By: Isaac Jahns
I’ll be honest. I am from Rochester, Minnesota, which lies about 90 minutes south of the Xcel Energy Center. Ever since I could understand the rules and concepts of hockey, I’ve been a Minnesota Wild fan. I went from a casual to diehard fan in the 2012-2013 season, when the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to large free agent deals prior to the season and made the playoffs for the first time in. Optimism in the State of Hockey was the highest it had ever been since the Wild dropped the puck on their existence in 1995. Visions of Stanley Cups danced in our heads, and they were to come sooner rather than later. The past two years, however, have not exactly gone according to plan.
The 2012-13 season was enticing, but left us empty-handed when the Chicago Blackhawks dispatched us from the playoffs in five games. Expectations for that season were considerably lower than those set for the 13-14 campaign, and the Wild seemed primed to meet or exceed those expectations with Parise and Suter anchoring the offense and defense, plus goaltender Josh Harding leading the NHL in save percentage. However, when Harding’s season (and career) was ended due to complications of multiple sclerosis, the goaltending quality fell to AHL levels, bringing the Wild’s record with it. GM Chuck Fletcher scrambled to find a replacement, eventually trading for Ilya Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers, but the damage to the record was done. Even though the Wild started and finished the season as one of the best teams in the NHL, they had to settle for the final slot in the Western Conference playoffs. Their first round series with the Colorado Avalanche was one of the greatest playoff series I have ever witnessed, and it was capped off with a Game 7 overtime winner by Nino Niederreiter to send the Wild on to face the Blackhawks again. In short, it didn’t go so well. Management made another splash in the offseason by signing forward Thomas Vanek, and the beginning of the 2014-15 season looked very similar to the previous two. The Wild rose to the top of the standings before new starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper simply stopped saving shots. The resulting fall left the Wild out of the playoff picture when Fletcher traded for Arizona backup goalie Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk blossomed into one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and the Wild (again) finished on fire, yet still could not crack the top three in the Central Division. Their first round series with the St. Louis Blues went quickly and easily, as the Wild looked more like the winners of the Central than the Blues. After looking like the best team in the West, fans were thinking the third time would be the charm and the 2015 playoffs would finally be the year the Wild would take down the Blackhawks.
We got swept.
Which leads us, finally, to the 2015-16 campaign. As per usual, the Wild got off to a blazing fast start, placing themselves firmly in the top 5 teams in the NHL. When December rolled around, however, the offense stopped. Goaltending had been the issue over the past three years, but Dubnyk was the lone Minnesota All-Star and has been putting up Vezina-caliber numbers ever since arriving in the Twin Cities. The problem couldn’t be fixed with a simple trade, like it had been the past two years. Finally, management decided to go after the head coach Mike Yeo, who had been in Minnesota for the better part of five years, was let go in a desperate hope that it would bring a spark to the team. In the six days that have followed, the much maligned offense has scored 15 goals in three games and interim coach John Torchetti has earned three regulation wins in three games. With a newly revitalized offense and Devan Dubnyk still putting up All-Star numbers between the pipes, the Wild seem set for another rise up the standings and another wild-card berth, most likely putting them against the… Chicago Blackhawks.
The last four seasons of Minnesota Wild hockey have been nothing if not strange. When they play to their potential, the Wild are easily one of the best teams in the NHL. When they don’t, they’re one of the worst. It’s infuriating for fans of the team, because we know how good they can be when they’re on their game. For the past for years, it’s been unexplainable, but now Wild fans may have the answer: Mike Yeo. Up until this year, the collapses have been blamed on goaltending issues, and rightfully so. This year, however, the goaltending problems were solved because of Dubnyk. The lone constant from the prior three years was Yeo. One coach shouldn’t be the cause of four separate drastic collapses, yet it seems that it may be the case. Now that Yeo is out, Wild fans should be cautiously optimistic as John Torchetti tries to do what Yeo could not and send them past the Chicago Blackhawks and in to the Western Conference – and maybe even farther. If my friends and family back home want to see more success this year for the Wild, the Stadium Series game on the 21st against our favorite playoff opponent should be a good indication. The game will be the first home game for the Wild since they fired Yeo and promptly went on a three game winning streak, plus the atmosphere will be much more similar to a playoff game than the two games the Hawks and Wild have played so far this year. The Wild have won both. If the Hawks can get the win on Sunday, it’s definitely not a good sign for the Wild’s chances this year. If the Wild keep streaking, however, this season may be salvageable – and could turn out to be better than the past three.