Five Questions: Wild ready to start anew in playoffs
Mike G. Morreale
So what does the Minnesota Wild need to do in order to make their first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance in five seasons a memorable one?
Though the club certainly has its work cut out with a first-round showdown with the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, coach Mike Yeo has the personnel required to make life difficult for the opposition for as long as Minnesota's run lasts.
The team persevered down the stretch to qualify for the postseason during the NHL's final weekend of the regular season and will now look to continue its winning ways.
Here are five questions players need to answer to survive the rigors that accompany the NHL's second season:
The Wild will need Niklas Backstrom to elevate his play if they hope to challenge the mighty Blackhawks. (Photo: Andy King/NHLI)
1. Will the new additions to the lineup pay big dividends?
Despite the loss of Dany Heatley to a dislocated left shoulder in April, the Wild still have plenty of star power in the mix, including offseason acquisitions Zach Parise at forward and Ryan Suter on defense. General manager Chuck Fletcher also added veteran wing Jason Pominville in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres in April with the hope he'll alleviate some pressure on the other standouts.
Parise should be a key on the team's top line with captain Mikko Koivo and rookie Charlie Coyle. Suter will be the workhorse on the blue line and will continue to aid in the maturation of rookie Jonas Brodin. As veterans of playoff hockey, Parise and Suter will provide plenty of energy and enthusiasm for a team looking to surprise a few clubs.
Pominville will join Parise and Suter in power-play and penalty-killing situations. His two-way acumen will come in handy during those tight contests and late in the games.
2. Can the rookies continue to have an impact?
A revamped Wild roster included several rookies in the lineup in 2012-13, including forwards Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund and defenseman Brodin. Though Brodin certainly had the greatest impact of the group, Coyle was impressive alongside center Koivu and Parise on the team's top line. Brodin, chosen in the first round (No. 10) of the 2011 NHL Draft, has been everything the team imagined. He logs big minutes, is smart and has been consistently good alongside Suter.
Granlund and Zucker were reassigned to the American Hockey League late in the season, but that's not to say they wouldn't be able to provide a boost during the playoffs.
There's no question Backstrom has what it takes to lead his team. He was among the top three goalies in wins, finishing with 24, his highest victory total since the 2009-10 campaign. Fundamentally sound, with a flair for the dramatic on occasion, Backstrom will play a vital role in any success the Wild can muster this postseason. He'll need to play with some more consistency, something he struggled with down the stretch in the regular season.
The team plays a relatively sound defensive game, but when lapses occur, Backstrom has been there. He sported a winning record in shootouts and played the lion's share of games down the stretch when Minnesota needed points. Backstrom sported a 2.46 goals-against average and .922 save percentage during a career-best eight-game winning streak in March.
4. Will the power play remain proficient?
Minnesota's power-play was one of the big improvements this season and that area must continue to thrive. Parise, Pominville, Setoguchi, Suter and Jared Spurgeon will look to get the offense going on the man advantage.
It's interesting to note that despite averaging more than three minutes of ice time each game on the power play, Koivu has yet to score a goal. Perhaps his luck will change in the playoffs -- at least that's what coach Mike Yeo is hoping.
5. Are fundamentals the key to playoff hockey?
Let's face it, when it comes to physical play, there aren't too many players capable of matching Cal Clutterbuck, who again led the Wild in hits in 2012-13. Clayton Stoner, Setoguchi, Parise, Mike Rupp, Justin Falk and Coyle also enjoy playing the body regularly. The Wild will need to play with an edge to establish a confident mindset and gain the attention of their opponent.
The Wild ranked among the top three in the League in faceoff proficiency, led by Koivu, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cullen and Zenon Konopka, who each finished with a 50-plus percent efficiency on draws. Success on faceoffs allows possession of the puck and that's exactly what Minnesota needs to have happen in attempt to maintain some consistency shift-to-shift.