ST. PAUL -- In mid-December, when the Wild were the best team in the National Hockey League, they led Vancouver in the Northwest Division standings by as many as five points.
Less than two months later, the Canucks lead Minnesota by 13 points, and if the Wild are going to make one final push to narrow that gap, it must begin tonight. Minnesota just wrapped up a brutal portion of its schedule, playing 15 of its last 23 games on the road. Minnesota has won just five games during that stretch, capturing the second fewest points in the NHL in that time.
Tonight's game opens a stretch of four in a row, five of six and 18 of 29 the rest of the way at the friendly confines of Xcel Energy Center, where Minnesota is 13-7-3 this season.
In its quest to get back on track, Minnesota will not have to face nemesis Roberto Luongo, who has shut out the Wild in three consecutive starts. He's the first goalie in the NHL to shut out one team three straight times since Evgeni Nabokov did it to the Coyotes in 2007.
With that kind of recent history against the Wild, one would have thought Luongo a cinch to get the start tonight, but his history in this building is less than stellar. Over his last three starts at the Xcel Energy Center, Luongo's goals against average is 7, he's stopped just 77 percent of shots faced and has not finished a game. For his career, Luongo is 3-9-2 in St. Paul.
Enter Cory Schneider, who started the only game the two teams have played in Minnesota this season back on Nov. 3. Minnesota won that game 5-1.
"Probably the most impressive offensive effort I've seen all season," Schneider said. "But we're a different team right now than we were at the beginning of the year and we know we can beat this team. We have in our building."
Neither Schneider or Canucks coach Alain Vigneault could offer much of any reason why this series has taken on such a home-team edge. It seems neither one of these teams can win in their opponent's barn.
"They've given us real hard battles in this building," Vigneault said. "For some reason, in this building, we haven't been as good as we can be. We're usually a really good road team, but for some reason, this building has been a challenge for us."
If Minnesota is going to continue its hot streak against the Canucks in St. Paul, the Wild will need more from a struggling power play, which scored on less than 10 percent of its chances during the road-heavy stretch. But that won't be an easy task against Vancouver, which has shut out the Wild power play on 12 chances this season. The Wild haven't scored a goal against the Canucks with the man advantage since February of last season, when Cal Clutterbuck potted a power-play goal 359 days ago.
Among the lowest scoring teams in the NHL, the Wild are 12-7-2 when scoring with the extra attacker this season.
The return of Mikko Koivu to the lineup tonight will allow Wild coach Mike Yeo to reshuffle his lines a little bit. Koivu returns to his top-line spot between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
"They've played well together all year long," Yeo said.
Newcomer Erik Christensen, making his home debut for the Wild tonight, has been moved to wing on the second line with Matt Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck, giving Minnesota a skilled second line it has been missing of late. Yeo said he was pleased with how Clutterbuck and Cullen played with Pierre-Marc Bouchard earlier in the season, another skilled winger.
"That was a pretty effective line for us," Yeo said. "Obviously Christensen is not Butch, they're both different players. But both have skill, both make plays. Hopefully, they'll find a little bit of that magic again."
In goal for Minnesota will be Niklas Backstrom, who has been stellar for Minnesota over the past three games. Although his record over that stretch is just 1-1-1, the Wild have provided him with only three goals total of support.
On the injury front, the Wild placed defenseman Clayton Stoner on injured reserve with a lower body injury. There is no timetable on his return. Koivu was removed from IR today, so no further roster moves are pending.
For Vancouver, winger Dale Weise's CT scan on his foot was negative. He participated in the morning skate and is a game-time decision.
Here are tonight's projected lineups:
Dany Heatley - Mikko Koivu - Devin Setoguchi
Cal Clutterbuck - Matt Cullen - Erik Christensen
Nick Johnson - Kyle Brodziak - Carson McMillan
Darroll Powe - Warren Peters - Brad Staubitz
Nick Schultz - Jared Spurgeon
Marek Zidlicky - Greg Zanon
Justin Falk - Nate Prosser
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Byron Bitz
David Booth - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre - Dale Weise
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Aaron Rome - Keith Ballard