How the Wild played their way back into playoff contention

Just when it looked like you could close the book on the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild, they have managed to play their way back into playoff contention in the Western Conference.

Entering play on Thursday night (when the Wild visit San Jose), they sit just one point back of the Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference while still having two games in hand on both. They are one of the hottest teams in the league over the past 20 games and have the strong underlying numbers (indicating the right process) to backup their results in the standings.

Given everything that has happened for this organization over the past year, it is a stunning turnaround.

Just consider everything that has happened since July.

Individually any one of those points is a lot for a team to deal with. Put all of them together in a span of less than a year and it is absolutely insane. Combined with how bad the team was a year ago it is remarkable they are back in a position to potentially make the playoffs.

Let’s look at a couple of key factors driving that turnaround.

Kevin Fiala has been on a roll

Chalk this one up as a win for Fenton.

One of his many in-season trades last year was to acquire Fiala from the Nashville Predators for Mikael Granlund. While Granlund has struggled to make much of an impact for the Predators (and is headed for unrestricted free agency this summer), Fiala has had a career year for the Wild and has been especially hot over the past month-and-a-half.

Over the past 20 games he has 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) and is one of the leading scorers in the league during that stretch.

That includes nine multi-point games, including five in a row entering Thursday.

Alex Stalock has taken control of the net

This is probably the most surprising development this season.

While Devan Dubnyk has been the Wild’s rock in net for the past four years, it is the 32-year-old Stalock, a career backup, that has helped drive their climb up the standings.

He has started 14 of the past 20 games, owning a 10-3-1 record with a .926 save percentage during that stretch. It is one of the best runs of his career and has helped solidify what had been a trouble spot this season with Dubnyk struggling through the worst season of his Minnesota tenure and one of the worst seasons of his career.

They have simply found their game

One thing that probably didn’t get a lot of attention in the first part of the season is that the Wild were probably playing better than their record would indicate. During 5-on-5 play they were doing a decent job controlling the pace of the game, and most of the numbers showed that. Their share of scoring chances and expected goals were among the top-10 in the league, but it wasn’t translating into results because their goaltending wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain.

But Stalock’s play over the past two months, as well as the fact that the Wild have upped their game even more, has made them one of the hottest teams in the league.

The table below looks at their overall 5-on-5 play over the various stretches this season (league ranking in parenthesis).

If you control the share of shot attempts and scoring chances at that level, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win a lot of games. Especially if the goaltending is there. Right now, it is all clicking.

The Wild are currently on a 90-point pace which, given the current pace of every team in the Western Conference, would be enough for a Wild Card spot.

They still have a long way to go before they get there and do not have much margin for error, but they have at least put themselves back into a position where they can do it.

That is probably more than anybody expected at the start of the year. Or just a few weeks ago.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

    For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

    “He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

    The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

    “I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

    “That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

    The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

    Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

    Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

    “Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

    Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

    What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

    With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

    University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

    Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

    Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

    “You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

    What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

    Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

    In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

    He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

    Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

    Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

    “It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.

    AROUND THE RINK

    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.