It gets old, you know.
How quickly narratives change. The Minnesota Wild were up 2-1 after Game 3 of their series with the Dallas Stars. They came back for Game 4 on home ice, in front of the best fans in the league, with all the momentum. What a perfect chance to take a commanding lead in the series and be on the verge of advancing to the second round for the first time since 2015.
They folded like an omelet. They cracked under the postseason pressure. In one fell swoop, Dallas regained the lead in the series and turned everything on its head en route to eliminating Minnesota from the postseason. The fans booed the Wild off the ice after the first and second periods. Later, the team received an undeserved cheer as they limped off the ice when the final horn blasted.
The same events transpired last year – the same exact thing. Time and time again, we're watching an identical story play out. Same false hope, same result.
The Wild enjoyed a 2-1 series lead after Game 3 last year against the St. Louis Blues. They allowed the Blues to climb back in that series, turn the momentum, turn the energy around, and win the last three games to eliminate the Wild from the first round of the playoffs again.
What were the problems the Wild faced last year against St. Louis last year? Let’s review:
- Poor special teams
- Unreliable scoring
- Whelming goaltending
- Failure of coaches to adjust to any of the above
The same old stuff happened in this series. Minnesota let the Stars shred them on the powerplay, the same as the Blues did last year. Both teams converted over 30% of their power plays against the Wild.
Minnesota’s depth players were not active in this series at all, and neither were the star players. The Wild had nobody else except Kirill Kaprizov and Joel Eriksson Ek really step up last year. This year, the only ones in the top-6 to do so were Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello. Gustav Nyquist and Freddy Gaudreau sprinkled in some nice moments, but the production was very lacking overall.
Dallas outscored the Wild, 11-3, in the last three games before elimination. The offense completely dried up. The superstars, the depth scoring, the new players, all of ‘em!
The Wild’s superstar cornerstone, Kaprizov, had zero… ZERO points at even strength during the entire series. The only point Kaprizov scored was a power play goal in the first period of Game 1. Dallas head coach Pete DeBoer shut down Minnesota’s star players, as he did when he ran the Vegas Golden Knights two years ago. Kaprizov has only four points in 13 games playing against DeBoer-coached teams in the postseason.
Call Kaprizov the Avatar the way he disappeared when the Wild Nation needed him most. To be fair, I don’t want to be too hard on Kaprizov. He was clearly playing hurt despite saying he was fine. We all saw Ryan Suter’s vicious, dirty cross-checks of Kaprizov in the first few games in Dallas. Suter’s dastardliness was on full display all series. No love was lost from the former Wild playoff no-show and current salary cap albatross.
Hey, don’t think I forgot about you, Matt Boldy. When Avatar Kaprizov went away during the regular season, he stepped up. What was so different this time? Boldy produced a mere three assists in the series. How many goals did Boldy score? The same amount of times that Wild has advanced to the second round in the past eight years… That's right, folks: Zero!
How did Dallas’s star players fare? Roope Hintz was absolute dynamite for the Stars. He had 12 points in just six games and was a catalyst all series. Tyler Seguin was highly effective, and Miro Heiskanen played like the complete No. 1 defenseman he was supposed to be. The pillars that were supposed to hold up Dallas showed up to play.
I understand that Eriksson Ek was hurt, and that’s a massive loss for a team already lacking in centers. He was a stud all year, and his absence on both ends of the ice is really a big blow. But losing one player shouldn't lead to this kind of collapse.
The goaltending last year was subpar. Marc-Andre Fleury was not spectacular this year, and he was horrendous in his lone playoff game. Conversely, Filip Gustavsson was incredibly solid. He did not save any games like Jake Oettinger did for the Stars, though.
The former Lakeville North star was too much for the Wild. He was incredible in the series, recording a .929 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average.
Gustavsson was not much worse, sitting at a .921 save percentage with a 2.33 goals-against average. It seemed as if Oettinger was up to the task whenever the Wild needed a big goal or had a really good opportunity to score.
The last of the recurring themes from last year and years before is the lack of adjustments or the stubbornness to change things. Dean Evason's penalty kill got torched, but then he still trots out the same guys to get torched repeatedly? It's not shocking that didn't work. The power play is struggling, but Evason still put the same guys out there, expecting a different result.
We don't even have to get into the lineup decisions; people have already beaten that horse. Evason has shown that he does not like to change things until it’s too late. He did not do anything dramatic to the forward group until the brink of elimination this year, if at all. Similar to how he just threw Cam Talbot into the fire during Game 6 last year after riding Fleury for the first five games.
The Wild’s reluctance to play younger players has been well-documented. You can talk all you want about Marco Rossi, Calen Addison, Adam Beckman, Sammy Walker, and all of these young guys, but it’s a path we’ve already traveled. Those guys would not swing in and rescue the Wild from their self-sabotaging solutions. If they were going to be in a position to succeed, it should have happened long ago.
Then there's the officiating: The story of Evason, Marcus Foligno, and the refs. Every team faces adversity; it’s part of sports. But they had no control over the calls the refs make. Whining about it only makes it worse. If the only excuse one can offer for losing a game is that the refs blew calls, guess what? You didn’t deserve to win. It’s that simple.
Evason now moves to 0-4 in the first round of the playoffs at the helm of the Wild. His teams have shown they can start strong and throw the first punch. When they inevitably get punched back, though, they struggle to adjust and eventually get knocked out.
Live video of the Wild trying not to fumble in the first round:
For a team that was supposed to be excellent defensively and play a physical, "Grit First" style, they looked like a team on their heels all series. They were dominated, not dominating, physically and struggled with their defensive effort.
The Wild were, as they've been for over a decade, so close to it being a different story. The pucks are always just a touch away from their sticks, just a little out of reach. They fan on their Grade-A chances so often that you'd think they were cursed. And when they got solid wood on the puck, Oettinger was there to deny the Wild a maddening amount of times.
It's even more frustrating because general manager Bill Guerin went for it at the deadline. Minnesota was one of the most active teams at the trade deadline and gave up assets to try and improve this team. The guys they brought in at forward were effective. Marcus Johansson, Nyquist, and Oskar Sundqvist all played very well. Johansson and Nyquist had career renaissances during their limited sample size in Minnesota and had some moments during the playoffs.
The Wild will probably want to bring some of them back, but again, it amounted in the same result.
Should we have expected more from this team? Maybe, maybe not. They had the goaltending and a 2-1 series lead. But they were also injured, middling-at-best offensively, and had no center depth. Any other team looked at this lineup and laughed. The Wild had a journeymen winger, a player who was a career AHLer before his old AHL coach rescued him from obscurity, and a guy who could barely earn a second contract in the NHL as their top three centers.
I love this team, and I have nothing personal against any of the players on the Wild. I drag my sorry ass to the couch to watch them as often as possible. I have so much hope, so much optimism, and time and time again, I slip on the same banana peel they do every spring. It’s just unreal how naive I am.
I was not around during the glory days of 2003, but I vividly remember nine years ago when Nino Niederreiter became a folk hero overnight. He zinged a puck over the shoulder of Semyon Varlamov and off the pipe in Game 7 of 2014's first round. It's a beautiful goal and memory, and that "PING!" brought Minnesota into the second round of the playoffs for what we all hoped would become the first of many great playoff memories.
Only three players from that squad remain. Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba played in that series. Only two of them are expected back next season.
Another year, another Wild playoff loss. With all the ups and downs of the season, this comes as a reality check. Minnesota had a great chance to slay the dragon and prove they can show up in big games. Alas, just like Game 6 in St. Louis and Game 7 in Vegas the year before, the Wild could not vanquish the demons and prove they have what it takes to be a team that can be taken seriously when the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive.
Welcome back to your yearly reminder that you're not in the State of Hockey, you’re in a State of Hockey Purgatory. And until the Wild prove otherwise, you ain't ever leaving.
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