Wild about to face difficult stretch in schedule

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2013 - 2:10 PM

A stretch of elite rivals over the next 11 games will be a true measure of what strides the Wild has made.

– The Wild is off to its best start in franchise history, picking off 34 points in its first 24 games and 25 out of a possible 30 points in the past 15 games.

But in that 15-game stretch, the Wild has played four teams that would make the playoffs if the 16-team postseason began today.

Basically, the Wild has beaten the teams it is supposed to beat, taking advantage of a friendly schedule that has yet to include four of the Western Conference’s top eight teams — St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose and Phoenix.

That all changes now.

“Now will be the real test,” Zach Parise said after Sunday’s practice at Scottrade Center.

Beginning Monday in St. Louis, nine of the Wild’s next 11 games come against the top five teams in the West and the current eighth-place team — in order, Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Colorado and Phoenix. Those six teams are a combined 95-26-14 (.756).

Of those teams, the Wild has played only Anaheim and Chicago this season, going a combined 1-1-1.

So mid-December should bring a better sense if the Wild is for real.

“I think this will be the stretch where we’ll see what type of team we have and where we’re at,” said Parise, who has scored 11 goals and leads the Wild with 22 points in 24 games. “We’ve done a good job at the beginning of the year for the most part beating the teams we should beat.

“Now, we get a lot of the elite teams. We have to be a lot of sharper than we have been the last few games.”

It starts with the big, bad Blues, who may technically sit third in the conference but are on pace for a league-high 130.4 points. They’ve played four fewer games than NHL-leading Anaheim and two games fewer than second-place Chicago.

They’re 16-3-3 overall and 10-1-2 at home and are one of the league’s deepest teams. They have a goal differential of plus-29 in 22 games (the Wild is plus-9 in 24 games) and they have won six games by three or more goals.

“I would say their defensive squad is as good as you can find in the league,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “The way they skate, they’re big, they’re strong. Their forwards have an identity the way they play. When you play them, you’re going to have to work for everything you get.”

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who passed Bryan Murray for eighth all-time with 621 wins with Saturday’s 6-1 dismantling of Dallas, was doing his best Sunday to deflect any of that “best team in the league” talk. He raved about the Wild, called them “really well-coached and I see tremendous structure. They’re similar to us where they’re a sum-of-parts team.”

Hitchcock also puts Minnesota right up there with the top teams in the West.

“I’ve never seen it this fast and I’ve never seen it this competitive in the West,” Hitchcock said. “I mean, I’ve never seen so many good teams in one conference since I’ve coached in the NHL.”

Because of this, captain Mikko Koivu said it’s critical the Wild not take its foot off the gas. He looks forward to the challenge ahead and playing with the structure that the Wild let slip in last week’s game at Montreal and the first period Saturday in Winnipeg.

“We’ve got to be satisfied with the points, but we’ve been a little sloppy, and I think the Montreal game was a good wake-up call for us,” Koivu said. “There’s a certain structure we have to play with to be successful, and we have to stay with that.

“It’s being disciplined everywhere. You can’t sit in the box, you can’t cheat, you have to play the way you’re supposed to play so you support your teammate and you have to be quick. If you want to create anything in this league, you have to be quick going from defense to offense.”

Defenseman Ryan Suter said the upcoming schedule will be a “huge challenge. It’ll be fun for us to see how good we really are.”

Yeo cautioned that the Wild can’t look at the upcoming schedule as a whole.

“Every game presents a new challenge,” Yeo said. “The best teams are able to stay focused on the short term and for us that’s [Monday].”

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