As the Minnesota Wild officially hit the All-Star break for the 2019-20 campaign, they're looking up the standings at the playoff chase. That was not unexpected when regular season play began back in October. Many expected the Wild to be on the fringe of the playoff bubble.
To put it bluntly, this roller-coaster season that has been filled with high highs and crashing lows isn't a surprise.
Now at the unofficial halfway point of the season, let's reflect on some of the better bright spots so far this season.
Note: Check back Friday for the first-half disappointments.
Nov. 16 through Dec. 5
The Wild's terrible October gave way to the team playing a tighter checking game, and finding the back of the net with more frequency. Wild goalie prospect Kaapo Kahkonen made his NHL debut during this stretch and helped get Minnesota into the "W" column. All told, the Wild put together an 11-game point streak and played like one of the best teams in the NHL.
They beat the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars, then went into Florida and beat the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning back-to-back. In 28 games from November through the end of December, the Wild went 15-9-4 -- a point percentage of .607. Over an 82-game season, that would amount to roughly 99 points. According to Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com, 99 points in the Western Conference would be more than enough to make the playoffs, and push for at least second in the Central Division.
It's amazing what this team could do with better goaltending, and not getting sunk with a really bad October.
Carson Soucy's Emergence
Soucy seemed destined to play out his days in the American Hockey League for the rest of his career. He took a long time to ripen in college, and couldn't crack the NHL lineup after miserable training camp last season. So as an older "rookie" it looked like he might get passed over by the younger defensive prospects on the Wild.
He not only made the big club out of training camp, but has played himself into an everyday role. It's kept Nick Seeler in the press box, and when Greg Pateryn returned from injury, they couldn't scratch the 25-year-old former University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldog.
He's been rewarded for his 0.92 points per hour at 5-on-5 -- good for fourth among Wild defensemen. He's been able to slot up to the second pairing when there's been an injury, and still remains solid in expected goals against percentage with 51.24. He's a big body and has shown a knack for offense. Soucy's emergence has been a fun thing to watch.
Fiala was a puck-carrying, turnover machine when he arrived in Minnesota last season. He looked like a player trying to do everything at the same time on the ice. But when Minnesota went through that 11-game point streak, it was because Fiala simplified his game and became one of, if not the, best player on the ice at any given time. He's currently third on the team behind Marcus Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek for points per hour, but plays a top-six role.
His giveaways are still a thing, even if they've improved, but he's been able to balance the gives with an almost equal amount of takeaways. He's become one of the more fun players to watch on the ice this season. He's fast, is always looking to make a play and has a wicked wrist shot. Oh, and he leads the team in shots per 60 as well.
He is just offense, offense, offense all the time. He's still a ways off from being the game-breaker that Paul Fenton dubbed him, but this season has been a nice development for Fiala.
Mikko Koivu's 1,000th Game
A shootout win over the Dallas Stars is fun no matter how good or bad the Wild are playing. Going into the game, the story was about captain Koivu playing all 1,000 games in a Minnesota Wild sweater. Coming out of the game was the storybook ending of Koivu using his patented forward-backhand-shelf shootout move to not just seal the victory for his team, but lift the Wild to a win for the first time this season in the shootout/overtime session.
It couldn't have been scripted any better than that.
Wild Win Big on Hockey Day Minnesota
Minnesota's play had begun to slip. The week began with a 7-3 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was really non-competitive, and the Wild looked exposed in just about every way. Goaltending looked bad. Scoring couldn't solve the Pens' backup netminder. Pittsburgh's speed was too much to handle.
Fast forward to the weekend, Minnesota was hosting the Dallas Stars for Hockey Day Minnesota. The Wild jumped on the Stars and goalie Anton Khudobin early and often. It was defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Soucy in the first period. In the second period, forwards Jason Zucker, Ryan Donato and Mats Zuccarello got in on the action. The Wild finished off the Stars with power-play goals from Zach Parise and Ryan Hartman in the third.
After all was said and done, the Wild celebrated a truly dominant 7-0 win. It capped a great day of celebrating hockey throughout the state.