After winning seven straight games in March, the Minnesota Wild have lost five of their past seven contests. What is more concerning is that they have been defeated by playoff-caliber teams in those past four losses.
Minnesota has lost to St. Louis (4-1), San Jose (4-2), Los Angeles (3-0) and Chicago (1-0) recently. The Blues and Blackhawks games were played at the Xcel Energy Center while the Sharks and Kings tilts were played in California. The Wild also picked up a 3-0 win against the Blue Jackets in Columbus at the end of the West Coast road trip.
There are multiple reasons for the team’s recent woes.
First of all, in the shortened 48-game schedule, Minnesota has had to play many back-to-back nights. The Wild had their winning streak snapped in Dallas on March 29 and then squeaked out a comeback win against Los Angeles in a shootout at home the next day. They got a day off, lost to St. Louis on April 1, traveled on April 2 and then played the Sharks and Kings the next two days. That’s five games in seven days.
Minnesota blanked Columbus, 3-0, after three days rest, giving credence to the notion that the Wild were tired in their losses to St. Louis, San Jose and L.A.
You could see it in the way they played. Against the Blues, they had energy surges throughout the game but also ended up icing the puck over and over again once St. Louis turned it on. They just generally looked lethargic in the two contests out west.
Chicago appeared to wear them down again on Tuesday, prompting my colleague here at Bleacher Report, Chris Schad, to tweet out that the Blackhawks were squeezing the life out of them.
The Blackhawks have been like an Anaconda...slowly squeezing the life out of the Wild.— Chris Schad (@crishad) April 10, 2013
Nobody is making any excuses in the lockout-shortened season, but the Wild are looking tired down the stretch. They’re going to have to dig deep in their last nine games in order to try to get that No. 3 seed and, more importantly, avoid a season-ending collapse that would ruin all of the hard work they’ve done to put themselves in the playoff picture.
It’s not just the compact schedule, however, that’s behind the team’s recent woes. Look a little further into those seven games the team won back in March and you’ll realize that they came against some of the weakest teams in the Western Conference.
The win streak began on March 14 against Colorado. The Avalanche and Wild played two games in a row, once in St. Paul and once in Denver. Despite all of the young talent they have, the Avs look like they will finish in the Western Conference cellar this year.
The Wild beat the Canucks in Vancouver, 3-1, following the home-and-home against Colorado. It was a statement game; the team split the season series with a team that has dominated the Northwest Division, and at the time, Minnesota looked like they were capable of owning the No. 3 seed in the West at the end of the year.
The beat the Red Wings in Motown and San Jose at home in the next two games. Both teams look like they are going to be late seeds in the playoffs. The Wings are the third-best team in the Central Division behind the Blackhawks and Blues and similarly, the Sharks are No. 3 in the Pacific behind the Ducks and Kings.
Those were important wins, given that the Wild could face either of those teams in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup in the first round should they win the Northwest.
Following the game against San Jose, Minnesota traveled south to play Dallas and broke a longstanding curse against the former North Stars, winning 7-4, and then returned home to beat Phoenix in overtime.
The Stars and Coyotes are both going to finish the three Golden State teams in the Pacific and are unlikely to make the playoffs, meaning the Wild should win both games.
So this is how it breaks down: The Wild beat one upper-echelon team in the seven-game win streak (Vancouver) and two late seeds (Detroit and San Jose), but they also got to beat up on weaker teams like Colorado (twice), Dallas and Phoenix.
Recently, the team lost to Dallas and beat L.A., essentially flip-flopping the expected result, and then lost to four playoff teams (St. Louis, San Jose, L.A., Chicago) while beating the team that isn’t supposed to make it (Columbus).
This is cause for concern.
Minnesota’s schedule isn’t too hard from here on out. In six of their past nine games, they play teams that are not expected to make the playoffs: Columbus (close call, but I doubt they make it), Calgary twice, Edmonton twice and Colorado. They essentially benefit from playing in a poor division.
They have to play St. Louis, San Jose and Los Angeles in that stretch, though, and the Sharks game is on the road.
In short, the team must kick it into high gear immediately. They should, without a doubt, win six of those games easily, even without Dany Heatley for the rest of the year. The trick will be finishing strong against the Blues, Sharks and Kings, because Minnesota will almost certainly be playing one of those teams in the first round of the playoffs.
It’s been a draining season, Minnesota, there’s no doubt about that, but now is the time to finish strong. In the next nine games, we’ll get to see what the Wild are made of.