When the Wild lost four straight games last week, there were a lot of culprits that people pinned on the streak. Maybe you thought it was Thomas Vanek not scoring enough goals. Maybe you thought it was Mikko Koivu's uncharacteristically low point output. Maybe you thought it was the anemic power play. And maybe you thought it was just a recent spot of bad luck.
But after the returns of Jared Spurgeon, Zach Parise, and Marco Scandella to the Wild after their respective ailments, a strong contender seems to have emerged to take the blame for the 4-game slide: Injuries.
We saw last year how a key injury or two seems to derail the Wild. Last year, when the Wild were missing Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Jared Spurgeon, the Wild were essentially the Maple Leafs and Sabres in terms of controlling play. Even missing just one of them led the Wild to play in the range of some of the worst teams in the league.
Remarkably, this didn't happen when the Wild played games without Spurgeon, and then Parise. In fact, even during the Wild's 4-game losing streak, the Wild were 2nd in the NHL at controlling play, even in close, high-leverage situations. For a team that fell apart without one of their "Big 3" players, this is as encouraging as it is stunning.
What we did see in during the time Spurgeon and Parise were injured that did not inspire such hope was the lack of offense from the blueline, and lack of finishing ability for the Wild.
Cut to this three-game winning-streak, which was sparked by Spurgeon's return against Buffalo. The contrast between the Wild with and without Spurgeon was very apparent as the man we affectionately know as "Tank" racked up a power-play-goal, an assist, and 11 shots on goal over this 3-game winning streak. Zach Parise returned yesterday against Winnipeg to get two of the kinds of net-crashing goals the Wild were just not getting in his absence.
That the Wild had such good underlying numbers while sustaining injuries should be encouraging to us. That they just got Marco Scandella (OT-winner vs. Winnipeg) back, and are looking to bring Top-4 defenseman Jonas Brodin soon should be making other teams soil themselves.
Just avoid hits to the head and strange viruses, guys.
This Week's Schedule
Thursday 6:00 PM @ Philadelphia Flyers (FS-N; NHL Network)
Saturday 6:00 PM @ Tampa Bay Lightning (FS-N+)
Game of the Week
You'd never know it judging solely on the Wild's 7-2 obliteration of them earlier this season, but the Lightning are actually a really good team. Like, really good. The Lightning currently are tied for the 2nd-highest point total in the league, and they've managed to do that while missing All-NHL caliber defenseman Victor Hedman. Hedman is still a few weeks from returning, but the Lightning have managed to be OK, thanks to their league-leading 65 goals. I guess when you have Steven Stamkos, your team can afford to take some hits. Anyway, expect a better effort from Tampa Bay this time around.
Key Player of the Week
Erik Haula is the go-to guy the Wild rely on to shut down opposing stars whose speed is their calling card. Haula will likely be called on twice this week for such an assignment, having to shut down the explosive Claude Giroux on Thursday, and Best Goal-Scorer in the Universe Steven Stamkos on Saturday.
But it's not just the defensive game that's going to matter for Haula. Much like every other Wild center other than Ryan Carter, Haula has to step up offensively (When did you expect to hear that sentence get said?). Haula only has 2 points on the season (both goals), and with Parise returning and Nino Niederreiter on the second line, Haula has been the latest center to try to achieve chemistry with Thomas Vanek. Being a player who can neutralize the speed of top opponents while also providing offense is a tough task, but one he proved capable of performing last year.