Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rarified Air: Wild now 1st in entire NHL as quarter-post nears

In first place and loving it, workman-like Wild keep proving naysayers, NHL scribes wrong

Look at your favorite source for NHL standings, be it,,, wherever. The Vancouver Canucks are not atop the Northwest Division this Sunday morning. The Chicago Blackhawks are not leading the Western Conference this morning. The Philadephia Flyers are not atop the NHL league standings this morning.

In fact, there is another team, a team very few chose to even make the playoffs, a team which has gone through three years of upheaval and roster overhaul, in first place in all three categories this Sunday morning.

That team? The Minnesota Wild.

It took time. It took a lot of effort. It took talent, patience and a will to win, no matter what the circumstances. But, the boys in Iron Range Red have once again proved the naysayers and the NHL's media elite (read: anyone based in Toronto, the 'Center of the Hockey Universe') wrong. The Wild have indeed gone 'all in' on Head Coach Mike Yeo's system of play, and they are being rewarded for it. And how.

Yeo's continued emphasis on 'effort' and 'battle zone' has bolstered the talent of this group of mostly kids, kids who came into the season fron the Houston Aeros, where Yeo shaped and molded this team, then drove them to the Calder Cup finals despite being a No. 3 seed in the West going into the post-season.

The Wild's 'kiddie corps' defense -- 4 of their top 6 who played vs. St. Louis Saturday night were under age 25 -- was soundly getting ripped by most media outlets prior to the season's start. The goaltending, considered good, but not great, has been nothing less than spectacular in November, leading the Wild to an 8-2 record since November 1st. The second and third offensive lines have been carrying this team, as the first line has struggled to find itself, most notably captain Mikko Koivu, who got off the schneid Saturday night, with two goals in regulation, and one of the two goals in the shootout to win the game.

Yes, it's a lot easier to cheer when they win like they have. This is a return to the close, low-scoring Wild of years gone by. The Wild still haven't had the offensive explosion that some fans really think this team needs; by contrast, the lack of goals against keeps the Wild in games until the offense gets an opportunity to catch up. Unlike in the Jacques Lemaire era, however, when you lose a player to an injury or a bad night, there is depth in the system to replace the injured/ineffective player, depth that this franchise has never been able to avail itself of.

And, with the future of the franchise looming for the likes of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Brett Bulmer, all blue-chip prospects who will be with this team at the NHL level within 2-3 years, the future of the Wild has never looked this bright.

So, a little friendly advice from your Road Tripper. Save some vacation days. Got any PTO you can use? Save it. You'll need it for a playoff run. Real soon.

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