Sharks face off against the struggling Wild

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4:30 PST
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23-11-4, 50 points 21-15-6, 48 points
3rd in Western Conference 8th in Western Conference

Television
NBC Sports Network
Radio
98.5 KFOX, Sjsharks.com
Antagonists
Hockey Wilderness
Russo's Rants

As Sharks Fan Consulting Group told us in our meeting with them yesterday, being "among the best" is not good enough.

The Minnesota Wild have learned that the hard way.

Flash back a month ago to when these two teams met on December 6th. The Wild were 17-7-3 with 37 points, 1st in the Western Conference and first in the NHL at one point. Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding were untouchable, Matt Hackett was getting ready to hack it in his first NHL game, and the Wild were defying the pundits by scoring timely goals to get timely wins.

The clock seems to have struck midnight for Cinderella, as the Wild have been one of the worst teams in the League since that streak ended.

Since December 10th, two games after Hackett stunned San Jose in HP Pavilion, the Wild are a miserable 1-8-3. Their underlying numbers remain roughly the same, but what's changed in a big way has been their goaltending performance between the pipes. Instead of posting a SV% that fluttered around .930 for the first two months of the season, both Backstrom and Harding have been undeniably mediocre with a combined .909 SV% over their last 12 starts.

The Wild have bled shots against as well, giving up 31.3 in that span-- again, not too much different than what they were giving up during they run to the top of the League, but a severe drop off for a team who needs goal scoring in every way imaginable.

Some teams would be able to survive with a .910 SV%, totals that circle around what has been the League average over the last few seasons. But for a Minnesota team that is 29th in the League for goals per game, starving their way towards 2.19 red lights per tilt, those goaltending hiccups have made all the difference.

Unfortunately for the Wild, and Bay Area fans who wished two former Sharks well following their departure from the team this past offseason, Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi have been front and center on the list of players Minnesota needs to step up.

Count me surprised at the lack of production from both players-- Heatley (13 goals in 42 games played) and Setoguchi (8 goals in 30 games played) have underperformed this season on a team that was counting on them to deliver when it counted most. Outside of the ever dangerous Mikko Koivu (33 points in 38 games played), the franchise was and will be banking on both Setoguchi and Heatley to lead the offensive attack.

It's hard to pin the faults of a franchise on just two guys however, and the fans in Minnesota understand that. The rest of the roster has similarly struggled to find the twine, leading to a situation where the first postseason appearance since 2008 is undoubtedly in jeopardy for a team that was on pace standings points wise for a game one at the Excel Center come April. The Wild banked enough points in the early going to stay in the hunt, but barring a quick turnaround soon, could play themselves out of a low seed by mid-February.

Help is on the horizon however, even if that help is still a couple years away from making a big impact. The Wild had six prospects playing in the World Juniors over this Christmas break, with Jonas Brodin, Johan Gustaffson, Johan Larsson, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and former Shark Charlie Coyle all putting up respectable tournaments that have the franchise buzzing about what it can become.

Another thing Minnesota has going for them (as well as the Western Conference elite of Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago when it comes to matchups) is that the 6-8 slots in the Western Conference seem to be wide open at this point in the season. Unlike previous years when you could come up with eight teams who had a relatively legitimate chance to reach the Finals, this year's Western Conference has some mediocre to below average teams that will make the playoffs.

From Los Angeles (6th) to Columbus (15th), every team outside of the aforementioned big five has a negative goal differential and holes in key parts of their rosters. I'd lump Los Angeles in with a team that wouldn't be fun to play in the first round, as I think they're finally putting what was an excellent roster on paper together, but the point still remains-- the West isn't as deep as it was in years prior, with two mediocre teams seemingly destined to crack the top eight.

It's part of the reason why earning a 1 or 2 seed is going to be important for San Jose, and part of the reason why Minnesota still has a chance to salvage their season and will their way into the playoffs.

They'll do their damndest to begin that turnaround tonight.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-1. Goals by McGinn, Pavelski, and Burns. The Wild continue to emulate the Wild Thing rollercoaster at Valleyfair Amusement Park in Shakopee, but come out of the big drop soon before coasting around the loop at breakneck speeds and hitting the camera tunnel where it all ends in a photo finish.

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