Monday, February 3, 2014

Muddling along, Wild heads for Olympic break

After a 9-4-1 January, the Minnesota Wild head into the Olympic break after two games this week against very different opponents.

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times for the Wild in the month of January. With a record of 9-4-1, best in franchise history, the Wild turn into the Olympic break (beginning after Thursday's home game vs. Nashville) looking forwards instead of backwards into the 20-day Olympic break.

The month included statement wins at Los Angeles, vs. Chicago at home, and at Anaheim (who had only lost once previously at home in 2013-14); and soul-crushing losses: Two vs. Colorado, vs. otherwise lowly Ottawa at home, at Dallas (a 4-0 blowout), and an overtime loss at San Jose, when the Wild were ahead 2-0 at one point.

And, that's part of the problem right now; with the NHL's Western Conference as tight as it is, every loss is a soul-crusher, as no team can really afford to lose any points, especially in overtime or in the shootout. You can't get anywhere if your opponents are getting points every night. That's why the OT/SO games are so inherently evil in their effects on the standings. With both teams getting points, no one can break free of the pack that is the Central Division.

Yes, the Wild are probably resigned to the fourth spot in the division, which means they will play one of the two No. 1 divisional seeds in the first round, either Anaheim (Pacific Division) or Chicago or St. Louis (Central). St. Louis plays Chicago twice yet, both games at the United Center in Chicago, following the Olympic break. Needless to say, the Wild will be keeping an eye on those two games very closely.

The Wild still have three games (two at home) vs. St. Louis; one game (April 3) at Chicago, and are finished (thankfully) with the Colorado Avalanche. Chicago still has two games (one home, one away) with the speedy Avs; St. Louis also still has two games (one home, one away) vs. Colorado.

But let's stop the schedule watch for now; look into the crystal ball (as it were) for this week's two games...

Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay: thank goodness Steven Stamkos is still out of the Lightning's line-up, as the Wild would be a team that the third-year star (who broke his leg three months ago) would feast upon. As it is, the 'Bolts still have Martin St. Louis, who can light up any given team on any given night. Wild fans better hope that Tuesday isn't 'the night.' In the only other meeting this season, the Wild barely showed up in a 3-1 loss at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa Oct. 18, the third game in a 1-2-1 Atlantic Division road swing.

Thursday, vs. Nashville, will be the last game before the Olympic break. The Wild are giving away T-shirts (mine will be too small, guaranteed) as it's 'Polar Vortex' night, when the Wild will wear their white road jerseys and give away posters with the Wild's five Olympians (Parise, Suter, Niederreiter, Granlund and, if his lower body allows, Koivu) on it. Most NHL teams are doing this poster of their own Olympians this week. (St. Louis has 10 Olympians; Chicago, 8). Granted, the Predators are not the Preds of old, but they still present a frustrating style of hockey, that the Wild do not handle all that well. Wild are 1-1 vs. Nashville so far this season, losing in October and then shutting out the Preds in their last meeting, in Music City three weeks ago.

The Wild need to win in regulation on Thursday (at least); it would be nice if they swept the week, allowing the Wild to go into the Olympic break with points in eight of their last 10 games prior to the break. A 6-2-2 record into the Olympics is a record that many NHL teams would be satisfied with. And, that record will help the Wild keep pace with those teams ahead of them, should one of those teams falter down the stretch.

And that's all Wild fans want. Be competitive. Don't back into the playoffs (or, back all the way out of them, like what almost happened last year in April.) The season isn't over yet.

Just taking a breather for a few days...