The Wild was ridiculed after a 1-6 start and still left for dead when things didn’t improve much after that as Minnesota limped into mid-November with a 6-11-1 record.
Sure, if you were being kind and optimistic you could grant the Wild a little grace for having to play so many early-season road games. But even after that, the narrative seemed obvious: the team was an odd mix of badly matched parts – the result of three front office regimes in less than two years – and it was showing on the ice.
A pivot to something more of a rebuild seemed not only prudent but inevitable.
But since a loss to the Kings on Nov. 12, the Wild has secured points in 10 consecutive games (7-0-3) to move back onto the fringes of the playoff race. Hockey Reference gives the Wild a 44% chance of making the postseason at this point, which is 44% higher than I gave Minnesota a few weeks ago.
So what happened? It hasn’t exactly been magic or just one thing, but here are some areas that have received a boost to get the Wild on track:
*Improved goaltending: Devan Dubnyk had a tough start to the season, one that becomes understandable given what we learned last week about his wife’s medical situation.
With Dubnyk tending to that personal matter, backup Alex Stalock has improved his level of play – giving up two goals or fewer in regulation in five of his six starts during the Wild’s 10-game streak. Rookie Kaapo Kahkonen has been outstanding in two starts, posting a .972 save percentage in 5-on-5 situations and garnering two wins.
Overall, the Wild has allowed just 22 goals in regulation over the last 10 games; it allowed 29 goals in just seven games during that dreadful 1-6 start.
*Contributions from the “Fenton Four”: That moniker is my crude and not-typically-complimentary term for the three players – Kevin Fiala, Ryan Donato and Victor Rask – acquired in major trades last season by former GM Paul Fenton along with his big free agent signing (Mats Zuccarello) before being fired.
All four had pretty nightmarish starts to the year. Fiala has been excellent lately, with six goals, seven assists and a plus-6 rating in his last 15 games. Zuccarello has more consistently shown his skills, including a big goal Tuesday in Florida. Rask and Donato have alternated at times in the lineup, but combined they have 11 points and are a plus-9.
That’s still probably not enough return on investment, but those players are contributing.
*13-year contract guys still getting it done: Zach Parise has eight goals in the last 10 games, while Ryan Suter has been tremendous in that span as one of several defensive players initiating and fueling the offensive flow while still maintaining coverage.
*Schedule: 20 of the Wild’s first 30 games are on the road this season, which is as unfair as it is peculiar. But in this particular 10-game stretch, five of the 10 were at Xcel Energy Center. That qualifies as a schedule break relative to the rest of the first 30, and the Wild took advantage (4-0-1 at home).
*Overcoming adversity: More than anything, though, this has been a group effort for which head coach Bruce Boudreau deserves a good deal of credit.
He’s found combinations that work and held together a locker room that easily could have checked out after the early disappointment.
That sentiment will be tested for however long Jared Spurgeon and Mikko Koivu are out of the lineup, but the silver lining is this: After Saturday, 31 of the Wild’s final 52 games are at home.