Remember the 2015-16 Minnesota Wild, the team which fell victim to the Dallas Stars in the first round of the playoffs last spring? Good. Now forget about them, because the Wild club rolling into Dallas on Saturday night is a completely different, and much more dangerous, animal.
This season’s Wild enter tonight’s contest against the Stars two points behind the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks, who have played five more games. Their goal differential of plus-44 ranks second in the NHL. Just three teams average more than Minnesota’s 3.23 goals per game; only one allows fewer goals per game than the Wild’s 2.10.
The Wild can score goals in bunches; Thursday night, they torched Montreal’s all-world netminder Carey Price for seven goals on just 24 shots. When they lose, which isn’t often, they lose small — just two of Minnesota’s losses this season have come by more than one goal.
What does this mean for the Stars? Coach Lindy Ruff addressed the question after Friday’s practice:
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) January 14, 2017
Minnesota is 8-0-2 in their last 10 road games. Dallas is 4-1-2 in their last seven home games. Against the Wild tonight, the Stars face their toughest test of the new year.
Minnesota Wild at Dallas Stars
American Airlines Center – 7:00 pm CST
Broadcast channels – FS-SW, FS-N, FS-WI
2016-17 Season Series: October 29 – Wild 4, Stars 0
November 21 – Stars 3, Wild 2 (OT)
Minnesota Wild: 26-9-5 – 57 Points
Road Record: 12-5-5
Hot Players: Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon
Key Injuries: Victor Bartley
Mikael Granlund – Mikko Koivu – Jason Zucker
Zach Parise – Eric Staal – Charlie Coyle
Jason Pominville – Erik Haula – Nino Niederreiter
Chris Stewart – Tyler Graovac – Jordan Schroeder
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella – Matt Dumba
Christian Folin – Jonas Brodin
Dallas Stars: 18-17-8 – 44 Points
Home Record: 12-6-4
Hot Players: Jason Spezza, John Klingberg, Patrick Sharp, Radek Faksa and Lauri Korpikoski
Key Injuries: Jamie Oleksiak, Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Patrick Eaves
Lauri Korpikoski – Radek Faksa – Patrick Sharp
Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Jason Spezza
Jiri Hudler – Devin Shore – Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis – Jordie Benn
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
1) One of the keys to Minnesota’s success this season has been Eric Staal’s revival. The longtime Carolina Hurricane saw his point totals decline for three straight seasons, bottoming out in 2015-16, when he was dealt to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline. After Staal posted a combined total of 13 goals and 26 assists in 83 games last season, many folks around the NHL thought his career all but over at age 32. The Wild took a chance on the Cup-winning former ‘Canes captain, signing him to a three-year deal at $3.5 million per. Their gamble paid off, as Staal leads his new team in scoring with 14 goals and 24 assists in 40 games.
2) Another key for the Wild has been the play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Edmonton’s first-round draft pick in 2003, Dubnyk struggled for a few years on some bad Oilers teams. Between January and July of 2014, he was traded first to Nashville, then Montreal, before signing with Arizona as a free agent. Two years ago today, the Coyotes dealt the netminder to Minnesota, where he has blossomed. Among goalies who have played at least nine games this season, Dubnyk’s save percentage (.940) and goals-against average (1.77) are tops, while his five shutouts are bested only by Braden Holtby’s six.
3) Fortunately for Dallas, Minnesota will apparently save Dubnyk for Sunday’s game in Chicago. The Stars will face backup netminder Darcy Kuemper, whose numbers this season (.902 save percentage/3.21 goals-against average) have been quite unimpressive.
4) Saturday’s game starts at 7:00 p.m. Central, but Stars fans should plan to arrive extra-early to check out the NHL Centennial Fan Arena. Drive a virtual reality Zamboni, check out vintage NHL sweaters (yes, they used to be made entirely of wool) and equipment, and get your picture taken with the Stanley Cup. Today is the last day, so don’t miss out.
5) Not counting Patrick Eaves’ empty-netter, three of Dallas’ four goals against Detroit Thursday night were scored from just outside the crease. A couple of weeks ago, Devin Shore spoke of going to the net to “bang home the loose change.” Last week, Brett Ritchie said something very similar. The Stars are averaging 3.11 goals per game over their last nine contests, so it looks like the team has fully embraced the “crash the net” mindset. The resulting goals may not make any highlight reels, but they all count the same.