The Wild don't have the raw talent of last year's team, but this season's edition is built for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Take a deep breath, everyone. The Minnesota Wild’s loss on Saturday against the Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t mean their playoff run is doomed. That’s going to be true regardless of any stumbles that might happen before the postseason, so put that behind you.
And while you’re at it, forget those memories of last year’s playoffs and the magic that was fun until it wasn’t. The truth is that the Wild are even more prepared for a deep run than last year. This year’s team is built differently, and it’s going to carry them further than ever before.
If anyone needs proof, look no further than the game against the Colorado Avalanche last week. Everyone knew that game was going to be tough and many fans were rightly worried. But the Wild came out ready to play the right way and jumped out to a 3-1 lead. Even with a shaky start to the third period, they frustrated the defending champions enough to get two crucial two points. It served as a great sneak peek of what the playoffs will look like this year.
Hold up, the naysayers might ask, what about the loss against Vegas? First off, no one wins all of the time. Even this year’s Boston Bruins team loses sometimes. Second of all, the Wild came out of the gates looking pretty solid. Unfortunately, when Mason Shaw went down in the first five minutes, it put a damper on the entire team.
It was evident the Wild had a tough time getting back into the game after watching their beloved teammate unable to put any weight on his leg, especially with his history of injuries. As professionals, their job is to compartmentalize those sorts of events. But after spending years watching Shaw work back from injury to finally make the NHL, there’s no denying that is an emotional gut punch.
Despite the loss, the Wild are thriving through adversity and are ready for the playoffs. They’ve had bad stretches in the past and were able to easily bounce back. One of the secrets to their success is that they don’t get discouraged. There have been numerous games with terrible first and second periods only for the team to come out strong in the third and win the game.
Their ability to put mistakes and bad luck behind them keeps their focus on the here and now. That will be helpful throughout the stretch of games over the next two weeks. If the Wild can survive bouncing back from a disastrous first three games of the season, they can survive any setbacks they face in the next six games.
The Wild shifted from a high-octane attack last year to a defensively-minded strategy, and it’s going to bring them far. As much fun as the offensively-minded team was to watch last year, it wasn’t a tactic that translated to a deep playoff run. This year, it seems like every player on the team is playing stout defense.
It also helps that they’re supporting one of the best goalie tandems in the league. Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his Wild career. And Filip Gustavsson is on such a heater that he earned a spot as one of the NHL’s Stars of the Week twice in the month of March.
Matt Boldy is the other Wild player with plenty of buzz right now. The young player signed a new, $49 million mega-bucks contract, and management traded for a new friend in Marcus Johansson. Since then, he’s been off to the races. Since Kirill Kaprizov‘s March 8 injury, Boldy has points in almost every game and two natural hat tricks. Imagine Boldy keeping up that pace after Kaprizov comes back. That would mean the defensive-minded Wild have two superstars raining scoring chances on opponents.
Kaprizov and Boldy don’t need to worry about being the only goal-scorers though. True, secondary scoring was a big problem at the beginning of this calendar year. But the team got a giant wake-up call when Kaprizov was injured. At that point, it was evident that the rest of the Wild players needed to shape up, because Kaprizov wouldn’t be around to put the team on his back and will Minnesota to win.
And shape up they did. In the ten games before the Vegas game, 17 different skaters scored. Talk about secondary scoring. It trickled out all the way to Ryan Reaves, who had a Gordie Howe hat trick, plus points in several other games since Kaprizov’s been out of the lineup.
All of that scoring didn’t take away from the gritty undercurrent that runs throughout the team. During the national broadcast of the game against the Seattle Kraken last week, the broadcasters kept using the word “nasty” to describe the Wild. That nasty grit is what sets the Wild apart from every other team. The third and fourth lines are full of players like Brandon Duhaime, Reaves, Connor Dewar, and Oskar Sundqvist, who aren’t afraid to run an opponent into the boards.
That identity even extends to the team superstars, who are willing to physically battle for the puck along the wall and jump into a scrum. Kaprizov regularly uses his strength to keep opponents off the puck. Boldy even dropped the mitts in February. The team-first, gritty mentality will go far in the playoffs.
After the trade deadline pick-ups, the team is full of players who can step in when there are injuries. As much as it hurt to see Shaw go down, the next man up mentality means that players can easily slot into the lineup. This team has depth at all positions. While the Iowa Wild is also angling for an AHL playoff spot, there are several players that can be pulled up to Minnesota without stripping Iowa of all of its talent. An injury here or there won’t hurt the overall team, even if they are a bit heartbreaking to witness.
Wild fans have been hurt before, and the ghosts of their past are as recent as last season. But it’s a new season and a different team, and they deserve a chance to prove it. This isn’t the most talented team Minnesota’s ever iced, but it might be the one with the right mix to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. Fans should embrace it.
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