The Minnesota Wild (33-29-8), with 70 games in the books and 74 points to their name, are on the outside of the bubble looking in. It's always a tight race in the competitive Western Conference.
At the beginning of March, they had just concluded a franchise-long six-game road trip. They'd compiled a 2-4 record over it, and it looked as if they were slipping from Playoff contention.
Although the Wild have made the Playoffs in the past, they seem to have a mental block when it comes to getting past the first round. Minnesota lost in the first round to Anaheim in 2007 and again to Colorado last year, despite the home-ice advantage they'd earned via the Northwest Division title.
Minnesota currently has the exact same record as and is tied for ninth place with Dallas, but seventh-place Edmonton and eighth-place Nashville (tied at 75 points) are only one unit ahead of the Wild and the Stars.
Still, the Wild are going to need every point they can get if they want to pull ahead and grab a spot in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Just ask Vancouver, who, on the last day of the regular season last year, was dropped from the postseason as a Predators win gave them a tenuous (but sufficient) one-point edge.
Making the quest more difficult for Minnesota is the fact that it will play five out of its last six games in March on the road.
The next five games will be crucial to the Wild. The team will travel to New Jersey on Friday to take on the Devils, who are surging in the Eastern Conference. Then they come home for the Oilers in a huge contest with spring implications for both squads.
If there is any must-win game for Minnesota during that stretch, it would be the one against Edmonton. Overtime or a shootout will unfortunately not be good enough, as the Wild have had four of the last five games head into either a shootout or overtime.
In order for Minnesota to pull ahead in the Western Conference, they are going to have to rely on their strengths to push them ahead.
Defense has always been an advantage of Minnesota's, especially goaltending. Netminder Niklas Backstrom, who recently signed a four-year extension with the Wild, has been the biggest reason Minnesota has kept its nose in the Playoff hunt so far this season.
The Finland native has the league's fifth-best GAA (2.38) and fifth-best save percentage (.921). He is also the only goalie in the NHL to be in the top five of all four major categories for goaltenders.
Along with Backstrom, Minnesota has one of the best penalty-killing units in the league. They rank second overall in the league (behind the New York Rangers) at 86.8 percent. The Wild are best road penalty-killers in the league with 88 percent.
The power play of Minnesota has also done well, it ranks 12th in the league at 19.9 percent.
Offensive consistency, on the other hand, has been a struggle; it has been the club's biggest weakness all season long.
Minnesota ranks 26th in the league with 2.5 goals per game and 29th in the league at with just 103 five-on-five goals this season.
The loss of Marian Gaborik has had a large impact on the teams ability to produce offense. Last year, he recorded 42 goals and 41 assists for 83 points in 77 games and was a team-high +17 for the campaign.
This year, Mikko Koivu leads the club with 62 points; he has 18 goals and 44 assists. Only one Minnesota Wild player has 20 goals or more, and that is veteran Owen Nolan.
So what does Minnesota need to do to not only make the Playoffs, but also be a first-round contender once there?
That aforementioned consistency is going to be the key on both sides of the puck. The Wild have a great mix of young players and veterans, but everyone must play their respective roles dependably.
Minnesota must also play physical hockey. The addition of Cal Clutterbuck has been one of the greatest boons of the year; not only can he finish his checks (he sports a league-leading 290 hits), but he also possesses great speed and has eight goals.
In the next few weeks, Minnesota should expect hard fights for every point. If they can concentrate on what they do well without neglecting scoring, then they can earn the right to keep playing.
The biggest news the Wild have to look forward to is the return of Marian Gaborik. In a press conference two weeks ago, Gaborik said that he should be ready to play by the end of the month of March. He could be the difference maker in the Wild's playoff run this season.
Still, the team will need others to step up; Marian was held to just one assist in six games in the first round after recording franchise records in points and goals in the regular season.
If Minnesota can pull it all together (their special teams "X-factor," superb goaltending, solid defense, and consistent offense), they have a chance of making a long run in and perhaps raising Lord Stanley's Cup.
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