The Wild can’t seem to make up their mind when it comes to the 2019-20 season.
Every time it looks as if the end is near, they turn things around and give fans hope they can make get back into the playoffs after a one season absence. The Wild are 7-3 since firing coach Bruce Boudreau on Feb. 14 and replacing him with Dean Evason. Minnesota’s victory over San Jose on Thursday put them in the top wild card spot in the Western Conference entering Friday, and, if you factor in the Wild’s record dating to Jan. 16, they are 14-6-1 and own a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to MoneyPuck.com.
This is not the first time the Wild have put together an extended run of impressive play in an up-and-down season. The Wild went 15-8-4 from Nov. 2 to Jan. 2, but the reality is that run wasn’t sustainable. During that stretch, the Wild averaged the second least amount of shots per game but had the highest-shooting percentage in the league, and the majority of their goals were scored 5-on-5.
This time around things are a bit more leveled. Since Jan. 16, the Wild have scored the second most goals (73) in the NHL. Minnesota’s power play is clicking at a 24 percent clip (fourth best in the league) and it is averaging a respectable 31.8 shots per game.
Defensively, the Wild are suppressing shots at an elite rate, giving up only 28.9, the fourth fewest in the league. The most important part of this equation is the play of goalie Alex Stalock. Over his past 15 games, Stalock is 11-3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a league-leading .928 saves percentage.
Stalock went 7-3-2 during the Wild’s first hot streak, but his 3.28 goals-against average and .895 saves percentage suggested the team’s play in front of him wasn’t sustainable. Projecting goaltending statistics is a crapshoot and it’s likely Stalock belongs somewhere in the middle. That means he isn’t going to put up the Vezina-like numbers he has been producing lately, but with consistent playing time he’s capable of being an above-average goaltender and someone you can trust in the playoffs.
Offensively, the emergence of Kevin Fiala has been huge part of the Wild’s resurgence. The right winger’s 26 points (12 goals and 14 assists) in his past 21 games have demonstrated that Fiala is the type of game-breaker former Wild general manager Paul Fenton said he was when he acquired Fiala from Nashville for Mikael Granlund in February 2019. Fiala was the NHL’s First Star of the Week last week and is playing with extreme confidence.
There’s good reason for this. Only five players — Leon Draisaitl, Mika Zibanejad, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and David Pastrnak — have registered more points since Jan. 16. His chemistry with Zach Parise 17 points (nine goals and eight assists) in the same stretch has given Minnesota a well-rounded top line.
After playing a slew of home games in the New Year, the Wild have only six remaining over the final 15 games of the regular season, but the Wild are undefeated (6-0-0) since Jan. 16 away from the Xcel Energy Center. That could be good news for a team that won’t have home-ice advantage, if it does make the playoffs.
With the possibility of a Top-10 pick basically out of the picture for the Wild, maybe it is in the best interest of this team to be in the postseason. It would be great exposure for the teams young core of Fiala, Luke Kunin, Joel Erikkson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Ryan Donato. If the postseason started after Thursday’s games, the Wild would draw the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round. Minnesota matches up pretty well against the Knights.
The Knights were big buyers at the deadline, most notably acquiring goalie Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks. Minnesota would still be the underdog in the series, but upsetting the Knights seems more plausible than the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Crazier things have happened in the NHL playoffs, but it seems the Wild are getting hot at the right time with the postseason around the corner.