There’s no doubt that the Wild this season have been about as consistent as a schizophrenic on speed and have left many of their loyal fanbase in desperate need of some sort of emotional therapy.
Bearing that in mind, consider this blog right here your own personal “truth zone.” I promise that I won’t try to sugarcoat things for you and I promise that I’ll try to remain optimistic about the Wild’s chances this season.
Realistically, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.
Martin Havlat has finally caught fire and is playing like the player we thought we were getting at the season’s onset. Mikko Koivu is on pace for yet another career season. Guillaume Latendresse is playing like a man possessed for the Wild, having scored 13 goals and 19 points in just 27 games with the team.
Have I mentioned that we’ve gotten Brent Burns back, and he’s actually playing Brent Burns hockey? Or that Robbie Earl is scoring a goal in about every third game and truly looking like he belongs? Or that this could quite possibly be the most closely knit Wild team that I’ve seen in quite some time?
There is, indeed, light on the horizon for the boys in Iron Range Red.
The problem is that we’re not on the horizon yet. We’re in the here and now.
It would be easy to go into some long rant about how this game is a must win, how it would do wonders for the team’s confidence, how a solid game from Backstrom would be great for his confidence.
All of the above holds true.
But we’ll just put it this way.
We’re sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference, just five points from the final playoff spot. Just five points behind the very team that we play tonight.
A regulation win tonight puts us three points behind them (for those who, like myself, are mathematically challenged).
Right now, Hockey Reference has the Wild listed as having a 14% chance of making the playoffs. Hardly a foregone conclusion, but also there is hope.
The problem, for the Wild, lies behind the fact that they are having to play catch up.
The teams that they’re chasing?
The good news is that the teams that they are most likely to catch are either struggling or in a flat-out free fall.
The team tonight gets lumped in with the former.
While everyone in Detroit is remaining optimistic that this is a team that could do damage in the playoffs, if healthy (and let’s be honest, they really could), the fact is that they are currently decimated by injuries—something that the Wild need to take advantage of tonight.
To be honest, I'm not quite sure how the lines will roll out for the Wild past the top two, but here’s my best guess, otherwise known what I would do were I the one making the lineups:
Now, I know what you’re asking. Clutterbuck on the fourth line? You're demoting Cal for Robbie Earl? WTF, mate!?
Am I crazy? There's a good chance. But here’s my thoughts. Robbie Earl has five goals this season. Hardly Ovechkin-esque numbers, right? But his shooting percentage? 41.7 percent. He has five goals on 12 shots. To me, that deserves a shot at playing with the big boys.
Meanwhile, Clutterbuck has not been playing his best over the last few games. By no means do I think he deserves a demotion to the eight minutes a game that Earl has been averaging, but I do think that Earl deserves a promotion to more than eight minutes per-game to see what he can do.
On defense, it's likely going to be more of the same:
Look for Burns’s icetime to start increasing, however. He’s going to start getting more and more icetime as his level of conditioning continues to improve and the Wild need him to do just that, especially in a game like tonight’s against an extremely tough opponent.
In net, we’ll get Backstrom despite him getting his “maintenance” day yesterday. Don’t kid yourselves. He’s struggling, but he’s still our No. 1, and he needs to play his way out of this slump, no matter how painful it is to watch.
What to Watch For
Seriously. Robbie Earl.
Why? The Wild is 10-3-2 with him in the lineup and 9-0-1 in his last ten.
Whatever it is that Robbie brings to this team when he’s suited up, it’s infectious. The team has, on a whole, played better with him in the lineup. His speed and grit help this team a great deal and he’s just the type of sparkplug that the Wild need in their lineup.
Also, keep an eye on Guillaume Latendresse.
After his hot streak got him named the third star of the week a couple weeks ago, he has been silent in his last three games.
The good news with G-Lat is twofold.
First, he usually comes out of his shell quite nicely after a scoreless streak. (Six game scoreless streak, followed by four goals in four games. Four game scoreless streak, followed by seven goals and 12 points in seven games.)
Second, even when he’s not scoring he can be an energizer and a difference maker. How? He’s averaging 2.5 shots per game since joining the Wild and 3.5 in his last ten games, and he has turned into a forechecking and checking machine since joining the Wild.
Finally, Niklas Backstrom.
Namely, which Nik will we get? Will we get the one who stoned Columbus for 59:30? Or will we get the one that saw a bad bounce break his shutout and get flustered into giving up one more.
My guess is that he will come out like a man possessed as he did against Columbus. He knows that the hasn’t been playing his best and he knows that the team needs him desperately. Backs will be ready tonight.
But will the Wild?
Key(s) to the Game
The Wild need to come out strong early.
They simply cannot afford to fall into another hole against a good team.
Jimmy Howard is proving that he is the man in net for Detroit and the Wild need to get to him early, as much for their confidence as his.
The Wild tend to score in bunches, so if they can get an early goal, there’s a good chance that their jump will continue and they might be able to extend their lead.
But they cannot afford to fall behind. If they fall behind to Detroit, especially by more than one goal, they will be in deep, deep trouble.
The Wild also NEED to limit the Wings’ scoring chances.
Detroit likes to shoot. Scratch that. They LOVE to shoot.
The Wild have got to protect Backstrom and get in shooting lanes. If they can prevent the Wings from getting a dearth of solid scoring opportunities, they will be able to stay in the game. But another shooting gallery, like happened in the teams’ last meeting?
It could be a long game.
Finally, the Wild need to, need to, need to stop the Wings’ top line. Let Dan Cleary beat you. Let Drew Miller beat you. Let Ville Leino beat you. But, for the love of God, do NOT let Bertuzzi or Datsyuk or Zetterberg beat you. The three of them account for 28 percent of Detroit’s points and 30 percent of Detroit’s goal production.
This isn’t saying that the three players I mentioned, or any of the Wings’ other players can’t beat you. But shutting down the Berzettersyuk line gives you a much better chance.
The puck drops tonight at 7pm and it is televised on FSN! For those following me on Twitter, I’ll hopefully be posting updates on there as we go (though they will definitely not rival those of Mike Russo). You can follow me on Twitter at @WildNation!