Hold on State of Hockey fans, things are about to get very interesting.
The Minnesota Wild restarts after a three-week Olympic break, with only 23 games remaining in the regular season and a foothold on playoff positioning in the tough Western Conference. The Wild is in seventh place in the West, a single point behind Los Angeles, with a game in hand over the Kings. Minnesota also owns a four-point lead on eighth place, Vancouver Canucks, its opponent tomorrow night.
However, the team’s first test comes tonight against former Northwest Division rival, Edmonton Oilers. It is the only time that the Wild travels to Edmonton this season.
“I want to see us get back to our game, quickly,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said.
Minnesota will have to get back to its game without captain Mikko Koivu, who is still recovering from a fractured ankle. After today’s morning skate, Yeo didn’t rule out a return for Koivu tomorrow night, as the Wild closes the second night of a back-to-back road trip in Vancouver. The same scenario goes for defenseman Marco Scandella, who will also be out tonight as he tries to return from Injured Reserve after suffering a knee sprain.
Of course, Yeo is concentrating on the players that will be in the lineup today, including starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
“We argued back-and-forth whether Backy (Niklas Backstrom) should play or Kuemps should—whether Kuemps is capable of playing back-to-back games,” Yeo said. Backstrom has been stellar in his career in Edmonton. However, the decision was made for Kuemper.
“Bottom line is, we want to get off to a good start and we want to see if Kuemps can pick up from where he left off,” Yeo said.
Another player looking to pick up where he left off before the break is Ryan Suter. The defenseman has seen more ice than a polar bear this season and Yeo doesn’t expect to ease him back into action after playing in the Olympics.
“He’s had a rest—he’s been off for a while,” Yeo said about Suter, who last played on Saturday as Team USA lost in the Bronze Medal Game against Finland. “It’s not like he was playing 30 minutes a game over there.”
Suter is still disappointed with the way things ended in Sochi, but will have to put it out of his mind quickly. He’ll be relied upon to shut down some of the Oilers’ young skilled forwards.
“You can’t get too aggressive trying to pinch down and allowing them to have odd-man rushes against you because they’re going to capitalize,” Suter said. “Patience will be a big thing tonight.”
The blueliner said that the club has been preparing off the ice with the help of video work and the coaching staff.
“The coaches here have done a great job,” Suter said. “They showed us some video, reminders, PK, power play even strength. They’ve done a good job of getting our mind back into it.”
The Wild can’t take the Oilers lightly. While Edmonton is 17 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, the club is looking to play the role of spoiler for the remainder of the season.
Edmonton will have to push on with looming distractions clouding the landscape. The National Hockey League’s Trade Deadline Day less than a week away and trade speculation is swirling around the organization. First-year head coach Dallas Eakins isn’t worrying about the rumors and wants his players to do the same.
“It ends up being white noise,” Eakins said. “Players have no control, so just go out there and play.”
One player who had to deal with a good amount of ‘white noise’ last season was Jason Pominville, who the Wild acquired from Buffalo on Trade Deadline Day.
“It’s tough, especially when you get asked every day, but a lot of times those rumors come from, well, we don’t know where,” Pominville said. “But that’s part of the business and you’ve got to worry about what you do on the ice and let the rest take care of itself.”
Wild players and coaches won’t have much time to worry about off-the-ice matters. With the NHL regular season finish line on the horizon, the Wild knows the importance of a strong start in Edmonton tonight.
“Our start here tonight is important, tonight and tomorrow night to get off on the right foot,” Suter said. “We have to build (our game) back up to the way we were playing before in order to be where we want to be in 23-games.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we have the group of guys that can turn it on tonight and keep building on it.”