Wild vs. Flames preview

The Calgary Flames’ surprising first half has them in the thick of a competitive Western Conference playoff race.

Behind the talents of rookie Johnny Gaudreau, the Flames will look to keep pace Thursday night when they face the Minnesota Wild in the second of a six-game homestand.

After representing Calgary (26-19-3) at last weekend’s All-Star festivities, Gaudreau emerged from the break to score twice in a 4-1 win over Buffalo on Tuesday.

The goals gave Gaudreau 15, tying him for the team lead with Sean Monahan and moving him into third place among rookies behind Filip Forsberg of Nashville and Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman, who each have 16.

"Just being around the guys that were in that locker room this weekend, it’s exciting for me to be a part of that," Gaudreau said. "Now I’m excited for the second half of the season."

The 21-year-old’s top performances have translated into nothing but success for the Flames, who are 9-0-0 when he records at least two points.

Monahan and Jiri Hudler, Gaudreau’s linemates, have been equally vital to the Flames. Monahan can extend his point streak to a career-best six games while Hudler, tied for the team lead with 41 points, assisted on both of Gaudreau’s goals Tuesday.

"Playing with (Hudler) and (Monahan), those are two skilled guys," Gaudreau said. "It’s hard not to create offensive chances when you’re playing with two guys like that. We’re making plays in the offensive zone."

Jonas Hiller was 0-3-0 with a 3.81 goals-against average in his previous four appearances before stopping 17 shots, and he’ll get the nod Thursday as well. He’s 11-5-1 with a 2.31 GAA in 17 starts against the Wild.

Minnesota (21-20-6) came out of the break on a good note with a 2-1 victory in Edmonton on Tuesday. Still, coach Mike Yeo sees needed improvement for his last-place team.

"Puck management was poor tonight. Very poor," Yeo said. "We pride ourselves on being a team that can defend well, but when you turn pucks over like that, you’re not in a position to defend."

Minnesota had dropped eight of its previous 10, and excluding a 7-0 win against Buffalo on Jan. 15, had scored 18 goals over that span while allowing 37.

The Wild rank near the bottom of the league with 2.89 goals allowed per game.

Devan Dubnyk stopped 23 shots to bounce back after he was pulled in the second period of his previous start Jan. 20. He owns a 2.04 GAA in five games since being acquired from Arizona on Jan. 14, and has been the top option after Darcy Kuemper was sent to Iowa of the AHL for a conditioning assignment and Niklas Backstrom going 0-5-2 with a 4.12 GAA over his last eight appearances.

Minnesota sits ahead of only Edmonton and Arizona in the West but is just seven points behind the Flames for the second wild-card spot.

The Wild are 6-2-1 in the last nine meetings, beating visiting Calgary 3-2 in the last one March 3.