Last week, things were getting bleak for the Minnesota Wild. Their only star skater was about to go under the knife, and could be done for the season in the last year of his contract. They can't score five-on-five, and they weren't scoring enough in any way to win games.
They were about to enter a stretch where they played top Western teams San Jose and Detroit, followed closely by trips to Boston and Philadelphia.
With last place in the Western Conference staring them right in the face, the Minnesota Wild responded. They beat San Jose, took Detroit to a shootout after the Wings tied the game on a controversial goal, and then beat the East's best team, Boston, Tuesday night.
1-0 wins are hardly awe-inspiring most of the time, but the Wild have found a way to get by lately. It's thanks in large part to the work of head coach Jacques Lemaire. He might not win the Jack Adams Award this year, but if the Wild continue to stay in the top eight of the Western Conference, he probably should.
As the Wild hit the halfway mark of their schedule this weekend, it's clear that Lemaire is doing some of his best work ever this season.
Gone from last year's team are free agent departures Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra. When you throw Marian Gaborik on the list, you're looking at 88 goals missing from last year's Wild team.
This year, Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette have 11 and 10 goals, respectively. No one on the team is on pace for more than 80 points, and only Koivu and Antti Miettinen are on pace for 50 or more. They aren't blessed with any great single line, they don't have stud defenseman ala Pronger and Niedermayer, but they can check.
Of course, it helps that newly minted All-Star Niklas Backstrom has handled goaltending duties so capably. You can't lose when the goalie doesn't give anything up, and Backstrom has two straight shutouts during the Wild's mini-streak.
Lemaire notes that his team was able to work their way to a win Tuesday in Boston.
The Wild checked its way to the win, because as Lemaire said, it still has little prayer of scoring at 5-on-5. But as Lemaire said in Calgary, if the Wild doesn't play a team game, it'll win the "odd game," because of its lack of scoring. This is how it must play to win. It ain't outscoring no one in a run-and-gun game.This year has been awfully impressive. Lemaire doesn't have a classic grind line, but he has four lines who have dedicated themselves to taking care of their net as much as they attack the other net. Instead of trying to turn players into something they're not, he leans on his power play and his goaltender.
He's found a way to piece together a capable lineup with kids who should probably be in the AHL. Yes, James Sheppard, Benoit Pouliot, Krys Kolanos, and Colton Gillies are talented, but they've also shown many times that they aren't ready for the NHL. Lemaire has found a way to make them useful (especially Kolanos, who has looked really good at times during his most recent call-up.)
Sure, they'll hit dry spells. Teams that can't score five-on-five are especially prone to them, because you aren't guaranteed a certain number of power plays every night.
But as long as Lemaire is behind the bench, the Wild have a chance to win every game. And if they get in the playoffs with Backstrom continuing to play well in goal, you can't count them out. You're going to have a hard time finding a more effective or capable coach in the league, no matter what other teams' records are.