Tonight marks a meeting between the Leafs and their closest cross-Conference comparable (in terms of performance this season). After a hot month had them battling for the Conference lead at one point, both teams have seen a (though the Wild’s has been much more sudden) fall to ninth in their respective Conferences.
The Wild had a month and a half to remember from November through to December 10, going 15-4 and surprising all onlookers. Most who kept an eye on the advanced stat “luck” indicators foresaw a return to reality in their future, and that’s certainly been the case, though the drop has been more precipitous than could have been expected: they’ve posted a 2-10-4 record since December 10 as their goal scoring has dried up.
Not helping matters in recent times for Minnesota has been the loss of top centreman Mikko Koivu to injury, who scored 12 points in December, including an eleven game points streak. The Wild have also lost ten straight on the road, so let’s hope the Leafs aren’t the tonic to those woes tonight.
The Leafs will bring a new look to their lineup, at least to start, as Wilson hit top speed on the line blender yesterday. Lupul and Kessel will start their first game apart this season as Wilson looks, in his words, to strike a better balance of offense and defense. Kessel and Lupul have only scored one point each in their last three games, and have been on the ice for six against. The Leafs have only scored four in that span. The lines will likely not stick unless the Leafs score early.
As much as I have a hard time believing a line can gel in 20 minutes of hockey, if there’s one area where I have sympathy for Wilson this season, it’s in his limited options when things aren’t working. This group doesn’t have much of a grind it out, dump and chase game to fall back on if they aren’t clicking offensively, and Wilson often resorts to excessive line shuffling in hopes that some combination works out. He’s got too many smallish forwards who play a finesse game, and uniting Bozak, Lombardi and Kessel on a line doesn’t exactly solve that underlying problem.
Jonas Gustavsson draws back in for the Leafs between the pipes. Niklas Backstrom starts for the Wild.