There's a lot of hand-wringing going on in Minnesota Wild nation, and with good reason. The club has fallen - in just a month - from the best record in the NHL to 8th place in the Western Conference. Even that 8th-place spot is tenuous; Colorado takes to ice a little while from now with a chance to jump past the Wild. (UPDATE: Florida blew a 3-1 third-period lead and lost to the Avalanche in overtime, moving Colorado one point ahead of the Wild. Thanks, Panthers. You suck.)
Needless to say, injuries have played a big part in the collapse. Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are out with concussions, and it's entirely possible that neither of them will return this season. Indeed, Latendresse is a restricted free agent after this season, and it's possible he's played his last game as a member of the Wild.
The defensive corps - such a surprisingly strong group earlier this season - seems in disarray and incapable of contributing offensively. The goaltending has had more than the usual number of off nights, and to top it all off, Mikko Koivu suffered a shoulder injury that seems certain to keep him out at least another three weeks.
Time to pack it in, right?
Well, let's not give up just yet. What I've outlined above is certainly the glass-half-empty view of the current situation. But let's take a deep breath, remember a few things, and look at what might be a different outcome.
A) Let's remember that there is considerable talent on this team. When the Wild reached the pinnacle of the NHL standings on Dec. 10, it wasn't because they had run off a little five game winning streak, or because you had half a dozen guys playing over their heads. They had won 17 of 21 games, and you can't do that in today's NHL unless you're a real hockey team. There's too much travel, too much parity and too many chances to run into a hot goalie. Winning 17 of 21 is the mark of a quality hockey team, and the people who did that are all still part of the organization, even if they're not all healthy or if they're playing in Houston. (Except Colton Gillies, and he didn't seem to be much of a contributor to things.)
B) The schedule has been brutal, but it's hitting a soft spot. Thursday's game in Toronto will mark the Wild's 10th road game in their last 14 contests, a stretch that has taken them across all four time zones from Vancouver to Philly. Most teams would find it hard to play well in that kind of stretch, and the Wild's injuries have made it a painful march. The flip side is that after Toronto, they play just three games in a 12-day span, thanks in part to the All-Star break. That means time to heal, time to spend at home and time to spend in practice, rediscovering their game. The light stretch means that even if they lose all three, they aren't going to fall too far out of a playoff spot. In fact, they could lose all three, and still hit Feb. 1 only four or five points out of eighth place.
C) The schedule gets better. After Feb. 7, the Wild will have 29 games left. Of those, 18 are at home, including nine in March. At the time of year when points are most precious, the Wild will be playing a lot of home games, and they're already done traveling to the Pacific Time Zone.
D) They play a lot of games against the teams they need to beat. Back on Oct. 25 (click here) I wrote that "it's pretty hard to imagine that Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Chicago or Los Angeles would miss the playoffs"and that "That leaves seven teams in the middle - Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, St. Louis, Phoenix, Nashville and Anaheim - fighting for the remaining three playoff spots." A look at what has happened since doesn't change that picture too much. The five good teams I mentioned are all in the top eight, and of the other seven, only Anaheim has failed to meet expectations. (Which still seems inexplicable, given the talent level, but that's someone else's headache.) That leaves the Wild to battle Colorado, Dallas, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Nashville for the remaining three spots. (Unless you consider Calgary a threat....which I don't.) Of those teams, the Wild play:
-- Colorado four times
-- Dallas four times
-- Phoenix twice
-- Nashville twice
-- St. Louis once
The point isn't that these are easy games, the point is that the Wild will - to a large extent - have their destiny in their own hands. Win nine of those 13 games, and you've made up a lot of ground.
So, to sum up the optimist's view: Regardless of what happens in the next three weeks, the Wild on February 8 could easily be sitting:
-- Within a few points of a playoff spot
-- With many or all of their injured players back
-- Facing a schedule heavily tilted towards home games
-- With plenty of chances to face the teams they are battling with for a playoff spot
As I said, this is the optimistic outlook, and it could all go south. Koivu could be out six weeks. P-Marc might never return. Heatley might never regain his scoring touch. The D-men might never come back to form. And if all of those things happen then, yes, the season is down the tubes.
The only point I'm trying to make is that it's not down the tubes YET. The same factors I just mentioned - healthy Mikko and P-Marc, Heatley scoring, D-men performing - were able to lead a 17-of-21 streak earlier in the season, and if there's another 17-of-21 in them....or even a 14-of-21....then we'll still be playing meaningful games the first week of April.