Life in December was very difficult for the Wild and for fans in the state of hockey. In the last 10 games, the Wild have posted a 3-7-0 record which included a stretch of six losses in a row.
To make matters worse, the Wild have been dealing with some injury problems. Forward Zach Parise is currently on injured reserve, goaltender Josh Harding has not felt well and missed some time, while the club announced today that defenseman Jared Spurgeon has been placed on Injured Reserve.
Now that we are beyond the halfway point, it is essential that the Wild return to the success that they had earlier in the season. The Wild are currently two points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West. The Phoenix Coyotes hold the final Wild Card spot but have only a 3-3-4 record in their last ten games. However, the Dallas Stars are also currently above the Wild in the standings and they have posted a 6-2-2 record in their last ten games. The Wild will need to play well enough to pass both teams to get back into the hunt.
The Wild played a decent game against the Buffalo Sabres to start off the new year. Minnesota finally snapped a six-game losing streak and the win may have saved Head Coach Mike Yeo from losing his job – for now.
This game could mark the beginning of a turnaround in January if the Wild start winning or it could be the calm before the storm should the club continue its recent losing ways. Should that be the case, Mike Yeo’s job is in serious jeopardy and the club will need to consider further changes to its roster in order to right the ship in the final half of the season.
On the Right Track Against Buffalo
Forward Jason Pominville met his former club for the second time this season and again had a major influence on the outcome of the game. Back in October, Pominville netted the game winning goal against the Sabres in Buffalo. Pominville scored the second Wild goal against the Sabres in St. Paul and it turned out to be another game winning goal.
Forwards Kyle Brodziak, and Jason Zucker and defenseman Marco Scandella all scored a goal against Buffalo’s Olympic net minder Ryan Miller. Defenseman Ryan Suter and the Captain Mikko Koivu each had two assists. This game also marked the return of defenseman Clayton Stoner who had a strong game after being activated from Injured Reserve.
Niklas Backstrom had a nice outing but fell short of earning his first shutout of the season. He finished the game with a .950 save percentage blocking nineteen of twenty shots. The Sabres offense didn’t muster up very many scoring chances against Backstrom so it was a relatively easy night for him.
The Wild look to begin a winning streak against the Washington Capitals tonight in St. Paul. In order to be successful against the Caps, the Wild will need to put up a strong defensive effort and control the game by possessing the puck. This is a tall order for the Wild who are short-handed due to injuries and will face two of the NHL’s most talented offensive threats in forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin.
Call Ups Force Konopka Waiver and Claim by Buffalo
Speaking of injuries, the roster moves necessitated by the injury bug led to the loss of enforcer Zenon Konopka via the waiver wire. With the brash of injuries that hit the Wild, several players were recalled from Iowa. Forward Jason Zucker had been recalled prior to the game against the Buffalo Sabres. Meanwhile goaltender Darcy Kuemper was called up to St. Paul to backup goaltender Niklas Backstrom in place of Josh Harding.
With all the recent roster activity, the Wild needed to create a roster spot for Kuemper for the game against Buffalo. To do this, GM Chuck Fletcher decided to place forward Zenon Konopka on waivers. The hope was that Konopka would clear and be reassigned to Iowa but that turned out to be a pipedream. Many speculated that Konopka would not clear waivers and this speculation proved to be true.
Shortly after losing their 11th straight game on the road, the Buffalo Sabres claimed Konopka. The Sabres are also struggling with injuries and Konopka will help fill out their roster. Many in the state of hockey were sad to see Konopka go as he and his pet rabbit Hoppy both have provided lots of entertainment.
If it is any consolation for his fans in Minnesota, Konopka has said he is very happy with his new landing spot in Buffalo. Konopka grew up in Niagara On The Lake, Ontario which is a short ride from downtown Buffalo. He spoke of watching the Sabres as a kid at an interview with the Buffalo media so he is excited to begin playing with his new club.
Growing up just over the border, Zenon Konopka dreamed of playing for the Sabres. The wish is about to come true. http://t.co/KcbP1GN8fI
— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) January 4, 2014
Things to do 1.get to Buff 2.get Hoppy a Sabres Jersey 3.beat the Devils 4.give Rob Ray a high five 5.eat chicken wings and pizza #Sabres
— Zenon Konopka (@ZenonKonopka) January 3, 2014
Konopka did help the Wild with puck possession by winning draws in the faceoff circle but he provided minimal offense during his tenure in Minnesota. In thirty-six games this season, the forward scored only one goal and had just one assist. He was a -5 and had fifty-five penalty minutes on the season. He performed worse during last year’s lockout-shortened season where he finished with zero points. Despite his lack of offensive production, Konopka was a gritty forward, a strong enforcer, a leader on the ice, and his fans in the state of hockey will definitely miss his antics. Konopka had seven fighting majors with the Wild this season.
In the big picture of this season, Minnesota’s struggles with goal scoring were not helped by Konopka’s presence on the roster. His departure opens a spot on the Wild that could be used for a player who can help bolster the Wild’s struggling offense. Forward Jason Zucker scored a goal in the game against the Sabres after being called up from the AHL. Perhaps the loss of Konopka will be an addition by subtraction move that will create opportunity for one of Minnesota’s younger players to step up and contribute on offense.
After a dismal December, the Wild need to return to their winning ways and start playing desperate hockey. The Wild win against the Buffalo Sabres which was the club’s first game of 2014 ended a six-game losing streak. This is just one game but it could spark some confidence in a club that has been struggling. Minnesota can build on this in tonight’s tilt against the Washington Capitals.
A key component of a turnaround will be more goal production. Minnesota’s young players need to step up and savor the opportunity by contributing offensively. An ideal situation would be that GM Chuck Fletcher is left with a difficult decision on who to keep with the big club when injured players return. Konopka’s departure allows opportunity for the youngsters to make this happen.
However, if the Wild can’t answer the bell with wins heading into January then the club needs to either shakeup the roster some more or make a coaching change. This year’s edition of the Minnesota Wild is very talented but has not played up to their potential in recent weeks. Wins will certainly fix this touchy situation but if the losing continues, Fletcher needs to consider making changes before the Wild Card gap widens and the playoffs are out of reach.
Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW