Winless Wild: Trouble in the Tundra?

The Minnesota Wild are currently winless in four games and started their three game road trip with a shutout loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Even though the Wild managed to get a point in the two previous contests against the Blackhawks and Islanders, the team faces a tough task ahead as it is pitted against three straight divisional opponents. If the Wild are to maintain their seeding in the Western Conference playoff picture, they must put forth strong showings against Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado.

While the Wild are currently on a skid, they have managed to pick up 2 out of a possible 8 points. Although Minnesota fans and coaches might not consider that stat to be very impressive, the efforts to get to the shootout against the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders have actually kept Minnesota in the thick of things. The Wild currently sit one point behind the Blackhawks in the Western Conference, but the team must snap out of its current funk sooner rather than later if they want to remain at the top of the standings.

The most glaring problem for the Minnesota Wild was highlighted in their 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday night. Minnesota was thoroughly dominated for the first 40 minutes as they only registered a paltry 9 shots on goal and did not test Al Montoya as much as they should have. Even though Cal Clutterbuck worked hard to even up the score in the third period, the Wild just couldn’t solve Montoya in the extra session and the shootout as the netminder stopped all three Wild shootout attempts.

While the Wild suffered a stinging loss to the Winnipeg Jets last Tuesday, they played the streaking Blackhawks and the red-hot Ray Emery with determination, but were ultimately upended by nifty moves off the stick of Patrick Kane. The Wild were able to get 30 plus shots to the net against the Hawks and Jets, but came out sluggish against the Islanders. The main reason the Wild were able to get a point out of Saturday night’s contest was the stellar play of Finnish goalie Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom turned in yet another quality performance as he steered aside 35 of 36 Islander shots and only allowed Frans Nielsen’s shootout tally to stand in the skills competition of the game.

Despite Backstrom’s strong performances, the Wild have been unable to give their goalie adequate goal support during this losing streak, save for the effort against the Blackhawks last Wednesday night. Backstrom managed to keep the game somewhat close last night, but was ultimately thwarted by the Sedin twins who combined for 6 points on the night. Even though the Wild returned to their game plan and played physical hockey during the first period, Alexander Edler and Daniel Sedin threaded two beautiful passes to Henrik Sedin who put the Canucks up 1-0 with a little over a minute left in the opening frame.

The Minnesota Wild did not have trouble getting shots to the net against Roberto Luongo, but the netminder was equal to the task as he stopped all 33 Wild shots. The Canucks were also 2 for 3 on the power-play while the Wild went 0 for 1 on the night as Dany Heatley shortened the Wild’s man advantage by taking a high sticking penalty. Even though the Vancouver Canucks played a disciplined game, the Minnesota Wild have struggled to score against the Canucks on the power-play this season (0-8), a trend that must be reversed in future match-ups if the Wild want to win the Northwest Division and stay atop the Western Conference.

While the Wild are on their longest losing streak of the season, they are also playing without a number of regulars in the lineup, namely Guillaume Latendresse, Devin Setoguchi, Casey Wellman, and Mikko Koivu. However, injuries to the aforementioned players have allowed rookies such as Jarod Palmer to step up and display their skill sets. Palmer and his fourth line unit were heralded by head coach Mike Yeo as the best skatersin the Wild’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Islanders as Palmer registered 6 shots on goal in his NHL debut and his line collectively accounted for 10 of the Wild’s 21 shots in the game. Palmer’s efforts were rewarded as Mike Yeo formed a third line that consisted of Jarod Palmer, Warren Peters, and Jed Ortmeyer, and even gave the line ample playing time against the Canucks.

Mike Yeo Wild coach
(Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)

Like it or not, the Minnesota Wild are struggling without their key offensive players, especially without the presence of Mikko Koivu. Koivu leads the Wild in points and has been a go to play-maker this season, often contributing by setting up or scoring goals at crucial periods of a given hockey game. Even Guillaume Latendresse’s return to the Minnesota lineup was short-lived as the power forward experienced post-concussion symptoms and has been shut down for an indefinite time period. On the other hand, Josh Harding’s return to the Minnesota lineup against the Flames will be a welcome one as Niklas Backstrom deserved a rest with the workload that he had been shouldering over the last week.

The next three games for the Minnesota Wild will be crucial. Even though the Wild have played 5 games in a span of a week, they must come out against Calgary, Edmonton, and Colorado with the same type of intensity that they displayed against the Blackhawks. While Roberto Luongo shut down the Wild offense last night, the Wild must also be sure to come out playing the physical brand of hockey that allowed them to constantly pressure the Vancouver goalie in the first period. Alternative scoring must also be found in the Minnesota lineup since the Oilers, Avalanche, and Flames will not take their divisional rivals lightly.

One thing is for certain, the Minnesota Wild’s schedule will not get easier. Until early February, the majority of the Wild’s games will be played on the road. So far this season, Minnesota has shown that they are a competent road team, but they will be forced to repeat that road success in the coming month if they want to return to the playoffs after a three year absence.