Just when you think the Minnesota Wild are ready to seize a playoff berth by the throat, a sense of unease sets in. After two close road victories over the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers on consecutive nights, the Wild became the latest victims to the San Jose Sharks’ buzz saw (see video below).
Four games present the eight potential points left for Minnesota to earn in the lockout-shortened season. Three of the Wild’s last four games will be in Xcel Energy Center, a place where few fans are dressed as empty seats. In fact, the following has been so strong that it took over a decade and 409 games until the franchise failed to sell out a game. The Wild’s home ice has also yielded the second highest percentage of capacity in terms of attendance this season, ranking only behind the Chicago Blackhawks’ Madhouse on Madison.
Home Ice Fooling Wild in April
April has not been kind to Minnesota’s previously standout record on home ice. Minnesota’s last win at Xcel came on March 30 when they defeated the Los Angeles Kings in a shootout. Since that game, Minnesota is 0-3-1 in its barn, scoring two goals or fewer in each game while being shut out twice.
The losses of Matt Cullen and Dany Heatley certainly did not help matters as April began, but the erratically inconsistent offensive attack has remained the centerpiece of the argument for Wild critics.
For proof of the offensive inconsistencies, look no further than Minnesota’s latest three-game road trip. Impressive victories over Calgary and Edmonton saw the offense return, scoring nine goals in six periods of hockey. Jason Pominville produced a two-goal game against the Flames, while last year’s surprise story Kyle Brodziak tallied two against the Oilers.
Right as everything appeared to turn around for the Wild, the Sharks had other ideas. A manageable 2-1 deficit turned into a four-goal outburst for San Jose, including an unthinkable three goals on just five third period shots. Meanwhile, Antti Niemi had the answers for a dozen third period shots from Minnesota.
While a 6-1 loss does not leave the sweetest taste in the mouths of Wild fans, it should not be a cause for panic. The impending three game homestand features the Wild hosting Calgary, Los Angeles, and Edmonton in a six-day span. Each team has come into Minnesota once in the 48-game season. Each time, Minnesota has registered two points. For those who believe in history repeating itself, confidence should be high. However, Calgary and Edmonton would love nothing more than to play spoiler roles, especially with young players looking to win jobs for the full season to follow.
Is Backstrom Tired?
There are very few times when Niklas Backstrom’s goaltending has come into question over the course of his time in Minnesota. Injuries have not always been kind to the 35 year-old Wild goaltender, but this season he has been durable, starting all of Minnesota’s April games and 23 of the Wild’s last 25 contests.
With that being said, despite Minnesota winning two of the three games on the road trip, the normally stout Backstrom gave up three goals in both victories before being shelled for five against San Jose. Could it be a sign of fatigue? The last time he played 60 games in a full regular season was in 2009-2010.
Whether fatigue is hindering his play will remain a debatable point, but the fact remains, with rookie Darcy Kuemper more or less filling the backup role just to have someone sitting on the end of the bench, it is Backstrom’s net until the Wild’s season dies. It will be up to the young defense in front of him to keep his workload down as Minnesota looks to squeak into the playoffs.
Potential Wild First Round Opponents?
As play begins on Friday, Minnesota rests in the 7th position, two points ahead of 8th place Columbus. Incredibly, the Wild are still just four points back of division leader Vancouver, as well as the Kings and Sharks (who rest in 4th and 5th respectively).
It is conceivable that the Wild could play as many as six or seven different first round opponents (Chicago, Anaheim, Vancouver, LA, San Jose, & St. Louis being most probable). Below rests some food for thought: the Wild’s win-loss records against these teams in the 48-game sprint.
- vs. Chicago: 1-2
- vs. Anaheim: 0-3
- vs. Vancouver: 2-2
- vs. Los Angeles: 1-1, meeting 4/23 @MIN
- vs. San Jose: 1-2
- vs. St. Louis: 0-2-1
Certainly, a combined 5-12-1 mark does not bring about confident playoff hopes to any stat-crazed supporter. But if the hockey world learned anything from the Kings’ run of 2012, sometimes all it takes is a hot goaltender and an awakening offense to make Cup prospects possible. If you recall, Los Angeles was ranked 29th in the NHL in goal scoring in the regular season of 2011-2012.
The only team worse? Minnesota. Where Backstrom goes, the Wild may very well follow.
Ryan Smith is a proud graduate of Penn State University, having attained a degree in broadcast journalism. His experience in hockey is extensive, having covered PSU Men’s ice hockey for USCHO.com as an Arena Reporter for its first NCAA season in 2012-2013 while also serving as Penn State Athletics’ voice of women’s ice hockey home games. He was also the sports director for Penn State’s ComRadio, a student based radio station endorsed by the College of Communications. In that position, he broadcasted Penn State hockey since for four years. He can be followed on Twitter @RyanSmithHockey.