High marks at the mid-term: Wild wins third in a row
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Maybe it was appropriate that the current Minnesota Wild road trip included a stint in the Ivy League. Don't look now, but the team that ended 2010 tripping over its own skates is looking valedictory less than a week later, and has thrust itself back into the Western Conference playoff picture with three consecutive wins.
On Wednesday, with an off-day in Massachusetts at hand and no ice time available at the Boston Bruins' home rink, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher took the team back to his old college haunt, Harvard University's aptly-named Bright Hockey Center, for practice. It was the perfect setting for a team that has put aside the mental lapses and mistakes that often were factors in December losses, and is winning in January with smart, up-tempo hockey.
The new attitude and aptitude were on display Thursday night in Boston, as the Wild beat the Bruins 3-1 and improved to 2-0 on the current road trip. While this is still far from being a team that is a lock for a deep playoff run, or even a playoff appearance, the Wild is at least making its presence felt in the muddled middle of the conference standings.
At the time the first puck was being dropped on Thursday, the Wild sat in 12th place in the west, just four points (two losses) from 14th place, and just four points (two wins) from fourth place. Northwest Division-leading Vancouver has clearly established itself as an elite team in the conference (currently leading the west, just ahead of Detroit and Dallas) meaning that a second division title banner won't be hanging from the Xcel Energy Center rafters come April.
But beyond those three teams, opportunities for the last five playoff spots abound. Especially with the Northwest essentially coming down to a two-team race for second place. The Canucks are running away with it, while things are bad in Alberta, where the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames are the conference's worst two teams. That leaves the Wild and Colorado Avalanche to fight for whatever's left when the Canucks are done having their way in the division. One of them, but likely not both, will make the playoffs.
And at roughly the midpoint of the 2010-11 campaign, the Wild is playing its best, and smartest, hockey of the season. Thursday's win in Boston was a perfect example of a team playing within its comfort zone, taking what the opponent offers - in this case it was key turnovers that led to goals, like Cal Clutterbuck's game-winner - and playing good enough defense to win close games.
Clutterbuck's goal gave him a dozen for the season, and tied him with Brent Burns for the team lead. More likely offensive suspects, namely Martin Havlat and Mikko Koivu, got the other Wild goals, and Jose Theodore got his third straight start, and win, in goal, stopping 35 Boston shots.
Of course, any good Ivy League student knows that you can't rest for too long, even after doing well on a test. The hockey version of a tough mid-term exam awaits on Saturday when the Wild visits the league's newest arena (Consol Energy Center) and one of the true elite teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Of course, this may be the perfect time for a visit to the recent home of the Winter Classic. On Wednesday, Penguins star Sidney Crosby went home early from the Pens' current road trip, and missed Pittsburgh's 2-1 shootout loss in Montreal. Later Thursday night, the team announced Crosby would be out roughly a week with a mild concussion.
Crosby's misfortune is more positive news for a Wild team that's gotten high marks on the mid-terms so far.