There is a reason no one is talking about the best team in the NHL.
Their roster has been ravaged with strains and whiplash and tears and knocks to the head. Their most famous player is a newcomer to the team who left his last three NHL cities unceremoniously. Their leading point-getter is a second-assist kind of guy who has a measly six goals, and no one on the team has scored nine goals. And their goalie is hurt. Correction: both of their goalies are hurt.
They are the Minnesota Wild, and they lead the entire National Hockey League.
So why do most hockey fans outside of the Twin Cities still associate wild with something the girls go?
Entering Saturday night’s game in Phoenix against the Pacific Division-leading Coyotes (yes, the "division-leading Coyotes," a shocker we’ll save for another day), the Wild are riding a six-game string of victories both overall and on the road. A win in the desert, and Minnesota will have itself the longest streak of NHL success since the North Stars. (The six consecutive road W’s are already a franchise best.) And they are doing it green-helmet ugly and despite the mathematics.
Fifteen teams have scored more frequently than Minnesota. Fine. So they must be doing it on defence. Right? Five teams have allowed fewer goals than the Wild. Fine. So it must be a combination of offence and defence, right? Seven teams with a better goal differential sit below the Wild in the overall standings.
Besides often, the Wild know only one way to win: barely. Each of their last 11 victories has been by two goals or less. Eleven of their league-best 19 total wins have been the result of a single red light in their favour.
It is difficult to recall a season in which the NHL was nearing 30 games deep, and the leading team was paid so little attention. Sportsnet included. The Wild has yet to crack the top four of our power rankings. And just this week a radio host referred to Minnesota as the "Western Conference leaders" — a half-truth considering they have more points than anyone in the East, too.
Scoring the game’s first goal is so vitally important in hockey, unless you’re the 2011-12 Wild. Eighteen times the late-blooming Wild have surrendered the game’s first goal this season; they’ve come back to win on 12 of those occasions.
That anomaly makes even less sense when you factor in the rash of injuries that have beset the team. Since the start of the season, 14 individual Wild players have suffered injuries. Fourteen.
Wingers Devin Setoguchi (leg, IR) and Cal Clutterbuck (leg, day-to-day) are the latest starting forwards to be sidelined. Guillaume Lantendresse (concussion) has been on the injured reserve for a month now. Top-two defenceman Marek Zidlicky has been out since Nov. 15 with a concussion, and D-man Justin Falk has been out since Nov. 27 with back spasms.
An elite goaltender but not even the best-known NHL player with his own damn name, Niklas Backstrom strained his groin at the beginning of December. Yet the team wins without Backstrom in uniform, thanks to the play of newbie Matt Hackett and backup Josh Harding, who of course sustained whiplash on Tuesday.
At the time of writing, no one was certain who would start between the pipes for most-winning NHL team tonight. It won’t be 51-year-old storeowner Paul Deutch, the men’s-league rent-a-goalie who got the call to dress for the Wild (and actually sieved his way through warm-ups) on Nov. 23, making for some quirky headlines while Backstrom became a father and emergency call-up Hackett rushed to the airport.
If Backstrom isn’t up to the task soon, the Wild will start 21-year-old Hackett, the backup’s backup, who recorded victories in his first two games this week, versus the sharpshooting San Jose Sharks and a 42-save clinic against the Los Angeles Kings. By lasting the first 102 minutes, 48 seconds of his NHL career without allowing a goal, Hackett set an NHL record.
"It’s pretty crazy. Just a crazy feeling,” Hackett told the Star Tribune. “To set a record right off the bat is pretty special. With Twitter [@matthackett31] and Facebook, my phone is blowing up the last few days. I’ve gotten over 3,000 e-mails.”
“I’ve never been on a team that’s dressed, like, 35 guys at this point of the year. Usually a team this high [in the standings] has dressed about the same 20 guys every night. But this team? Guys jump in and out all the time, young guys come in and out, and it’s great to see guys do this well," Dany Heatley told the Star Tribune after Thursday’s victory. "It’s very uncommon. We keep calling guys up from Houston, and they step up and do the job. We lose guys like Seto and Clutter, and guys from the third and fourth line move up and do the job."
Heatley himself is that rare Wild player who has played every game this season, which has provided him the opportunity to grab a share of the team lead in goals, with eight. Thing is, he shares that lead with four other players — Matt Cullen, Kyle Brodziak, Setoguchi, and Clutterbuck — in a truly score-by-committee offence. Glance at the team leaders in every major statistical category, and besides Mikko Koivu’s name atop the points (24) and assists (18) totals, no one’s name repeats.
"I don’t know if I’ve seen a team where guys can just go from role to role. It’s fun to see," Heatley said. "It’s fun to watch."
Fun to watch, you say? Maybe it’s time the rest of us start tuning in to the Wild. Even if their games aren’t the kind that involve girls with lowered inhibitions and a thirst for cheap beaded necklaces.