Soaring Jets get set to start at home vs. experienced Wild

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The NHL’s return to Winnipeg has been an instant success in the seats, with regular sellouts since the Jets arrived in 2011 for a second landing in the smallest market in the league.

Progress on the ice has been measurably slower, with just one appearance in the playoffs in the first six years in wintry Manitoba after a struggling franchise moved north from Atlanta, but the patience of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been rewarded and then some this season.

Sporting the second-best record in the NHL, the Jets have carried the momentum of 11 wins in their last 12 games into their first-round series against Minnesota.

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

They boast one of the game’s coveted prodigies in 19-year-old Patrik Laine and his 44 goals. They have a balanced roster that ranked second in the league in scoring and fifth in fewest goals against. They face the Wild on Wednesday night at home, where they’re an NHL-best 32-7-2 this season.

“Enjoy it, right?” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “We work real hard to get to a place where there’s mounting pressure and mounting enthusiasm, and then we want to keep working to get to more and more and more. So you have to be a part of it. You have to enjoy it for sure.”

Their time to take a big step forward to join the league’s elite has arrived. They even, considering their seed, represent the best hope to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993.

Toronto is the only other team that made the playoffs this year, and the Maple Leafs must start the first round on the road against the Boston Bruins.

“You don’t know how many times you’re going to come across this opportunity,” goalie Connor Hellebuyck said, “and especially now with the great team like we have here. I’m really excited to see what these guys bring.”

With another series of “Whiteout ” events planned for Bell MTS Place, with fans encouraged to wear white team gear to the arena and surrounding parties, the city has been buzzing all week even as winter again overstays its welcome.

“I’m very excited. I can start feeling my body getting those butterflies,” Hellebuyck said.

The knock against the Jets is the collective lack of postseason experience, with a four-game sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in 2015 serving as the only action in the playoffs for some of these players. Laine hadn’t even been drafted yet.

That’s where the Wild have a clear advantage, with this their sixth straight appearance in the 16-team tournament.

Though they were overshadowed in the Western Conference this season by the Jets, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Wild posted the third-best record in franchise history. Center Eric Staal had 42 goals, his most in 12 years. Jason Zucker scored a career-high 33 goals. Their defensemen ranked second in the league with 200 points.

“You really got to go through it to know what it’s about,” left wing Zach Parise said, adding: “I know they’ve been short-lived the last couple years, but you hope with just being there that will help us.”

Here are some other key angles to follow with the series:

PALS IN PADS

Hellebuyck and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk met last summer in British Columbia during training sessions and rounds of golf that forged a friendship, with Dubnyk encouraging Hellebuyck to keep his head up after the Jets signed Steve Mason to an $8.2 million contract.

Sure enough, Mason stumbled early and Hellebuyck supplanted him as the primary netminder to tie for the NHL lead with 44 wins and finish eighth in goals-against average.

“It’s been fun to watch but that’s enough now,” Dubnyk said. “It’s been a great year for him, but I’ll stop cheering for him now.”

SUTER OUT, SPURGEON IN

One of the Wild’s greatest assets for this matchup will be absent, with a season-ending broken ankle for stalwart Ryan Suter, who tied a franchise defenseman record with 51 points in 78 games.

The upside is that Jared Spurgeon, who missed the last 17 games with a torn hamstring, is on track to return. He practiced with one of the two power-play units on Tuesday, and coach Bruce Boudreau said he’d make a game-time decision about Spurgeon’s availability on Wednesday.

WHEELS UP

Jets captain Blake Wheeler tied for the NHL lead with 68 assists this season and finished ninth with 91 points, fueling a potent first line with Kyle Connor and Mark Schiefele to take some of the scoring pressure off Laine.

Wheeler played at Breck High School in the Twin Cities area and in college for Minnesota before turning pro. He has never missed more than three games in any regular season since his debut with Boston in 2008-09.

CULLEN’S CUPS

Wild center Matt Cullen contributed a modest 11 goals and 11 assists from the fourth line, but the 41-year-old’s contribution transcends points. He’s played in 123 postseason games, winning three Stanley Cups including the past two with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“This is why we got him, his experience in positions like we’re in right now,” Boudreau said. “So we’re hoping he’s going to be valuable.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Ryan Suter to have surgery, done for the season

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The Minnesota Wild are likely heading to the playoffs, but their top defenseman won’t be coming along.

The Wild announced that Ryan Suter, who was injured in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, will have surgery to repair a fracture in his ankle and is done for the season.

Suter had already set a career-high with 45 assists and tied his career-high in points with 51. He was also a force on the power play with 23 power-play points.

Production aside, Suter also commanded a ton of minutes at 26:46 per game, second highest in the NHL.

The Wild are currently third in the Central Division with 96 points and would play the Winnipeg Jets in the first round if the playoffs started today.

No matter how you look at it, it’s a huge blow to the Wild’s aspirations in the playoffs, even with the pending return of Jared Spurgeon.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wild lose key defenseman Spurgeon for playoff push

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If defenseman Jared Spurgeon plays for the Minnesota Wild again before next season, it probably won’t happen until the playoffs.

The team announced that the important player is expected to miss “a minimum” of four weeks after suffering a partial tear to his right hamstring. The Wild close out their regular season schedule at San Jose on April 7, so if he returns, it would be thanks to an accelerated recovery.

(Pauses for everyone to remember that hockey players beat their recovery windows with regularity.)

Spurgeon, 28, has quickly become one of the team’s most important defensemen. He saw a significant boost in ice time since Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach, as he went from averaging about 22-and-a-half minutes per night to more than 24 minutes per game under Boudreau. This season saw a slight boost to 24:33 per contest, in fact.

(Ryan Suter is the only Wild skater averaging more ice time per game at 26:46.)

Spurgeon looked like he was primed to smash career-bests of 11 goals in 2015-16 and 38 points from 2016-17, as he had nine goals and 37 points in 61 games. Sadly, it’s difficult to imagine him getting a shot at upping those totals now.

Less than a week ago, Boudreau glowed about Spurgeon, stating that he’s liked “absolutely everything” he’s seen from him in 2017-18, as Kayleigh Jackson of the Wild website reported.

“He’s another one of those national treasures that nobody hears about, but you wonder why your team does good and he’s one of the big reasons why,” Boudreau said.

Unfortunately, the team’s already experienced a stretch without Spurgeon:

Luckily, the Wild have a buffer as far as protecting a playoff spot goes, as they’re currently ranked third in the Central Division with 85 points in 70 games. It’s not an enormous margin of error – the Stars and Avalanche are both at 82 points in the Central alone, and Colorado holds a game in hand – so Spurgeon’s injury ups the degree of difficulty considerably.

If Spurgeon heals up by playoff time and the Wild maintain their hold on a West spot, one must also wonder how close he’ll be at full-strength, as hamstring issues can serve as nagging injuries. Even a hampered Spurgeon would probably be worth suiting up, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Associated Press

[WATCH LIVE – 8:30 p.m. ET]

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Wild

Jason ZuckerEric StaalMikael Granlund

Zach PariseMikko KoivuCharlie Coyle

Nino NiederreiterJoel Eriksson EkTyler Ennis

Daniel WinnikMatt CullenMarcus Foligno

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

[NHL on NBCSN: Avalanche, Wild meet with important points on the line]

Avalanche

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Sven AndrighettoTyson JostJ.T. Compher

Matt NietoCarl SoderbergBlake Comeau

Alexander KerfootDominic ToninatoGabriel Bourque

Nikita ZadorovTyson Barrie

Patrik NemethSamuel Girard

Duncan SiemensDavid Warsofsky

Starting goalie: Semyon Varlamov

WATCH LIVE: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

St. Louis Blues

Alexander SteenIvan BarbashevVladimir Tarasenko

Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennNikita Soshnikov

Patrik BerglundVladimir SobotkaTage Thompson

Scottie UpshallKyle BrodziakDmitrij Jaskin

Jay BouwmeesterAlex Pietrangelo

Vince DunnColton Parayko

Carl GunnarssonJordan Schmaltz

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

[Preview for Blues – Wild]

Minnesota Wild

Jason ZuckerEric StaalMikael Granlund

Zach PariseMikko KoivuNino Niederreiter

Charlie CoyleJoel Eriksson EkTyler Ennis

Daniel WinnikMatt CullenMarcus Foligno

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk