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The Winning Combination

01/31/2012, 1:44pm CST
By Aaron Paitich

Despite midseason slump, State of Hockey poised for a winner — now and in the future

Jarod Palmer and Matt Cullen

Immortal. Untouchable. Perfect.

For a while there, the Minnesota Wild were the darlings of the National Hockey League, winning 17 of 21 contests from the end of October to the beginning of December. Rookie head coach Mike Yeo’s team owned the NHL’s top spot and garnered special attention from coast to coast. But just how did they do it?

Yeo, the NHL’s youngest head coach, instilled a fast-paced north-south system that generated pressure and wore other teams down. A tireless forecheck, timely goal scoring, impeccable goaltending and steady defense brought the State of Hockey to its feet once again. The stoic skipper seemed to be saying the right things at the right times. Lineup changes, line combinations and team morale were at highs Minnesota hasn’t seen in years.

Stellar goaltending from Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and even prospect Matt Hackett were backed by a stabilizing defensive corps. Captain Mikko Koivu and off-season trade acquisition Dany Heatley have led the scoring. Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck brought grit and double-digit goal totals to the lineup.

After hitting the mid-winter skids, they have since returned to Mother Earth.

Picked by many preseason media polls to miss the playoffs, Minnesota is still in great position to return to postseason hockey. Every team goes through rough patches and the Wild is no different, but Minnesota stored a whole hockey bag of points that will come in handy down the stretch. Minnesota no longer stands as the top dogs, but are the Wild the real deal? Yes, for now – and for the future. Here’s why.

Mike Yeo

One reason the Wild got off to such a hot start was the play of Moorhead’s Matt Cullen.

Buying Local

One reason the Wild got off to such a hot start was the play of Moorhead’s Matt Cullen. After a down year, the veteran pivot came back hungrier and more motivated than ever. Cullen tallied 10 goals before the midway point of the season, almost surpassing his 2010-2011 totals with four months left on the schedule. He’s been strong in the face-off circle, logged big minutes and scored big shootout goals, helping secure those all-important extra points in the standings. The former St. Cloud State Husky played in his 1,000 NHL game on Jan. 10 against the San Jose Sharks in front of his friends and family at Xcel Energy Center.

But Cullen is not the only one. More and more Minnesotans are suiting up for the hometown franchise. With a glut of midseason injuries, the local boys have taken advantage of each opportunity.

Nate Prosser has shined on the blue line in multiple call-ups this season. The Elk River native and former Colorado College star tallied five assists in 18 games before being reassigned to Houston in early January. He’s averaged more than 20 minutes per game in ice time, proving how much Yeo trusts the 25-year-old defenseman.

While being a steady force for Minnesota, the Wild’s glut of quality defensemen leaves Prosser at a disadvantage. He doesn’t require waivers to be reassigned to Houston, making him the easy roster transaction. He’ll be back.

Jeff Taffe has been lighting up the scoreboard for the Houston Aeros. When the Wild called, the Hastings native, former Gopher and NCAA National Champion answered. In three games, Taffe tallied two assists. He spent most of his minutes on the Wild’s top line. Minnesota brought him on board for insurance purposes and he has more than fulfilled those expectations.

Mike Lundin started his Wild career on the injured reserve list. After an arduous rehab, the Burnsville native and former Maine Black Bear steadily climbed his way back into the lineup. He’s averaged more than 20 minutes of ice per game.

Jarod Palmer was a pleasant surprise in the mid-December call-up. The Fridley native and former Miami RedHawk played six games and tallied his first NHL goal on Dec. 29 against Edmonton. Palmer is a strong, fast and physical forward who put himself in numerous scoring opportunities. Keep an eye on him.


Nate Prosser

Jarod Palmer

Worldly Impressions

Yeo preaches the importance of a winning culture. While fans can get used to that now, the future is often what excites Minnesotans the most.

After national media bombarded the Wild with their booming first-half first-place status, the hockey world caught a glimpse of the organization’s bright future during the holidays. Minnesota featured six hot prospects in the 2012 World Junior Championships held in Calgary and Edmonton from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 – three of which helped Sweden capture the Gold Medal.

Jonas Brodin continued to impress as a young blue liner. The Wild’s 10th overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft is poised in his own zone and can move the puck up ice with ease. Brodin is a smooth-skating Swede who could potentially be in a Wild sweater as soon as next season.

Johan Larsson has climbed in almost every national prospect ranking. The 2010 second rounder captained Sweden. Enough said.

Johan Gustafsson pitched a shutout in the Gold Medal game. The Wild’s goaltending depth has been on display all season. Gustafsson is yet another gem making headlines.

Mikael Granlund tied for second in the tournament’s scoring lead with two goals and nine assists in seven games. Xcel Energy Center is clamoring for the Finnish superstar.

Charlie Coyle is a horse. That’s why General Manager Chuck Fletcher made sure he was in the Brent Burns trade this offseason. Although the U.S. disappointed in the tournament with a seventh-place finish, Coyle scored four goals and added one assist. His size and skill give the Wild another potential top-six forward.

Jason Zucker captained the Red, White and Blue. His speed, skill and work ethic provide instant energy and scoring opportunities. It was his third World Juniors tournament and he continues to light up the WCHA at Denver.

These are just six members of the Wild’s fertile prospect pool – a clear snapshot of the franchise’s overall health and long-term vision.

Realignment on Hold

The State of Hockey beamed with excitement after initial reports of the NHL’s newly-approved realignment for the 2012-2013 season. Memories of the North Stars’ old Norris Division rivalries with Chicago and Detroit excited an already-energized fan base. The changes would eliminate divisions, instead slotting teams into four conferences deemed much more suitable for the league. Easier travel, natural rivals and more reasonable game times for viewers make the most sense for Minnesota, along with the rest of the NHL.

The National Hockey Leagues’ Players Association was not ready to approve the proposal, delaying – and possibly squashing – realignment plans, which were due to take effect next season. There is still optimism around the league that this will be approved eventually, whether small changes are made or not.

Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold issued a statement following the NHLPA’s announcement.

“I’m disappointed for our fans, our employees and our players. It appears everyone wanted this to happen except the leaders of the players union. I pledge to Wild fans to continue to pursue this realignment plan as aggressively as possible.”

The NHL’s current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire Sept. 15, 2012, meaning this is just one of many issues on the negotiating table.

Tag(s): February 2012