The Kings were hoping that their slump was behind them after their victory over the Predators on Tuesday, but they responded with a disappointing loss to the Canucks on Thursday. On the other hand, the Kings played a solid final 40 minutes and probably would have won if it was not for their awful start, so perhaps their slump is over after all, but they’ll need to start putting together 60-minute efforts, and they’ll look to do that on Saturday night when the Kings host the Minnesota Wild.
The surprising Minnesota Wild, that is. The Wild have missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, but are off to a strong 8-4-3 start to their season. They’re pretty hot right now too, as although they’re coming off a 3-1 loss in San Jose on Thursday, the Wild were on a five-game winning streak before that. The Kings will be hoping that Thursday’s loss halted the momentum that the Wild had going.
The Wild got off to a hot start last year too, and even hung around in the playoff race until fairly late in the season before they finally fell out of it. It’s hard to judge if this is still the same Wild team that just got off to hot start and will fade down the stretch though, because Minnesota had a fairly significant off-season makeover, an off-season that involved a lot of phone calls with Doug Wilson and the San Jose Sharks.
Off to San Jose went top defenseman Brent Burns, in came a very good young goal-scoring forward in Devin Setoguchi. Also coming to the Wild was Sharks’ top prospect, 2010 first-round draft pick Charlie Coyle, as well as the Sharks’ first-round draft pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, that the Wild used on Zach Phillips, but both Coyle and Phillips are not on the Wild, but are top prospects in Minnesota’s farm system.
They also traded talented but fragile winger Martin Havlat to the Sharks in exchange for former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, who’s looking for a bounce back year in Minnesota after a disappointing year by his standards in San Jose last year, and the Wild are hoping that the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi will outweigh the losses of Burns and Havlat and will add some much-needed scoring to an offensively-starved hockey team, as well as help get the Wild back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They also sent forward James Sheppard to the Sharks in exchange for San Jose’s 2013 third-round draft pick, probably just for the sake of making another trade with the Sharks.
Heatley and Setoguchi have actually gotten off to pretty good starts with their new club. In 15 games, Heatley has five goals and five assists, while Setoguchi has four goals and four assists. The problem is, Heatley’s 10 points aren’t exactly setting the world on fire, but his 10 points do lead the Wild in scoring. Captain Mikko Koivu has nine points on the season, and only one goal. Matt Cullen is off to a surprisingly nice start to his season, with six goals and two assists so far. In 13 games this season, Pierre-Marc Bouchard has only one goal to go along with seven assists, while Guillaume Latendresse had four goals and four assists in 14 games so far this season, but suffered a concussion on Thursday in San Jose and is not expected to play on Saturday against the Kings, so the NHL’s 28th-ranked offense, averaging just 2.13 goals per game, will be without one of their top offensive threats. Nick Johnson will likely take his spot in Minnesota’s top-six. Johnson was claimed off waivers by Minnesota from Pittsburgh near the end of training camp, and has one goal and two assists in 11 games with the Wild. Making up the rest of the Wild forwards, it’s expected to be Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies, Kyle Brodziak, Warren Peters, Darroll Powe, and Brad Staubitz.
On defense, the Wild were left with a big hole on their blue line when they traded Brent Burns to the Sharks, especially since Mike Lundin was the only defenseman they added in the summer to make up for the loss of Burns. However, the Wild are giving up an average of 1.87 goals per game, which is the fewest that any team in the NHL is allowing, so the loss of Burns is really being mostly felt on the offense, as Marek Zidlicky’s five points, all assists, lead all Wild defensemen in points, and overall the Wild defense has contributed just four goals and 13 assists this season. The 17 points that the Wild defense has scored ties them for last in the NHL for points from defensemen with the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils. Lundin, as well as Greg Zanon, are on the injured reserve, and Clayton Stoner isn’t expected to play either with a finger injury, so making up the rest of the Wild blue line will be Justin Falk, Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella, Nick Schultz, Jared Spurgeon, and Marek Zidlicky.
In goal, the Wild have Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who have both been very good for Minnesota this season. It’s expected to be Harding who gets the call in goal, though. Harding has been excellent for the Wild this season, as the right-handed catching netminder has made five of the Wild’s 15 starts this season, and is 4-0-1 with a shutout, a 1.18 GAA that ties him with Nikolai Khabibulin for the best goals against average in the NHL, and a .965 Sv% that is tops in the NHL. Meanwhile, Backstrom is 4-4-2 with a shutout in 10 starts this season, to go along with a solid .925 Sv% and a 2.15 GAA. He will back up Harding tonight, after Backstrom made the last two starts for the Wild.
Terry Murray is coaching his 1000th career NHL regular season game tonight. His first game, back in 1990 with the Washington Capitals, was a 9-6 win over the New Jersey Devils. Go figure… As far as tonight is concerned for the Kings, Murray says that he’s inclined to not make any lineup changes, but that he was not 100% certain he was going to leave the lineup as it was against the Canucks. However, it now appears that Dustin Penner, who absolutely can’t catch a break, will miss tonight’s game with a hand injury that Murray says is more than “day-to-day”, so he will have to make a change. Seriously, this is unbelievable. He was finally starting to put some good games together and said he felt as healthy as he has in a long time. Hopefully he can pick up right where he left off and hopefully it’s not a long absence. So it will once again be Anze Kopitar between Simon Gagne and Justin Williams, Mike Richards between Brad Richardson — who checks back into the lineup after being a healthy scratch against the Canucks, to take Penner’s spot — and Dustin Brown, Jarret Stoll between Kyle Clifford and Trent Hunter, and Colin Fraser between Ethan Moreau and Trevor Lewis. On defense, it will be Willie Mitchell with Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi with Jack Johnson, and Alec Martinez with Matt Greene. Jonathan Quick will remain in goal, while Kevin Westgarth and Davis Drewiske are the healthy scratches again.
So the Kings may not solve their offensive woes against a Minnesota Wild team that has been very strong this season and is giving up very few goals, but hopefully they can at least get a win and avoid falling back into their slump. Can the Kings pull out a win against a surprising, stingy Wild team, or will the Kings once again be left searching for answers?