Don't let their last two games fool you. The Minnesota Wild are for real. And they've been pretty spectacular.
The Wild had been on the NHL's hottest run through early December, winners of eight straight games before closing out their recent road trip with back-to-back defeats at L.A. and Vegas.
Minnesota's loss to the Kings was the team's first since Nov. 21, and put them one victory short of tying the franchise's second-longest win streak (nine games, back in 2006-07). It was also the first time all season Minnesota had lost a game that was tied after two periods.
Sunday's date with the Golden Knights was a back-and-forth affair where the Wild had an edge at 5-on-5 but lost the special teams battle.
As Minnesota headed home to face Carolina on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and Hulu), there was no panic setting in. Nor should there be. The Wild remain atop the Central Division, are tied for the second-most points in the league (39) and are sixth in overall points percentage (.696).
Even factoring in the weekend's results, Minnesota has recently been the NHL's best team.
Since their streak began on Nov. 24, the Wild have the most wins (8) and points (16) in the league, while scoring the third-most goals (40) and sitting 27th in goals-against average (2.30). Minnesota has been especially good at even strength, boasting the second-best 5-on-5 shooting percentage (11.3%) and the best shooting-plus-save percentage (105.6%).
What's more, Minnesota was able to get most of that done without top blueliner and captain Jared Spurgeon, who missed eight games with a lower-body injury before returning to the lineup last Thursday in San Jose.
So how exactly did Minnesota emerge as a true Stanley Cup contender? It didn't happen overnight.
The process started back in July, when general manager Bill Guerin bought out the final four seasons of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise's contracts. The pair of 36-year-olds were each signed to 13-year, $98 million deals that held no-trade clauses, meaning Minnesota would have been forced to protect them in last summer's expansion draft.
But it was the salary cap considerations that really pushed Guerin to move on. Minnesota had made the playoffs in eight of the last nine seasons but hadn't advanced past the first round since 2015. That had to change.
With Suter and Parise out, Guerin went to work on the rest of the roster. He added Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill, who have emerged as a shutdown defensive pairing. Frederick Gaudreau signed a team-friendly two-year deal in July and has been a solid two-way player. Guerin then fished Brandon Duhaime out of the Wild's farm team in Iowa, and the winger has been a great fourth-line addition with Nico Sturm or veteran Nick Bjugstad. Nashville tried to sneak Rem Pitlick through waivers in October, but Guerin pounced, and Pitlick has 10 points in 16 games.
That's what Guerin did before the season started. After it began, the most impactful changes have come from within.
There were some struggles out of the gate, most notably for Kirill Kaprizov, Cam Talbot and Kevin Fiala, but the Wild overcame each one. Now, Minnesota's veterans are shining. The team's expected young stars are rising. And coach Dean Evason is pushing all the right buttons.
Let's take a closer look at what's working for the Wild.
Joel Eriksson Ek, back where he belongs
In last season's breakout performance (19 goals and 30 points in 56 games), Eriksson Ek proved he could be a strong, 200-foot center. The question going into this season was who best to pair with Eriksson Ek and make best use of his talents.
Evason started by moving Eriksson Ek away from his former linemates Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno and trying him with Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello. They are all fine players -- but it wasn't the right mix. Kaprizov struggled early, and neither Eriksson Ek nor Zuccarello was really flourishing in that space.
So, Evason reunited Greenway and Foligno on Eriksson Ek's flanks. Just like that, the magic was back. Their line dominated across the board during Minnesota's eight-game streak, registering 17 high-danger scoring chances. Evason took to calling them a "security blanket" for Minnesota's offense, and so they have been.
Going up against the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, Eriksson Ek's line held Toronto's top scorers (including Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares) off the board at even strength. In Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combined for one point while being suffocated by the Wild's shutdown line.
Through Minnesota's last 10 games, Eriksson Ek has three goals and eight points, Foligno has six goals and seven points and Greenway is finally clicking offensively, with four goals and six points. That's not bad production from a so-called third line with heavy defensive responsibilities.
While Eriksson Ek has been rolling in his new (old) spot, the center's early-season linemates have found a groove, too -- thanks to one veteran on the cusp of a career year.
The resurgence of Ryan Hartman
It's not just that Hartman is on pace to shatter all his own previous records. He's also been one of Minnesota's most versatile pieces.
While Evason spent the first month of this season tinkering, Hartman shuffled from a top-six role with Kaprizov and Zuccarello to a fourth-line spot with Sturm and Duhaime. The 27-year-old has been consistent throughout, not going more than two games without a point all season.
That steadying presence had a noticeable effect as the Wild settled into their season. Things were going badly for Kaprizov in his sophomore campaign, until he landed with Hartman and Zuccarello. Then, cue the hot streak.
Kaprizov has been off and running since mid-November, registering five goals and 14 points in 10 games. Those flashy figures -- and the five-year, $45 million contract he signed in September -- have grabbed headlines. But Hartman is right alongside him, in more ways than one.
Playing on a more modest three-year, $5.1 million pact, Hartman's output ranks with the NHL's best. His 13 goals are tied for eighth in the league (as is teammate Foligno), and Hartman is second on the Wild in points (23). This is trending towards being Hartman's most productive season ever, on pace for a 40-plus goal campaign while already just eight points shy of his career high from 2016-17.
One thing that's elevated Hartman is how much he's shooting the puck. This season Hartman has already fired 96 shots on net compared to just 74 shots in 51 games last season, and 114 shots in 69 games the season before.
More shots have led to more opportunity. And more shots at the opposing goal is all the better for Minnesota's soaring starter.
Counting on Cam Talbot
If this isn't the best Cam Talbot has ever been, then it's close. And that was hardly a given around Thanksgiving.
Talbot was feeling good, at 5-0-0 to open the season, and sharing the net with backup Kaapo Kahkonen. Then the veteran took a slide, going 4-5-0 and spurring conversation around whether the Wild needed to make an upgrade ahead of the trade deadline.
Turns out, they'd be getting one without making a deal.
The 34-year-old Talbot raised his own level of play to become one of the NHL's best goaltenders of late. Since Nov. 24, Talbot is tied for most wins (6) in the league, with a .937 save percentage (including a .948 save percentage at 5-on-5) and 2.25 goals-against average. That stretch was populated by wins over quality opponents, including Tampa Bay, Toronto and Edmonton (with a .929 save percentage or better in each outing).
Talbot's run coincided with the Wild losing Spurgeon to injury, underscoring how vital the improved goaltending has been to Minnesota's accomplishments. It's only natural that Talbot will cool off (and heat up again), but an area that was causing panic is now looking like a verifiable strength for the Wild.
Bringing in Merrill on a one-year, $850,000 contract last summer didn't move the needle much. Kulikov coming in at two years and $4.5 million was a little more of a blip. Put those two together though, and the Wild have a terrific, established pairing that can anchor the blue line. Their combined numbers tell the tale: 62% expected goals for percentage, 57% scoring chances percentage and 54% Corsi for percentage.
Individually, Merrill and Kulikov have played well, too. When Spurgeon went down, Merril went into the top four and effectively supported Alex Goligoski. The 29-year-old has already suited up in 28 games for the Wild and registered 10 points. He's on track to blow past all his previous career totals.
Meanwhile, Kulikov is not just a savvy veteran in the defensive zone, he's showcasing offensive skills, with 12 points in 27 games, that add another layer to Minnesota's attack.
Then there's Jonas Brodin. Now in his 10th season with Minnesota, the 28-year-old was having a standout campaign before being sidelined by an upper-body injury late last week (he's listed as day-to-day). Brodin is an elite skater with excellent awareness on the ice, so he can go toe-to-toe with the NHL's best forwards. That speed allows Brodin to keep his edges and force bodies to the outside, taking away chances and helping the Wild to be such a dominant 5-on-5 club. On top of that, Brodin's on pace to have his best offensive season, with three goals and 14 points in 26 games.
Matt Dumba has also been a key factor on the blue line as well. The top-pairing defenseman eats up over 23 minutes per game, and has 15 points in 27 games.
In a nod to the team's overall defensive capabilities, the Wild were 28th overall in goals-against average (2.13) during Spurgeon's eight-game absence. Now that Spurgeon is back, Minnesota's defense should only get better.
Depth of character
You could have heard Fiala's roar in Minneapolis.
That's how animated the winger was in last Thursday's win over San Jose, after he scored for just the second time in 14 games. It's been that kind of season for Fiala, who has generated more chances than anyone on his team but has just four goals and 18 points in 28 games.
But even when the Wild's second-leading scorer from last season (with 20 goals and 40 points) isn't producing, the club carries on thanks to an enviable depth of talent.
Minnesota has gotten solid contributions from its bottom six, particularly Gaudreau and Pitlick. Their fourth line has fared especially well, with some combination of Duhaime, Pitlick, Sturm and Bjugstad.
If Fiala can go on a scoring run and establish some consistency, Minnesota's depth becomes more lethal. And Victor Rask, who has been a healthy scratch throughout the season, is waiting in the wings as well. Despite appearing in only 18 games, Rask has four goals and nine points, making him a nice available option to slot in as injuries will likely dictate at some point.
Any team that's had a long playoff run knows how much those types of players matter. It's not just stars driving the bus by spring; it's also how much support those top guys can get. The Wild appear to have that foundation in place.
Now where will it take them?