While it hasn’t been revealed who will share the ice with the Wild in next year’s Winter Classic at Target Field, the criteria for determining the opponent has been set.
Aside from a team that can boost TV ratings and sports a fan base that travels well, organizers want a clash that is competitive and boasts the history of a rivalry — requirements that could mean the Wild encounters a Central Division foe such as Chicago, St. Louis or Winnipeg.
But based on how the matchups have gone this season, that might not be a favorable draw for the Wild.
Almost halfway through its division slate, the team is 3-8-1 against its closest rivals — an eyesore the Wild can start to address when it begins the second half Saturday afternoon by hosting the Jets at Xcel Energy Center.
“We should be getting up for these games,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “These are divisional games. These are playoff-atmosphere games. We gotta fix it before it gets a little bit too late.”
Most of these in-division struggles coincided with the team’s rough start to the season.
The first three games were against Nashville, Colorado and Winnipeg (all losses), and the Wild sat 0-6 vs. the Central by the end of October.
Once the group started to rebound in mid-November, it started to perform better — edging the Avalanche twice and the Stars. But it still has suffered setbacks to Chicago (5-3 on Dec. 15) and most recently to Winnipeg (6-0 on Dec. 21).
“They’re good teams,” winger Zach Parise said. “There’s not an easy game.”
Figuring out how to prevail could help decide the team’s fate; the results against the division certainly seemed to be a factor last season.
The Wild thrived against the Jets (5-0) and Blues (3-1), but it dropped 22 of a possible 34 points to the rest of the division. The team finished last in the Central, seven points behind Colorado for the second and final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
“I think of a four-point game when we played Nashville on opening night,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think all of those games are vital. I think you get a little more serious once you come into the second half of the season and it sort of dawns on you that, ‘Hey, we’re in the second half and 20 games [until the] trade deadline.’ So, it gets closer and closer.”
A four-point swing isn’t the only difference in these games when compared to squaring off against other teams in the West or nonconference battles. The style of play and intensity is unique to the series, a vibe that speaks to what’s at stake.
“Everyone’s just a little more emotionally involved in the games,” Foligno said. “You face them a lot; that plays into it, too. It’s not just two or three games and you’re done against them. It’s four or five. You kind of get sick of each other out there.”
With 14 of its next 41 games against its rivals — more than a third — the Wild still has plenty of time to repair its record.
Gaining traction in its next few opportunities, however, could be key; seven of the team’s final 11 games are vs. the Central, a potentially make-or-break stretch if the team is still in pursuit of a playoff spot at that point.
“We got a lot of divisional games still coming up,” Foligno said. “We got one tomorrow, and that could be huge for us.”
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and the NHL for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org