For Minnesota sports fans, skepticism becomes second nature. You take nothing for granted and always expect the bottom to fall out from underneath whatever local team is doing well (unless you’re the Minnesota Lynx and you have won three WNBA titles in the last five years) at some point.
That brings us to the Minnesota Wild, who on Feb. 2 currently hold the best record in the Western Conference and are just three points back of the Washington Capitals for the best record in the NHL. With 32 games remaining in the regular season, the Wild look like they are going to shatter a bunch of team records en route to at least a first-round playoff series with home-ice advantage, if not more.
A big reason for Minnesota’s success so far has been its play against the surprisingly weak Western Conference. Minnesota is 20-7-4 against the West -- a conference that has been regarded as the better half of the league for at least the past half-decade. It is a huge improvement from its record against the West last season (25-17-8).
But again, the question remains for Minnesota sports fans: “OK, what team is going to end this magical season in the first or second round? The Blackhawks, again?”
The answer is not easily found.
Here is a look at how the Western Conference teams are currently doing:
Teams who are counting down to the draft:
This is a team that is rivaling the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers record for games lost in a season. Colorado continues to be a punchline of the NHL, as it offers little entertainment on a nightly basis. General Manager Joe Sakic has neglected to improve his blueline in the three years since it miraculously won the Central Division title and now he has a starting goaltender (Semyon Varlamov) in the midst of a down season. To further show how bad this team is: If you take away the first four games of the regular season, Colorado is just 10-32-2. The Wild had 10 wins in January. Yikes.
The Wild had 10 wins in January. Yikes.
A team who was tabbed as "on the rise" at the beginning of the season has seen very little progress during the season. Max Domi missed significant time with a hand injury and Anthony Duclair has just nine points this season. With the porous team in front of him, Mike Smith has posted a respectable .917 save percentage and was named as the team’s lone representative to the All-Star game. Not a great year for the ‘Yotes, as they are with Colorado as the only teams so far to be sellers at the upcoming trade deadline.
Teams surprisingly on the bubble:
Because the West is so bad, it has allowed the Jets to hang around give their fans hope that they can creep in the postseason. The problem is, the Jets have received the worst goaltending in the league this year (164 goals allowed, most in the NHL) despite sending Ondrej Pavelec to the minors before the season started. Pavelec has returned because Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson could not provide any consistency in net.
Think about that: You’re so desperate for goaltending relief, you turn Pavelec. If the Jets can get a goalie to catch fire, they could certainly make a charge up the standings. But that’s a big if right now.
Here is another team that is giving near false hope to their fans because of how weak the conference is. Vancouver sitting a point out of a Wild Card spot makes no sense, considering how poorly they came out of the gate (losing nine straight games after a 4-0 start). There’s nothing special about this team. Their All-Star attendee was BO HORVAT! Ryan Miller’s .920 save percentage is the highest it's been since 2010.
When that comed back down to earth -- which it should -- the Canucks won’t be able to provide the offense required. Look for them to slip back down as February goes on.
After acquiring Brian Elliott at the draft, Calgary was pegged as a team that could be playoff-bound because it finally found a stable netminder to go with its young talent at the forward position. Instead, Elliott has been a shell of himself, posting an abysmal .892 save percentage, and has seen his number one goalie title stripped and given to Chad Johnson. Johnson has been better than Elliott, but the Flames still are getting below-average goaltending. If the Flames were to trade for a goalie (*cough* Marc-Andre Fleury) at the deadline, they could become a playoff team.
Even then, they would probably just be a one and done team.
Somehow, General Manager Jim Nill looked at his team over the summer and decided that he was good in the defense and goaltending department. This was a team that finished 19th in goals allowed last year, which was covered up by a high-powered offense en route to the Central Division title. The Stars are only 11th in the league in goals this season and they have allowed more goals than all but three teams in the league. It's tough to see the Stars making a trade for a goaltender, because they would have to give either Antti Niemi (.900 save percentage) or Kari Lehtonen (.904) back in the deal and no one really desires either. Dallas appears to be a team that will be on the outside looking in come spring, unless they make a huge splash at the deadline.
St. Louis Blues
Swoon season made its way to St. Louis already, much to the delight of Minnesota Wild fans. Ken Hitchcock could not overcome the team's struggles in January and Mike Yeo has been handed the reins to stop this mess. Unless Jake Allen can correct his problem of not being able to consistently stop the puck, Yeo might not be able to guide this team out of the weeds and into the playoffs. But his saving grace is his defensive system, which could do some patchwork on the Blues’ back end, which has been one of the worst in hockey in recent weeks. If the defense and goaltenders can find a way to keep pucks out of the net, the Blues do have a decent enough offense to get them on a roll.
Near locks to make the postseason:
Los Angeles Kings
Once the Kings start scoring, look out. With how bad their shooting percentage is at five-on-five -- which is bound to come up at some point -- this will make them a lock for the playoffs. But the element of doubt exists with this team, because you could have said the same thing two years ago when they were on the playoff bubble and they never did make it in. Again, the Kings remain one of the best puck possession teams in the league, while Peter Budaj has done impressive work all season in place of the injured Jonathan Quick (who should be back within a month or so).
Again, if there wasn’t that element of doubt about them, they would be a lock at this point.
It was a rough first three months for a team that was widely regarded as a favorite to win the West at the beginning of the season. But it appears they have finally put it together, as the Preds have won seven of their last 10 games and have bolted up into third in the Central Division. If Pekka Rinne can keep his save percentage in the area of where its currently (.920), there should be no reason Nashville loses that third spot in the Central. The offense is above average and the defense is solid.
Rinne is very much the key for how far this team goes.
This team should be under the next category: “Locked in the playoffs.” However, they are the Oilers. One can’t fully commit to saying they are a playoff team after watching them play hockey for the past decade. With a healthy and MVP-caliber Connor McDavid (59 points, most in the NHL) this year, the Oilers have finally climbed out of the NHL’s basement and are on the brink of making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Depth on defense is questionable for Edmonton, but it has enough firepower up front to cover up for it. Cam Talbot has been solid for the Oilers this year (.920 save percentage), which is something not often said about an Edmonton goaltender. He’ll get them to the playoffs, but don’t expect much more than that. With the way this division is trending, Edmonton could be a dominant force for quite some time.
Locked In the playoffs:
After swapping out Bruce Boudreau for Randy Carlyle (again) behind the bench, the Ducks were expected to take a step back. But here they are again, right in the thick of it for the Pacific Division title with San Jose. John Gibson has been one of the better goalies in the league this year at five-on-five, which has helped a team that is slightly below average offensively. Anaheim is not overly strong in its bottom six, which will make it buyers for some help there at the trade deadline. But if the window to win with Carlyle is real thin, why not go all in and add a big scorer to go with Kesler, Perry and Getzlaf?
Thanks to a lousy schedule, the Blackhawks were atop the Central for most of the season because Minnesota could never catch up to them in games played. But as the Wild have closed the gap, they have also passed Chicago in the standings. It also doesn’t help that Chicago is in a bit of a slump right now, and there is a lot of emphasis on captain Jonathan Toews, who is having a statistically bad season -- nine goals in 43 games -- to date. Much like the Ducks, Chicago is sluggish in the bottom six and will probably try and upgrade there at the trade deadline, despite what Stan Bowman says. Chicago will no doubt make the playoffs, but what kind of team will it be when that time comes?
Chicago will no doubt make the playoffs, but what kind of team will it be when that time comes?
San Jose Sharks
So far this season, the only team that really put a scare into Wild fans was the San Jose Sharks. San Jose skated circles around the Wild in the Jan. 5 meeting for most of the game, and lead by two goals on separate occasions. However, the resilient Wild were able to battle back and sneak out a win in the Shark Tank. Needless to say, playing like that throughout a seven-game series would not benefit the Wild. The defending Western Conference champs have been a consistent bunch since November and are benefiting from Brent Burns (53 points in 51 games) playing on another planet all year long. San Jose is only 17th in the league in goals for this season, so much like Chicago and Anaheim, it could look to find some offense at the trade deadline. With Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau up there in age, the Sharks could easily be another team to go all in and land a big name player, like maybe Matt Duchene.
With Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau up there in age, the Sharks could easily be another team to go all in and land a big name player, like maybe Matt Duchene.
The point to all this was simple: While there are a few good teams out in the West, the conference is completely wide open. This is Minnesota’s best chance to make a deep postseason run in the Parise & Suter era.
The Wild are in an advantageous position because they have built up enough points to finally get home-ice advantage in a playoff series and they remain a consistent team in an otherwise inconsistent conference. Unless a team makes a huge splash at the deadline and gets red hot, it’s a three-team race between the Wild, Sharks and Blackhawks for the West right now. At the beginning of the year, one never thought that was possible with this group of players, but on Feb. 2, they are.
As Lou Brown said, “We’re contenders now!”