How much do you remember from the Minnesota Wild’s home-and-home series against the Las Vegas Golden Knights series last April? Nobody will blame you if you can’t remember those two games or the exact details. April was a long time ago. But just for a refresher, the Wild lost 4-1 in Vegas and 4-3 in a shootout at home.
Matt Boldy scored first in Vegas, but the Golden Knights responded with four straight goals. Vegas’ Keegan Kolesar put Vegas up 1-0 in St. Paul, but the Wild scored the next two goals and took a 3-2 lead into the third. However, Pavel Dorofeyev scored with just over half a minute to go in regulation and sealed the game in the shootout.
Minnesota clinched the playoffs after losing to Vegas, but it was the beginning of the end of a season that concluded with a whimper. The Wild entered the Golden Knights home-and-home having won five of their last six games and in contention for the Central Division. Instead, they lost in Pittsburgh, split their next two games, and drew the Dallas Stars in the playoffs.
A moment to capture home ice quickly disappeared, and the Stars easily dispatched Minnesota in six games. The Dallas series is more memorable because it should be. It’s the playoffs. But the Wild could have given themselves an advantage going into the postseason and didn’t. Similarly, they had an opportunity to vault into third place in the Central Division with a home-and-home against the Winnipeg Jets this weekend. Instead, they left that series injured and stuck in the Central’s mushy middle after Winnipeg took both games.
Minnesota’s division has three tiers this year.
- The upper class: Colorado Avalanche, Winnipeg, and Dallas
- The middle class: Nashville Predators, the Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, and Minnesota
- And then there’s the Chicago Blackhawks. They’re tanking to build a team around Connor Bedard.
About half of the Central Division’s middle class will make the playoffs this year. By point totals, the Pacific Division’s upper class – the Vancouver Canucks, Vegas, and Los Angeles Kings – is as good as the Central’s. Like the Wild, the Edmonton Oilers got off to a slow start, fired their coach, and probably will rise marginally in the standings. But they may have missed their opportunity to secure a spot in the playoffs. The rest of the teams aren’t that great.
That means the Wild should have a better shot at qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs, even though they’re in a tougher division. But they have a more challenging path to guarantee a postseason spot. Winnipeg won both games in regulation, meaning the Wild left the weekend without so much as a loser’s point. Therefore, the Jets enter the week with 48 points, tied for second in the Central division. Minnesota has 36, second-to-last ahead of Chicago.
Furthermore, Kirill Kaprizov and Filip Gustavsson left the first Jets game with injuries, making things more difficult for the Wild. Minnesota made things difficult for themselves by starting 5-10-4 under Dean Evason. But they had an opportunity to climb out of Chicago’s bunker and ascend into the Central’s upper class, helping better secure a playoff spot at the end of the season.
Few will remember the Winnipeg home-and-home at the end of December once the playoffs start in mid-April. By then, everyone will likely focus on whether Minnesota does enough at the end of the season to sneak in. Those who remember the Jets games will probably recall that Winnipeg looked like the better team: bigger, faster, and more skilled. But the Jets also beat the Wild without Kaprizov and Gustavsson, their star player and starting goaltender.
Given the relative unimportance of two midseason games, the details will fade. That’s what makes the Jets series a sliding-doors moment. In an alternate universe, Kaprizov and Gustavsson stay healthy, steal a game in Winnipeg, and win in St. Paul. The Wild vault into the Central’s upper class and remain there under John Hynes for the rest of the season. Instead, the Jets took both games in regulation, and the team is worse off without Kaprizov and Gustavsson.
Would the Wild have advanced in the playoffs if they had taken both Vegas games late last year? Maybe not. Evason had a spotty postseason track record, and Minnesota is a flawed, cap-strapped team. Similarly, would taking both Winnipeg games guarantee anything for the rest of 2024? No. But the Wild could have started the new year in third place in the Central. We probably won’t remember it in April, but Minnesota let a huge opportunity slip at the end of December.
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