The Blue Jackets will be sad to say goodbye to the month of December, but they’ll look to close out 2014 with their 10th win in 12 games when the Minnesota Wild visit Nationwide Arena on Wednesday night.
The Wild currently find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, five points out of a wild card spot and sitting fifth in the Central Division. The Wild are looking up at both the Blackhawks and Blues in the Central, which was a possibility entering the season, but they also find themselves trailing one of the league’s better first-half stories in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, the latter who continue to win despite a growing list of injuries.
The Wild certainly have a more talented roster than their record indicates. They have scoring depth punctuated by big-game threats like Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, they have a perennial Norris Trophy candidate in Ryan Suter to headline a strong, young, cap-friendly corps, and Nino Niederreiter’s 14 goals in a breakout season are validating both his draft status and Minnesota’s decision to trade for him. They also have terrific possession numbers, with the sixth-best 5-on-5 Corsi For (CF%) percentage in the NHL.
Where the Wild are still searching for consistency is between the pipes. Darcy Kuemper has gotten the bulk of the workload so far this season, and in the early going was impressive with three shutouts in his first four starts and winning six of his first eight. That success has leveled off, and Kuemper has won only three of his last eight decisions while surrendering four goals or more four times. Niklas Backstrom, in his ninth season with the Wild, hasn’t done much better, giving up three goals or more in five straight start and sporting a .901 save percentage for the season.
The Blue Jackets and Wild met last March at Xcel Energy Center, a 2-1 shootout victory for Columbus featuring a goaltending duel in regulation and a comeback effort for the Jackets in the tie-breaker. Sergei Bobrovsky and Kuemper went save for save in regulation with Bobrovsky finishing the game with 32 saves and Kuemper with 28. Bobrovksy was only beaten by a quick one-timer from Pominville off a slick feed from behind the net by Parise, while the only puck to sneak past Kuemper was a long-range slapper from Dalton Prout that hit off of both Matt Cooke and Jonas Brodin before finding the net.
In the shootout, Bobrovsky was beaten by both Parise and Mikko Koivu before Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu both responded with goals of their own to extend the shootout. In the fourth round, Ryan Johansen scored to put it away for Columbus. In a rare shootout video review, Minnesota protested that Kuemper’s poke-check attempt had made contact with the puck and would’ve negated Johansen’s finish as a “rebound.” Review showed that Kuemper’s reach never made contact, the goal stood, and the Blue Jackets had their third win in four games.
An elite scorer in Buffalo, Thomas Vanek had an unorthodox year in 2013-14, traded to the Islanders early last season and scoring 44 points in 47 games and then being moved at the deadline to Montreal, where he had 15 points in 18 games. He also had 10 points in 17 playoff games, but still drew criticism in Montreal for his defensive effort. That criticism didn’t deter the Wild, who landed the former Golden Gopher on a three-year deal. Vanek struggled out of the gate, with only one goal in his first 21 games with the Wild. He has shown signs of regaining his form, scoring three goals in his last six games to give him six for the season.
Connauton is making GM Jarmo Kekalainen look like a wizard of the waiver wire and also making good on the opportunity he never fully got in Dallas. After he was kept off the scoresheet in his first six games with the Blue Jackets, Connauton has four goals and seven points in his last eight games, including a three-point performance against the Bruins on Saturday. Connauton has paired with James Wisniewski and that duo has been a nice complement to the Jack-Johnson-David Savard pairing that draws the top defensive assignments. Connauton’s offensive spark has earned him time on the power play and also increased responsibility 5-on-5.
Puck possession and goaltending
The Blue Jackets can be a puzzling team when it comes to puck possession numbers and their hot December run. The Jackets dominated possession in the second period against the Predators and found themselves trailing 2-0 en route to a 5-1 loss. Against the Bruins, Boston had the puck roughly 56 percent of the game, and yet the Blue Jackets dominated on the scoreboard 6-2. So what becomes the answer against a team in Minnesota that has the sixth-best Corsi percentage in the NHL compared to Columbus’ fifth worst? The Wild rank 18th in the league in goals scored, not overwhelming for a team that has the puck as much as they do. It could come down to goaltending, with a projected matchup of Bobrovsky vs. Kuemper on tap for New Year's Eve.