ST. PAUL -- Following a week-long break for both teams, Nashville and Minnesota resume play Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center.
In many ways, these teams have gone through similar peaks and valleys over the season's first half. The Wild began the season red-hot, winning 17 of 21 games through a stretch that lasted until mid-December. Since then, Minnesota has tumbled, dropping from the top spot in the NHL to eighth in the West.
Nashville, meanwhile, started rather slow but has picked it up lately, winning 12 of 15 since the Christmas break. Included in that run is a 2-1 win against the Wild in their last meeting. That contest was a low-scoring affair, with a goal by each team in the third period sending the game into overtime and shootout, where Colin Wilson netted the winner for the Predators.
Of course, low-scoring games are nothing new to either one of these teams. Minnesota has one of the lowest scoring offenses in the league. And against Nashville, the Wild seem especially snake-bitten. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne has three shutouts against Minnesota in 10 career starts, owning a 7-3-1 record all-time against Minnesota, with a 2.02 goals against and a save percentage north of 92 percent.
"They've got great goaltending and solid defense and so do we," Predators defenseman Shea Weber said. "We expect a tight game."
Rinne's stingy nature against the Wild has extended to a League-wide hex of late, as the 6-foot-5 Finn has won each of his last nine starts and has allowed two goals or less in each game. Since winning that game against Minnesota in late December, Rinne is 12-1-0 with a 1.60 goals against and a .947 save percentage -- all three marks among the top-three in the NHL.
"Him playing well against this team, and us playing well against this team, I don't have the answer. Sometimes it's just the team," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "Jack Skille, before he got traded [by Chicago], scored like eight goals and I think about six of them were against us. It just happens."
Minnesota has struggled while Rinne has dominated the League, but the Wild entered the All-Star break on a high note, winning two games in a row -- both on the road against Dallas and Colorado and both against teams in a dogfight with the Wild for the final playoff spot in the west. Minnesota heads back onto the road after the game Tuesday and will lead off with the Avs and Stars again.
That makes this contest all the more important – as with Nashville's spot in the tight Central Division standings, every game is critical from here on out.
"It's playoff hockey for us right now, it has been for a long time," Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck said. "We need to respond."
Weber and defensive partner Ryan Suter were the only two players from either team to play in Sunday's All-Star Game in Ottawa. Minnesota representative Mikko Koivu missed the game with injury, although he has skated and practiced each of the last two days. Nick Johnson participated in the skills competition Saturday night.
"Just a good time to get our brains off hockey for a few days," Clutterbuck said. "It's really the division of the ultimate push and the rest of the year, in terms of what is considered crunch time."
Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse are both inching closer to a return for Minnesota, with Koivu likely closer than Latendresse -- who has missed much of the season with a concussion. He has skated and practiced each of the last two days as well, although Wild coach Mike Yeo would not provide a timetable for their returns.
Minnesota will counter Rinne in goal with Josh Harding, who owns a 4-4-1 career mark against Nashville with a 2.64 goals against and a .914 save percentage.
Yeo is hoping either he or Niklas Backstrom, who has struggled mightily of late, can take control of the job between the pipes for the Wild.
"Down the stretch, it's a lot easier for a guy to prepare and get into a groove knowing they are playing," Yeo said. "We're not going to just give it to anybody. Somebody is going to have to step up and take it."
Here is the projected lineups for both teams:
Devin Setoguchi - Matt Cullen - Cal Clutterbuck
Nick Johnson - Kyle Brodziak - Dany Heatley
Carson McMillan - Warren Peters - Darroll Powe
Matt Kassian - Chad Rau - Jed Ortmeyer
Jared Spurgeon - Nick Schultz
Greg Zanon - Clayton Stoner
Nate Prosser - Justin Falk
Colin Wilson - David Legwand - Patric Hornqvist
Sergei Kostitsyn - Mike Fisher - Martin Erat
Jordin Tootoo - Nick Spaling - Gabriel Bourque
Jerred Smithson - Craig Smith - Matt Halischuk
Ryan Suter - Shea Weber
Roman Josi - Kevin Klein
Jack Hillen - Ryan Ellis