When Minnesota Wild
general manager Chuck Fletcher woke up on the morning of Dec. 17, he found his team atop the NHL standings with 45 points. One month later, he has a team on a precipitous slide that has seen it drop from its lofty perch to eighth in the Western Conference with 51 points, one point ahead of ninth-place Colorado.
On Dec. 17, the Wild lost a 2-1 shootout at home to the Islanders. Since that game, they're just 2-9-3, including a 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers
So what's happened?
"We've had a lot of injuries," Fletcher told NHL.com prior to Tuesday's game. "Injuries can be excuses at times. We've had anywhere from three to four pretty good forwards out of the lineup almost every game. It's just tough to replace your high-end players on a short-term basis."
The injury list has been long in Minnesota, and mostly concussion-related -- forward Guillaume Latendresse
has played just two games since Nov. 10 due to concussion issues, defenseman Marek Zidlicky
missed a month in mid-November with a concussion, goalie Josh Harding
missed time with a concussion and forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard
, who has a history of concussions, is dealing with another one that has sidelined him the last four games and will keep him out indefinitely.
In addition, forward Devin Setoguchi
missed most of December with an ankle injury and goalie Niklas Backstrom
has been out with a groin injury and currently is battling the flu.
"It's a bit of a challenge with some of the forwards we have out of the lineup, but I think there's been encouraging signs. For us to be successful we have to play a strong team game and really play a structured defensive style."
-- Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher
The latest casualty might be the hardest to deal with -- Mikko Koivu
, the team's leading scorer, captain and lone All-Star, is week-to-week with an upper-body injury suffered Saturday against St. Louis. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has reported the injury to be to Koivu's shoulder and that it will sideline him for up to a month.
"Clearly he's an irreplaceable player," Fletcher said of Koivu. "There's nobody on your farm team that can come up and replace his role or the job that he does. Injuries are part of the game. We don't think it's going to be all that long and others have to step up and other players will get an opportunity to play. We'll just have to find a way to win games without him. Hopefully when he comes back we're a stronger team."
For that to happen, Fletcher needs to see his team get back to the style of play that allowed it to win 17 of 21 games between Oct. 29 and Dec. 10 and rocket to the top of the League standings.
"I think everything just slipped a little bit," Fletcher said of his team's struggles during the past month. "When you struggle a little bit, when you struggle to score goals, and then our defensive game slipped a little bit, then you lose confidence, things can tend to spiral on you the wrong way. The last few games we've been playing much better, with more of a competitive, hard-nosed defensive-type game.
"It's a bit of a challenge with some of the forwards we have out of the lineup, but I think there's been encouraging signs. For us to be successful we have to play a strong team game and really play a structured defensive style. We have to work hard and get good goaltending. If we can do that, we can get back to how we were playing before."
Part of that is getting back to the defense-first style of play that helped the Wild to their early success. In their first 30 games, Minnesota allowed just 63 goals, an average of 2.10 per game. In their next 16, however, the Wild allowed 3.13 goals per game. And their offense has plummeted, from 2.50 goals per game in their first 30 to just 1.69 per game in last next 16; they've been held to one goal or fewer in nine of those 16 games.
They'll have to find what works while negotiating a rough current stretch of games. Fletcher said when he looked at the schedule heading into the season, he identified the early part of the 2012 portion of the schedule as a defining moment for his team. Of their first 13 games of 2012, the Wild play 10 on the road, with games in all four time zones.
They've started that stretch 1-4-1, and after Tuesday's game in Philadelphia, they still have stops remaining in Toronto and Dallas, as well as two trips to Colorado. Making matters more difficult is the Wild is winless in 10 straight on the road (0-8-2).
"Going into the year, we figured this stretch would tell us a lot about our team," Fletcher said of this segment of his team's schedule. "We're going to have to do it a little shorthanded, but it's an opportunity for other players and it's an opportunity for us to reestablish our identity as a structured, hard-nosed, defensive-type of team. If we can do that I think we'll have a chance to get through this and get to the last couple months where we have a lot of home games.
"If we can get through this stretch here the next nine, 10 games, we should get some bodies back in the lineup. We have a lot more home games than road games the last two months of the year. We've already played 16 of our 20 games in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. We've endured a lot of tough travel and we have a pretty favorable schedule with a lot of home games coming down the stretch."
Seventeen of the Wild's final 29 games will be at home, which should be an advantage in the closing weeks of what is shaping up to be another tough battle for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
"The highs have been high and the lows have been low," Fletcher said. "I think we knew going into the season we'd be a competitive team and battle hard to make the playoffs. When you just take a snapshot of where we are right now, this is probably what we expected -- to be right in the mix and competing with a few other teams for a playoff spot in a very tough Western Conference.
"As a team I think we've grown. It's a group of players that cares a lot about each other. There's very good chemistry in the room, a strong work ethic. There's some intangibles that this group has that will bode well for us coming down the stretch."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK