TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — Trying To Make Sense Of The Wild

As a college professor, every so often I would encounter a student who left me perplexed when it came time to determine their final grade. A strong score on the last test was encouraging, but their overall numbers were still barely good enough to pass the class. Were they struggling to comprehend the curriculum or simply putting in just enough work to get by? Should I pat them on the back for surviving or scold them for underachieving?

That pretty much summed up this year’s edition of the Minnesota Wild. Stops and starts.  Ups and downs.

So when things finally came to an end Sunday, with a gut-wrenching 5-4 playoff loss to Dallas in the Xcel Center, no one should have been surprised. In fact, the closing contest proved to be a microcosm of their crazy season.

With survival on the line and trailing three games to two in the best-of-seven series, Minnesota had to win. Somehow, despite a horrendous close to the regular season and a string of seven consecutive losses, there they were, playing before a full house at home with a chance to even the series against the top-seeded Stars.

Just two days ago, this group that backed into the postseason with the fewest points of any playoff club, had found a way to rally and win in Dallas. Once again, Midwesterners ready to cut ties with their schizophrenic hockey team, were nevertheless lured back into believing that there just might still be hope.

A touching pregame tribute to our fallen entertainer Prince and a big-screen boost from Minnesota hockey legend Willard Ikola had more than 19,000 fans revved up and ready to roll.

So for two wretched periods of Game Six, the Wild did just what they’d done for much of the season. Take ill-advised penalties. Get behind by several goals. Suck the life out of the building.

Just when most of us were contemplating an early departure and cursing about the price we’d paid to watch it, the “good” Wild decided to make one more final appearance. Before half of the third period was complete, it was 4-3, and the Stars were desperately in need of a timeout. The Wild were flying and dominating play, narrowly missing a tying goal when Jason Zucker mishandled the puck after a mistake in front of the net by Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen.

Unfortunately, “close” only counts in horseshoes, dancing and as we all know, Minnesota sporting events. Conjuring up nightmares of Blair Walsh’s blown, chip-shot field goal, there would be the predictably fluky goal to sneak by Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk followed by one more rally. Then, in fitting finality, a last minute pileup in front of the Stars’ net that revealed the Wild had ALMOST tied the game. Replays across social media had the puck briefly sliding within a millimeter of crossing the goal line. A 5-4 Dallas victory and another disappointed departure into daylight.

Hockey can be a strange game, so it’s hardly unusual for pucks to take quirky hops and teams to occasionally be handed defeats that may not be deserved. For some fans, that uncertainty is what adds to the game’s appeal. For others, it may lessen the credibility of the sport.

But in the several decades of watching a variety of local sports, I can’t remember any team that has been more maddeningly unpredictable than this Wild club.

A promising start. An awful January. Five straight wins. Seven straight losses.  A five-game season sweep of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Embarrassing defeats against teams with nothing to play for. It was good enough to be among the final 13 survivors of 30 NHL teams Sunday.  Yet bad enough to get one coach fired and another interim one probably not expected to return.

There are a few deficiencies that undeniably have contributed to Minnesota’s malaise in the middle of the league standings year after year. With the exception of Marion Gaborik several seasons ago, the Wild has never had a true, superstar scoring threat. Even hard-working Zach Parise has had to earn every tally, by fearlessly skating into areas that probably contributed to his injury-plagued 2016 season.

The team is almost always in the middle to lower half of the league in goals scored, making it a viable competitor for defensive-minded playoff action but not really equipped with enough firepower to get very far.

But something else seems to be missing, too. Consistency.

In Game One in Dallas, the Stars looked faster and more polished with the puck.  Conventional wisdom said the sluggish Wild would need to keep the score down to have any chance to win the series.Yet they appeared to more than match the Stars’ speed in their two victories, scoring five goals each time and four more in Sunday’s tough loss.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher has some difficult decisions to make this off season. Young players like Zucker and Matt Dumba have underachieved. Veterans with big contracts are getting older and less productive. Minnesota has both youth and experience, but few players in their prime.

But the biggest question might be in choosing a new coach.

When the team hit its biggest swoon in mid-February, Fletcher had little choice but to fire Mike Yeo. Two months later, Yeo is expected to land a job elsewhere, and it appears clear he wasn’t the problem. John Torchetti briefly brought new energy and a better connection with some of the younger players he’d coached at the Wild’s minor league franchise in Iowa. But he couldn’t solve the consistency crisis either.

For 43 minutes Sunday, the Wild gave us serious concern that this operation might need a major facelift. Then for the next 17, they reminded us that there is apparently enough talent to skate with the league’s best.

Good luck finding someone capable of figuring out why.

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