With 10 of their next 12 games at home, it's not too early for the Minnesota Wild to make a move in the Northwest Division. That would be a whole lot easier if they could get their best player and top defenseman back in the lineup.
The Wild look to make it nine straight wins over the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night when the teams meet for the second time this month and first at Xcel Energy Center.
Minnesota (8-4-1) won the first division title in franchise history last season, finishing three points ahead of second-place Colorado and 10 in front of last-place Vancouver. This year figures to bring more of the same in the Northwest, with the five clubs again tightly packed together.
Since opening the season 6-0-1, the Wild have cooled with a 2-4-0 mark in their last six contests. Five of those games, however, were on the road, so Minnesota will be happy to get back home, where it is 3-1-1 this season after going 25-11-5 in 2007-08.
"This is going to be a big stretch for us, we need to win our home games," center Eric Belanger told the Wild's official Web site "The thing we have to put in our heads is to play the same way we did on the road. We don't have to put on a show on because we're at home."
The Wild should be a rested team as they play for the first time since concluding a four-game road trip with a 2-0 loss to Vancouver on Saturday. Niklas Backstrom had a strong performance with 27 saves, but was outplayed by red-hot Roberto Luongo, who turned aside all 29 shots he faced for his third consecutive shutout.
Minnesota was again without star forward Marian Gaborik and top defenseman Brent Burns. Gaborik is expected to miss his 12th straight game on Thursday with a lower-body injury while Burns will return after sitting out the past four contests with an upper-body injury.
Getting back Burns, who had a breakout season in 2007-08 with 15 goals, should provide a boost for the Wild, who have scored eight times in the last five games.
One area where Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire has no need for concern is in net where Backstrom appears on his way to another excellent season. Backstrom is 8-3-1 with a 2.19 goals-against average, allowing two goals or fewer in eight of his 12 starts.
He also is 7-0-0 with a 1.29 GAA and two shutouts lifetime against Phoenix, helping Minnesota to an eight straight wins in the series. The Coyotes haven't beaten the Wild since Nov. 14, 2006.
Phoenix (8-6-0) will be playing on back-to-back nights after winning 5-2 at Columbus on Wednesday. Captain Shane Doan had two goals and an assist for the Coyotes, who haven't won four straight since a five-game run from Dec. 31-Jan. 8.
Doan leads Phoenix with nine goals and is tied for the team lead with 16 points.
"He's playing as good as I've ever seen him," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said.
Doan had two assists in the Coyotes' 3-2 home loss to the Wild on Nov. 1.
Ilya Bryzgalov had another strong game with 31 saves against the Blue Jackets. He has won four of his last five starts, yielding eight goals in that span.
If Gretzky opts to rest Bryzgalov, Mikael Tellqvist would make his first appearance since Oct. 25.
Bryzgalov has never beaten the Wild, going 0-5-0 with a 3.28 GAA in six games.