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Five reasons Wild were eliminated from playoffs

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In some ways, the 2012-13 season can be seen as a success for the Minnesota Wild. The franchise made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years.

Defenseman Ryan Suter, signed last summer to a 13-year, $98 million contract, is a Norris Trophy finalist and through one year looks like he'll be worth every penny.

Fellow July 4 signee Zach Parise has given the franchise a legitimate superstar to build around up front.

The Wild, loaded with one of the best farm systems in the NHL, were able to get their first wave of young players -- namely defenseman Jonas Brodin and forwards Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker -- important playoff experience they can build on for the future. They should only get better.

But for Minnesota, 5-1 losers to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of its Western Conference Quarterfinals matchup, its season is over. Here are five reasons why:

1. Dropping to eighth

Nobody wanted to play the Presidents' Trophy winners in the playoffs. The Blackhawks lost 12 games all season, so beating them four times in a seven-game span presented a major challenge.

As April dawned, the Wild were in first place in the Northwest Division. They had just gone 11-4-0 in March and had won eight of nine to end the month.

But then injuries hit and the Wild started April 1-5-1, turning an all-but-certain playoff berth into anything but. Still, as the regular season entered its final week, Minnesota was in good shape. Three of its final four games were against three of the worst teams in the Western Conference, with two of them coming at home.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on April 21 was bad enough, but five days later, with a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win, the Wild were embarrassed 6-1 by an Edmonton Oilers team that had won just once in its previous 10 games.

A win against either of those teams would have meant the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks. Winning both games would have meant a division title and the No. 3 seed in the West.

Instead, losses to both meant a first-round date with the League's best team.

2. Top-line troubles

The Wild never were the deepest team to begin with. Their second line got on a roll in March, which coincided with their best stretch of the season, but an injury to second-line center Matt Cullen in a game April 1 against the St. Louis Blues knocked him out of the lineup for two weeks.

All of a sudden, Minnesota became a one-line team again, and Parise, Coyle and captain Mikko Koivu simply could not carry the load.

Perhaps more troubling, however, was that line's struggles during the season's final month. In 16 games since April 1, including the playoffs, Koivu had two goals and two assists and was a minus-12. Parise put up four goals and five assists but was a minus-16.

Against the Blackhawks, that line combined for just one goal and two assists and was a collective minus-17. Not good enough for a team that's still a bit thin up front to begin with.

3. Injuries take their toll

Jason Pominville
Jason Pominville
Right Wing - MIN
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 4 | +/-: -1
Every team in the playoffs deals with injuries, but perhaps no group in the West had to overcome more than the Wild, especially when you factor in ones that arose in April.

Cullen's lower-body injury sustained against the Blues forced him to miss seven games (the Wild went 1-5-1 in that stretch), but Minnesota also lost third-line forward Dany Heatley for the season after he was injured in a post-horn scrum against the San Jose Sharks two nights later.

Cullen returned and was one of Minnesota's best forwards in the playoffs, but the loss of Heatley was tough. No longer the sniper he once was, Heatley still was a threat for the Wild, was one of its top power-play skaters and provided the team with scoring depth through three lines.

Minnesota also lost forward Jason Pominville -- a key pick-up at the NHL Trade Deadline -- on April 23 against the Los Angeles Kings, an injury which forced him to miss the debacle against the Oilers as well as the first three games of the series against the Blackhawks.

None of this takes into account perhaps the biggest injury of them all, the loss of No. 1 goaltender Niklas Backstrom during warm-ups before the start of Game 1. Backstrom had played in 42 of 48 games this season and was going to be a critical factor for Minnesota if it was to make this a series. Instead, the Wild were forced to start goaltender Josh Harding, and while his story is a great one, he hadn't started a game in exactly three months.

But the injuries in goal weren't finished, as Harding was forced from Game 4 with an unspecified injury, forcing rookie Darcy Kuemper into action. Trailing 1-0 at the time of his entry, Chicago scored on its first shot against Kuemper, dealing the Wild a serious mental blow it could not recover from.

4. Power-less power play

Almost any hockey coach will tell you the two most important things come playoff time are special teams and goaltending.

With injuries crippling the Wild in goal, Minnesota needed serious production from its power play to help its chances of pulling an upset. The results in that category were an abject failure.

The Wild went 0-for-17 against the Blackhawks on the power play, even allowing a shorthanded goal in Game 2, a goal which dramatically affected the direction of that game. Trailing 1-0 after one period and carrying a man-advantage chance into the second period, the Wild very much were in the game. But the shorthanded goal by Michael Frolik just 49 seconds into the second made it 2-0 and the Wild never recovered, losing 5-2.

Perhaps the most frustrating night of the series for Minnesota came in Game 4. The Wild controlled play and puck possession for much of the game, but went 0-for-6 on the power play.

The Blackhawks capitalized on just 15.4 percent of their own power plays in the series, leaving the Wild an opening to win the special teams battle, but they simply could not get anything going with the extra attacker.

5. No finish

Jason Zucker
Jason Zucker
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 11 | +/-: 1
With its top-line floundering and the injury to Heatley, the Wild needed players like Zucker and Devin Setoguchi to step up.

All series long their line, centered by Cullen, did just that, creating a vast majority of Minnesota's Grade-A scoring chances. Zucker scored the game-winner in overtime of Game 3, the Wild's lone victory in the series, but other than that, the group simply could not finish those opportunities.

Zucker hit the crossbar in overtime of Game 1 -- a shot that if it's an inch or two lower may have changed the entire dynamic of the series. He also was stopped on a brilliant chance down low by Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford in the opening minutes of Game 5.

Setoguchi scored just one goal in the series (the Wild's first goal in the 5-2 loss in Game 2), and Cullen did not score any.

With Pominville out the first three games, little else in the way of offensive producers and a power play that could not get going, the Wild could muster just seven goals in the five games against the Blackhawks.

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