Sunday, March 31, 2013

Three months down, one to go

Minnesota Wild playoff drive approaches last month, critical mass with California trip looming

March has been a fun month, if you've been cheering on the Minnesota Wild. With an 11-4 month of March (equalling a team record), the Wild enter April a mere 11 points from the supposed 'promised land' of 55 points, the level at which most pundits think will be enough to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With a game in hand versus Vancouver, the Wild enter April on Monday facing a difficult challenge, as 3 of their first 4 April contests are away from St. Paul, while Vancouver has 3 of their first 4 at home prior to their potentially killer, 5-game road trip starting April 10th.

The Wild's upcoming California road trip will be yet another 'acid test' of how the Wild have changed this season, with games in San Jose and LA before jetting east across the country to an appearance next Sunday in Columbus, against the improved (and still on the cusp of the playoffs) Blue Jackets.

LA is somewhat kinder to the Wild, where the Wild actually have an all-time winning record (10-8-4) vs. a less-that-scintillating 8-12-2 record in San Jose.

The fact is the West Coast trips for the Wild are long, sapping killer trips that expend considerable energy out of visiting teams, as the home teams are used to the California lifestyle and the 2-3 hour time difference. And, usually the Wild are rapping these games around those in Anaheim, where the Wild are nearly a .500 hockey team (10-11-1). But not this trip. This trip, the Ducks will have their hands full, playing three straight games against Dallas, the last three ever as divisional rivals, prior to their April 7 game at home vs. the Kings.

You can see how the NHL schedule intertwines the contenders and the pretenders as the compressed schedule goes down to the last 14 (or so) games. Every team in the West playoff race has at least one killer road trip left; how they deal with the adversity, away from home, will be the key to playoff qualifying, Or not qualifying.

So make sure your NHL Center Ice subscription is paid up. Get ready for some late night hockey. And remember to get your sleep. For this coming week, Wild faithful, you'll need it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Keep On, Keepin' On

Is the five-game winning streak for real? It will get tested this week

Are the Minnesota Wild for real? Are they actually going to make the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs? Or are they going to fold, like they did last season? And who will be there to heckle them, as they do?

Well, we hate to break it to you, folks, but this team is for real.  With five straight wins, including wins at two of the NHL's toughest venues, Vancouver's Rogers Arena (ex-Canada Hockey Place, nee-General Motors Place) and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, the Wild seem to be wanting to be that team that breaks away from the nine-team pack in the Western Conference, and join the likes of the Conference's two front-runners, Chicago and Anaheim, not only to make the playoffs, but to secure home ice advantage in the first round, something the Wild have not experienced since their Northwest Division championship season of 2007-08, the only earned banner that hangs in the rafters of Xcel Energy Center.

This Wild team, the most talent-laden club in the history of the franchise, has finally started to play like the talent they actually have. The kids that were brought in by GM Chuck Fletcher (Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker) have turned out to be great additions to a primarily veteran-laden roster, one with enough depth that when one gets injured (as hockey players do over the course of a season), another one can be plugged in and the level of play does not significantly suffer.

And that does really not set well with a lot of NHL people.

The lack of respect that the Wild are getting is borderline appalling. Now, some of that is indeed deserved, as the team hasn't qualified officially for anything...yet. The fact of the matter is that the league's media outlets, mostly tightly controlled by the league's Toronto offices, refuse to accept the fact that a team not based in British Columbia, might actually win the final Northwest Division title.

The League has stated that the Wild will not participate in any special event games (Winter Classic, NHL Premiere in Europe) until -- and unless -- they start making the playoffs. The Wild are particularly adept at getting pushed down the line in League-operated media, such as the 'NHL Tonight' highlight package TV show, on the NHL Network. The fact that they are in the Western Conference in an Eastern Conference-based media doesn't help; no national respect is coming for this Wild team. But as long as they are in the same division as perennially-whiny Vancouver, whose fan base -- like the team itself -- cries after every game, win OR lose, the Wild will always be treated like the country cousin who never gets any respect, even after they have re-invented the wheel.

The Wild now heading into a particularly dicey stretch of the season, with 6 of the next 7 games (and 7 of the 8, including yesterday's game vs. San Jose) against teams in the Pacific Division, a division which currently is Anaheim, and then, everyone else. Six points separate second-place LA from last-place Phoenix; the current trend for the division (excluding Anaheim) is 2-6. The old adage of  'it's not who you play, it's when you play them' may just work in the Wild's favor here. The fact of the schedule being what it is, with two games vs. the Dallas Stars with the lone visit to Minnesota by the Phoenix Coyotes thrown in the middle, is not fun, but the alternative -- a two-game 'mini-series' in the Metroplex vs. the Stars -- might just have been that much worse. And, at the back end, the Wild will finally face the LA Kings, for the first time this abbreviated season, at home on Saturday.

The Stars are the '2' in that 2-6 Pacific Division streak trend I mentioned earlier. They have taken a patchwork lineup of players on their last go-rounds (Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney, Vernon Fiddler, Stephane Robidas) and have kept themselves relevant in the Conference, despite the presence of Anaheim in the same division. The Stars will not play between Monday's game vs. the Wild, and Friday's rematch at American Airlines Center. The Wild will be hard-pressed to win one, much less both, of the two games. But they can do it, IF they play their game like they have shown they can in the past five games.

Wild fans just keep on hoping, that the joy ride doesn't end for a long, long time.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't look now, North America; Wild are in 1st

Yes, it's fleeting, but it's still the truth as shortened schedule passes half-way mark

Sorry, North America, but we really hate to break this news to all of you:

The Minnesota Wild are in third place in the NHL's Western Conference, and lead the Northwest Division this Monday morning. Now, granted, it might not be that way for long, but for now, the Wild have the most wins of any team in the division, and that tie-breaker (with Vancouver) means the Wild are No. 1. For now.

With a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, the Wild have pretty much proven the naysayers wrong, despite the overwhelming feeling about the offseason signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter by the Wild. Yes, it's taken time, and a lot of Wild fan angst, but it looks like the Wild may -- MAY -- have just possibly found themselves in time to salvage the season and possibly break away from a lot of the 9-team middle-of-Conference pack that currently exists in the West. The Wild may also have a hand in the deciding of the Pacific Division as well; they have 10 games remaining against the Pacific, starting with Tuesday night's season-series finale with the current Pacific Division leaders, the Anaheim Ducks.

In fact, Anaheim will be only the second team in the conference the Wild will finish with (Nashville the other) before the Wild go on their next road trip, a 3-game trek to Colorado, Vancouver and Detroit, starting with the game Saturday afternoon in Denver. On the other hand, the Wild have yet to face either of the other two California teams, the San Jose Sharks and the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings. In fact, on the NHL Trade Deadline day (April 3) the Wild will conveinently be in San Jose, so if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher makes a move, any player that can be moved can be easily dispatched to whatever point on the NHL compass the trade winds take them.

But, between now and then, there's 11 games (6 home, 5 road) to be played, another nearly 1/4 of the season. So there's time for players to play themselves into, or out of, the day-to-day lineup. Or, should the so choose, all the way off the roster. But the fact is starting to stare at all 30 NHL teams, that the last chance to dump salary (of potential UFA's to be), or get anything of value for players whose welcome has worn thin (or totally out) is coming upon them like a bad storm across the prairie.

Especially this season, this shortened season, this last season before divisional re-alignment, the Trade Deadline day should, in my honest opinion, yield a few surprises along with a couple of shocker moves; the number of medium-level free agents-to-be almost demands that some blockbuster trades happen.

The Wild need to dump salary. They would like to do so and actually get something in return. The franchise is finally getting out of the Risebrough era, albeit slower than most Wild fans would like them to; this summer should finally close the books on the DR reign of the Wild. Now, some of that will be tough (how do you give up on Niklas Backstrom, for example, the way he has played for most of the season so far?) and some of it will be easy (Pierre-Marc Bouchard), and some others will be tough to swallow for some (if Matt Cullen is moved, as example) but the fact is that the Wild are positioned to get younger, bigger and even more talented than they are now. And most followers agree, that this is already the most talented Wild roster in their history.

So what to do? This team needs to make the playoffs -- THIS season -- in order to show Minnesota hockey fans progress towards the success that this market has for so long craved. Even if the end result this season is a one-series 'one-and-done', even that would be considered progress. Then, and only then, would this season be worth it for Wild fans.