Tensions are mounting as a late-season slump has exposed role players not filling their roles.
At 10 a.m. Monday, the Wild began selling playoff tickets on its website. Roughly 35 minutes later, the team announced a six-player transaction intended to provide an emotional boost that maybe helps the Wild, you know, actually make the playoffs.
A busy morning continued with a 30-minute team meeting/impromptu motivational session, which was followed by an “optional” practice. Optional in the same way that paying taxes is optional.
Afterward, I half-expected coach Mike Yeo to channel his inner Jim Mora when asked about his team’s precarious position with three games remaining.
Playoffs? Playoffs?! You kidding me? I just hope we can win a game.
Alas, he played the role of Stuart Smalley.
“We’re in a very good spot right now,” Yeo said without a hint of sarcasm. “We can all talk about how we’ve arrived here, but the bottom line is, our group has worked very hard and sacrificed an awful lot to get us in this position. We should be proud of that.”
That’s one way to look at things. The other side sees the sky falling.
The Wild remains in desperation mode, clinging to seventh place in the Western Conference standings. A 3-6-1 record in the past 10 games has put the team’s postseason bid in jeopardy as a cloud of tension hovers over the entire organization.
“It’s stressful, but there’s nothing like it,” Zach Parise said. “Just the reward when you win. There’s nothing like the playoffs. It’s incredible. We’ve got to get there.”
Maybe we miscalculated this team’s potential in the afterglow of a $196 million acquisition of Parise and Ryan Suter last summer, but did anyone really expect to see this team huffing and puffing and wheezing as it stumbles to clinch one of the final playoff spots? Wasn’t a playoff berth sort of the minimum expectation with this crew? Instead, it’s become a source of anxiety.
The most disconcerting aspect is that Parise and Suter have been as good as advertised and yet the Wild still hasn’t punched its postseason ticket. Parise leads the team in goals, scoring, game-winning goals and shots on goal. Suter leads the team in assists and ranks No. 1 in the NHL in ice time.
Those two can’t give much more. They need some help.
“I think everyone has to be better, ourselves included,” Parise said. “Just from the experiences that Ryan and I have had, I think we can still bring it up another level.”
Parise stopped and laughed. Even he knows that sounds absurd.
“They brought us in here for a reason, and we have to help show the way and lead and show how to get things done,” he said.
Here’s another idea: Key role players could start carrying more weight. Cal Clutterbuck has three goals in 39 games. Devin Setoguchi has not scored a goal since March 29. Kyle Brodziak ranks near the bottom of the NHL in plus-minus rating at minus-15.
Other than the top three defensemen — Suter, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon — the blue line is largely unreliable. Goalie Niklas Backstrom ranks among the league leaders in victories, but he looks tired and probably could use a breather, which is not possible given the urgency of this final week.
The Wild shipped overmatched youngsters Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker to the minors on Monday in exchange for veteran grinders Jake Dowell and Stephane Veilleux. The team also swapped backup goalies, replacing Darcy Kuemper with Josh Harding. Not exactly splashy moves, but the team needs some jolt of energy right now.
“This is the first year that we’re trying to get [to the playoffs] in five years,” Yeo said. “It’s supposed to be hard for us.”
The inconsistency is maddening, though, both as a group and for individual players. The Wild looked like a team capable of a deep playoff run in winning seven in a row in March. That same team now has lost five consecutive at Xcel Energy Center. The team that averaged 3.6 goals in March is averaging 1.7 goals in April.
“I think that’s just some signs of a somewhat inexperienced team that hasn’t been in this situation,” Parise said. “When we won seven in a row, we felt like no one could beat us. But then all of a sudden you lose one and you lose another one and you can get some doubt creeping in your mind. That doesn’t happen as much when you have teams that have won on a regular basis and won at a high level.”
The Wild finds itself in a different place, which prompted a meeting Monday to “get the feelings out and see where everybody’s head is at,” according to Yeo, who also noted, “We can’t get too wrapped up in all the big-picture stuff.”
Yeo found one comment from an unnamed player particularly useful.
“We can’t sit around and hope for anything,” Yeo recalled. “We can’t sit here and hope that a team that we’re ahead of loses.”
That’s true, but frankly, the time for pep talks is over. The Wild needs to play better defense, score more goals and eliminate costly lapses in focus. Do that, and the big picture will look a lot different.
Chip Scoggins • email@example.com
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