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  • Preview: Struggling powerhouses meet when Wild take on Toronto


    The Minnesota Wild have lost three of their last four and are hoping to string a couple wins together to get back on track and finish their Canadian road trip on a successful note. Their next stop is in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs, a team that has also struggled lately against beatable teams, dropping back-to-back games against the NHL’s worst Montreal Canadians and current non-playoff team Columbus Blue Jackets, and are mired in a three-game losing streak of their own.

    As of late, the Leafs have been missing the offensive output they enjoyed during the early part of the season when they strung together a 14-3-0 stretch in October and November, or even in January when the Leafs built a six-game winning streak. But despite the recent struggles, Toronto still sits amongst the league leaders in team goals (4th), goals against (9th), and owns the NHL’s best power play (30.4%) and sixth-best penalty kill (84.3%).

    But the cracks are beginning to show a bit, especially in goal. The Maple Leafs signed Petr Mrazek to a three-year deal in the offseason just in case Jack Cambell wasn’t able to fulfill the role of starter. But after a strong start to the season where Campbell had a 13-4-1 record and a .943 save percentage, since dropping a 4-3 decision in a shootout against the Wild back on December 4th, Campbell’s save percentage has plummeted to .894 despite a salvagable record of 10-4-2. In a backup role, Mrazek hasn’t looked much better, with a .890 save percentage of his own.

    Their defensive corps hasn’t done them many favors, especially beyond the top pair of Morgan Reilly and TJ Brodie, who have shown the ability to shut down opposing offenses even if they’ve taken a bit of a dip lately. Jake Muzzin’s struggles this year have been well known, and the revolving door of partners have prevented the bottom four from gaining any kind of momentum. Add to the fact that Muzzin is now on LTIT after suffering a concussion against the Canadians - his second this season - and a team struggling to find a consistent second pair is set back even more.

    Offensively, there’s no worries about the Leafs’ top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, who are among the top lines in the league. Beyond them, Toronto’s second line of Alexander Kerfoot, John Tavares and William Nylander have pretty brutal. The line currently owns an expected goals percentage of 51.6% on the season, and for comparison, that’s only 0.4% better than the Wild’s fourth line of Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Duhaime and Nico Sturm. Tavares hasn’t scored in 10 games, and only recently broke a streak of four games where he couldn’t muster more than a single shot.

    That makes Toronto a top heavy team, and one that can be stopped with a strong defensive core.

    Minnesota proved against the Edmonton Oilers that they can shut down an elite line, holding Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, holding them to just one assist and a total of seven shots. Evason will have to shuffle his lines a bit, missing Jordan Greenway with an upper body injury, but welcoming back Mats Zuccarello to the lineup.

    Should Zuccarello go as expected, the top six will look pretty familiar for Minnesota, with Nick Bjugstad getting the promotion (according to a Russo tweet yesterday) after a pair of strong games after returning from his injury. If Zuccarello can’t go, newly recalled Mason Shaw will slot in, and the expected lines with jumble more.

    Kaprizov - Hartman - Zuccarello
    Fiala - Gaudreau - Boldy
    Folgino - Eriksson Ek - Bjugstad
    Dewar - Sturm - Duhaime

    On defense, more of the same with Matt Dumba out (and Evason admitted in Wednesday’s presser that Dumba won’t join the team at any point of the trip):

    Goligoski - Spurgeon
    Brodin - Kulikov
    Merril - Addison

    And despite the show of confidence in his starting goaltender, Evason told reporters that Kaapo Kahkonen will get the start over Cam Talbot, who has struggled his last few times out.

    Two teams that could really use a win will face off at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Puck drops at 6 p.m.

    Burning Questions

    Can the Wild have a perfect night on the penalty kill?

    Toronto owns the league’s best power play, so shutting that down will be critical for a team that has allowed at least one power play goal in each of their last seven games. A 70% clip (6 for 20) over that span is a significant dip from where they’ve been for the season (79% - ranked 17th in the league), so they’ve got to turn that around. Can they do it?

    Can Kahkonen keep up his stellar play?

    Over his last 11 games, Kahkonen owns an 8-1-1 record and a .929 save percentage. He’s been great in spot duty, with many fans clamoring for him to take over the full-time job. Whether or not he’s ready for that, He’s definitely given the Wild their best chance at winning games while Talbot works through what he needs to. He’ll likely need to make some big saves against the talented top line of Toronto.

    Can Moose get back on the scoreboard?

    As the calendar turned over to 2022, Marcus Foligno was having a career year with 13 goals and 20 points in 30 games - his 13 goals equaling Kaprizov at the time. Recently, Foligno has come back down to earth with a six-game scoreless streak. His two-game suspension for kneeing against the Winnipeg Jets didn’t help matters. He’s still throwing his body around with 34 hits over that span, but the offense isn’t quite there. Maybe having Bjugstad on his line will jump start his production.

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