On one level, I realize that any two random games in an 82-game season can only carry so much importance, but the timing of these two victories makes them - at least in my shallow hockey mind - a key indicator of what we can expect over the next few weeks.
The Wild's position heading into Saturday's Dallas game was, putting in mildly, precarious. They were coming off two terrible games in Philly and Toronto, still reeling from the loss of Mikko Koivu in the game before those two, and had fallen out of the top eight in the west for the first time since October. Goals were hard to come by, fans were restless and reports had GM Chuck Fletcher burning up the phone lines in search of a trade that might stabilize the ship.
Then came the second period of the Dallas game. Down 2-1, the Wild exploded for three goals in 59 seconds, and went on to win 5-2. Tonight they played a tough, disciplined game and came out of Denver with a 3-2 win that puts them back in the top eight. I think these are two huge wins for several reasons:
1) The points were desperately needed. Wild fans know the frustration of spending February and March trying to leapfrog teams in the standings, and if they had lost these two games, they'd have been sitting down around 12th place, at least five points out of 7th place, and looking at a tougher uphill fight. Instead, we've again become one of the teams that others have to get past.
2) They did it without Mikko. I know the club's record without Koivu is horrendous, and the Captain is absolutely needed back soon for any long-term success. But this team HAD to convince itself it could win without him, and now it has proof.
3) The way they played tonight. Remember the stretch in November when we rolled through Calgary, San Jose, L.A. and Anaheim and won all four? The type of hockey the Wild played tonight was exactly the game they were playing back then: A fast, swarming forecheck, great puck support in the offensive zone, quick breakouts from the d-zone, everybody playing their role. This is the system Coach Yeo has worked so hard to install, and the last five periods of hockey are the best examples of it that we've seen in the last three weeks. They should now understand not just that they CAN win, but HOW they need to play to earn those wins.
4) They beat teams they really needed to beat. As I mentioned in this post last week, the Wild are in a pack of six, maybe seven, teams that are essentially battling for three playoff spots. When I wrote that, I pointed out that they had 13 games remaining against Dallas, Colorado, Phoenix, Nashville and St. Louis, and said that how they performed in those games would make a huge difference. Now they're 2-0 in the first of those games. Keep it up (and the next three games are Nashville, Colorado and Dallas) and good things will happen.
I understand that like many fans, I'm a bit of a hockey manic-depressive, agonizing too much when they lose and getting too high when they win, but I found the last five periods of hockey incredibly encouraging.
Finally, sometimes the wisest decisions you make are decisions to NOT do something, and I think it's possible that Fletcher made a very wise choice in the past week. I'm sure the other 29 NHL
And it must have been tempting, when he saw that playoff position slipping away, to make a deal that might not have been in the club's long-term best interests, but that might help buy some short-term relief. Instead, he made the call to bring up several boys from Houston, sit down Zidlicky and Lundin and go to war with the tools at his disposal. So far it's working, and there's been no compromising of the future. When you're a GM in the third year of your tenure and no playoff spot to show for your efforts, there had to be some temptation there. At least for right now, it looks like he made both the gutsy - and the correct - call.
Closing note: Congrats to Nick Johnson for earning a spot in the rookie events of All-Star weekend. Most of us said "who?" when Fletcher plucked him off the waiver wire in October, but Johnson has shown up almost every night (and didn't pout when he was often a healthy scratch early in the season) and brings some speed, some toughness and has chipped in six goals and 16 points. Enjoy the weekend, Nicky, you've earned it.