It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Minnesota Wild. Not this year. Not after they pulled off a miraculous turnaround in the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, shoring up their goaltending, salvaging their season and winning a playoff series in the process. That was supposed to set the stage for a glorious 2015-16 effort.
It still might. The talent is there, and they are still currently in a playoff spot. But they play in a division where a margin for error or any sort of buffer zone is a luxury. If you want to survive the Central, you need to be on top of your game at all times.
That hasn’t been the case for Minnesota lately. Following an improbable, last-second, give-up-the-lead-then-lose-in-the-shootout scenario at home against the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night, Mike Yeo’s club is just 1-6-1 in their last eight. They’ve also dropped five straight at home – not a common occurrence for this franchise.
That’s not exactly how the Wild had planned to go into the All-Star break, but that’s the situation they’re in now. Actually, the situation they’re in is really only slightly better than the one they were in 12 months ago. Entering the 2015 All-Star break, they were 20-20-6. This time around? They’re 23-17-9.
Now, it should be noted that they were last in the division a year ago, whereas they’re currently clinging to a wild card spot right now. Simple math shows that they have nine more points in the standings this time around… but they’ve also played three more games at this year’s break than they had last season.
Here’s the pivotal piece though — the 2014-15 Minnesota Wild came out of the All-Star Game and went on an absolute tear. They went 16-2-1 over their next 19 games, finished the season on a 26-8-2 run and completely flipped the script on a season that originally seemed destined to be full of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations.
Can they do that again this season? Well, they probably don’t need to rip off that sort of winning streak. But they do need to right the ship here pretty soon.
Monday’s loss was just one game on an 82-game calendar, but it was remarkably symbolic of their recent struggles. For the fourth time in five contests, the Wild gave up a late goal. And this one proved especially costly, because it was of the shorthanded variety with under two minutes remaining in regulation. They were facing a resilient Coyotes team, but they had also controlled play for the first forty minutes and were just 73 seconds away from a much-needed victory.
Giving up late goals hasn’t been the team’s only issue over these last few weeks though. Throughout this eight-game stretch, they’ve managed a grand total of 11 goals — six of which came in two games.
Asked if he can afford to keep giving Granlund/Pominville ice time, Yeo said it's not like anybody's lighting it up. "major, major slumps"
— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) January 26, 2016
Monday’s contest saw Minnesota put 35 shots on rookie netminder Louis Domingue, who turned all but one of them aside. He’s been good pretty much every time he’s hit the ice this season, and the Wild experienced that firsthand. They had put an emphasis on playing the full 60 minutes, and up just short. Perhaps they just ran into a hot goalie.
Problem is, they’ve been running into this a lot lately. And they’re starting to feel it in the standings. A few weeks ago, they were right in the thick of the race for a top-three spot in the Central. Now they’re nine points back of the third-place St. Louis Blues. The ‘safest’ way to make it into the postseason is to grab one of those top three divisional spots. Otherwise, you’re in a mad scramble with the rest of the conference for two precious wild card spots.
That’s the spot this group finds themselves in now though. The Colorado Avalanche are tied with them at the moment (Minnesota does have one game in hand, at least), and Patrick Roy’s squad is trending up, not down. Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators (52 points) are waiting in the wings and, if the Wild stumble much more, Pacific clubs like Anaheim and Vancouver are going to climb back into the mix as well.
Every team obviously wants to come out of the gates strong following the All-Star Game. The end of the break essentially signals the start of the NHL’s last stretch, and it gets tougher and tougher to count on stacking wins at that point. Every game is also more meaningful too. For Minnesota though, a quick re-start is going to be downright vital — it’s about playoff survival now.