On Turkey Day eve, the Minnesota Wild will have its plate full against the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Los Angeles Kings. Minnesota returns home after a three-game road trip, while the Kings enter to Xcel Energy Center hungry, winless in its previous two contests on the road.
Minnesota looks to avenge a 2-1 loss against the Kings at STAPLES Center on Oct. 19. The Wild outshot LA, 41-16, but Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said that there isn’t much to take away from that early-season meeting. You don’t raise the Cup without depth and good coaching, something that Yeo pointed out. He knows the Wild have to bring a strong game against the reigning champs.
“I wouldn’t say that we learned anything, it was early in the season, I thought we had a good game,” Yeo said. “A good game isn’t good enough against that team.
“There’s not an aspect of your game or a player that can have a night off.”
Minnesota has a lot to be thankful for in the State of Hockey, building a 7-1-0 record at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild has found similar success against the Kings in Saint Paul, going 10-3-4 in the last 17 home meetings against LA.
Of course, the team returns to snowy Minnesota after being in sunny Florida for two games.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of that brutal Florida weather,” Yeo joked. The team won two of three games on its roadie and will look to build upon that tonight, but the bench boss doesn’t want the team to rest on its laurels. “The game in Tampa was a step in the right direction, despite losing, I felt there were a lot of parts of the game that looked right. I thought in Florida we took a bigger step.
“Our challenge is coming off that trip and a feel-good win, we can’t expect or assume things will be where we left off in Florida.”
The Kings are one of the bigger clubs in the Western Conference. Yeo believes that the play from the team’s blue line will be a key to confront the LA forecheckers.
“Our retrievals are going to have to be real important,” Yeo said. “The way that they forecheck, but then what they do afterwards is always a real tough challenge.”
Helping out the defenders will be goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who gets the nod in net tonight. In only two games against LA (one start), the netminder has gobbled up a fair share of saves. Kuemper is 1-0-0 with a 0.99 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage against the Kings.
Defenseman Keith Ballard will skate in his 600th NHL game tonight. Coincidentally, he’ll celebrate his 32nd birthday tonight as well. The Baudette native is in his 10th season, making stops in Arizona, Florida and Vancouver before signing with the Wild.
Last year, the blueliner battled through injuries, something that has plagued him in recent years. After missing time earlier this season with an illness, it looks like he’s found a grove.
“It’s one of those things that you’ve got to keep pushing in the right direction,” Ballard said. “Once you get comfortable and think everything is all set, and everything is going well, it can be a humbling game.
“That should be the focus for everyone: if it’s going well, keep making sure it’s going well; if it’s not, make sure you find a way to make it go well.”
Yeo said that his absence was missed, especially with the lefty-righty combination. The Wild now has a balanced attack from both sides, which makes it a little easier to retrieve pucks out of the corners and keep them in at the offensive zone blue line.
Ballard’s impact on the Wild’s blue line has been felt off the ice, too. Yeo praised the veteran’s presence and communication with some of the team’s younger blueliners.
“His play is one thing, but his impact has been felt; these are things that are hard to read and gauge unless you’re on the bench,” Yeo said. “To hear him talking, to hear him engaged and helping the guys, that’s been very valuable.”
Nino Niederreiter’s game has been getting hot with the wintery weather. The forward said in his second season with the Wild, he’s feeling more comfortable playing an aggressive offensive game, which has led to more confidence when he has the puck.
Against the Panthers on Monday, he scored his team-leading 10th goal of the season on a magnificent breakaway backhand. The goal looked eerily familiar to a move utilized by another Wild forward.
“Right after the game he came to me and said I owe him a beer,” Niederreiter cracked. The 22-year-old is referring to Mikko Koivu, who utilizes the same forehand-backhand-top-shelf move on shootouts with Swiss-watch-like precision. “He’s the king of that move and it definitely helps to be on his team.”
Brodin, Cooke Hit the Ice
Defenseman Jonas Brodin and forward Matt Cooke skated today before the team. Yeo said that their conditioning level will be a factor, but it’s a positive sign that they’ve both began the process of getting their skating legs back. Yeo did mention “there’s a chance” Brodin could be back in the lineup on Friday when the Wild travels to Dallas to face the Stars.
The Wild has re-introduced Rush Ticketing and will be available for tonight’s game against the Kings. Rush Tickets will be $45, and available at the Xcel Energy Center Box Office only. Rush Tickets will go on sale after the opening faceoff, and will be limited to “scattered single” seats remaining in the inventory for that game (no groupings of tickets together will be available). Availability will be limited and fans waiting for Rush Tickets prior to the opening faceoff are not guaranteed the opportunity to purchase a ticket.