Winning a must for Wild to stay afloat in Western Conference

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2013 - 11:55 PM

The Wild’s recent success hasn’t translated into any big move up the standings because of a conference loaded with good teams.

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Jason Pominville, left, of the Minnesota Wild celebrates his goal with teammates Mikael Granlund (64) and Nino Niederreiter (22) while Jay Harrison of the Carolina Hurricanes looks on in the first period at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. Minnesota won, 3-2, in a shootout. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

There’s a white marker board next to the Wild players lounge that lists the Western Conference standings.

It’s updated daily by the training staff, yet it seems like it never changes. In a large way, it’s a constant reminder to players that they better not take the foot off the gas.

“Gosh, it feels like we keep winning and keep getting points and we don’t move up,” Wild leading scorer Zach Parise said. “Everyone above us keeps winning. Our division’s tough. The West is hard. I mean, is the cutoff to make the playoffs going to be over 100 points?”

It sure looks like it.

The Wild is off to its best start in franchise history, accumulating 28 points in its first 20 games. It has gained points in 11 of its past 12 games (9-1-2) heading into Sunday’s clash against Minnesota’s neighbors from the north, the Winnipeg Jets.

Yet despite such a hot streak, despite winning nine of its past 10 games at Xcel Energy Center, despite being on pace for 114 points, the team found itself barely clinging to sixth place in the West prior going into Saturday.

That was one point ahead of St. Louis, which had played three fewer games, and Los Angeles.

To put what’s going on in the West in perspective, the eighth-place Kings are on pace for 110 points this season. In contrast with the Eastern Conference, eighth-place Ottawa and ninth-place Carolina were on pace for 86 points Saturday.

When the 2011-12 Stanley Cup champion Kings finished eighth, they did so with … 95 points.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” coach Mike Yeo said.

Same with captain Mikko Koivu. This is Koivu’s ninth NHL season, meaning he has played during the entire shootout era or three-point game era or loser point era.

But this is ridiculous, he said.

“Even with the way we’re playing, you look at the standings, and we’re [three] points from ninth place and two or three points from second or third and [four] points from first,” Koivu said. “I don’t know. You just get used to it. It’s been tight in the West for so many years, but this feels different.

“The Eastern Conference, I don’t know what’s going on over there, but it always seems like their gaps are a lot bigger and it doesn’t take nearly as much points to make the playoffs.”

The reason the Western Conference’s eighth-place team was on pace to need 24.4 more points than the Eastern Conference’s eighth-place team as of Saturday is simple: every team in the NHL plays teams from the other conference twice per season under a new scheduling format in realignment, and the West has had supremacy over the East a quarter’s way into this season.

Entering Saturday, the West was 79-34-13 (.679 points percentage) against the East. The top nine teams in the West were 59-16-10 (.753 points percentage) against the East, so those teams have been picking off points left and right.

This is why Koivu has avoided looking at the locker room’s white marker board as if it were an eclipse that would blind him.

“You just can’t worry about it,” Koivu said. “When you’ve been in the league a long time, you learn that you try not to think about things you can’t control. You’re better to leave it and not think about the standings. If you do, mentally it can just drag you down.”

So instead of that unneeded stress, Koivu is trying to impart to his teammates that the only thing the Wild can control is doing its best to seize two points nightly. If that happens, the standings will take care of itself.

“We just have to keep on pace with all the other teams to make sure that you’re in the thick of things at the end of the year,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.

Plus, the Wild still has it better than other Central Division foes such as the Stars and Jets. Dallas is 6-2-2 in its past 10, Winnipeg has won four in a row and five of six.

Yet, they are tied with 22 points.

“I think the standings will tighten up more once there starts to be more West-vs.-West games,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Long-term, I think this is great. I think it’s great when we’re forced to compete with very good teams, forced to raise the level of our play. That’s what you want. You want that high level of competition to make you better.

“There’s no easy games in our division and our conference, so it’s going to be a grind right through to the end.”

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