The Minnesota Wild have been one of the biggest surprises in the National Hockey League (NHL) this season, running out to a 12-5-2 record in their first 19 games—good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division, where just nine points separates six of the seven teams in the standings. But sometime in the next week, the State of Hockey will have the NHL’s best hockey team.
Last season, the Minnesota Wild had a brutal start to the season simply due to scheduling. They played five of their first six games on the road, but worse yet, they didn’t play for five days between their second and third game—both of which were on the road. There were six days off between their fourth and fifth game, too. Despite limping out to a 2-2-2 start, the Wild managed to make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as usual.
This season the Wild started on the road at Colorado in a rivalry matchup, but played four of their next five games at home. They again spent five days off between their second and third game, and the results were the same: a 2-2-2 start. But playing three of their next four at Xcel Energy Center helped the Wild to a five-game winning streak, including wins over Tampa Bay and Colorado.
Now the Wild get a week of teams they should beat, and they kicked it off by kicking the crap out of a Canucks (10-9-2) squad finishing a grueling, six-game road trip. Next up for the Wild is a visit from a Buffalo Sabres team (10-6-2) coming off a game against the unruly Jets (they lead the league in penalty minutes per game) in Winnipeg the previous night. Then the Wild visit the lowly Blackhawks (7-8-4) before returning to St. Paul to host lowly Ottawa (8-8-3).
Meanwhile, the Western Conference leading Nashville Predators (13-5-1) just dropped a one-goal game to the surging Coyotes (9-8-1), but more importantly, will be without two of their best players for quite some time. Nashville lost its second-leading goal scorer in Viktor Arvidsson for six to eight weeks, and P.K. Subban was placed on injured reserve as well. They host the sinking Kings (5-11-1) desperate for a win, followed by a visit from the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning (13-5-1).
The Lightning, meanwhile, are at Philadelphia (9-9-1) on Saturday before visiting Nashville on Monday. They host Florida (7-6-3) on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, but will likely be without top goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is out indefinitely with injury.
It takes some luck to score goals, stop goals and win hockey games. The Minnesota Wild have been relatively lucky when it comes to goal scoring, and they are going to need that luck to continue. They’re a team that scores ugly goals. They rely on deflections like this one Eric Staal scored against the Blues for his 400th goal. They rely on redirects like this one by Nino Neiderreiter scored against the Canucks on Thursday night. Basically, unless the opposing goalie is standing on his head, the Wild are going to win games if they get a lot of shots on goal, because their defense doesn’t allow a lot of clean shots on goal, and their goalie hasn’t allowed much to get past him.
Devan Dubnyk hasn’t been lucky. He’s simply been pretty good at stopping goals (.926 save percentage is 13th overall), and he’s been pretty good for a long time (tied for 15th overall in goals allowed per game since 2014-15 season). But the Wild haven’t had to go without their goalie like the Lightning will. Dubnyk’s 18 games played this season is eighth amongst goalies, and since the 2014-15 season, he’s eighth overall in games started by goalies. The Wild have been extremely luck in this regard.
The Wild beat the Canucks without 34-year-old Zach Parise on Thursday, who took ill prior to game time. He’s expected back for the Wild’s next game against the Sabres. But to give you a sense of just how lucky the Wild have been health-wise, take a look at the injury report for the entire season. Not one of the eight reports has been to place a player on injured reserve. Two reports were simply to activate players coming off IR.
With the Wild entering a three-game homestand over American Thanksgiving where they’re 6-1-2, it’s not inconceivable for them to be the NHL’s best hockey team in the near future. A three-game tour of Canada in the first week of December as part of a five-game stretch against strictly Canadian teams will test their resolve and let us truly know what to expect from the Wild. The best test of that stretch will come against the second-best team in the East, Toronto (13-6-0) on Dec. 1.
With the points the Wild have already amassed (27) and the way in which they’ve earned them (12 points won on the road) puts Minnesota in an enviable position. They don’t have to be great on the road given their success at home, so down the stretch they can lean on their home crowd to collect enough points to make the playoffs. Whether the Wild are hosting an opening round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend on their health, and specifically, the health of Parise, whose PDO of 105.3 (his team’s shooting percentage plus save percentage with him on the ice) leads the team. Translation: with Parise on the ice, the Wild are at their best on both ends.