Minnesota Wild progress report

Brent Burns leads the Wild with 5 goals
Brent Burns leads the Wild with 5 goals

The Wild began the season with a journey to the homeland of Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and Antti Miettinen for a pair of games against the Carolina Hurricanes.

8,790 miles later the team returned with a single point in the standings but hopefully the bonding experience that would propel them to a fast start to the season.

Fortunately next up on the schedule was the Edmonton Oilers at the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center where the Wild, and Backstrom in particular, have had the Oilers number. A 4-2 win got the Wild their first win, which was quickly followed by a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. That performance earned the Wild’s players their well publicized “bag skate” where coach Todd Richards punished his team, which was booed off the ice after the first period against Columbus, with two hours of heavy skating, leaving them no doubt as to where Richards stood on their effort.

They responded brilliantly with a 6-2 thrashing of division favorites Vancouver which included four power play goals and signs of life from Guillaume Latendresse, whose pre-season raised doubts about his conditioning.

They looked to be building some momentum from that effort by once more defeating the Oilers in Edmonton two days later by a 4-2 score when Alberta native Kyle Brodziak scored twice and Latendresse added his third goal of the season on the power play. To date, it was the last goal Latendresse has scored this season.

Unfortunately, they were scheduled to play again the very next night after traveling to Vancouver, which resulted in the tired looking team being shellacked 5-1 by the Canucks to leave the team at 3-3-1 after seven games.

Once more the Minnesota Wild returned to St. Paul for a five game homestand and an opportunity to rack up some points in the standings. Things began well enough with a 3-2 shootout win over the up-and-coming Los Angeles Kings despite losing a two goal lead in the first period.

One casualty in the win was the loss of Miettinen, who was lost after being hit in the head by the Kings Dustin Brown, and has kept the Finn out of the lineup since then with concussion symptoms, something Wild fans know all too much about.

The other loss suffered by the Wild was that of Latendresse, who had been apparently dealing with a groin issue since the start of the season, which went some distance to explain the less than spectacular effort seen from him so far this season.

Next up was an impressive effort against the potent Washington Capitals that would have made former coach Jacques Lemaire proud. Only a goal by the unstoppable Alexander Ovechkin with 1:16 left in the contest spoiled Backstrom’s shutout bid as the Wild prevailed 2-1.

The Wild closed out the month of October with a wakeup call by the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, who made the Wild look particularly ordinary with an easy 3-1 win that never looked in doubt despite the close score. October would end with the Wild sporting a 5-4-1 record.

November opened with a strong result as Backstrom earned rave reviews for his 1-0 blanking of the San Jose Sharks despite the Sharks outshooting the Wild 36-16.

Following the win over the Sharks, Latendresse was placed on the injured reserve list, giving the French-Canadian’s season all the appearances of a lost season in progress, someone the Wild were counting on to build upon his 27 goal season of last year.

Another strong effort saw the Wild defeat the Calgary Flames 2-1 to finish their homestand thanks to the long-awaited first goal of the season from Martin Havlat, someone Minnesota is counting on to be one of the leading scorers, if not the leader in scoring, in order to have any chance at the playoffs. One goal every 12 games is simply not acceptable from someone being paid on the level Havlat is.

The Wild took their show on the road yesterday for their second matchup with the Blue Jackets this season and evened their season series with their 2000-01 expansion cousins at 1-1 after a very strong game from Brent Burns, who scored two goals, and Cal Clutterbuck’s game winning fourth goal of the season. Clutterbuck, not expected to be an offensive force, now has as many goals as Latendresse and Havlat combined, but trails none other than defenseman Burns for the team goal scoring lead 5-4!

The win over Columbus gives Minnesota a three game winning streak and optimism that their season won’t become one of mediocrity where each noteworthy victory is followed by a loss to a beatable team. For the Wild to stay in the playoff hunt, it all begins with the goaltending of Backstrom continuing at the level he has shown so far this season.

Next on the list of necessities is the continued effectiveness of their power play, as their current offensive output of just 2.46 goals per game leaves them 24th out of the 30 clubs, and will not be enough over the long haul. Fortunately, their defense has only allowed 2.15 goals against, good for 4th overall and giving them a chance to be in just about every game with a chance. As of right now their power play percentage of 27.1 ranks second overall, led by center Matt Cullen’s 10 power play points, which ranks second in the NHL.

The Wild must also hope to stay healthy, a task proven difficult before the season even began with the continued problems faced by expected returnee Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has yet to play a game and had his hoped for conditioning stint in Houston put on hold, and the loss of both James Sheppard and goaltender Josh Harding for the season.

Miettinen and Latendresse must return, and do so productively. Fans of the Wild can only hope that once Latendresse heals, he can get his season on track – and quickly, as his ability to score goals will be a key to the Wild’s season if Havlat cannot find his game.

The Wild now have four days off before a pair of back-to-back games on the road in Atlanta and Florida, then a day off followed by a game in Tampa Bay. Here’s hoping it goes well and that the Wild don’t give back the three game winning streak they are currently on. While it would be nice to keep the streak going, three points from their southeastern swing would be considered an acceptable trip and the best way to achieve that would be a win in Atlanta on Thursday.