Zach Parise

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.

The Buzzer: Voracek leads Flyers to fifth straight win; Wild remain in wild-card race

Kevin Hayes #13, Jakub Voracek #93, and Scott Laughton #21 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrate
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Three Stars

1) Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers

Voracek dished out four helpers in the Flyers’ 5-2 win against the New York Rangers Friday. Philadelphia picked up their NHL-leading 23rd home victory and improved its current winning streak to five games in addition. Voracek had several pretty passes throughout the evening to set up his teammates. In the opening period, he fed Sean Couturier while Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith broke his stick and was unable to break up the pass. Late in the second period and early in the third, Voracek helped Claude Giroux score twice to seal the victory in favor of Philadelphia. All of a sudden, the Flyers only trail the Washington Capitals by three points for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

2) Alex Stalock, Minnesota Wild

The odds were stacked against them, but the Wild are not giving up on their pursuit of a spot in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Stalock made 24 saves and picked up his fourth shutout of the season as Minnesota blanked the Columbus Blue Jackets, 5-0. Stalock has quietly put together an impressive season with an 18-9-4 record, 2.60 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. Only two points separate the Wild from the top wild card spot in the west.

3) Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche

With Mikko Rantanen sidelined, the Avalanche need more offensive production from everyone in the lineup. Jost stepped up with two goals as Colorado defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 and extended its winning streak to five games. The first-round pick from the 2016 NHL Draft opened the scoring 6:34 into the first period when his shot whizzed past Anton Forsberg. Jost took a bouncing puck away from Jake Gardiner prior to the goal. He gave the Avalanche a two-goal lead when he tucked a shot past Forsberg halfway through the middle frame. Colorado has two games in hand on the division-leading St. Louis Blues and only trail by three points. Home-ice advantage in the Western Conference will be awarded to the eventual winner of the Central Division.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Pavel Francouz made 45 saves and would be in the Calder Trophy conversation if not for the outstanding play of defensemen Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.
  • Teuvo Teravainen scored twice in the Hurricanes’ 3-2 loss and Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 14 games.
  • Zach Parise and Kevin Fiala each recorded a goal and an assist as the Minnesota Wild won their third straight game.
  • Jason Zucker recorded two goals but the Penguins fell in regulation for the fifth consecutive game.

Highlights of the Night

Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog delivered a pretty cross-ice pass to set up Samuel Girard for the third-period go-ahead goal.

Artemi Panarin extended his point streak to 12 games with this jaw-dropping stretch pass to set up Jesper Fast.

Golden Knights forward Nicolas Roy converted this slick deke to even the score at 1-1.

Giroux pushed the Flyers lead to two goals with this one-timer that clanked off the crossbar before finding the back of the net.

Stats of the Night

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/1233588561666039809

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, New York Rangers 2

Minnesota Wild 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 0

Colorado Avalanche 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2

Vegas Golden Knights 4, Buffalo Sabres 2

Anaheim Ducks 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 2


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Parise: ‘Games were hard to play’ while Wild talked trade

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — For the past week, Zach Parise was carrying some extra weight with him around the ice: The Minnesota Wild were actively talking about trading him.

Now that the deadline has passed, relieving Parise’s stress and ensuring he will complete an eighth season in his home state of Minnesota, the standout left wing can better focus on trying to help the Wild return to the playoffs. Beyond that, though, his future with the organization has become obviously uncertain.

”Those games were hard to play. You just don’t know. Once it gets brought up to you, in your mind you’re thinking, ‘Am I leaving tomorrow? What’s going on here?”’ Parise said Tuesday, before the Wild hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets. ”Now that that’s over, we can just worry about here and winning and getting ourselves into that wild-card spot.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who’s in his first year running the team, took the uncommon tack of publicly acknowledging Monday after the deadline that he discussed a deal involving Parise.

Guerin didn’t identify the corresponding team, which The Athletic reported was the New York Islanders. Their general manager, Lou Lamoriello, declined to divulge specifics to reporters. ”I don’t know what the definition of close is. You always think there’s something that could potentially happen, but until it materializes you weren’t close,” said Lamoriello, who drafted Parise in 2003 when he was general manager of the New Jersey Devils.

The wrinkle with a potential deal involving Parise is that he has a no-movement clause in his contract, requiring him to approve any trade. More transparency, thus, is necessary from the front office regarding such discussions. Guerin approached him a week ago while the team was on the road, Parise said, with the possibility. Parise declined to confirm whether he told Guerin he’d waive the no-movement clause, but had he indicated disinterest the talks surely would’ve ended then.

That’s probably why Parise was choosing his words carefully as he took questions from reporters Tuesday, realizing that acknowledging a willingness to leave could make for an awkward stay for however much longer he’s with the Wild.

”I don’t know how close it got. I really don’t,” Parise said. ”I love it here. I always have. My goals here haven’t changed: It’s to help this team. I’m not disappointed by any means that I’m here. I really enjoy playing here.”

When Parise and his longtime pal, defenseman Ryan Suter, simultaneously signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild on July 4, 2012, the profile and expectations of this frequently middling franchise were instantly heightened.

The additions sparked fervor anew in an already fervent fan base and laid the foundation for a sellout streak that reached 230 straight games, until ending on Oct. 20 for the second home game of this season. The Wild made the playoffs in each of the first six seasons with the Parise-Suter duo, but that run ended in 2019, too. They’re below the cutoff again this year, too, in 11th place in the Western Conference and five points out of a spot. Since Parise and Suter arrived, the Wild have only won a playoff series twice and never advanced past the conference semifinals.

Parise again has the most goals for Minnesota (21) this season, the fifth time in eight he has led the Wild in scoring. He was one goal off the team lead in his second season (2013-14), too. That’s been part of the problem, though. Parise has long been a workmanlike scorer, excellent at rebounds and redirects while always willing to muscle his way into traffic against bigger defenders, but he’s not the type of player who can take over a game or consistently create chances for others. The salary cap space taken up by Parise and Suter has ultimately made it more difficult to build a contender around them.

The 35-year-old Parise, as he’s skating toward the end of his 15th season in the NHL, has not been shy about voicing his heightened urgency to win a Stanley Cup. Just because the Wild didn’t trade him this week doesn’t mean Guerin wouldn’t take another crack at it in the summer.

”There are certain moves that just require more time and a little more detail,” Guerin said, speaking generally about the seed-planting process that deadline-week discussions can initiate. ”Sometimes you want to get through a season with a player and revisit it. You’re not unhappy with him, but you could see the potential return you could get, so you revisit it. Like I said, we’ll handle that at the end of the season.”

As for any disappointment in not completing the deal?

”Not at all. I’m actually kind of excited to see what this group can do,” Guerin said. ”I’ve said all along that they’re getting an opportunity, a longer leash.”

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bjorkstrand, Dvorak highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: Eberle had a disappointing first half of the campaign, but he’s picked up the pace lately with four goals and six points in seven games. He’s a tough one to gauge. Certainly when he’s at his best, he’s worth owning and he had some very strong seasons earlier in his career. The last two seasons though have featured stints of strong play from Eberle, but he’s been more miss than hit over that span. There’s the hope that his recent play will be the start of a second half turnaround, but that’s far from a safe bet. What I will suggest is that you should be weary of him. Pick him up for now and hope for the best, but be prepared to drop him in a couple weeks if things aren’t playing out as you wished.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson’s first full season with Vancouver got off to a quiet start. He had just two goals and six points in 18 games through Nov. 10th. He’s found another gear since then though with 12 goals and 31 points in 31 games. He’s been playing alongside Bo Horvat and that combo has worked well together. With Pearson still only owned in 37% of Yahoo leagues, you should check on his status in your league and pick him up if he’s available.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault is on a three-game point streak with a goal and five points over that span. That’s a solid start to what will hopefully be a longer hot streak, but even putting that aside, he’s had a great campaign with 12 goals and 36 points in 50 contests. His center-only eligibility means that he’s still something of a borderline option in standard leagues, but he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s off and he’s good enough to hang onto even when he’s not.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: Bjorkstrand scored five goals and seven points in four games from Dec. 16-21, but in the last game during that stretch he suffered a rib/cartilage contusion and an oblique strain. He made his return from those injuries on Sunday and picked up right where he left off with another two goals. It helps that he’s been averaging 17:18 minutes this season, which is a huge leap from the 12:20 minutes per game of work he got in 2018-19 when he finished with 36 points in 77 games.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G: Smith has certainly not been an ideal goaltender this season, but he’s been great lately and has asserted himself as the Oilers’ starter in the process. So far in January he’s 5-0-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .924 save percentage in six games. I don’t trust him to stay strong for the rest of the second half, but if you’re in need of goaltending help, Smith is probably your best option right now among those who are available.

Anthony Cirelli, Lightning – C: Cirelli had a hat trick on Friday, which gives him six points in his last three games. Immediately following the break might be a good time to bet on the Lightning in general. They’ll kick off with a four-game road trip that takes them to Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. The Stars are a tough team defensively, but the other three teams in the trip are pretty vulnerable and that could lead to some high scoring games for Tampa Bay in the near future.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: If you want help offensively, Gudas isn’t a great bet. He has contributed two goals and 14 points in 49 games, so he’s not a pure stay-at-home defneseman, but he’s very useful in other fantasy categories. He’s tied for sixth in plus/minus at 22 and ranks fifth among defenseman with 135 hits. He’s also been taking a lot of shots lately, accumulating 19 in his last seven games. He’s more of a situation pickup to grab if you’re hurting in categories that are a bit easier to neglect than the more eye-catching offensive statistics.

Alexander Steen, Blues – LW/RW: Steen had a terrible start to the season with five assists in his first 24 games. He may have turned a corner though with four goals and nine points in his last nine contests. This might just be a hot streak and if that’s the case then he’s only worth a short-term pickup. However, Steen’s a good enough player that he might end up having a strong second half of the campaign.

Christian Dvorak, Coyotes – C/LW: Dvorak has 13 goals and 30 points in 51 games in 2019-20, which puts him in that borderline range where he could conceivably be on a fantasy squad year round without looking out of place, but in many cases there are better options out there. For now though he’s hot, having recorded a point in each of his last four games, so if you’re looking for a short-term pickup, he’s an option worth considering, especially given his left wing eligibility.

Zach Parise, Wild – LW: Parise isn’t the star he once was, but the 35-year-old is having a great season with 18 goals and 30 points in 48 games. Right now he’s on a goal scoring streak with four markers in his last three games, so he’s worth considering right now, to ride for as long as he’s hot. It’s worth adding that aside from a bad start to the season where he scored three goals and had no assists in 13 games, he’s been a pretty stable contributor in 2019-20, so he’s also not a bad player to grab simply as an injury replacement if you have a hole to fill on the left wing.

Players You May Want To Drop

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Raanta made his return from a lower-body injury on Saturday, but was chased from that contest after allowing six goals on 18 shots. That’s not the primary reason I’m recommending dropping him though. The All-Star break is just around the corner and Darcy Kuemper will likely return shortly after it. Once he does, Raanta will be relegated to backup duties and won’t have much value as a result.

Dougie Hamilton, Hurricanes – D: Hamilton is still owned in 86% of Yahoo leagues and unfortunately, I’d advise that you drop him unless you’re in a keeper league. Hamilton has had an amazing season, but after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left fibula, he’s likely to miss most if not all of the rest of the campaign. To be fair, we don’t know exactly how long Hamilton will be out because Carolina didn’t provide a timetable, but this is a major injury and half the season is already done so the situation is rather bleak.

Esa Lindell, Stars – D: Lindell had a five-game point streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 9, recording eight assists over that span. He’s been held off the scoresheet over his last four games though, with the lone silver lining being his goal on Jan. 14th. He’s a solid defenseman, but not quite good enough offensively to warrant holding onto at all times unless you’re particularly hurting for blueliners or you’re in a deep league.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a good run from Jan. 5-14 with four goals and five points in his last five games, but he’s been held off the scoresheet in his last three contests. He’s a solid secondary scorer for the Penguins, but isn’t good enough to hold onto outside of his hot streaks. For that reason, I’d recommend dropping him for now and just keeping an eye on him if you’re interesting in grabbing him again once he starts to heat up.

Rasmus Sandin, Maple Leafs – D: Sandin was called up on Jan. 13th and made a great first impression with two assists on Jan. 14th. That excited some fantasy owners given the 19-year-old’s potential, but Sandin was held off the scoresheet in the two games that followed. I think Sandin will eventually be a great defenseman, but right now he’s mostly with the Leafs to fill a hole. He’s only averaged 16:03 minutes over his three games since being summoned. I don’t think he’s going to have much use to fantasy owners in standard leagues in the near future.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Wild hold on against Lightning, snap losing streak

What a difference 48 hours made for the Minnesota Wild.

When we saw them on Tuesday night they were getting dominated on the scoreboard and embarrassed by a lineup card gaffe that forced them to play with a shorthanded defense.

On Thursday, they went toe-to-toe with one of the NHL’s best teams and snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive 3-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is just the WIld’s second win in their past eight games, and their first in regulation during that stretch.

Ryan Suter‘s goal late in the second period ended up going in the books as the game-winner, while Zach Parise and Joel Eriksson Ek also scored for the Wild. Goalie Alex Stalock stopped 18 out of 20 shots he faced, including a shot from Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at the buzzer to secure the win.

Nikita Kucherov scored both goals for the Lightning in the losing effort.

The Wild desperately needed this to win because their recent slide has really started to bury them in the Western Conference playoff race. Their playoff hopes are barely flickering right now and every point the rest of the way is going to be massive. They have almost no margin for error.

The most impressive part of this particular win is just how strong they looked for most of the game, especially on the heels of such a lackluster performance on Tuesday night. Coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday he had two options after that game — either “bag skate” the team, or send them home and tell them to get away from hockey (via Michael Russo). He chose the latter, saying they would find out on Thursday if it was the right decision. It seemed that it was as they took what has been one of the NHL’s hottest teams (11-1-0 in their previous 12 games entering Tuesday), and one of the most dominating offenses, and for the most part completely shut it down.

The Lightning were on a 16-5-1 run since the start of December (second best record in the league behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins during that stretch) and averaging more than 32 shots and 3.5 goals per game. On Thursday, the Wild limited them to just two goals and only 20 shots. That shot total is the Lightning’s third-lowest of the season, and the lowest since a November 19 against the St. Louis Blues.

Thursday’s game is the first of a 12-game stretch where the Wild play 11 games on home ice, where they have actually played extremely well this season. If they are going to make any sort of a move toward a playoff spot, this is their chance.

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.