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With college hockey taking a full three-week break to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or something, it’s a good time for hockey fans all over to check in on what might be two of the biggest stories to stir the souls of hockey fans anywhere.
The first one is the Minnesota Wild. It’s been a bizarre season for the Wild already, with the worst opening schedule in NHL history — or at least since the old North Stars requested a road-heavy start to their first schedule in 1967 so they could have a couple extra weeks to literally finish tightening the bolts on seats at Metropolitan Sports Center. But there’s no excuse for the NHL, in this computer age, to allow the Minnesota Wild to be sent on the road for 20 of their first 30 games.
That’s enough to stifle a team from getting any kind of a start, and could preclude them from ever making a serious bid to get into contention all season. The injuries that knocked the Wild out of any hope of making the playoffs last season have continued to haunt the Wild this season, but somehow, after that miserable start that
appeared to doom them to last place, the Wild started winning.
The got great interim goaltending from former UMD star Alex Stalock, and they got sensational play from former UMD defenseman Carson Soucy, who became far more than just a fill in by showing more skill than
even us Bulldog followers had reason to suspect. Paired with Jonas Brodin, the tandem soared above to the highest plus-minus reading of any defensive pair in the National Hockey League. That is huge, because if a player is on the ice for more team goals than opposing goals, his unit is helping the team and never hurting it. Coach Bruce Boudreau has said repeatedly how pleased he is to see the Soucy-Brodin duo playing so well.
So impressive is that pairing that Boudreau is leaving them together, reuniting Jared Spurgeon with Ryan Suter on the top unit, and dropping still-recovering standout Matt Dumba to the third unit, where he has an assortment of potential partners who can ease his transition back to full speed.
With Devan Dubnyk missing a month to tend to his seriously ill wife, Stalock came through with some huge games, and currently has both a better goals-against average and a better save percentage than Dubnyk, who has just returned to action.
But just when it appeared the Wild were hopelessly out of it — I actually heard supposed knowledgable sports media types suggest they should throw some games to assure themselves of getting the No. 1 overall draft pick — the Wild started to come together. It was a relief to me, because I had said at the start of the season that if
nothing changed except that the Wild stayed healthy, they would make the playoffs. Well, they haven’t avoided injuries, but you’re heard it here first — the Wild WILL make the playoffs this season,
Without any rational reason, the Wild won six straight games, mostly on the road. They went 9-0-3 to startle the rest of the league. Then they dropped a couple games, then strung together another impressive streak. When they lose, they look hopeless, as they did in the 6-0 battering administered by Winnipeg on Saturday at Xcel Center. But they bounced back and beat Calgary 3-0 Monday afternoon, with Dubnyk looking to be back in rhythm with the shutout.
The Wild are now 10-2-3 at home, which underscores again the outrageousness of their road-heavy start. That sends the Wild into the three-day Christmas break at 18-15-6, in a season that looked as though they would never find their way to .500. That also is worth 41 points, which placed them in ninth place in the Western Conference, where the top eight make the playoffs.
The Wild will have a home-heavy second half, and they now seem certain to rise and wedge themselves squarely into the playoff picture where the top eight make it.
But the Wild aren’t even the biggest comeback surprise in our midst. That would have to be the Duluth East Greyhounds. The perennial Section 7AA favorite Greyhounds have an all-new cast this year, with only Charlie Erickson returning with any varsity experience. When Mike Randolph says this team is so inexperienced that it will be a long, slow process to herd them to competitiveness, you believe him, because normally Randolph has optimism shielding his team’s from disappointing seasons.
This season, the Greyhounds started out 1-4, and were looking ahead to a rugged schedule that followed up an overtime loss at Cloquet with Blaine, Centennial, Marshall and Lakeville North. Marshall, struggling to rebuild, is still a rivalry game, while Blaine, Centennial and Lakeville North are all among the state’s elite teams this season.
Incredibly, it was almost as though Randolph threw a switch on the wall and his players, who seemed disjointed rather than unified, started to click. They beat a very good Blaine team 4-1, erupting from a 1-1 tie for three unanswered goals in the third period and a huge victory.
Next came a 4-0 blanking of Centennial as goaltender Konrad Kausch got a shutout as the reward for playing brilliantly all season. Next came the Perkins Frenzy, an annual doubleheader featuring Twin Ports rivals, at Essentia Heritage Center.
Denfeld led Superior 1-0 in the first game, but fell behind 2-1 after two periods. Part of the reason Denfeld got off to such a strong start this season is the added scoring punch from sophomore brothers Cooper and Connor McClure. If there was any question about that, it was answered when Cooper McClure scored at 3:00 of the third period, and Connor McClure scored on a power play at 3:38. That vaulted Denfeld to a 3-2 lead, and goaltender Jacob Snyder made it stand up.
Out came East, which ran up a 3-0 lead by the 11-minute mark of the second period while outshooting Marshall 30-7 to that point. The Greyhounds were indeed only half done, racking up six goals.
Those four straight victories, combining solid, crisp-passing offense and blanketing defense with Kaush the stalwart in goal, meant that Randolph won’t need any gifts this Christmas — he already got one that may have surprised even him.
“I’m happy with our progress,” said Randolph, almost sounding like he was running for office, or to avoid impeachment. “Our guys have done an incredible job staying positive. I think it started when we played well at Cloquet, and our guys started to realize what they could do.
“When we beat an excellent Blaine team, we realized we can play with anybody. Centennial is also really good, and you never know how a game with Marshall is going to go. Then we got Lakeville North, and they are a very good team — deep, with speed and skill on offense and very good defensively. When we started 1-4, we were 1-for-15 on the power play, and now we’re on fire. Our power play is one of our strengths.
“Once we got a couple guys back from being sick, we opened things up. Going back to the Andover game, I knew we had to change some things, and when I moved a couple players around, it just seemed like our
chemistry clicked. It’s really great that we could go into our Christmas break having won four straight games, so we’re 5-4 now.”
It appeared that the strength of Hermantown, the upswing of Denfeld, the consistency of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, and the threat from Grand Rapids would be the big stories in Section 7 this season. But without any gift wrapping or ribbons and bows, the Duluth East Greyhounds are alive and moving up.