Six to one: that was the score of tonight’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and the Minnesota Wild. Not only was it a brutal way to end the final home game of the season, it was also the second time in four games that the Wild was shellacked by that score, having lost to San Jose on April 18th. In between, however, was a terrible 4-1 loss at the hands of the Calgary Flames and a terrific 2-1 victory, arguably their best game of the season, over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. Minnesota seems to have a hard time deciding which team it wants to be.
Never before has there been a more talented team in franchise history. The prospect pool is deeper than it has ever been, and General Manager Chuck Fletcher proved he was serious about building a perennial contender when he signed top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year $98 Million contracts on July 4th. Fletcher also furthered his commitment to the here-and-now by trading away top prospects Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett along with a first and second round pick to Buffalo for former Sabres captain Jason Pominville.
Tonight, with the chance to clinch their first playoff berth in five years against a non-playoff team they’ve historically dominated like no other, Minnesota laid the biggest egg in franchise history. Now—don’t get me wrong—I’m sure there have been worse losses for Minnesota, I even know for a fact there are. However, Minnesota hasn’t been this close to the playoffs since before Lemaire left, and, with the perfect opportunity before them, just crapped the bed in epic fashion.
That said, that means tomorrow is do-or-die for Minnesota—it might as well be Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Final. Colorado is filled to the brim with young, elite talent in guys like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly. It’s unreasonable to expect them to roll over and die. The Avalanche would just love to be the team to knock Minnesota out of the playoffs. There is another reason to be afraid of them—this month alone, they’ve beaten Anaheim (2nd seed in West), Vancouver (3rd) and St. Louis (4th), while taking both LA (5th) and Columbus (9th) as far as the shootout.
The fact of the matter is that Minnesota’s 3-0-1 record against the Avs this season isn’t worth peanuts to Colorado when they have nothing to lose. They’ve been playing smart hockey lately against playoff caliber teams and you can bet they can smell the blood of a sorely wounded Wild squad.
Guys are beat up, playing injured or spending precious time on the shelf that the team can ill afford to spare. Starting netminder Niklas Backstrom has been played too much and has struggled in recent games. Josh Harding saw his first glimpse of NHL ice-time since February 7th, and it showed, though not his fault in the least.
Jonas Brodin, Minnesota’s rookie of the year candidate, was a negative-3 on the night tonight, along with Kyle Brodziak, Charlie Coyle and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Matt Cullen hasn’t been the same since he returned to the lineup and any offensive production from Devin Setoguchi has nearly ground to a halt. The Brodziak-Bouchard line is nothing without Jason Pominville (thanks a lot, Dustin Brown). Minnesota can’t make it in the playoffs with just its top line and energy line rolling; they won’t even be able to get past Colorado like that.
What can be done to light the fire under these guys? Is there something Head Coach Mike Yeo can say or do to address the team’s needs? At this point, what can you even say that’ll make a difference? It’s up to guys like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to stand up in the locker room and say something. Cuss, scream, yell whatever— something needs to be done and it needs to come from these three. The Wild just can’t get within one win of the playoffs only to lose to the second worst team in the league. They can’t; it’s not an option.
If they do, the job of not only Mike Yeo, but Chuck Fletcher, could be at stake, as well. This is extreme, and ultimately not in the best interest of the Wild organization, but Minnesota fans have had enough. They expect a better brand of hockey. They expect not just one or two playoff runs every now and then, but perennial runs that get deeper and deeper each time, ultimately leading to the pinnacle of professional hockey—the Stanley Cup.
This team needs to go back and look at Tuesday night’s win against the Kings and see what they were doing right or wrong compared to tonight’s train wreck. The way they have to come out and play tomorrow against the Avs is exactly the way they played Tuesday. They were aggressive, they were getting the puck behind the opposing defense, they were controlling the play in the offensive zone for extended periods of time, they were clogging up traffic in the neutral zone, they were cutting off shooting lanes in the defensive zone—they were playing good hockey. If they can play like that against Colorado, Minnesota will punch their postseason ticket for the first time in five years. If not, well, it’s going to be one very long offseason in the State of Hockey.