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Wild at Sharks Preview: An old mustache comes to town

Are the Wild good? Or just playing bad teams?

Minnesota Wild Defenceman Jacob Middleton (5) back checks during the third period of an NHL game between the Calgary Flames and the Minnesota Wild on December 7, 2022, at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, AB. Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Wild (18-11-2, third Central) will make their first visit to the Bay Area this season when they face the San Jose Sharks (10-18-6, seventh Pacific) on Thursday night. The Wild are currently on a five-game win streak as they head into their Wednesday night game against the Anaheim Ducks (just going to go ahead and give the Wild a win here). The Sharks have dropped 13 of their last 16 and are on a three-game losing streak after giving up four straight goals to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.

These two teams last played on Nov. 13, when San Jose rallied from a two-goal deficit in the third period and Alexander Barabanov win it in the fifth round of the shootout.

Since then, the Wild have really turned the season around, having won 11 of their last 16 games. Minnesota struggled with defensive and goaltending issues to start the season, giving up nearly four goals per game in October. Since Nov. 1, the team has allowed a measly 2.45 goals allowed per game, ranking fourth-best in the NHL. In that same time span, the Sharks are the third-worst in the NHL, allowing 4.04 goals per game.

In terms of injuries, only Brandon Duhaime is on IR for Minnesota, nursing an upper-body injury. With Luke Kunin going on LTIR for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Sharks have no other players injured on a short-term basis. Tomas Hertl remains out as he serves the second game of his two-game suspension. Goaltender James Reimer did miss practice on Wednesday — probably a combination of veteran rest and taking a puck to the knee on Tuesday.

Sharks slumping offense

During the month of November, the Sharks were one of the league’s best offenses, scoring 3.53 goals per game and ranked ninth in the league. Since the calendar turned to December, that same offense has scored 3.25 goals per game, 15th in the league, while giving up 4.38 goals per game, ranking dead last.

San Jose did manage to squeak out three against the Flames on Tuesday, but only posted 1.84 expected goals for (xGF) at 5-on-5. This team has lived on quality over quantity all season long, sitting seventh in the NHL in percent share of high-danger chances for (HDCF%), but are only scoring on 14.84 percent of those high-danger chances.

With Hertl serving a suspension, head coach David Quinn will most likely cobble together a first line of Timo Meier, Logan Couture and Alexander Barabanov. Meier is a legit first-line winger on any team, but Couture and Barabanov have solidified themselves as middle-six players.

From there, the coaching staff will pray that they can get some offense elsewhere. The problem is that the top line is most likely going to be going up against Kirill Kaprizov, Sam Steel and Mats Zuccarello — one of the best lines in the league at controlling the puck and producing shot attempts. The Sharks' “top” line is going to have their work cutout for them.

Top 10 lines in the NHL Corsi via MoneyPuck (min 75 mins)
Top 10 lines in the NHL Corsi via MoneyPuck (min 75 mins)

Defense and goaltending

Minnesota has been able to turn the season around thanks to the team’s ability to keep the puck out of their own net. They are the league’s top team at limiting high-danger chances, allowing a little more than 7 high-danger chances per game at 5-on-5. The Sharks allow over 8.6 chances per game. Without Hertl, both Meier and Erik Karlsson are going to be asked to create as many chances as possible on a team that simply doesn’t allow high-danger chances.

Wild vs Sharks Rankings via JFresh Hockey
Wild vs Sharks Rankings via JFresh Hockey

Filip Gustavsson has been nothing short of a revelation this season. His 5.9 goals saved above expected (GSAx) ranks 17th among league goaltenders. Last season, in 18 games with the Ottawa Senators, Gustavsson posted a -6.4 GSAx. Though the Wild re-signed veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, Gustavsson has easily been the better goaltender this year, posting a .922 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.31 goals against average (GAA).

The last two weeks have seen an even split between the netminders, alternating each game. If Gustavsson can continue his play and allow an older Fluery to get more rest as the season goes along, it could be a huge boon, as the Wild look to escape the opening round of playoffs for the first time since 2015.

The Ryan Reaves factor

Forward Ryan Reaves has always been a thorn in the Sharks' side, dating back to his days with the Vegas Golden Knights. The rivalry cooled when he was traded to the New York Rangers in the 2021 off-season and an unnamed forward signing in Edmonton. This year, facing a lack of playing time in New York, the Rangers sent Reaves to the Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick. While Reaves is a fourth-line type of player on the ice, he adds a certain je ne sais quoi to whatever team he plays for.

Ryan Reaves Evolving Hockey Card
Ryan Reaves Evolving Hockey Card

Since his acquisition on Nov. 23, the Wild have been able to string together a winning streak of four and a winning streak of five (pending the Ducks game), with some quality wins in there against the Edmonton Oilers (twice) and Dallas Stars. Maybe it's just lined up with the Wild playing the Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Cancuks, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

While San Jose probably won’t be much of a test for Minnesota, the old-man hockey versus analytics crowd wars rage on, and players like Reaves tend to be in the middle of it. Having a player like Reaves on your team can help to protect star players, provide toughness, etc. — it has its value. At some point, a player who averages only 8:49 minutes of ice time will become a hindrance to the other players who have to make up for his lack of talent keeping him off the ice in key situations.

Bold Prediction: The Wild continue their winning ways, continuing to cut through the bottom half of the NHL standings like an uncle on his third plate of hot dish. Wild win 6-1, with Kaprizov notching three points.