The Wild have their blinders on in wake of skid
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A month ago, the Minnesota Wild were the hottest team in the NHL. Today, they're barely clinging to one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference.
A rough month of December and two losses in early January have dropped the Wild quite a ways down in the standings. Minnesota lost eight straight games last month. They snapped the streak with a win Dec. 29 before losing three more in a row prior to Tuesday's home game against San Jose.
While it's been a tough stretch mentally for first-year Wild coach Mike Yeo and his team, Minnesota continues to stay upbeat at the season's midway point, realizing there's plenty of hockey left.
"I don't want to think about how we played a month ago. We're right here, right now and playing another game tomorrow," Wild captain Mikko Koivu said Monday. "There's things we can do better than what we did last game, and there's things that we did good that we want to keep doing. That's what we can do — look forward at what's ahead of us and focus on that, not what happened in the past."
Prior to Monday's slate of games, Minnesota was seventh in the Western Conference with 48 points (21-15-6), barely staying afloat among the top eight teams. If the playoffs started today, the Wild would be in. Eighth-place Dallas, which has 47 points, has two games in hand over Minnesota. The Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche are on the outside looking in at the top eight, but both teams are also just one point behind the Wild.
A month ago, Minnesota looked destined to be a top-four team in the West thanks to a blazing start to the season. Now, the Wild have come back to earth and have some work to do to get back to where they were — a challenge Yeo relishes.
"I'd be lying if I was sitting here saying that I'm getting as much sleep right now as I was three weeks ago," Yeo said Monday. "But having said that, I love the challenge of getting us through this, and I love the opportunity of all the naysayers that are out there right now and all the people that were earlier in the year saying it won't last, and now they're coming to the forefront. I love the opportunity for us to prove them wrong."
Scoring goals was never easy for the Wild, even when they were winning. But putting the puck in the net has been even scarcer during Minnesota's skid. The Wild are averaging 2.2 goals per game, second-fewest in the NHL. Minnesota has been shut out twice in the past 11 games and scored just one goal five times during that stretch.
What has stayed relatively consistent has been the goaltending duo of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Backstrom boasts a 2.39 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in 28 games, while Harding has posted a 2.03 GAA and 2.03 save percentage in 16 games.
"The goaltending has not been an issue for us," Yeo said. "Earlier in the year, there was talk about how we weren't scoring goals but we were winning games. That's what we have to get back to. If we go out and play the right way, if we're aggressive, if we're assertive, if we are confident with the way that we have to play the game, we'll be OK."
The Wild have had individual players who perhaps have not scored as frequently as they were expected to. That includes veteran forward Matt Cullen, who on Tuesday will play his 1,000th NHL game.
Cullen has 10 goals and 13 assists this season — third in total points on the Wild — but he said Monday that he knows more is expected of him. Sometimes, though, players can try to do too much individually to help pull their struggling teams out of a rut.
"I think you always do (put pressure on yourself) no matter where you're at, but especially when you've been around for a while and you're expected to score," Cullen said. "So yeah, you always put pressure on yourself and probably added pressure when things aren't going as well as you'd like. That's just part of it. You just have to figure out a way to manage that. And you have to figure out a way to step your game up and make a difference."
Minnesota has dealt with numerous injuries this season, relying on call-ups from its AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, throughout the year. It's not an excuse for the Wild, however; just a fact of life.
Yeo believes his team's mentality needs to change more than anything if the Wild are to return to their winning ways.
"I'd really like to see us get that aggressive mentality, that swagger that we had earlier where we weren't going to wait for something bad to happen. We were going to go out and make something good happen," Yeo said. "We weren't going into games thinking about standings or playoffs or anything else. We were going out saying, 'We've got to go out, be aggressive.' We've got to prove ourselves. We've got to establish our game. With that, wins will come."