December 23, 2011
It's a testament to the Minnesota Wild's ridiculously torrid November that their December tailspin hasn't sent them spiraling down the standings. They're still leading the Northwest Division, although the Vancouver Canucks can usurp them Friday night with a victory. Their 45 points is still a comfortable margin away from the playoff bubble.
That's the good news. Now the bad: They're 0-4-2 in their last six games, scoring one goal or less in five of them. Worse yet, they don't resemble the team that would exert its will on opponents both defensively and offensively, controlling tempo with undeniable work ethic under coach Mike Yeo:
After last night's loss to the Edmonton Oilers, 4-1, Michael Russo of the Star Tribune offered this assessment:
It's no longer playing like the "team" that was so unbreakable during a stretch of 17 wins in 21 games. Its division lead is down to one point over red-hot Vancouver.
"Is the Christmas break coming at the perfect time?" defenseman Justin Falk wondered. "Everyone gets to get rest; we've been playing with battered bodies. We can recover and get a fresh mindset."
A team ravaged by injury, the Wild especially misses its ignition, captain Mikko Koivu, who was out his fourth game. Over that time, the Wild's unmistakable work ethic and unbreakable style have vanished. "All those little things that we were doing earlier to win games that end up making the difference, we're not doing it -- plain and simple," Yeo said. "The details in our game -- completely nonexistent."
The "simply regressing to the mean" explanation is going to be levied at the Wild, a team that didn't get respect even after it undoubtedly earned it. Maybe that's the case; but there are other clear reasons for this swoon.
Half Of Their Top Six Is Broken. Devin Setoguchi is out with a leg injury, on the shelf since Dec. 6. Guillaume Latendresse was back from a concussion for a couple of games but then was back out of the lineup as of Dec. 14. But it's the injury to Mikko Koivu, the team's captain and unquestioned MVP this season, that's devastated them.
"Mikko does so much for our team; he has been missed on and off the ice." Wild coach Mike Yeo said after Thursday's morning skate. "The feeling right now is that even though Mikko is close to returning we do not want to risk any further injury and a longer stint away from our team."
The popular opinion is that Koivu will return to the Wild next week, maybe as early as Monday night when the team hosts Colorado.
Until then, center Kyle Brodziak will try to fill the void. For most of the season, Brodziak has thrived in the role of third-line center, checking most opponents' top lines while getting spot duty on the Wild power play. Brodziak was hot before Koivu got hurt, scoring 10 goals and making things happen at both ends of the rink. Since Koivu's injury, Brodziak has moved up to second-line center and is getting more power-play time and more minutes but has just one goal in five games.
That's asking a lot of Brodziak.
The Special Teams Problem. Tied to the injury problem for sure, but a problem nonetheless. During the losing streak, the Wild have one goal on 14 power plays, from Latendresse. According to Russo, this unit has now entered the realm of the atrocious.
The power play? Atrocious. It has 2 minutes of power-play time to open the second and turn a 2-0 deficit into one goal. It gave up a shorty and for the fifth straight power play in two games didn't have a shot. It had 7:50 of power-play time, including a major, and couldn't score.
Here's a familiar tune for Sharks fans reading this post: Where is Dany Heatley?
He potted a goal in the loss to Edmonton, at even strength. He's leading the Wild in power play ice time but has five power-play points (2 goals, 3 assists) since Nov. 10.
The kill, which hovered near the top of the League this season? It's given up four goals on 16 opponents' chances during this stretch.
Exhaustion. Injuries are demanding more from role players. The extra attention nationally on the team plays on their minds, as they struggle to continue their incredible pace. So mentally and physically, they're just gassed. From State of Hockey News and Theresa Ferries.
With all the injuries and the overall tired appearances of the Minnesota Wild, head coach Mike Yeo decided to not have practice yesterday. When I read that this morning, I suddenly had nightmares and flashback of the two-year Richards regime. Richards would hold untimely "optional" practices or even worse no practice at all. Even worse, those would happen after some of the worst games of the season. Fans would cringe and shake their heads and wonder what the heck he was thinking. And now, Wild fans were sure we had a no-nonsense coach, yet he has made a similar decision.
Part of me can understand the reasoning. They're at the end of a three-game Northwest Division roadtrip as well as they've lost five straight games. They're physically and mentally exhausted. Yet at the same time, I think of my own job. I work in customer service for a clothing company. At this time of year, we're at our busiest. Yesterday, I worked twelve straight hours, and it's been that way all week. I am physically and mentally exhausted, and my supervisors haven't said to me "why don't you take the day off." Instead I'm operating on about 4 hours of sleep and ready to start the day all over again.
The hope is that a holiday break recharge does the same for the Wild.
The stat-heads will call this regression in effect, I call it injuries catching up to the Wild. It's the only thing that has actually changed in since the Wild were atop the league a month ago. The poor shot differential? The goaltending? The Fenwick and Corsi? The defense? All still there. There's just no more Folding scoring pop, no more heavy forechecking. It's unfair to expect too much out of the current lineup, but is effort too much to ask? I think not, for Fish's sake.
At least the Wild got a good cushion, their playoff spot is still safe for a while, and that's all that really matters. Hopefully the holiday break will give the guys some time to nurse their booboos and regain some strength, because they will need to come back strong if they want that taste of the postseason.
Most of this tracks back to the injuries, but there's no question the Wild have also lost a bit of the swagger — such as it is in humble Minny — they carried during that winning streak. Getting Koivu back next week would be a kick in the rear.