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Wild road trip was a success when you look off the ice



The Wild finished its four-game road trip Tuesday night with a nondescript, 3-1 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles. The defeat followed a script that’s played out repeatedly this season – fall behind early, mount a comeback and fall short in the end.

“It’s a bad formula for success, there’s no doubt,’’ coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters in L.A. afterward.

It might be tempting to judge the 2-2 record on the trip as a small step forward when compared with the team’s 2019-20 start. After all, the two wins are one-third of the team’s overall total so far (6-11-1) and two-thirds of their road triumphs (3-10). Avoid that temptation.

If you’re looking for positives from the Wild on this trip, two items stand out.

First, General Manager Bill Guerin on Monday met with reporters, including the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan, and though he didn’t pull the plug on this season, he did indicate that the organization could embrace a rebuild – one that’s sorely needed.

Second, the Wild’s prized goal-scoring prospect, Kirill Kaprizov, wants to make his NHL debut with the Wild next season, Guerin indicated after talking with the 22-year-old Russian’s agent.

Let’s tackle Guerin’s evaluation comments first.

The GM hasn’t given up on the chance for the team to forge a turnaround, but it’s clear that window won’t be open indefinitely.

“We have to do what’s right for the organization as a whole, not grasp at straws,” Guerin said. “We don’t want to talk ourselves into something that we don’t really want to do or think we’re something that we’re not.’’

Right now, what the Wild is not is a playoff contender. Minnesota is tied with the Kings for last in the Western Conference, and its goal differential of minus-16 is ahead of only L.A.’s minus-21 in the West. So, don’t expect Guerin to haphazardly chase trades if they don’t make sense in a term longer than the 2019-20 season.

“If there’s an opportunity for me to make the team better, I’ll do it,” Guerin said, also praising the team’s chemistry and work ethic. “That hasn’t presented itself. I still want to give this group an opportunity. They deserve it. They earned it.”

That’s the delicate dance that a GM must do, keeping hope going for the current season while planning for a future that could pull the team out of its cycle of first-round playoff exits and last season’s nosedive.

“We have to be very honest with ourselves,’’ Guerin said, “and then move accordingly.”

The second item of good news centers on Kaprizov, the Wild’s fifth-round draft pick whose contract with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League runs through the 2019-20 season. The left winger ranks second in the KHL in scoring with 25 points on 13 goals and 12 assists in 23 games, and he’s the type of pure goal-scorer that the Wild has rarely developed.

Though Wild fans are salivating over the prospect of Kaprizov in a Wild sweater next fall, Guerin wants to pump the brakes on expectations once he arrives.

“There are a lot of different pieces to the puzzle that we need, and he’s one of them,’’ said Guerin, who will visit Kaprizov in Russia in early December. “But I don’t want it all put on him to where we throw him out on the ice and everything’s fixed. That’s too much on one person.”

True, one person won’t solve everything. But another person – Guerin – pushed a couple of the right buttons for the Wild this week.

College hockey heavyweights Denver, Minnesota Duluth set to face off



College football will give us a treat on Saturday with a quartet of undefeated teams – No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama, and No. 5 Penn State at No. 13 Minnesota – squaring off with conference and national implications on the line.

But don’t sleep on college hockey, which serves up a men’s series this weekend that should reverberate into March if not April: Top-ranked Denver at No. 7 Minnesota Duluth.

The Pioneers and Bulldogs have been the gold standard over the past three years, with Denver beating UMD for the national championship in 2017 and UMD following with back-to-back NCAA titles. The Pioneers have 12 consecutive NCAA tournament berths and have reached the Frozen Four three of the past four seasons.

When they meet at AMSOIL Arena at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with the finale televised on FOX9-Plus in the Twin Cities), the Pioneers and Bulldogs will be switching roles a month into the season. Off to an 8-0 start, Denver will be the hunted, while UMD, a surprising 3-3, is trying to track down the Pioneers. That’s perfectly fine with Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.

“I think we’re underdogs finally,’’ Sandelin said in his weekly news conference. “[The players] should be excited because we didn’t play last weekend and we’re coming off two big wins. It’s amazing when different teams come in, the energy level goes up, so hopefully we can keep that through the week into the weekend.’’

In their last series, Minnesota Duluth swept Minnesota in a home-and-home set a week after being swept at Wisconsin. Getting charged-up to face another rival shouldn’t be an issue for the Bulldogs. Their opponent certainly has their coach’s attention.

“They’re playing well right now,’’ Sandelin said of the Pioneers. “They’re riding an eight-game win streak, probably feeling confident in how they’re playing, and they should because they’re a good team.’’

Denver has received production throughout its lineup, with junior defenseman Ian Mitchell leading the Pioneers with 10 points on three goals and seven assists, freshman forward Bobby Brink of Minnetonka pacing the team with four goals, and freshman goalie Magnus Chrona going 7-0 with a 1.86 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and two shutouts. Brink was named NCHC rookie of the month for October, Chrona the league’s goalie of the month. As usual, the Pioneers play stingy defense, allowing only 13 goals so far and killing 33 of 34 penalties, the top rate in the nation. Denver’s plus-20 goal differential also is the best in the country.

Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, hopes its performance against Minnesota is the sign of things to come. The Bulldogs scored a 5-2 win in Minneapolis as defenseman Scott Perunovich dominated the game with his puck-moving skills. The next night in Duluth, UMD displayed lock-down defense and rode goalie Hunter Shepard to a 2-0 win.

With 20 players returning from last season’s team and 12 returning that played on the past two national championship teams, the Bulldogs entered the season as the overwhelming choice as the No. 1 team in the national polls. They’ve worked through a few hiccups so far, and this weekend offers them a chance to regain their superiority from a conference rival.

Sure, it might not carry the nation weight of LSU-Bama or Penn State-Gophers, but for college hockey, Bulldogs vs. Pioneers is a don’t-miss treat.

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