A position that was considered a weakness a year ago has become one of the Wild’s greatest strengths in what is turning into a special season. Last season, the chatter was constant about the Wild needing more depth at center. With four centers – Mikko Koivu, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cullen and John Madden – combining to play all but six of the first 58 games this season, that position wasn’t an issue. Until now.
With Koivu recovering from a broken finger and Brodziak dealing with an illness, the Wild is down to two regular centers. Their absences required a call to Houston last week for Cody Almond, and yesterday for veteran Jed Ortmeyer. Both players are expected to be in the lineup tonight, and both will be counted on to keep the Wild’s momentum going in yet another enormous game against a Western Conference playoff contender, the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings are coming off a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks last night, giving them at least a point in 12 of the last 13 games. Former Wild defenseman Willie Mitchell picked up the game winner in the third period, while Ryan Smyth and Anze Kopitar also scored. Jonathan Quick earned the win with a 25-save performance.
Wild at Kings will be broadcast locally in high definition on FOX Sports North at 9:30 PM. The game can be heard on WCCO 830 AM, or online at Wild.com.
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As part of Legends Night, the Kings will honor former star, Bob Berry. That’s all well and good, but the real treat is getting to see the Kings throw on the purple and gold throwbacks with the bejeweled crown on the chest.
We already know how tough it is to climb up the standings and stay there, but how do you think the Kings feel? Points in 12 of 13 games and it was just last night that they pulled into a tie for fifth place with the Wild, yet lead three teams tied for ninth place by two points? It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s how things are going in this wacky NHL campaign.
L.A.’s top players are getting hot at the right time. Kopitar has two goals and four assists in his last six games. Justin Williams has tallied two twice and added seven helpers in the last eight contests. Drew Doughty has four goals in his last nine games and Jack Johnson has picked up six points in that same span.
Havlat’s struggles to pick up points in October over the last two seasons had him gaining the reputation as a slow starter. Now, they’re just feeding into the reputation he already had as a big-game performer. Havlat seems to be saving his production for the most meaningful games, which of course started somewhere around mid-November.
With Koivu’s absence, the pressure is put on Havlat to up the offense, and with a goal in each of the last three games, he seems unfettered. His recent outburst has put him in the team lead for goals with 19, which surpasses his total from all of last season.
Tonight is the new biggest game of the year between two of the hottest teams in the NHL. But the big question is how the Wild respond to being without two of its best players this season in Koivu and Brodziak. Both have played key minutes in every situation. In fact, if you look at the Wild’s huge 5-on-3 penalty kill on Tuesday, it was Brodziak playing at the forward spot to start off. Normally, that responsibility would fall to Koivu.
At least for tonight, situations that call for Koivu or Brodziak will shuffle to Madden. This is why General Manager Chuck Fletcher went out and got a proven veteran that can play center. Madden knows what it takes to step up in crucial games, and now he’ll likely play big minutes in between Havlat and Bouchard.
Head Coach Todd Richards already had a challenge with Koivu’s absence. Now he must put together a lineup without Koivu and Brodziak:
Cam Barker did not make the trip with the team, so the team called up Nate Prosser yesterday. The Elk River native is not expected to play tonight:
Backstrom is expected to start tonight with Jose Theodore getting the nod on Friday in Anaheim.
Unless Richards decides to use seven defensemen tonight, Prosser is the likely scratch.
Guillaume Latendresse (abdominal) and James Sheppard (knee) have both been cleared to practice and are with the team in California, but neither will play tonight. Koivu (hand), Brodziak (illness) and Barker (upper body) are out.
"At game 60, it has little to do with coaches. We are just kind of getting out of the way and letting these guys play.”
-- Todd Richards talking about players realizing the importance of these games down the stretch.
Mitchell spent parts of five seasons in Minnesota and skated in 288 games in a Wild sweater. Johnson is a product of Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault.
The Wild is 8-4-1 this season in the first of back-to-back games. Following tomorrow’s game, the Wild will play four more back-to-back sets.