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Wild finding ways to survive loss of key defensemen

by Corey Masisak

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- NHL players are conditioned to play through adversity. Injuries or illness are expected to be brushed aside as best as possible.

The Minnesota Wild have a strong hockey team, maybe one of the best in the NHL this season. They've also been dealing with a lot of key players missing from the lineup at various points because of adversity. What makes their situation a little out of the ordinary is the nature of why players are not available.

Five members of the Wild defense corps have contracted the mumps. No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter is the most recent of the group, missing the past two games.

"It is bizarre," Wild captain Zach Parise said last week. "It is 2014, and who knew the mumps were still around, right? It's weird, and hopefully we don't see it around anymore."

Keith Ballard is one of the defensemen who have missed time because of the disease.

"Even the whole time I was going through it, it was, 'I don't have the mumps. No one gets the mumps.' Well, I got the mumps," Ballard said last week. "It's easy to see why it could spread in an environment like this, with water bottles and towels and even being on the plane. You don't know you have it. The training staff and medical staff have done a really good job with getting us shots and done a lot with sanitizing things. Hopefully we are done with it."

It hasn't worked like influenza might, wiping out a handful of players from the lineup at a time. It's only been one or two at a time, but it has prevented the Wild from putting their best group of defensemen on the ice for an extended period of games.

Minnesota does have depth at the position, so players like Christian Folin and Nate Prosser have been asked to step into the lineup and others behind Suter have been pressed into playing more minutes than normal. When Suter is in the lineup, he averages a League-high 29:19 per game. He will return for the game against the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

"It's been a mix and match of a lot of guys," Ballard said. "It's great that we have guys who can step in and play, or like now with Ryan out guys are stepping up and playing more minutes. We've got some d-men like Marco [Scandella] and Jared [Spurgeon] and Jonas [Brodin] that are really good defensemen. Maybe they get overshadowed a bit by having Ryan here, but I think they are continuing to show just how good they are."

Currently, the Wild are on the edge of the Stanley Cup Playoffs picture. In fifth place in the Central Division and 10th in the Western Conference, the Wild have some work to do to return to the playoffs for a third straight season.

There are plenty of reasons to believe the Wild are better than their record indicates. They have been one of the best-puck possession teams in the NHL this season, jockeying with the Chicago Blackhawks at the top of the League in both Corsi and Fenwick metrics.

They have often dominated teams at even strength. Their ability to suppress shot attempts and prevent goals is among the League's elite.

The two big problems have been the power play and the missing defensemen.

"It is frustrating," Parise said. "I don't know the last time we had our top four defensemen in the lineup together. When they are together, they are good. They are really good. It seems like we get one back and another one is gone."

The Wild players hope Suter will be the last to be sidelined with the mumps. They have played well despite the missing players, and Minnesota's dominant performance against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 3 in Suter's first game out was a perfect example.

It has certainly been an atypical couple of months for the Wild, though there is plenty of time for them to be healthy and move up the standings in both the Central and the West.

"I know I've never seen anything like this before, but our training staff is doing a great job at keeping it as under control as they can," forward Jason Zucker said. "They are trying to make sure we are conscious of what we are doing here. It is one of those things that you have no control over, but the trainers are doing a great job with what they can to help.

"It is something that you definitely think about when you see teammates getting it, but at the same time it is something you just can't control. You just have to keep playing hockey and not let it affect what you're doing on the ice."

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