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We might never know exactly how hot Mike Yeo's coaching seat was last week when the Wild lost for the sixth consecutive time, but we can at least be comfortable with the term beat writer Michael Russo used to describe the coach: under the gun.
A decent-to-good start to the year had given way to a 5-12-1 stretch as the Wild fell from decent playoff seed to hanging on by a thread to on the outside looking in.
Yeo had stopped talking to players in the locker room during games, a sign that even he was out of answers.
One of his top forwards, Zach Parise was out. Josh Harding was facing a period of uncertainty that turned into a stint on the ... and nobody knew yet that Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Niklas Backstrom were also going to miss time in the next three games.
As such, if we were all ready to bury Yeo a week ago, we probably need to give him at least a little praise as the Wild takes an improbable three-game winning streak into a huge game with Phoenix tonight (the teams are tied for the final playoff spot with 51 points, though Phoenix has played three fewer games).
The Wild's three victories since the start of 2014 aren't exactly works of art. The win over Buffalo that started it was solid, but the Sabres are awful. The Wild was outshot 30-11 in a 5-3 win over the Capitals, somehow making those shots count. And No. 3 goalie Darcy Kuemper stole the shootout win at Los Angeles.
But they are three wins nonetheless, at far less than full strength, at a time when everything could have fallen apart. Make it four tonight in Phoenix and the praise for Yeo will have to grow.
We entered 2013 thinking the Twins couldn't be any worse. Well, they weren't worse. But they weren't better. They were exactly the same at 66-96.
The Wild and Vikings started their 2013 seasons coming off of playoff berths. The Wolves had loads of optimism. Now the Vikings have fired a coach, the Wild might not be far behind and the Wolves are ... well ... the Wolves.
Gophers football? A genuine feel-good story, albeit one with an unhappy ending. Gophers men's basketball? Anticipation is building, but we know nothing until Big Ten play starts Thursday.
But with 2014 upon us, all we can feel at this moment is optimism. It is the only note to strike when a new year begins. None of our four major men's pro sports team has even PLAYED in a World Series, Super Bowl or NBA/NHL final since the Twins won it all in 1991. That's a generation ago.
But maybe 2014 will be different. Right now, we have to believe.
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.
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