Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meaty, meaty, meaty, meaty...

Wild start 16 game-in-30-day marathon tonight vs. Jets: Another goalie in their future?

Venerable Minneapolis Star-Tribune beat writer Michael Russo likes to use the term, 'meaty', when the Minnesota Wild face a particularly tough stretch of their schedule. Now, he's used it for years, and normally, he's pretty much spot on when he's used it.

So, in that respect, the next 30 days are, indeed, four weeks of 'meaty' games for the Wild, as they delve headlong back into Western Conference play after mostly feasting on the weaker Eastern Conference for the last 2 1/2 weeks.

And, they do so, at least for the time being, without one key cog in their lineup; goaltender Niklas Backstrom, whose concussion is the aftermath of Toronto's Nazem Kadri going Hanson brothers on Backstrom during the first period of Wednesday's 3-2 Wild victory, over the otherwise hapless Maple Leafs at Xcel Energy Center. (Nice forearm shiv there, Nazem. I see Colton Orr has taught you well.)

The fact is that as long as Josh Harding can hold up physically, the Wild should at least stay in most games in the next month; after all, they have the fourth best record in the Central division, which has proven to be the NHL's toughest, up to this point. But what recourse do the Wild have should Harding go down again, like he has each of the last two seasons?

They have to sign another goaltender, and soon. They cannot depend on their Iowa Wild tandem (Johan Gustafsson, Darcy Kuemper) to play full-time backup; the revolving door on I-35 between Des Moines and St. Paul can only go so fast. The name most mentioned is ex-Wild (and Canadiens, Avalanche, Capitals, Panthers) keeper Jose Theodore, who reportedly is working out near his South Florida home.

With four back-to-backs in the next four weeks (including two in a nine-day stretch), two home and away, two with both games away, the Wild's schedule gets ridiculously tough going into the next few weeks. Three games vs. Central co-leader Colorado, two games vs. Winnipeg, two vs. San Jose, and single games against Montreal, Ottawa, St. Louis, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Chicago, Columbus, Anaheim, Vancouver, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This is a schedule that would decimate most clubs, especially when 10 of the 16 games are away from St. Paul, where the Wild have become the most dominant team in the NHL. The only home blemish in regulation time is the 'Monday Night Massacre', the Oct. 28 nationally-televised 5-1 drubbing by the Chicago Blackhawks, the game after the Wild went into Chicago's United Center and routed the 'Hawks 5-2 two nights earlier.

It will be a real test for the Wild to go from a speed game (vs. Colorado), to an almost brutal game vs. Philadelphia, back to a speed game vs. Chicago, to a control game vs. Columbus, and so on. Different teams will present different challenges for the Wild, be it P.K. Subban, Eric Karlsson, David Backes and T.J. Oshie, Mike Smith, or 'Jumbo Joe' (Thornton) and 'Little Joe' (Pavelski) with San Jose.

As versatile as the Wild have had to become so far, they bettter start honing their game. Very much so, and quickly. As the Western Conference is prepping to leave the Wild in their dust, the Wild need to amass a large number of victories in this next 16 games -- in my opinion, nothing less than 11-5-0  (22 points) will do -- which means they need to win all their home games during this stretch, and be at least .500 on the road.

Should the Wild still be in contention by the Christmas three-day holiday break, four of the first five games after the break will be in the 'friendly confines' of the 'X' -- and a good way to start the New Year.

But, until that time, the schedule is, indeed, 'meaty'. So enjoy the banquet, Wild fans. Or at least try to.

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