Let's be presumptuous for a moment. Yeah, I know, I shouldn't say anything; it's a jinx; blah, blah, blah; but let's just say, for argument's sake, that the Wild make the playoffs this year. Let's even say, as long as we're in this hypothetical mindset, that they make a surprise playoff run. I'd say that after a season that started off with so much negativity, a season where Guillaume "Baby Jesus" Latendresse was a non-factor for most of the campaign, a season which, just a few months ago, I said would be doomed if we kept Coach Richards around (oops!)––if we made the playoffs that year, I think the logical question would be, "wait, what the hell happened?" Put a bit more eloquently, I think that if the Wild can maintain this level of play, the pressing question down the road will be, "What was the turning point? What changed?"
For once, I think the answer is actually pretty simple. The turning point happened on January 2, 2011, at precisely this moment:
Thoughts from the stands were pretty typical:
"Wild give up a late lead, as we've come to expect." "Ugh, another home loss. What happened to this place?" "Here comes the empty net. Nice job, Richards, just give them the 'bonus goal' again."
This was followed by something we Wild fans hadn't really felt since "The Comeback" in January 2010. I won't try and put it in quotes, but it was something to the tune of "Woah, what's Bouchard doing?" followed by jumping up, screaming, and generally making mayhem. And they said the Xcel Center had turned into a library. Capping it off with an OT winner (from, of all people, Cam Barker) was crucial.
One come-from-behind win isn't enough to turn around a season, no. (Just look at the aforementioned Blackhawks at Wild game from last season for proof.) But in this case it meant a bit more. Certainly it preceded a bit of a shift in fan attitudes, but I'm also willing to postulate that it had a little something to do with the players' mentalities, too. The Wild have been the best team in the Western Conference since that thriller of a game. I think it may have shown to the players that all of the old platitudes the coach tries to get them to believe might just actually have something to do with this team:
"We may be down late, but we're still in this thing. If we control the puck and get the sixth skater out there, we can send this thing to OT." Not only have the Wild given up just one 'bonus goal' since that fateful night, but they've also managed to tie the game with the extra skater––and win the game in OT––a second time this year. This is a drastic turnaround, as pulling the goalie situationally was one of Richards' biggest weaknesses in his first season-and-a-half behind the bench. If you'll permit some tackiness, this seems in some ways symbolic of the season as a whole. Rising and falling between 7th and 11th in a matter of days can be hugely frustrating, but the team no longer seems to be letting it weigh them down.
"We have to go out and play hard and hold on to this lead." Not only have the Wild held more leads than we've been accustomed to, but the "death period" seems to have evaporated, as the Wild's struggles in the middle stanza seem, frankly, a thing of the distant past. Even in the later parts of games, the team has rarely seemed complacent with the lead, a marked improvement over the early season.
"We can win in the shootout." Okay, this one still sort of baffles me.
"This injury's not going to end our season." Losing Zidlicky, our top blueliner from the '09-'10 campaign, should have hurt us, big-time. Losing Scandella, his intelligent, puck-handling "replacement," could easily have been the last nail in the coffin. But the way the Wild have been playing, you'd be hard-pressed to call them injury-plagued. Plenty of Wild fans, myself included, were, frankly, terrified about Clayton Stoner, lil' Jared Spurgeon, and Certifiable First Round Bust Cam Barker carrying so much of the defensive load. Somehow, it seems to have fallen into place, though. (Now imagine the team playing at this level, but with Latendresse, Zidlicky, and Scandella all healthy... I might need a change of pants.)
I don't know exactly what changed in the locker room or on the ice to create the atmosphere conducive to these attitudinal shifts. Maybe it was the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Maybe his skill and chemistry with Marty Havlat, whose effort level has seemed off-the-charts lately, lit up the whole team. Maybe it's been Backs's phenomenal play. Maybe it's that military motivational speaker Richards seems to keep bringing in, or maybe Cal's been playing pranks in the locker room again or something. I don't know. But between everything, it seems like all the positivity came back when Butch's clutch goal proved all those sports-isms true. The players look like they're having fun; their gameplan clicks; even the fans seem noticeably more into the game than usual. And all of this is happening with consistency, for the first time in Todd Richards' NHL tenure. Once the team proved they could really do this thing, the magic came back.