The Minnesota Wild will make two changes to its lineup on Tuesday when it hosts the Montreal Canadiens.
Goalie Darcy Kuemper will get the start with the Wild playing on the second half of a back-to-back. Devan Dubnyk made 28 saves in a 6-3 loss against the Dallas Stars on Monday.
Erik Haula, who has been a healthy scratch the past three games, will draw into the lineup for the first time since Dec. 15, when the Wild defeated the Vancouver Canucks 6-2.
Each player, according to Head Coach Mike Yeo, has been performing well, making the decision to use them on Tuesday easier.
"[Haula is] a guy who we've been happy with his game, and it was a numbers situation, and the fact that we play three games in four days, tonight, getting some fresh legs in might be a good thing," Yeo said.
Kuemper had recently made four consecutive starts for the Wild after relieving an injured Dubnyk in a 3-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche December 5.
Over that stretch, Kuemper went 3-0-2 with .943 save-percentage, a big factor in Yeo deciding to give him the net in the Wild's final game before the Christmas break.
"Maybe at the start of the year, and probably last year we would have looked at this as an opportunity where [Dubnyk] would have been ok to play this game given the fact that we have a nice little break after this," Yeo said. "But the way that [Kuemper] has been playing has provided us this opportunity to give him some rest."
Haula will come into the lineup for Chris Porter, whom Yeo said, "is not quite 100 percent."
What the Wild does have now is the luxury of extra bodies up front, which creates internal competition.
"The message to [Haula] was we haven't done quite enough to ensure that you don’t come out of the lineup," Yeo said. "I'd like to see him play at the level that he was playing at, and doing the things that he was doing, and then maybe add on a little more."
Kuemper's five straight appearances came amid a nine-game point streak for Minnesota (in games four through eight) during a time in which the Wild was playing some of its best hockey this season.
"It was nice to get a stretch of games in and get on a bit of a roll," Kuemper said. "The team was playing awesome defensively, so that allowed me to feel good in there, and get on a roll. I just have to keep going with it here."
The past two games have been a different story for the Wild, who has allowed nine goals (including two empty-net goals), as Yeo has said some of the defensive habits that anchored that season-long point streak have been absent from its game.
"Sometimes you can get complacent when you get into some games and things maybe happen a bit easier for you, or you get a few, I don't want to call them lucky goals, but a few goals where sometimes, those aren't going to happen," Jason Zucker said.
The final two games of the Wild's point streak — a 6-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks, and a 5-2 win against the New York Rangers — nearly matched Minnesota's offensive output (13 goals) during the first seven games of the streak.
"We were playing in tight games, and we knew that we had to defend, and we were focused on that," Yeo said after the Wild lost to the Stars on Monday. "We weren't scoring a lot of goals so we had to do it, and then the next thing you know, you score a bunch of goals, and we've forgotten about some of the things that created those situations for us."
Against the Canadiens, a team that hasn't been scoring or winning much lately, the Wild knows it needs to reestablish its defensive structure to be successful.
"We just need to get a little bit more urgency," Kuemper said. "We're a little slower closing our gaps, and not as tight, and getting away from what makes us good."
And while the Canadiens have struggled to score (14 goals in their past nine games in an 0-8-1 stretch), it hasn't been for a lack of shots. During that stretch, the Canadiens have taken at least 33 shots on goal in six of those games, and outshot their opponents seven times.
Montreal also has shot an NHL-low 4.1 percent at even-strength in those nine games, compared to the 8.3 percent it shot during its first 26 games.
It's something the Wild is wary of.
"They're very good, very skilled, and they play a very structured game," Zucker said. "The goals are going to come for them, it's just a matter of when, and we have to make sure that 'when' isn't tonight."
Here is the Wild's projected lineup:
Thomas Vanek – Mikko Koivu – Jason Zucker
Zach Parise – Mikael Granlund – Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter – Charlie Coyle – Justin Fontaine
Erik Haula – Jarret Stoll – Ryan Carter
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella – Jonas Brodin
Nate Prosser – Matt Dumba