WILD (23-17-5) at COYOTES (21-12-9)
Season series: This is the second of three games between these Western Conference teams. The Phoenix Coyotes defeated the Minnesota Wild 3-1 at Xcel Energy Center on Nov. 27 with two goals from forward Radim Vrbata.
Big story: The Coyotes have split the first four games in a six-game homestand, their longest of the season. The Wild have won three straight games, and a victory tonight would make it their longest winning streak of the season.
Coyotes: The Coyotes blanked the struggling Calgary Flames 6-0 on Tuesday behind 27 saves from backup goalie Thomas Greiss. But Head Coach Dave Tippett on Wednesday said starter Mike Smith would be in net for the game against the Wild.
"It's a big game and Smitty is our guy," Tippett said. "(Smith) is our No. 1 guy and when you go into a game of this importance we think he should be the goaltender in there. I think it was good for him with all the emotion around the Olympic situation to take a step back. He's had a couple of good days of work with Burkie and hopefully that pays off."
Smith, who was named to Canada's Olympic team on Tuesday, owns a 2.03 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in 10 career games against the Wild.
Tippett also announced that defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be back in the lineup after missing two-plus games because of an upper-body injury. Ekman-Larsson has notched four goals and 18 assists in 40 games and is averaging 24:38 of ice time.
"We missed his smarts and puck movement and he will bring some energy. He's a top player for us," Tippett said. "It was interesting in practice (Wednesday), it looked like the rest has done him some good. He has a lot of energy and you could tell before the injury that it was down a little bit. We rely on that a lot."
The teams are even in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference with 51 points, but Phoenix is ahead because it has three games in hand.
"It's a huge game for us," said forward Rob Klinkhammer, one of five Coyotes with a two-game point streak. "We're fighting for the last playoff spot right now... The games in hand are nice, but we have to worry about this next game. It's probably the biggest game of the year for us."
Wild: Minnesota wraps up a brief two-game road trip and remains in the playoff hunt despite a rash of injuries to key players. Captain and team scoring leader Mikko Koivu was placed on injured reserve Monday due to ankle surgery, while top-line left wing Zach Parise last played on Dec. 22 due to a lower-body injury. Even goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who has been filling in regularly for starter Josh Harding while he deals with an unspecified illness, was moved to the backup role Tuesday as a result of abdominal soreness.
But 23-year-old goalie Darcy Kuemper was up to the task in a 2-1 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings, making 39 saves throughout regulation and overtime and stopping all four Kings' attempts in the shootout to earn his first victory of the season.
"I'm real happy for Darcy," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "He got thrown into a situation where he didn't know he was going to play until [the] morning, and he responded very well."
Backstrom is expected to start tonight's game.
Who's hot: Forward Mikkel Boedker has three goals and two assists in the past four games for Phoenix. He has career highs in goals (13) and points (29)... Defenseman Ryan Suter has five goals and two assists in the past five games for Minnesota.
Injury report: Coyotes center Kyle Chipchura is out because of a lower-body injury. He is considered day-to-day. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek (lower body) is on injured reserve... Besides Koivu, Parise and Harding, defenseman Jared Spurgeon (lower body) is out indefinitely for the Wild. Yeo said following the game Tuesday he expected Backstrom to be "fine [Wednesday]" regarding the abdominal ailment.
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