As the Minnesota Wild continue their blistering stretch of 40 games in 77 days, the playoffs are now two months away. There are still 30 games to play, and a lot can happen in the homestretch of a season. But at this point, as has been the case for much of this year's campaign, their most likely first-round opponent remains the St. Louis Blues.
Every spring, there's discussion abound on the teams you don't want to face come playoff time. The sneaky eight-seed that flew under the radar. The team with the hot netminder. And, of course, the team you don't want to face, no matter what the circumstances might be. The team you have a history with. The team that has your number.
That team you call your biggest rival.
Hockey as a sport loves to boast of its great rivalries. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. The Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins. But at first glance, the Wild don't seem to have an obvious one themselves. And this is not even speaking to a league-renowned rivalry, but rather just a clear-cut, identifiable top opponent. Part of this is not their fault, as the franchise has only been around for 22 years. However, part of it very much is. In those 22 years, they've only managed to play in 15 playoff series.
And rivalries, of course, are often born from hard-fought, emotional postseason series. Other factors include geographic proximity, fanbase engagement, and chippy play that evolves over time in frequent matchups. But there's really no ingredient quite like a few gritty postseason series. The NHL designed their current playoff format for this, sometimes to the irritation of both fans and players.
So, who would you call the Wild's biggest rival?
Let's start with the Winnipeg Jets. Minnesota lost in a quick and relatively uneventful five games in their only postseason border battle. Regular season games are more contentious than most, with white and blue jerseys sprinkled throughout the X whenever the Jets come to town. Though it's not fully developed, the Jets 2.0 have only been in Winnipeg for a decade. There's potential for their animosity only to grow stronger.
Then there's the Chicago Blackhawks. For three straight years, the Wild met the Blackhawks in the playoffs. And for three consecutive years, the Blackhawks sent the Wild packing. No series went to seven games, and the disparity in competition threw water on any flame that could've erupted. This rivalry will likely remain suppressed until these two teams are simultaneously competitive.
Speaking of seven-game series, the Wild and the Colorado Avalanche have gone the distance twice. Minnesota won both times, each in Denver. Both series were chippy, tightly contested, and emotional. The Avs got the best of Minnesota in 2008, in a series that went six. Although it's been seven years since their last postseason meeting, every matchup feels important. The play is often dynamic, and the fans really don't like each other. Another seven-game playoff series or two, and this could ignite into the Wild's first truly significant rivalry.
You could make a case for three other teams.
The Wild and Blues have slowly built their rivalry over the years. They have played two playoff series against each other and have played increasingly chippy regular-season games.
The Dallas Stars rivalry has that whole "we-stole-your-team-thing," but what could have been tailor-made hatred from a narrative standpoint never really materialized. Instead, the Wild fanbase steered their animosity more in the direction of the man responsible, Norm Green.
The Nashville Predators and Minnesota don't love each other, but they've never met in the playoffs, and both fanbases are relatively neutral toward each other.
As for the Arizona Coyotes? No comment there.
To add a couple of honorable mentions: Before the NHL's 2013 division realignment, the Wild played in the Northwest division, where they spun up a rivalry with the Vancouver Canucks. It cooled considerably after the division realignment, but fans who have been with the team since its inception can still feel the heat. More recently, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Wild have had growing friction, assisted by last year's playoff series that went seven games.
The fact that there's reasonable debate around this is evidence that the Wild still have not found that clear-cut, league-renowned rival after 22 years.
The Wild find themselves in a precarious place right now, the second notable slump of their season. But as concern gives way to panic, it's important to remember that the Wild are still a very good hockey team. They remain on pace for over 100 points, still well-poised to top their franchise record of 106.
Per Money Puck, the Wild have a 98.2% chance of making the playoffs. Maybe they'll fall a few spots in the coming months. Perhaps they'll climb and reclaim second place in the Central. Maybe they'll stay right where they're at and head to St. Louis for Game 1, just like they did in the spring of 2015.
Whoever the Wild play, it will likely be one of the teams mentioned above. And there will be another opportunity for a hard-fought, emotional playoff series that will add a layer to a budding rivalry.
Or, if we're really lucky, maybe two, three, or four of them.