All season, observers chattered about how this Minnesota Wild team is different. For the majority of the year, that was proving to be true. They were winning games with talent, speed, and heavy forechecking. Defensively, they hadn’t lost much of a step after Ryan Suter and Carson Soucy departed. The Wild weren’t only as good as they have been the last decade, but so much more.
That was true up until a month ago.
Things have fallen off the rails since then. Minnesota is embroiled in a swoon. Nothing is seemingly going right, a lot is going wrong, and for all the talk about being better and playing better, they just… aren’t.
The final touch on a five-game winning streak that saw the Wild respond to the worst losing streak of the season, including an embarrassing loss in the Winter Classic, came Feb. 2nd. It was a 5-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Since that game, Minnesota has a 6-10-1 record.
A loss quickly dashed a good win over the Blackhawks to the Winnipeg Jets. They gutted out a big victory over the Carolina Hurricanes and then got crushed by the Ottawa Senators. Once they think they found their game in a triumph over the New York Rangers, they turn around and drop one to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Wild are stuck in this pattern. They’re currently on the path to mediocrity, a destination that wasn’t supposed to be on the itinerary.
We can analyze and speak ad nauseam about the need for Minnesota to make a trade an impactful call-up to the roster. We can only say the power play and penalty kill stink so many times. It doesn’t require an abacus to decode those analytics. Yet, here the Wild are, scrambling for answers on the ice in an attempt to re-discover the game and tenacity they once had.
It’s great that Minnesota played a playoff-style game in November against the Florida Panthers. It’s dandy that a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in December had that postseason flair. But now, when the playoffs are starting to come into view, the Wild can’t find that extra gear. Every other team around them in the standings has figured it out, and Minnesota’s slide down the standings will only accelerate if they can’t correct course in a hurry.
It’s not that the Wild aren’t trying. They most definitely are trying to win games and trying to make plays. After Minnesota’s fourth loss in the last five home games, Dean Evason took a long time to speak to the media. He’s said multiple times that he hasn’t needed to tell the team what they already know – that this level of play isn’t acceptable. Yet, Sunday night, he spoke about how the other team “was a little bit more committed.”
The Nashville Predators had 29 blocked shots in the game. They summarily choked the life out of Minnesota’s offense by clogging up the neutral zone, so the Wild had difficulty entering the zone cleanly, then stacked defenders in front of their netminder to stop anything headed David Rittich’s way. Minnesota had already been pressing, squeezing their sticks into composite dust. Nashville’s defense exacerbated the ills already plaguing the Wild.
Star defenseman Roman Josi had four of those 29 blocked shots, tied with the team lead. The Wild defense had eight blocked shots total. Jon Merrill or Dmitry Kulikov didn’t register any of them, Minnesota’s third pair that has not looked good for the last month. The Wild don’t have a Keith Carney or a Greg Zanon, who were only good for shot-blocking. That’s a good thing since Minnesota’s defense is predicated on puck movement and agility to get the puck out of the zone. Still, while the PK is spiraling out of control, maybe a few extra blocked shots wouldn’t hurt.
The Wild could also try to figure out how to crack those defenses that block shots and pack it in tight like the Preds. It’s time for the Wild to actually play playoff hockey, even now before the postseason starts. If they don’t, there won’t be a reason to care about playoff hockey in May or June.