Wild Expectations for the Postseason Push

Prior to the bye-week, the Minnesota Wild last played NHL hockey on Jan. 23. They visited the Colorado Avalanche last Wednesday and skated out of the Pepsi Center with two points after a 5-2 victory. The team arrived back in Minnesota only to split up and go their separate ways to enjoy the bye-week break.

Some players stayed in Minnesota to embrace the arctic temperatures and spend time with their families, while others went to places a bit warmer, as they should. The bye-week allowed guys on this aging roster to rest, relax and re-energize for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.

Unfortunately, this bye-week came at a time where the Wild had been playing tremendous hockey. The Wild topped the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1 on home ice 14 days ago, then flew west and beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2. With goals from Marcus Foligno, Charlie Coyle and Eric Staal in Vegas, the Wild fought their way to earn two points in a much-needed win. They now don a 4-0-1 all-time record against the Golden Knights and proved they deserve that stat.

Wild center Charlie Coyle
Wild center Charlie Coyle (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

These goals were huge for these players and definitely sparked some confidence for them. The game in Vegas proved that the Wild can be a squad that can compete with Stanley Cup contending teams. Two days after, the Wild battled an Avalanche team that is stacked. With three All-Star forwards in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, the Avs usually give a good fight against the Wild, especially on Colorado’s home ice. It didn’t go so well for the home team.

The Wild beat the Avalanche in the Rockies after playing hard-hitting, gritty, playoff-style hockey. A loud atmosphere with big hits and a never-ending rivalry. It was a style of hockey that this team has struggled to play this season and one that the bye-week hopefully doesn’t change. The Wild need to continue to play like that heading into April.

Unfortunately, the Wild were beat 3-1 on the road last night against the Dallas Stars. The Wild were bumped down to the first wild card position and the Stars moved ahead of the Wild, snatching third place. The Wild are just three points ahead of the Avalanche.

Devan Dubnyk, J T Compher
Minnesota Wild Devan Dubnyk stops a shot from Colorado Avalanche J.T. Compher. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Devan Dubnyk stood tall in the three games leading up to his third All-Star weekend as a member of the Wild. Dubnyk earned three wins, stopped 69 of 74 shots and posted a .932 save percentage (SV%). He’s seeing the puck, becoming more vocal, and most importantly, he’s playing with confidence.

Dubnyk showed up and played well last night against the Stars but an unlucky bounce that resulted in a Tyler Seguin goal, gave the Stars the lead and immediately took the Wild out of the game. Seguin later scored an empty-netter for his second of the game and his 20th of the season. Dubnyk stopped 29 of 31 shots and recorded a .935 SV%. You can see where our very own Stephen Ground has him ranked midseason.

With consistency in net, the Wild will be a tough team to play against in the remaining 31 games this season. If this Wild team can continue to play solid hockey and run all four lines consistently, there’s no doubt they will join the postseason for the seventh straight season.

Every Wild Line Needs To Step Up

Now is the time where teams become hungrier. Teams tend to become more bonded and group together as a whole. Players begin to understand where they are in the standings and the focus is on one thing: making the playoffs. With 31 games remaining, the Wild will play 16 at home and 15 on the road.

The Wild lineup needs to focus on elevating their level of play. From the first line to the fourth line, this goes for everyone up and down the roster. I am evaluating each line based on how they have played together since Victor Rask entered the lineup against the Blue Jackets on Jan. 19.

The Top Three Forwards

It’s a lot easier said than done, but if the Wild want to have a chance for a deep run this season, there are a number of players who really need to show up after this bye-week. The Wild’s top line played fantastic in Vegas on Jan. 21 as Staal scored and assisted on Coyle’s eventual game winner. Jordan Greenway also got on the scoresheet with an assist on Staal’s goal in the second period.

The first line let their presence be known the following game in Colorado. Staal recorded two goals and an assist, while Coyle also had a goal and assist. It’s nice to see Coyle get his scoring touch back and start to create game-changing plays. It’s been tough for him this season because he’s bounced around the lineup, playing both center and right wing. He’s even seen time on the fourth line.

Wild center Charlie Coyle
Wild center Charlie Coyle (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

When Coyle shows up to play games like he did in Vegas and Colorado, he can be one the Wild’s best forwards, but he hasn’t been able to do that on a consistent basis all season. If he can continue to grind on forechecks, body opponents in front of and around the net, the Wild’s top line will be a threat.

In the past four games, this line combined for 13 points among Coyle, Staal and Greenway. If they can continue to get pucks to the net and occupy more time in the offensive zone using their size and skill, this line will be key to the Wild’s success heading into April.

Zucker’s Line

The second line has been struggling and it’s obvious that Jason Zucker’s production has been a factor. Playing alongside Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund, who have both had very quiet seasons, it can be frustrating.

One thing that has worked well for Zucker throughout his career, and especially in past seasons, is the fact that he has game-changing speed. He wins races, and in key moments of the game, he’s a guy that Bruce Boudreau can depend on. Though he’s smaller, he’ll still win battles in all areas of the ice and can help the Wild maintain possession of the puck.

Zucker needs to play a larger role in the Wild’s offense and has to get some momentum going his way. It’s been tough for him compared to last season. At the end of the 2017-18 regular season, Zucker set a career-high 64 points and over halfway through this season, he sits with 25 points.

Jason Zucker Claude Giroux
Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild and Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers, Nov. 11, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His pace is critical and the time he spends on the ice needs to be taken advantage of. He has the ability to spring past any defender in this league and can make teams pay for their mistakes. If the Wild can find a way to utilize Zucker’s speed in the remaining 32 games, this second line will be dangerous.

His linemates Koivu and Granlund have played up to the levels that are expected of them. Similar to Zucker, Granlund finished the 2017-18 season with 67 points and now sits at 42, not bad but he could be producing more. Prior to his assist last night in Dallas and his two-point night in Colorado last week, Granlund hadn’t registered a point since Jan. 7 against the Canadiens.

In the last four games played, the Wild’s second line combined for five points. Koivu scored a goal, Zucker had one assist while Granlund had two assists. This line is capable of much more and still needs to step up in the late stages of this season.

The New Third Line

The third line has been changing all season. It finally seems like it may stay for awhile as they’ve been playing pretty well together. The new additions of Pontus Aberg and Rask have been adjusting and are becoming acclimated with the Wild’s system by playing with the veteran Zach Parise.

Since joining the Wild and playing together, the third line has combined for six points in four games. Three of those points coming from this Parise goal.

It’s important for teams to be able to consistently run four solid lines. This third line is capable of scoring, making plays offensively and also helping the defense in their own end of the ice.

Parise is a well-known player who is recognized for his passionate and dedicated style of play. He is always willing to get greasy and do some dirty work to make something happen. He is extremely important for the depth of this offensive by being able to help out on both ends of the ice, especially with this third line.

For the new guys Aberg and Rask, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve conformed to Minnesota. Rask has just one point in a Wild sweater and has shown that his lack of speed could be a challenge for this line. He needs to take it game-by-game, even shift-by-shift and just focus on winning draws and playing a more defensive role with this line.

Aberg can create highlight-reel plays with the puck and will use his speed to open up space and score goals. He’s been a solid addition to the lineup and it seems as though he’s improving and becoming more comfortable each game. He has three assists since joining the Wild and playing on the third line. If this line can continue to play like they have in the past four games together, I would expect this unit to be a catalyst in both the offensive and defensive zones of the ice.

The Bottom Line

With Eric Fehr coming off an injury, Joel Eriksson Ek was sent down to the AHL along with Luke Kunin on Jan. 24. This is a good fit for the pair. Too many times Eriksson Ek and Kunin have been put into positions or onto lines that hold a lot of expectations with this roster.

Now that they’re in the minors, these guys are seeing more clock with the Iowa Wild. It removes some pressure and will allow both forwards to become more comfortable with the minutes they play. Instead of being thrown into the middle of the lineup, it gives Eriksson Ek and Kunin the opportunity to redefine their games and take advantage of receiving much more ice time.

With that being said, Fehr will center the fourth line with Foligno on the left and the option of gritty wingers like Matt Hendricks or J.T. Brown on the right side. Fehr can win faceoffs, block shots and kill penalties. Hendricks and Brown compete every shift they play and aren’t shy to use their body, a big trait for this bottom line.

Foligno is known to throw his weight around on the ice. He’s the epitome of a fourth-liner and embodies that role to a ‘T.’ He’s scrappy and creates momentum by winning battles, blocking shots, delivering hits while creating scoring chances. He’s shown this season that he’s a good fit in Minnesota and will literally jump over players to win puck battles.

In the last four games played, the fourth line has combined for just two points. Foligno scored off a feed from Eriksson Ek and those two points helped the Wild earn a win in Vegas against a strong Golden Knights team. If the fourth line of this roster can maintain its strong play by contributing on the score sheet, delivering hits and being a threat around the front of the net, the Wild will finish the season with another run in the playoffs.

The only thing that’s left for the Wild is to continue playing their style of hockey. Every point is crucial in this league and it can only take one to decide a season. In the next 31 games, each line needs to contribute by stepping up and playing with their size, speed and experience to earn important points each night they play.