Nate Bauer The Hockey Writers
Playoff Preview: The Wild’s West?
The regular season is officially winding down and NHL teams in playoff contention are jockeying for position. Luckily for the Minnesota Wild, their playoff position seams relatively secure as they sit seven points up on 9th place Los Angeles and five points up on 8th place Winnipeg in the Western Conference playoff race with six regular season games remaining for Minnesota. That said, the Wild still could slip and fall out of the playoff picture, but it would take a monumental collapse considering Minnesota’s current chance at making the playoffs.
This is the time of year where fans and pundits alike start to break down possible playoff match-ups, discussing which team might have an advantage over another, and analyzing Stanley Cup favorites. While everybody has their own opinion of which team(s) the Minnesota Wild match-up with best with, one thing we’re surprisingly not hearing much of is an underrated question: Who wants to play Minnesota right now?
It’s something really nobody is asking. Perhaps it’s the naturally humble Minnesota attitude to not be too boastful about our team. Or maybe it’s a case of tempered optimism due to the memory of years of sports related disappointments the states loyal fans have endured. For whatever reason, few in this hockey-mad town have asked this question while discussing the playoff picture. It’s a point that begs discussion.
Hot like wildfire
Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun, but it’s a heading that fits too. Since Devan Dubnyk took over the reigns as Minnesota’s starting netminder, the Wild are an astonishing 26-6-2. Minnesota has won 11 games in a row and is 8-2-0 in its last 10 games. Add to some crazy statistics the fact that the Wild hasn’t lost a game by more than 1 goal since January 19th and also hasn’t lost 2 games in a row since that date. Post all-star break, the Wild is #1 in team goals-against average at 1.63 goals-against per game; Montreal is 2nd at 2.06.
Overall, the Wild is 10th in goals for with 2.83 goals per game and tied for 5th in goals against with a mark of 2. 42 goals against per game on the year. Despite a struggling power-play, Minnesota’s penalty kill is #1 in the league, killing 87.1% of opposing power plays. Additionally, the Wild is 7-2-0 since the so-called “schedule from hell” began on March 13th (with only one game against a non-playoff team), but perhaps the most amazing statistic is the goal differential since January 15th.
Western conference goal differential since January 15: MIN +47 CGY +12 STL +6 VAN +6 LAK +5 COL +5 ANA +2 WPG +2 DAL +1 All others minus.
— Jonathan Willis (@JonathanWillis) March 30, 2015
Talk about playing your best hockey at the right time. These stats point to the Wild being a team primed for a long playoff run, despite being a team somewhat under the radar when discussing Western Conference playoff favorites. Minnesota is maybe one of the deepest teams in the league right now too. Mike Yeo has had no problem rolling out all four forward lines and three defensive pairings against some of the best teams in the league. Let us not forget though that despite solid play from every player in the lineup, one man has stood above the rest.
It seems almost redundant to mention what Devan Dubnyk has meant to the Wild since his arrival. It really cannot be overstated though because without the man they call Duuuuuub, the Wild would be hard pressed to repeat the performance they have put on since mid-January. Dubnyk has been a star lately too; no literally, he was named first star of the week for the last week of March and third star of the entire month. Dubnyk is 11-3-0 with a 1.78GAA and a
.942SV% in the month of March. He’s also 4-0-1 in back to back games where the Wild’s skaters have typically struggled to play with the pace they are accustomed to.
The most staggering number though is what Dubnyk has done to the team’s save percentage. Before Dubnyk, Wild goaltenders (Kuemper and Backstrom) compiled a combined SV% of .889 which was tied for last with the lowly Edmonton Oilers. Since Dubnyk took over, he’s skyrocketed that number to .912 and Dubnyk’s .940% since he began a string on 34 consecutive starts for Minnesota is tops in the league at .940. His amazing run has propelled the Wild into a playoff spot and allowed the State of Hockey to collectively exhale. Now we get to talk about playoff runs and not blowing up the hierarchy of the team.
As the famous former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora once said, “Playoffs!?”. The way it stands, the Wild will likely face one of three teams in the opening round of the playoffs: St. Louis, Anaheim, or Nashville. Minnesota has had varying success against each team, going 2-0-1 against St. Louis with one game remaining, 2-1-1 against Nashville with one game remaining and 0-3-0 against Anaheim. Obviously the record against the Ducks stands out but each game between the teams has been decided by one goal with the Wild arguably outplaying Anaheim in two of the three contests. Law of averages seems to say that the Wild would eventually be rewarded for its strong play.
Games against St. Louis have been nothing if not compelling this year. The Wild lost the first match up of the season in a shootout before beating the Blues twice in a week. The Blues have typically been Minnesota’s kryptonite; the Wild hadn’t won in regulation in St. Louis since 2007 before Dubnyk guided the team to a 3-1 victory back on March 14th (one of his four wins in the 2nd game of a back to back). St. Louis is a big, physical team that has typically pushed the Wild around but the added presence of Chris Stewart to the lineup (and the fact that he reportedly holds a grudge against St. Louis for trading him last season) has seemingly made the Wild’s entire lineup play a bigger game and Minnesota has shown no signs of being intimidated by the bruising Blues. Add in the fact that the Blues’ goalie situation is less than solidified and one would think the Wild are capable of skating step for step with St. Louis.
Against Nashville, Minnesota is 2-1-1 on the season and has enjoyed back to back wins against the Predators in the Music City. The teams will match up one more time before the regular season ends in what could be a preview of the first round playoff series.
After last night’s results, #Preds & #MNWild up to a 43.6% chance of meeting in the 1st round: http://t.co/pFJ6jFUgby pic.twitter.com/FFzbXvpNXS
— Thomas Willis (@TomAWillis) April 1, 2015
Wild fans should elated if Nashville ends up being the team Minnesota draws in the first round. Nashville is arguably the team the Wild matches up with the best and the Wild has shown it can beat the Predators in their own barn, something many teams have struggled with.
No matter which teams the Wild matches up with though, the paradigm of thought on the series and the playoffs in general should shift. Instead of projecting out scores for regular season games and predicting standings based on who is “least scary” for the Wild; let us ask ourselves the question, who really wants to play us?
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