Minnesota Wild Gameday Preview: Buffalo Sabres – 01/07/2023

The Minnesota Wild are set to do battle against a buzzing Buffalo Sabres club at KeyBank Center tonight. Though the Wild haven’t played the New York club this season, they will undoubtedly have their hands full. Alex Tuch, the Wild’s 18th-overall pick in 2014, and offensive juggernaut Tage Thompson have been leading the way for Buffalo, who appear to be on the up and up since dealing Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights over a year ago.

Minnesota Wild Gameday Preview Kirill Kaprizov, Matthew Boldy, Jared Spurgeon, and Marc-Andre Fleury
Kirill Kaprizov, Matthew Boldy, Jared Spurgeon, and Marc-Andre Fleury (The Hockey Writers)

Minnesota has been playing their best hockey of the season, winning nine of their last 11 contests. They are sitting in third place in the Central Division, just five points behind the Winnipeg Jets. Aside from the concern with where they’re positioned in the standings, the Wild have to continue playing cohesive hockey. The goaltending has been nothing but stellar, and the Wild’s defensive corps has been producing on the offensive side of the puck while simultaneously playing responsible hockey in their own end.

The Wild are going to be missing some key players tonight, as it appears Mats Zuccarello got banged up against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, Jan. 4. Goaltender Filip Gustavsson, who has won eight of his last nine games and currently sits with a .924 save percentage (SV%), will also be out, as head coach Dean Evason mentioned that the Swede skated off the ice Wednesday night and “puked his brains out.”

Wild Projected Lineup

Kirill Kaprizov – Sam Steel – Matt Boldy
Jordan Greenway – Joel Eriksson Ek – Marcus Foligno
Brandon Duhaime – Frederick Gaudreau – Ryan Hartman
Mason Shaw – Connor Dewar – Ryan Reaves

Jake Middleton – Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin – Matt Dumba
Jon Merrill – Calen Addison

Marc-Andre Fleury – Zane McIntyre

Sabres Projected Lineup

Jeff Skinner – Tage Thompson – Alex Tuch
Victor Olofsson – Tyson Jost – Casey Mittelstadt
Zemgus Girgensons – Peyton Krebs – Kyle Okposo
Jack Quinn – Dylan Cozens – JJ Peterka

Mattias Samuelsson – Rasmus Dahlin
Kale Clague – Owen Power
Ilya Lyubushkin – Jacob Bryson

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen – Craig Anderson

Keys to the Game

Explosive Start

The Wild have to be willing to come out quick and strong to set the tone right off the bat. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Minnesota allows Buffalo too much breathing room, putting the Wild on the back foot. They have to do everything they can to avoid playing reactive hockey. Without Zuccarello in the lineup tonight, Kirill Kaprizov will have to exercise creativity and patience with the puck. While Matt Boldy is a good player, he’s not Zuccarello, and Kaprizov has to take note of that.

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An explosive start doesn’t necessarily mean producing high-quality scoring chances within the first or second shift. However, it does mean laying quality hits and being patient with the puck. Head coach Evason mentioned that Minnesota has played too cute at times, and it’ll be important for the club to keep this in mind for tonight’s game. They have to simplify the game as much as possible.

Offense From Defensemen

The Wild’s defensive corps looked like a more urgent group in the club’s confident win over the Lightning on Wednesday, with goals from Calen Addison and Jared Spurgeon. The defensemen don’t have to skate up on the player to be effective on the offensive side of things. Just getting pucks to the net and giving the forwards an opportunity to tip one in is good enough. Addison proved this when he lasered a shot to the back of the net to give the Wild a 3-0 advantage over Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

However, offensive production by the defensemen cannot come at the expense of playing responsible defense. There have been moments this season when the Wild haven’t played well in their own end. Leading up to Wednesday’s game, Evason had mentioned that Addison needs to be more responsible defensively, and that he needed to watch and apply Spurgeon’s style of play, who is one of the best defensemen in the league.

The Ryan Reaves Effect

There were some Wild fans not so happy when the club acquired Ryan Reaves from the New York Rangers, but he has paid dividends for the club since he arrived. No, he’s not going to score a ton of goals and he has historically been a liability due to penalty minutes, but he has played good hockey without all the baggage he’s known for.

There’s no question that Reaves’ charisma has boosted the general morale of the club, and it’s good to see that his teammates have responded to it in a positive way. While Reaves is rarely going to look phenomenal in the world of stats, he has single-handedly proven that intangibles are still a very relevant element of the game today. The Wild would do well to continue feeding on the winger’s energy in pushing past the Sabres tonight.

Find tonight’s game on MSG, fubo TV, or ESPN+ at 7:00 PM EST.

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