Zulgad: 5 reasons the Wild were able to turn around their season
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The Minnesota Wild had lost nine of their previous 12 games and appeared to be on the brink of a collapse that could have cost them a playoff spot as they entered their March 29 game in Phoenix.
The Coyotes needed only a victory to pass Minnesota and take over the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff standings. That game was the second of a difficult four-game trip for the Wild that, at the time, still included stops in Los Angeles and Chicago.
A continuing spiral almost certainly would have meant that Mike Yeo wouldn't have been brought back as coach and would have sent the franchise into the offseason with some serious soul searching needed. (Remember, a year ago the Wild had come as close as possible to blowing a playoff berth.)
And then things changed.
On Tuesday, the Wild beat the Boston Bruins 4-3 in a shootout to clinch the seventh seed (and first wild-card) spot in the Western Conference.
So what happened?
Here are five factors that led to the turnaround:
Beat down by the Blues: It wasn't the Wild's 5-1 loss on March 27 that was disturbing so much as it was how they lost. The Blues, anticipating a potential first-round matchup against Minnesota in the playoffs, decided they were going to physically intimidate the visitors and see what they did about it.
The Wild did nothing.
It got so bad that when Blues captain David Backes got in Darcy Kuemper's face that the Wild goalie had to stand up for himself. That was fine but ordinarily a teammate or two would have come back to defend the goalie.
That didn't happen.
T.J. Oshie finished with a hat trick and the Blues beat the Wild for the ninth consecutive time.
Losing wasn't embarrassing. But the way the Wild went about it was another story.
Come together: Team meetings can be overrated and an easy story line for sportswriters to latch onto. But in this case, it actually seemed to be a major help.
After losing at St. Louis, Wild captain Mikko Koivu and assistant captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter requested an extra practice but were denied because of issues with the collective bargaining agreement.
Instead, they called a players-only meeting in Phoenix at which the air was cleared.
The contention here is that real leaders tell their teammates a game like the one against the Blues - or the 5-2 home loss to Vancouver a night earlier - isn't only unacceptable, but that it isn't going to be repeated again.
It's then the responsibility of those leaders to go out and show those same teammates that they will put in the same effort they are demanding.
That's what Koivu, Parise and Suter did.
The Wild trailed Phoenix 1-0 after two periods, but Parise scored two third-period goals, both assisted by Koivu, and Jared Spurgeon added another as Minnesota rallied for a 3-1 win.
Two nights later, the Wild rallied in the third period for a 3-2 victory in Los Angeles.
Scratching Heatley: Veteran winger Dany Heatley has recorded 50 goals and 100 points in a season twice in his career and is being paid $5 million in 2013-14. This despite the fact he's no longer close to being the star player who at one time was considered one of the NHL's top snipers.
Whether it was his big salary or Yeo not wanting to embarrass the 33-year-old, Heatley never had been a healthy scratch in an NHL career that began in 2001-02 with the Atlanta Thrashers.
That changed in the Phoenix game.
Heatley, who had 12 goals in 74 games and is a team-worst minus-19, watched from the press box as the Wild rallied against the Coyotes. He has been a healthy scratch for five of the past six games.
The only game that Heatley played in, and that was in place of an injured Nino Niederreiter, the Wild lost in a shootout to the Blackhawks.
Other than that, the Wild are a perfect 5-0 without Heatley. How much has Yeo's decision to make Heatley a spectator helped?
It's pretty difficult to convince a locker room full of players that they need to do more and pull their weight when you continue to play a $5 million guy whose best days are long gone. Especially when a young player like Justin Fontaine deserved the ice time that Heatley was getting.
The decision to bench Heatley sent a message that salary or status no longer would be a factor in ice time.
Coyle to wing: There are some in the Wild organization who think that Charlie Coyle's future is at center.
They might be correct. But not right now.
Coyle had been playing center while Koivu missed time because of an ankle injury, but when Koivu returned in early March, the decision was made to move Coyle back to wing.
Coyle finds himself skating on the first line with Koivu and Parise in what has been an up-and-down season for the 22-year-old. Coyle, who is 6-3, 222 pounds, is not only a skilled player but he also brings a toughness working the boards and out front.
Coyle had a seven-game stretch in March with no points, but has five goals and five assists in his past 10 games. He had the only goal in the Wild's victory at Winnipeg on Monday and contributed two assists in a win over Pittsburgh two nights before that.
Coyle is finding his stride at the perfect time and the fact he's playing on the wing is a big reason.
A find in net: The Wild was in desperate need of goaltending depth at the trading deadline when general manager Chuck Fletcher sent a fourth-round draft pick in 2014 to the Edmonton Oilers for veteran goalie Ilya Brzygalov.
The thinking was that Brzygalov would serve as the backup to Kuemper, making only an occasional appearance.
But Kuemper began to falter and then got hurt in the morning skate before the Wild's win against the Kings.
That has meant Brzygalov has started every game since the win in Phoenix. In 10 starts with the Wild, he is 7-0-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.
That includes three shutouts, including back-to-back ones against the Penguins and Jets. It doesn't get much better than that.
Kuemper is expected back for the playoffs, but he won't return as the Wild's top goalie.
Brzygalov, meanwhile, has gone from a goalie with an uncertain future playing on a one-year contract to a guy who appears to be making a bid to land a multiyear deal.