Tuesday, March 20, 2007
After reaching their 'rock bottom,' Wild aiming for Cup
By George Johnson Special to ESPN.com
The rebirth can be traced all the way back to Jan. 9, one bleak, sobering, self-effacing night in Calgary.
"We were absolutely brutal in that game," muttered Wes Walz, smarting at the recollection more than two months later. "And I was especially absolutely brutal. I took a penalty to give them a five-on-three. They scored. And that was it.
Wes Walz's reported tirade helped spark the Wild's recent turnaround.
"Brutal. Absolutely brutal."
Sorting through the debris immediately following that 3-0 loss at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire called out a number of his key players.
Walz spoke bluntly of an identity crisis.
Brian Rolston couldn't hide his disgust.
Two nights later in Vancouver, the Wild, fed up and determined to stop the rot, stormed out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. But they let down in the second period, and the Canucks struck back for two goals of their own. In the dressing room between periods, Walz reportedly peeled paint off the walls with a blistering verbal tirade.
"As close as I've come," he said later, "to a meltdown in my life."
Embarrassed into action, Marian Gaborik, as easy to corral as a drop of mercury running down a linoleum tabletop, scored early in the third and the Wild went on to claim a season-shifting 5-2 win in a difficult building.
Since then, they haven't looked back.
Since then, they've won 20 games, lost only five in regulation and piled up 44 of a possible 58 points.
Since then, they've rampaged back into the fight for the Northwest Division lead.
"If you go out and only play a period, you just won't win," Lemaire lectured. "If four or five guys don't show up to play, you just won't win. If two defensemen have a bad game, you just won't win. If your goaltender lets in a bad one or two, you just won't win.
"In Vancouver that night, we had 19 guys play at their best."
Yes, it's the Minnesota Wild crowding MVP candidate Roberto Luongo, the Sedin twins and the rest of the Canucks for the Northwest crown and the automatic third seed in the West playoff pool; not the defending division winners from Calgary or the Stanley Cup finalists from Edmonton.
Weird? Wacky? No. Like, Wild, man.
They're riding a six-game winning streak heading into Tuesday's action and are 7-1-1 over their last nine games. Then, there's the little matter of a franchise-best 19 road wins this season.
A successful conclusion to this concerted assault at the Northwest summit is well within their grasp. Tuesday against the bottom-feeding Phoenix Coyotes, Minnesota begins its postseason run-in with eight of its final nine regular-season home games at Xcel Center and six of those are against teams out of playoff contention.
The Wild are giving the Canucks a serious run for the Northwest Division title.
"The division is ours if we play well at home," Walz said. "It's up to us. But, really, winning the division is not the most important thing. In this conference, there's really little difference between one through eight.
"All we want to be doing is playing well, playing our style, feeling good about ourselves, when the playoffs start. That's the objective," Walz added. "If the division title comes along with that, great. If it doesn't, well, it's not going to be the end of the world."
The rise of the Wild dovetails with superb performances from two men. Returning from a groin injury that cost him 34 games, Gaborik has been the consistent game buster everyone knows him to be. Teaming with Todd White and fellow Slovak Pavol Demitra, he's excelled on the road, where he's scored 18 of his 25 goals. Fans in St. Paul are likely wondering where the Wild would be if he hadn't missed all that time, but, in the end, the extended stint on the sidelines might be beneficial. He's fresh, frisky and on fire heading into the big dance, when it counts most.
"Having Gabby back in the lineup is huge, obviously," Rolston said. "It gives teams more to think about in matchups. He makes our line better, and in turn, we make his line better. It took this team a while to learn how to win on the road. But we've gotten our act together."
Meanwhile, the emergence of goalie Niklas Backstrom as a stand-in for the injured Manny Fernandez has made Lemaire's job of selecting a go-to guy come playoff time a hellish one. Backstrom has proven to be much more than just a second banana. Even Fernandez has said Lemaire would be ga-ga not to go with Backstrom as long as he's playing so well.
Of Backstrom, Lemaire said: "We wouldn't be close if he wasn't playing this way."
But close they are. Three points behind the pacesetting Canucks. In making up ground over the past two months, the Wild have combined their trademark defensive awareness -- surrendering only 25 goals in the last 13 games -- with the newfound offensive thrust the additions of Demitra and Mark Parrish were designed to generate.
So there's a quiet, confident manner to the Wild as the playoffs approach. No matter where they start the first round, no matter what the opposition.
"You never know who you're going to end up with," Gaborik said. "You can't choose. So there's no sense in getting caught up in that. You just have to take what comes. All the teams in this conference are going to be tough."
None more so, at an ideal time, than the Minnesota Wild.
"Definitely, we feel good about ourselves," Rolston said. "We think we have as good a chance as anybody."
And not without ample reason.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.