After a very long campaign to get involved in and host an NHL outdoor game, the Minnesota Wild will finally put their skates on and grab their sticks, and take to the ice under a winter sky on a cold northern Sunday afternoon.
Like a great story, they will face a great and intimidating villain, in the Chicago Blackhawks. They are division rivals, and Chicago, notably has eliminated the Wild from the playoffs in each of the last three years so no team seems like a bigger obstacle to overcome. Chicago outside of being the visiter, is also one of the NHL’s premier teams that has already participated in three of these popular outdoor games.
It will be the first NHL Stadium Series game of 2016, with the Alumni Game being held the day before on Saturday February 20, both games taking place at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota. The Wild will host, and fortunately for them, they’re playing pretty well considering it’s only been a week since the team fired head coach Mike Yeo, and that has not been a downer. Another recent bit of luck is that their goalie just missed being seriously injiured when Devan Dubnyk was hit on the neck with a shot during the Wild’s practice at TCF Bank Stadium today, but he later told media that he should be able to start in the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that he escaped any lasting consequence from the hit.
Tomorrow’s game will be the 17th time the league has put on an outdoor game, and that includes eight years of the Winter Classic game which is held on New Year’s Day. There will be players on both sides who have played the game outdoors already and know how special it is and other who haven’t done this yet, and will surely find themselves thinking back to those childhood days when they skated at the local park or on a frozen pond when playing for the NHL was just a dream.
“It’s important to really live in the moment and soak in different situations that you get a chance that you get to be a part of. This is one of them,” said Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk to local media. “Who knows when you get a chance to be in a situation like this or a game like this again? You don’t want to zone out so much that you wake up a week from now and you don’t remember any of it.”
The opponents think the same way too, even though they’ve played outdoors before:
“There’s no doubt your fourth one is not exactly a novelty like it was at first, but still exciting,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews told reporters. “It looks like we’re going to get some decent weather, knock on wood.” And he could be right, as the forecast for Sunday is calling for a nice cool temperature of 0 degrees celcius, with a dry, partly sunny day expected.
The Wild who are 26-22-10, will look to bounce back on a very big stage from a slump that put them out of contention for a Western Conference wild-card spot, so beating the impressive Blackhawks who are 38-18-5, could be a huge victory that could get them on the right track, if they don’t get to distracted by the nostalgic charm of an outdoor game.
“We’d like to come out with two points, that’s for sure,” said Wild interim coach John Torchetti. Funny enough, he is the former Blackhawks assistant who was on staff in 2010 for the first of three Stanley Cup titles that the Blackhawks won in the last six years.
Since Torchetti took over, the team is 3-0. The Wild scored five goals in each of those wins, the first time in franchise history they’ve had such a goal streak.
So everyone can definitely expect some urgency surrounding the Wild’s play, when they hit the ice for the Stadium Series event at TCF Bank Stadium, where the University of Minnesota plays football during their regular season. But the outdoor element won’t be lost on them since the state produces many NHLers, 3rd most in the US of all-time, so there’ll be amusement and appreciation as well of the uniqueness of the game. It’s Minnesota, after all, a state that has produced 36 players on NHL rosters this season alone, and ranks first in the nation in terms of participation according to USA Hockey.
“When you get to be part of these Stadium Series games, I think the NHL has a little faith in your team to put on a good show,” said Blackhawks star Patrick Kane. “And obviously in Minnesota here, we know hockey’s pretty popular, too, so I’m sure it will be an exciting game.”
The two teams got in a little practice on Saturday afternoon and were satisfied with the ice conditions. Right after, the alumni game was held where a handful of ex-Wild players joined former Minnesota North Stars standouts in a friendly grudge match against Blackhawks greats. It was very popular with local fans.
The event will be celebrated all weekend in many other ways, from the fan festival at the stadium, autograph sessions, live music and even a special lighting of the nearby Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in the Wild’s red and green colors.
The expected capacity of the crowd is 50,000. So fans will have plenty to entertain themselves with. Once the puck drops, though, the atmosphere turns just to hockey. It’s that serious in MN.
“At the end of the day, at this time of the season especially, we know how important a game it is,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “It’s a team that’s playing really well and a team that you know you have to go through. We have to make sure that we’re ready and try and limit the distractions.”
It will be tough not only not to be distracted, but to play against a strong Blackhawks team who are 4-0 in their last 4 road games and 21-8 in their last 29 overall. The Wild are 7-3 in their last 10 games too though, and will be playing on 2 days rest. But they are 0-8 in their last 8 home games.
The Blackhawks have dominated they series matchup and are 9-4 in the last 13 meetings of the two team. Even though the Wild haven’t been able to win at home for whatever reason in the recent past, and the Blackhawks have been a far more the consistent team over the course of the season, home ice advantage will be huge! That’s why we think the Wild will redeem themsleves for their fans and win this first outdoor game on their home turf.