A FIVE-GAME HOME STAND ENDS the same way it began, with the Wild taking on the Calgary Flames. For the Flames, this is a vitally important game. After losing in OT to Colorado on Tuesday, the Flames sit in 11th place in the conference, but are just two points back of eighth place – the final playoff spot – with only eight games to play. After losing 3-0 to Minnesota on November 8, the Flames have won four straight against the Wild.
WELCOME BACK, CAPTIAN. Expected to return to the lineup tonight is Wild captain Mikko Koivu, who has missed 23 of the Wild’s last 27 games with a shoulder injury. Koivu originally injured the shoulder against St. Louis on January 14 and missed eight games. He returned and played four games, but was reinjured Feb. 16 against Winnipeg and has not played since. The Wild are 8-16-3 this season in games without Koivu, and he is currently third on the team in scoring with 37 points. He is expected to center a line with Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley tonight.
ALSO READY TO RETURN, although he probably won’t do so tonight, is goalie Niklas Backstrom. He dressed Monday as backup to Josh Harding and says he is ready to play, but it’s likely Harding will get the nod again tonight after posting a 33-save shutout in the 2-0 win over Vancouver. It was the second shutout of the season for Harding, and the sixth of his NHL career.
TRIVIA QUESTION: The Wild’s next four games are all against Eastern Conference opponents; Buffalo, Washington, New York Rangers and Florida. Which Eastern Conference team does the Wild have the most wins against in its history? (Answer below).
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE race for a playoff spot has come down to this: Six teams (Calgary, Dallas, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix) are battling for the final three spots. One of those spots will go to whichever team (Phoenix, L.A., San Jose or Dallas) wins the Pacific Division, while the others will fight for 7th and 8th place in the West and a playoff berth. Los Angeles has looked the best of late, winning five straight, including a big win Tuesday night over San Jose. A loss tonight would put a big dent in Calgary’s hopes, since Phoenix and Colorado are playing each other, which means at least one of them will earn points. Perhaps the biggest surprise is San Jose. The Sharks reached the conference finals last year, then added Brent Burns and Martin Havlat in trades with the Wild, and entered the season thinking they were a Stanley Cup contender. Instead, they’re battling just to get into the playoffs.
THE FLAMES WERE HERE just 11 days ago, and took a 4-3 victory from the Wild. It was 2-0 Calgary early in the 3rd period when Erik Christensen scored twice in 2:20 to tie the game. Curtls Glencross and Olli Jokinen scored for Calgary, and the Wild couldn’t get any closer than Setoguchi’s late goal that made it 4-3. Jarome Iginla scored the Flames’ first goal, bringing his career total to 35 against the Wild, the most (by far) of any Minnesota opponent. Likewise, Mikka Kiprusoff earned the victory in goal, adding to his mark as the goalie with the most wins against Minnesota.
CALGARY COMES INTO tonight with three consecutive losses, although they earned points in two of them for forcing overtime. Tuesday night they had an early lead in Colorado, but David Jones’ overtime goal gave the Avalanche the win.
AROUND THE NHL: In the middle of a tight playoff race, the Phoenix Coyotes will play the next three games without their captain, Shane Doan, who received a three-game suspension for an elbow to the head of Dallas’ Jamie Benn Tuesday night…The New York Rangers became the first Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff spot, and are one point behind St. Louis in the race for the President’s Trophy…The Chicago Blackhawks – Cup champions two years ago – defeated Vancouver last night for their fifth consecutive win and an 8-1-1 record in their last 10 games. Vancouver is 3-5-2 in its last 10…The Nashville Predators got some late-season help when Alexander Radulov returned from Russia to rejoin the team. Radulov bolted Nashville at the end of the 2007-08 season to play in Russia, but Predators retained his rights. The 25-year-old Radulov has 95 points in 145 career NHL games and was two-time MVP of the KHL in Russia.
TRIVIA ANSWER: The Wild have 10 wins against the Boston Bruins, the most wins against any Eastern Conference team. Next on the list are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who the Wild have defeated nine times. They are also the last two Eastern Conference teams to win the Stanley Cup.
UP NEXT: The Wild make a quick two-game Eastern road trip, playing at Buffalo on Saturday and Washington on Sunday. Both those teams are battling for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. Sunday’s game is a 4 p.m. start on NBC Sports Network.