By now, it is old news that the Wild have worked their way up for the 14th position in the conference to the playoff bubble. While teams such as Dallas, Colorado, and Saint Louis have entered a near free fall for the bottom, the Wild have finally figured out their game, and are playing well.
Going 8-4-0 in January with a four game and a three game winning streak interrupted by a three game losing skid, the Wild outscored opponents 33-10 in wins, and were outscored 17-5 in losses. The roller coaster ride continued, yet it seemed to be that the losses were due to bad bounces and ever shorter periods of poor play.
In February, the Wild are currently 5-1-0, riding a four game home winning streak, are 8-2-0 in their past ten, and are outscoring opponents a much more normalized 16-10. The only loss this month is a 1-0 loss to the Coyotes that from all reports was only that close due to a magical game from Niklas Backstrom.
That brings up a question that has to be burning in the back of every Wild fans head. Is this for real, or is it a magic act on which someone will eventually pull the curtain back and end the show?
Make the jump, and let's discuss.
What is making the Wild successful?
When Backstrom went out with a hip injury, then Theodore dropped, the wheels were off, the season over. Anton Khudobin came up, stopped the bleeding, and Jose Theodore proved, yet again, that he is a superb NHL talent. A four game win streak to start January while Backstrom was still laid up certainly helped propel the Wild and give them the swagger they currently carry.
The Theo lost a couple games, Borat another and then Backstrom stepped back in. The Wild blew out the Flames, took a tough loss from Sharks, and then left the Blackhawks crying for the length of the All Star break. Since the break, Backstrom is 3-1, Theo 2-0. The form has been regained, and the Wild goaltenders are back.
We can debate until we are blue in the face about which of these goalies is better, which is the best deal for the money, and which should or should not be traded. The one thing we should be able to agree on? They are on fire right now, and they need to stay that way for the Wild to continue to have success.
The Wild have eight players with ten or more goals. Not one player has hit the 20 goal milestone this season. This can be seen as a detriment (which we will discuss later), or it can be a positive. If one guy is having an off night, seven others have shown they can score. The opposing team has to shut down eight guys, three lines, instead of just one. It makes it very difficult to guard against, especially when one of them is on the blue line.
Earlier this year, nearly the entire roster was carrying a minus rating. As of this writing, ten active players are even or positive, and another ten are within reach at -5 or better. Only three players are -8 or worse, including Eric Nystrom and John Madden who are slated with defending the top line each night. Oh, and Cam Barker who honestly has no excuse.
The defense is blocking more shots and hitting more as well. Clayton Stoner's addition to the lineup has been a huge bump in these areas, as he has surpassed Cam Barker's shot block total (56 to 53) in 13 fewer games played. Stoner also has just five fewer hits (57) than Barker does. It cannot be a coincidence that the Wild began to win more games as they started blocking shots and hitting more.
With the return of Marek Zidlicky pending, there is no justification to remove Stoner from the lineup, while all signs point to the newly emotional Barker finding a spot in the press box.
Is it A House of Cards?
The fantastic goaltending is great. It is fun to watch, it provides strong momentum swings, and can steal game when you need it the most. It is, however, dangerous to rely heavily on your goaltending. Giving up so many shots game after game has yet to bite them, but who is to say it won't? All it takes is one embarrassing loss to derail a playoff push and unravel everything that has been built up for the past month or two.
What if Backstrom were hurt again? What if Theodore loses his game and is not the solid back up he has been all season? Can Borat really step in and be a playoff push goalie?
As mentioned above, having balanced scoring is a double edged sword. While it helps to be able to keep the pressure on, and to limit the opposition's ability to shut down the offense by shutting down one line, it is also sketchy to not have a go to sniper.
The game is on the line, down one with 10 seconds remaining in the third. You put your top faceoff guys out, but who are they trying to get the puck to? Burns? Clutterbuck? Havlat? Who does the puck go to with the game on the line? You can't split it into eight pieces and let the eight scoring leaders each put in a portion of it. Some one has to be the man, and that man does not exist.
Can a playoff push be maintained without a go to scorer?
The Wild are relying on two rookie d-men right now in Jared Spurgeon and Stoner. While Brent Burns, Greg Zanon, Nick Schultz, and Marek Zidlicky are seasoned vets, and will provide leadership, could the rookies crack under the pressure? With only a handful of playoff games under any of their belts, can any of the defensemen really know what is in store for them?
Marco Scandella is hurt, with no time table for return. With Zidlicky returning, the depth is vastly improved, but another injury puts them right back on the brink. Are any of the Aeros ready to step into an NHL playoff race?
How it Plays Out
I predicted the Wild to be a playoff team this year. I stick to that prediction. I think the goaltenders are healthy, are focused on that health, and have the right goalie coach to ensure they stay healthy and focused. Niklas Backstrom is a big game goalie, and thrives on the pressure. Jose Theodore went on an 11-0-0 run to ensure the Caps a play off spot last season. Is Borat an option? Sure he is, but one they will not need.
It would be nice to see the Wild shut down the shots a bit more, but the blocked shot increase is a most welcome one. The play from the fourth line is also improved, and they are making fewer glaring mistakes. The commitment to opening the shots up for the goalies to see them has made the shots less dangerous, which makes it indeterminately easier to stop them.
The scoring may be an issue as the defenses across the league start to lock down as the playoffs approach. Getting Guillaume Latendresse back could help, but he will need to get back up to speed before he will be a real threat. His offense will be a welcome addition, even if he can have only a prorated season at his top form. Before he left he had 6 points in 8 games. Sounds like a pretty solid ratio to me.
Shock and Awe or Smoke and Mirrors?
The Wild are set for the run. It would be nice to be able to smoke the opponent every night, but that is unlikely. The goaltending, the defense, and the balanced scoring are huge assets at this time of year. Sure, it could all come tumbling down, but that is the case with any team at any point in the NHL.
Look at the Avs. There scoring dried up, their goalies are off, and there defense is lacking. All this due to injuries, illness, and the rigors of the NHL season. They are a young team, and need to find a way to sort it out. Until then, their house of cards is crumbling at the wrong time.
For the Wild, they look to have a solid foundation to build on as the season winds down. They are hot at the right moment, with everyone clicking and buying in. They are playing the way we all saw that they could, and they are defeating teams that earlier in the year would have beaten them into the ground.
If things continue the way they are, the Wild have to be a favorite to make the playoffs. Once the get there? That's anyone's guess.