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MOUNTAIN IRON… September’s optimism has turned to December’s pessimism. The positive outlook that captured fan imagination back in the warm autumn sun has faded to disbelief and desperation in the cold gray air of early winter. What in the world has overcome this club that has taken a downturn so sudden and drastic that it now appears that a Stanley Cup playoff berth just might be a dream? There was the not-so-distant past of a 5-2 seven game road trip that lifted the spirits and hopes of the fan base and the team. Since then, there have only been a couple of high spots to smile about and elevate the hopes of the State of Hockey. Since finishing that road swing on a Sunday afternoon in St. Louis by besting the Blues in an exciting 3-2 victory, the club has gone 4-8. And as previously mentioned here, the club is not obtaining any single points via OT losses. They are dropping these tilts in regulation and receiving zippo points wise. This will be a killer if the club recovers enough to get close to a playoff spot late in the season.
They went 1-2 on last week’s west coast swing, winning in Vancouver 3-2, then losing to Calgary and Edmonton in back to back performances that were frankly their two worst games of the season to date. To add to the team’s woes, they suffered their first injury of note when Captain Mikko Koivu was making his way past Flame defender Mark Giordano on the boards and Gio stuck out his knee and brought Koivu down to the ice in a heap. Some mayhem ensued but the club didn’t gain enough fire from the incident to get into this tilt and went down in a 2-0 decision. Koivu was sent back to St. Paul for further evaluation. The team played the next night in Edmonton and was absent from the opening faceoff forward. Whether it was the absence of their Captain or who knows what, the club was dominated in a 7-2 beatdown. Backup netminder Alex Stalock played the Calgary tilt and played quite well, starter Devan Dubnyk began the game in Edmonton and Stalock finished it. Dubnyk’s play has been in steady decline since that Sunday afternoon win versus the Blues.
So, how could a team’s fortunes change so drastically in such a short window of time? My first indicator would point at the goaltending. In October and up until the end of the seven-game roadie Duby was the main reason the club had put together the record they did. On the nights that the skaters weren’t quite on top of it, Duby was the bacon saving master of goal-dom. Then the first night back from that roadie the boys faced the defending Cup Champion Capitals and got lit up in a 5-2 loss. Coach Bruce Boudreau did not pull Dubnyk that night, leaving him in for all 5 against. This was the beginning of his stats descent. The skaters were no better that night, getting down 3-0 and then 5-1 before getting a late tally to close out the tilt. The pattern from there? 1W, 2L, 2W, 3L, 1W then 2L. When I wondered if the success of the road trip was built upon inferior opposition, I was serious. The only two clubs that had their stuff together at the time, SJS & VAN, beat them. VAN has dropped off since while the SJS are inconsistent.
While the Wild had a rough start going 1-4 before rattling off 5 straight wins, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. In mid-October the Wild beat the current league leader, Tampa Bay, in a pretty exciting back and forth game. The only other team of note in my book the club has beat this year was Winnipeg in that epic day after Thanksgiving tilt. The SAGARIN rank bears this out. The first month of a season can also deceive. A team that might not be on the analyst’s pre-season radar comes in with superior conditioning, somehow, they have their game at its seasonal peak early, and then the other, better and more accomplished teams catch up. We might be seeing that with VAN right now, or NJD, MON, or the NYI. These teams began hot and have cooled substantially. Conversely, some clubs had higher expectations, began slow and have caught fire. I see that in CAL, EDM, VGK and WASH. The Wild? I read pre-season charts that had them at the upper level of the league and then others who didn’t see them even in the playoffs this year. My own thoughts were that the experience of the veterans and of the core group would see this team to a 100-point season barring any significant injuries and a little puck luck. That’s quite a bit up in the air now.
It’s a bit early to say the team is in free-fall, but they are clearly in a major funk. I’m not bearish right now that the team can reverse current trending and pull this year back out of the dumpster it’s headed for. This week; vs. MON, vs. FLA and vs. CAL. I see a 1-2 week here. I’m not sure if “home cooking” will help, but it will have to be this week if the team wants a course correction in their favor, otherwise...
WILD DATA; The ATHLETIC, 17TH, trending for 91 points, 54% chance of the playoffs with a 2% chance for a SC win. The SAGARIN, 14th on a 15-14 record, 3-6 vs T10, 5-10 vs T16 with a schedule difficulty rank of 17th. NHL STATS/STANDINGS, t16th with 15 wins, t17th on 32 points, t16th for pct. of points available @ .552. 17th on a 15-12-2 record (hold the position with a ROW of 15), alone in 10th in the Western Conference, 5th in the Central Division, 4th in the Wild Card standings and out of a spot currently. 16th in GF w/88. 10th in GA w/86. 13th on PP with a 22.1%, 2nd on PK @ 84.6%, 7th least in PIM @ 237…
ONE FINAL OBS; this team has been known as one of the best defensive teams for most of its existence with only a few exceptions. The team, in a recent season, had 3 players in the Top Ten for plus/minus rating. This year? There are 2 players at +4, Spurgeon and Coyle, 3 at +2, Parise, Granlund and Zucker, with Koivu at +1. The rest of the team is even or minus with Nino Neidereitter bringing up the rear at a whopping -10!! Nine players on the roster are carrying minus ratings. When combining the team PP rate of 22.1 and the PK rate of 84.6, the team’s number is 106.7. That’s good. Teams under 100 on that method usually don’t make the playoffs. Can the Wild do it?? Over & Out! PEACE