It seems like just yesterday the Minnesota Wild were at the very bottom of the NHL standings with a measly 16 points in their first 20 games of the season — not exactly an undeserved position for a club that began the 2019-20 campaign with a 1-6-0 record.
Over the last month, though, the Wild have been playing like a team with a chip on its shoulder. In fact, one could reasonably claim they’re playing well. Perhaps even very well.
Minnesota is currently riding a 10-game point streak, which started on the road against the Arizona Coyotes back on November 14. Frankly, the entire month of November was quite successful for the Wild. They earned points in 11 of their 13 games last month and carried their momentum into the start of December by taking down the Dallas Stars at home (beyond regulation!) in Mikko Koivu’s 1,000th NHL game, and defeating the Florida Panthers on the road Tuesday night.
This isn’t the same Wild team from October.
So, what’s led to Minnesota’s rapid turnaround? Probably a multitude of things. But it all starts with goaltending.
In the first month of the season, the Wild ranked toward the bottom of the league with 45 goals against in just 13 games (a 3.46 GAA). Since November 1, though, the Wild are allowing only 2.86 goals per game, and the recent play of goaltender Alex Stalock is largely to thank for the improvement. In his last eight starts, Stalock owns a 2.82 GAA and a downright stellar .910 save percentage. Not exactly All-Star numbers, but good enough to help pull the Wild out of the cellar.
Rookie netminder Kaapo Kahkonen has also helped contribute to Minnesota’s hot streak. The 23-year-old was very good in the first two appearances in his NHL career. In his most recent start — Tuesday night against the Panthers — he broke a franchise record for saves in a single game by a rookie goaltender with 44.
Unfortunately, a difficult circumstance is what has given Stalock and Kahkonen the opportunity to, at least temporarily, serve as a formidable one-two punch in net. Devan Dubnyk, the normal No. 1 backstop for the Wild, has been out of action since November 16 tending to a family matter. It’s unclear when he’ll return to the lineup, but it is certain that he will not join the Wild for the remainder of their current road trip. Thankfully, Stalock and Kahkonen have been holding down the fort.
Improved goaltending hasn’t been the only thing keeping the Wild competitive, of course. To win games, a team must also score goals (shocker!), and Zach Parise has been instrumental in getting the Wild back on track offensively. Parise, who started the season with just three points in 13 contests, now has 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in his last 15 games. The 35-year-old is currently leading the Wild with 12 goals on the season and, since the start of November, leads the Wild with a downright fantastic 5-on-5 GF% of 75.00.
Kevin Fiala’s emergence has also provided a spark over the last month. After picking up just one point in his first eight games of the season (which earned him multiple trips to the press box as a result), Fiala has been a dynamic presence at 5-on-5 since returning to the lineup. The Swiss winger has collected 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in his last 15 games and ranks fifth on the Wild in points.
Fans weren’t too happy with former GM Paul Fenton’s decision to acquire Fiala in a one-for-one trade for Mikael Granlund, but they should certainly be thrilled now.
Believe it or not, the Wild are now just two points out of a playoff spot after their successful November. However, December may not be quite as easy for them. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon left Tuesday night’s contest against the Panthers with an upper-body injury. After fearing that the injury could keep Spurgeon out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks, the Wild announced Wednesday that he is only expected to miss about two weeks. The Wild will likely send him to injured reserve and call up another defenseman from the AHL to fill in as he recovers.
The roller coaster continues, but at least things are finally on the upswing.