Who: Ottawa Senators (41-25-9, 91 points, second place, Atlantic Division) at Minnesota Wild (44-24-9, 96 points, second place, Central Division)
Puck drop: 7:08 p.m. CT
Watch: FOX Sports North Plus; FOX Sports Go; Wild Watch Bar locations; NHL.TV
Listen: KFAN 100.3 FM
Follow: @mnwild; GameCenter
At the rink
South St. Paul native Alex Stalock will make his first start in the NHL in more than a year on Thursday when the Minnesota Wild hosts the Ottawa Senators at Xcel Energy Center.
It's been a long road back for the former Minnesota Duluth Bulldog, who didn't see as much action during his final season with the San Jose Sharks. Signed by the Wild during the offseason, the goaltender has spent the entire season getting reps with Iowa of the American Hockey League, rounding his game back into form.
It was a bit of a vicious cycle for Stalock last season in San Jose, as he played in just 13 games, posting a 2.94 goals against average and a save percentage of .884. The lack of playing time made it difficult to find any sort of groove, while his lack of success in the games he did play made it hard to give him more playing time.
A free agent for the first time last summer, Stalock wanted to find a place to get back in the crease, even if that meant playing in the AHL.
"I think just playing the minutes again," Stalock said. "For a goalie it's crucial to play back-to-backs or games consecutively to get some confidence and roll with it; to have the ability to play a lot of minutes and it's been good."
Stalock found himself in much the same position that Darcy Kuemper finds himself in currently with the Wild. Playing behind Devan Dubnyk most of the season, Kuemper hasn't had consistent playing time to stay sharp. And with the condensed schedule the past couple of weeks, even practice reps have been tough to come by.
"It's unfair to throw [Kuemper] in as a backup when we haven't had a chance to practice and he plays once every two weeks, and he goes in and we're asking him to do the right things," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "Alex has done a great job down in Iowa, with two shutouts in the last week. He was sick earlier in the season, but right now, he's one of the better goalies in the American Hockey League, he's playing every day, so he's feeling it."
Save for a stretch of November, when he was battling an illness, Stalock has been a big part of Iowa's surge toward a potential playoff spot this season, posting a 20-16-7 record with a 2.31 goals against average and a .924 save percentage in 45 games.
With Dubnyk needing a rest down the stretch, and both he and Kuemper needing practice reps, Boudreau thought this was a good opportunity to get a hot goalie some playing time while also giving the Wild its best chance to earn valuable points in the standings.
"I think one of the great things that we're doing here is [Dubnyk] had a chance to practice yesterday and he had a chance to practice today and he has chance to practice tomorrow," Boudreau said. "He worked very hard the last two days on getting back to the things that he's doing wrong. I think that'll continue and it'll make him better for it."
Video: Alex Stalock to Start for the Wild
Stalock, who has played numerous games at Xcel Energy Center as a high school and college player, will play an NHL game here for the second time of his career. As a member of the Sharks in 2014-15, he stopped 28 shots in a 4-3 overtime win over the Wild.
"Yeah, that's pretty special, too," Stalock said. "Family will be in attendance, a lot of friends; playing in this building before at different levels has been pretty exciting, obviously playing on opposing team playing in this building.
"Playing in this building for the hometown team, not many kids get to do from Minnesota and it's a pretty special chance."
Here are the projected lineups:
Charlie Coyle - Eric Staal - Chris Stewart
Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Mikael Granlund
Nino Niederreiter - Martin Hanzal - Jason Pominville
Erik Haula - Joel Eriksson Ek - Ryan White
Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin - Christian Folin
Marco Scandella - Matt Dumba
Ryan Dzingel - Kyle Turris - Bobby Ryan
Zack Smith - Derick Brassard - Mark Stone
Mike Hoffman - Jean-Gabriel Pageau - Tom Pyatt
Viktor Stalberg - Chris Kelly - Tommy Wingels
Dion Phaneuf - Cody Ceci
Mark Borowiecki - Chris Wideman
Fredrik Claesson - Jyrki Jokipakka
Video: Bruce Boudreau Pregame vs. Senators
Having won just two of their past six games, the Ottawa Senators come to St. Paul sitting four points behind the Montreal Canadiens for first place in the Atlantic Division standings. Ottawa, which has a game in hand on Montreal, is four points clear of the Toronto Maple Leafs and five ahead of the Boston Bruins. The game is the third of a five-game road trip, one which continues Saturday in Winnipeg and next Monday in Detroit. Erik Karlsson leads the team with 68 points, including 53 assists, in 75 games.
Jason Pominville is set to play in his 900th career game Thursday. He sits at 399 career assists, 260 career goals and 659 career points during 13 NHL seasons with Buffalo (2003-2013) and Minnesota (2013-17), including 203 points (75-128=203) in 321 games since joining the Wild on April 3, 2013. The 34-year-old has 44 points (12-32=44) in 72 games this season, including 30 points (7-23=30) in 36 games in 2017.