The Minnesota Wild head to the 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoffs as a familiar face. With last Sunday’s win over the San Jose Sharks, the Wild clinched its ninth postseason berth in the previous ten seasons. Winning in the regular season is now the standard in Minnesota.
However, playoff success continues to elude the franchise despite its regular-season dominance. Since the 2012-13 season, only five teams have more regular-season wins than Minnesota. Only two teams have a worse playoff win percentage than the Wild during that same time: the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. Just making the playoffs means little to a Stanley Cup-starved fanbase. The expectation is now to contend in the Western Conference.
This season, the Wild will have to run the gauntlet in a top-heavy Western Conference. A Round 1 matchup with the red-hot St. Louis Blues, who are tied with Minnesota with 109 standings points, looms. It doesn’t get easier after that, either. The star-studded Colorado Avalanche should coast through the first round with ease, setting up a second-round matchup against a potential 120-point team.
Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames (108 points) are comfortably the best team in the Pacific Division. They're the clear favorite to make the Western Conference Final. Obviously, anything can happen in the playoffs, but the Colorado Avalanche, Calgary Flames, and St. Louis Blues are looking like very tough outs this postseason.
Does this year’s Wild club have what it takes to compete with the best teams in the West? And is this record-setting team really any different from the previous eight Wild teams to make the playoffs?
The surface level evidence suggests that, yes, this team is significantly better than the Wild teams of the last decade. It has more wins (50), more goals for (295), and a better home record (29-7-2) than any other team in franchise history.
There’s more than a credible argument that this team is also the most talented club the Wild has ever had. Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala are, without question, the two most dynamic forwards in franchise history. Kaprizov’s 103 points (45G-58A) and Fiala’s 84 points (33G-51A) are good for the top two spots on the single-season franchise record list. It’s not just the production that makes them special, either. The skill, the ability to carry their own line, and the transition play separate them from past Wild greats. They’re game-breakers, able to take over a game at any moment. Previous Minnesota teams didn’t have one game-breaker, much less two.
The problem is, one or two game-breakers aren’t all you need to win a Cup. St. Louis, Colorado, and Calgary have the game-breakers AND depth at every position.
The Blues have been red-hot down the stretch, winning 11 of their last 12, including two overtime wins against the Wild. This matchup is a nightmare for Minnesota. St. Louis has a lethal power play, loads of depth scoring, and a reliable tandem in the net. They have some questions, like their 5-on-5 play and defensive depth, but it's an otherwise formidable roster. Not to mention, the Wild have lost six straight against them.
For as great as the Blues are, Colorado is better. Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen are top-ten players in the world, while career years from Nazem Kadri, Devon Toews, and Valeri Nichushkin have added an entire extra layer of high-end play to the roster. It’s a Cup-or-bust postseason for the Avs, who have assembled one of the most impressive rosters of the Cap era under Joe Sakic’s tutelage. They’ll likely breeze through Round 1 and will be clear favorites the rest of the way.
Fortunately for Minnesota, recent results have been much more promising against Colorado than against St. Louis. The Avalanche leads the season series 2-1, but Minnesota outplayed them in the last two meetings. It’s no simple task. Colorado has stellar goaltending and production from the entire lineup, but the Avs are beatable.
That leaves Calgary, the runaway Pacific Division champions. Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk form perhaps the most dominant forward line in hockey. In 930 minutes together, the trio is +39 with an expected goals share of 63.1% (per Moneypuck). Gaudreau would have a compelling Hart Trophy shout in a world where neither Connor McDavid nor Auston Matthews exist.
The blue line has also grown leaps and bounds since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach last season. Oliver Kylington and Rasmus Andersson have finally taken the next step in their development, while Noah Hanifin has recovered well from a down year in 2021. Calgary doesn’t have the marquee stud defenseman that other teams do, but its top-four rivals every other team in the league.
In net, Jacob Markstrom leads the NHL in shutouts (9), ranks fourth in goals saved above expected, and has a .921% save percentage (per Evolving Hockey). He’s undoubtedly the X-factor for a Flames team that regularly dominates possession and can score in bunches.
The Wild lost its first two meetings with the Flames by a combined score of 4-12, and neither game looked close. Granted, both games came at the tail end of Minnesota’s worst stretch of the season and the best stretch of Calgary's season. But the gulf in class between the two sides was evident. Minnesota had no answer for Calgary’s top line, while Markstrom swallowed nearly every chance the Wild offense generated.
If Minnesota beats both St. Louis and Colorado — and that’s a big if — Calgary will again give them all they can handle.
Can the Wild truly run the Western Conference gauntlet, defeating three of the best teams in the sport? Probably not. But this team is unlike any other in the franchise’s 21-season history. For the first time in its history, Minnesota has multiple difference-makers up front and a high-ceiling tandem in goal. If any Wild team is going to break the mold of playoff underachievers, it’s this one.
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