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.

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