If you’re the sort of fan who likes to crunch numbers, there are various sites out there that will offer projected odds for each team making the playoffs. You can find them at sites like sportsclubstats.com, hockeyviz.com and hockeyreference.com. The sites use different methods and get different results, but there’s a solid consensus forming around several teams.
Most of those are the ones you’d expect—first-place teams like Montreal, Chicago and New York are among the locks, while teams like the Islanders and Avalanche are all but done. No shockers there.
But there's another team that all the projections seem to think is a lock, and it's a bit of a surprise: the Minnesota Wild, who clock in at 96 percent or better in all three systems. That seems a little strange for a team that's not even close to leading its own division. At eight points back of the Blackhawks, the Wild are closer to missing the playoffs altogether than winning the Central.
So why is their outlook so rosy? Well, a big part of it is fairly simple—they've got games in hand on just about everyone. No team in the NHL has played fewer than Minnesota's 30 games, and they've got four to make up on the Blackhawks, so the division is very much still in play.
But maybe more importantly, the Wild are looking like a very good team these days. They've won seven straight, and have picked up points in 12 of their last 13 games. They've also got the best goals differential in the West by a wide margin.
And they're doing it with a team-wide effort. Sure, Devan Dubnyk has been fantastic, and would probably get plenty of Vezina love if we held the vote today. But he's been supported by a balanced offence led by a rejuvenated Eric Staal. And in what stands as a nice change for the Wild, they've been getting production from some of their younger players.
There are a handful of red flags here, however: The Wild aren't a great possession team, and they've got a league-high PDO at even strength. Some of that can be chalked up to score effects and Dubnyk, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
But even with that said, there's a nice story playing out in Minnesota, one featuring a team that many of us weren't all that high on heading into the season. Remember, Bruce Boudreau has never had a full NHL season where he didn't win his division. That seemed like a longshot to continue this year, but the Wild are making it interesting. And even if they can't catch the Blackhawks, the numbers guys seem to think that they're already all but in the playoffs.
If the Wild are a genuine contender, they'll get a chance to show it over the next few days. After hosting the lowly Avalanche tomorrow, they'll finish the week with back-to-back road games against the Canadiens and Rangers. It's probably too early to talk about those games as potential Cup final previews, but Minnesota fans are allowed to at least think it.
Road to the Cup
The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favourite status.
5. Chicago Blackhawks (22-8-4, +17 true goals differential*): After all of that, it's tempting to slip the Wild past the Blackhawks and into the top five. Maybe next week.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (20-5-4, +37): Congratulations to John Tortorella, who picked up his 500th career win yesterday in Vancouver. Here's hoping he remembers who got him there.