Sunday, November 29, 2009

Have they turned a corner?

The first 20 or so games of the Wild season didn't give us much to cheer about, nor much optimism about the season. It wasn't just that they had the second-worst record in team history after 20 games, it was also the fact that they didn't look energetic, they didn't look cohesive and on most nights the on-ice product was downright ugly.

There were some injuries - most notably the concussion that has kept Pierre-Marc Bouchard out of the lineup for all but the first game of the season - and there obviously was going to be a period of adjustment to the system of new coach Todd Richards. But none of this seemed to explain the dull, listless team that blew a lead and lost at Tampa, lost three days later in Carolina, and lost again three days after that at home to Phoenix. There wasn't much energy inside the X, and there was even talk of the benefit of having a horrible record so we could get a high draft choice.

But after that Phoenix loss - which was one of the most unwatchable games ever played in the Xcel Energy Center - something seemed to happen. On Friday the 20th, they earned a gritty win over the Islanders, when Owen Nolan scored late in the game. Over the next couple of days, they picked up center Andrew Ebbettt off of waivers from Chicago, and then traded away Benoit Puliot for Guillaume Latendresse. Also, Chuck Kobasew came back from an injury. And something about the chemistry of the team seemed to change.

We'd been hearing since training camp that the Richards system encouraged aggressive forechecking, with all three forwards free to go after the puck-carrier, as opposed to the Jacques Lemaire system of the first eight years, which relied more on a single forechecker and tried to disrupt the other team's attack as it moved through the neutral zone. But for 20 or 22 games, we didn't see much of that.

But over the past four games, it's starting to happen. Wild forwards are crashing hard in the offensive zone, forcing turnovers and creating chances. The defensemen are getting more integrated into the attack and the Wild have had long stretches of puck possession in the offensive zone, something we saw little of in the Lemaire years. Ebbett scored in his first game. Kobasew had a hat trick against Colorado, and Latendresse scored the tying goal tonight in Denver. Suddenly the team is creating a lot of quality chances.

And yet the defense isn't suffering. The night before Thanksgiving, they held Boston to just seven shots through two periods, and tonight they held Colorado to 22 shots in a shootout win at the Pepsi Center. They have three wins and an OT loss in their last four games (seven out of a possible eight points) and suddenly there seems to be a good vibe around the team, even though Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, Petr Sykora and Marek Zidlicky are all injured right now.

It might just be an illusion - we tend to do well against the less-physical Eastern Conference teams, and the Avalanche are having struggles of their own right now - but I think there's a chance this team is much better than it showed the first six weeks of the season.

December's schedule is brutal - 16 games in 30 days, nine of them on the road - and so we'll do another reality check around New Year's Day, but right now I'm cautiously optimistic that this group can climb back into serious contention for a playoff spot.

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