If you placed a bet on the Tampa Bay Lightning getting shut out by the Minnesota Wild last night, chances are drinks are on you tonight.
The Lightning failed to score in regulation for the first time all season, coming at a time where the team is still in reach of the NHL’s wins and points records. The Wild got three goals from Jason Zucker for his second-career hat-trick in what can only be described as a big-time upset at this time of the year.
But the Wild are no joke. With a 6-2-2 record over their past 10 games, they’ve turned on the jets and are still fighting for for playoff spot when it looked not long ago they’d miss out for the first time in seven seasons.
Currently sitting in the final wild-card spot in the west, three points ahead of Arizona, the Wild always seem to do just enough to squeak into the playoffs. That’s all well and good, but continuously proving to be no match for Central Division rivals in the playoffs, where they’ve won only two rounds since 2003, indicates they aren’t really making any progress.
So, is anything different this year?
The team is playing some of its best hockey as the stakes get even higher, which is a great sign. Minnesota could have easily shipped off Eric Staal and become a seller at the NHL trade deadline, but they stood their ground, and it’s pay off.
Part of Minnesota’s recent success has to do with Ryan Donato’s excellent play since acquiring him from Boston. Donato has nine points in eight games for the team, tying his output with the Bruins in 26 fewer games.
And while fellow deadline acquisition Kevin Fiala has been rather quiet in his five Wild games, he did score twice, including the game-tying goal, against his former team from Nashville to force overtime and give the Wild a point against a top Western Conference squad.
The Wild aren’t a high-scoring team, currently sitting 24th in the league with 189 goals. They are, however, well rounded. They are getting great performances from Staal, Zucker and Donato of late, with the top line combining for 27 points over the past eight games. Even with Mikko Koivu done for the season with a knee injury and Victor Rask, acquired in January, out of the lineup for the time being, Minnesota could have six players finish with at least 40 points, the same amount Winnipeg and Nashville are on pace to finish with.
The Wild are 12th best in goals allowed this season, which helps when you have a top-end defender leading the troops on the blueline. Ryan Suter has played at least 28 minutes a night over the past five games, albeit with two needing extra time. This year, Suter is averaging 26:57 a game, the most in the NHL. The team relies heavily on Suter and Jared Spurgeon, especially with Matt Dumba expected to miss the rest of the year.
With a team with no real superstars (goaltender Devan Dubnyk was their lone representative at the All-Star Game), the Wild have handled some of the top teams with ease this year. They’ve beaten Winnipeg in all four games they’ve played and with the 3-0 win last night, they’ve topped the Lightning in both meetings, too. As part of its past 10 games, Minnesota also gained points against Nashville in back-to-back events. And seeing that the stretch started with consecutive 4-0 shutout losses to St. Louis and Anaheim, the Wild have points in eight straight.
But as good as they’ve been, given their matchups down the stretch, they can’t afford to lose many points. They have to play potential playoff targets Winnipeg, Nashville and Vegas late in the month, while also facing off against Dallas, a fellow wild-card team, twice. If Arizona continues the run they’re having, their March 31 duel would be bonkers.
Nothing about Minnesota’s upcoming schedule is easy, but the team has proven they can hang with the best all season and get hot for stretches. And that makes them a very scary playoff opponent.