Photo credit to wild.nhl.com
With just seven games in the regular season left to play, the Minnesota Wild (38-26-11) will look to tighten their hold on the top wildcard spot in the Western Conference. The Wild currently lead the wild card standings, but Western Conference foes Phoenix and Dallas are hot on their heels trailing Minnesota by three and four points respectively. The final seven games of the 2013-14 season will be a true test of this Wild teams character as they will have to go through top teams like Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis in order to clinch a post-season berth.
One of the biggest keys to success for the Wild over this final stretch of games is to find some chemistry among the forward lines. Since acquiring Matt Moulson from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline, the Wild have struggled to find productive forward combinations. Scoring goals is obviously hugely important in every game and does a lot for a team's confidence. The Wild will need veteran forwards like captains Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise as well Jason Pominville and newly acquired Matt Moulson to be leaders on offense. Minnesota will also need youth movement with headliners Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle to step up and provide secondary scoring for an offense starved team.
The other very pressing issue for the Wild with the playoffs closing in is goaltending. There hasn't been a team with worse luck when it comes to goaltending than the Minnesota Wild. The two goalies that started the season on the roster, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, have both been lost for the season already.
Harding is the bigger loss, as he was statistically the best goaltender in the league when his season was abruptly ended due to complications with his MS. With both veteran goaltenders out for the season, the Wild has no choice but to turn to rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper to salvage the season.
Kuemper came in and stood on his head, winning big game after big game for the Wild and arguably is the reason why the Wild still cling to a playoff position. Unfortunately, since the trade deadline passed, Kuemper has begun to look more and more like he should, a rookie. The Wild however, did add veteran insurance at the trade deadline by acquiring veteran net minder Ilya Bryzgalov. In any case, the Wild badly need one of these goalies to step up and take the reigns as the number one guy heading into the playoffs if they have any hope of advancing past the first round.
With the regular season slowly coming to and end, a big point of focus for this Minnesota Wild team is potential first round matchups. The Western Conference is very deep and with the Wild sitting in a wild card position they are guaranteed to take on one of the top two teams in the West. So how do the Wild stack up against the best the Western Conference has to offer?
Anaheim Ducks: If the regular season ended today this is who the Wild would be facing in the first round. In their season series against the Ducks, the Wild came out 1-1-1. Clearly these will be close games. The Ducks are lead by likely Hart Trophy finalist Ryan Getzlaf and former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. Like most teams in the West, Anaheim plays a physical, grinding game coupled with solid goaltending. For the Wild to be successful in this series they need to be play big in front of their own net. Perry and Getzlaf are power forwards who thrive in the blue paint. Clearing the crease will be a must to have any chance of winning and that will be tough with the Wild sporting a not so physical group of defensemen.
St. Louis Blues: A fellow Central Division team, the Blues currently hold the number one seed in the Western Conference. In addition to boasting the deepest defensive group in the NHL, St. Louis also has an explosive group of forwards and veteran goalie Ryan Miller to defend the net. The Blues are physical, in your face, nasty team that has pushed the Wild around in previous games. Again if the Wild are going to have any chance in this series they need to find a physical presence that is so crucial in the playoffs. Otherwise they will get run over.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are another Western Conference team built to make a long playoff run. This team seems to make the playoffs every year and largely due to a veteran leadership group that knows how to win. Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau all know how to play on the big stage and what it takes to win. This is a team that is never out of game and nearly impossible to beat at home. If the Wild were to take this series they need to get their top two scoring lines rolling and hope that either Darcy Kuemper or Bryzgalov gets hot and can win them some close games.
The playoffs are almost here and if you are a Minnesota Wild fan watching these final games will give you a glimpse into whether or not this Wild team has what it takes to win in the playoffs. These final games will have a playoff atmosphere as teams are fighting for positioning and their playoff lives. The Wilds road to the playoffs isn't an easy one either as they will be taking on the best of both conferences in must win games. If the Wild are successful, it will be because they have two scoring lines that work, a hot goaltender, and a much-needed physical side to their game. Here's hoping we have playoff hockey in the State of Hockey once again.