What is this, the Oregon Trail? Every team seems to get the flu once a year, but the mumps?
-- Zach Parise when five Wild defensemen got the mumps in 2014
The Martin Hanzal trade signified how far the Minnesota Wild had come this season. As the points leader in a wide-open Western Conference, dealing away a first-rounder in a poor draft and two future picks as a package deal for Hanzal, the best rental on the market, was a no-brainer. “We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher told the Star Tribune. “We think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [for the Stanley Cup].”
So just when the Wild, in the midst of an unexpectedly successful regular season, went all in to acquire the best rental forward on the market, two of their most experienced players go down with the mumps. “The Minnesota Wild announced today that forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville have been diagnosed with mumps,” read a Wild press release. “Members of the organization that have symptoms are being tested immediately and placed in isolation for a five-day period.”
At least the Wild dodged dysentery and typhoid fever. Now they have to make sure their ox cart doesn’t flip as they try to ford the river.
According to the Centers for Disease control, mumps is a contagious disease caused by a virus. It spreads through saliva or mucus from the mouth, nose or throat. An infected person can spread the virus by coughing or sneezing, sharing items, such as cups or eating utensils, with others, and touching objects or surfaces with unwashed hands that are then touched by others. It’s not hard to imagine how this could spread rapidly inside a locker room, hotel or airplane.
The cynic in me says maybe this team should worry less about the media stepping on the logo in the middle of their locker room and ensure that a debilitating virus isn’t festering in the Man-Bear-Pig. The reality is that Wild players, coaches and staff were offered vaccines back in 2014 and equipment trainers sanitized all equipment and provided players with individual water bottles. Parise and Pominville were among those who got shots, GM Chuck Fletcher told the Star Tribune.
Back in December of 2014 the Wild were in the middle of their third annual Swoon™, which once again caused them to relinquish home-ice advantage in the playoffs, and once again they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs. This year should be different, however. They have a better coach, there are fewer players with the condition (assuming it doesn’t spread) and their young players are much improved. As for losing to the Blackhawks in the playoffs, that could happen even if the Wild remained healthy and ran away with the division.
The truth of the matter is that hockey, and really most professional sports, is more about surviving than thriving -- especially when it comes to the playoffs. Bruce Boudreau’s Washington Capitals beat up teams in hockey hotbeds such as Raleigh, Sunrise, Fla. and Atlanta (RIP Thrashers) for years and always came up short in the playoffs. Regular season dominance doesn’t always translate to playoff success, but that resilience comes as part of a division race should.
Unlike the Swooning Yeos, this year’s incarnation of the Wild have proven to be mentally tough (and, of course, better coached). They continually come back when the other team takes a lead, and on a larger scale should benefit from being in a dogfight with Chicago, which pulled within a point of Minnesota in the standings while they were on their bye week, rather than lulling themselves into a false sense of security by building an insurmountable lead in the division. After all, a team’s true colors come out when they believe that every game counts, and when it is 20 points ahead of its immediate competition, it’s hard to believe that any individual game matters. That can create some culture shock come playoff time.
“Everyone knows Chicago has won three Stanley Cups over the last six or so years. Clearly in the West they're always the team you have to go through and you have to beat to get anywhere you want to go to. But there's a lot of other good teams too,” Fletcher said at the time of the trade. “The difficult part of the season is just starting now. We are who we are and that's why we made these moves -- to reward our players. We are going to push as hard as we can. I think we all recognize the tough part of the season starting. Anything can happen both good and bad. I think the more depth a team has it helps reduce that uncertainty.”
There’s no way Fletcher had mumps in mind when he made the Hanzal trade, but as he said, the move was made to reduce uncertainty. Last night’s win over the Los Angeles Kings, a potentially dangerous playoff team in the West, is an indication of how this team will have to play down the stretch. Los Angeles took a lead four times; four times Minnesota evened it up. Two of the goals were scored by young players (Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter), the other two by depth players (Jordan Schroeder, Ryan White). Then, seconds into the overtime, another one of their young players, Mikael Granlund, won it with a singular effort.
If the Wild continue to play like this, they will be able to succeed in the West, despite any setbacks they face. They can beat teams like the Kings and the Blackhawks. They can ford the river.