After another up and down start to the season for the Wild, Minnesota has found its stride and has a shot this year at returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Finally after some technology troubles, I have returned to give readers some insight on the first half of the season as well as what to expect in the last half so thank you for your patience.
First, the Wild started off this season much like they did last year, ups and downs, trouble scoring and trouble defending.
Then November came along and the Wild seemed to be finally setting their new re-designed game into concrete.
Minnesota's power-play is still top notch in the National Hockey League, ranked 6th in the league with a 21.4% conversion rate, and the penalty kill is ranked 11th at 82.7%
This is critical for Minnesota who at the beginning of the season knew and spoke out that these were two areas that they wanted to improve in, and surely they have.
Although special teams have improved, some areas still need improvement for this team to make a real push towards the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Minnesota is ranked 27th in the league in 5-on-5 goals with 76 on the year, 43 goals shy of the league leading Philadelphia Flyers with 119.
Minnesota is ranked 23rd overall in scoring with 126 total goals on the year, 30th in shots per game and 22nd in shots against per game, all areas which if improved can help propel this team into the playoffs.
More specifically, the Wild have been out-shot in 43 of 48 games this season and yet have 23 wins while being out-shot in a game, the most in the NHL.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Minnesota has only one win the entire season when out-shooting an opponent
What this means obviously is that the Wild needs to have a more sustained offensive attack, meaning keeping the puck in the offensive zone and keeping sustained pressure.
In games we have seen this, most recently in best form against Vancouver on January 16th. Minnesota was able to sustain offensive pressure, be physical, win battles and control the game and ended up with a 4-0 shutout win to the then NHL leading Canucks
With all that said, Minnesota has been hot lately, although streaky, the Wild have put themselves in position to contend for the playoffs this spring.
Just days before the All-Star break in Raleigh, Minnesota is only three points out of a playoff spot and only five points from fourth place in the conference.
However the Wild are also only two points ahead of 14th place St. Louis—yes just nine points separate 14th from fourth place in the Western Conference.
It's a tight race so the Wild will have to take every game one at a time because every game can make or break this season.
Being in a position to contend however should keep this team up-beat and it looks like the Minnesota Wild has found its stride.
The team is playing more consistent, and more "complete" games then at the beginning of the season, a fault that the Wild coaching staff especially head coach Todd Richards, has been very vocal about.
More physical and "emotional" play has helped the team as well.
One player that had a good week last week, even though he may not have registered any points, was Brad Staubitz.
He was physical, stood up for his team-mates and made some great defensive plays.
That energy and work ethic is exactly what this team needs game-to-game. Eric Nystrom has been that guy every single game this year.
Although he only has one goal on the year, his hard work, grit and never quit attitude is precisely what the Wild coaching staff want to see out of everyone every game.
He wins battles in the offensive zone, drives hard to the net and fore-checks hard every shift. Hopefully it has inspired his team-mates as well.
So what should we expect out of the Wild throughout the second half of the season?
Unfortunately, this is hard question because this team has been so inconsistent until recently. Its hard to say if this team is really starting to settle in, or if it is going to continue to be the team that is different every night.
Expect the un-expected. This team has the capability to go either way, up or down.
If this team can put in a consistent hard effort every game then it has a chance to play beyond March, but if it slumps, even for a week in this tight Western Conference race, it may find itself again outside looking in towards the playoffs.
It is my sole belief that this team is ready to settle down and make a serious push towards the playoffs.
It has for the first time in awhile the offensive depth combined with a solid defense, and a good balance of veteran leadership and young talent.
It has the pieces in place, minus a few injuries to Marek Zidlicky and Guillaume Lantendresse.
Zidlicky will be out for at least another four to six weeks as he rehabs a shoulder injury, and Latendresse is out indefinitely with an abdominal injury and is recovering from two surgeries in November.
This team can do it, if it can execute. If it cant, it will be the third straight early spring for the Minnesota Wild.
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