota has struggled mightily while down a man. Montreal has overcome questionable deployment and personnel strategies to gain some confidence lately, showing improvement (at least in terms of results) after suffering early in the season. The Wild, however, are yet to gain traction, and rank an abysmal 28th in the NHL in that regard. With four days off since their last game, a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, there is opportunity for Minnesota to show more polish after penalties.
While Habs fans are more than happy to trumpet the accomplishments of a parade of solid young players, Minnesota can offer some high-quality young guns themselves. Up front, players like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederreiter are increasingly relied on to provide offense and integrate with the Wild's established veterans. To wit, Granlund and Coyle will play centre on the nominal top two lines, while the Swiss Niederreiter will ride shotgun for Mikko Koivu. Each player should be worth watching as they look to break out in their sophomore seasons.
George Parros also rejoins the Canadiens in his first game back after suffering a concussion in the first game of the season. Is it a coincidence that he returns the day Movember begins? I really don't think so.
Finally, after shutting down the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, Carey Price will look to do the same against the Stars parent franchise. Price has two wins in three career starts against Minnesota, and will look to keep his career goals against in the single digits this evening.
For an interview with the young Granlund, details of the Wild's new lines, and game-day coverage from the American North, explore Hockey Wilderness.
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- Improving the NHL's "Real Time Stats"
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- The EOTP Movember Movement
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