Two of the top teams in the NHL are set to face-off tonight as the Minnesota Wild head to the Big Apple to take on the New York Rangers. The Rangers are one of only six teams to hit the 60-point mark already. However, the Wild have played five fewer games and will be looking to use those games to their advantage. This game will undoubtedly be a significant test for the Wild, as the importance of games will only become more critical as they enter the second half of the season. Let’s look at some keys to the game for the Wild vs. the Rangers.
Wild Need to Take Advantage of Rest
Tonight’s game will be the Rangers’ seventh game since Jan. 15, while it will be just the fourth for the Wild. The Rangers are also coming off a game last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets where they lost 5-3. The Wild should be much more prepared to play at their highest level for a full 60 minutes by all accounts. With this being the Rangers’ second game in 24 hours, it could lead to fatigue as the game progresses.
Head coach Dean Evason and his team can’t get frustrated if they don’t have a lead early on in this one. It will be crucial for them to continue moving their feet, being hard on the forecheck, and eventually the Rangers will get tired. That’s when the Wild will have their best chance to take over the game. The Wild will clearly have the advantage of recent rest on their side, but if they don’t push the game’s pace and don’t make the Rangers skate as hard as they can, it’s a golden opportunity wasted.
Wild Must Protect Their Net
The Rangers don’t lack big, heavy forwards that love to drive the net. Look no further than Chris Kreider, a player known for crashing the net with the puck and is the first player in the league to hit 30 goals this season. The Wild have two solid goaltenders in Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen. It’s still unclear who will get the start tomorrow; however, it might be safe to assume it will be Talbot. He’s the team’s starter, and if healthy, should be called upon tonight.
His .910 save percentage (SV%) might be lower than his .915 from last season, but he’s still been highly reliable. The Wild have a lot of confidence plating in front of him, and their goal needs to be to allow him to see the puck and be comfortable in the crease. It’s not often Talbot will be beaten by a clean shot he can see without any traffic in front of him. The Rangers, along with Kreider, have players such as Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves, who will be doing everything possible to make sure Talbot doesn’t feel comfortable for a second in this game.
The Wild will have to be strong, boxing out players in front of their net to allow their goaltender to do his job. They’ve done a great job at that all season, but the Rangers are great at making goaltenders uncomfortable. The Rangers are a much stronger, more physical team than they were the last time the Wild faced them during the 2019-20 season, and they must be ready to be strong in their own end here tonight.
Wild Surviving Special Teams Battle
For as good as they have been the season, the Wild haven’t necessarily excelled on both the power play and penalty kill. Their power play ranks 21st in the league at 17.7 percent and their penalty kill is 17th at 80 percent. Meanwhile, the Rangers are in the top 10 in both categories. Their power play is clicking at 24.8 percent, and their penalty kill is 83.6 percent.
Yes, it’s a strong sign of how good the Wild have been at 5-on-5 this season, which is absolutely a positive. However, special teams are a massive part of the game and sometimes can be all it takes to turn the tide quickly in a hockey game. The Wild don’t need to score a couple of times on the power play and be perfect while shorthanded in this game to win. They need to make sure they aren’t losing the specialty teams battle to the point where it will win the Rangers the game.
It’s something Evason and his staff will have to look at improving moving forward. The teams that go deep in the playoffs always have strong special teams, and tonight would be an excellent time for that improvement to begin.
At the end of the day, this will be a must-watch hockey game. The seventh and eighth-ranked teams by point percentage squaring off at Madison Square Garden sounds like fantastic entertainment for a Friday night. The Wild will want to prove themselves against one of the East’s best. To do that, they will have to play a full 60 minutes, be strong in their own zone, and not let their specialty team struggles hurt them. If they can accomplish those tasks, leaving with two points looks pretty likely.
Sports writer covering the Minnesota Wild. Graduated with a degree in sport media, also working with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.