Remember last season, when the Stars had just beaten the Los Angeles Kings on New Year's Eve, completing a nice 5-0-2 run to end 2013? Oh but how we looked forward to the New Year, watching a team that had finally figured everything out and was going to make a run at being a surprise contender.
And then the six-game losing streak happened, and a 1-8-1 record over the next ten games.
Fast forward a year, and the Stars have won seven of their last eight games to end 2014, and we're all looking forward to the New Year, watching a team that has finally figured everything out and is going to make a run at being a surprise contender.
I say this because I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Or maybe this year will be different. It is a new one after all. And so we welcome Tony Abbott of Hockey Wilderness, here to talk about another team that hasn't quite lived up to expectations this season. I mean, this past summer, we all figured the Stars and Wild could well be jockeying for position in the standings, and here they are, separated by a single point. Only thing being, we all naively assumed they would be competing for a spot somewhere in the top 4 of the Division. And instead, the upstart Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators are showing some staying power, and the Stars and Wild have only the Avalanche behind them to point and laugh at.
Which brings us to this evening. With 10th place in the Conference at stake, and a potential second victory for the Stars over a Conference III opponent looming, what can we expect to see? Tony? Over to you.
Defending Big D: Curiously enough, the Wild find themselves ranked 7th in the NHL in Corsi-For percentage. Of course, that number has been trending down recently. Does this mean that *gasp* the Wild aren't as bad as the standings would suggest?
Hockey Wilderness: First of all, thanks for putting that Schlemko claim in, dicks. [Ed. note: 'cause claiming him would have saved your season?]
Are the Wild as bad as the standings would suggest? Probably not. But as the Wild are learning- and to a lesser extent, I think Dallas, too- you can be as good as you want, and it can still be completely undermined by your goaltending.
The Wild's underlying numbers have been dropping, to the point where we saw the Wild get out-shot last night by Toronto, who (as far as I can tell) hasn't out-shot anyone since 1967. I don't know if it's that the Wild weren't as good as they looked during the first 15-20 games of the season, or if it's just injuries. While the Wild didn't had a significant injury until Mikael Granlund injured his wrist in one of the Winnipeg games, the Wild have been ravaged by illness, and are always down 1-2 guys to either the mumps [Ed. note: I blame Corey Perry], or now, norovirus. They should've just taken the St. Louis strategy (which was actually stolen from our moms, because St. Louis is the kind of organization that would steal from mothers), and exposed everyone on the team to everyone's illnesses at once and get it over with. It's a lot better than being sick for a month and a half.
Obscene Alex: Earlier this week, the game against the Jets was termed a "must-win" for the Wild. You lost. Is the season effectively over?
HW: I used the phrase "must-win", too, and I still think that was a crucial back-to-back. Even winning in OT against the Jets in that game would have given the Wild 4 points of 4 in that series, and they'd be just three points back of Winnipeg with 2 games-in-hand. As it stands, the Wild are 5 points back of Winnipeg, and a playoff spot.
But yeah, there's still a chance. Sports Club Stats rates the Wild as having a 43.8% chance of making the playoffs right now. A regulation win or loss to Dallas tonight swings that about 6 percentage points either way.
It's tempting to write off the Wild as having no shot, as far out as they are, and with so many teams to pass up in the standings, but the Wild were in an even worse spot a year ago to this date, where they had
DBD: I'm assuming you said 'yes' to the previous question. I'd have said yes to the previous question. What would you like to see the Wild do at this point, keeping an eye towards the future?
HW: You'd have said "Yes", huh? DoN't YoU hAvE aNy #FAITH iN yOuR tEaM, dAvEy?! YoU aRe A #BAD #FAN.
But really, you're saying "Yes?" I'm hoping to see an Editorial Note as to what you'd like to do for the future right here: [Ed. note: I meant I'd have said yes were I a Wild fan. The Dallas Stars are obviously the greatest team to have ever left Minnesota and won a Stanley Cup elsewhere.]
As for the Wild, if they were to fall out of the playoff race completely, I don't know what they'd do. They've got very little in the way of UFAs to flip at the deadline. Kyle Brodziak is the kind of veteran depth center that can usually score a 2nd-3rd-rounder at the draft, and that's a move that I wouldn't mind seeing made. I don't see the Wild cashing out on the surprisingly-productive Ryan Carter. Stu Bickel, Nate Prosser, and Keith Ballard are the Wild's remaining UFAs. Even the list of players with just one year remaining on their deal seem pretty underwhelming, though I'd think a sneaky-good move would be shipping out Matt Cooke to a team that feels it's just one injured opponent away from making a playoff run.
Other than that, I want to see young players get playing time. Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Jason Zucker all log less than 15:30 of ice time per night. If there's no stakes, you may as well see what you have. Giving some guys in Iowa like Mathew Dumba, Tyler Graovac, Michael Keränen, and Jordan Schroeder some run in the NHL wouldn't be bad either.
Lastly, every one on the Wild should be getting re-vaccinated for the flu, Hepatitises A-C, Polio, and probably smallpox, too.
DBD: Minnesota are currently ranked in the top half of the league in Goals per Game. This is unheard of for Wild fans, and in years past would have meant an unstoppable team. Not the case this year. Have the Wild forgotten how to play defense?
HW: No, no they've not. This has been a big point of contention between me and people who are wrong. By any measure that you can find, the Wild are suppressing the shots that go their goaltending. There's been an argument that the Wild have allowed a disproportionate amount of quality chances to get to the goalies, but I don't buy it. Every team allows multiple quality chances per game, it just becomes more glaring if the goaltender lets in 20% of them, as opposed to 5%.
DBD and OA: Further to the previous question, are you aware that your goaltender's combined save percentage ranks 29th in the league, ahead of only Edmonton? The main culprit, Darcy Kuemper, started out great but has been up and down since. Is it the goalie, the team in front of him, or both?
HW: I think it's definitely been him. I don't usually like to put such things on intangible elements, but I'm pretty convinced that it's actually some sort of mental/confidence reason that he's not playing remotely well right now. The disparity between the games that he plays well, and the games that he doesn't is just so great that I can't believe that he doesn't have the talent/skills to put together a run like we saw from him last season. I think it's really just a matter of him figuring out how to shake off a bad goal, which some guys never can do.
Good news for Kuemper, though, he's had three really good games in a row, so at least it's trending upward right now. I think you'll probably see Niklas Backstrom tonight, though, so I wouldn't fret much about not being able to score.
OA: Who are the biggest scapegoats during this rough patch for the Wild?
HW: You remember that scene in "Inglourious Basterds" where that British spy outs himself in the bar and gets himself killed because he held three fingers up the wrong way? [Ed. note: Yes.] If some sort of hot-dish-fueled war breaks out, and you have to infiltrate Minnesota, please, please, PLEASE for the love of God don't make the mistake of ever complimenting Thomas Vanek in any way. Even perfectly true statements like "Thomas Vanek is really picking it up lately." or "You know, the goals aren't there for Vanek, but look at how he's creating plays!" are certain to alert those around you and get your testicles (or ovaries, where applicable) riddled with bullets.
DBD: And lastly, how are the Wild on the second night of back-to-backs?
HW: Pretty good this season. They're 2-0-2, but they've shelled 3 of the 4 teams they faced, out-shooting them by a wide margin. Don't expect an easy night. [Ed. note: I always expect an easy night against the Wild. I'm often disappointed.]