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We've been having a spirited discussion over text message with some of our hockey-loving friends this morning and early afternoon regarding the Minnesota Wild, which begins its playoff quest Thursday with Game 1 against Colorado. The Wild is in the playoffs for the second consecutive season; last year, Minnesota was dropped in five games by Chicago, which proved to be the better team by a fairly large stretch. The question posed over text was this: What does the Wild need to accomplish in the playoffs this year in order to give the impression that progress has been made since last season?
We will boil the discussion down to a few essential points from each participant:
*Friend A: "They need to look like they are an identifiable piece away from a serious run. If, after a round or two you say to yourself that they are a serious goalie or a Vanek away from a deep playoff run then it will be successful. If they look uncompetitive like they did last year, or if one is left with a vague unease of not knowing what is wrong with this team then it will feel like a failure. I don't think you can pinpoint a specific round they need to reach.
*Friend B: "They have a ... goaltender who won't be here next year who is the biggest key to their playoff run. If he stands on his head and they win the Cup, or if he collapses and they get swept, either way it has nothing to do with next season. ... Regardless what happens in the playoffs, the Wild need to address an injury-plagued and inconsistent goaltending situation, and need to figure out how to transform some young prospects into competent second- and third-liners and defensemen."
Friend C: "I can see how the Wild playing strong and losing can give one a better feeling for next season than seeing them play like a high school team and getting crushed."
Also, there were a lot of mom jokes sprinkled in.
To a degree, we can see where A and B are coming from. It's tough and perhaps even unfair to judge the process of building a team on a handful of games, particularly when they could very well boil down to the whims of a goalie nobody imagined would be on the roster when the season started. This was a better team in the regular season than it was a year ago, and that should count for something.
Our main point, though, is this: Fair or not, perception is in large part reality. If the Wild loses in five (or four) games and looks overmatched again, it will be harder to continue to have faith in the path they are on. It also could start a chain reaction whereby high-ranking members of the organization lose jobs, since we believe our line of thinking is consistent with that of owner Craig Leipold.
Losing more competitively than they lost last season is the baseline for judging progress this year. So the Wild needs to pass the eye test and at least look like a serious obstacle instead of a speed bump. Doing so and actually winning the first-round series would undoubtedly elevate this to a season of progress. Anything beyond that just adds to the hope for the future.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
Anyone who watched the Wild game last night saw a fairly gruesome sight in the second period: defenseman Clayton Stoner's left ring finger was pointing in a direction you don't want to see fingers pointed
We've posted here the screen grab from FSN's broadcast to prove the point. Sorry if you are squeamish, but the larger question is this:
Is Stoner crazy or just a hockey player? That question arises from the fact that he not only went out and played in the third period, he also was ready to fight again after dislocating that finger during a second period fight.
Our vote is for hockey AND crazy. Per Russo's blog:
Clayton Stoner’s injury was, as Yeo said, “gruesome” looking. While either grabbing the jersey of Luke Gazdic in a fight or having his finger punched by Gazdic as he reached (Stoner didn’t know), Stoner’s left ring finger dislocated. ... I would have been lost for weeks. Stoner returned in the third after doctors got the finger back in place and he told them to tape his ring finger to his middle finger for support.
“Probably looked worse than it felt,” said Stoner. “I’ve had problems with this finger for three weeks, so I think the tendons are weak and it came out easier than it should of.”
Would you have played? We've had a dislocated thumb before, but it also happened on a play in baseball in which the thumb was broken in two places, so that pain overrode the dislocation. Is it really not as bad as it looks?
The Wild are now two games into a brutal stretch that sees them play seven of eight on the road, the first six against probable playoff teams. They've also sunk back into their goal-free tailspin, scoring just once each in losses at Anaheim and at San Jose to begin the first portion of their road trip.
The stats say that Colorado, which is giving up far more shots than they are taking, can't continue to stay among the league's elite. But for the moment, they're not only ahead of the Wild in the standings by a point, but they have four games in hand - as does St. Louis, four points ahead of Minnesota.
A loss tonight, and yet another Colorado hot streak, could drop the Wild far enough behind the Avs that catching them would be next to impossible. Add in the pressure of the road trip, and the Wild's recent troubles, and I'm willing to say that tonight's game is the biggest of the year so far for Minnesota.
What else to watch
11am today: Coastal Carolina at North Dakota State, ESPN. The Gophers were 8-4 this year and things are looking up in Dinkytown, and even so, I don't think they are the tri-state area's best college football team. The Bison, the #1 seed in the I-AA playoffs, are the favorites for a third consecutive championship; they beat Furman 38-7 last week, and could reasonably be expected to punish unseeded Coastal Carolina similarly. But you'll have to tune in to find out.
2pm: Army vs. Navy, CBS. I love the Army-Navy game. There's no good reason for this; the football's generally not great, and once the cadets from either side finish marching, they don't provide much more in the way of pageantry than any other college football game. And yet, there's something fun, something primal, about two schools for whom the biggest game of the year isn't a conference championship or a bowl game or a battle for a better ranking. Army-Navy isn't about any of that; it's about beating your brother, and who among us doesn't find that as important as possible?
4:15: #11 Kentucky at #18 North Carolina, ESPN. It's a nonconference matchup between two Top 25 college basketball teams. Even if this doesn't necessarily have the Top-5 Tar Heels-Wildcats cachet that we might have expected, we have to take excitement where we can get it, at this point of the season.
Noon Sunday: Vikings vs. Philadelphia, FOX. Friend of the blog Drew Magary wrote a (R-rated, so kids, look away) screed against cheering for the Vikings' opponents so that the Purple can get a better draft pick. And maybe he's right; maybe it's better to always want your team to win. But at the same time, if the Vikings lose, then we're one step closer to a host of other benefits; better draft picks, yes, but also potentially new coaches and new general managers and, if we're lucky, fewer of these nightmare three-win Les [Insert Last Name Here] seasons. So there's that too.
What to read this weekend
At Grantland, Sean McIndoe reviews some of the recent NHL research regarding zone entries, and whether it's better to dump the puck and chase it, or try to carry it in. The Wild doesn't seem like it is much for advanced stats, but Minnesota features heavily in this one, as a change the Wild is trying to make this year fits in pretty well with what the numbers show.
Also, the Twins have Jason Kubel coming back; Parker Hageman at Twins Daily looks at just why he was so terrible in 2013 for Arizona.