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  • Four Key Minnesota Wild Players Down The Stretch

    Giles Ferrell

    The Wild are currently in the midst of their NHL mandated “bye week,' and once they return, they come back to a hellacious schedule to end the season. With the final games coming in 41 days, the Wild will need all hands on deck to hold on to the top spot in the Central Division. Minnesota currently leads second place Chicago by five points, and as seen on Tuesday, the Blackhawks will not go quietly.


    With the season’s final stretch on the horizon, let’s identify a few players on the Wild roster who will be key in those final 23 games.


    Eric Staal



    It was well documented how well Staal’s start to the season was. Through January, Staal had registered 41 points (16 goals, 25 assists) in 49 games, despite his game tailing off a bit at the end of the month. Unfortunately for the Wild, Staal’s game has yet to return to what it was early on in the season. He is still stuck in a rut.


    Between Jan. 21 and Feb. 16, a span of 13 games, Staal only tallied three assists. That span of 13 games was sandwiched between games where he scored a goal, but his last one against Nashville was just an empty net goal. Staal has shown signs of heading in the right direction over the past two games (seven shots on goal), but unfortunately the bye week might disrupt that.


    Minnesota has been able to continue to thrive while Staal has struggled, due to the fact Mikko Koivu and his line (with Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund) continue to be red hot. But if the Wild are looking to continue to succeed down the stretch and into the postseason, they will need a more productive Staal to give them a two-headed monster down the middle.


    Zach Parise




    This one might be a surprise to readers, but it’s true. Minnesota has soared this season despite the fact they have received very little production from Parise this year. Parise’s 28 points (14G, 14A) is only ninth best on the Wild, which is also tied with defenseman Jared Spurgeon. Not great from a player who carries a $7.5 million cap hit.


    But in the last few games, the Wild have gotten a glimpse of the old Parise, particularly their most recent game against Chicago. Parise might have been Minnesota’s best player Tuesday night, playing a solid 200-foot game and causing havoc in front of Chicago’s Corey Crawford. He scored the Wild’s second goal of the night and nearly had another but was waved off due to a high stick, something Parise is known for trying.


    Parise has been moved up and down the lineup this season to try and get him going. Into the break, he currently resides on a line with Jason Pominville and Erik Haula, players who also went into the break on a bit of a hot streak. If this line can come out of the break hot, Parise should see his production spike, much to the delight of everyone.


    Marco Scandella



    The Wild love to boast how deep they are on the blue line, and as they inch closer to the upcoming expansion draft it's becoming more apparent they will lose one of those blue-liners to the Golden Knights. One of those defensemen, who the Wild will more than likely leave exposed for Vegas to mull over, is Marco Scandella, who is currently in the midst of his second consecutive down season.


    Scandella, 27, is currently in Year 2 of his five-year contract, which carries a $4 million annual cap hit. He has only scored eight points (2G, 6A) in 48 games this season and has seen his average ice time dip to 18:02, which is three and a half minutes less than his average from his breakout season of 2014-15. In that breakout season, Scandella scored 11 goals and looked like he was going to be a mainstay on the Wild blue line long term with his solid play, a big reason why he got that five-year extension.


    The struggles for Scandella this season can be found at all ends of the ice. He’ll fumble with the puck in his own zone (not a place you want to turn the puck over), can be a bit soft at times in front of his own net, and his booming shot has not been seen enough on the offensive side. Minnesota could use a defenseman (or two) to step up and join Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin in the "Solid" column this year, and Scandella is the first name that comes to mind (assuming he is not traded, which is unlikely, before the March 1 trade deadline). If he can find his game and give the Wild a second defensive pairing that can be great, it will make the Wild a much tougher team to beat on a nightly basis.


    Darcy Kuemper



    If you’re also surprised that Kuemper is on this list, don’t be. With a very condensed schedule in the season’s final 41 days, Kuemper is going to get starts. Especially considering how his last three starts have gone (2-0-1, .936 SV%), Kuemper has certainly made a solid case to get a look for a decent number of appearances in the season’s final month and a half.


    In that condensed schedule to finish the year, the Wild have five sets of back-to-back games. The team also will not get more than one day off in between games. With the Wild seemingly on pace to have, at minimum, home ice in the first round of the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will not want to run Devan Dubnyk in the ground to end the season. Right there is at least five starts for Kuemper, and figure in 2-4 more to provide some additional rest for Dubnyk if Kuemper can continue to play well. Given the balance of his play this year, Wild fans aren’t exactly enamored with 7-9 more starts from Kuemper (because the problem with him is seemingly between the ears), but it could mean a much sharper Dubnyk when the puck drops on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.


    The other factor here, is that Darcy Kuemper, 26, is playing for a new contract next season. He is an unrestricted free agent when the year is over, and the Wild are very likely to part ways. Continued solid play from Kuemper down the stretch will help him land a decent contract next year, where he would like to get a shot at being a number one goaltender again. So don’t be surprised to see a healthy dose of the Wild’s backup goaltender down the stretch.

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