It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ acquisition of Jarome Iginla and their baker’s dozen of wins in succession have stolen most of the NHL media attention. Perhaps the extensive gushing is good news for a Minnesota Wild squad that has sneakily won seven straight games themselves.
The Wild were at the center of the hockey world in July after signing Americans Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. Since that time, the nightmarish lockout, a record-breaking season-opening points streak in Chicago, and the latest exploits from Sid the Kid have pushed the Wild to the periphery of league attention.
Minnesota entered the season pegged as viable contenders in a Northwest division filled with uncertainties, from the Roberto Luongo saga in Vancouver to the Ryan O’Reilly contract squabble in Colorado, plus the now-resolved Iginla trade rumors out of Calgary.
An 11-9-2 start did not instill a huge sense of change in St. Paul, and questions regarding the Wild attack, or the lack thereof, once again crept into the dressing room.
Since a loss in Chicago on March 5, the Wild have taken nine of the last ten games and seven straight overall. More impressively, six of the seven wins have come in regulation, including wins over division rivals Colorado (twice) and Vancouver. The latest victory on Wednesday night showed a composed team that capitalized on a last-minute chance despite blowing a 2-0 second period advantage. With less than a minute to play, Suter received the puck off beautiful low-to-high passing from Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon and wristed the puck through traffic and past Phoenix goaltender Jason LaBarbera.
Koivu then tucked home a stuffer in overtime to stun the crumbling Coyotes and hand Minnesota its 20th victory of the season.
The exhilarating victory puts the Wild at 42 points, and team finds itself tied with Vancouver, but with a game in hand, for the Northwest division lead.
The Wild offense has come alive, registering 31 goals over the seven games, including five separate four-goal outputs. Prior to the streak, the Wild had only turned that trick five times all season.
Defensively, the Wild has continued to ride netminder Niklas Backstrom, who quietly scooped up NHL No. 2 Star honors last week. One could argue that Backstrom was not even as stellar, giving up three or four goals on four separate occasions during the streak. In addition, Minnesota is picking up timely goals, none bigger than Suter’s last minute goal on Wednesday and Kyle Brodziak’s shorthanded tally in the third period against Dallas on Monday. Brodziak’s goal came just 20 seconds after Mike Rupp picked up a double minor for high-sticking.
The difference in March, though, is that the Wild offense has actually given their goaltender some support when he has not been spectacular, and that balance has made the Wild a more formidable and difficult foe.
The Best Line You Probably Don’t Know About
The names Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi, and Matt Cullen, to some hockey minds, bring about an overall feeling of disappointment. Bouchard’s battles with injuries forced him out of 68 games between 2010 and 2012.
Setoguchi went from a 31-goal scorer in San Jose in 2008-2009 to a 19-goal burden featuring a -17 rating last season, his first with Minnesota.
Cullen, while never a prolific scorer, has seen his point production dwindle each season since a 48-point output with Carolina and Ottawa in 2009-2010.
Since March 12, the hottest line in hockey has produced 11 goals and 16 assists. These numbers immediately bring speculation that a Crosby and a Kunitz must be two-thirds of the trio. Instead, the white-hot trio is that of Cullen centering Bouchard and Setoguchi.
Cullen and Bouchard have been the distributors, dishing out 13 helpers during the streak. Setoguchi has been the benefactor, tallying six goals in seven games after scoring just five goals in the prior 25 contests. It makes you wonder, do the Wild really need to do a whole lot at the trading deadline? After all, the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
No, The Big Boys Have Not Been Quiet Either
There is no disputing that Suter and Parise’s mega-deals immediately anointed them as the X-factors for Minnesota’s Cup hopes.
Parise stayed relatively quiet during the first four installments of the winning streak before recording the game-winning goal against San Jose on March 23. He parlayed that effort into a two-goal, three-point performance in the Wild’s 7-4 victory over the reeling Stars on Monday, the team’s first victory in Dallas since March of 2003.
Suter’s critics wondered if he could produce at a high level without the guidance of Shea Weber. His poise under pressure was evident as he picked the corner to tie the game against Phoenix late on Wednesday. Meanwhile, his 24 assists position him second behind Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang among NHL defensemen. Simultaneously, the 28-year-old Suter is in essence the papa on a blue line that features up and coming youngsters Spurgeon, Justin Falk, and 19-year-old Jonas Brodin.
Not to be forgotten, captain Koivu has continued his steady, quiet leadership playing alongside Parise and rookie Charlie Coyle. It is not Suter or Parise, but Koivu who leads the Wild in points (30) as well as multi-point games (10). It was also the Finnish-born captain who propelled the Wild’s streak to seven games by scoring the overtime winner on Wednesday.
The Wild is, point by point, inching its way closer to a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.
Minnesota also has a favorable schedule over its final 16 games. Half of those games are against teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture. Of the eight others against teams ranked eighth and up, only a matchup with Chicago on April 9 features a team above Minnesota in the standings.
Moreover, with a strong finish, the Wild could potentially pick up its first Northwest division title since 2008 as well. The Vancouver Canucks do not have the benefit of tiebreakers, as Minnesota has three more regulation and overtime wins than the four-time defending division champs.
Say hello to a team that meant business when it made its splash in July. But if the Penguins keep winning, it does not seem like the Wild care about flying under the radar.