When the Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year contracts over the summer, it became clear that this was a franchise looking for a playoff run and the national relevance that comes along with it. Season ticket sales spiked, the Wild invigorated a sleeping but potentially vibrant fan base, and the on-ice product had the kind of expectations it hasn't had in years.
Once the lockout ended in January, it instantly became up to the players and coaches to fulfill those expectations. After a tough start to the season, the team seemed to be rounding into form just in time for the playoff run everyone had been seeking.
Then the calendar flipped from March to April. Along with that, the Wild bandwagon has come to a screeching halt.
A 4-1 loss to St. Louis opened the month. Consecutive losses in San Jose and Los Angeles followed. After beating the Blue Jackets in "Lumbus" on April 7, the Wild went winless over a three-game homestand that saw them get shut out twice.
Thursday's blowout loss in San Jose was followed by Sunday's 4-1 clunker at home against Calgary.
The numbers lately are staggering. The Wild have scored just four goals in their last five home games (0-4-1). A completely capped-out team has one line that appears capable of putting the biscuit in the basket. Outside of the top defensive pairing (Suter and Jonas Brodin, who should be a Calder candidate in this season where no rookie has put forth a dominant, eye-popping season), the blue line borders on a dumpster fire at times. Goalie Niklas Backstrom has been really good at times this season, but has also looked equally shaky at others. With no proven backup, the cage looks to be his until the end of the season.
(Josh Harding should be activated from injured reserve now that his conditioning stint in Houston is over, but he hasn't played in a long time, so it's not fair to expect him to step in and be anything more than a backup at this point.)
It's a free-fall, but the Wild still control their proverbial destiny when it comes to the playoffs.
This team has shown it's capable. It needs another line to step up to help the top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle. Those three can't carry them. Matt Cullen is not himself since getting hurt April 1, and the impact of his loss is obvious. Mikael Granlund has yet to show he's ready to be a top six NHL center, and until that happens, the Wild are not deep enough in the middle to contend through the spring.
Minnesota probably needs to win two out of three this week to get in, but the reality is that the Wild are still in a pretty good position, if all you do is look at the standings.
Not only that, but as so many teams in so many sports -- most recently, the Los Angeles Kings -- have proven, all you have to do is get in the playoffs, and anything can happen from there. Just make the tournament, as the kids say.
It was once a mortal lock that Minnesota would do just that. Despite the foibles as of late, it still looks good. And once it happens, anything can happen.
Of course, if it doesn't work out, all bets are off. Owner Craig Leipold wasn't known for being a terribly patient guy, and that was before he signed Parise and Suter. I think Mike Yeo has done a pretty good job in his two seasons, but I don't know that he can survive this team collapsing and missing the playoffs, given the way things were lined up after the Wild beat the Kings March 30.
I'm not a "Fire X" kind of guy, but a lot of people are, and just think about what their reaction will be if the Blue Jackets -- led by former Wild coach Todd Richards -- get in and the Wild don't.