Wild sitting in best position in team history
ST. PAUL--There is nowhere else for the Minnesota Wild to hide. After flying under the radar in the early stages of the season, the Wild are demanding respect -- first with a 12-game winning streak, and now with the top spot in the Western Confer...
ST. PAUL-There is nowhere else for the Minnesota Wild to hide.
After flying under the radar in the early stages of the season, the Wild are demanding respect - first with a 12-game winning streak, and now with the top spot in the Western Conference, earned with Sunday's 3-2, comeback victory at Chicago.
With that victory - the Wild's eighth straight in the regular season against their Central Division arch-nemesis - Minnesota improved to 28-9-5 (61 points) to take control of the Western Conference. Monday marked the latest in a season the Wild have ever held the top spot in the West.
Before this season, the latest the Wild held a lead in the Western Conference came in 2011-12. That season they were atop the Western Conference as late as Game 33 - Dec. 17, 2011, to be exact - before they absolutely imploded down the stretch to miss the playoffs.
That might be why the optimism in the Wild locker room both before and after Sunday's victory was cautious.
In the hours before the game, coach Bruce Boudreau almost refused to acknowledge the fact that his team was leading the Central Division. There might not be a more candid coach in the NHL, and in that moment, Boudreau reverted to coach speak.
"It's Game 41," he said, dismissing the notion that the lead in the Central Division meant anything at this point in the season.
In the minutes after the game, veteran Chris Stewart followed suit. Usually candid and outspoken, Stewart declined to put too much stock in the Wild's victory.
"I wouldn't say it's a statement win," said Stewart, whose goal tied the score 2-2 in the second period. "It's good to come in here, on the road, on the second of a back-to-back, and show that we still have legs to win games."
While the players and coaches might not look at it as a big deal - at least not outwardly - it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Wild might be on their way to their best regular season in the 17-year history of the franchise.
That currently belongs to the 2007-08 team that won the team's only division title before losing in the first round of the playoffs. The Wild's deepest playoff run came in 2002-03, when they became the first team in NHL history to rally from two 3-1 series deficits and advanced to the conference finals, where they were swept by Anaheim.
How the heck does something like this happen?
Boudreau has played a major role from behind the bench, as has offseason addition Eric Staal, whose career renaissance continues with each passing game. He leads the team with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists).
Devan Dubnyk, meanwhile, has forced his way into the best-goaltender-in-the-league conversation, leading the NHL in goals-against average (1.78) and save percentage (.940). He is second in wins (23) and shutouts (5).
Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon have anchored a talented blue line in front of Dubnyk.
Mikko Koivu is also having one of the best seasons of his career, while the next generation of players - Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Zucker - have taken the next step in their development.
It has been a perfect storm for the Wild, who also are flirting with the Presidents Trophy, currently two points behind the Washington Capitals for the best record in the NHL. While there is still half the season to be played, it looks as if the Wild are on their way to their fifth consecutive trip the playoffs.
Simply making the playoffs, however, should no longer be the goal for the Wild, as they're in realistic contention for their first-ever conference title. The Wild recognize the Blackhawks as perhaps the biggest road block. Chicago has knocked them out of the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
"If we want to be in first place, we're going to have to get points against these guys," Dubnyk said. "If we want to be at the top, we're going to have to continue to play well against these guys."
BEST OF WEST >
The first-place Wild had never led the Western Conference this far into a season until they beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2, Sunday at United Center. Here's a look at their previous conference high-water marks:
Season Date Record Finish
2001-02 Oct. 12 3-0-1-0 12th
2002-03 Nov. 17 9-3-2-0 6th
2006-07 Oct. 27 9-1-0 7th
2007-08 Oct. 24 7-1-1 3rd-x
2011-12 Dec. 17 20-8-5 12th
2012-13 Jan. 20-y 2-0-0 8th
2016-17 Jan. 17 28-9-5 -
y-Lockout year, started Jan. 19