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Super 16: As big storylines play out, Wild rise to top

by Dave Lozo
If one was tasked with listing the biggest storylines in hockey recently, this fictional person would probably come up with three right away.

1. The return of Sidney Crosby. After he was cleared for contact on Oct. 13, the world received daily updates on his status. Will he or won't he play? Will he play this week? How about next week? Obviously the "will he or won't he" storylines are a thing of the past now that Crosby is back Monday against the Islanders (7 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC).

2. The Boston Bruins' eight-game winning streak. They've been dominant and need five more wins to complete a perfect November. They're the best team in the League. Would you pick against them in any matchup right now? The champs are playing like the champs.

3. The Washington Capitals' slump. After a 7-0-0 start, the Caps are 3-7-1. People want to know what's wrong with Alex Ovechkin. Why does he have just 2 goals in 9 games? How can the Capitals turn things around?

Niklas Backstrom
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 7-4-2
GAA: 1.97 | SVP: 0.935
While the Bruins have been winning, the Caps have been losing and Crosby has been practicing, the Minnesota Wild have quietly taken over the top spot in the NHL standings thanks largely to the stingiest defense in the League.

The Wild are 9-2-0 in their last 11 games, allowing just 17 goals during the stretch. It's not far off what they've done all season. They have allowed a League-low 1.95 goals per game and just 23 in 20 games while playing 5-on-5.

At the heart of this defensive lockdown have been goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. The Wild are allowing 31.6 shots per game for the season and during this stretch, the sixth-highest total in the League. With the Wild averaging 2.35 goals per game this season, Backstrom and Harding have had to be brilliant.

During the streak, Harding and Backstrom have shared the workload. Harding is 5-1-0, Backstrom is 4-1-0. Combined, they have a 1.53 goals-against average and .950 save percentage since the team's 3-3-3 start to the season.

It's quite the performance from two goaltenders that have had their share of problems in recent seasons.
Backstrom faltered after signing a four-year, $24 million contract in March 2009 -- he posted the worst numbers of his career in the two seasons that followed. This year, a renewed Backstrom is 7-4-2 with a 1.97 GAA and .935 save percentage, placing him in the top five in those categories among goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

Harding's problems involved staying healthy. Always full of promise, he missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL. Prior to that, he was forced to the press box because of hip problems. This season, Harding has been even better than Backstrom, albeit in fewer games. Harding is 5-1-1 with a 1.79 GAA and .945 save percentage.

The trade of No. 1 defenseman Brent Burns -- who scored 17 goals last season -- to San Jose during the summer was expected to have a devastating effect on the Wild's defense. After all, Burns logged 25:02 of ice time per game, by far the team's leader in that category.

This year, rookie coach Mike Yeo has instituted a more balanced approach to his defensemen's ice time.

Of the eight Wild blueliners to see regular playing time, Marek Zidlicky is No. 1 at 21:07. The defenseman with the eighth-most ice time is Clayton Stoner, who is averaging 18:03 per game.

That's a gap of 3:04 between Nos. 1 and 8 on the back end; last year, the gap between Burns and the Wild's second-leading defenseman in ice time was 3:16. Balance and a team approach has been the recipe for success for Yeo's defense.

The offense hasn't had the same success -- only the Islanders and Ducks are scoring less frequently than the Wild. Dany Heatley has 5 goals in 20 games, Pierre-Marc Bouchard has 1 goal in 18 games and the power play is the sixth-worst in the League. The Wild are averaging 2.46 goals per game during this hot streak that propelled them to the top spot in the League.

It's all about defense and goaltending right now in the State of Hockey, but they'll need to find some offense if they want to stay atop the League.

In this week's Super 16, there's been a shakeup at the top. Last week's top five went a combined 3-11-0, opening the door for some new faces to get some much-deserved credit. The Dallas Stars, who are floundering in a major way since losing defenseman Alex Goligoski to a broken thumb, have dropped out entirely after losing five straight games by a combined 21-4.

1 Boston (11-7-0) 15 During this streak, the B's are 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) on the PP after a 5-for-39 (12.8 percent) start. In Carolina, where Tomas Kaberle QBs the PP, the 'Canes are 29th at 11.6 percent.
2 Minnesota (12-5-3) 8 The last time the Wild held the No. 1 spot in the League standings was October 2006. Just like this season's club, that team -- coached by Jacques Lemaire -- allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
3 San Jose (12-5-1) 7 The Sharks have scored the first goal only six times, but are 6-0-0 when doing so. They've allowed a mere 23 goals at 5-on-5, but a whopping 15 in 18 games while shorthanded.
4 Philadelphia (11-5-3) 6 Take away the two games in which the Jets scored 15 goals and the Flyers are allowing 2.47 goals per game. Still, we should lobby for Jets-Flyers games once per week. They're fun.
5 Chicago (12-6-3) 2 It's amazing how a team that was playing so well can lose to the Flames and Oilers by a 14-4 aggregate score. A two-day break before the Sharks on Wednesday should help the Blackhawks' legs.
6 Pittsburgh (11-6-3) 1 The Penguins have dropped three of four largely because of special teams. In the three losses, they've allowed four power-play goals while going 1-for-14 with the extra man.
7 N.Y. Rangers (10-4-3) 4 Backup Martin Biron was in net for the end of the Rangers' seven-game win streak. But starter Henrik Lundqvist (5-0-1) hasn't lost in regulation since Oct. 27.
8 Phoenix (10-5-3) 13 The craziest stat you'll see all season: When the Coyotes have scored first with Dave Tippett as coach, they are 76-8-12. That's a points percentage of .854.
9 Detroit (11-7-1) 10 The Red Wings' four-game road trip started with two losses, but they looked sharp in Los Angeles. They are 5-2-0 since losing six straight. Jimmy Howard has been a rock through it all.
10 Nashville (10-5-4) NR The Predators are 7-1-3 in their last 11. Three of the losses were in OT, one was to the Jackets. They're losing, but getting points. The glass is either half-full or half-empty with the Preds.
11 Toronto (11-8-2) 11 Some are choosing to talk about how bad the Caps looked in their 7-1 loss to the Leafs. I'm choosing to see the Maple Leafs' inspired play while facing a slew of injuries. It's a good sign.
12 Buffalo (12-8-0) 9 The Sabres split four games in a busy week without Ryan Miller. Nothing against Jhonas Enroth, who has been a savior, but the Sabres need a healthy Miller to contend.
13 Washington (10-7-1) 5 The Capitals are playing as poorly as a team can play, but it's not time to panic. The Caps lost eight straight last season, finished first in the East. They'll figure it out eventually.
14 Florida (10-6-3) 16 Enough can't be said about the job Kevin Dineen has done as a rookie coach with more than a dozen new players. The Panthers' seven road wins are tied for most in the League.
15 St. Louis (10-7-2) NR Since Ken Hitchcock has taken over, the Blues are 4-0-2. Five of those six games have come at home after Davis Payne coached nine of his 13 games on the road and went 6-7-0.
16 Edmonton (10-7-2) 12 Injuries are taking their toll, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to dominate. He has 19 points in 19 games after his 5-assist performance against the Blackhawks.
If you have any problems, questions, anger or praise for this list, you can let me know on Twitter: @davelozo
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