Last night’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks certainly wasn’t the best way for the Minnesota Wild to kick off a rough 15-game March schedule. While we’re not talking college basketball here, the Wild have a March Madness of their own with a schedule that will see the team play the Ducks, Canucks, Avalanche and Stars twice this month, with single games against the Predators, Red Wings, Sharks, Coyotes, Kings, an up-and-coming Oilers squad and an undefeated-in-regulation Blackhawks team. The way Minnesota has been starting games, they’ll be lucky to finish the month’s schedule at .500, and they’re already 0-1-0 in March games so far.
What does this mean for Minnesota’s playoff chances? Well, considering they’re in a log jam just on the inside of the playoff bubble, and the lockout-shortened season has them playing entirely within the conference, even if Minnesota goes .500 through this stretch, their chances aren’t good. However, let’s take a look at what the team does have going for them right now.
To say Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have been instrumental in Minnesota’s success is an understatement. They’ve done everything needed to help the team short of completely carrying it on their backs. Parise has been great on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley/Charlie Coyle. This lockout-shortened season has been really tough to adjust to, but this line shows real potential of what it could be like next year in a regular 82-game season. Ryan Suter struggled to adjust from Nashville’s system to Minnesota’s, but has been lights out after his first ten games or so with the team. It’s nice to not have to worry on defense when your top pairing includes a minute-munching indisputable No. 1 defenseman like Suter.
The young guns look great, and will only look better next season. Mikael Granlund, even with his struggles while adjusting to the North American game, still leads Minnesota’s rookies in scoring with a goal and five assists, twice as many points as Jason Zucker and Jonas Brodin with three goals and three assists, respectively. Zucker’s three goals have all come within the past six games, and he’s looked sharp skating alongside center Matt Cullen and goal scoring winger Devin Setoguchi. Coyle, while only notching one goal in his one game stint on the third line, has been impressive on the top line with Parise and Koivu, generating scoring chances, playing well along the boards and playing an aggressively physical style of game that fits well within Coach Yeo’s style.
On the defensive side of the puck, Swedish rookie Jonas Brodin, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has been nothing short of brilliant and is already Minnesota’s second best defensemen—and giving Suter a run for his money at No. 1—and is quickly making a name for himself as one of the NHL’s elite. Brodin is the NHL’s second leading minute-munching rookie defenseman with a game average of 21:55, compared to Suter’s 27:35, which leads all NHL defensemen. The kid makes plays many NHL All Star defensemen wouldn’t even think of at his age (19), and has been compared by many to legendary Swedish blue liner Nicklas Lidstrom—if you watch him, it’s not hard to see why.
Of course, I can’t neglect to mention rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who performed admirably last night against the Ducks—stopping 26 of 29 in a losing effort. The big 6’5” 207-pound goaltender has been impressive in the limited action he’s seen, stopping 83 of 90 shots for a 2.37 goals against average, .922 save percentage and a 1-2-0 record. With a little goal support from the team in front of him, his record should certainly be better than it is.
Minnesota’s defense has been real solid this season, the offense just needs to pick it up. It’s important for the team to come out of the gate strong. Speed, physicality and puck possession are important factors for the team to succeed. Most importantly, the team needs to shoot the puck, because the more shots there are on net, the greater the chance that a puck will get through. They need to buy into Yeo’s system—because it works. His system is no different than the system that Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins use. Yes, Minnesota doesn’t have Crosby or Malkin, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota can’t be a pain in the butt to play against (like Pittsburgh).
Even if Minnesota finishes the month below .500, there is a lot for Wild fans to look forward to next year. The new free agent additions and young guns will be much more prepared for next season with this season under their belts, Brent Flahr and the draft table will have added more quality prospects to the fold thanks to what looks to be an exciting draft this summer. That doesn’t mean that the Wild, or their fans, should instantly write this season off—absolutely not! Minnesota needs to take this one game at a time, and leave it all out on the ice each and every game. However, if Minnesota doesn’t make the playoffs, it’s not the end of the world—this team is swiftly approaching the point where deep playoff runs every year aren’t out of the question. Just be patient, Wild fans.