Jason Brough

AP

Even if they do regress, the Wild have built a nice playoff cushion

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Devan Dubnyk isn’t the only reason for the Minnesota’s Wild’s success.

To be sure, Dubnyk has been excellent, going 17-6-3 with a .948 save percentage. But the netminder doesn’t have much to do with the Wild’s offense, which currently ranks fourth in the NHL (3.06 goals per game), up from 18th last season (2.60).

“The pucks are going in,” forward Mikko Koivu told reporters after Friday’s 7-4 win over the Rangers. The Wild only registered 21 shots in their 10th straight victory. They chased Henrik Lundqvist, who made just nine saves on 13 shots.

“Once we started winning [consistently], they started to believe in the things that we were trying to accomplish. And then when we didn’t do well, our confidence was there to bail us out,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said recently, per the StarTribune. “You gain confidence, it’s a crazy thing, but when you believe you can win all the time, it usually happens.”

So far this season, only two teams — the Rangers (11.2%) and Blue Jackets (11.1%) — have registered a higher shooting percentage than the Wild (10.6%).

This, of course, has led to predictions of a regression. Minnesota is a middle-of-the-pack team based on puck-possession stats.

But then, with a record of 21-8-4, the Wild can afford to fall back to earth a bit. Heading into tonight’s game in Nashville, they’re 11 points up on the Predators, the closest non-playoff team in the Western Conference.

Related: Who has been the NHL’s MVP?

Lundqvist has the flu, did not join Rangers for morning skate

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Henrik Lundqvist has the flu and did not join his New York Rangers for the morning skate ahead of tonight’s home game with Ottawa.

There’s been no official word yet, but it seems likely that Antti Raanta will get the nod against the Senators.

Raanta struggled in his last start, allowing seven goals on 47 shots in a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 20. He then relieved Lundqvist three days later, allowing two goals on seven shots in a 7-4 loss to Minnesota.

Obviously, losing 7-2 then 7-4 was no great way to head into the Christmas break.

“There’s no excuse,” head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters after the loss to the Wild. “We had one line — (Stepan’s) line — bring out their ‘A’ game and the rest weren’t good enough from the goaltender on out.”

Despite the back-to-back defeats, the Rangers still have a very respectable record of 23-12-1. Their next game after tonight’s is Thursday in Arizona. They also play Saturday in Colorado before returning home to face Buffalo next Tuesday.

Christmas Q&A: Why is it going to be a great finish to the regular season?

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Gretz: The new generation of young talent that is hitting the NHL. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been at the top of the league for a decade, and now we are starting to see the next wave coming through, and it is an impressive bunch. Will Connor McDavid be able to hold off Crosby in the Art Ross race? Then you get to the rookie class. Last year’s group with McDavid, Jack Eichel, Shayne Gostisbehere, Max Domi, and Dylan Larkin was amazing, but this one almost seems to be even deeper and more impressive. Will Patrik Laine make a serious run at 50 goals as a rookie? Even 40 would be amazing. Seeing Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and that group develop in Toronto. Zach Werenski becoming a cornerstone piece for the Blue Jackets. The young talent entering the league right now is simply incredible and they are making an immediate impact.

Brough: Here’s why — let’s say all five Metropolitan juggernauts keep rolling and make the playoffs. That only leaves three spots for the Atlantic Division, right? Now, we’ll assume Montreal doesn’t collapse again, which leaves just two spots for Ottawa, Boston, Detroit, Florida, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Buffalo. So basically, whatever happens, some very noteworthy teams are going to miss the playoffs. Would Claude Julien survive a third straight miss with the Bruins? Probably not. If the Red Wings miss for the first time since 1990, might that franchise veer into a full-on rebuild? It’s possible. What if the Lightning or Panthers don’t make the cut? Because those teams had extremely high hopes heading into the season. So it’s going to be fascinating to watch. And, oh yeah, there could be some pretty notable playoff misses in the West as well. Looking at you, Dallas and Nashville.

Alfieri: Have you seen the parity in the league? There are still multiple teams that have a shot to win each division, and the chase for the wild-card spots in each conference are far from over. As the season goes on, we’ll find out just how serious teams like the Blue Jackets, Senators and Oilers are. You also have to believe that some of the teams that are underachieving like the Lightning, Panthers, Kings, Predators and Stars will make a run at some point. In terms of individual races, I’m excited to see if Connor McDavid, who turns 20 in January, will be able to take home the Art Ross Trophy at such a young age, and if Sidney Crosby can score 50 — or heck, even 60 — goals.

Tucker: Sidney Crosby leads the league in goals, with 23, and rookie Patrik Laine is only four goals behind. Can an 18-year-old freshman win the Rocket Richard Trophy? And oh yeah, Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin are lurking back there as dark-horse contenders for the goalscoring title as well. Can Connor McDavid take home the Art Ross in his second year? Crosby is nipping at his heels. Bigger picture, it feels like the torch-passing process is underway. And it sure is fun to watch.

O’Brien: The beauty of this season is that “parity” doesn’t mean “a lot of same-y, mediocre teams.” Instead, it feels like watching Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing H-O-R-S-E. But, beyond that, there’s one factor that makes this home stretch unpredictable and unique: the specter of the expansion draft. Will we experience a wilder trade deadline as teams adjust expectations and try to avoid losing quality players for nothing to Sin City? Hopefully!

Halford: There’s potential for the most exciting trade deadline in a while. Already there are two clear-cut sellers in Arizona and Colorado, each with key UFA chips to play (Jarome Iginla, Martin Hanzal). The Avs might be looking for a bigger shakeup than that, too. And look at the teams that *might* miss! What would Detroit do as a seller? What about the Isles? You know there’ll be fierce competition among buyers, especially given how tight things are in the Metro, which could make for a terrific set of circumstances. Like Brian Burke said, the NHL is more exciting when there are more trades. I’ll take anything to avoid a repeat of last year, when I spent an hour analyzing Mikkel Boedker‘s potential impact on the Avs.

Christmas Q&A: Would you like to change your Stanley Cup pick?

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Brough: Nope, I’ll stick with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So far, I’ve seen nothing to dissuade my opinion that they can become the first repeat champs of the salary-cap era. Even the 7-1 loss in Columbus didn’t hurt my faith in the Pens, since they didn’t have Kris Letang or Trevor Daley, two of their best defensemen. For me, the most encouraging player has been Matt Murray. No sophomore slump for that guy. I will, however, admit that it’s going to be a lot tougher than I expected to get out of the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins could easily face the Rangers or Flyers in the first round, then the Capitals or Blue Jackets in the second, or something along those lines. Survive that and they might have to beat Carey Price to get to the final. So it’ll be tough, but I think they’re up to the task.

Gretz: I originally went with Nashville over Tampa Bay, which is admittedly not looking great at the moment. But then I think back to last season and remember where Pittsburgh and San Jose were at Christmas. So I am going to be bold and stick with it, as crazy at that might seem at this point. There is still too much talent on the Predators for them to be this bad.

Alfieri: Definitely! I chose the Lightning to beat the Stars in the Cup final, which isn’t looking good right now. I expect both teams to turn things around in the New Year, but I’m having a hard time picturing either one playing into June. I know Steven Stamkos will be back in March, but I don’t know if the Lightning will be able to hold it together until then. If I get a fresh pick, I’ll go with the San Jose Sharks. Like Pittsburgh, they haven’t really suffered from a Stanley Cup hangover, which was a little surprising to me considering how many veterans they have on the team. I like the way their roster is put together, and if they can add a piece or two before the deadline, I think they have a legitimate chance to win it all.

Tucker: I chose the Capitals at the beginning of the season. I know advancing far in the playoffs has been a challenge, but I’m going to stick with that pick. Perhaps I’d like to change their opponent. I picked the Capitals over the Predators. Not so confident right now about those Predators making it to the Final. But, of course, plenty of time left in the season.

O’Brien: How about this: rather than changing course altogether, I’ll swap my winner and loser, having the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Dallas Stars. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby, a nice supporting cast and at least one goalie who can get the job done. The Stars are a mess, but as Gretz mentioned above, so were the Penguins around this time last year. The West isn’t the buzz saw it once was, so the Stars could conceivably figure things out and go on a run. Still, their punishment for stumbling out of the gate is being downgraded to Stanley Cup finalist rather than Stanley Cup winner. That’ll show them.

Halford: For the record, I’m totally against the notion of switching picks. This is a joke. You should be saddled with your awful preseason predictions ’til the end of time, like I was for my Columbus Blue Jackets love-in of ’15 (but look at me now! I’m a savant!) So yeah, I’m going to stick with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not overly worried about their slow start — they pretty much did the same thing last year, and finished one game shy of the Cup final — and I actually think this Ben Bishop injury could be a blessing in disguise. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s been the better of the two this year — quite significantly, in fact — and now’s the time to prove he’s the goalie of the present, not just the future.

Christmas Q&A: Who has been the NHL’s MVP?

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Brough: Lots of great options, but I’ll go with Devan Dubnyk. I can’t think of a single player who’s been more important to his team’s success. Dubnyk was decent last year, but he’s been spectacular this season. And I’ll admit it, I didn’t think the Wild would be all that good. I thought the Eric Staal signing was a desperation move that was unlikely to pan out, and I saw the hiring of Bruce Boudreau as a last-ditch attempt by GM Chuck Fletcher to squeeze the last bit of juice out of an aging roster. The Wild may fall back to earth in the second half, but thanks to Dubnyk, they’ve built a comfortable cushion in the standings. It would take a pretty big collapse to miss the playoffs now.

Gretz: I think at this point it has to be Connor McDavid. You can talk about Milan Lucic‘s presence in the locker room, or Adam Larsson improving the defense, or the “shake up” that came with trading a core player in Taylor Hall, but the single biggest reason the Oilers even have a chance to make the playoffs at this point is McDavid already being one of the two best players in hockey. The Oilers’ offense runs through him, and when he is not on the ice you still seem some glaring weaknesses with this team. There are not many individual non-goalies in the NHL that can have this big of an impact on their success or failure of their team. But McDavid has already proven to be one of them.

Alfieri: I’ve gotta go with Sergei Bobrovsky. Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to be competitive this year, but they’ve been fantastic for a few reasons, and the biggest is Bobrovsky. After going through a disappointing 2015-16 season, he’s bounced back in a big way. Sure, he’s had some help, but there’s no doubt that he’s the player the Jackets could least afford to lose if they’re going to make it back to the playoffs next spring. If they want to remain in the top three of the Metropolitan Division, they’ll need Bobrovsky to keep standing on his head. I think he can do it.

Tucker: McDavid. He has to be the front-runner right now, which is remarkable because he’s only 19 years old. He’s a second-year star leading the league in points. There are other candidates, as well. Without McDavid, though, I hate to think where the Oilers would be in the standings. Probably right around where they always were, before they got him. 

O’Brien: When in doubt, go with the player you’d choose in a pick-up game, and for me, that would be Sidney Crosby. His 37 points in 28 games would prorate to a blistering 108 points over 82 games; by comparison, McDavid is on pace for about 94. The time Crosby missed due to his injury can actually help his Hart argument, too, as there’s a night-and-day difference between how the Penguins play with No. 87 versus without him.

Halford: Vladimir Tarasenko, who’s right in the thick of the scoring race. I really don’t think people understand how much he’s carried the Blues this year. Tarasenko leads the team in scoring and is 15 clear of St. Louis’ No. 2 point-getter (Kevin Shattenkirk). And it’s not like the Blues are getting great goaltending or otherworldly performances from other guys, either. Has McDavid been great? Yes, but so has Leon Draisaitl. Has Crosby been great? Yes, but so have Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Dubnyk and Bobrovsky have been terrific too, but they’ve got really good teams in front of them. Tank, meanwhile, has been a one-man army at times.