Had the State of Hockey’s pro team been more appropriately named, we’d know them as the Minnesota Competents or maybe the Minnesota Largely Effectives — anything but the Wild.
For most of their 20 seasons, the Wild have been fairly competitive and utterly boring. That’s changing rapidly, though, thanks to everything from flashy retro threads to a riveting Russian freshman.
The results are pretty exciting, too.
Matt Dumba’s overtime buzzer-beater versus the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night put an exclamation point on a six-game winning streak that has Minnesota making us question some pre-conceived notions about the West Division.
Coming into the year, we figured the group was comprised of three Stanley Cup contenders — Las Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis — and five also-rans. One of those underwhelming teams, though, was going to get a playoff spot it likely had no shot at under normal scheduling circumstances. Presumably, said team would be first-round fodder for one of the big boys.
But here are the Wild, rocking a .667 points percentage that’s second only to Vegas in the group. Kirill ‘The Thrill’ Kaprizov is living up to the hype in his first season since coming over from the KHL; Mats Zuccarello has been on fire since starting his season late thanks to arm surgery and even Victor Rask — who’s been in sharp, horrifying decline for years — is showing signs of life, netting five goals in 16 contests to match the number he scored in 43 games last year.
And Jacques Lemaire — the team’s spiritual founding father — would be proud to know the Wild haven’t forgotten their defensive heritage. Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Kings marked the first time during its six-game run that Minnesota has allowed more than two goals. Overall, the Wild are one of the better squads in the league in terms of expected goals for/against.
As for the Kings, they remain in the West playoff mix, too, and they’d be in an even better spot had they not dropped three extra-time contests to the Wild this year. Los Angeles’ 3-1 loss in Minny on Friday snapped the Kings’ own six-game heater. Even the Arizona Coyotes — sitting at .500, despite getting pounded 6-2 by the Avs on Saturday — are hanging around, hoping they can have something to say about how this division shakes out.
Surely one of the Big 3 from Vegas, St. Louis and Colorado will ultimately emerge from this group. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun along the way — especially now that the Wild are showing a new side of themselves.
• Though they were outplayed by a Montreal Canadiens club desperate for a win — the Habs are 0-1-1 under new coach Dominique Ducharme — the Winnipeg Jets won their fourth-straight contest on Saturday night thanks to Paul Stastny’s overtime marker in a game that ended 2-1. Winnipeg’s .675 points percentage is the second-best mark in a North Division, where first place is pretty much locked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Jets are still one of the worst clubs in the league in terms of expected goals for/against and — after hosting Vancouver twice this week — the team will play 12 of 14 on the road. Still, the squad is so dangerous up front and Connor Hellebuyck can make up for a lot of defensive miscues. It will be fascinating to see where they sit in a month.
• Given what a disturbing subplot it’s been the past few years, getting back-to-back wins from backup goalies represents real progress for the Leafs. Jack Campbell’s 30-save shutout versus the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday came on the heels of Michael Hutchinson getting a W in Calgary. Knowing somebody not named Andersen can take care of the blue paint is a big deal for this club.
• What’s happening in Buffalo? Last week, coach Ralph Krueger said Jack Eichel injured himself during the warmup preceding Thursday night’s tilt versus New Jersey, which kept him out of that game.
After missing two contests, Eichel returned on Sunday for a 3-0 home loss to the Flyers — the exact same score Philly also beat the Sabres by 24 hours earlier in Buffalo. Following Sunday’s game, Eichel said he was injured in an earlier match versus New Jersey last week, not during a warmup. If the team can’t win games, can it at least get its stories straight?
Where this goes is hard to know, but — as frustration mounts — it feels less and less alarmist to suggest Buffalo and its best player are heading for some kind of split.
• On a much happier Buffalo note, native son Patrick Kane notched his 400th career goal during Sunday’s 7-2 smashing of the Detroit Red Wings. I used to hope the decline of the Hawks dynasty would dovetail with an ascent in Buffalo, triggering a blockbuster trade to send Kane home and set Western New York ablaze. Instead, Chicago is already building back up while the same old tire fires blaze in Buffalo.
• Goalie pad tap to Ilya Samsonov, who won his return to the Capitals crease on Sunday after more than a month on the sidelines thanks to a lengthy stay on the COVID protocol list and a conditioning stint in the AHL.
• Madison Square Garden hosted its first professional women’s hockey game on Sunday, as New Hampshire downed Minnesota 4-3 thanks in large part to Brianna Decker’s four-point night. The game was the second outing of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association’s 2021 Dream Gap Tour after Minnesota beat New Hampshire 5-2 the night before in New Jersey.
The Rangers, Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks have all recently announced partnerships with the PWHPA and the next showcase will be this coming weekend in Chicago.
We have to give this to Jordan Binnington, who — after getting the hook — was ready to get into it with any San Jose Shark standing in his way. Somewhere Eddie Belfour and Billy Smith are smiling.
The Week Ahead
• Minnesota looks to become the first team this season to win seven straight when the Wild visit the Golden Knights on Monday night. There will be fans there to see it, too, as T-Mobile Arena can be filled up to 15 per cent of its capacity. The Rangers allowed 1,800 fans in the building for games against the Bruins on Friday and Saturday and just under half the league is already operating with reduced capacity or have plans to do so this month.
• Tampa dominated Dallas 5-0 at home on Saturday in the first clash of these two teams since meeting in the Cup final last fall. The Stars can extract a measure of revenge when they get at it again with the Bolts in “Big D” on Tuesday.