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ST. PAUL… Outside of a couple of recent games with the Chicago Blackhawk’s, and a pair of 1-0 losses in epic net minding performances by opposition goalies, the Minnesota Wild express has pretty much kept right on rolling. The setbacks to the Hawks were expected by me, the 4-3 and 5-3 losses were going to occur at some point right? The Wild had a 9 game regular season win streak going against the Hawks and the laws of hockey say that that will not go on infinitely. And it didn’t. The pair of 1-0 losses were separated by a couple of weeks and were at the hands of Anaheim and Columbus. In my view these were “victory by goalie” as I thought the Wild had the better of the play in both tilts, but could not overcome two top notch goaltending performances.
But after the Wilds astounding 12 game win streak it wouldn’t have been abnormal for many Wild fans to state that it was great while it lasted and now the club will probably revert to normal form and wrestle with the remainder of the regular season. But not this club and not with this coach. After the New Years eve loss to the CBJ, the team put up a 10-3 January, and then followed that with an 8-4 February. Conversely, the CBJ, after posting a franchise record, and in almost tying an NHL record win streak with a 16 game run, (1 short of tying the league record of 17) went 7-7 in January, and then 6-6 in February. Columbus has struggled to find consistency since the streak ended and the Wild kept their nose to the stone. I see the CBJ as being more of a goalie driven team when they succeed and the Wild, while they have excellence between the pipes with Devan Dubnyk, I think they have a stronger roster overall. Coaches John Tortorella and Bruce Boudreau have both been around the hockey block.
The Wild are currently in the two spot in the Sagarin NHL rank based on a 42-21 record. They are 13-4 versus top ten clubs and 22-12 versus top 16 teams. The Washington Capitals hold down the first position with a 44-20 record and are 11-9 and 19-14 versus the top ten and 16 respectively. So, are the Caps feasting on weak Eastern Conference opponents? Yes, but they are also beating the stronger clubs in the East as well. What happens to the Caps at playoff time? They have played in two Conference Finals in their history, going 1-1 and losing in their only Stanley Cup final appearance to the 97-98 Cup Champion Red Wings in a four game sweep. That was also the last time there was a repeat Cup Champion in the league.
If there is a team that could be more frustrating to be a fan of then the Wild, it very well might be the Caps. In their last ten seasons they have made the SC tourney 8 times, and have made the 2nd round five times, losing each time. Last season they were the leagues President Trophy winners and then got ousted by the eventual Cup Champion Penguins in the 2nd round. Yup, I am aware of the curse of the Presidents Trophy, but could it be that the Caps just are not built for long term playoff success?
That’s entirely possible. Right now I look at them as the best team in the league. The Sagarin rank is correct and true. But at playoff time they won’t be my Cup Champion selection. Will the Wild be? I might not know that for another 3 weeks or so. Right now though, they are something I didn’t project them to be last summer and early fall; a Cup contender. Every time this year when I thought they had a chance to tumble back to prior form, they came back and got right back to winning. They are still putting up good stats and are 2nd in Goals Against and in Goals For. They are 5th in Power Play percentage and 7th in Penalty Kill percentage. They are the 7th least penalized club in the league. This team features 5 of the top 10 plus/minus players in the league! That is huge! Dubnyk leads the league in Goaltender wins and in Save Percentage. He is 2nd in Goals Against Average.
All of these factors point to a very good club that is on the way to a deep playoff run, right? Well, mostly right. As of this writing, in the NHL Central you have the Wild, Hawks and Preds. The Wild have a one point lead over CHI with 2 games in hand. In the Pacific you have San Jose, Edmonton and Anaheim. In the two Wild Card spots are Calgary and St. Louis. Calgary has a 7 point lead on STL, but has played 2 more games. Calgary is on a 8-1-1 run in their L10 while STL is 5-5 in theirs. Calgary and Anaheim are tied points wise with the Ducks holding a game in hand. Los Angeles and Winnipeg are on STL’s heels. LA and the Peg though are playing some inconsistent hockey right now, STL isn’t much better, but I can see them maintaining their hold on the final WC position.
Lets say MN, CHI and NASH hold their spots and the Pacific ends up with SJ, EDM and CAL in the playoff positions with Anaheim and STL in the WC spots. This would make the first round look like this; MN (Central winner) vs. STL (2nd WC), then SJ (Pacific winner) vs. Anaheim (1st WC), then CHI (2nd Central) vs. NASH (3rd Central), and in the Battle of Alberta, and do not underestimate how big this series would be in the hockey world, you have EDM (2nd Pacific) vs. CAL (3rd Pacific). Now my friends, here is where I reach for the Pepto Bismol. I see Wild over STL, CHI over NASH, SJ over ANAHEIM, and in an upset I see CAL over EDM. That sets up a 2nd round of…. Yes, you guessed it! The Wild versus the Blackhawk’s!! Oh Holy you know what!!! I think I’m gonna be sick…..
THIS WEEK OF HOCKEY has the best High School tourney in the country in St. Paul with the Boys tourney starting Wednesday. The Women’s D1 NCAA tourney kicks off with two certain teams who both wear Maroon and Gold locking it up in the Zenith City on Saturday. The last one took 5 periods. Men’s D1 continues forth and the Wild hook it up for 4 tilts vs. STL, and then at TB, FLA and CHI on the Sunday National broadcast tilt! PEACE