ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Wild coach Dean Evason doesn’t allow his players to overlook any opponent. As cliche as it sounds, it’s one game at a time throughout the 82-game regular season, and the whole team has bought in.
Need proof? With a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs looming on Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center, center Ryan Hartman only recently became privy to the magnitude of the marquee matchup
“Honestly, I thought we were playing (the Florida Panthers) until the other day,” Hartman said with a laugh. “I don’t think we’re looking too far ahead.”
That said, now that the game is here, there’s something to be said about how well the Wild (16-6-1, 33 points) and Maple Leafs (17-6-1, 35 points) have been playing this season. This will be a good measuring stick for both teams as they continue to establish themselves as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
“It’s obviously going to be a huge test,” goaltender Cam Talbot said. “They’re playing probably the best hockey in the NHL right now. They’ve got a lot of firepower up front and their goaltender is playing unbelievable. It’s going to take a full team effort, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to see how we measure up against a really good team in the Eastern Conference.”
The Maple Leafs very well could be the best team in the Eastern Conference. And with the Wild currently the best team in the Western Conference, Saturday’s game takes on new meaning.
“My mom already told me that it’s (on) Hockey Night In Canada,” coach Dean Evason said. “It’s exciting. They’ve got a good hockey club, we’ve got a good hockey club. It’ll be a good game.”
It will be a good game because of the players involved. While each team has a bonafide star — the Wild have Kirill Kaprizov, the Maple Leafs have Auston Matthews — the supporting cast is what makes them so dangerous.
For the Wild, its guys like Hartman, wingers Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Fiala, and Marcus Foligno, and center Joel Eriksson Ek, among others. For the Maple Leafs, it’s guys like captain John Tavares, and wingers Mitch Marner and William Nylander, among others.
“I think every team in this league has star players,” Kaprizov said through a translator. “We have to take the mentality that it’s just another game that we want to win for our fans at home and close out a really strong homestand. It’s just another game, and that’s how we have to prepare for it.”
There’s a chance the Wild match up lines against the Maple Leafs, according to Evason, though it’s not something they need to rely on.
As far as the Wild are concerned, if they focus on themselves and what they do well, they have more than enough to beat the Maple Leafs.
“We will have to bring our ‘A’ game to be able to compete with those guys,” defenseman Jon Merrill said. “But I think we try to bring the same mentality regardless of the opponent. We’re worried about us right now. We like a lot of things that we’re doing, and we’ve got to continue to build on that and get better each and every night.”
No matter who the opponent is.