Minnesota Wild, Stanley Cup dark horse

Minnesota Wild, Stanley Cup dark horse

The Minnesota Wild can clinch a playoff berth with a regulation win against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night, or if they win in overtime and the Los Angeles Kings lose in regulation to the Vancouver Canucks. 

That’s the math, but the outcome is foregone: The Wild are a playoff team, and present an interesting case for being the dark horse Stanley Cup contender from the Western Conference.

The conversation obviously begins with goaltending, because the guy between the pipes is currently 26-7-2 in 36 games with the Wild, sporting a .937 save percentage and a 1.74 GAA. (It’s .934 at even strength.)

Devan Dubnyk has played remarkably for the Wild, and deserves the Hart Trophy chatter he’s received. But the idea he’s been a one-man show isn’t accurate; what he’s done, essentially, is move the goaltending position back to being a foundation of confidence for the Wild, after it was their main source of agony for until Dubnyk arrived.

We’ve seen goalies get locked in and post stellar numbers under Mike Yeo: Josh Harding’s 1.65 GAA and .933 save percentage last season comes to mind. This isn’t to diminish the impact of Dubnyk, but rather put over how good this Wild team can be when it’s playing with confidence in its netminder.

And, statistically, it’s a better 5-on-5 team than it was last season. They’re eighth this season at 1.16 goals for/against at even strength; last season they were right around the same number (1.15) in placing eighth. But one look at their possession numbers, and you can see the difference: 48.2 corsi-close last season, and a 51.0 corsi-close this season. This is the best possession year they’ve had under Yeo.

They’ve got good scoring balance, with six players likely to finish with more than 15 goals. That’s in line with the other Western Conference big boys like the Blackhawks and Kings. They get scoring from the blue line, with 20 goals and 62 assists combined from Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Ryan Suter.

Looking at the playoffs, they’ve made the cut in each of the last two seasons, making the semifinals last time ‘round. They have some guys that give you pause as far as playoff performances (Thomas Vanek) but they have other guys who have stepped in the past for the Wild (Zach Parise had 14 points in 13 games last postseason, bucking some underwhelming past performances).

And they have that nice balance of veteran stars, standout youngsters and complete pains-in-the-ass, provided Matt Cooke’s healthy and Erik Haula finds his game from last postseason.

Are there causes for concern? Totally. Their PK is best in the League (86.7 percent), which is good news, because five of the last 11 Stanley Cup champs have had a regular-season PK in the top five.

But their power-play is a craptastic 15.6 percent, and that’s worrisome. Sure, the LA Kings won the Cup last season after a 15.1 percent power play in the regular season, but there’s a lot of freaky things about the Kings (like bringing on Marian Gaborik late in the season, and ending up with a 23.5-percent conversion rate in the playoffs).

For the normal teams, there’s been one Cup champion in the previous 16 years with a regular-season power play under 15 percent – the 2003 New Jersey Devils.

And let’s face it: We all want to believe in that Dubnyk magic, because it’s been one of the best stories in the NHL this season. But I’ve appeared in as many Stanley Cup Playoff games as he has. (Silver lining: He’s 6-0-0 with a .935 save percentage and a 1.27 GAA lifetime at the IIHF world championships.)

In the end, for the Wild, it might come down to the draw. They’re entrenched in the first wild card, which likely means it’ll be the St. Louis Blues or the Nashville Predators in the first round. They’re 2-0-1 against the Blues; they’re 2-1-1 against the Preds.

They’re 0-3-0 against Anaheim. So hopefully the Wild avoid that for a bit.

Does Minnesota have what it takes to win the Cup? In theory. But it’s going to depend on them getting better on the man advantage, getting the right path to the Final and getting the same kind of competent and confident play out of Dubnyk they’ve gotten the last two months.

And if they did win ... well, talk about your team building. The massive contracts for local boys Parise and Suter. The hired guns in Pominville and Vanek. The homegrown talent, as well as the young talent added from elsewhere. It's not a perfect roster constructed by Chuck Fletcher, but it's certainly his roster. 

Who would have thought a journeyman goalie making $800,000 would have been the lynchpin? 

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