ST. LOUIS – There was a time this season, when the Wild was down and out, that fans were strategizing how the team could join the Buffalo Sabres for the draft rights to expected No. 1 pick Connor McDavid. National analysts were calling for Mike Yeo’s job, and local “experts” were questioning whether it was even worth trading for a goalie.
It has been an amazing transformation.
One of the NHL’s worst teams for a six-week span finished off its three-month run of greatness Saturday with a 4-2 loss against the St. Louis Blues. The Wild went an NHL-best 28-9-3 since Jan. 15 and enters the postseason confident. It’ll return to St. Louis for Game 1 of the playoffs this week.
“We know it’s going to be a hard series,” Yeo said. “It’s good that we got the top wild-card position, it’s good that we’re in the playoffs, but it also means that you’re facing a tough opponent. So it’ll be a good challenge.”
Remember, after the All-Star break the Wild was in 12th place, seven points behind Calgary, 14 points behind Winnipeg and 16 behind Chicago.
But check out the recent testimonials:
• Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said: “Arguably the Wild are not only the hottest team in the National Hockey League, but they might be the deepest, in terms of their four lines. They’ve got everything going right now. They’ll be a team you don’t want to meet in the first round, I’ll tell you that.”
• Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville: “They’ve got some younger guys, they’ve got some depth, they’ve got some speed and skill throughout their lineup, they check extremely well and they can frustrate you. They’ll make you pay if you try to take them on.”
• Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley: “They have unbelievable speed on their four lines. The balance of that team, if they stay healthy, they’re a top team.”
• Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson: “They’re playing with a lot of confidence and really trusting their system, and defensively they’re not panicking. … The way Minnesota’s playing now, I think they can knock out any team in the league.”
Three months ago, stressed General Manager Chuck Fletcher lamented a season overcome with injury, sickness, heartache for two of its most important players and, frankly, poor goaltending by saying, “It’s like a dark cloud hanging over us. Anything that can go wrong is going wrong.”
But the turning point came Jan. 13, the night the Wild got throttled in Pittsburgh, the night Yeo said his team was “completely lost.”
Two things happened: The Wild held a 26-minute closed-door meeting in which players held each other accountable. Ninety minutes earlier while in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., holding scouting meetings, Fletcher had lost his temper and stormed off while watching his team lose to the Penguins.
Fletcher called Yeo and basically promised to deliver him a goaltender immediately.
That next day Devan Dubnyk of the Arizona Coyotes became available. The price was cheaper for Dubnyk than for Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth, and with the endorsement of goalie coach Bob Mason, Fletcher made the deal for Dubnyk, saying, “We’re in a perilous position for our season. We’ll see where it takes us.”
The Wild won 7-0 at Buffalo in Dubnyk’s debut, and three months later the Wild has completed an epic second-half turnaround. Consider: In 40 games since the Dubnyk trade, the Wild never lost consecutive games in regulation.
On Jan. 14, the Wild was 18-19-5 and 23rd in the NHL. In the 25 games before to Dubnyk’s arrival, the Wild allowed 3.52 goals per game (30th in the NHL) and had a goal differential of minus-26 (27th).
In 40 games since, the Wild gave up a league-low 71 goals and had league’s best goal differential of plus-45. Its league-low .889 save percentage at the time has been a league-best .939 since.
“I’ll be honest, I never envisioned this,” Fletcher said. “We were trying to find a way to get a win. That’s all we were trying to do. We were trying to stabilize and get those dark clouds to dissipate.”
It’s been a weird season. The Wild started 7-3 but could have easily started 9-1 or 10-0 because it outplayed Anaheim and Los Angeles on the road and coughed up a 3-0 third-period lead at the Rangers.
Then, the mumps infiltrated the Wild locker room, especially its blue line. Then the norovirus invaded the team. Through it all, defenseman Ryan Suter was still mourning the sudden loss of his father and left wing Zach Parise was strained by watching his father, J.P., deteriorate from the cancer that took his life in January.
“I think this is why there’s such a sense of accomplishment,” Suter said. “This team’s been through a lot.”
The Wild’s game, as its goaltending faltered, eroded.
“We just weren’t winning,” Fletcher said. “Our game fell apart defensively. We weren’t getting enough saves. But Devan was the spark that turned our season around. He came in and was a very steadying and calming influence in net and made a lot of saves and our players responded by starting to play better hockey in front of him.”
Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek had strong second halves. The Wild’s blue line, led by top four Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, was tremendous. Rookie defenseman Matt Dumba emerged quickly and unexpectedly. The depth came through with interchangeable pieces through injuries to Jason Zucker, Matt Cooke, Ryan Carter, Scandella, Spurgeon and Nate Prosser.
And with the acquisition of Chris Stewart and return of Zucker, the Wild is suddenly a balanced team built on skill, speed and defensive structure again.
“It’s been a tremendous run,” Fletcher said. “I don’t know if any of us knew if we could climb back in it and win the number of games that we’ve won down the stretch here. It’s amazing. After such a dark few weeks there, you’ve got to give the guys and the coaches credit for not panicking and sticking with it. It made us stronger.
“I felt all along we could compete with the best teams in the West. I still do. It’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be hard. But I think we’ve shown we can compete with anybody when we’re running on all cylinders.”