(Updated 1-10-2011 with updated second game total after Dallas game.)
Fans of the Minnesota Wild have enjoyed the first week of 2011 immensely. Four games in the New Year, four wins (three in regulation, all on the road), eight points, and the Wild have finally managed to pull themselves off the scrap heap of the NHL's Western Conference.
To what do we attribute this largesse? The system instilled by the coaching staff, led by second-year head Coach Todd Richards? Better talent obtained by GM Chuck Fletcher? Better play inspired by the likes of Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Cal Clutterbuck and the now-injured Marek Zidlicky?
The fact of the matter is that all of it contributes to the sudden surge in Wild success. But so does one more important item...one overlooked except in hindsight after games have been played:
The old facet that 'It's not who you play, it's when you play them', comes into play after the games have been played.
Would the Wild have been better off playing the New Jersey Devils right after their NHL Premiere experience in Finland? Or in January, after the Devils' ship of state took on so much water it looked more like the Andria Doria than a hockey team ready to win games?
Are the Wild better off that three of the four games against the Phoenix Coyotes have already been played?
Were the Boston Bruins looking ahead to their game Saturday night in Montreal, when they played the Wild Thursday night at TD Garden?
We know the Wild caught a major break against the Pittsburgh Penguins, when Sidney Crosby got his clock cleaned not once, but twice, in the week leading up to last night's 4-0 Wild win, the second worst game in the STK era for the Pens versus the Wild. Crosby did not play last night as he was diagnosed with concussion symptoms after the second bell-ringing, which took place in their Wednesday night 8-1 drubbing of Tampa Bay.
When the Wild catch a team at or near full strength, especially in St. Paul, they have frequently had their lunch handed to them, as in New Year's Eve's 4-1 drubbing against a Nashville Predators team at full strength; a Detroit Red Wings team which came in on Boxing Day, and in Grinch-like fashion, wrested a 4-1 win from the Wild in a game so bad, the fifth-largest crowd in Wild history booed the team off the ice after the second period; an Ottawa Senators team who came in to St. Paul and used two power-play goals to earn a 3-1 comeback win, their fifth straight against the Wild; the Coyotes' first visit into the 'X', as lifeless a loss (4-2) as you could get; and the two straight home blowouts in November, the easy (for them) 5-2 NY Rangers win, and the 6-1 Philadelphia Flyers drubbing, two of the worst home games in Wild history.
Now, this afternoon, the Dallas Stars, another team which the Wild have precious little success with (9-7-2 all time in St. Paul, and an absolutely hid-e-ous 3-11-4 in 'Big D') play in a 5:00 PM start, Dallas having rested on Saturday, while the Wild were in Pittsburgh. The Stars have three players (Karlis Skrastins and Minnesotans Matt Niskanen (Virginia), Toby Petersen (Minneapolis) ) on the injured list, as do the Wild (Guillaume Latendresse, Niklas Backstrom, Zidlicky) so what does that portend?
The 1-6-3 record of the Wild this season, in the second game of back-to-backs, should speak volumes. The fact that Dallas rested yesterday, while the Wild flew back from Western PA, should speak volumes. The fact that Backstrom, the Wild's No. 1 goaltender, is possibly facing more hip surgery, maybe putting him out for the rest of the season, should speak volumes. The fact that the West is so tight (the Wild will be within two points of the Stars in the West if they win in regulation time today) should speak volumes, also.
What it speaks volumes OF, however, is subject to debate, specualtion, and of course, blogging!