What a ride. The Wild have been first place in the league for over a week, who could ever have expected this? In fact, when I did Now and Then through 20 in mid-November, the Wild were tied for 1st place with Chicago and Pittsburgh. This is a great time to be a Wild fan. The team is winning, giving great effort after great effort, Hockey Wilderness is booming, getting more and more members, outside visitors and new contributors, the numerous humorous Wild-related twitter accounts, the system is working and frustrating a whole lot of other teams and their fans. Haters gonna hate, I suppose.
Now, through 30, we can see enormous differences with last season, and we're going to look at some of them after the jump.
Join me for a blast from the past.
Part 1: Storylines
Last season, things were falling apart. A 3-5-2 record from game 21 to game 30 brought them to a 13-13-4 record. There were some positives though: Pierre-Marc Bouchard was back in action, Martin Havlat was waking up, the Hockey Wilderness Rumor Generator (HWRG2000) was created (and should be rebooted, know what I'm saying?). However, there were also many negatives: The Wild couldn't play in the second period to save their lives, a habit which has thankfully been broken this year, they were doing worse than they were the year before, there was a goalie controversy brewing, they were feeling the effects of injuries and the feeling was that no progress was being made.
One of the weirdest stories in a while occured in that 10 game stretch however: Bobby Ryan scored with Mikko Koivu's stick. Still not sure what Koivu was thinking, just grabbing Ryan's stick like that. Let's look back and laugh:
Bobby Ryan scores with Koivu's stick 12/12/10 (via NHLVideo)
Things were really looking bleak, the Wild were in 12th place in the Western Conference, no encouraging signs to get us thinking things were going to get better, Patrick O'Sullivan wasn't panning out as a waiver pickup we hoped would spark the offense, the fans were occupying the X less and less and everyone was already about ready to give that season up and look forward.
This season, the Wild started game 21 in first place, shared it a few times before taking sole possesion of it for a week. Now, after game 30, they have a 4 point lead on Philadelphia for 1st place in the league, a 5 point lead on Chicago for tops in the Western Conference and a 6 point lead over Vancouver for the top spot in the Northwest Division. The Wild have suffered injury after injury to important players such as Devin Setoguchi, Cal Clutterbuck, Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, but they were still able to string a season-high 7 straight wins, including a franchise-high 7 straight road wins. The Wild have dressed nine different rookies for at least one game and they've dressed a league-high 32 different players. The feeling at the beginning of the season was that the Wild had won a few games, but none against contending teams. Well, this year, they boast a 2-0-1 record against the Red Wings, they just swept the California teams away from home, they've beaten teams they historically have trouble against such as the Coyotes, the Blues and the Predators and they're still number one in the league despite it all. I don't care what anyone says, the Wild deserve to be up there, they've earned it.
Matt Hackett made an impressive NHL debut, filling in for an injured Josh Harding 1:11 into a game against the Sharks, who had already fired 8 shots and a goal on Harding. Hackett didn't allow a single goal on 34 shots to give the Wild a 2-1 win. This performance, along with the not-quite-readyness of Backstrom, earned Hackett a start in which he stopped 42 shots out of 44 and beat an NHL record by not allowing his first NHL goal until 102:48 into his career. These two games, while a small sample, were certainly examples to show the future is bright in Minnesota.
We also saw Jeff Taffe make his Wild debut on the first line, where he got 2 assists in two games before being sent down. That's right, the Wild send PPG players to the minors! He was surely sent down to make way for a returning Cal Clutterbuck, as well as soon returning Marek Zidlicky and/or Guillaume Latendresse.
Mikko Koivu has 13 points from game 21 to game 30. In the last 12 games overall, he's been held off the score sheet ONCE. Not only that, but he continues to play great in all areas of the ice and he exhibited his great leadership by riling his troops up when Kyle Brodziak was unfairly thrown out of the game. ''We're getting this kill!'' yelled Braveheart Koivu. No way anyone can doubt he deserves the C on his jersey now. You're just a troll or an idiot if you do.
Other hot players that can be mentionned are Dany Heatley, who has been posting points ever since he started rocking his turtleneck (6 games out of 6) and Kyle #SignBrodziak Brodziak, who has been an absolute beast lately, posting 9 points in the last 10 games, is currently leading the team with 10 goals, is invincible as a penalty-killer and making players around him better and energized. This man deserves a lot of money. Give it to him, Fletch, before someone else does.
Part 2: A few numbers:
This year, from game 21 to game 30, the Wild have an 8-2-0 record, outscoring opponents 32 - 24 in the stretch.
Last season, from game 21 to game 30, the Wild went 3-5-2, getting outscored 36 - 25 in the stretch.
This season, Mikko Koivu is leading the team with 26 points, Kyle Brodziak is leading with 10 goals.
Last season, Brent Burns led in goals with 9, Martin Havlat was leading in points with 28.
This year, through 30, the Wild have 79 GF, 64 GA (according to Wild.com)
Last season, through 30, they had 73 GF, 83 GA
Wild have a franchise-best 43 points through 30, last season, they had 30 points in 30 games. Hell of a difference now.
Part 3: Coaching
Last season, the fans were starting to doubt coach Todd Richards' ability to have his players play his system, having them play the best they could. The feeling was that he wasn't able to communicate with his players properly. He was quickly losing his team (although later in the season, we would forget those troubles with a very nice stretch of games, until the captain got injured, we'll talk about it more when the time comes). He was giving the fans the impression that he was a decent practice coach, but a poor in-game coach, seemingly incapable of making adjustments when needed. He was afraid to juggle the lines, change his strategy and was inexplicably keeping the goalie in net after he let in 6 or 7 goals. He was losing the fanbase's faith in him.
Speaking of faith, this year, we have the Church of Yeo. At the start of the season, while the Wild still had a modest record, Yeo claimed his system would work after a 30-game process. It's been 30 games, the Wild are 1st in the league and the story of the year so far. When we heard about how Yeo liked to put players in the right situations for them to succeed, well he wasn't kidding. He's playing the right players at the right places and that's so important for them to not feel lost on the ice. He's not putting guys on the 1st line that shouldn't be there unless he really has to. He's found some beautiful line combinations. He's balancing the d-men's ice-time, so they almost all play identical minutes, which means no one is over-utilized or under-utilized, he's trusting everyone and the players are responding beautifully. Rookie-schmookie, this guy knows how to coach a hockey team.
So 43 points, 30 games. Last year, 39 games were needed for 43 points. The Wild aren't even showing signs of slowing down, despite being hit quite heavily by the injury bug lately. Everyone is playing the system exactly the way Yeo intends it to be played. Now that's progress. Progress is the key word of the year right now, if you ask me. However, just like a lot can change in a year, the Wild can't forget that a lot can change in a month, or even a 10-game stretch. They say they're not sitting on their laurels right now, they're not happy with a measly 4 point lead on the league, they're not celebrating yet, and I'm glad to read all of this, because this means they're still motivated, they're still working. They know, I know, we all know the Wild aren't perfect. There's still a lot of work to be done, but this season, the feeling is that they WILL be able to work out the kinks and become even better.
In Fletch we trust, in Yeo we believe. Believe, or be defeated.