The Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers are set to face-off for the second time this season, and for the second time this season, they square up north of the border in Edmonton.
The Wild have lost two in a row and three of their last five heading into this matchup against the Oilers. They've allowed 12 goals over a total of six games to the Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers. The defense and goaltending haven't been good enough to muster out wins against a Central Division rival and a Stanley Cup contender.
Meanwhile, the Oilers have flourished since the firing of head coach Dave Tippett. Since he was relieved of his duties behind the bench, the team has gone on a five-game win streak, beating the New York Islanders, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and the Jets. Although most of those teams are not serious Cup contenders, they aren't easy wins either.
The Oilers have seen Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl return to form over their five-game win streak. After some questionable performances during a lull in team performance — 4-4-2 in January — McDavid and Draisaitl's improvement has been a welcome sight for fans and management alike. Zach Hyman leads the team in goals over the last five games with four, while McDavid leads in assists and points with seven and ten, respectively. Overall, McDavid tops the entire NHL with 71 points in 48 games, with Draisaitl close behind with 69 points in 49 games.
Unfortunately, the Oilers will be without the services of forward Jesse Puljujarvi for four weeks due to injury. After returning to the NHL, he has proven to be a valuable asset, amassing 28 points in 46 games, and is also the fourth-highest goal scorer on the team with 12. Off-season addition Zach Hyman has lived up to expectations with 31 points in 43 games. Finally, the newest Oiler, Evander Kane, is off to a rather hot start with four goals eight points in his first ten games. The forward depth has significantly improved with Kane, even with the baggage of his off-ice controversies.
As for the Wild, Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello continue to lead them over the recent stretch and the season as a whole. Zuccarello leads the team with eight points in five games, including six assists (also a team lead). Kaprizov tops the team in goals with four in the last five games. They continue to play well together, manage to keep the Wild afloat during challenging games and pull off some truly impressive plays.
This season, the Wild's goaltending has been far superior to the Oilers'. Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen have been underwhelming this season, while Talbot and Kakhonen have been strong despite some poor outings from the defense in front of them.
For the Oilers, they've seen some canyon-like lows from their pairing. Both goalies have flirted around the .900 save percentage mark at points, and the defense has been a primary driving force behind that. The defense is starting to look like they are beginning to put it together, limiting opponents to an average of 28 shots per game in February, which is good for 8th in the league during that stretch.
As for the Wild, their lack of defense and goaltending in the last two games has been troubling, but they've been firm on that front on the season entirely. Both goalies are well over the .900 save percentage mark and have been for some time.
Can the Wild stave off a third loss in a row?
These two teams have a very similar record over their last ten games. The Wild are 7-3-0, while the Oilers are 7-2-1. A McDavid/Draisaitl led team will never be easy to beat, but under new coaching, they've become a beast at home. A Wild win would snap them out of the mini-losing streak, be a huge confidence booster and provide a swing in the standings. The Wild sit third in the Central Division with 63 points in 46 games (30-13-3 record) and would pass the St. Louis Blues to reclaim second place.
Can the defense hold?
It's already been mentioned, but the defense in recent games has not been strong enough, and neither has the goaltending. Against two of the league's best offensive players, the entire team is going to tighten up defensively. With players of that caliber lining up on the other side, there is little to no room for error. Everyone is going to have to do their part.
Can the Wild stay out of the box?
The Wild have to stay out of the box if they want any chance of beating the Oilers. With the 16th best penalty kill at 79.5 percent, the group will have their work cut out for them against the fourth-highest power play in the NHL at 26.1 percent. The Oilers' first power-play unit feeds on puck movement and creativity.
The Wild will need to steer clear of the Oilers' dynamic powerplay as much as possible to come away with a victory.
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