Not only does tonight’s contest between the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks have Stanley Cup Playoff implications (heck, take a look at the Wild’s schedule; every game from here on out will), it is potentially a preview of a first round matchup.
If the season ended today, the Wild and Ducks would meet in the opening round. Although Minnesota still has a tough 15 games remaining in the regular season, the possibility of facing Anaheim in the postseason is acknowledged. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo looks at the potential matchup and prior meetings, but feels that regular season results are not a 100 percent an indicator when all the chips are on the line.
“You definitely do pay attention to it. Certainly you look at different aspects of your game — things that were successful, things that weren’t, and areas that you were strong, and areas that you were weak against that particular team,” Yeo said. “I don’t think necessarily that the results through the course of the year are going to determine who the winner is but certainly there’s things that you see through the course of the season.
“You can use those things in preparation, but I also think once the playoffs start then a lot of that stuff is out the window, too.”
Anaheim is known as one of the more physical teams in the Western Conference and the intensity in the postseason is ramped up. However, the Wild is prepared to battle with the Ducks tonight, and if they’re playoff opponents.
“They’re a strong and heavy team and they have a lot of elite players,” Wild forward Nino Niederreiter said. “It makes it even more important for us to be physical because we know they’re heavy and have great players. So we need to make sure we play very physical and players like myself, or Chuckie (Charlie Coyle) or Stewy (Chris Stewart) we’ve got to make sure we finish hits and don’t make it easy for them.”
The addition of Stewart gives the Wild an added physical element that can come in handy if things start getting chippy on the ice. Yeo said that he’s the type of player that teams want on their side this time of year.
“One thing I know from playing against him and seeing him on the ice, he’s fearless. He’s fearless of anybody on the other team and he plays the game that way. That’s a big thing for us,” Yeo said. “He plays a big game. That’s what I think is important. This time of year, you’ve got to be ready to stand your ground and you’ve got to be ready to play physical hockey.”
Stewart felt like his last game, a 6-2 win against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, was his strongest since coming to Minnesota from the Buffalo Sabres on Trade Deadline Day. He said that he’s gaining comfort in the system and with linemates, Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu.
“It’s been a real easy transition; this group has been great,” Stewart said. “The guys in this dressing room are really good and they’ve made me feel comfortable and at home here and it’s a good feeling.”
Moving to Minnesota and skating in meaningful games this time of the season has been uplifting and he feels this type of hockey suits him.
“This time of year, the energy and physicality gets dialed up to another level those are the games I thrive the best in,” Stewart said.
Anaheim has lost its last six games, so it will be an ornery club wrapping a three-game road trip tonight in Saint Paul. Stewart expects an intense, playoff-style atmosphere at Xcel Energy Center.
“They have been struggling the last couple of games and I’m sure they’re looking to get out of that rut,” Stewart said. “This time of the year, it’s playoff hockey and this is a potential playoff matchup too, so it’s going to be a high emotional game.”
Marco Scandella skated before the team today. Yeo didn’t have a chance to speak with the blueliner after the Wild’s morning skate, but noted that he was shooting pucks “gingerly.” Scandella is still a wait-and-see situation moving into next week with an upper-body injury.
The team’s bench boss hopes that Ryan Carter, out with an upper-body injury, is able to join the team next week, possibly Monday before the team heads to Nashville.
After a doctor’s visit, Yeo said that Jason Zucker is progressing as expected. He is still a month away from considering a return and there is a “possibility” he’ll be able to return at the end of the regular season, but that’s still too far out to predict.