Oilers face conference leaders
DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency
|Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff celebrates his against the Wild as goaltender Josh Harding and Mikko Koivu look on at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Nov. 25, 2011. (ERIC MILLER/Reuters)
EDMONTON - The Minnesota Wild are enjoying their view from the top.
Heading into Wednesday’s contest against the Edmonton Oilers, the Wild were surprising leaders in the Western Conference standings.
It’s a position few throughout the NHL imagined the team would be in.
“We know right now that we have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Wild head coach Mike Yeo. “We have a very difficult schedule coming up ahead of us, but most importantly, we know that our game is not good enough yet to be there at the end of the year.
“We’re extremely pleased where we’re at right now, but we’re not settling on that, we’re not resting on that, we know we have to come to the rink every day and try to get better, continue to build our identity and continue to develop that winning culture here.”
The Wild’s success is in direct correlation to their defensive play.
The team is giving up just over two goals per game this season. And while they are not getting a lot of scoring, they are getting timely goals, which has allowed them to win 14 of their first 24 games heading into their contest with the Oilers.
“We feel good about the way that we’re playing and the way we’re capable of playing,” said Wild centre Matt Cullen. “Like every team in the league we’re trying to find a level of consistency and we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far, and it certainly helps that we’re getting some Grade A goaltending.
“I think that every team is probably wondering if they can maintain their level of play? We’re playing some good hockey, but we’re not too far removed from the rest of the pack here so every game is important. We’re trying to take it one-game at a time and trying to continue to improve.”
Heading into the season with a new head coach in Yeo, two-thirds of a new top line and a boat load of rookies, few predicted the Wild would be this competitive a quarter of the way through the year.
They took a chance bringing Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi over from the San Jose Sharks, while at the same time unloading Brent Burns, one of the team’s top defencemen.
So far, however, things are working out.
“We knew coming in this year that everything was going to be new,” said Wild centre Kyle Brodziak. “But I think the most important thing is that everybody came with a great attitude right from the start of the year.
“Guys that have been here for a few years, eventually you get sick of losing. But when you put in the work and you put in the time and the results are starting to show, it makes you want it so much more. That’s been the easy part about it, it’s fun to come to the rink when you’re winning, but there is a process behind having the results that you’re getting.”
The Wild got off to a mediocre start to the year, winning three of their first nine games. However, they rattled off a five-game win streak, shortly followed by another five-game streak to vault them up the conference standings.
Their second five-game streak was stopped by the Oilers last Friday when they fell 5-2. It was the first time in 17 games the Oilers had beaten the Wild in Minnesota.
The Wild went into Wednesday’s rematch coming off a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday.
“This group of guys have been phenomenal to work with,” said Yeo. “Just from Day 1 when they came into camp, they were determined and extremely focused on having a good season and it has not been very difficult for me to try to get this group motivated to try to get this group to come to the rink and be at their best every day.”