If the playoffs started today, your Minnesota Wild would take on the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. When the injury bug first swept through the locker room for the team that resides at 199 Kellogg, many saw the Wild's playoff hopes crumbling away. Fans presumed the team would slide down the standings faster than the mercury of a thermometer in Minnesota in January.
Zach Parise was fighting through a foot fracture after blocking a shot the day after Thanksgiving and eventually had to miss games to let it heal. Captain Mikko Koivu blocked a shot/dump-in attempt high on his ankle and had to get surgery to repair the break. Jared Spurgeon, a top-4 defenseman, and the best possession defenseman the Wild had up to that point, was sidelined by blocking a shot. Josh Harding was scheduled to miss time to alter his treatment protocol for his multiple sclerosis and has since missed time because of "illness." Niklas Backstrom has been unnervingly inconsistent and seems to always be hobbled by nagging injuries. See what I'm getting at? The injuries started to mount and the future for the already slumping Wild looked bleak.
Fast forward four weeks. The Wild are coming off a win against the Stanley Cup champs with a solid defensive effort. Zach Parise returned to the line-up for the first time in 14 games. Players like rookie goalie, Darcy Kuemper, and veteran forward, Jason Pominville, have become a huge story as to why the Wild are still in the playoff picture. The kids like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker were thrust into roles that required them to step up or the team would flounder to the bottom of the standings (Oh wait, Edmonton is sitting in that spot. Ok, the next to the bottom of the standings).
The kiddos just needed to hold down the fort; stay around .500, until the heavy hitters got healthy. The Wild, partly due to some excellent goaltending, stealing some wins, and the misfortune of the teams ahead of them having some losing streaks, have not only created a small cushion between themselves and the teams fighting below them in the standings ,but have even gained ground on a few of the teams ahead of them. Minnesota is tied with Vancouver with 61 points and trail Los Angeles by only three points.
The Wild have matched up well against the Blackhawks and have won three out of the four games so far this season. In fact, the Wild have tried to emulate the Hawks after the 4-1 series thumping they took in last year's playoff round. The Wild beat the Blackhawks 5-3, 4-3, and most recently, 2-1 in its wins this season; the first being at United Center.
The Ducks have been almost impossible to beat at the Honda Center, having lost just one game (to Winnipeg of all teams) at home all season in regulation. Minnesota has lost both times it has faced Anaheim this season, losing 4-3 in overtime way back in October in the second game of the year, and the other, 2-1, in early December as the Wild were starting their December swoon.
Which team provides a more favorable match-up in the first round of the playoffs, assuming that the teams currently holding the eight spots are in? Should the Wild hope to face Chicago again in the first round? Clearly the Wild have played them better this season, but the Blackhawks have title cred. What about Anaheim? The Wild have not fared as good against them this season, nor has anyone been able to fare well against them at the Pond. Do the Wild look to catch Los Angeles for a possible match-up with St. Louis? The Wild played one of its worst games this season in a loss to the Blues. Although, I think that tilt would provide some physicality and real hate among the teams that would be highly entertaining. San Jose? Colorado? Could the Wild even get on a roll that they even have a chance to play the Sharks or Avalanche?
There are so many questions and still a lot of time for things to shake out. The biggest question, and most glaring of them all: when the Wild do become fully healthy, how does the Wild coaching staff balance the talent and will they be good enough to be a legit force in the stretch run to make big enough waves in the standings?
|St. Louis Blues||50||34||11||5||73|
|San Jose Sharks||51||33||12||6||72|
|Los Angeles Kings||52||29||17||6||64|