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The Wolves are 22 games into their season, and the Wild is 33 games into its season. That's not a perfect sample size in either case, but now feels like a good time to evaluate what we know about these teams:
The Wolves have been inconsistent, particularly with their effort/intensity (which shows up on defense). They have battled through injuries, though their true core players have been healthy. Kevin Love missed one game for his grandmother's funeral. Kevin Martin missed a game with illness. Otherwise, none of their starting five have missed time. Their bench production has been spotty. And their schedule has been less than kind.
The Wild has nights when it looks unbeatable if Josh Harding plays good-to-great and they manage to get enough goal production. But Minnesota is just 3-6 in its past nine games in large part because of that old nemesis: scoring. With just 14 goals in those nine games, it's hard to win. And Minnesota's schedule has been less than kind.
Let's focus on that last sentence for both teams because we're starting to think that's where their real stories are going to be defined. The Wolves are at .500 after winning last night. The Wild is pretty close to being a .500 team (don't tell us 18-10-5 is anything but 18-15 ... if a shootout win is a win, a shootout loss is a loss) and has outscored opponents by just one goal over the course of this season.
Both have the ability to play above that level or below it, depending on the competition. And both have the misfortune of playing in by far the tougher of the two respective conferences.
Eight NHL teams, including the Wild, have at least 40 points in the West. Only three teams do in the East.
Eleven NBA teams, including the Wolves, are at least .500 in the West. Only three teams are .500 or better in the East.
This is almost certainly the best the Wolves and Wild have been as a joint entity since 2002-03 when they both made the playoffs (the only season that happened).
To make the same happen this year will be a function of how well they can shore up their shortcomings, but also just how much of a bite their brutal conferences take out of them.
Last week, we posted an assessment of which team had the better chance of making the playoffs -- the Timberwolves or the Wild. In reality, both have good shots of making it this season. That said, in that post we also outlined a few big unknowns as the season moves along. The key ones for each team:
Wolves: Will they be able to keep up the defensive intensity.
Wild: Can Josh Harding keep up his pace? Will there be too many stretches where they don't bury chances?
Last night was just one night, but it was the kind of night where both teams had those questions exposed as potential flaws.
The Wolves got sloppy in the second half and gave up way too many easy baskets to Washington in a 104-100 loss -- a game they led by 16 and should have won.
The Wild was blown out in Montreal as Harding tried gamely to keep them in it but was eventually pulled. Darcy Kuemper gave up three goals in relief in a 6-2 loss, underscoring the team's precarious goaltending depth right now. It should also be noted that the Wild has scored just 12 goals in its past six games, a poor output even though it had been 4-0-1 in its previous five before Tuesday.
In the case of both the Wolves and Wild, it was just one night. But it was one night when both on TV and clearly struggling with issues that very well could determine the relative success of their seasons.
As Minnesota's four major men's pro sports teams hit rock bottom as a collective in 2011 -- none of them made the playoffs, and none were particularly close in the end -- we wondered which would be the next of the bunch to make the playoffs.
Now that we are into May of 2013, the times are better. The Vikings and Wild have made the playoffs since that query. The Timberwolves at least have the makings of a nucleus that could challenge for a spot. The Twins have already moved the needle from hopeless to functional and are a few more prospects and Oswaldo Arcia blasts away from being downright intriguing.
As such, we revisit the question with the bar set higher: What will be the next of the four to WIN a playoff series (or, in the Vikings' case, a game)?
This is a bit of a dare-we-dream proposition, considering that from the time immediately after Randy Moss' disgusting act at Lambeau until this very moment -- a span of more than eight calendar years -- the Vikings' playoff victory following the 2009 season is the only example of postseason advancement among the four. But why shouldn't we dream big? Let's set some percentages:
Vikings: 40 percent. A 10-win team added a batch of talent through the draft, found a receiver in Greg Jennings and a functional backup QB who can start if needed in Matt Cassel. A return trip to the postseason is not a lock, but you don't have to squint too much to see it, either. And once there, the NFL is the easiest to advance since it's a one-game proposition. Get a couple of bounces, and the Vikings are the winner.
Wild: 35 percent. Cornerstone players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aren't going anywhere for a LONG time, while more young reinforcements are on the way to join the likes of Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker. A lot of new components were pulled together in a slapdash 48-game season. Minnesota faltered in the final month, or it would have won the division and had a much better chance of advancing. But at least the Wild made the playoffs. Still, there are questions galore. Will Mike Yeo and Chuck Fletcher be back? What will the Wild do at the goalie spot? And will they thrive playing in a tougher realigned division next season? That said, more than half the NHL teams make the playoffs, and seeding often means little once you get there -- unless you have to play a team like Chicago. The Wild took a step this year and could very well take another next year.
Twins: 15 percent. It's probably not happening this year, even with the team's improvement. Even 2014 might be early. But if the Wild and Vikings don't win soon, the Twins will be primed to make a push starting in 2015.
Wolves: 10 percent. Even if the Wolves get the shooting guard they so desperately need ... and get a fully healthy and engaged Kevin Love back ... the West is loaded and could remain that way for a while. Five teams won at least 56 games in the West this year. The Wolves should set their sights on a return to .500 and then start wondering about the playoffs and next steps.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments. But please: Limit this to the four teams mentioned. Of course the Lynx have a great chance of advancing this year. Other pro teams here have won playoff games in the eight-year span as well. But for our purposes, we are dealing with the Wild, Vikings, Twins and Wolves.
A group of players who held their sticks so tightly down the stretch of the regular season that there were likely fingerprints on them through their hockey gloves played with poise. An emergency start by Josh Harding in place of Niklas Backstrom galvanized the team's defensive effort, while Harding was superb. And the mighty Hawks were getting more flustered with every deflected pass and blocked shot.
If Jason Zucker's shot is an inch lower in overtime, into the net instead of off the crossbar ... or if Zach Parise's point-blank attempt hadn't caught a piece of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, the script would have been finished as a fairy tale and a stunner.
Instead, Chicago scored its second pretty goal of the game late in the first overtime, and all the Wild has to show for its effort is a 1-0 series deficit.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
1) Harding can still rise to the occasion. Given Harding's diagnosis and significant rust, what he did Tuesday was nothing short of amazing. He was tremendous, and if he gets the Game 2 start as well there is at least something to build on going in.
2) Zucker belongs. He was the most dangerous forward on the ice for the Wild -- partially because Chicago's top line almost completely neutralized the Wild's top line, and vice-versa -- and created great chances with his speed and quickness.
3) As if we didn't already know this, winning will not be easy. The Wild did the necessary work to create some favorable bounces -- slight deflections that caused Chicago to be off-side numerous times on dangerous chances, for example -- but even playing air-tight for much of the night, the Wild still allowed plenty of opportunities.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO FIND OUT?
1) Can the Wild bounce back mentally from such a tough loss? As encouraged as players must be by the effort, the outcome still stings.
2) Can the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line generate more offense? Coyle's physical play was basically bottled up by good stick work and body work by Chicago in the corners. When that line is clicking, he is controlling plays along the wall while Koivu and Parise are cycling like mad to create chances. The stakes are higher now, and the opponent is better. They must find a way.
3) Will Jason Pominville return? Having Pominville and Heatley out at the same time re-establishes how few natural goal scorers the Wild has. Heatley is out. Pominville, though, would give instant credibility to the second line and add much needed scoring to the lineup.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
So you're saying there's a chance?
Actually, we're saying there's way more than just a chance the Wild makes the playoffs. There's a 97.3 percent chance the Wild makes the playoffs, according to Sports Club Stats, after a 2-1 victory over the Kings last night.
The Wild is two points clear of Columbus and three clear of the Red Wings (who have played one fewer game). Even if the Red Wings win their next game against the Kings, the Wild will still have a 96 percent chance of making it. Any Wild win or any Columbus regulation loss clinches a berth now.
So what does this mean?
Well, plain and simple, it means the math is on Minnesota's side when it comes to brining postseason NHL games back to this state -- heck, postseason winter sports playoffs of any kind, for that matter. The Wolves haven't made it since the 2003-04 season; the Wild hasn't made it since 2007-08. When late April/early May rolls around, and other cities are gearing up for potentially long playoff runs, we have been mere spectators.
Just getting in this year -- and likely being the No. 7 seed and likely playing Anaheim in the first round -- is meaningful in many ways, but the biggest from a fan perspective might be at least participating in these things known as playoffs. It's been too long, and now the Wild is oh-so-close.
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