Before his team started the second half of the season against the New York Islanders last week, Wild general manager Bill Guerin acknowledged that he needs to see something positive from the current roster before it breaks for All-Star week.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s where we are.”
So far, so good.
While it’s a small sample size, the Wild have won 3 of 4 since those marching orders, including a 2-1 East Coast road trip that ended with consecutive victories over the Florida Panthers, second in the Eastern Conference, and Carolina Hurricanes (fifth).
The bottom line? Guerin, facing the likelihood that he would start shedding veterans for draft picks before the March 8 trade deadline, has climbed back on the fence. The Wild have made up three points in the Western Conference standings in those four games, now six behind Nashville for the eighth and final playoff spot with a head-to-head meeting Thursday at the X.
The Wild have shown they can beat the NHL’s best; they’re 4-0 against the top two teams in the East, and 1-1 against second-place Vancouver in the West, which tempts one to call them streaky. The reality is, the Wild aren’t streaky; they’ve had one good run all season, 11-3-0 immediately after John Hynes replaced Dean Evason as head coach on Nov. 28.
If they were streaky, the Wild would have more than 45 points, tied for seventh-worst in hockey. The question that will be answered shortly is whether they’re hiding something better beneath those 45 points, tied for seventh-worst in hockey.
The Wild have a great chance to show that this week with three home games against middling opposition: Washington on Tuesday, the Predators on Thursday and Anaheim — one of the NHL’s two worst teams — in an 8 p.m. puck drop Saturday on Hockey Day in Minnesota. It is the biggest homestand of the season. Win out, and Guerin might not simply keep impending free-agent veterans such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Zach Bogosian and Pat Maroon, he might try to trade for a veteran defenseman to replace captain Jared Spurgeon, out for the season with hip and back injuries.
Otherwise, the Wild are fairly healthy. Although Fleury is sidelined by an upper body injury after being run by Florida’s William Lockwood on Friday, and Freddy Gaudreau and Connor Dewar are on injured reserve, they’re all expected back. Further, the Wild have Jonas Brodin, Kirill Kaprizov and Filip Gustavsson together in the lineup and playing well.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that since Brodin returned for the Islanders game, the Wild are 3-1-0. In fact, in the 10 games he has played under Hynes, the Wild are 7-3-0. Even with Spurgeon out, his presence gives the Wild three solid blue line pairs, and two very good ones. When he and Spurgeon were both out, the defense was something of a disaster — and the Wild were 1-5-0.
Kaprizov, too, is having something of a midseason renaissance since recovering from an upper body injury suffered Dec. 30 at Winnipeg — five goals and 13 points in five games since. He had his third career hat trick in Sunday’s 5-2 victory at Carolina and was named the NHL’s first star of the week on Monday.
“If we’re going to make the playoffs, we need to be a lot better than we’ve been,” Guerin said. “Our core guys, our big players, have to be better and produce at more key times.”
The Wild haven’t lost a game in which Kaprizov scores a goal since a 3-2 loss on Nov. 24 (9-0-0). Another good sign: Since returning on Jan. 13, Kaprizov is averaging 4.2 shots a game; in his previous 14 games, he was averaging 2.8.
The Wild still have five teams to leap for a playoff spot, but they’re within two points of the four teams in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th place. If they want to make the postseason, or at least convince Guerin not to cut bait.
This team might not be out of time, but it’s just about out of second chances.
“I still believe in this group, and I know people are going to say I’m crazy, but I do,” he said last week. “And I think we’ve shown that when we are healthy, and when we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re a good team. So we’re going to have to really put our minds to it and try to get it done.”