Minnesota Wild fans are riding high on the team’s first three-game winning streak to start a season in six years - and they absolutely should be. But should the exuberance be encouraged or tempered? After all, the Wild have been here before...
Let’s take a look back at the best starts to a season and how the team ended up after a similar start...
The start of the 06-07 season was the best in Wild history as the team took their first six games and nine of their first ten. Led by new acquisitions Pavol Demitra at forward and Niklas Backstrom in net, Minnesota finally made it back to the promised land of the playoffs for the first time since their unlikely Western Conference run in 2003. 2006-07 also saw the first 82-game season for longtime captain Mikko Koivu, who finished the year with an impressive 20 goals and and 34 assists, good for fifth on the team in points. And despite missing two-and-a-half months with an injured groin, Marian Gaborik ended the season with 30 goals, only one tally behind team leader Brian Rolston. Backstrom joined Manny Fernandez to make a fearsome duo in net, as the two goaltenders teamed up to win the Jennings award for fewest goals allowed by a pair for the season.
But despite finishing the season with a 48-26-8 record (good enough for second in the division), the NHL’s playoff system placed them 7th in the conference, and for the second time in team history they would draw the Anaheim Ducks in the playoffs. Though the Ducks had dropped the “Mighty” moniker prior to the season, Anaheim was just as much trouble for the Wild as they were in 2003, and the 06-07 Ducks ended the Wild’s playoff participation with a 4-1 first round defeat. But perhaps more memorable than the short-lived series was the brawl that occured late in game 4. After two Ducks teamed up to take on Wild bruiser Adam Hall, Anaheim’s Brad May sucker-punched Wild defenseman Kim Johansson, who had not dropped his gloves and wasn’t known for being a fighter. Johnsson laid on the ice while the brouhaha erupted around him, and head coach Jacques Lemaire sent enforcer Derek Boogard to skate laps around the circles in case any other Ducks were getting ideas - though by that time the fights had petered out. The win would be the only one the Wild would earn against the Ducks, as Anaheim took care of business in game 5.
Minnesota started out nearly as hot as the season prior, outscoring their opponents 11-4 in five wins to start the season, including a rematch with the Anaheim Ducks in which May answered the bell for the Johnsson hit by fighting Derek Boogaard during the Wild’s 2-0 win.
Lemaire’s tight defensive scheme paid dividends, for not only did he Wild make the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Minnesota won it’s first (and to this date, only) division title despite finishing only 17th in team goals scored. Offensively, Gaborik had his best season in a Wild sweater, setting a goals benchmark of 42 that has only been matched once (by Eric Staal in 2017-18), and his 83 points still stands as the only time a Wild player has eclipsed 80 points in a season. Gaborik had perhaps the most memorable game of his career (certainly, his most memorable with the Wild) when he scored five goals in a dominating performance against the New York Rangers in a 6-3 Wild win.
The 07-08 season also saw one of the most gruesome moments in Wild history, when defenseman Kurtis Foster, racing to compete for a touch-up icing call, crashed into the end boards breaking his left femur in three pieces and cracking his kneecap.
But despite the division title and home ice advantage in the first round, the Wild squandered a 2-1 series lead to drop three straight to the Colorado Avalanche, including two tough losses on home ice. The disappointing finish to the season marked the beginning of the end of the Jacques Lemaire and Marian Gaborik eras in Minnesota.
Just like the two seasons prior, the Wild started out hot with four straight victories and points in each of their first seven games. But despite entering the month of November in the division lead and third place in the Western Conference, a midseason crash caused the Wild to drop in the standings and miss the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
The Wild signed Andrew Brunette in the offseason to try to replace the scoring from outgoing free agents Demitra and Rolston, but Bruno’s 50 points couldn’t make up the difference in a year that also saw Gaborik play in only 17 games due to lower body injuries and hip surgery. Off-ice contract friction didn’t help matters, and despite being offered a rumored five-year deal worth upwards of $50 million, Gaborik opted to walk at the end of the season, leaving the Wild with an offensive hole they have been trying to fill ever since - and may finally have done so with Kirill Kaprizov.
Missing the playoffs and finishing 22nd out of 30 teams in team goal scoring didn’t help the coach’s cause, and so the Wild also let go of Lemaire after the 08-09 season, opting to bring in Todd Richards.
And we all know how that went.
Heading into the 2015-16 season, there was a lot to be
excited cautiously optimistic about. The Wild were coming off their second straight season of multi-round playoffs, though this time they were swept by a superior Chicago Blackhawks squad. Still, they’d acquired the stable goaltender they’d been sorely missing, and Devan Dubnyk almost single-handedly led them to the playoffs. Thomas Vanek was entering his second year with the Wild, and certainly he would show some improvement now that he had experience with the gang. And sure, the team didn’t spend in free agency like they had the year prior, but giving more minutes to their young, talented core would make up for the losses of Kyle Brodziak and Chris Stewart, right?
Three games into the season, three wins against the Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, and Arizona Coyotes - two of those wins coming on the road. Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo have finally gotten it together. Midseason swoons (and Yeo practice tirades) are a thing of the past.
Fast forward to January, when the Wild ring in the new year in the thick of a a wild-card battle just a handful of points behind St. Louis and Chicago in the division chase. First, the Wild get swept on a homestand by the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets, three midding-to-poor teams. The Wild lose another 10 out of 11 contests as the schedule drifted into mid-February in another unexplainable midseason swoon. This time, the axe came down on Yeo’s head, fired only a handful of games before Minnesota was to host its first outdoor event in a Stadium Series matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. John Torchetti took the reins, and the Wild were back on a roll. They won their next four (including a 6-1 dismantling of Chicago on outdoor ice at TCF stadium), and despite earning only 87 points in the standings, they clawed their way back into a playoff spot. The Wild mostly kept pace with the Dallas Stars in their first round series, but when backed up against the wall in a game six elimination game, they allowed the Stars to jump to a 4-0 lead after two periods. Sure, they scored four in the third period, but it wasn’t enough as the Stars dropped the Wild in the first round in the 5-4 victory.
Obviously, none of this has any effect on how the Wild will finish after their three-game winning streak to start the season in 2021. Different players, different coaches, different league, different time in history. And though no-one knows how this season will end - in jubilent success or utter failure (or, most likely, somewhere in between), looking back at the history can sometimes provide a reminder for fans to simply enjoy the here and now. The Wild are hot, and they’re an incredibly fun team to watch. Let’s keep the good times rolling while they last.
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