Entering this week only four points separated the top eight teams in the NHL’s Western Conference. The Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings (the latter two representing the last two Stanley Cup champions) are among those jockeying in a very tight early race for playoff positioning.
Lost amid the hype surrounding those clubs are the performances of the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes, who approach the final week of November very much in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Wild’s 34 points and the Coyotes 32 points would put them ahead of nearly every team in the Eastern Conference standings. The Wild also entered this weekend with the league’s best home record (10-1-2) while the Coyotes (9-1-2) were fifth-best.
The Coyotes are traditionally known for their stingy defensive game, but this season they’re among the league’s best offensive clubs, entering the final full weekend of November fourth overall in goals-per-game (3.33), sixth overall on the power-play (22.8 percent) and tenth in shots-on-goal per game (31.1), all without a single player among the league’s top-35 scorers.
Their offensive game is very much a team effort, spreading the bulk of their scoring among Martin Hanzal, Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Keith Yandle, Mike Ribeiro, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mikkel Boedker, Antoine Vermette and Derek Morris, with six of them having between 16 and 19 points.
It’s notable three of their defensemen (Yandle, Ekman-Larsson and Morris) are among their top scorers. In fact, among the league’s leading scorers for defensemen, Yandle was fourth overall (17 points) with Ekman-Larsson right behind him (16 points).
The Wild, meanwhile, are getting the job done with strong goaltending and defense. They led the league in fewest shots-against per game (24.7) and were sixth overall in goals-against per game (2.17). Goaltender Josh Harding was outstanding, tied for second in wins (13), holding the second-best GAA for goalies with ten or more game (1.48) and third in SP (.942).
Young forwards Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund (12 points in 23 games) and Charlie Coyle (6 points in 11 games) provided the Wild with much-needed offensive depth, taking some pressure off veterans Jason Pominville, Zach Parise and captain Mikko Koivu.
As well as both clubs have been over the past couple of months, they’re not without their weaknesses. Despite the improvement in their young forwards, the Wild began the weekend 20th overall in goals-per-game and 23rd in shots-per-game. The Coyotes, meanwhile, were 25th in goals-against per game and on the penalty kill and 27th in shots-against per game, which are unusually high numbers for a team which prides itself on strong defensive play.
Still, the fact both clubs remain in the thick of a very competitive playoff race is noteworthy, or at least it should be. Despite their respective performances thus far, the Wild and Coyotes have gone largely overlooked by the hockey media.
That’s understandable for the Coyotes, given the only attention they received in recent years was over the state of their ownership and their future in Arizona, but it’s unusual for the Wild considering Minnesota’s status as “The State Of Hockey”. Perhaps years of mediocrity or the Wild’s streaky play over the past two seasons is to blame.
It’ll be interesting to see how both clubs fare over the rest of the season, especially regarding their weaknesses. For now, however, the fact they’re more than holding their own in a very tough Conference deserves some attention.