When you think of the Minnesota Wild, the names Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, and Niklas Backstrom come to mind, as they should. Suter and Parise were acquired to vault the latter two Finns into playoff contention for the first time since 2008.
While the dual free agent signees’ impact has been noticeable, a relatively small Wild lineup (save for a healthy Mike Rupp) has been actively seeking bottom-six forwards capable of a shutdown, bump and grind style.
Enter a pair of youngsters—one noted for hitting everything that moves inside a small yet stocky 5-foot-11 inch frame, and the other a 6-foot-2 rookie who joined Devin Setoguchi on the plane from San Jose— in Cal Clutterbuck and Charlie Coyle.
Certainly, Clutterbuck is no young pup anymore, having completed four prior NHL seasons in Minnesota, but at age 25, he has yet to skate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has scored 13 or more goals each of the last three seasons, but in 40 games in a shortened season, the rugged winger has only potted four. However, it is the hit department for which Clutterbuck is the supervisor of sorts. His 144 hits put him among the league leaders following two prior seasons of over 300 checks and another with 288.
Clutterbuck’s only notable playoff experience was with the Oshawa Generals in the 2007 OHL playoffs. Clutterbuck was key for the Generals, scoring eight goals in the team’s nine playoff games.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 21-year old Coyle is just barely a year removed from a QMJHL title with the Saint John Sea Dogs, the program that lifted the 2011 Memorial Cup and groomed probable Calder finalist Jonathan Huberdeau, who has earned the admiration of his older peers. In his first 35 NHL games, the American-born Coyle has registered 12 points while spending a great deal of time flanking Koivu and Parise.
Coyle is no stranger to playoff success. In helping to lead the Sea Dogs to the QMJHL championship, he tallied 34 points in just 17 playoff games. At the NHL level, though, he and the veteran Clutterbuck add the necessary grit to provide a physical element up front to protect stars like Parise and Koivu.
Stepping Into the Spotlight
Heading into Tuesday’s battle with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota had to deal with murmurs of choking. Having lost five consecutive home games, most recently a 4-1 loss to the woeful Calgary Flames, the Wild saw what was once a huge stranglehold on a playoff berth deteriorate rapidly.
In their prior two consecutive defeats at the hands of San Jose and Calgary, the Wild could only manage two goals. More than halfway through a period against the Kings, the trend seemed to be continuing, as the game was scoreless. Then, with less than four minutes left in the period, the unlikely heroes struck with a 1-2 punch that could be felt all the way to Minneapolis.
First, after a shot went behind the net, Coyle found a soft spot behind Matt Greene’s vision and one-touched a pass from Parise past Jonathan Bernier to awake the Wild faithful.
Just 16 seconds later, Clutterbuck made noise, but not in the form of one of his crunching body blows, as he roofed the puck short side using his underrated wrist shot.
While the Wild’s anemic offense could not muster a goal the rest of the night, Backstrom did his job in between the pipes, holding the defending champs to just one tally. The victory put the Wild at 53 points, and after a layoff and another Columbus win over Dallas, the Wild and Jackets rest in the 8th and 9th positions respectively, tied in points. The suddenly red-hot Detroit Red Wings have used the power of three straight wins to leapfrog into the 7th position with 54 points.
Conceivably, the Wild have now overcome their stiffest remaining test in the regular season. With playoff destiny in their own hands, Minnesota ends the season with games against spoiler hopefuls Edmonton on Friday and Colorado on Saturday. They also hold a game in hand over the Jackets.
A nice three-day layoff between games should do Backstrom some good. As noted in my previous post, Backstrom has been the Wild’s man almost exclusively all season long.
The Wild’s task is a simple one. Take three out of the possible four remaining standings points, and the playoffs come knocking. However, two proud franchises are poised to force the Wild to enjoy a Minnesota summer early, and if scoring goes anemic again, it could be a long weekend for Wild enthusiasts.