Heading into the 2011-12 season, much of the focus in the Northwest Division was rightfully on the Vancouver Canucks, who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the 2010-11 season, sat atop the Western Conference throughout the playoffs and advanced to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
By Halloween, the focus had shifted to the young and thrilling Edmonton Oilers, who quickly erased the memory of back-to-back dead last finishes by racing to the top of the division behind recent No. 1 picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall.
Not a whole lot was said during this time about the Minnesota Wild, apart from the occasional mention of the trades executed over the summer that brought Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi from the San Jose Sharks, or that they had a new coach in Mike Yeo. But after finishing out of the playoff picture each of the past three seasons, the Wild registered on few hockey fans’ radars.
Flash forward to Monday morning, when the Wild and the rest of the NHL awoke to find Minnesota atop the League standings with a 12-5-3 record, and in first place by five points in the Northwest standings, the largest lead in any division. The team is also on a four-game winning streak, which it will carry into Wednesday's contest against the Nashville Predators at Xcel Energy Center.
"This is the team we are, but not the team we're going to be," Yeo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week. "We're happy with where we've gotten so far, and there are things to feel good about. Having said that, they're not handing out awards for being in first place in our division right now."
Even still, for a franchise that hasn't had a ton to celebrate since a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals in 2003 and a division title when it last made the playoffs in 2007-08, there is a lot of excitement in Minnesota over the way the Wild have been playing.
Consider some of these stats from the game notes following their 3-2 shootout win over the surging St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, a game captain Mikko Koivu tied on the power play with 1:38 left in regulation prior to scoring along with Matt Cullen in the penalty-shot tiebreaker:
-- Minnesota has won five in a row at home for the first time since it took six straight from March 15-April 3, 2008 -- just before the Wild made their last playoff appearance. They have four games still remaining on their current six-game homestand.
-- The Wild have allowed only 17 goals in their 10 home games so far, and 39 goals total in 20 games. Their 1.95 team goals-against average is by far the best in the League -- the New York Rangers are second at 2.12. The Wild have also killed off 19 consecutive penalties at the Xcel Energy Center.
-- Thirteen of Minnesota's 20 games have been decided by a single goal, and they've recorded a point in 11 of them, posting an 8-2-3 mark.
-- The Wild own a 12-3-2 record against the Western Conference.
"There is a totally different feeling around here, as far as how good our confidence actually is," forward Cal Clutterbuck told the Star Tribune. "A lot of people say there is a process going on. It's a lot different when there is a clear indication of what that process is."
The process began with the installation of Yeo behind the bench. The 38-year-old was an assistant to Dan Bylsma on the Pittsburgh Penguins' championship team in 2009, then led the AHL's Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals last season in his only season as their head coach.
"He has the technical aspects and the communication skills and the fire and the passion," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told the Star Tribune. "He took a pretty good Houston team and made them a championship-caliber team."
On the ice, the Wild haven't exactly transformed into the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. They're still a relatively low-scoring team -- 2.2 goals per game is good for 28th in the League -- but their newcomers are playing key roles. Heatley's 12 points place him second on the team in scoring, while Setoguchi is second with 6 goals.
"We're happy with where we've gotten so far, and there are things to feel good about. Having said that, they're not handing out awards for being in first place in our division right now." -- Wild coach Mike Yeo
Then there's Koivu, who has 330 points in 453 games since Minnesota made him the No. 6 pick in the 2001 NHL Draft. The first permanent captain in Wild history, he leads the team with 13 points this season and scored both shorthanded and on the power play Saturday, giving him 99 career goals.
"He gives us a chance to win every game because of the way he plays the game, and it's great to see him get rewarded," Yeo said following Koivu's effort against the Blues.
Also not to be ignored in the Wild’s fast start is the contribution in the crease. Not only is Niklas Backstrom playing at an elite level (7-4-2, 1.97 goals-against average, .935 save percentage), he's actually been surpassed at times by his backup Josh Harding. After missing all of last season with a knee injury, Harding has returned to go 5-1-1 with a 1.79 GAA and .945 save percentage -- including a 2-0-1 mark with a shutout against the Detroit Red Wings alone.
"It's a great feeling," Harding said after he blanked Detroit with 36 saves on Oct. 29. "It makes you know that all that hard work paid off."
Hard work has come to epitomize Minnesota's early return to prominence. There's still a little more than three-quarters of the season left to play and the Wild will need to start scoring more goals or continue to rely on lights-out performances from Backstrom and Harding. For the moment, though, they're the talk not only of the town but the entire League and seem to have found the recipe for success.
"We have a team full of fighters," Yeo told the Star Tribune. "When the game's on the line they're fighting, blocking shots, collapsing in front of the net, in scrambles. They find a way [to come back], and to protect a lead. Again, it's not perfect, but inside our locker room there is a lot of fight."