November 05 2010 09:40AM
The Flames head to St. Paul this evening, with the faint echo of a displeased fan base likely still in their heads. Tonight, they face a club that has kept their head above water almost exclusively via their work when a man to the good.
The Wild have started the season 5-4-2 to this point, which is certainly an improvement from last year's opening month. Minnesota was dead by the start of November in 09/10, with a staggering offense and shaky goaltending foreshadowing the struggles for the remainder of the year.
This season's Wild aren't great by any means, and whatever they've been able to muster on the scoresheet hasn't been 5v5. They generate the fewest shots/60 in the league at 23.1, en route to scoring only 1.6G/60. That hasn't escaped the attention of Todd Richards, as he advised the press yesterday that the club's inability to generate offense 5v5 was concerning him.
Richards has made an interesting choice with his matchups thus far, sending Madden and Nystrom out for difficult ZoneStarts against top-sixers on a regular basis. They're suffering through a few bad bounces, but the duo is still getting badly out-shot at evens as the Wild try to get Martin Havlat and Matt Cullen easier competition. Despite the nice words from Kent Youngblood in the Star-Tribune, any team that is leaning on Eric Nystrom to manage in a long term shut-down role is asking for trouble, IMO, but that's the move that Minny has made for now.
Minnesota still leans pretty heavily on Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette, and Koivu is off to a good start, albeit one boosted by a 107ish PDO. His line still does all right for themselves, though, and at EV they and the Cullen/Havlat pair are the ones to watch, at least until Pierre-Marc Bouchard returns from his year long battle with post-concussion syndrome.
Of course, the main reason that Minnesota isn't wallowing around with the Oilers at the bottom of the conference is the PP. The Wild have 13 goals at 5v5, and 13 goals when up a man. To be blunt, that won't last very much longer. They've converted 26.9% of their opportunities, shooting over 20% along the way, and while the Wild have had a good PP for many years and I have plenty of time for Brunette, Koivu and a few other forwards on that team, they aren't the Capitals. There's good reason for Richards to want his team to pick up the pace 5v5, in other words.
Niklas Backstrom's good start has also kept the Wild afloat, as he's currently batting .957 at EV. He's good, and I expected him to rebound from his terrible 09/10, but that's Hasek+ performance at evens, so again, the Wild will have to begin producing more chances 5v5 to mitigate Backstrom's inevitable regression to normalcy.
Game-wise, the Wild are beat up, with Miettenen and Latendresse likely on the shelf, while Zidlicky and Kobesew are iffy. The Flames need to play as much of this game 5v5 as possible, not just to keep the Wild PP holstered, but to wear down a thin club. Oh, and Jarome Iginla and company are likely to face a line with Nystrom and Casey Wellman on it. If they can't trounce that sort of competition, well...
Update: as per Millions, it looks like Zidlicky is a go for the Wild.