ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Minnesota Wild are playing for their third head coach in four seasons, they haven't won a playoff series in nearly nine years and their roster is mostly unrecognizable to sports fans outside of - or even in - the state.
Here they are, though, leading the NHL with 43 points at their 30-game mark.
"There's a lot of belief right now that we're for real, and if there's a reason why we feel that way, it's because of the way we come to the rink and the way we prepare," center Kyle Brodziak said after Minnesota's seventh straight victory, Saturday at Phoenix.
Brodziak, the third-line center, leads the team with 10 goals. In the league? He's tied for 40th, the most obvious sign of a balanced offense that has used a so-far unwavering commitment to new coach Mike Yeo's system to reach a 20-7-3 record. That's the best start in the franchise's 11-year history, thanks to three separate winning streaks of five games or more.
"It's all pointed toward the players and the way that they came into camp and the attitude they brought right from day one," Yeo said after Monday's practice. "They're the ones that are out there laying it on the line. They're the guys that are out there blocking shots and paying the price, so the credit goes to those guys."
The 37-year-old Yeo looks younger than half of his players, but he has commanded an unquestionable respect.
"There's accountability. There's an exception here that we want to build a winning team and a winning culture and we just can't accept bad games," second-line center Matt Cullen said. "You're going to lose from time to time, but it's not going to be because of a lack of effort."
At first glance, with Dany Heatley the biggest name and a team goal total of 2.5 per game that ranks just 22nd in the NHL, this is the same type of trapping, patient squad that Jacques Lemaire presided over. His teams generally got a lot out of a little skill, but beside the run to the Western Conference finals in 2003 they've had a perennially mediocre record since entering the league as an expansion franchise.
But there are differences. Yeo raved about Brodziak's refusal to sacrifice his defensive positioning and tenacity despite his uncharacteristic scoring spurt, but from lines one to four this is as deep as the Wild have ever been. There is more skating and a noticeably stronger forecheck and less hesitation to shoot the puck.
"A lot of teams play the same way," Cullen said. "It's a matter of being committed to it, and everybody's bought in."
The entire system is as stocked with legitimate prospects as it has been in years, too, the product of several trades and signings general manager Chuck Fletcher has pushed through to supplement the three drafts he has supervised since taking over for the fired Doug Risebrough.
Minnesota's minor league affiliate in Houston has the second-best record in the 30-team American Hockey League, and goalie Darcy Kuemper was picked Monday as the AHL's Player of the Week.
Kuemper's honor was made possible when regular goalie Matt Hackett was recalled by the Wild last week as injury insurance. With Niklas Backstrom already bothered by a groin problem, Josh Harding hurt his neck just 71 seconds into the game at San Jose last Tuesday during a freak collision with a teammate's stick.
So in went Hackett, who won his NHL debut and the game after that while stopping a combined 76 of 78 shots. Hackett, who set a record by starting his career with 102 minutes and 48 seconds without giving up a goal, was named the NHL's "Second Star" for the week.
Good goaltending has long been the Wild's best attribute, from Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson in the early years to the Backstrom-Harding duo they've had more recently. They're sixth and seventh in the league, respectively, with a .932 save percentage, and Minnesota's 2.1 goals-per-game average is third in the NHL.
The nets are only as sound as the defense in front of them, though, and the blue line has been another bright spot this season, despite the trade for Devin Setoguchi that sent All-Star Brent Burns to the Sharks.
Puck-moving young players such as Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella have shined, playing for Yeo for another year. One of the reasons why Fletcher picked him to replace Todd Richards was the familiarity factor for their prospects. They learned Yeo's system with the Aeros in the AHL last season. The Wild have created some clear synergy between their team and their farm club, putting the call-ups in better position to play well when they're summoned.
Staying healthy enough to withstand any midwinter lulls in performance will be important, as it is every year with every team. Harding has been cleared to play again, and bruising right wing Cal Clutterbuck will be back on the first line for Tuesday's game at Winnipeg after missing the last week with a lower-body injury. Three others who have been out longer were also on the ice for Monday's practice: left wing Guillaume Latendresse (concussion), defenseman Marek Zidlicky (concussion) and defenseman Justin Falk (upper body injury).
For now, they'll be brought back slowly. The Wild have been playing fast enough not to miss them.
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