Minnesota Hockey Magazine

2016 – A Very WILD Ride

As we look back at 2016 on the Minnesota hockey scene, we end the year going out on top here at the XCEL Energy Center with a historic game that will stand in the NHL record books for years to come.

It all starts at the top and, in the state of hockey, nothing compares to the ride that the Minnesota Wild saw in 2016.   Since their inception in 2000, the Wild have had five  head coaches, and in 2016 we saw three different faces behind the bench and podium.

The year was one for streaks, beginning with a slide for the ages, as the Wild lost 13 of their first 14 games.  On Feb. 13, after their  eighth loss in a row at home, to Boston,  owner Craig Leipold and GM Chuck Fletcher pulled the trigger, firing coach Mike Yeo after four-plus seasons at the helm and  named John Torchetti the interim coach.

The former Iowa head coach, who helped solidify the AHL franchise with sound structure and solid teaching, was asked to come in and lead the Wild.  Torchetti would have mixed results as the team searched for an identity.

After righting the ship and getting an under-performing team to play hard, the team turned around and was able to make the playoffs, entering as the  eighth seed and facing a hot Dallas team  which had finished the year by going 12-3-2 in  its last 17 games and earning the top seed.

The Wild would put up a fight in the series, playing hard and winning  two of the first  five games, but would eventually have their season end at the X losing in  Game 6.

In  Game 6, the team came back from a horrid start, down 4-0 after  two periods, and finished with a frantic comeback.  But just like their season, the hole they dug was just to deep to crawl out of losing 5-4.

With the streaky team going 15-11-1 under Torchetti, the question remained, would that be good enough for Leipold and Fletcher to take the interim label off and keep Torchetti as the  fourth head coach of the Wild.

Once the season ended, Chuck Fletcher told the media that Torchetti would be a serious head coaching candidate but he wanted to look at other options as well.

Torchetti, along with Randy Carlyle, interviewed with Fletcher.  More names were brought up as potential candidates.  All things changed from what was suppose to be a slow process, to a fast track, when Bruce Boudreau was fired by the Anaheim Ducks after losing another  Game 7 to the Nashville Predators.

On April 29t, after leading the Ducks to four consecutive division titles, but losing a  Game 7 for the fourth consecutive year, the Ducks cut their ties with him.

With Bourdreau being available, the hiring decision was fast-tracked, as his demand as a head coach would far exceed all other candidates.  His track record showed  eight division titles in  nine years and an overall coaching record of 208 wins, 104 losses and 40 ties.  This record made him a very hot prospect.

His coaching career in the NHL began in 2007 with the Washington Capitals, where he led the Caps to  four straight  division titles, becoming the fastest coach to win 200 regular season games.  However, In the playoffs, he lost  three times in  Game 7.

The following season, after a fast start that was followed by a prolonged slump, the Capitals and  Boudreau parted ways on  Nov. 11, 2011.  His unemployment was very short lived, as just  two days later he would be hired by Anaheim where he continued his winning ways.

With the Wild in need  of a coach with a proven track record, Fletcher immediately targeted Boudreau, and, with Ottawa also in hot pursuit, time was of the essence.  Fletcher would get his man.  On May 7th, Boudreau would be unemployed for less than  two weeks, becoming the  fifth head coach of the Wild.

Boudreau is glad to be back in the town where his professional career began.  The irony of his hiring is he now coaches in a building on the same spot Boudreau  began his professional career as a player  with the Minnesota Fighting Saints.

Boudreau knew that he had talent to work with but was also facing serious challenges, as the old regime had instilled a very different system and he would need to get the team to buy in to his style.

Because breaking old habits takes time, Boudreau told the media that he thought the club would find it’s stride by December.  He was prophetic.

The Wild more than found their stride in December, winning 12 straight games after a Dc. 2 shootout loss to Calgary to set the stag for Saturday’s historic matchup with Columbus.

The Blue Jackets arrived in St. Paul with a 14-game winning streak of their own marking the first time in NHL history two teams with winning streaks of at least seven games had ever met. In fact no two teams in all of the major sports had ever squared off with each having win streaks of 12 or more games.

Both teams entered the league in 2000 and have come of age  built around solid  goaltending, with the Wild leading the league in goals against average at  2.00 and Columbus right behind at 2.06 to start the night.  Devan  Dubnyk carried a  19-6-3 record, with a  save percentage of .944  and his own 10 game winning streak into the contest.  His counterpart, Sergei Bobrovsky  was 23-5-2 with a .932 save percentage and  a 12-game streak.

Neither club has a real sniper up front, but are very balanced with  four solid lines and lead the league with  eight of the top  nine players who are greater than  plus-18 in terms of plus/minus.

A common thought from the players and coaches was the game was still game number 36 out of an 82 game season, although the Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella liked the thought of the match up saying, “I want our guys to revel in it .”

Revel in it they did, as Columbus jumped off to a lead on Cam Atkinson’s goal at the 10:05 mark of the first period.  The Blue Jackets then scored twice in 15 seconds on Jack Johnson’s goal followed by another from Atkinson, early in the second period giving them a 3-0 lead.

The Wild countered just over a minute later with a goal by Mikael Granlund that brought the crowd back to life.  This was stifled late in the period with Seth Jones scoring to give the Jackets a comfortable  three-goal lead going into the  third period.

Coach Boudreau would inspire his club between periods and just 24 seconds into the third period Jason Zucker would cut the lead in half.  “ We wanted to score a goal every  five minutes, which would win us the game,” either Boudreau or Zucker said because the quote was not attributed despite both names mentioned in this paragraph. “ After the first one, I thought we would get another in eight minutes and, if we would have got the next one, it may have been different as the crowd was so into it.”

The Wild pressed hard until the end, but the Blue Jackets have won 14 straight games for a reason, and know how to close out good teams, keeping the Wild off the board and extending their streak to 15.

After the game Boudreau expressed his  team’s need to get back to how they started the streak. “Giving up 14 goals in  four games, we have gotten away from how we play because we have changed our  mindset,  most likely because we have been scoring goals,” Boudreau said.  “We need to get back to winning games 3-2 and 2-1, that’s what is going to make us win.  If we think we are going be a team that is going to win 5-4 we are in trouble, as that is not going to happen.”

When asked how his December was and what he will remember,  Boudreau said, “Christmas was very good, New Years not so good.  When you sit back and look at the whole picture what we did was pretty good, as long as we can get back to what we were doing, we will be successful.”