ST. PAUL, MINN. - Tonight's game at Xcel Energy Center matches the two hottest teams since the All-Star break: The Wild have 49 points, the Rangers 45.
Both are speed-based squads, but the Wild, like the Rangers' last five opponents, are playoff-bubble teams with a lot at stake. The Rangers, of course, already clinched a postseason berth.
For the Blueshirts (48-21-7, 103 points), the prize for a win tonight, thanks to the Penguins' loss on Wednesday, is a valuable one. They could clinch the Metropolitan Division title with two points and earn home ice advantage in the first two rounds.
Right wing Martin St. Louis, who has missed eight games with a sprained knee, is returning on a line with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin. It is the first time that trio will be together. And Henrik Lundqvist, coming off a 32-save performance in Winnipeg, will start consecutive games for the first time in two months. Jesper Fast moves down to the fourth line, and James Sheppard will be a healthy scratch.
It's not going to be easy. The Wild (44-25-7, 95 points), have climbed into the first wild-card spot in the West, have won seven of eight games and are 11-4 in their last 15 at home. In 34 starts since being acquired from Edmonton, 6-foot-6 goalie Devan Dubnyk is 26-6-1, with a 1.70 GAA, a .939 save percentage and five shutouts.
One concern, according to Wild coach Mike Yeo, is that the Wild have not played since Saturday and have had two full days off.
"That's the challenge," he said Thursday morning. "We had a good rhythm going there ... we're going to have to be prepared to dial it back up quickly. We had two huge wins [Friday against the Flames and Saturday against the Kings]. You worry if there's a bit of an emotional letdown, in terms of the intensity we had going into those games."
Center Mikko Koivu had three goals in those games, former Islander Nino Neiderreiter had two and Zach Parise one.
One thing the clubs have in common is quality penalty-killing. The Wild rank first in the NHL, the Rangers seventh. But both power plays are struggling: The Rangers rank 21st, the Wild 28th, but Minnesota is 13th at home. So this game could well be decided 5-on-5.
"Should be a fast-paced game," said Yeo.
The Rangers scored five goals in the third period on Oct. 27 to tame the Wild, 5-4, at Madison Square Garden. Rosters have changed since then. Darcy Keumper was in the net for the Wild and both Kevin Klein (now injured) and prospect Anthony Duclair (traded) dressed for the Blueshirts, and scored.
On the road, the Rangers are 12-4-1 since the All-Star break, but "they've been playing pretty well all season," said Parise. "They play a fast game and have a really good d-corps, so we'll have our hands full."
Who to watch on the Rangers: Derick Brassard had a goal and assist on Tuesday, and has five points (1-4-5) in his last three games against the Wild.
RANGERS PROJECTED LINEUP
Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-J.T. Miller
Tanner Glass-Dominic Moore-Fast
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Marc Staal-Dan Boyle
Keith Yandle-Matt Hunwick