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ST. LOUIS… The Minnesota Wild have just dropped a 5-4 OT game to the St. Louis Blues here tonight at the Scott Trade Center, but more on that and the club in a bit. The NHL after a three-and-a-half-month delay to the start of the season has come out of the gates flying. Most observers advised that this would be a different type of season with a 48-game schedule instead of the usual 82, which would make a different approach necessary.
My thoughts are basically that clubs were going to have to pace themselves to be able to absorb a “game every other day” type of format, and that the management of the activity, rest, and nutrition cycle would need to be bigger this year than in most. I have also considered that teams that could routinely work in their top AHL players here and there to spell their NHLers (barring injuries to either) would stand a better chance of success as well. And finally, if you can get four or five points out of every three games, I believe that is what it will take to get into the Stanley Cup tourney this time around. Of course, minimizing injuries and man games lost will be even bigger in a shortened season.
So, who is poised and who is not? Consider which clubs have top six core players out from the start due to injury. Who made major roster moves in the off-season? Who might be experiencing contract holdouts? Retirements? Coaching changes? These are factors that are all worth thinking about, because in a season of this nature they will all be magnified. And believe it or not, I think there are teams that have a chance to go far because of the scheme of things this year, and there will be teams that may have been favored in a regular 82-game schedule that are going to fizzle in the shortened season.
After a week of play, here are some things to ponder. In the Western Conference there are still two clubs with perfect records, Chicago and San Jose. Both are surprises. Many thought the Hawks might not have the goaltending or depth to be a top club, but they are now 6-0. The Sharks were thought to be possibly weak in the goal and on the back end, and they are now 5-0. The Wild are currently on top of the Northwest at 2-2-1 for 5 points, but if you can’t get into the playoffs with a point per game in an 82-game sked, you sure aren’t going to be able to do it in a 48-game one either. The Blues are at 10 points in 6 tilts, the Teemu Selanne Ducks have 6 in 4, and the NorthStars, Canucks, Nashville, and Wings all have 5 in 5.
From 10th spot to 15th my surprises are the defending Cup champ Kings at 13th and the West division winner from last year, Phoenix, in dead last with two points in five games. The saying is that you can’t make the playoffs in the first 10 games, but you can play your way out of them with a substandard showing. The experts weren’t expecting much from the Wings or Stars, and they have been better than expected. They thought that with the Canucks turning their net over to Corey Schneider, they would be in good shape. He got bombed in their home opener. The Ducks had on their “Riddler”-like question mark suits, too, but have been better than billed. Stay tuned.
In the East, the powers were thought to be Boston, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers. They are currently 3rd, 7th, and 11th. New Jersey was supposed to lay by their dish this year after losing Zach Parise and making a miracle-like Cup run last year; they are in 2nd. Tampa Bay is in 1st, and Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and the Isles are surprising at this early point. Carolina and Buffalo are off to so-so starts, and the downward surprises in the East are Philly, Washington, and Florida.
The Wild lost this eve to the Blues 5-4 in OT after getting out to a 3-1 lead, getting behind 4-3, tying the game late, and losing on a poor coverage in the offensive zone in OT. The power play sizzled at 2 for 3, and the penalty kill did, too, shutting out the Blues on an 0-5 run. On the other hand, they were outshot 34-16, which also means that Wild net minder Niklas Backstrom stopped only 29 of 34 for a .853 saves percentage. Not good. In fact, since the Wild’s home opener win versus the Avs, followed by their win the next night against the NorthStars, I believe the goaltending has been weak. The club could be better defensively, for sure, but your goalies have to step up and put up the wall, too.
When I heard a chap on the sat radio predict a 12th-place finish for the Wild, I got kind of mad. He said they had question marks on the backend and in goal. And now I’m thinking he might not be too far off. While I don’t think Backstrom and Josh Harding are on top of their games yet, how much more can the club get from them, and will that be enough? Ryan Suter, Tom Gilbert, and Jared Spurgeon have been good on D so far. The rest of the D corps not as much—they have to be better. Seven skaters have multiple points, and the 3rd and 4th lines have not offered much offensively.
This club concerns me, and it is clear the roster is not all on the same page yet, certainly from a defensive standpoint. However, I will say that I didn’t think the Parise-Suter signings were the end of the rebuild job for this club. Far from it. They still have roster needs and young guys in need of experience. Other than that? Hey, Geno Malkin smoked Craig Anderson in the SO today between the Pengwah and Sens. And Thursday eve the Oiler Russian Rookie sensation Nael Yakupov got a goal with, like, less than two seconds left to tie the Kings. The Oil went on to win in OT. Best post-game quote was from Yakupov, who said, “This best my game.” Ok. That’s just what I was thinking, too. PEACE
HERE IT IS… This has probably been my worst year ever for NFL prognosticating, so if my Super Bowl pick goes south, it should come as no surprise. I am taking San Fran to win over Baltimore, and the total points in the game will be 45. OVER & OUT!
Marc Elliott is a freelance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County News Chronicle for ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710AM in Duluth.