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Minnesota Wild post-Olympic outlook

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The Minnesota Wild entered the 2013-14 season with elevated expectations in year two with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

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Last season, the Wild snuck into the playoffs and were quickly ousted in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. This season, with new division rivals and playoff format, the Wild were expected to finish in the top three of the Central Division and a top six seed for the postseason.

The Wild sit right in the middle of the division with 69 points, 10 behind the third place Colorado Avalanche and five points ahead of the fifth place Dallas Stars. They are currently in the first wild card spot, which would give them the seventh seed.

The Wild finished its pre-Olympic schedule (59 games) on a two-game winning streak and 6-2-2 record in the last 10 games (tied for the second best record among Western Conference teams).

Despite being one of the 11 best teams in the league, the Wild are one of the six lowest scoring teams. The Wild’s leading scorer, Jason Pominville (40 points), ranks tied for 66th in the league. Along with Pominville, only Zach Parise (tied for 89th with 36 points) ranks in the top 100 individuals in scoring in the league.

The Wild has the 11th best record because of their defense. They rank ninth in the league in goals allowed, 0.3 goals per game (19 total goals) behind the best team.

Schedule going forward

The Wild has 23 games remaining in the season (11 at home and 12 on the road). The Wild’s remaining schedule is not easy, but not all that difficult either. They have seven games against teams virtually locked into a playoff spot, four games against teams that are fighting to keep their playoff spot, seven games against teams within five points of a playoff spot and four games against teams that pretty much have no chance of making the postseason.

The remaining schedule includes three games against the St. Louis Blues (two at home), two games against the Boston Bruins (one at home), a home-and-home series on consecutive days against the Detroit Red Wings and a road game in Chicago.

Fortunately, two games against teams still in the mix are very close to falling out of the playoff picture completely.

Injury report

Injuries are an issue as the Wild return from the break. Mikko Koivu and Niklas Backstrom are question marks for the Wild’s two game road trip on Thursday and Friday. According to head coach Mike Yeo, Marco Scandella is possible, but not probable to play in those games. Jason Zucker will not play on the trip after having an operation on his leg during the Olympic break and Josh Harding’s status remains unchanged from before the break three weeks ago. Zucker’s operation was deemed minor and should not keep him out long.

Koivu has been determined to be a game day decision for Thursday in Edmonton. He appears to be progressing as the team has pushed him hard in practice, but have not penciled him into the lineup yet.

Backstrom remains the enigma of the Wild’s injury report. He met with the same doctor that performed his sports hernia surgery in the offseason, but reported soreness in the area when the team resumed practice a week ago. He has not practiced since.

The only injury certainties appear to be that Zucker and Harding are out for now.

Lineup

The Wild were able to showcase their young talent while Koivu and Parise were out prior to the Olympic break. Now that they have shown they can be counted on to produce, the Wild look like a much scarier and deeper team.

If Koivu returns Thursday, the team could have three good offensive lines and one really good checking line. The lines could be:

Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Dany Heatley-Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell

If Koivu doesn’t return then Coyle moves to center with Heatley and Niederreiter, Fontaine moves to wing with Cooke and Brodziak and Mike Rupp enters the lineup with Haula and Mitchell.

The defense should be easier to determine. The pairings should be:

Suter-Jonas Brodin

Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Clayton Stoner-Nate Prosser

If Scandella can’t play, Spurgeon likely plays with Suter, Prosser pairs with Brodin and Keith Ballard plays with Stoner.

Playoffs

While it is too early to lock the Wild into the playoffs, it is highly likely they will play beyond the regular season. Despite needing to make up 10 points with one less game to play, the Wild can and most likely will pass the Colorado Avalanche for the third Central Division playoff spot and likely No. 5 seed. The Avalanche have a much more difficult schedule remaining with just one game against a team firmly out of playoff contention. They also have 10 games against teams in the top two spots in their respective divisions - two of which are at home against teams that are closer to the Wild in the overall standings than the league’s best.

The Wild should be able to close the gap with the Avalanche quickly and make the final weeks of the season very interesting.

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