December 18, 2011. Remember this day in the Minnesota sports landscape? It was less than two months ago, yet it seems like ancient history.
The Vikings lost their sixth consecutive game on this day, in rather embarrassing fashion to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. But we're not here to talk about the Vikings--let's all just agree to think about the atrocious 3-13 season as little as possible going forward.
The Timberwolves were still over a week away from playing their first game of the 2011-2012 season thanks to the NBA lockout. But it's not like most Minnesotans were pining for the Wolves anyway--the T-Pups have been one of the league's laughingstocks since Kevin Garnett left for Boston.
There were a few small reasons to think that this year would be a little different for the T-Wolves, but nothing to get too excited about. Sure, they had the Spanish kid, Ricky Rubio, finally joining the team after avoiding Minnesota like the plague since he was drafted in 2009. But he could barely get off the bench for his Spanish team last year and nobody knew how he would handle the NBA game. The Wolves also replaced Kurt Rambis with veteran head coach Rick Adelman. But let's face it, most fans were convinced some sort of scientific hybrid of Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson couldn't bring this roster to the playoffs. Finally, Minnesota drafted Derrick Williams out of Arizona with the #2 pick (because it's obviously against the law for the Wolves to win the NBA lottery, ever). Most draft experts liked his skill set but thought he was a year or two away from being an impact player in the pros. The bottom line: nobody was missing basketball all that much on December 18.
But among all the gloom and doom in the Minnesota sports landscape back in December, there was a glimmering beacon of hope. The Wild were making the State of Hockey proud, sporting an NHL-best record of 20-8-5 even after two tough shootout losses. Head coach Mike Yeo had the team playing a very exciting brand of hockey even though there had been a rash of early-season injuries. New San Jose Sharks transplants Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi complemented Mikko Koivu to give the Wild their first legitimate top-tier line in...well, maybe ever. There was a lot of young talent on the blue line. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding gave them an excellent one-two punch in goal. For a state as hockey-crazy as Minnesota is, the Wild's resurgence was just what the doctor ordered.
Smash cut to today--February 10, 2012.
Things have changed just a bit, haven't they?
The Wild have been free falling so quickly that Tom Petty is thinking about suing them for copyright infringement. The team has won only 5 of their 21 games since they last stood atop the NHL standings, catapulting them all the way down to 10th in the Western Conference. The Injury Bug has turned into the Injury Krakken--nearly every significant player on the squad has missed time this year. Yeo has been forced into using roughly 3,231 different lineups already, which has killed any semblance of consistency. Even now as the team is finally getting slightly healthier, the results on the ice aren't changing. Unless the Wild can turn it around in a hurry, they'll be on the outside looking in for the fourth consecutive season.
Meanwhile, at the Target Center...what's this? The Minnesota Timberwolves are--dare I say--relevant? They're actually fun to watch? And they aren't among the cellar dwellers in the NBA standings? Surely, this can't be!
But it's true. After the T-Wolves went over .500 the other day for the first time since the Bush administration, I Tweeted that it might be a sign of the apocalypse. In all seriousness, the Timberwolves finally seem to have a legit nucleus to build around. Kevin Love just got his well-deserved extension. He has (literally and figuratively) been stomping the competition all year. Rubio has been better than advertised. His jump shot still needs work, but he's already rivaling Steve Nash as the best facilitator in the league--just ask his favorite alley-oop partner Derrick Williams. Minnesota's young legs and surprisingly deep bench have been an asset with the jam-packed post-lockout schedule. Wolves GM David Kahn appeared to be assembling random, mismatched parts the past few years. It's finally looking more and more like a team with each game.
The new team has crowds at the Target Center lively and bustling instead of their usual comatose and sparse. Nobody's going to confuse the Timberwolves as title contenders this year, but there's finally hope to latch onto for the first time in ages. And with the sports year we've just endured in Minnesota, that's a pretty big step.
The Wild haven't participated in a playoff game since April 19, 2008. The T-Wolves? Not since May 31, 2004. Will that change by this April? Perhaps. Both teams are currently out of the top 8 in their respective conferences, but there's plenty of time to change that for each squad.
I think there's a very good chance one of those two teams could sneak into the playoffs. But the team that does it just might surprise you.