It’s high noon in the NHL’s Wild West!

Marc Elliott

EAGLE BEND  – By the time you read this copy of the World Wide Duluth Reader the most important game of the Minnesota Wild's season will have been played. Tomorrow on Monday night they will take on the Vegas Golden Knights in what some are referring to as one of the most critical games of the season in the Western Conference. And those saying that just might be right. As of this writing, there are several unsettled issues in the West.  

While the top three teams in the Pacific Division have secured playoff invites, no one in the Central has. The Wild could have last night when they were in Vegas for the front end of a home and home, but they lost 4-1 and looked lethargic in doing so. But after a challenging 76 games so far, the Wild have fought their way into first place in the division.

But it's tenuous. This is how the West looks after today's competition with regard to the playoffs,  

The Central 1) MIN 76GP for 97 points, 6 games remaining

2) COL 75GP for 96 points, 7 games remaining

3) DAL 76GP for 96 points, 6 games remaining  

The Pacific 1) VGK 76GP for 101 points, 6 games remaining

2) LAK 77GP for 100 points, 5 games remaining

3) EDM 77GP for 99 points, 5 games remaining  

Wild Card 1) SEA 75GP for 90 points, 7 games remaining

2) WPG 77GP for 89 points, 5 games remaining  

And neither CGY nor NSH has been mathematically eliminated, their data looks like this, CGY/77GP/87 points/5 games remain, and NSH/75GP/84 points/7 games left. I don't see the Preds elevating enough to get in, so I feel that the only wild card battle left is the scrap between WPG and CGY. Who prevails there? That's a tough call. Both clubs had indifferent results in the month of March but are coming out of that.   The Jets played the NJ Devs tonight and popped them pretty good. (6-1) The Flames went up against the not-so-mighty Ducks and appeared to have their hands full but got away with a 5-4 win after playing from behind for a lot of the game.

And as a simple FYI, the Kraken has nothing locked down yet and could end up on the outside looking in come Monday, April 17. That's when the Stanley Cup tournament begins.    

In the recent Vegas tilt the team put up an indifferent effort considering the importance of the game. The passing game was off, shots were missing and Marc Andre' Fleury let in a couple of shots he likely wishes he had back. On top of that, forward Mason Shaw went down early and it does not look good. He was in an awkward position on the end boards to Fleury's right and his skate appeared to catch a poor spot on the ice. He has a harsh history of knee issues, so the first thing I did when I saw this was to cringe and say to myself, please, not again. Let this kid be ok. The team returned from Vegas today but no updates were available on Shaw.  

In a postgame conversation with my son William, I was discussing a couple of my theories about the Wild's playoff opportunities. The club will get into the tourney. That's all but a lock. They will be in for the ninth time in the last ten seasons.

The history has no glory attached to it though. It includes seven first-round losses, two second-round eliminations and a "did not qualify."

You might also argue that in the "bubble" playoff year (2019-20) that losing in the qualifying round in the bubble means they didn't really make the playoffs that year. The reality is that in the Wild's 22 seasons of existence, playoff success has been minimal and that has created some fan angst.  

So my theory is simple. The team must win the division at the minimum or the Conference at the maximum. If they win the Central, they would enjoy a home-ice advantage at least in the first round and thus, I believe they would win at least one round in the playoff. If the puck bounces right for them and they win the Conference, that is home ice all the way to the WCF and I can see a pathway for them to get to the Stanley Cup Final. If they go into another two versus three divisional matchup I see trouble, especially if they finish in the three spot.  

In fact, it seems that all two versus three matchups are problematic for those involved. You are talking about eight pretty good teams and four of them will be heading home after the first round is complete. It's almost unfair. But it IS a tough tournament to win, there is no way around that.  

As far as Monday night's return bout with the VGK goes I have my concerns. First, there is that gnawing thought that sports gamblers have about home teams not winning their first game back from a road trip. There is data that backs that up. Then there is the matter of the team's performance against Vegas over the recent past. The VGK entered the NHL in the 2017-18 season. The Wild had some early successes against them going 6-1-0-1 in the first three seasons.  

Then in the 2020-21 regular season they went 5-1-0-2 in the pandemic year where there was only divisional play, and there was some slight realignment. The Wild drew the Knights in the playoffs that year, lost the series three games to four and have followed that up with a 1-4 record against them. That is a 4-8 standing over about a 23-month span. That isn't exactly confidence inspiring.  

However, since a humiliating loss to the VGK in mid-February (5-1) and the infamous "players only" meeting held immediately afterward, the Wild has the 2nd best record in the entire NHL at 16-2-4. Only the BOS Bruins have been better and they are the newly crowned Presidents Trophy winners indicative of regular season dominance.  

How does that position the Wild for what remains of the regular season? In the absence of injured offensive wizard Kirill Kaprizov the team turned to a shutdown defensive style that when played to maximum benefit, has worked well for them. In fact, dare I say that when they play that style they score more goals than when they do not, or play it poorly. So what happens when KK#97 returns?  

That's a great question. Since most playoffs are won with a stout defense it would behoove the team to continue with the style. Kaprizov is going to have to learn to score via offensive counterpunching.  

My only other question is who gets the net? The coaching staff claims that the team doesn't have a number one tender at the moment. Yes, they do. His name is Filip Gustavsson. Yeah yeah, I know all about MAF, and I love the guy. But Gus the Bus is just a touch better in all phases right now.

Please Coach Deano, do not muff up the goalie situation like you did last season. Because otherwise, I think we might have a chance. PEACE