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A mere 2 1/2 weeks ago, the numbers we looked at still favored the Timberwolves against the Wild when it came to the question of which was more likely to make the playoffs. The Wolves were at 60 percent. The Wild were below 50 percent.
If the last few weeks were politics, however, the Wolves' recent stretch would be the equivalent of a sex scandal while the Wild has been staying the course and kissing babies.
Now, unlike certain elections these numbers aren't yet locked in stone. But we are still ready to concede to commenters Rocket, Clarence Swamptown and co. that yes, this year's Wild is in a much better place than this year's Timberwolves.
What it comes down to, really, is the ability to win close games and the ability to withstand injuries. While the Wolves at their best are more dominant than the Wild at their best, that isn't what adds up over the course of 80-plus games. What matters is how many games you can win when you are not at your best -- when you are not getting maximum production, when key players are injured, or both.
It should also be noted that the NBA's Western Conference is tougher than the NHL's West, thus giving the Wild a somewhat more favorable path, but we would not say that is the most significant factor in their respective rise and fall.
Regular readers of this blog know we probably spend two, three, four … maybe 10 times as much space on the Timberwolves as we do on the Wild. It’s not that we don’t like hockey. When you grow up in Grand Forks, N.D., it’s pretty much in your DNA.
Rather, our writing preference is often a function of many things: typically beat writer Michael Russo would write a 3,000-word blog post, leaving very left uncovered … we flat-out enjoy the NBA more than the NHL, though not by much … and we often find the Wolves more INTERESTING, even if they are not necessarily BETTER.
That said, we put in pretty close to a full 60 minutes of ice time with the Wild last night, and anyone else who did so has no other choice but to be impressed. That level of being impressed can vary anywhere from cautious and temporary to delusional and all-in, but a 4-2 victory at Anaheim – the team with the most points in the NHL, and a very tough beat at home – was notable in both result and the manner in which it happened.
The Wild didn’t just score four times. The Wild moved the puck wonderfully in an up-and-down, back-and-forth, entertaining game. Minnesota hit three goalposts – all of them in the second period while clinging to a 2-1 lead – but was not deterred or discouraged. Instead, the Wild kept pushing and built a 4-1 cushion in the third period.
Mike Rupp attempted to let Anaheim back in the game with the dumbest of dumb penalties – a double-minor while trying to prove a tough-guy point midway through the third, a move that would have been better-suited for the final two minutes (or not at all). It almost worked, as the Ducks scored on their first power play and clanged the post on their second, but the Wild survived that and a dominant stretch by Anaheim in the final few minutes.
For the first 50 minutes, the majority of the chances and the better of the play went to Minnesota. That is flat-out impressive. If the team’s early run in 2014 was built more on smoke, mirrors and goaltending, the same cannot be said for last night. And no matter how you carve it up, they have earned five points in the past three games against some of the West’s best teams (Chicago, San Jose and Anaheim).
That doesn’t mean they will do damage in the playoffs. That doesn’t even mean they will make the playoffs, as even that will remain tenuous, we imagine, through much of the regular season. But it does make the Wild interesting and worthy of our attention – enough so to bump those beloved Timberwolves from the top of the blog this morning.
The Wolves are not in a playoff position in the NBA right now. The Wild, however, is.
But if you had to bet on one of the two to make it, you would be better off betting on the Wolves -- at least according to some projections.
The Hollinger Power Rankings at ESPN.com project the Wolves will finish with 46 victories -- finishing with a 26-15 record in the back half of the season -- and says they have a better than 60 percent chance of making the playoffs.
The Wild, according to Sports Club Stats, have just a 46.5 percent chance of making the postseason even though they are currently in the No. 8 spot in the West.
Do with that information what you will.
The Wolves and Wild have had, in some ways, parallel seasons. How they arrived where they are right now has been slightly different, but here's what we know:
Both teams dispatched inferior opponents at home on Saturday to build some momentum. Both will play those exact teams on the road tonight (Utah for the Wolves, Dallas for the Wild). And both of those games kick off a mini-stretch of games that will tell us a lot about how the rest of the season could very well go.
For the Wolves, it kicks off a stretch of four consecutive games on the road. Minnesota is 7-13 away from Target Center this season. The game against the Jazz is very winnable. The next two -- at Golden State and at Portland -- will be difficult tests. The last one, at Chicago, is again very winnable now that the Bulls are in full rebuild mode without the injured Derrick Rose and after trading Luol Deng. If Minnesota clamps down on defense like it did at home against the Jazz, a 2-2 trip should be easy to find. A 3-1 trip that brings the team back to .500 would be within reach. But if the Wolves again struggle to be consistent, a 1-3 or even 0-4 trip that could bury them in the standings is very much in play.
For the Wild, the game at Dallas needs to yield two points. The Stars are below Minnesota in the standings, so it's a chance to bury them. But the game also represents the best chance for success during a brutal stretch. Minnesota's next four games after Dallas: home vs. Chicago, then at San Jose, Anaheim and Colorado. Those are four of the top five teams in the West, and three of the games are on the road. With Minnesota clinging to a spot in the playoffs -- tied with Vancouver in the 7th/8th spot, with Phoenix just four points behind (and having played two fewer games than the Wild -- this is a critical stretch. If the Wild, playing with Darcy Kuemper as its No. 1 goalie, comes through this with enough points and confidence, it could be a springboard to better times ahead. If Minnesota gets its doors blown off, it could start a slide.
It all starts tonight, with games both teams very much need to win.
We're planning on writing about this subject for Page 2 in Wednesday's paper (and online, of course), but we thought we would throw it out there for some input first:
The Wild, Wolves and Gophers men's hoops are all about halfway into their seasons in terms of games played. Some a little more, some a little less, but basically half. Which is the most likely to make the postseason (defined for the Gophers as the NCAA tournament)?
The Wild has won five of its past six games ... but right before that it lost six in a row. It currently occupies the No. 8 spot in the West, but it has also played three more games that No. 9 Phoenix.
The Wolves are No. 10 in the West, but the No. 8 seed (Phoenix) has lost three in a row and looks vulnerable. Their peripheral stats are better than the Wild, suggesting they could make a surge, but their competition is also tougher.
The Gophers are 13-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten. They are not among the elite, but they could be in that next tier. They are in the midst of a brutal stretch, but with a win in any of their next three games (Ohio State, at Iowa, Wisconsin) they would be in decent shape with a quality victory under their belts. As of now, they are No. 44 in the RPI, right around perfect bubble range.
Which do you pick? Feel free to comment and to vote in our poll.
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