The Minnesota Wild, who host the Canadiens on Sunday, lost an exciting 5-4 in overtime on Saturday to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The regulation tie gave them their first point in five games. They dropped four straight on a road trip, including back-to-back shutouts, being outscored 15-4 in those games, and that has dumped them behind the pack fighting for the last playoff spots in the wacky Western Conference. They now sit in 11th, six points out of eighth with and not feeling too good about themselves.
Among the Wild’s biggest problem, perhaps their biggest, is they have trouble scoring goals. Their 184 tallies ranks 15th in the West, and 26th in the league. It’s not that they don’t work hard; this team skates well and few, if any, players take nights off. It’s more that they lack finish.
“There are times when you do shake your head a little bit because we’re coming in and just fanning on pucks or it’s going off the end of our sticks or it’s bouncing,” Wild coach Todd Richards said after the 4-0 loss in Dallas on Mar. 11. “That’s the way it’s going right now. The only way we can get out of this is through hard work.”
“Consider this,” writes Tom Powers in The St. Paul Pioneer Press, “All 16 teams that are front-runners for playoff spots have scored more goals than Minnesota. But … the Wild are among the league leaders in shooting percentage. What does that tell us? Well, that they aren’t generating nearly enough scoring chances. Because when they do get them, they score.”
They have some highly talented forwards, Martin Havlat and Mikko Koivu among them. But that’s not enough. After Havlat (60 points) and Koivu (51), there’s a big drop-off in production among the forwards (defenceman Brent Burns has 43 points). Veterans Andrew Burnette and Matt Cullen are next with 39 and 38 points respectively and it goes on down from there. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed the first 23 games of this season and virtually all of last season, has resumed his excellent playmaking, but just who he is passing to is the problem.
Havlat had only one assist on that road trip. Koivu missed the first two games, the end of his 11-game absence due to a broken finger; he got a goal and assist in his first game back, but this club lacks reliable secondary scoring.
They were also missing rugged Cal Clutterbuck for the first two games of that trip. He missed four games altogether after when Islanders call-up Trevor Gillies concussed him earlier this month and earned a 10-game suspension. Clutterbuck had been enjoying his best season in the NHL with 18 goals and 13 assists and some fierce checking, but his play is not what has troubled this team.
The Wild had hoped Guillaume Latendresse, who scored 25 goals for them last season in 55 games after his trade from the Canadiens, would help fill the goal-scoring void. But he started slowly — two goals in his first eight games — then went down with a sports hernia injury. It kept him sidelined from late October until early March, a 58-game span, as he had two surgeries. He then returned for three tentative, pointless games before going down again, this time due to a lower body injury.
On defence, the very talented Burns had a terrific All-Star calibre first half, but not as great a second half and his giveaway in OT on Saturday that led to the game winner by Columbus’ Antoine Vermette (video) prompted Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan to wonder if the Wild should bother keeping Burns, who will be a free agent after this season, and perhaps trade him for a sniper this summer. There will be no shortage of takers if Wild GM Chuck Fletcher thinks the way Souhan does.
The Wild’s defence corps is not particularly physical, although they are very mobile. At the moment, they are also banged up. Marek Zidlicky has a hamstring injury that has kept him out for a few games and he usually helps jumpstart the offence. Cam Barker, one of their few physical d-men, has missed 11 of the past 12 games with an upper-body injury. Neither is expected to play Sunday. Nor is Montreal native, rookie Marco Scandella, who broke a finger on Saturday against Columbus. But the Wild still have Nick Schultz (a solid D-first guy), Greg Zanon (an excellent shot blocker) and diminutive rookie Jared Spurgeon.
Jose Theodore is expected to be in goal on Sunday and he’s had a moderately good season for the Wild. He’s had some strong stretches and outstanding games, like his 46-save performance that beat the Ducks on Feb. 25 and his 40-save effort that beat the Rangers on Mar. 3. He’s also had some rough patches, and he’s going through one now along with the rest of the team. He hasn’t been the main guy this season — that’s been Niklas Backstrom — but he’s adjusted to the backup role for the first time in his career.
This is a team that is close to missing the playoffs for the third straight year, which hasn’t happened before in their short franchise history. Center John Madden, the excellent checker and faceoff specialist who played on the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks last season and won the Cup two other times playing for the Devils, has never missed the playoffs before. “I’m dealing with it the best I can,” Madden told Kent Youngblood of The Star-Tribune. “The expectations are there. We have the team to get in. We just shoot ourselves in the foot here and there. We have to deal with the ups and downs of a hockey game better and we’ll be better off.”