It’s a quarter of the way through the season, and the Minnesota Wild currently occupy the first wild card spot in the West with a 14-5-4 record and 32 points. However, that doesn’t indicate just how close this team is to standing at the top of the entire league standings.
Just two points separates the Wild from a tie for first in the league with the Chicago Blackhawks. What’s more, no other team in the league has posted a better record in the past 10 games than Minnesota (8-1-1). The only teams that have come close just so happen to be division rivals Chicago (7-2-1) and St. Louis (7-2-1), the Pacific Division’s Los Angeles (7-1-2) and Washington in the East (7-2-1).
The Wild have certainly been impressive, but a huge reason why they’ve succeeded is because, like many teams in the West, Minnesota has feasted on the Eastern Conference this season, going an impressive 8-3-2. In 10 games against the West, the Wild have been good this season, notching a 6-2-2 record and collecting 10 of a possible 14 points against Central Division rivals in particular. However, Minnesota has yet to play St. Louis and Colorado–two teams that are certain to stand directly in the path of Minnesota and a second consecutive year of postseason action.
It’s pretty easy to look at the stats and the way Minnesota has played and think that they should be all but shoe-ins for the playoffs. Where Minnesota sits in the standings come December 20th could be quite indicative of the way the rest of the season could go. Between now and then, Minnesota will play 14 games–11 within the super-tight Western Conference, six within the division–and none of them are going to be easy.
After playing against the Jets in Winnipeg tomorrow, the Wild will spend next week in St. Louis to take on the Blues, back in St. Paul to host the Phoenix Coyotes and then wrap up the week with a home-and-home against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche next weekend. The next week, Minnesota hosts the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks before taking on the Blue Jackets in Columbus. The week of December 8th-14th will be their hardest yet as they host the San Jose Sharks before a three-game road swing through Anaheim, San Jose and Colorado. Finally, the Wild will play just two games the week of the 20th, but they’re not going to be easy. Vancouver is no longer the best of the West, but the Canucks are not a team to dismiss. They’ll prove to be a challenge, and Pittsburgh will definitely pose a threat on the 19th.
As you can see, Minnesota could be in for a rough time if they’re not prepared. The biggest question could be whether or not Harding can play the vast majority of those games. Niklas Backstrom is still out with a concussion, and every case is different, so there’s no real time table for his return at this point. Darcy Kuemper is clearly not ready to play backup in St. Paul, and Johan Gustafsson has next to no North American pro hockey experience. No, both young netminders need to spend time plying their trade in the minors before they can be handed the NHL reins.
If Minnesota is going to thrive in this stretch, they need a reliable solution at backup. Either Backstrom needs to be ready to go, or Wild GM Chuck Fletcher needs to make a few calls. Whether it’s trading a draft pick for a guy like Florida’s Scott Clemmensen, or signing a guy like Jose Theodore, something needs to be done if Backstrom is going to be out much longer. Otherwise, this could be a real rough stretch to watch.