Sunday, December 18, 2011

Limping along at the top

(Revised and updated, with status of Wild injured)

Sorry, Vancouver Canucks fans. Your team still isn't in first this morning.

Despite injuries which have taken more than 120 man-games away (as of Saturday night's game vs. the NY Islanders), the Minnesota Wild still have managed to limp along in first place in the entire NHL.

Despite losing four of their top six forwards (Mikko Koivu, Devin Setoguchi, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse) to various and sundry ailments (leg, knee, face and concussion, respectively), the Wild continue to earn points, despite a week where the hockey gods did not exactly smile good fortune on them.

In the last game of a 5-game road trip, the Wild finally played a game in their own time zone, losing to the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 at MTS Centre, in front of 14,904 Jets fanatics (and about 100 Wild fans, spread out thru the arena, including this blogger). In that game, Casey Wellman, filling in for the ailing Setoguchi, was slashed in the second period by Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian, another injury that was totally missed by the game officials (no penalty was assessed on the play). Then, with 1:06 left in the 3rd period, Bogosian tried to obliterate Bouchard by running him into the dasher separating the boards from the glass as Minnesota was pressing for the tying goal in the Winnipeg end. Bogosian was assessed a 5-minute major and a game misconduct for the act, but no supplemental discipling was assessed later, while Bouchard was left to bleed all the way back to Minnesota.

Wednesday, the Wild came back twice from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to take the Chicago Blackhawks to (and thru) overtime and into the shootout, where Patrick Kane out-deked Niklas Backstrom to win the game for the Hawks. In that game, Koivu injured his leg late in the third period, right as he scored the tying goal to send the game into overtime. Latendresse also suffered post-concussion syndrome symptoms, after a hit on Chicago's Viktor Stalberg midway thru the first period. Latendresse has since been put on injured reserve.

Saturday night, vs. the lowly Islanders, the patchwork lineup that the Wild presented at the 'X' was decidedly 'Houston-heavy', as no less than four Aeros call-ups permeated the roster. Unfortunately, the four call-ups and Backstrom were the only reasons the Wild were still in the game after two lacklustre periods, and a booing off the ice by the faithful at the end of the second period.

Newly-minted Wild-killer Al Montoya was easily stopping everything loosely thrown at him, as there was no sustained effort by the Wild offense to press the attack in the Islanders zone. The fact that the Islanders are the worst team in the East, did not stop the Wild from playing down to their level thru the first 35 minutes of the game. That the Wild got a point out of this snoozer of a contest, is as much the work of Backstrom, as anything any forward or defenseman did.

And now, the Wild take to the road for their third (of 4 this season) western Canadian trip, the only one where they travel to all three cities (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, respectively), in as bad a condition physically as they have been in for years. The Canucks just finished a five-game Eastern road trip where they went 3-1-1, including wins at Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Calgary is on a 3-game winless streak (not including Sunday's game at Chicago) of its' own, while the Oilers are 1-5 in their last six games (not including Monday night's home game vs. Detroit).

Koivu and Bouchard will both travel with the team on this trip; Koivu may not play in Vancouver, but is expected back vs. the Flames. Setoguchi may begin practicing while the team is on the road trip.  Bouchard is day-to-day. Latendresse will be sidelined for a while with his PCS problems.

What does all this mean? There may be -- MAY be -- light at the end of the injury tunnel. As the team goes into the holiday break, the schedule will actually turn and FAVOR the Wild, as the long western road trips will have been put behind them; in fact, only 6 games in the New Year will start after 7:30 PM (and after January 7, no games will start later than 8:00 PM Central Time). The injuries will subside (hopefully) and the Mike Yeo-inspired system, ingrained into this group of players, will propel them towards a playoff spot.

Hang on, Wild fans. Better times are indeed ahead. Patience is indeed a virtue.

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