Wednesday, January 18, 2012
It'll be a Wild ride to make the playoffs
By Pierre LeBrun
TORONTO -- Devin Setoguchi slammed his stick on the ice in disgust Wednesday, his face wrought in frustration.
He might as well have been speaking for the entire Minnesota Wild organization.
With two wins in their past 16 games (2-10-4), the once NHL-leading Wild are hanging on for their playoff lives while trying to preserve their wits.
"The only way to get out of this is to believe in the guys in the room and believe in yourself,” a composed Setoguchi told ESPN.com after practice. "You have to get that confidence in you. Right now we’re a group with injuries, which is never an excuse, but everyone needs to step up and be better. And that includes myself, the guys that are looked at for scoring -- that’s a big piece of the puzzle we’re looking for right now.’’
There’s certainly extra pressure on a sniper such as Setoguchi. The Wild have scored more than two goals only three times during this 16-game free-fall, massive injuries depleting their ranks, including dropping three of their top six forwards (Mikko Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard).
Setoguchi has two goals in his past 11 games. Linemate Dany Heatley has four goals in his past 16 games. There’s almost no secondary scoring behind them -- the Wild are 29th in the NHL in offense -- which puts even more pressure on the two first-line wingers.
Hence, when Setoguchi missed the net on a drill at the Maple Leafs’ suburban practice facility Wednesday, he flashed some anger.
"We’re having a tough time scoring goals right now,’’ Setoguchi said. "If you want to score in games, you have to try and score in practice. When they’re not going in, in practice, you’re like ... well, you try not to get frustrated.’’
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Warren Peters, he of the 62 career NHL games, was centering the top line Wednesday between Heatley and Setoguchi.
"We’re ready to experiment; we’re ready to try some things,’’ coach Mike Yeo explained after practice. "The status quo is not what we’re looking for right now.’’
Fresh off a 5-1 pasting Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the Wild held a team meeting before practice Wednesday. Right now, the psychological battle is as daunting as the X’s and O’s.
"It’s huge,’’ said Yeo, a terrific hire by the Wild last summer. "That’s what we talked about today before practice. I wanted to get the players to talk about it as well. Right now, if something bad happens, the wheels fall off. We get away from what it is we’re supposed to do. The thing is, I know everybody cares and everybody really wants to do the right thing. But we have to channel that the right way. We can’t have guys having individual efforts and trying to compensate for personnel being out or something bad happening in the game -- because that’s when things spiral out of control for you.’’
This is the biggest challenge yet in Yeo’s rookie head-coaching season. He told ESPN.com on Wednesday that he’s exchanged text messages with his former coaching partner Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh. After all, both coaches can draw parallels with their challenges that come with trying to overcome injuries.
The Wild hook up with the Maple Leafs here in Toronto on Thursday night in a game that pits two anxious teams, the local squad having lost three games in a row to sit outside a playoff spot in the East. The first goal will be huge. The Leafs are facing the most pressure they’ve felt all season after falling out of a playoff spot. The Wild, meanwhile, are a fragile bunch, to say the least.
"It’s tough right now,” Heatley said Wednesday. "We said it when things were going good: Teams go through good and bad stretches. We’re in the midst of a real bad one. Obviously we’re pretty banged up, but we need to find a way to win some games.’’
The GM is doing his best to try to lend a helping hand. Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday he already was planning on trying to add offense via trade back when his team was healthy, let alone with the ensuing injuries. Now with the Wild's top player, Koivu, going down, Fletcher has ramped up those efforts. But finding a top-six forward is a challenge.
As I reported in my weekend notebook last week, Vaclav Prospal of the Blue Jackets, a UFA on July 1, could be a target for Minnesota since Fletcher has a history with him. Other forwards who generally could be on the move before Feb. 27 include Ales Hemsky in Edmonton, Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette in Columbus, Brad Boyes in Buffalo and Tuomo Ruutu in Carolina, just to name a few.
"It’s not easy just to go out and get an impact player in January,’’ Fletcher said. "There’s a lot of teams [and] people competing for similar assets, too. We’ll see what happens. I’ll try to do something if it makes sense. If it’s not there, I’m not going to force it.’’
For the Wild, the hope is that this dark period will strengthen them in the long run. Coming out of this rut, they hope, will make them a stronger group.
"We believe in each other,’’ Heatley said. "We know we can win games together. It’s another opportunity tomorrow night.’’
And you try to find motivation wherever you can find it.
"Everyone who wrote about us at the start of the year, saying we’d be in last place, they’re smiling, I’m sure, right now,’’ Setoguchi said. "We can use that as motivation. We were first overall [in mid-December]; we know what we need to do. We’re in a funk, but we believe in here.
"We’re still in a playoff spot, which is hard to believe after the last 16-17 games,’’ Setoguchi added. "Right now it’s playoff hockey for us. It starts now.’’
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.