Powers: Feast or famine, Wild’s ultimate fate won’t be surprising
St. Paul Pioneer Press
The Wild are a most confounding hockey team. These fellows could very well make a run at the Stanley Cup. Or they could fizzle and miss the playoffs.
And neither scenario would surprise me.
The Wild began their stretch drive Thursday night in Edmonton. From here, it’s all a mystery. But I see parallels between this team and the 2002-03 team that went all the way to the conference final. Granted, I might be searching for rainbows here, but both teams had problems scoring. Both played a finesse game. Both rode red-hot goaltending during the regular season. The difference is that a couple of forwards got hot in the playoffs 11 years ago.
Currently, Minnesota has a tremendous amount of speed and skill up front — but little scoring touch. Usually, the scoring touch is part of the speed and skill package, but not this time. So the Wild often control the puck for 40 of the 60 minutes while managing to squeeze out a 2-1 victory. They’ll also fly down the ice in transition and miss the net. In any event, they struggle to get on the scoreboard.
As the trade deadline approaches, people ask what the Wild most need. I always tell them: the Dany Heatley of five years ago — a pure sharpshooter who can finish off a play.
The low-scoring 2002-03 Wild shocked the NHL by making it to the conference final. That came in just their third year of existence, and it was an example of a Jacques Lemaire team at its lockdown finest. That team wasn’t nearly as talented as this team, but it caught fire at just the right time.
Minnesota had just two players with 20 or more goals that year: Marian Gaborik with 30 and Pascal Dupuis with 20. Overall, that team managed 198 goals. The current Wild will have to average more than two per game the rest of the way to beat that mark, so regardless of style, the results have been similar.
Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez were brilliant in net and, combined with a ferocious trapping game, helped compensate for a mediocre group of defensemen and a dire lack of scoring. The Wild’s performance this season also has been fueled by goaltending. Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper have helped to compensate for a very low-scoring offense and an overall mediocre group of defensemen.
And I can’t help but wonder if Ryan Suter might be even more effective on offense if he had more left in his tank by game’s end. All top defensemen play a lot of minutes, of course, but Suter is averaging more than 30 and talks about “managing” his ice time. If he were a bit fresher, he might be able to make more dynamic plays on offense, especially late when the score always seems to be tied. But no other pairing can handle the additional minutes needed to cut him a break.
That ’02-’03 team played well enough down the stretch, and then everything came together in the playoffs. Gaborik, who could not buy a goal during the last month of that regular season, scored nine in 18 playoff games. Pascal Dupuis also turned it up, scoring seven. And checking center Wes Walz scored seven playoff goals, two of which were game-winners.
So in ’02-’03, the goaltenders were outstanding, the team stuck to its system and hung in there until a couple of forwards went on a roll. Then it made a great run. So far, the current Wild have exhibited outstanding goaltending and have remained true to their system (for better or for worse). They also are hanging in there despite injuries. All they need is for a couple of their talented forwards to get hot at the right time.
Clearly, we are comparing apples and oranges. There is no smothering trap here today. But there is superior talent on the forward lines. Will someone lead the way into the first round and beyond? The Wild have plenty of forwards with the potential to go on a streak. It’s a scenario to consider. Or not.
Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.