The Minnesota Wild entered the All-Star break with possibly their best momentum since October thanks to goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
Backstrom, coming off his appearance in last weekend's All-Star game, will try to help the Wild start the second half of the season strongly as they host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday for the first time in three years
Minnesota (23-20-3) went 6-4-1 in its final 11 games before the All-Star break, winning three of the final five games to position itself in ninth place in the Western Conference, just two points shy of a playoff spot. The strong close by the Wild, who opened the season 6-0-1, partially canceled out a dismal stretch between November and December when they went 4-9-1, including a six-game losing streak from Dec. 5-17.
Backstrom, Minnesota's lone All-Star representative, was a big reason for the turnaround. He went 6-3-0 with a 1.96 goals-against average in his final nine starts before the All-Star break and ranks among the league's leaders in wins (22), GAA (2.22) and shutouts (5) despite being near the bottom of the NHL in goals-support average (2.59).
While Minnesota has the stingiest defense in the Western Conference with 107 goals allowed, its offense has been another story. It has had to contend with the absence of 2007-08 leading scorer Marian Gaborik for much of the season, which has played a big part in why the team is tied for the second-fewest goals in the West with 117.
Gaborik, who had 42 goals last season, has played in only six games in 2008-09. He was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 28 after undergoing left hip surgery that will sideline him at least six more weeks.
The offense, though, showed signs of improvement before the break, scoring four or more goals in three of its last five games. Marek Zidlicky scored three goals in the final two games, and Owen Nolan had a team-high six goals during the last 11 games.
The Wild, who are the reigning Northwest Division champions and trying to reach the playoffs for the third straight season, have an opportunity to make a move in the standings over the next month. They play eight of their next 11 at home, where they are 13-9-3.
"It's only up to us," defenseman Martin Skoula said before the break. "We're not where we're supposed to be."
Toronto (17-22-8), meanwhile, was hoping to make some strides this season, but appears likely to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. The 17 wins for the Maple Leafs - 11th in the East - before the All-Star break were their fewest since totaling 14 in the 1997-98 season.
"We're not as tough and robust as I'd like to see our team," coach Ron Wilson told the Maple Leafs' official Web site. "But that's going to be a process that we're going through over the next couple of years as we try to make ourselves ... more competitive."
Toronto went 1-5-2 heading into the All-Star break, averaging 2.1 goals in that span, and its defense has struggled all season. The Maple Leafs have allowed 168 goals - second-most in the East - and starting goaltender Vesa Toskala has gone 2-8-2 with a 3.73 GAA in his last 12 starts.
With Toskala struggling, rookie Justin Pogge is expected to get the start in net. Pogge, 22, made his NHL debut in a 6-2 win at Atlanta on Dec. 22, stopping 19 of 21 shots.
This is the first meeting between Minnesota and Toronto since the Maple Leafs' 4-3 win on Dec. 26, 2006, and the first game in St. Paul since Jan. 18, 2006. Toronto is 5-1-0 all-time against the Wild.