The Minnesota Wild are headed into the Olympic break on a roll, having gone 11-4-2 in their last 17 games, and creating a semi-comfortable cushion of seven points in the race to secure a wildcard spot.
Jonas Brodin scored his eighth goal of the season, Zach Parise his 19th, and Nino Niederreiter would chip in an assist and his first ever overtime game-winner for his 11th goal of the season as the Wild defeated Nashville 3-2 in the extra session last night at the Xcel Energy Center. With the win, Minnesota goes into the break with 69 points–for now–eight points back of the Colorado Avalanche for third in the Central. Still, it’s unlikely Minnesota will catch them, and Wild fans will have to be content with settling for a wildcard spot.
After the game, the team reassigned rookies Erik Haula and Johan Gustafsson to the Iowa Wild. While this comes as no surprise for the goalie Gustafsson, who was recalled only for the purpose of temporarily backing up Darcy Kuemper, Haula’s demotion comes after a stint where he has played well in a defensive role. There is always the possibility he won’t be recalled by the team upon the conclusion of the break, but the main reason is Minnesota wants to keep him playing and keep that compete level going.
Time to Heal
With a 20-day break, there’s no better time for injured players to take some time to rest and heal than now.
Both Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom haven’t been feeling well this season. It’s been the stellar play of rookie Kuemper that has kept Wild GM Chuck Fletcher from pulling the trigger on a trade or free agent signing. The hope is Backstrom can use the break to get back to 100%, because, as far as head coach Mike Yeo is concerned, then the issue in goal has been addressed. With the way things have gone this year, that could be wishful thinking on his part.
Fortunately for Minnesota, it appears this break is the only one needed for defenseman Marco Scandella (sprained MCL). Scandella was injured in Tuesday night’s home matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning when he fell awkwardly to the ice after attempting to avoid a check from the Bolts’ Tyler Johnson. He is expected back around February 27th.
In other injury news, forward Jason Zucker will undergo what is being labeled as a “minor procedure”. The hope is he’ll be healed and ready to go by the time break concludes.
Assessing the Team
The Minnesota Wild are in an interesting dilemma at the moment. As stated above, they’re 11-4-2 in their past 17 games and are relatively secure in their possession of the first wildcard spot. However, there are so many aspects they can improve upon. Those improvements, however, aren’t necessarily based on individual or team performance. It’s the fact that they can’t ice an entirely healthy roster. Depth in goal is a major concern, but Fletcher would also like to add a fairly inexpensive to obtain scoring winger and/or a minute-munching defenseman. He’s got the next few weeks to figure all this out.
Koivu Withdraws from Sochi
On the Olympic front, captain Mikko Koivu has withdrawn from Team Finland, saying it would be unfair to everyone involved.
“I just don’t feel healthy enough to feel that I can play at the level that I want,” Koivu said. “I really think it’s not fair for my teammates with Minnesota, with Team Finland, the management in Team Finland and not fair for myself either.
“Just the level that I’ve been skating by myself, I have been practicing with the team. I just don’t think it’s fair to anyone for me to go to Sochi.”
Koivu is a two-time Olympian, winning the silver in Torino (2006) and bronze in Vancouver (2010) with the Finns. He has also been a mainstay in Finland’s lineup for the World Championships, scoring three goals and eight assists for 11 points in leading his country to the gold in the 2011 tournament.
Contrary to what you may think, the only way this helps Minnesota is that he’ll more than likely be healthy when the Wild resumes the season. It was hoped Koivu would be healthy enough to practice and receive top playing time with Finland in the Sochi tournament. That way, he’d be back to form when he returned to Minnesota. Instead, Koivu will have nearly a two month gap between his January 4th departure from the lineup and his return to game action. That’s plenty of time for the quality of his game to digress drastically. Not exactly good news.
Finally, in an interesting twist, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya will miss his second straight game with what’s been reported as a “lower-body injury”. Oduya is expected to represent Team Sweden in Sochi. If this is something that persists, it is possible Wild sophomore defenseman Jonas Brodin could be taking a last-minute flight to Russia as an alternate. Sweden isn’t set to drop the puck on their first game of the tournament until February 12th, when they take on the Czech Republic.
We’ll have more as the situation develops.