Wild still a cut below in the West

Feb. 11, 2008

by Jesse Menden

By taking on the other two division leaders in the Western Conference last week, the Minnesota Wild were going to see exactly how they stack up against other playoff teams.

The result: they are relatively close, but have some work to do.

Tuesday night, the Wild arguably played their best game of the season against the best team in the league, Detroit.
Actually, I take that back. The first two periods were the best the Wild have played this season, the third was less than desirable. The Wild lost 2-1 in overtime.

Thursday, they faced off against Dallas, the leaders in the Pacific Division. It was another well-played game by the Wild, but they couldn’t put the puck into the back of the net and lost 1-0.

So the Wild earned one out of a possible four points while taking on two of the top teams in the West at home. The Wild will make the playoffs, but the recent losses reiterated why the Wild are a cut below the elite teams at this point in the season.

The first thing that stands out from those games is the inability to score goals against good teams. 95-year-old Dominik Hasek was awesome in net in Tuesday night’s game as usual, so we can write the Wild a pass for scoring just two goals. They had plenty of opportunities and hit a couple of pipes.

But in Thursday’s tilt against the Stars, the Wild were shut out by somebody anonymously named Mike Smith, who, by the way, is a backup. Sure, the Wild did have their chances, but that is not good enough.

Another thing that stands out from the two games is the play of Niklas Backstrom. He has been on fire the past three weeks and was outstanding against Dallas in giving up only one goal. But he probably has given up more soft goals than any other goaltender in the league.

Against the Wings, the Wild appeared to have the game won with under two minutes to go in regulation, but Backstrom somehow let in a bad-angle shot from the right corner. I’ve seen the replay a dozen times and I still don’t know how it got in the net.

A goal like that might be understandable if it was the first time, but this has been a recurring issue. In the playoffs, a goal like that is always back-breaking.

Another thing that stood out is the play of the Wild’s special teams. Over the past seven games, the Wild are 26-for-26 on the penalty kill. That includes killing off a double-minor Tuesday night, and a double-minor and over a minute of 5-on-3 action Thursday.

Even though the power play was unimpressive against the Stars, the Wild have been making strides in that area, too.

Currently, they rank ninth in league at 18.8 percent.

Special teams are always important in the playoffs, and that bodes well for Minnesota.

The Wild just lost two games to good teams, but there are plenty of positives in their future. They won’t have to face Detroit, Dallas, or Anaheim the rest of the season. In fact, the schedule is not that difficult in the final two months.

Along with not having to play the top teams in the West, they get to play some of the bottom teams in the East. On their remaining schedule, the Wild have five games against the five teams from the Southeast Division, the weakest division in the NHL. At this point in the season, it is the Wild’s division to lose.

That means the Wild could win the division and not have to face one of those elite Western teams in the first round.

If the Wild can stay healthy, anything can happen in the playoffs. Even though they appear to be a cut below in the West right now, getting hot in the playoffs could change everything.

Having said that, the Wild must use their soft remaining schedule to win the division and avoid those top teams in the opening round.