Winning certainly cures all that ails a professional sports team, even if it is as small of a victory as breaking a four-game losing streak against the New York Islanders.
But the beleaguered Minnesota Wild found a way to win on Friday night, with Owen Nolan delivering the victory with his sixth goal of the season and second of the game with just 67 ticks left on the game clock.
Maybe Lil’ Herbie, Josh Sacco, came in and gave the team an inspirational rendition of Herb Brooks’ speech from the movie, Miracle or maybe the team found the desperation that they needed to compete without five of their regular skaters. Whatever the case was, the Wild found a way to win and have at least a little momentum coming into practice on Monday after a day off.
While optimism is not necessarily a term you would readily use when speaking of a team that is 8-12-2 and just one point from the basement of the conference, consider this. Before their recent rash of injuries, Minnesota had won four out of five games.
Petr Sykora went down with a concussion against Dallas, but the team still continued their winning ways against the Maple Leafs and, for all intents and purposes, should have beat the Lightning the following game.
But losing Chuck Kobasew hurt the team. He was followed by Benoit Pouliot, and then Martin Havlat. That’s three players who play a large role on the team out with injury. Add in both Sykora and Pierre-Marc Bouchard remaining out with concussions and you have a problem.
Show me a team that could withstand injuries to five of their top-nine forwards and still ice a winning hockey team, and I’ll show you the best hockey team in the history of the game.
But there’s good news abound for the Wild right now. First, it would appear that they will be getting Kobasew, Pouliot, and Havlat back in practice today. That’s three more forwards that the team will be getting, and talented ones at that.
Second, the Wild might have finally found a spot for James Sheppard—on the wing. Against the Isles, Sheppard was noticeable for the first time this season. He played on the second line and got an assist and, for the first time all season, played an all-around solid game.
There are some people that are better suited to different positions at different levels, and Sheppard may just be better suited to play on the wing in the NHL.
Finally, the Wild claimed Andrew Ebbett. From the sounds of things, Richards has big plans for Ebbett and it would appear that he has now penciled the youngster in tentatively as the second-line center. Ebbett has struggled a bit early on this season, but was spectacular for the Ducks last season, tallying eight goals and 32 points in just 48 games played.
The addition of Ebbett gives the Wild Ebbett, Mikko Koivu, Eric Belanger and Kyle Brodziak at center, thus allowing the team to be able to move Sheppard to the wing for a time, at least to give him a chance to try to succeed there. With the injured players potentially returning on Monday, this gives the Wild a front line that looks like this:
While this forces Robbie Earl, who has played fantastic hockey for Minnesota in his limited call-up, out of the lineup this gives the Wild a team that can legitimately roll four lines as well as four lines with legitimate scoring threats on each.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Wild still have a long way to go to return to being a competitive hockey team. This is still a team formed in the image of Doug Risebrough, intended to be coached by Jacques Lemaire. But what is happening, slowly but surely, is that Chuck Fletcher is forming this team in his own image.
Just look at the lineup. In less than six months time, Fletcher has added seven players to the lineup that were not on the team last season. I would be willing to bet that there would be even more changes on the horizon.
The team has multiple players with their contracts expiring this season and it is very likely that some, if not all of these players will be shipped off.
Through all of the team’s faults, however, they remain a team with a very strong core of players and they remain a team that is certainly capable of competing at a high level. It just might take them a while to display that on a consistent basis.