It is no longer a question of will defenseman Ryan Suter play tonight, as he’ll return to the Minnesota Wild lineup against the New York Islanders, but a question of how much will he play? The National Hockey League’s ice-time leader will return after missing two games with the mumps.
Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo wouldn’t specify whether or not he’d limit Suter’s ice time. The Wild’s bench boss said he was a “red faced” during the team’s practice on Saturday, his first in five days, but looked good yesterday.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to be where he was before,” Yeo said. “At the same time, he’s a guy who plays the game with a very good hockey sense and a very good understanding and I think he’ll be able to step in and be effective.”
More than anything, the team is happy to have the defenseman back in the lineup. Playing nearly a half hour a night, he plays in every situation and against the opponents’ top players. His impact on the team’s breakout and transition game is hard to quantify, along with leading the team’s defensemen in scoring this season (1-12=13).
“It’s huge for us, I don’t think I need to sit here and explain to anyone how important he is to our team,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “Your top power play guy, penalty kill guy, shutdown guy, that says it all right there.”
Since Suter and Parise joined the Wild on July 4, 2012, their impact has been measurable in the win column. Minnesota is 73-44-16 when they both play and is 10-12-0 without one of them in the lineup. This season, the Wild is 11-6-1 with both in the lineup and 3-4-0 without.
Tonight, Minnesota will be facing an Islanders team that has the most wins in League. Formerly the doormat of the NHL, New York has turned things around this season. The club is playing at a high level behind its captain John Tavares.
“They’re playing a very good brand of hockey right now,” Yeo said. “The first thing you have to look at is the skill. They have a group that can skate; they definitely can compete. They can break you down if you’re not completely sharp in your game. If you’re not completely sharp with the puck, they can make you pay.”
It’s a familiar and new storyline for Thomas Vanek. The former Islander will face his former teammates for the first time in a Wild sweater. However, in a weird happenstance, it is the third first-time facing a former team storyline, as the Wild has already taken on the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres, the other teams Vanek skated for last season.
Nino Niederreiter also faces his former team today. Of course, last year Niederreiter saw the Isles, but this season he’s matured into the player that the Islanders probably wanted when the organization selected him fifth overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The big wing leads the Wild in goals (11) and has developed his all-around game.
“The consistency is something we’re still trying to bring out of him, but saying that, he’s much more consistent than he was this time last year,” Yeo said. “He’s a guy who has really started to figure out what type of player he needs to be in this league.”
We’ll see a number of new line combinations tonight against the Islanders. Notably, Vanek will move to the wing with Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund for the first time this season. Here’s how the forward lines will look to start:
Milestone Night For Backstrom
It’s been a long road to 400 NHL games for netminder Niklas Backstrom. He’ll reach the milestone with a start against the Islanders tonight.
The Helsinki, Finland native signed with the Wild in 2006 and made his NHL debut at the age of 28 against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 7, 2006. The 36-year-old has posted a 2.45 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and 28 shutouts in 399 games (383 starts) in nine NHL seasons – all with Minnesota. He owns 25 individual franchise records leading all Wild goaltenders.
State of Hockey Ties
Tonight’s contest with the Islanders will feature a who’s who of Minnesota natives. Along with the five Minnesota-born players on the Wild’s roster (Zach Parise, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser, Ryan Carter and Stu Bickel), the Isles have four sons from the State of Hockey (Brock Nelson, Warroad; Kyle Okposo, Saint Paul; Nick Leddy, Eden Prairie; and Anders Lee, Edina).
“What do you say? It’s a good place to grow up and learn to play hockey,” Parise said. “It’s a part of the culture. You go by schools, you go by parks, and everyone’s got a rink. That’s what we do here in the winter.”
Ugly Sweater Auction
The Holiday Season is upon us, so that means its Ugly Sweater Party Season, too. Rather than wear a mothball laden ugly cardigan that smells like grandpa, go for a sweater that will be the envy of everyone at the party, and will benefit a good cause. The Minnesota Wild Foundation is hosting an online auction for custom-designed Wild autographed ugly Christmas sweater jerseys. The sweaters have been signed by Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Thomas Vanek, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon, and are up for bid through Sunday, Dec. 14, here.