The Minnesota Wild are one of a few teams in the Western Conference that are clamoring for that last wild-card spot, as everyone around the league anticipates an absolute dogfight down the stretch. Just one point out of a spot among the top eight, the Wild square off against the league-leading Nashville Predators Thursday at Bridgestone Arena at 8:30 p.m. ET. And while the playoff implications alone are enough to make this a riveting matchup, the game also features a showdown between two of the league's hottest goaltenders in Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
Here are a few things to consider as the two netminders do battle:
This Season: Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher knocked it out of the park with his midseason acquisition of Dubnyk. Though the move garnered little fanfare at the time -- instead prompting speculation as to whether Dubnyk could really be the answer -- it essentially saved Minnesota's season. Since joining the Wild from Arizona on Jan. 14, Dubnyk has gone 13-3-1 with a .935 save percentage and a 1.66 goals-against average, providing the team the consistency in goal desperately lacking during the first half of the season. Rinne, too, has been absolutely instrumental in the Predators' ascent to the top of the league standings. The 32-year-old Finn is 35-8-3 this season for Nashville, and with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage, he trails only Montreal's Carey Price.
And while Rinne has long been regarded as one of the league's top goaltenders when healthy, Dubnyk has re-established himself as a bona fide starter with his stellar play. Said one Western Conference goaltending coach of Dubnyk's resurgence in Minnesota: "I think it's a combination of a lot of things. One, he has come in and given them some life and some spark. Obviously, he came into the season extremely motivated to prove people wrong. He was a starter in Edmonton for a sh---- team that did pretty good, and now he has some swagger back and looks pretty good. Two, the timing was pretty perfect. They were getting shelled and they figured they needed to play pretty good defense." That coach had no qualms about who he'd pick in this matchup, however: "Pekka's on a different level than [Dubnyk]."
Style Points: Though Dubnyk and Rinne are both big boys, measuring in at 6-foot-6 and 6-5, respectively, they employ markedly different playing styles. Rinne is known for his athleticism and flair, while Dubnyk's style is more subdued by comparison. Said the Western Conference goaltending coach: "Pekka's very athletic. He makes saves out of position and gets anything in front of him, while Duby is a lot more controlled and plays deeper in the net." One Eastern Conference goaltending coach likened Rinne's playing style to that of Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, while another praised Rinne's "fierce" mental makeup, saying he battles as hard as any goaltender in the game. Rinne has also developed a reputation for his ability to cut angles and his ability to make a good first pass, the latter a particularly helpful tool in aiding what is regarded as one of the most talented, mobile defenses in the league.
Though Dubnyk might now be viewed as the Wild's season savior, his sample size is likely too small to warrant any serious consideration for the hardware at season's end. Rinne, however, could be up for both the Vezina Trophy and the Hart Memorial Trophy.
Supporting Cast: It certainly does not hurt Rinne that he is surrounded by a blue-line corps that many feel is the deepest out there. Anchored by stalwart Shea Weber, Nashville also boasts talented youngsters like Roman Josi, Seth Jones and newly acquired Cody Franson on the blue line. Up front, the Preds have been powered by the fantastic play of Filip Forsberg and strong bounce-back seasons from guys like Mike Ribeiro and Colin Wilson. Predators general manager David Poile bolstered their forward depth further with the addition of Mike Santorelli in the same deal that brought Franson to Nashville from Toronto. Meanwhile, a banged-up Minnesota squad has been resilient in its second-half surge, going 11-2-1 since the All-Star break. Both Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund have four points in their past three games, and the Wild are expected to welcome new teammate Sean Bergenheim to their lineup. Minnesota acquired the gritty Finnish winger in a trade with the Florida Panthers Tuesday night. The Wild, led on defense by minute-mongering Ryan Suter, remain one of the best possession teams in the league and lead the NHL in fewest shots against per game at 26.7.
Prediction: Though we predict Rinne will take home at least one trophy -- the Vezina or the Hart -- for his stellar 2014-15 season, Dubnyk will get the better of him Thursday night. The Wild have desperation on their side as they fight to claw their way back into the top eight teams in the West.