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Refusal to quit among reasons Wild back in playoffs

by Tal Pinchevsky

After going four seasons without qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Minnesota Wild are in the postseason for the second straight season. They clinched their spot after defeating the Boston Bruins 4-3 in a shootout Tuesday.

Last season the Wild made their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. The return was short-lived as Minnesota lost in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. One season later Minnesota is hoping to win a playoff series for the first time since 2003, when they lost to the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final.

The 2013-14 Minnesota Wild retained the core that led it back to the playoffs the previous season. But a number of other elements, including an infusion of youth, brought postseason hockey back to Minnesota.

Here are five reasons the Wild are headed back to the playoffs:

1. Best players played best

The signings of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in 2012 spearheaded a major change in the culture of the Wild. No longer would fans be waiting for their prized pool of prospects to mature. The time was now.

Suter and Parise made immediate impacts in their first season with the Wild, and they didn't disappoint this season. Parise built on his reputation as one of the NHL's best all-round players despite a grueling season in which he captained the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics three weeks after returning from a broken left foot that forced him to miss 14 games.

Suter was an absolute picture of consistency. The workhorse defenseman leads the NHL in ice time with almost 30 minutes per game. He does everything for the Wild, and in Minnesota's final two games before the Sochi Olympics he played a combined 69:42. That wasn't even his highest total in consecutive games. In three straight games in early November he totaled 108:19 for an average of 36:06 per game.

2. Youngsters stepping up

For years Wild fans have been waiting for the emergence of what has been hailed as a bumper crop of prospects. This finally was the season when some of that potential appeared to be actualized.

It starts with the emergence of center Mikael Granlund. Minnesota's first-round pick (No. 9) in 2010 enjoyed a breakout season despite dealing with injuries. He started slow, with four points in his first 10 games. After that season-opening slump, he exploded for a five-game point streak in which he recorded seven points. By the end of the season Granlund was a fixture among the Wild's top six forwards.

Strong if occasionally streaky play from other young forwards such as Charlie Coyle, Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula helped solidify the forward units. On the back end defensemen Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon continued to develop into reliable two-way defenders.

3. Play at even strength

Parise, Suter and Mikko Koivu are the core of the Wild and each long been has known for his strong two-way play. That was reflected in Minnesota's exceptional 5-on-5 play. The Wild's special teams struggled this season, only magnifying the importance of its play at even strength.

The Wild's 5-on-5 goal differential consistently has been among the best in the League. During their current 5-0-1 streak, dominant 5-on-5 play has been on full display as Minnesota outscored their opponents 14-5 at even strength during that span. It was a run made even more impressive by the fact that it was accomplished against some of the League's best even-strength teams, including the Los Angeles Kings, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Bruins.

No injury was too serious and no deficit was too big to keep the Minnesota Wild from making a return trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo: Jonathan Kozub/NHLI)

4. Rotating goalies

Few teams experienced more turmoil in the crease than the Wild. Minnesota has gone through four different regular goaltenders this season, each of whom has started at least 10 games. The Wild defense generally has played well in front of whoever is in the crease, but each goalie has delivered when called upon.

It started with Josh Harding, whose 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage remain among the best in the League, but who has been out of the lineup since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis. Backup Niklas Backstrom has been out since Jan. 30 and is done for the season following abdominal surgery.

Most teams' seasons might be doomed by the loss of both goaltenders in such a short span, but the Wild have persevered. Rookie Darcy Kuemper stepped in and become a workhorse for the Wild, starting 11 of Minnesota's first 14 games after the Sochi Olympics. Veteran Ilya Bryzgalov was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers on March 4 to stabilize the position but unexpectedly has emerged as Minnesota's top option in net. He has yet to lose in regulation since arriving in Minnesota, going 7-0-3 with a 1.78 GAA and .923 save percentage.

5. The third period

The Wild would like to have more offense in the first two periods; they rank in the bottom half of the League in first-period goals and are No. 29 in second-period goals. But when the game is on the line in the third, the Wild have a knack for being clutch. Their 78 third-period goals and plus-15 goal differential in the third are among the highest marks in the League.

Third-period productivity has served Minnesota well. It is tied for the League lead with eight wins when trailing after 40 minutes. The Wild also have the fourth-best win percentage when trailing after two periods at 22.9 percent. That ability to come back in the third directly led to them clinching Tuesday against Boston. Trailing 3-2, Suter tied the game with 65 seconds remaining to force overtime, and then Koivu scored the lone goal in the shootout to send Minnesota to the postseason. Minnesota has gone 3-0-1 in the past four games in which it has trailed in the third.

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