Improbably, it's only taken a 5-game winning streak for the Minnesota Wild to get back in the playoff race.
I'm as surprised as you are.
The Wild's playoff odds at the All-Star Break sat at just over 6%, according to Sports Club Statistics. In just two weeks, they've leapt all the way from 6% to 36%, with the possibility of ending the day at 42% if the Wild win tonight against Vancouver.
This jump in playoff odds has to be largely attributable to the acquisition of goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Since Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher exchanged a 3rd-round pick for the man they (should) call "The Dube", The Wild have earned points in 8 of 9 games, with Dubnyk performing brilliantly with a 1.31 Goals Against Average and a .948 Save %.
This stands in remarkable contrast to the performance of the goaltenders he replaced. 13-14 Darcy Kuemper (.904 Sv%) and 13-14 Niklas Backstrom (.887 Sv%) have shown over the course of half a season that they were not remotely capable of being a mere non-liability. And make no mistake, on a team that was firing on all cylinders in October and most of November, that was all they'd have needed.
So, it would seem that starting Dubnyk in net is the catalyst for the Wild's return to form, no? Well, let's not bust out our Jump to Conclusions mat just yet. Let's look at some of the popular theories at the time of the Wild's big slump, and see if any of them were likely reasons for the Wild's demise.
The Defense Was Bad
"This can't be entirely Kuemper and Backstrom's fault, right?" was the prevailing thought among those in this camp. And while it's totally true that those two were at times left hung out to dry by their defense, and hockey is definitely a team effort, it's notable that, by any measure except for "Goals Allowed", it wasn't entirely fair to pin the blame on the Wild's defense. Through the end of November, the Wild gave up shots with less frequency than any team in the NHL, allowing 25.5 shots per 60 minutes. From December 1st through January 13th- the Wild's last game before Dubnyk (a.k.a., 1 B.D.), that number jumps to 28.6, a notable leap, but a mark that still kept the Wild in the top half of the NHL.
And lest you think the Wild forgot how to play defense, the Wild have been 3rd in the NHL in suppressing shots since the Dubnyk trade (25.9 Shots Against/60).
That Damned Power Play
Here's the Wild's Power Play Percentages in specific periods, and their accompanying record:
Oct-Nov 2014: PP%: 9.6; Record: 13-9-1
Dec 2014 - Jan 13th, 2015: PP%: 19.6; Record: 5-10-4
Jan, 15th 2015 - Now: PP%: 24.1; Record: 7-1-1
The Wild's recent 5-Game Winning Streak: PP%: 9.1; Record: 5-0-0
I'm neither saying that the Wild's 26th-ranked Power Play isn't a problem in general, or that a bad power play is essential to the Wild winning. It's just that, in this case, co-relation doesn't equal causation. The Wild's worst stretch of the season saw the Wild with Power Play success. You can pin some losses from early in the season on the inept PP, but the December swoon had other issues.
The Wild Lacked Chemistry
Rumors swirled in the midst of the losing streak that the Wild's locker room was fractured to the point that it was exacerbating the Wild's fallout of contention. And I don't deny that the Wild locker room was tense. The team was expected to make the playoffs, and then, all of a sudden, loses 15 of 20 games to drop into irrelevance. I would imagine guys weren't thrilled at all, with the performances of themselves, their teammates, and the team as a whole. There's also been speculation that the acquisition of Thomas Vanek threw the team's "fit" with each other off-balance.
But when you look at how the Wild bounced back since getting Dubnyk, you'll find that not only are they winning, but any talk about a fractured locker room has virtually disappeared. This makes sense- you almost never hear stories about how tight-knit the Buffalo Sabres locker room is, and if the Nashville Predators locker room has tensions, they're certainly not getting out. The mood in the locker room seems more dependent on the performance of the team, not the other way around. And considering that this Wild team is almost identical to the one that went to the second round of the playoffs, I can't imagine that the fit between the players is any issue at all.
The Wild Were Too Soft and Weren't Trying
Any claim of the Wild being "soft as a featherbed", or in need of a psychologist to treat "Post-Traumatic Stanchion Disorder", or being in seriously in need of a change of approach to their chosen profession is overly simplistic and infantile.
How can I tell this? There's been one game since Dubnyk's arrival where he gave the Wild no chance to win. Against Detroit, he let in 4 goals on 10 shots. Down 4-1 after two, one would expect to see a "mentally squishy" team pack it in, and play for tomorrow.
Not the case. As they've done earlier this season against the Boston Bruins, and New York Islanders, the Wild stormed back in the third period, including the tying goal, which appeared to have been scored by sheer force of will. That display of resiliency got the Wild a valuable point- one that keeps them in ninth place, ahead of dangerous teams like Dallas and Los Angeles.
"Occam's Razor" is the theory that when solving a problem, it's best to begin by searching for and testing the simplest answer. What was wrong with the Wild? They were giving up too many goals. Was it the defense's fault? Probably not- they were still suppressing their opponent's shots. Simplest conclusion to draw? The goaltenders were the issue.
Since the Wild have been able to have a goaltender they could trust, the Wild's style of play has opened up, and we're seeing a return to their early-season form. Their defense, all of a sudden, looks solid again. The team looks like it has chemistry, and the aggressive style of play makes the Wild's effort more noticeable. Judging by the "eye test" and the stats, goaltending was very clearly what sent the Wild into their slump.
Now, obviously Dubnyk isn't going to have a .948 Sv% for the rest of the season, there's going to be times where he looks human, and the Wild will have to pick up his slack. That's a given.
What should give you hope is that, with a good goaltender behind them, the players in front of the net look more than capable of picking up the Wild in the instances where Dubnyk falters.