As the Minnesota Wild have road the rollercoaster that has been their 2014-2015 NHL season, full of some pretty extreme highs and some very depressing lows, one part of the schedule has always stuck out to us as being what most likely would amount to be the most difficult stretch for the squad of the season. As we were all busy turning our calendars over to 2015, not many of us likely thought we'd have much to prove through the final stretch of the season. All that changed in mid-January when the Wild began an incredible stretch after acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk from the Arizona Coyotes for what amounts to peanuts after seeing the results.
Currently, the Wild are 36-23-7 through 66 games, including an incredible 18-4-2 record over their last 24 games. That my friends is good enough for 79 points, and right now has them slotted into the 7th seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. They are just 1 point ahead of the 8th seeded Winnipeg Jets at the moment, and 4 points ahead of the 9th seeded Los Angeles Kings. As with any team clinging to a playoff spot, the last month of the season is as crucial as it gets. The folks at the NHL scheduling department did the Wild no favors when you look at the last 6 weeks of the season. As it stands, the Wild have done well to keep the pedal to the metal so far in the month of March. Looking ahead from here however, the schedule reads something like a condensed lock-out season scheduling nightmare.
|Date||Opponent||Opp Record||Points||Wild Record v. Opp|
|3/10||New Jersey Devils||28-28-10||66||0-1-0|
|3/14||@ St. Louis Blues||41-19-5||*87||0-0-1|
|3/17||@ Nashville Predators||42-19-7||*91||1-1-1|
|3/21||St. Louis Blues||41-19-5||*87||0-0-1|
|3/23||@ Toronto Maple Leafs||26-35-5||57||1-0-0|
|3/24||@ New York Islanders||42-21-4||*88||1-0-0|
|3/28||Los Angeles Kings||31-21-13||75||0-2-0|
|4/2||New York Rangers||40-17-7||*87||0-1-0|
|4/4||Detroit Red Wings||37-17-11||*85||0-0-1|
|4/7||@ Chicago Blackhawks||39-21-6||*84||1-3-0|
|4/9||@ Nashville Predators||42-19-7||*91||1-1-1|
|4/11||@ St. Louis Blues||41-19-5||*87||0-0-1|
Of the Wild's 16 remaining games, 13 of them are against teams that currently sit in playoff position plus a game against the Kings who are still very much in the hunt for a playoff berth. The final 6 games are all against teams holding a playoff spot, and will be played over a span of just 10 days. The Wild's record this season against all these teams is just 9-10-5. They have 4 back-to-back games remaining in the schedule, including a crazy stretch when they play 2 consecutive back-to-back series with 2 days off between them; that's 4 games in 6 nights. They play divisional teams in 7 of these 16 games including 4 straight divisional games to close out the season. The Wild's last 3 games are on the road. They play the Predators twice and the Blues 3 times down the stretch.
Of the Wild's 18 wins in the last 24 games, just 6 of those came against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. They also won games against the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators who are both within 5 points of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. This stretch also includes a break for the NHL All-Star game and certainly is not as condensed as the upcoming schedule for the Wild. The competition was not as fierce as what the Wild will see coming up, and they certainly took advantage of a lighter schedule as they went on this tear.
This stretch coming up will either seal a spot in the post-season, or lead to total demise for the Wild. Chuck Fletcher has brought in some key pieces leading up to the trade deadline for this very reason. Jason Zucker could very well miss the rest of the regular season, leaving some of these new acquisitions to fill the role. For the new players who may not know Head Coach Mike Yeo's system as well, mistakes will be amplified by some of these better teams in the NHL. They will need to fill their rolls on the ice and not try to overcompensate for any mistakes. With the season winding down, the playoff atmosphere at these games will be ratcheted up a notch. Life on the road will not be easy. (as if it ever is)
Now is not the time for coach Yeo to start trying to over-coach his squad either. By now, most of these guys should know what to do. They should know where to be and how to react to the opposition. They've shown they can hang around in a games that get a bit more chippy, they have shown that they can be out-shot in a game and still come out on top, and they have been lights out on the penalty kill as long as Velgey doesn't make some jinxy comment or actually attend a game. (you're off the hook for the Avs PP goal last game Velgey)
The Wild have been sitting on backup netminders Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom ever since acquiring Dubnyk. For much of the season we haven't seen what we expected from the young Kuemper and Backstrom looks like he should have hung it up a couple seasons ago. If the Wild are to survive down the stretch, Keumper is going to have to get some game time, and soon. Tonight against the New Jersey Devils for instance might be a good testing ground for him. The Devils are a team very much on the outside of the playoff hunt, and may be a bit of an easier launch point to see where Kuemper's head is at after such a long stretch on the bench. There are not a lot of opportunities left in this season to see if this kids got his head on straight, but with that said, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see "Doobie" get the start as well. There is no way the Wild want to lose 2 straight games this late in the season.
While we do have some cushion at the moment, that could evaporate very quickly. The team has loads of confidence right now, we've seen some great play from the dawghouse lines lately, and veterans like Jason Pominville have started to step up to the plate as well. Consistency is the key going forward. When you face off against a team like the Blues, you cannot afford to take a period off. They'll jump all over that opportunity and you will find you've dug yourself into a hole you cannot easily get out of.
The defense needs to play tight. Watch your gaps, clear the puck up the ice, find that outlet pass and push the possession up the ice. They need to play how they have been for the most part over this recent stretch. Quick, crisp passing, none of this lackadaisical pushing the puck across the center of the ice. Jordan Leopold is getting a crash course here in how to play the system and where he needs to be on the ice, and over the next few weeks it is vital that he keeps up with the rest of the D, and finding a little extra firepower behind his shot would not hurt any either. Awareness, does Nate Prosser possess any of it? If so it's something he is going to need to find and quickly. His play on the back end hasn't been overly terrible, but if the Wild are to succeed he is going to need to start seeing the ice better, making quicker decisions and not be forced into making bad passes while he's tatooing the glass with an imprint of his face.
The forecheck needs to be relentless. I'm not suggesting the Wild throw 3 deep here, but they need to keep up the intensity and apply the pressure, forcing the opposition to make plays they aren't comfortable with. Whether it leads to mistakes or goals is irrelevant really, those will come. This is about wearing down the oppositions defense, and when you've broken them down, you pounce. Above all this though, is the Wild's neutral zone play. This needs to be stingy. Any time the opposition is trying to drive into the defensive zone the Wild need to make this as taxing as possible. Driving the play to the outside, keep the opposition from driving through the center of the ice, locking up the passing lanes and putting up a wall at the blue line. Preventing the opposition from gaining easy access to the Wild's defensive zone will go a long way towards continuing their success.
Forget about the previous 24 games. They are in the past, and while they count in the standings they do not guarantee any kind of success going forward. The Wild have put themselves in a prime spot to secure a playoff spot, but that is not etched in stone yet. With all the success they've had lately they could probably regress a bit (and very likely will during the last few weeks) and still find themselves in the top 8 when the regular season comes to a close the 2nd week of April. We're not there yet, but with how the Wild have played of late, our expectations should be a nice run into the playoffs, they have shown they are capable of this and there is no reason whatsoever that the fanbase should tolerate anything less. This is very important hockey right now, and it will be very fun, if not nerve wracking, to see how this all plays out in the next few weeks.