It's reached the point in the season where it’s all but mathematically certain that the Minnesota Wild will make the playoffs. Not only that, but it appears as though they’ll manage a pretty good seed, too.
But does seeding really matter? Furthermore, does winning the division matter? No, not really.
Take Sunday’s opponent -- the Chicago Blackhawks -- for instance. Few people may have realized it, but they have yet to win the Central Division since the NHL’s realignment. However in that short time they’ve still managed to win a Stanley Cup, which as any Blackhawks fan will tell you, is all that matters (until the win the division over the Wild this season, then THAT will matter).
With the current NHL playoff format, teams are reserved to playing only a select number of teams off the bat, and real variety only kicks in if you win the division and play a wild-card team, and they happen to be from outside of your division. Currently, the options are pretty open still, but the Wild look to match up with either Nashville, Calgary, Los Angeles or St. Louis. If they win the division, it could be any one of them, but if they finish as the second or third seed, it’s between Nashville and St. Louis, with the Blues' hopes fading quickly.
This is assuming, of course, that the Wild and Blackhawks finish 1-2 in the Central, which seems pretty likely. But if by some unforeseen miracle they *only* finish 2-3, the first-round matchup between the Blackhawks and Wild simply gets moved up a round, from its nearly inevitable feeling second-round date.
Which brings me to my next point: If the Wild win the division, their most likely second-round opponent will be the Blackhawks. If they finish second, it’ll be the Blackhawks. If they finish third, it’ll be the Blackhawks. A first-round loss from either team isn’t out of the question, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. So with the near-lock that those two teams will face off in the second round, will it matter who wins the division? Yes, technically it will, because of home-ice advantage. But how much will it matter? I’m willing to guess not much.
The Wild will need to beat the Blackhawks in Chicago to win that series. Avoiding a game seven for Bruce Boudreau’s blood pressure’s sake will be important, too. This is why the Wild went out and got Martin Hanzal, so that on the road, the last change matchups aren’t as important when it comes to slowing down the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Not being able to put Hawk-Killer Erik Haula on a certain line won’t be as important as it was in the 2014 playoffs.
Should Wild fans want to win the division? Yes, of course. But what’s more important is focusing on the postseason and being ready for that. This team needs to be healthy, but players can’t be sat for games leading up to the playoffs because that probably isn’t a great idea, either. The Central Division champions in the current format have yet to make it to the Western Conference Finals since realignment, which isn’t exactly a President’s Trophy-level curse, but speaks more to the irrelevance of the division title under the current playoff format. If the Wild win the division, great, wonderful, and Wild fans shouldn’t take it as some kind of horrific omen, but I wouldn’t rush to get the banner made early yet either.
There’s a month left in the season and it’s going to be a grind for the Wild, given the compacted scheduling that they received from the NHL for March. If they falter and give up the division to the Blackhawks, don’t worry. The Wild are one of the undisputable best teams in the West, and the goal of Wild fans should be set higher. Seeing this team win the division will undoubtedly be a fun side note to this season, but it’s just that, a side note, and not the ultimate goal. In fact, I’m willing to guess that getting to the Western Conference Finals alone is more important to most Wild fans than winning the division, because that means the dragon that is the Blackhawks has been slayed, and the monkey is finally off this franchise’s back.
And hey, if the Wild slay that dragon and win the division, even better.