Well, looks like we made it. Following a 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center a couple of days ago, the Minnesota Wild is playoff bound for the 3rd consecutive year under Mike Yeo. The win marked the Wild’s 11th straight on the road, one win shy of a record for consecutive victories away from home. But while the win officially secured a playoff position, the story to this point of the season can’t be summed up in one game. On January 14th, Minnesota was 21 points behind division leading Nashville and had lost 8 of its last 10 games. Oh how the times have changed, but how did we get here?
Devan Dubnyk was acquired on January 14th and made his first start with the Wild the very next night, a 7-0 pounding of Buffalo. Since then, neither he nor the team has looked back and no team has collected more points than the Wild since that date, thanks in large part to Dubnyk. He is 27-8-2 since he arrived and Minnesota has jumped 5 spots in the standings, all the way to the first wild card spot in the West.
There’s a goalie up in Montreal who will probably win the Hart Trophy as the player judged most valuable to his team, but Devan Dubnyk certainly deserves consideration. I know Price is huge for the Canadiens, but has any player been more valuable to a team this year than Devan Dubnyk? The Wild was on life support when he arrived with fans ready to pull the plug, but he resurrected the season for the them and allowed the team to find its game behind renewed confidence Dubnyk instilled in them from the moment he pulled the Wild jersey over his pads. Hart Trophy or not, he’s been one heck of a story so far and has a chance to add to that with playoffs on the horizon.
The Wild’s penalty kill has been nothing short of elite this season. It’s easy to say that when looking at the numbers, but its meant so much more to the Wild than what can be seen on paper. Minnesota’s PK has, at times, blatantly stole points out of games the team probably had no business getting any in. A truly great penalty kill is one that no only keeps the opponent from scoring, but also creates momentum for the team to build on. The Minnesota Wild’s penalty kill fits that description.
Part of the credit must go back to Dubnyk, and rightfully so; your goaltender always needs to be your best penalty killer. But let us not forget the job done all year by PK specialists like Kyle Brodziak, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula, et al. These are players that fly under the radar and don’t wind up on the stat sheet as often as others, but their contributions have been profound on the penalty kill.
They say strong goaltending and an elite penalty kill are especially crucial assets in the playoffs and can win games, and ultimately series’ for your team. The Wild has been getting both for the better part of 3 months and will continue to need both moving forward.
From Mike Yeo on down, the Wild has gotten outstanding leadership all year. Yeo could have lost the ears of his players in December when the team seemed to get outplayed every game, but he didn’t. He helped guide this team to perhaps one of the more unlikely comebacks in Minnesota professional sports history and got his players to continue to believe in the system and the style he demands they play with. Obviously having a goaltender do what Dubnyk has done is invaluable for every coach, but it’s not like Dubnyk is stealing every game for the Wild. Sure he’s bailed them out a time or two but the Wild has also played extremely well in front of him and they’ve fed off each other.
Of course there’s Zach Parise, what more can you say about this guy? Sure he leads the team in scoring but more than that, he simply leads. He leads by example, showing a tenacious will to win with an eagerness to do whatever it takes to get there. Whether it means scoring a clutch goal, sacrificing his body to block a shot, making a key defensive play, or pretty much anything else; Parise is up to the task. Fans often clamor for Parise to be given the ‘C’ but he proves day after day that you don’t have to be a captain to be a leader. He plays hurt, he plays tired, he even plays a couple of nights after losing his father to cancer. Don’t be mistaken, Zach Parise is the heart and soul of this team.
Other players like Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, and Jason Pominville contribute to a strong leadership group that has now pushed the Wild to the playoffs for the third year in a row. It’s tough to say with certainty that this team would be in the position it is now if not for such outstanding leadership.
The young players in the lineup have been key for the Wild. Few teams in the league can say they rely on young talent as much as Minnesota does with the likes of Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder, and now Matt Dumba. All of those players are key contributors for the Wild and not one is over the age of 24.
It bodes well for the Wild’s future that these young kids are experiencing the inevitable ups and downs of a long NHL season and will now get crucial playoff experience. After all, the best teams are ones that consistently build and sustain winning using talent within the organization.
So many things have happened this season for the Wild and its kind of crazy to think of how it all played out to get us to the point we’re at now. The Wild has gone through a mumps breakout, a goalie controversy, questions about the coach’s job security, and a long, brutal losing streak just to make an impossible comeback from near the bottom of the standings. They’ve done so on the back of Devan Dubnyk with help from an exceptional leadership group, rock-solid penalty killing, and a whole lot of young talent contributing.
Yet there was no wild celebration after Minnesota secured a seemingly impossible spot in playoffs. This team has been here before; now its about getting something done. They are certainly set up to make it happen, and we only have to wait two more games to find out far this team will go. I hear hockey in June is some fun.