Thursday, December 19, 2013

Closer to Christmastime

About a month ago, I previewed the Wild's upcoming schedule and wrote on this blog (really, I did,  you can see it just a little lower on the page) that "We'll know a lot more about how good this team is on December 19 than we do on November 19."

So here we are on December 19, and I think a few of the things we've learned over the past month are:

1) The Wild are a good team, but not an elite team.

The Wild just came through a difficult 15-game stretch with a 7-7-1 mark, picking up 15 points in 15 contests. Given the quality of the opposition, and the fact that nine of the 15 were on the road, that's pretty respectable. It was also enough to keep them among the top eight in the Western Conference, keep them close to Colorado - their main competition for a top-three divisional spot and a playoff berth - and create a little gap between them and the rest of the division.

So yes, the Wild are a good team. The relative success of the last 15 games is diminished, however, by the one-sided nature of some of the losses. 6-2 at Montreal, 4-0 at Columbus, 3-0 at St. Louis. Throw in a couple losses in which the final score looks close (2-1 at Anaheim, 3-1 in San Jose) but in which the Wild never really had a chance to win, and there's a lot of downside. Every team has an inexplicable loss or two over the course of an 82-game season (see: Tampa 5, Anaheim 1, Buffalo 5, San Jose 4 or Rangers 5, Penguins 1) but a truly elite team - one that is capable of making a deep playoff run - doesn't have that many bad games in less than a month.

2) Josh Harding continues to be an amazing story.

Even though the Wild announced Wednesday that Harding will shut down for a week to make adjustments in his Multiple Sclerosis treatment, Harding remains one of the league's best feel-good stories. Even the folks at People Magazine took notice the other day and wrote him up. The numbers are terrific: A league-best 1.51 GAA, .939 save percentage (2nd best), 18 wins and a tie for the league lead in shutouts.

Bigger than the numbers, however, is what he has meant to the Wild. With Niklas Backstrom fighting through injuries, apparently still feeling the effects of off-season surgery and (maybe) just becoming an average 35-year-old goalie, it's easy to speculate that if Harding hadn't stepped up with all-star quality play, the Wild would be in a substantially worse position. Substantially.

3) The "improved depth" story line has turned out to be true.

Anyone who has followed the Wild in the past few years can be forgiven for developing involuntary facils tics by thinking about some of our minor-league call-ups: Maxim Noreau. Brett Clark. Jeff Taffe. Jed Ortmeyer. Personally, I developed a rash when I would see the inevitable "Warren Peters has been recalled from Houston" footnote in a newspaper story.

In a long season, injuries happen, and it's important that a team's minor-league affiliate has a few guys who can actually come up to the show and do more than just tie their skate laces properly. During training camp, Wild management was selling the line that "we have more depth than ever before," and it's turned out to be true. Jason Zucker has been up for seven games, and while his game is still a work in progress, he doesn't look overmatched. Erik Haula has been a very pleasant surprise, bringing exceptional speed and a good head for the game. Brett Bulmer has played just three games, but he's bringing a lot of energy and playing the Wild's system perfectly. It's a good sign that the organization is getting stronger. I'm sure Warren Peters is a nice guy, but I never want to see him at the X again. Ever.

4) The Dany Heatley story appears to be in its final chapter.

It really hurts me to write that, because no one wanted Heater to have a big year more than me. But after 36 games, it seems apparent that the magic is gone. He showed up for camp lighter and faster and allegedly loaded for bear, but the hands appear to be gone. Passes bounce off his stick, he turns the puck over,  his shots have no zip on them and he's a minus-10. I love what Dany Heatley was, and I weep for what he has become. #50 in '07 seems like an eternity ago.

----

Bottom line to all of this: The Wild are better, and barring a catastrophic injury, they will make the playoffs even in a tough Central Division. The playoffs are a pick-your-poison proposition however, considering that the first round will bring either a matchup with the Blackhawks or Blues. The Wild are the only team in the league with a winning record (2-1) against Chicago, but it's hard to see them winning four playoff games against  a focused Blackhawks squad. We have only one game so far against the Blues, and that was a 3-0 loss in which the Wild barely competed for most of the night.

I wrote early in the season that the Western Conference playoff race was pretty much a "Nine teams for eight spots" proposition, and nothing that's happened since has changed my mind. Just stay ahead of Phoenix, or find a way to get past Colorado, and we're in.

(Footnote: This might seem strange since the Wild lost two of three to Colorado, but the Avalanche don't impress me. They play a loose, sloppy style that I don't believe is going to hold up in the long run. I'm looking for an eight-losses-in-10-games stretch from them pretty soon.)

Final note: I've been very vocal over the years about what an absolute toothache the Wild's mascot - Nordy - has been. Night after night he runs around the building scaring children. He's not cute, he's not funny, he doesn't represent any kind of Minnesota tradition and it's an insult to think that this hockey market needs such a gimmick. The Wild won the division the year before he showed up, and then missed the playoffs in the first four seasons of his existence. But the other night, as you can see here, he redeemed himself with a great response to the Vancouver "Green Men."



I've been an advocate of having Nordy euthanized, but after this, I'm willing to let him stay a little longer. (Thanks to Bleacher Report for the link.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

It's about to get real....

The Wild completed a very nice homestand last night, beating Winnipeg 2-1 behind a pair of goals from Mikko Koivu and more spectacular goaltending from Josh Harding.

Harding's numbers are insane right now...a 1.25 goals-against average, .946 save percentage, 12-2-2 record, unbeaten at Xcel Energy Center, etc. He is the NHL's feel-good story of the year, and I hope he can keep it going.

But as I mentioned in a previous post, the Wild have been living inside a bit of a bubble the last few weeks, playing nine of 12 at home, with most of their games against teams that will struggle to make the playoffs.

No longer.

Starting tomorrow night in Montreal and running through December 19, here is what the Wild face:

- 10 of the next 16 on the road
- Four sets of games on back-to-back nights
- Two games against the San Jose Sharks, currently 13-3-5
- Three games against the Avalanche, currently 14-5-0
- Single games against the Blackhawks (14-3-4), Anaheim (15-5-2), Phoenix (14-4-3) and the Blues (13-3-3).
- Toss in a game at Pittsburgh, one against Vancouver and one at Columbus (where the Wild are 7-14-1 all-time against consistently crappy Blue Jackets teams), and you have the makings of a very difficult stretch.

Again, I'll apologize for my natural pessimism, and I'm not saying the Wild can't maintain their perch near the top of the Central Division through this stretch, but I think we'll know a lot more about how good this team is on December 19 than we do on November 19.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is Mike Yeo responsible for Backstrom's injury?

Imagine that you're the coach of an NFL team, and you have an important game coming up on Sunday. Your all-pro quarterback - unbeknownst to the public - is hurting. He has sore ribs, his mobility is limited and it's difficult for him to throw the ball well.

What would happen if, on Sunday morning, you tell the media, "Well, our quarterback is hurting with some sore ribs, but we're going to start him anyway."?

Your opponents would immediately find a way to inflict a little extra damage on your quarterback, particularly by hitting him in the ribs. That effort might even take the form of a late hit or two, because the inconvenience of a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty is probably outweighed by the advantage that can be gained by knocking the quarterback out of the game.

It would not be a very bright thing to say to the media.

Mike Yeo may have committed that same sort of verbal gaffe Wednesday when he told the media that Niklas Backstrom would start in goal that night against Toronto, because Josh Harding was feeling "under the weather." That information quicly moved on to Twitter and the hockey blogs.

As soon as I saw that, I asked myself, "Why would you let the Maple Leafs know that Harding is sick?" Even the dullest hockey player - I'm looking your way, Dion Phaneuf - could put two and two together and deduce "Hey, if we can knock their starting goalie out, they will have to put a guy who's sick in goal."

The idea is even less far-fetched when you realize the Leafs are coached by Randy Carlyle, who's never been above having his players work a little outside the rules if there's an edge to be gained.

Sure enough, just a few minutes into the game, Toronto's Nazim Kadri skated into the crease, threw an elbow into Backstrom's head and sent the goalie flying. While the Wild have not officially called Backstrom's injury a concussion, it seems likely. A few moments later, Backstrom had to leave the game, and Toronto had accomplished the goal of forcing the Wild to play with a sick backup goalie. (Albeit at the cost of a two-minute minor penalty.)

Ultimately the strategy - if it was a strategy - backfired as Harding played a great game and the Wild eventually won 2-1 in a shootout. But it seems as though Yeo inadvertently put a bullseye on Backstrom's back, when he could simply have said, "Niklas hasn't played for a while, we need to get him into a game, and so he's going to start tonight."

I like Yeo a lot, he seems like the right guy for this job and he's certainly got the Wild moving in the right direction. But next time, Coach, let's not volunteer any more info than we have too, okay?















Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A moment of sobriety, if you will

I'll apologize right out of the chute for what will probably seem, to many, as a negative blog post. But 13 years as a Wild fan has taught me to always be on the lookout for the cloud wrapped around any silver lining.

With last night's win over Calgary, the Wild's regular season is 20 percent (well, technically, 19.51%) complete, and on the surface, things look pretty good. We're sitting in third place in the Central, we've won six of the last seven, we're scoring more, Harding is playing great, the kids are wonderful, blah, blah, blah. And yes, if the season ended today, we'd be in the playoffs.

Pardon me a moment while I hold off on the giddiness.

In this first one-fifth of the season, the Wild have benefited greatly from a pretty soft schedule. They've played 10 at home (with a nice 7-1-2 record) but only six on the road (where they are just 2-3-1). What's more, they've had more than their share of games against teams that...well, let's be charitable and just call them "struggling."

Let's divide the NHL up this way: Of the 30 teams, 16 would be in the playoffs today, leaving another 14 outside, so we'll call them the "ins" and the "outs". Based on today's standings, the Wild have played 10 of their 16 games against "out" teams and only six against "in" teams. And against the teams that are in the top 16, the Wild's record is just 2-3-1.

Translation: We're getting fat against the league's bottom-feeders. I realize you can only play the teams that are on your schedule, but beating Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas, Buffalo, New Jersey, Calgary and Carolina doesn't automatically make you a Cup contender either.

And if that look at the past isn't reassuring, the look ahead is also quite daunting. After this little road trip to Washington and Carolina, the Wild will have 64 games left. A third of those games (21 of 64) are against six teams - Chicago, Colorado, St. Louis, San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix - that right now are a combined 62-12-13.

Another 11 games are against Vancouver, Pittsburgh, L.A., Boston and Detroit. Those five teams are a combined 47-25-5, and L.A. is the only one currently "outside" the top 16.

I don't want to rain on the parade, and I realize that everyone has to play the "good" teams sooner or later. I'm just trying to say that before we decide we've made it to the promised land, we've got to skate with the Avs and the Blues and the Sharks and the others and demonstrate that we belong in the same conversation. Splitting that home-and-home with Chicago was encouraging, but I'll feel better when we walk out of the Shark Tank, the Joe or the Pond with two points in our pocket.

Monday, November 4, 2013

500 games and counting....

It was September of 2000, my oldest son had graduated from high school earlier in the year and he wasn't sure what he wanted to do...maybe college, maybe work, he didn't know. One day I saw an ad in the paper for a job fair at the Xcel Energy Center, which was getting ready to open in a few weeks. They needed all kinds of help, and so I showed the ad to Travis - a devoted hockey buff - and suggested he swing by and maybe he'd be able to find some work that would allow him to watch hockey.

At the meeting, he met up with a company called ASIA, a security company run by a great fellow named Tom Azzone. ASIA had a contract to supply ticket takers, ushers and security personnel for the building, and when Travis called me the next day, he was very excited. "Dad, they need more people," he said. "You don't have to work all the games, just the ones  you want, and they're having another meeting next week. You should come."

I wasn't particularly interested, but it was a chance to maybe spend some time with Travis, so I showed up at the next meeting, filled out some paperwork and was asked if I would show up to work the Wild's first-ever game, a couple of weeks later. I agreed.

Pavel Patera. Peter Bartos. Roman Simicek. Steve McKenna. Kai Nurminen. Zac Bierk. Christian Matte. Mike Matteucci. Remember them? Neither do I. Yet all of them played for the Wild at one time or another in that first season, and today I couldn't pick any one of them out of a police lineup.

They took a few of us "mature" types - which means "old" - and put us up on the Club Level, which is a very nice, limited-access area that includes the Headwaters Restaurant, some other upscale food vendors and room to move around the corridors without fighting the crowds. The theory was that the club level patrons were paying the highest prices in the building (except for the on-the-glass tickets) and they wanted some older ushers who would be certain to be be polite, courteous and helpful to these folks who were paying a lot of the freight.

By luck, they put me at the aisle between sections C9 and C10, which is opposite the escalator to the club level. I stood back, near the top of my aisle, watching to see if people needed directions, until Azzone came along and told me to move up toward the escalator and greet people as they came off. That's how I became "the escalator guy" in the club in October, 2000.

Most expansion teams become known for two things: Piling up losses, and producing characters. From a win-loss standpoint, however, the Wild weren't too bad, thanks in large part to the defensive philosophy of coach Jacques Lemaire, and the goaltending of Jamie McLennan and Manny Fernandez. They managed to win 25 games and tie another 13, and McLennan and Fernandez also supplied most of the flakiness. McLennan's nickname was "Noodles," which tells you about all you need to know. Fernandez was a moody, brooding guy who happened to be related to Lemaire. A few years later I was at a dinner put together by one of my clients that included several former pro hockey players, one of whom had been a minor-league teammate of Fernandez. "I didn't really dislike anyone I ever played with," he told me. "But I hated Manny Fernandez."

This part-time job that I hadn't even really wanted got its hooks into me right away. I looked forward to every game night, seeing my fellow ushers, getting to know my season ticket holders and watching this young team develop. When they went on the road, I missed game nights. By the end of that first season, I looked back and I realized I had only missed four games. One of them came in February, when I was on vacation and I missed the Wild beating Pittsburgh 4-2. The Penguins' star, Mario Lemieux, complained about the Wild's defensive, trapping style, which led to one of Lemaire's many fantastic quotes: "If they're going to outlaw checking, them I'm coming out of retirement."

Another great memory from the early years, and an example of the kinds of crazy things that only happen to expansion teams. In their first draft, the Wild had chosen a Russian named Maxim Sushinsky, who was already 26 years old. They convinced him to come to Minnesota by writing him a good-sized bonus check. He played 30 games here in the first Wild season, and then announced he was homesick for Russia. The Wild agreed to let him go, but said they would like the bonus money back. Maxim wrote them a check and left for Russia. But the check bounced, and the Wild seem to have been reluctant ever since to get involved with Russian players.

Game night became a routine. I was working in downtown St. Paul, so it was only about a 10-minute walk to the arena. I'd get there a little after 5:00, change into our uniform, sit through a brief meeting and head up to section C9, where I would say, "Good evening. Welcome to the X," about 500 times a night. When the game started, I'd move over to the top of my aisle, watch the game, hold people back from going down the aisle while play was going on and get to know all the regulars. When the game was over, I'd hurry out and try to get to my car in time to hear Jacques' often-hilarious post-game press conference.  Whenever someone asks "How do you get a job like that?" I answer, "You have to be the luckiest guy in the world, like I am."


The first superstar was Marian Gaborik, and he was one of most exciting players I'd ever seen. Incredible speed, great hands and a quick release of a deadly shot. He put up 18 goals his rookie year, then 30 in each of the next two. On December 20, 2007, he scored five against the New York Rangers, and by the second period he had electrified the building. You could hear the buzz whenever he came over the boards, and you didn't dare miss a shift. He could have had six, but the Rangers goalie made a great save on a power play chance late in the 3rd period. By April of 2009, it was all over. He played one last game, took a farewell lap around the X and we all knew we were seeing him in a Wild sweater for the last time. Tough night.

In 2002-03, we managed to make the playoffs. We hosted the Red Wings on March 23, needing a win to clinch a playoff spot, and of all people an enforcer named Matt Johnson - who only scored 23 goals in a 10-year career - scored 21 seconds into the game, and the Wild went on to win 4-0. Goalie Dwayne Roloson made 33 saves to shut out a Detroit team that included Brett Hull, Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, Henrik Zetterberg, Luc Robataille and Chris Chelios. Yes, that really happened.

We drew the Avalanche in the first round, had no expectation of winning and fell behind three games to one. But as I was walking into the X for Game Four, I had an idea. It seemed unlikely there would be a Game Six, but I knew tickets were available, so I walked over to the box office and bought a pair of tickets for my sons, Travis and William, just in case we somehow made it that far. When we did, I was able to have the boys standing next to me when Richard Park scored in overtime to send the series back to Colorado for Game Seven. Up until that point, it was the loudest I'd ever heard the X, and it was a moment the three of us will always remember.

The three of us were on the couch in our basement the next night, along with a vinyl inflatable Stanley Cup, when Andrew Brunette scored in overtime to win the series and end Patrick Roy's career. In just three years, the Wild had become embedded as an important part of my life. They went on to beat the Canucks in another seven-game series, creating an enjoyable rivalry. Sometimes when I'm working at the X, someone will approach me and begin by saying, "I have a stupid question, but...." and I always respond with, "There are no stupid questions. There are only stupid Vancouver fans."

The Wild organization discourages us from fraternizing with players, musicians or any of the artists that perform at the X, so I always make it a point to avoid any establishment that might be having a Wild player make an appearance. But one cold winter night in Red Wing, I went over to our local arena for my son's bantam team practice. I was the team's goalie coach, and I went downstairs to put my skates on. Coming off the ice was a Red Wing pee-wee team that had just got done playing Woodbury, and the father of one of the Woodbury players was sitting by himself outside the locker room. It was Wild forward Sergei Zholtok.

I mentioned that I worked for the Wild and introduced myself. He looked at the ratty old goalie skates that I had been wearing since 1979 and said, "New skates, eh?" He noticed - and mentioned - that my son was wearing a practice jersey that bore the name of the legendary Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak. It turns out that Zholtok - a Latvian - knew a ton about Soviet hockey history, and we spent about 10 minutes talking about the great Russian players..Kharlamov, Yukashev, etc. Then his son came out of the locker room, and they went on their way. It was the only really extended conversation I've ever had with a Wild player. It was only about a year later that Zholtok suffered heart failure and died during a game. It hit me pretty hard, and today I still choke up a bit when I walk past his memorial plaque at the X.

The lockout season in 2004-05 was tough. The Wild had made the decision to hire all of us from ASIA and make us Wild employees, so there were still some concerts to work, along with the State High School hockey tournaments and other events, but it was a long, cold winter. When the league resumed in October of 2005, I couldn't wait to get back. I moved right back into my spot on the Club Level, the fans came back, and it was like old times. I would usually miss only a couple of games a season, but starting on March 11, 2007, I started a streak that lasted until Election Night, 2010, which I had to spend with a candidate whose campaign I had managed. That broke a string of 155 consecutive games, but I finished the season having worked 419 of the 451 games (pre-season, regular season and playoffs) that the Wild had played at the X. When we get to the building tonight, it will be my 500th Wild game and I'll be the first usher at the X to make it to 500.

April 3, 2008. There are two games left in the regular season, and the Wild are hosting Calgary. A win clinches our first-ever Northwest Division title, while a loss would likely give Calgary the championship. My perch on the Club Level is on the west end, to the right of the goal where the Wild shoot in the first and third periods. It's a tight, tense game and we enter the third period tied 1-1. Just a minute in, Gaborik picks up a puck and moves into the zone, right down below me. He lets a wicked wrist shot go, it beats Kiprusoff over the shoulder and we take the lead. Gabby adds a power-play goal later, and we win our first-ever division championship. Todd Fedoruk's little jig on the ice during the post-game celebration is unforgettable.

I've been blessed to have great jobs in my life. I came right out of college as a sportswriter, which is a great job. Then I got roped into politics and soon became Press Secretary to a U.S. Senator, which is a really great job. Out of 300 million or so people in America, only 100 are U.S. Senate press secretaries at any given time. Then I got to become Press Secretary to a governor, which is an even more exclusive job. Then I got to spend about a dozen years as a Communications Manager for General Electric, one of the world's largest companies. And for almost six years, I've been able to be president of my own PR company. I only mention this to show that I've been really fortunate.

And yet, despite all of those jobs, there's nothing I've enjoyed more than 500 games of this little part-time gig with the Minnesota Wild. I've made more friends, had more fun and just enjoyed life more as "that guy on the club level" than in any other professional capacity I've ever had. And so to all of those ticket holders that make me laugh and smile, to all the unforgettable players - Bouchard, Rolston, Burns, Bruno, Gabby, Boogie, Mikko, Clutter, Zach, Suter, etc. - and to the Wild organization and so many great fellow ushers, thanks for the memories, and I hope we spend another 500 games together.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Carolina Hurricanes at Minnesota Wild, Oct. 24, 2013

HAVING EARNED POINTS IN every home game this season (3-0-2 in St. Paul) the Wild host the Carolina Hurricanes with a lineup that is starting to be strained a bit by injuries. The latest to join the injured list is defenseman Jonas Brodin, who suffered a broken cheekbone Tuesday night when he was hit in the face by a puck. Brodin will also require some extensive dental work, and no date has been set for his return. Still out of the lineup are center Charlie Coyle (knee sprain) and defenseman Keith Ballard, who was also hit in the head with a puck and has not played in a week. Mike Rupp is skating but not yet ready to return, and goalie Niklas Backstrom is dressed but apparently not yet ready to start.

THE LOSS OF BRODIN AND BALLARD means the Wild have only six healthy defensemen, so Nate Prosser and Matthew Dumba will both play tonight. Jared Spurgeon – who made a game-saving play late in Tuesday’s win over Nashville - will likely take Brodin’s spot alongside Ryan Suter. The Wild’s defense has been tremendous this year, allowing just 21.2 shots per game (best in the NHL), just five goals in 5-on-5 situations (best in the NHL) and 2.00 goals per game (4th-best).

AN IMPORTANT PART OF the stingy defense has been Josh Harding, whose strong play has elevated him to the top of the league goaltending stats. Among goalies who have played four or more games, Harding leads the NHL with a 0.96 goals-against average and is second with a .953 save percentage.

AFTER BEING DIAGNOSED with Multiple Sclerosis last year, Harding established a foundation – Harding’s Hope – to raise awareness regarding MS and raise funds to help those living with the disease. Tonight is Harding’s Hope Night at the Xcel Energy Center, and a portion of individual ticket sales are being donated to his foundation. All fans will receive a Harding’s Hope poster, and Harding autographed memorabilia will be awarded to selected fans throughout the game. For more information, visit www.hardingshope.org.

THE MASTERTON TROPHY that Harding won last season for “Perserverance, Sportsmanship and Dedication to Hockey” will be on display tonight near Section 104. The annual award is named for former North Stars player Bill Masterton, who died from injuries suffered in a game during a 1968 North Stars game.

TRIVIA QUESTION: With four wins under his belt already this season, Harding now has 46 career NHL wins. What is his personal record for most wins in a season? (Answer below.)

THE HURRICANES ARE IN the middle of a four-game road trip, but have been off since beating the New York Islanders 4-3 on Saturday. They currently sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division behind Pittsburgh. This is only the 10th time Carolina has played at Minnesota, with the Wild holding a 4-3-2 mark in the series. The ‘Canes are led in scoring by Jeff Skinner with nine points (3G, 6A), while Eric Staal and Nathan Gerbe each have three goals. For Staal, tonight is his 700th NHL game despite the fact that he is just 28 years old. He has recorded 271 goals and 634 points in his career.

TRIVIA ANSWER:  In the 2011-2012 season, Harding appeared in 34 games and posted his career-best 13-12-4 record. He has a career mark of 46-54-9 with eight shutouts.

UP NEXT: The Wild will have the opportunity to compare themselves to one of the league’s best teams when they face the Chicago Blackhawks in a home-and-home series. The teams play in Chicago Saturday night, then meet again in St. Paul on Monday. The Monday game will be “White Jersey Night,” with the Wild wearing their new white road jerseys.

 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild, Oct. 22, 2013



COMING OFF A DISAPPOINTING road trip, the Wild return home for a pair of games, beginning with tonight’s tilt against the Nashville Predators. The Wild went 1-2-1 on the trip, earning a 2-1 victory at Buffalo, but losing at Toronto, Tampa Bay and in a shootout against the Florida Panthers. The Wild scored just five goals in the four games. Despite their 3-3-3 record, the Wild are averaging more than 30 shots per game, while limiting their opponents to a league-low 21.8 shots per game. Tonight marks the beginning of a stretch in which the Wild play six of their next seven games at home.


PENALTIES AND AN INABILITY to kill them off are a big part of the Wild’s struggles in the early part of the season. Minnesota has given up just five goals in 5-on-5 play, lowest in the league (by comparison, Nashville has allowed 14 goals at 5-on-5 in the same number of games), but the Wild have surrendered a league-high 10 power-play goals, and their 73% penalty kill rate is second-worst in the league. Their 43 penalty minutes are the fifth-most in the league.

FOLLOWING UP HIS STRONG rookie season with a solid effort so far is Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin. He scored the team’s only goal against the Panthers, and now has three goals and three assists after recording just 11 points all of last season. Also playing very well is goalie Josh Harding, who started three of the four games on the road trip. He has posted an outstanding 1.11 goals-against average and .948 save percentage, but has just a 3-2-1 record. Harding will get the start tonight.

LEADING THE WILD IN goals is Zach Parise, with four, while Brodin, Matt Cooke and Jason Pominville have three each. Cooke’s six points (3G, 3A) is tied for the team lead with Mikko Koivu (1G, 5A).

INJURY REPORT: Defenseman Keith Ballard was hit in the face by a puck during the game in Toronto, and has not played since. He did not practice Monday and will not play tonight. Goalie Niklas Backstrom practiced and said he is close to 100% healthy. Mike Rupp, who has not played yet this season, is practicing again. Charlie Coyle continues to recover from a sprained knee and is not yet practicing.

THE ADS ON THE DASHER boards are painted lavender tonight as part of the NHL’s “Hockey Fights Cancer” initiative. The Wild coaching staff will also be wearing special Hockey Fights Cancer lavender ties.

TRIVIA QUESTION: Two former Wild players return to St. Paul tonight as members of the Predators. Who are they? (Answer below.)

THE PREDATORS HAVE EARNED points in their past five games (4-0-1) including road wins at Montreal and Winnipeg over the weekend. They beat the Wild 3-2 on October 8 in Nashville.  Patric Hornqvist leads the Preds with three goals, while Craig Smith is tops in points with six (1G, 5A). Pekka Rinne, who made 32 saves in the earlier win over Minnesota, will start in goal.

TRIVIA ANSWER:  Former Wild forwards Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom will be on the ice tonight for Nashville. Cullen, who signed as a free agent with the Predators this past summer, has two goals and two assists in nine games. Nystrom has a goal and three assists. He played the 2010-11 season in Minnesota, recording four goals and 12 points in 82 games.

UP NEXT: The Wild host the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday before a weekend home-and-home series with the Chicago Blackhawks.