The hockey fans in Helsinki, Finland are in for a treat tonight when two of the NHL’s unbeaten teams go head to head as part of the NHL Premiere. Granted, the Minnesota Wild and Carolina Hurricanes haven’t played a game yet, but being at .500 doesn’t seem too bad considering the way both of these teams started last year. The Wild dropped its opening game, and then went 1-6-0 before winning another. The Hurricanes started off 0-2-0, won their next two games and then went winless in their following 14 games. That’s not exactly how you build early momentum.
The Wild hopes it built momentum on Monday in Tampere, Finland during the club’s final tuneup against Ilves. After going 0-4-2 in preseason games in North America, the Wild rode a Cal Clutterbuck hat trick to a 5-1 win. Marek Zidlicky and Chuck Kobasew also netted goals for Minnesota, which pulled away with four tallies in the third.
The Canes didn’t get a win in their final preseason game, but they were just happy to have all their limbs after a 5-3 loss to SKA-St. Petersburg. Head Coach Paul Maurice didn’t like the way SKA players appeared to be targeting the knees of his players, which prompted him to pull star center Eric Staal from the game.
Wild vs. Hurricanes will be broadcast locally in high definition on VERSUS at 11:00 AM. The game can be heard on 830 WCCO AM, or online at Wild.com.
Click here to receive Minnesota Wild broadcast alerts/game day previews each Wild Game day
If you’re one of the 100-plus Wild fans that made the journey from Minnesota to Finland, you’ve already been in the Karjala bar, where the Wild players dined with fans on Tuesday. Still, it’s worth another visit just because of the medieval motif, making you feel like Sir Lancelot or Guinevere, even while ordering a brewski (most likely a Karjala).
On this website, we’ve talked a lot about the Wild Finns – Niklas Backstrom, Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen. There is a reason for that, and not just because they are from here. They are all integral pieces of the Wild and will be key tonight, and the 81 games to come.
Carolina has its own Finnish trio, who are just as important to the hopes of Caniac fans, who are yearning for another postseason party. Forwards Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu and defenseman Joni Pitkanen make up the Finnish Hurricane trio. Ruutu had an injury-plagued season a year ago, but the 27-year-old is not far removed from his 26 goal, 28 assist totals from the season before. Like Ruutu, Pitkanen was a Finnish Olympian a year ago, and he is coming off his third season with at least 40 points. But the emerging star is Jokinen, who broke loose last year with a 30-goal campaign after never notching more than 17, which came in his rookie year with Dallas in 2005-06.
There’s no question this is a big year for Backstrom, who finally appeared human at times last season. After a rough first outing in the preseason, Backstrom has gotten better each outing. He was stellar in his return to Finland on Monday, and tonight he’ll aim for his first win of the season in his hometown.
Have you heard that there are Finnish players returning to their home country tonight? We can try to talk about thinks like the emergence of defenseman Justin Falk and rookie Casey Wellman. But no, tonight’s game will be focused entirely on the Finns, who have been answering questions about this week for more than six months. Tonight, they’ll get the chance to thrill the fans that normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to watch their native sons on the Internet.
Tonight will be the official debut of the Wild’s new second line, although there has already a wrinkle added to it. With Guillaume Latendresse sidelined for an extended period, Todd Richards experimented with Clutterbuck on a wing with Matt Cullen as the center and Martin Havlat on the other side. Did he discover the hockey equivalent of plutonium? Ilves Tampere might say yes, as they had no answer for Clutter.
Richards still has one decision to make, and it will be between putting Wellman or Brad Staubitz on the fourth line:
Marek Zidlicky sat out yesterday’s practice due to a groin injury, but tried to return for today’s morning skate. It didn’t go as planned. Zidlicky cut his time on the ice short and summoned team therapist Don Fuller. It doesn’t look like he’ll be in the lineup tonight.
Backstrom gets the nod, with Anton Khudobin as the backup. German goaltender Dennis Endras came to the team yesterday and will be the Wild’s third goaltender tonight and tomorrow.
With only six healthy defenseman here, the Wild has just one extra skater. That will be Staubitz or Wellman.
Zidlicky appears doubtful (groin) for tonight, and Richards didn’t have any new information immediately after practice. Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) is out.
“It’s tough not to get excited to play this game. First day of the season, first game, you’re in Finland. Not that you say any NHL game is not important, but this game is really important for three key guys on our team. So you’d think it would be important for all of the guys on the team.”
-- Todd Richards discussing the excitement of opening night, in particular for the Finns
D Jamie McBain is an Edina native. C Patrick O’Sullivan was the Wild’s second round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Miettinen led the Wild in preseason scoring with four points (1-3=4) in five games.