Suddenly, masters of the road: Wild clicks away from home again
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Surely there were a lot of Minnesota Wild fans who saw this coming back in October. For example, by midseason, everyone expected the Wild to be led by a goalie tandem of Jose Theodore and Anton Khudobin, and for the team to be among the hottest road clubs in the NHL. Right?
Well, expected or not, we're here. Saturday night's 4-0 road win over the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins was just the latest example of the mid-season surge that has inserted the Wild solidly into the conversation about playoff teams.
Although, if one looks as Theodore's history versus the Pens, the Saturday night result is not all that surprising. In earning his 30th career shutout, and becoming the first goalie ever to blank the Penguins in their sparkling new home, Consol Energy Center, Theodore improved to 17-1-3 in his past 21 games against Pittsburgh. Although on this night, he clearly got a small break, with star forward Sidney Crosby out of the lineup for a week with a mild concussion.
All of that aside, this Wild team looks different than even a week ago, and it's not just some of the names on the backs of sweaters that are different. Just a few minutes into the second period on Saturday, the Wild had fired 20 shots on goal. This came from the team that for much of the season as been among the league's lightest-shooting clubs. At the halfway point of the season, the Wild has now won 11 road games, after winning 13 away from St. Paul all of last season. Clearly with the way this team is playing, this is the perfect month to be on the road for eight of the 12 games in January.
But the triumph came on a day that could have been a downer if one just focused on the off-ice news. Khudobin was summoned from the minor league team in Houston, and Theodore got his fourth consecutive start, after it was revealed that Niklas Backstrom is heading to a specialist in Colorado to get his "lower body injury" looked at. For a starting goalie that has battled hip trouble in the past, this is an indication that his time out of the lineup may be extended.
There was also a "good news/bad news" update on defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who hurt his shoulder in a Dec. 29 home win over the Sharks. The good news is that he will not undergo season-ending surgery. The bad news is that he's expected out of the lineup for four to six weeks, and then will be evaluated for possible surgery later.
Home on Sunday evening for a 5 p.m. date with the Pacific Division-leading Dallas Stars, the Wild will face a few questions in front of the home fans. For example, with the quick turnaround from a Saturday night road game to a Sunday late-afternoon home game, will Khudobin get the nod in goal? And which Wild home team will show up in St. Paul? While the road play has been stellar, the Wild has been a .500 team at home of late, and showed in ugly home losses to Detroit and Nashville recently that no-shows still happen.
But on Saturday all Wild players on-ice were present and accounted for. It started with a Chuck Kobasew goal, and Martin Havlat doubled the lead with his second goal in as many outings. When Cal Clutterbuck scored his team-leading 13th of the season in the third period, the final result was all but guaranteed.
It's a long way from just a few weeks ago, when very, very little about this team - playoff prospects, coaching security, goaltending competency - was guaranteed.