A Wild, Wild, Western Conference

 While the early season success of the Minnesota Wild is hardly surprising, their amazingly consistent play under first year head coach Mike Yeo has enabled the team to compete in all of their games. Even though the Wild traded key players such as defenseman Brent Burns and forward Martin Havlat in the offseason, they received two important forwards in the forms of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Offensive contributions from Heatley and Setoguchi have certainly helped the Minnesota Wild gain ground for playoff positioning in the Western Conference, but a different style of play seems to have given new life to a team that failed to make the playoffs under former coach and Minnesota native, Todd Richards.

Mike Yeo Wild coach
(Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)

During the early 2000s, hockey returned to Minnesota where it thrived under the direction of head coach Jacques Lemaire. The Minnesota Wild employed a trapping style of hockey that aimed at limiting the opposition’s chances at gaining Minnesota’s offensive zone. A big part of the Wild’s early success was due in part to the goalie tandem of Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, an excellent duo that stifled the opposition when they had a scoring opportunity. Even though the Minnesota Wild have abandoned the trap style under head coach Mike Yeo, the outstanding play of goaltenders Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom is eerily reminiscent to that of Fernandez and Roloson in 2002-2003 when the team made it to the Western Conference finals. The modern day Minnesota Wild are a strikingly different team that seems to be gaining confidence under a new head coach, a new style of play, and a more increased and significant role for the offense.

The 2011-2012 Minnesota Wild have played some exciting hockey and appear to be a resilient team that does not give up in the face of adversity. The Wild have won ten of fourteen games that have been dictated by one goal, and own a very impressive 13-5-3 overall record. Part of the early season success can be attributed to the impressive performance the team has received in goal, as Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom both possess a goals against average of below two. Even though the Minnesota Wild have allowed the fewest goals against, their penalty kill has also kept the team in most games in the face of undisciplined play. Additionally, strong third period play has allowed the team to continue its early season success as the Wild seem to find their scoring touch in the final twenty minutes of regulation hockey.

One of the more recent examples of the Wild’s resiliency was evidenced in their shootout victory against the St. Louis Blues. Instead of letting a third period score by St. Louis deflate their spirits, the Wild worked hard for a late third period goal and won the game in the shootout. The same situation manifested itself once again on Wednesday night when the Wild trailed the Nashville Predators until they scored three straight goals in the third period on Pekka Rinne. Marco Scandella managed to add an assist in his return to the lineup while effort from players such as Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, and Cal Clutterbuck fueled another come from behind victory against a Predator team that was dominant on the road and owned a 8-1-3 record when scoring the first goal in a game.

While the Minnesota Wild have received top quality goaltending from Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, the offense must step up in order to keep up with the rest of the Western Conference. Even though Mikko Koivu leads the team in scoring, the center must shoot the puck more often and the team definitely needs a healthy Guillaume Latendresse back in the lineup in order to bolster Minnesota’s scoring threat. The return of defenseman Marco Scandella should provide more stability to the Wild’s defensive units, but an improvement in offense must be made, especially for a struggling power play unit. The ability to stay committed to a game plan while trailing has been a defining feature of this season’s Minnesota Wild team, but it would not be wise to become complacent and dependent on winning games by such short margins. One can argue that it is easier said than done, but the Minnesota Wild must start taking control of games by scoring first and maintaining a lead, something the team can be very adept at doing, especially with the combination of goalies that they possess.

The Minnesota Wild must keep up their strong third period play as well as defensive play in front of their goalies in order to continue their early season success. While the Wild are amongst the stronger teams in the Western Conference, the club missed the playoffs the past two seasons because of their inability to build on strong starts to the season. Todd Richards was a winning coach with the Minnesota Wild, but failing to qualify for a playoff spot two seasons in a row sealed his fate with the franchise. The 2011-2012 Minnesota Wild are a much improved team with the likes of offensive weapons such as Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley, but the team must also find out how comfortable they are with holding and maintaining an early lead rather than relying on late scoring chances in order to win games.

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