Update: Devan Dubnyk has been confirmed as the starter for the Sharks by the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan.
Having split the series with the Anaheim Ducks and earned six points on their west coast road trip to start the 2021 National Hockey League season, the Minnesota Wild return home for two games with the San Jose Sharks.
After sweeping the Los Angeles Kings and splitting the points with the Ducks to start the season, the Wild are hoping to continue their strong start against another west coast team that might have a tough year. The Sharks are in the midst of an extended road trip of their own, facing off away from SAP Center eight times before they will finally see the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 1. So far this season, they have split both series they’ve played, trading regulation wins with the Arizona Coyotes and losing to St. Louis before exacting revenge in 2-1 shootout win against the Blues on Wednesday night.
The Sharks made a bunch of moves in the offseason bringing in former San Jose players like Matt Nieto and Patrick Marleau back into the fold to play fourth-line roles, but the most notable additions are names that Wild fans know well — Devan Dubnyk and Ryan Donato.
Donato has done the better of the two, having scored a goal in the Sharks’ 5-3 loss to the Coyotes on January 16th. Dubnyk, on the other hand, has not looked as strong. Sure, he filled in admirably after the Sharks’ primary starter Martin Jones got the hook against the ‘Yotes, stopping all two shots he faced in 12+ minutes of ice-time. But in his only start of 2021, Dubnyk lost two-goal and one-goal leads and let in five goals on 33 shots as the Blues earned the come-from-behind victory, 5-4.
Not all of the Blues’ goals can be put on Dubnyk as the Sharks defenders played a very poor game by all accounts - and Sharks head coach Bob Boughner said as much: “(Dubnyk) wasn’t the reason that we lost this game. The reason we lost this game is because we just made some bad decisions at the wrong time”.
But for a player who is struggling to rebuild his career after a couple of tough years on and off the ice in Minnesota, an .848 save percentage isn’t the best way to build confidence. Maybe getting the “coming home” treatment, including the video highlight package, will get him back on his game. Dubnyk will start tonight’s game for the Sharks, according to the StarTribune’s Sarah McLellan.
The bad news for the Sharks is that Jones hasn’t looked much better with a sub-.900 sv% and a goals against average above 3.00. But whatever the problem is in the defensive zone, be it goaltending or blueliners, the Sharks have made up for it with a strong start to the season offensively, as San Jose has 13 goals over their first four games (second in the West) and has converted on five of 18 power play chances. Tomas Hertl is right up amongst the league leaders with six points in four games, while Logan Couture and Evander Kane each have a point-per-game so far.
But while the Sharks have been able to rely on their top offensive players, the Wild have won games, especially Wednesday’s tilt against the Ducks, thanks mostly to scoring from their bottom six and defense. Outside of points leader Kirill Kaprizov, every other player with more than one point comes from the third or fourth lines or the blue line. The third line of Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno has been especially strong, combining for three goals and four assists in four games. On the other hand, 2019-20 Wild scoring leaders Kevin Fiala and Zach Parise have yet to find the scoresheet in 2021.
For the Wild, Cam Talbot will likely return to the crease after Kaapo Kahkonen looked shaky at times against the Ducks.
1. Can the power play build on their Wednesday night success?
Minnesota finally scored their first power play goal of the season, breaking an 0-for-18 streak thanks to Nick Bonino. But when the Wild had a chance to make it two-in-a-row, they struggled to get anything going. If Minnesota is going to take advantage of finally breaking the dam, they’ll need to prove that Bonino’s fluky goal off of Joel Eriksson Ek’s chest was more than just that - a fluke. Can the Wild prove that their power play is finally off the schnied? And will a big name play a role in keeping the good times coming with the extra attacker? Speaking of big names...
2. When will Fiala or Parise get their first points of the year?
Kaprizov has been taking care of business in the top-six, but he can’t keep doing it himself. At some point, the usual Wild suspects have to step up. Fiala’s drought doesn’t come from lack of effort, as he leads the team with 19 shots and has been all over the ice creating chances and playing strong on and off the puck. You get the feeling his points are coming , and they’ll come in bunches. Parise has had a couple moments and has 13 shots himself, but he’s also seemed invisible for stretches as well. Having Victor Rask as a center has not paid the dividends it looked like it might in the first game. Will Dean Evason mix things up to get Fiala and Parise going?
3. How will Donato and Dubnyk look in their homecoming?
Both Donato and Dubnyk will defintely be looking to make an impact against the team that traded them away, with the former all but refused top-six minutes, and the latter being replaced by Talbot after struggling the past two seasons. Will either player make the Wild regret replacing them, at least for one game?