The West Division featured some pretty good teams in 2021. It also featured some pretty bad ones.
Thankfully for hockey fans here, the Minnesota Wild were not one of those bad teams (just ignore the team's NHL-worst Corsi rating this season). The first three teams in the league to clinch playoff berths came from the West Division, with Minnesota following just behind the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche.
The Wild could ease up during the extensive slate of games remaining against the St. Louis Blues to finish the regular season. Use that time to rest up after a tiring, compact season heading to the first round of the playoffs. Of course, the team won't do that. They will continue to ramp up their play heading into the postseason in preparation for a high-stakes matchup.
Plus, a handful of guys also have something to play for down the stretch.
No surprise here, but the #KirillForCalder campaign is coming down the home stretch, and his closest opponent is narrowing the gap quickly. Jason Robertson of the Dallas Stars has made a case for himself to challenge Kaprizov for the NHL's rookie of the year. He's just a few points shy of Kaprizov and has re-ignited the discussion of whether a 23-year-old can win the trophy.
The NHL's rulebook holds 26 as the cut-off, so as long as Kaprizov is the best rookie, he will win it. He's been a human highlight reel this season and drives winning for Minnesota. But he needs to continue his push through the final nine games of the season to showcase his skills for the Calder vote and further elevate his game in time for his first trip to the playoffs.
With two points in his last nine games despite playing alongside Kaprizov and other skilled forwards, Rask has looked like he did when he first arrived in Minnesota, and that's not a good thing. He lacks in high-energy skating, possession ability, and zone entry.
If Rask continues this recent stretch of ineptitude, his role could be outright eliminated in the playoffs. Still, he continues to garner ice time, mostly due to the team's lack of depth at center. His shift count in the last nine games has had little variation, ranging from 14 to 20 per game.
With one year and $4 million remaining on his contract, a buyout in a flat-cap might prove impossible, especially given that the Wild have to re-sign Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, and Joel Eriksson Ek. He'll need to improve his own game, which often involves helping elevate the team's younger, skilled wingers, to maintain his presence now and into the future.
Kaapo Kahkonen and Cam Talbot
This could be considered a cop-out. While obviously Kahkonen and Talbot are not one player, the Wild's goaltending duo has been nothing short of spectacular this season. They mind the net for the team with the worst Corsi rating in the league yet have the seventh-best save percentage, truly keeping this team in playoff contention while the rest of the roster had ebbs and flows.
Regardless of who has been in net, the play has been strikingly consistent. Each of these players has the challenge of remaining sharp heading into the playoffs and giving the team in front of them the confidence that they can be successful when the postseason begins.
So far, they've done nothing but inspire confidence in the skaters ahead of them. However, shaky outings near the end of the season could change things, even just for a small moment in time. The goaltending duo maintaining its incredible run will be paramount to the team's mindset, and overall success come playoff time.
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