Monday, January 31, 2011

Back to the salt mine

That is the theme of this week in the NHL, as all 30 teams go back to work, following the end of the five-day All-Star break.

For the Minnesota Wild, it will mean a 16-game-in-31 day grind, starting tomorrow night with the Wild's first home game in over two weeks, as the Los Angeles Kings visit the 'X' for the last time this regular season. The Kings are really up against it, as they start a 10-game road trip which keeps them away from STAPLES Center until well after the Grammy Awards, the event for which (by the admission of AEG, the arena's owners) the STAPLES Center was designed for. Their trip includes games at Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh, Washington, Philadelphia, Columbus, NY Rangers, NY Islanders and then wind up the trip down I-5, at Anaheim.

After a two-game road trip to Colorado and Phoenix, five of the next seven games are where the Wild, by their play this season, do not want to play: at home.

And that, dear Wild fans, is the reason for concern. If this Wild team wishes to play beyond April 10th (the regular season finale vs. Dallas), they have to be able to take care of business at home, and without the use of overtime or the shootout. Since Thanksgiving, the Wild are a very, very pedestrian 5-6-1 at Xcel Energy Center. And, when you are desperate to sell every ticket in a bad economy, in the middle of a brutal winter, with lots of snow and cold, winning at home helps keep the turnstiles rolling.

In short, they have to play 60 minutes of consistently good hockey. In the last month, whenever they have played 60 minutes of good hockey, they've won, scoring 32 goals in the 8 wins in January (Phoenix at home, at New Jersey, at Boston, at Pittsburgh, Vancouver at home, at Edmonton, at Calgary, and the last game, the 4-2 win at United Center vs. the Chicago Blackhawks). When they haven't, however, they've been brutal (Dallas at home, at Nashville, Colorado at home, at San Jose), scoring only 5 goals in those 4 games (3 of those in the San Jose game).

You need to beat the Detroits and the Chicagos, granted. Vancouver is the best first-place team no one (outside of the Far West) has heard of. But you also need to beat Phoenix in the desert this coming weekend. You need to beat Colorado, preferably twice. St. Louis is this year's poster child for a beaten franchise, with all their injuries and the problems the Blues have had. Anaheim is a shadow of the team from 3-4 seasons ago. If you think you're good, prove it. Go out and beat them.

Do I think this team should go 10-0 in their next 10 games? No. That would be horribly unrealistic. But maybe 7-3? 7-2-1? That record, in their next 10 games, should be in the Wild's wheelhouse with the talent that a) they have; and b) the opponents have, and c) the way that the schedule has been laid out by the NHL.

Because, if you don't, may I mention another annual NHL 'event', one which will take place at the end of this next month?

The Trade Deadline, 3:00 PM Central Time, Feb. 28th, a mere 4 hours before the Wild take on the Blackhawks for the final time this season, a nationally-cablecast (Versus, TSN2) game which will feature two teams who will be in their final pre-playoff mode.

Who will be a buyer? Who will be a seller? Who gets bought, and who gets sold?

The next 10 games will answer a lot of these and other questions...

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