Cross Checks: Joey MacDonald

So, maybe we were a bit hasty in assuming the Minnesota Wild were locks to make the playoffs.

After a lackluster 4-1 loss Sunday night to the lowly Calgary Flames, the Wild woke up Monday to find that they'd sunk into a tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final two playoff berths in the Western Conference, with the Detroit Red Wings just three points back with a game in hand.

Now, credit Joey MacDonald, who was stellar for the Flames, stopping 34 of 35 shots. But, come on, these are the Flames -- a team long banished from playoff contention. The Wild's offense, never the team's strong suit and less so with Dany Heatley out with injury, continues to sputter. Minnesota has only three wins in its past 11 games and has gone from battling the Vancouver Canucks for the top spot in the Northwest Division to fighting for its playoff life, a fall that is mindful of the Wild's great descent from the top of the standings midway through last season to a 12th-place finish in the conference.

During this 11-game span, the Wild have been outscored 33-19. Sorry, that won't cut it.

Even though Zach Parise and linemate Mikko Koivu combined for 15 shots Sunday, the Wild are going to need more finish or this season is going to end quickly, whether they make the playoffs or not.

The Wild still control their destiny in the race against the surging Blue Jackets (who came up with a huge 4-3 road win Sunday against the San Jose Sharks) and with the Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes lurking in the weeds. The fact that the Wild play the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche down the stretch (along with the Los Angeles Kings) should help pave the way to their first postseason berth in five years.

Of course, we would have thought that heading into Sunday's game, too.
Today, the fellas go at it over Sam Gagner, the Blackhawks and Jimmy Howard's pinkie. Bring it.

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Well, that was one for the ages for Sam Gagner on Thursday night, wasn’t it? The young Edmonton Oiler who has been the subject of trade rumors scored four times and added four assists as the Oilers spanked the Chicago Blackhawks 8-4. It’s the second time this season the Hawks have been crushed by the lowly Oil, having suffered a 9-2 pasting earlier in the season. Gagner, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, has never quite lived up to expectations, and you wonder whether he is another example of a player who was rushed too quickly -- and the result has been an eroding of confidence and production. Even with his four-goal outburst Thursday, Gagner has just nine goals on the season and has never topped the 16-goal mark. Likewise, he has yet to equal the 49-point mark he established in his rookie season.

So, does a night like Thursday that saw him equal a franchise mark established in the Oilers’ glory days by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey suddenly make him attractive on the open market? You’d have to think Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman will remember this performance as he trawls for some offensive depth and a defenseman before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Of course, Hawks fans will be up in arms about another disappointing defensive/goaltending outing that saw Corey Crawford yanked early in the third period after having allowed five goals on 28 shots. There aren’t any real obvious fixes to the Hawks’ goaltending issues, assuming you believe there are issues. Evgeni Nabokov? Hardly seems like an upgrade. What say you, my friend?

LEBRUN: Gagner got to play between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle on Thursday night, and you saw what he can do when he gets an opportunity. What a sensational and historical night for Gagner. He’s been subject of trade rumors because his camp wondered whether he’d be a better fit elsewhere because he’s mostly played on the third line this season. His people believe that he’s at least a second-line center. If the Oilers do trade him, and that’s far from certain, they’d require a top-four defenseman in return, the one area they’re keenly focused on improving. My sense, though, is that the Oilers will keep Gagner.

As for the Hawks, now 25th in the NHL in goals against per game, the search for a defenseman takes on added pressure after that mess. Crawford must take his share of the blame, as well, but I really don’t think the Hawks are looking for another goalie at this point. I think they’re committed to the sophomore netminder. He was dynamite in the first round of the playoffs against Vancouver this past spring, and there’s no way that was a fluke.

BURNSIDE: Here’s the dilemma for Bowman, as I see it. The Blackhawks can light it up with anyone in the league -- they are fourth in goals per game -- and have a blue line that boasts top-end talent in former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Canadian Olympian Brent Seabrook and up-and-coming blueliner Nick Leddy. But right now, where would you rank their goaltending in the conference? Hard to argue that Jimmy Howard (more on him in a moment), Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider, Brian Elliott/Jaroslav Halak, Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi wouldn’t rank ahead of Crawford (and Chicago backup Ray Emery). Throw in Jonathan Quick, who is having a Vezina-worthy season in Los Angeles, and Niklas Backstrom of the eighth-place Wild, and you could argue quite persuasively that the Blackhawks have the worst goaltending of the eight teams currently in the playoff bracket in the West. Can they overcome that and win a round or two or more? Well, that’s the great debate, no?

The Blackhawks, in the middle of a nine-game road trip, travel to Calgary on Friday night. Calgary is another one of those teams trying to decide if it's a buyer or a seller. If the Flames fall off the pace -- they are five points out of eighth in 11th place as we speak -- you have to wonder whether GM Jay Feaster might entertain offers for Miikka Kiprusoff. The veteran netminder has a no-move clause through the end of this season, but the Flames’ rebuilding has to start somewhere, no? And given Feaster’s repeated insistence that he’s not moving captain Jarome Iginla, maybe Kiprusoff is where it starts. And if you’re Chicago, well, food for thought, no?

LEBRUN: The Hawks won the Cup with an untested rookie in Niemi in June 2010. I rest my case. Speaking of goaltending, though, the Red Wings will have to do without Howard for a bit. The NHL’s wins leader (32) suffered a broken pinkie finger in Thursday night’s 4-3 shootout victory at Vancouver. The Wings officially say Howard will miss two games before being re-evaluated after the team returns home from its road trip. A source told ESPN.com Friday morning that he might be out two weeks or so. Either way, it doesn’t sound too serious. Joey MacDonald has been called up to back up Ty Conklin, whom head coach Mike Babcock hasn’t showed a whole lot of confidence in this season. This should be an interesting test for the Wings.

BURNSIDE: You are right about the Red Wings’ goaltending depth issues. Conklin has played in only 10 games this season and has an .886 save percentage. Even though Howard’s injury doesn’t sound that serious long-term, do you think this hastens the urgency to find a more suitable backup for the Red Wings? It was GM Ken Holland, after all, who tried to nab Nabokov a year ago when the former San Jose mainstay cut short his experience in the Kontinental Hockey League. The New York Islanders grabbed him, however, and Nabokov has been OK with a pretty mediocre Islanders squad. But he’s not the long-term answer there. (Kevin Poulin appears to be the heir apparent with Al Montoya still looking to get a shot at the No. 1 job, too.) So, Nabokov to Detroit does seem a logical move and perhaps even more so with Friday's news.

LEBRUN: I think it really depends on how Conklin or MacDonald do in Howard’s absence and how long Howard ends up being out. If for some reason the backups struggle and Howard doesn’t heal quite as quickly as the Wings had hoped, maybe it forces Detroit’s hand. But otherwise, I don’t think that’s a priority for Detroit right now. My understanding is that the Wings will consider acquiring a top-six forward the most important item on their shopping list before Feb. 27, and that remains the case even with Howard’s injury.

Well, my friend, enjoy the weekend, and we’ll get back to this next week.

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