Blues and Wild take aim at West playoff race
BLUES (17-14-5) at WILD (18-16-3)
: St. Louis 6-4-0; Minnesota 6-4-0
: The Blues have taken the only meeting between the teams this season, a 3-1 victory at Scottrade Center on Oct. 23.
: With both St. Louis and Minnesota sitting four points outside of the West's top eight, the two will look to gain an edge in the conference playoff race as the season nears its midpoint.
: After sneaking into the playoffs with a remarkable run last season, St. Louis is struggling to stay with the pack. The Blues have made strides lately, however, winning three straight games while outscoring opponents 11-4 over that stretch. The team got a boost in its last outing, a 2-1 shootout win over the Flames, when defenseman Eric Brewer
returned to the lineup after missing 13 games with a bone bruise in his back.
The strength on the blue line is starting to be matched by the offense, as Brad Boyes
may be regaining the form he displayed a season ago when he tallied 72 points. The winger, who leads the Blues with 24 points, has a goal and three assists in his last four games, while David Backes
has 14 points in the last 15 games. With players like Alex Steen
chipping in -- Steen has five points in the last three games -- St. Louis may yet find its groove from last spring and make another run at the postseason.
: At first glance, the Wild's season might have appeared to be going up in flames last week -- literally. After a practice in Kanata, Ontario, much of Minnesota's equipment was destroyed in a fire as it was being transported to Scotiabank Place for a game against the Ottawa Senators. Despite the disconcerting omen, Minnesota has quietly made big strides in December, winning eight of its last 12 games.
With losses in his first two games after the fire, there was talk goaltender Niklas Backstrom was having difficulty adapting to his new equipment, but Backstrom put those concerns to bed with a 30-save performance Wednesday against Edmonton. In fact, the Finn has been particularly strong between the pipes recently, winning five of his last seven starts and giving up one goal or fewer in each of those wins. If players like Andrew Brunette and Cal Clutterbuck, who have a combined six points in the last four games, continue producing, Backstrom won't be the only thing about the Wild that scares opponents.
: Much of Minnesota's December run can be attributed to the reemergence of Martin Havlat. After struggling for much of the season, the offseason acquisition has exploded for nine points in his last seven games.
: Minnesota found out last week that Robbie Earl would be on injured reserve with flu-like symptoms, joining Brent Burns, Petr Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who are out with concussions. ... The Blues may soon get some added toughness, with left wing D.J. King
due back after missing two months with right hand surgery.
: If the Blues are going to make hay, they might do well to bring their road intensity home. While St. Louis has 11 wins outside of Missouri this year, the third-highest total in the League, the Blues have just six wins at Scottrade Center, the fewest in the NHL.
: With both Minnesota and St. Louis on the outside looking in, no two points are unimportant or a given. When you have a chance to gain ground on a competitor for the final spot, the potential four-point swing can make a world of difference. With that in mind, expect both the Blues and Wild to play the part of desperation as they look to pull closer to the top eight.