Jan 28, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller (1) reacts after a goal was scored by Minnesota Wild right wing Jason Pominville (not pictured) during the first period at the Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In a Tough Western Conference, Minnesota Wild Refuse to Quit

As the Minnesota Wild prepare to take on Patrick Roy’s Colorado Avalanche, it’s hard to believe this team–minus top line center Mikko Koivu, top-3 defenseman Jared Spurgeon and No. 1 goalie Josh Harding–has decisively taken five of six possible points against the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. Those are three of the four top teams the West has to offer, if you didn’t know.

There’s no question Zach Parise’s return from a broken foot has been key to their success lately, especially his goal and two assists against Anaheim. However, the reason Minnesota is still in serious playoff contention isn’t due to star players like Parise, Koivu, Spurgeon and Harding–they’ve all been out of the lineup for a while–it’s the blue collar veterans and rising young guns that have given their team every opportunity to win night in and night out.

Minnesota has dealt with injury plagued seasons before, and it hasn’t been pretty. While the team did slump late last season, making their final game of the season (against the Avalanche, no less) a must-win if they were to make the playoffs, Minnesota pulled out a 3-1 victory to clinch their first playoff berth in five years. Of course, we all know how that ended–a short, sweet five-game playoff run against the eventual Stanley Cup champs.

The year before that, Minnesota was the top ranked team in the entire National Hockey League through mid-December. Injuries to Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen would cause the Wild to become the first team in league history to miss the playoffs after leading the league that late in the season. And it wasn’t that the team just missed the playoffs–they plummeted all the way to the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Excuses were made in both instances. Not enough depth. Not enough talent. Not enough experience. Those are excuses that will not be heard, or, at least believed, this year. The Wild lost serious man power this season with injuries to key players, but after years of waiting for promising youngsters to develop and arrive, Minnesota’s amateur and professional scouting staff are finally seeing the fruits of their labors.

Jason Zucker is adding reliable two-way defensive play to his offensive game. Charlie Coyle is in a bit of a sophomore slump, but he’s still a moose of a player as ever, and has helped Dany Heatley partially re-emerge as a legitimate offensive threat. Mikael Granlund has soared this season compared to last, winning face-offs and playing physically and responsibly while scoring 20 assists and four goals for 24 points.

The signing of rugged third line winger Matt Cooke has paid off in spades for the Wild, as he’s played big minutes in a shutdown defensive role against the best of the West while also contributing offensively. If that was smart, the acquisition of 2010 5th overall pick Nino Niederreiter was nothing short of brilliant. He’s big, plays an in-your-face style of game around the net and has silky smooth mitts. The Swiss winger currently ranks fifth in team scoring with nine goals and 17 assists for 26 points, 23 more than he would score in 64 games with the Islanders. What’s more, his two-way defensive game has given him a Wild forward-best plus-11 rating, all while playing big minutes in Minnesota’s top-6. Only defenseman Marco Scandella (plus-12) has a better plus-minus rating.

That said, perhaps the depth that has been most needed has been in goal. For years, Minnesota has struggled to produce offensively, and it was stellar goaltending that kept the team afloat. In a way, the same can’t be said for the team anymore. Niklas Backstrom–the best goaltender in franchise history–has gone from starter to mentor. Former backup goalie Josh Harding has gone from clear No. 1 goalie to day-to-day with multiple sclerosis medication complications.

If it wasn’t for third goalie Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota’s playoff hopes could be in deadly peril. Kuemper has gone from discouraged rookie at the start of the season to a confident stud who will likely make his ninth consecutive start in net tonight. His impressive play has been a big reason Minnesota has gone 9-3-1 since January 1st. In 11 games this season, the big 6’5″ 205-pound netminder has notched a 6-3-1 record with a .924 save percentage, a 2.26 goals against average and a shutout. Not bad for a 23-year old kid, especially when you consider how long it usually takes for goaltenders to develop.

It takes a special team to make a serious playoff contender and a tight-knit group of brothers to hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug. It’s hard to say what the atmosphere is like in the Wild locker room without being there, but it’s quickly become apparent this isn’t the Minnesota squad we’ve known in the past. The team has offense, defense and goaltending, talented youths and star veterans, inexperience and experience. It all combines into a recipe for success both in the immediate future and within the next five years.

Scott will have your game preview up shortly.

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Tags: Charlie Coyle Darcy Kuemper Jason Zucker Matt Cooke Mikael Granlund Nino Niederreiter

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