Myers: Wild currently on verge of either derailment or playoffs
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - There are lots and lots of opinions about what's plaguing the Minnesota Wild, who on Friday took a huge step toward playing their way out of a post-season trip that has seemed all but inevitable for a month now.
With one game to play in this regular season that at times has seemed so promising, the Wild still need a Saturday win in Denver just to ensure there's a reason to practice on Sunday. In losing 6-1 to the lowly Edmonton Oilers on Friday, in what was billed as a coronation and turned into something that felt more like a funeral, the Wild put themselves in a de facto game seven - win Saturday night on the road versus the down-and-out Colorado Avalanche, and they live to fight another day. Lose, and in all likelihood, they're done.
"It's not the way we wanted it to happen, but we're still in a good place," said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, as the team hastily packed for their late-night trip to the Front Range. "We win (Saturday) and we're in the playoffs. That was our goal to get in the playoffs, and once you get in the playoffs you set another goal. We still control our own destiny here and we have to go in there and play our best game of the season."
The locker room, and the coach's press conference were understandably quiet. Much quieter than what was heard during the ugly 60 minutes of on-ice action, when boos rained down on the Wild repeatedly. A sellout crowd anticipating an easy win against a pushover - the Oilers had lost nine of 10, and had won just once in their last 20 trips to Minnesota - got a wake-up call when Edmonton scored on its first shot of the game, just 27 seconds in. From there it got worse, quickly.
The first period wasn't yet over when Niklas Backstrom was done for the night, yanked by coach Mike Yeo after stopping just two of the five shots he faced. Josh Harding, playing for the first time in more than two months, fared better, but not much better, stopping nine of the 12 shots the Oilers sent his way. Backstrom's teammates and coach said the right things about having faith in their goalie, who will start versus the Avalanche, and who had been 17-0-0 versus the Oilers at home in his career, but the numbers are alarming. The Wild have been out-scored 17-5 in their last four games, winning just one of them.
Trailing 6-0 after two periods, media was offered a rare sight, as team owner Craig Leipold made a visit to general manager Chuck Fletcher's suite in the pressbox, for what was likely an intense conversation behind a closed door.
Two years ago at about this time, Leipold pulled the plug on a young coach (Todd Richards) that the owner sensed was not the answer for his team. With the significant off-season investment Leipold made in Suter and Zach Parise, he's made it clear that this team needs to make the playoffs, for fiscal reasons as much as anything else. With what is on the line, and with his track record, it's easy to envision a scenario where Leipold does not hesitate to make another change behind the bench if things go badly in Denver.
Yeo, for his part, was trying desperately to look forward, not backward, after the Edmonton implosion.
"I just want the focus on (Saturday)," he said. "We can talk about this one until we're blue in the face. I don't think it's going to do us much good to do that. This is a challenge, for sure, and it doesn't feel good."
In past years, when the Wild were a true also-ran in the Western Conference, a scenario that had them playing for a trip to the post-season in late April would have been welcomed. But with the hope generated by Suter and Parise coming to town, and with the long wait for the season to start due to the lockout, fans have higher expectations, and little patience. Suter said they heard the boos clearly on Friday, and understood them.
"We're not happy either," Suter said. "We're - I have to pick my words wisely here - it's frustrating for them just like it is for us. If we could go out and win every game 10-nothing we'd love to. It's a hard league, there's a lot of good teams and a lot of good played. You don't want that to happen, especially at home, but it did."
Which leaves the Wild at a true crossroads on Saturday at the Pepsi Center. Win and the relentless climb up the mountain, with a true shot at the Stanley Cup, continues. Lose and many, many things - most notably the job security of Yeo and Fletcher - become much less certain.
"It was not our night, to put it extremely mildly," Yeo said, in what was his most abbreviated meeting with the home media this season. "But this is the group that got us here and they've done a lot of great things, and I've got a lot of confidence in this group."
What happens on the ice in Denver on Saturday will tell many tales, about where, if anywhere, the Wild goes from here, and about what kind of confidence this team, and this owner, has in their coach.