Weekend Takeaways: Wild riding strong stretch to sit atop crowded Central Division

Minnesota Wild center Frederick Gaudreau (89) is congratulated by teammates Jared Spurgeon (46), Marcus Foligno (17), Jordan Greenway (18) and Sam Steel (13) after scoring a goal in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

If you had to bet a nickel on who will ultimately win the Central Division, you’d probably still lay it on the defending Stanley Cup champions from Colorado.

But even if it’s only for a fleeting moment, let’s recognize the job the Minnesota Wild have done in putting themselves at the top of that group, one point ahead of both the Avs (who hold a game in hand) and the Dallas Stars.

Minny lost three straight games coming out of its one-week break in early February. When they woke up on the morning of Feb. 11, the Wild were tied with the Calgary Flames with 58 points and only hung onto the last wild card berth because they had more regulation wins than Calgary.

Since then, after beating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-1 on Saturday, Minnesota is 15-2-5 and — whether it wins the Central or not — has locked down a playoff spot that looked pretty tenuous six weeks ago.

The only clubs with a better points percentage than Minny during that stretch are Los Angeles, Boston and Vegas. On the whole, the Wild’s underlying numbers are slightly underwhelming, but on their current run, the team has an expected goals percentage of 66.0 percent, better than everybody save for the Kings and Bruins.

The only thing that’s gone wrong for Minnesota of late is Ryan Reaves nearly losing his lunch after whiffing too-strong smelling salts.

Bear in mind, too, that star winger Kiril Kaprizov hasn’t played since sustaining a lower-body injury on March 8 versus the Jets. All the more reason, then, to highlight the play of 24-year-old breakout goalie Filip Gustavsson. The Swede got the win versus Chicago and now sports a .946 save percentage in 13 starts since Feb. 11. (Marc-Andre Fleury is no slouch, either, posting a .923 mark in nine starts). He’s now second in both save percentage (.940) and high-danger save percentage (.883) at five-on-five among goalies who’ve played 1,500 minutes this year.

What a bit of business it was by GM Bill Guerin getting this guy from the Ottawa Senators for Cam Talbot last summer when the latter didn’t seem super-stoked to be part of a tandem with Fleury.

Goaltending was Minnesota’s shortcoming in the post-season last year; this time out it could be an advantage for the club.

Still, this story is about more than stops. Sophomore Matt Boldy has started producing like he did as a rookie last year, notching nine goals and eight assists for 17 points in his past 22 outings. Ryan Hartman isn’t going to get anywhere near the 34 goals he deposited last season, but he netted the game-winner against the Hawks and has the inverse line of Boldy — 9-8-17 — in his past 22 for a 34-goal pace in that time.

Jonas Brodin — who was out a month with a lower body-injury from Feb. 21 to March 19 — is back logging big minutes; newcomer John Klingberg is blending well and under-the-radar forward pickup Marcus Johansson is playing on the second line and has kicked in nine points in 12 games since being acquired from Washington on Feb. 28.

Maybe Minny will yet be overtaken by Colorado or Dallas for top spot in the division. But the Wild are going to the post-season, which was no sure thing a short time ago. And when they get there, there’s all the reason in the world to think they’ll get a lot more saves than they did last spring.

Other Takeaways

• Apparently Feb. 11 wasn’t just a flash point for the Wild. Mike Matheson picked up three assists on Saturday in the Habs’ 8-2 hammering of Columbus and the first-year Canadien now has 20 points in 22 games since that date. The only two D-men in the league with more during that time are Miro Heiskanen and Vince Dunn. Matheson has been limited by a couple of injuries this season but sure appears to be having a late-career breakout at age 29 playing for his hometown team. Matheson’s career high for points was set last year in Pittsburgh with 31 in 74 contests. If he puts together another three-point showing in Montreal’s next contest Monday night in Buffalo, he’ll equal that total in 40 games this season. What a move it was by GM Kent Hughes picking up his former client from the Pens in exchange for Jeff Petry.

• Speaking of Columbus, the race for the bottom is officially on. The Jackets, Ducks, Hawks and Sharks all lost on the weekend, meaning there’s only a three-point gap between Anaheim in 29th place and Columbus and San Jose, both currently on 53 points in the league basement. The Ducks have dropped four straight to stay in the Connor Bedard mix, while Chicago has now posted L’s in five consecutive outings.

• At the other end of the competency spectrum, the New Jersey Devils clinched a playoff spot on the weekend one season after finishing 37 points out of the post-season. And they could yet pass the Carolina Hurricanes for top spot in the division with three weeks to go. I have to admit, though, the Metro team I keep thinking about is the Rangers, who topped the desperate Florida Panthers 4-3 on Saturday in Sunrise.

Bless the Hurricanes for their ferocious style, but that team would just look so much different with done-for-the-year wingers Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty in the lineup. The Devils have the feel of that classic leap-forward team that gets to the playoffs, then makes an early exit. The Blueshirts, though, have that fantastic D corps, the reigning Vezina winner in Igor Shesterkin, a couple of big-time deadline acquisitions up front and the fresh experience of going to the Final Four last year. Even having to win two series without the benefit of home-ice advantage, they might be my Metro pick today.

Weekend Warrior

It was a nail-biter of an Isobel Cup final, with Tereza Vanisova ultimately banging home the overtime winner to give the Toronto Six the PHF championship.

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It’s Toronto’s first title in three years of existence and the first by a Canada-based squad in PHF/NWHL history. Vanisova, you may also recall, won the ‘Izzy’ the past two years with the Boston Pride before becoming a Six hero this year. Boss.

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Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (44-20-9) Auston Matthews scores two in a loss to Carolina on Saturday and basically looks like MVP Matthews again, then captain John Tavares bags a brace the next night to break a seven-game goalless drought as Toronto wins in Nashville. Not a bad way to close out a five-game roadie.

2. Edmonton Oilers (43-21-9) You have to think any remote hope the Oilers had of still winning the Pacific Division went out the window with Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Vegas. They now trail the Golden Knights by seven points.

3. Winnipeg Jets (41-30-3) The Jets can go two-for-three in California with a win in San Jose on Wednesday, then they return for five straight at home — four of which are against non-playoff teams — as they try to lock down a wild-card berth.

4. Calgary Flames (33-26-15) Two more goals for Tyler Toffoli in Saturday’s 5-3 win over San Jose, including the clincher into an empty net. For all the struggles in Calgary this year, just imagine where this club would be without Toffoli, who has equaled a career-high with 31 goals and has 11 points in his past six outings.

5. Vancouver Canucks (34-34-5) The Canucks since March 4: Second-best points percentage in the league (.833) and, perhaps even more impressively, a penalty-kill that ranked last in the NHL before that date (67.6 percent) is No. 4 since then at 88.2 percent.

6. Ottawa Senators (35-33-5) Well, if the Sens’ playoff hopes are waning, captain Brady Tkachuk isn’t going down https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/video/senators-devils-scrum-boils-over-into-heated-scrap-between-tkachuk-and-wood/ without a fight.

7. Montreal Canadiens (29-38-6) It’s getting harder and harder to write Rafael Harvey-Pinard’s success off as a fun little anomaly after his hat trick versus Columbus on Saturday. The 24-year-old is, believe it or not, your goals-per-game leader among rookies who’ve played at least 29 games (0.41).

The Week Ahead

• Monday night could be a big one for the Oilers in Arizona: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane are all sitting on 299 career goals. Could they all join Club 300 on the same night?

• Tis the season for former NCAA players to make their NHL debuts, so keep an eye out for Devon Levi (Buffalo), Matt Coronato (Calgary) and Sean Farrell (Habs) among others to be taking their rookie lap in the not-too-distant future.

• All things being equal, Kris Letang will hit 1,000 career games played next Sunday when the Penguins host the Flyers. What an accomplishment for a young man who’s had two strokes — and not shortage of other health challenges — at a very early stage in life and just keeps playing monster minutes for the Pens.

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